The Effects of the Lord of the Rings

Published in November 2003.

In August 1998, The Lord of the Rings trilogy was bought from Miramax by New Line Cinema with an unproven director at the helm. New Line threw their weight behind the venture however and requested that the screenplay be adapted into three films instead of the already established two. As we all know, the series would go on to become one of world’s most successful. While the first two films have been overlooked in the major Oscar categories, both Fellowship and The Two Towers have both won the coveted Best Visual Effects Award. This is no small feat considering the films were up against Star Wars and specifically Industrial Light and Magic. However, WETA Digital, the company behind the effects for Lord of the Rings, have made an immense impact in the world of special effects and look to continue their journey with Return of the King.

Peter Jackson had an immense task ahead of him. He would have to create a world inhabited by a range of strange creatures and fantastic landscapes. For his 1996 film, “The Frighteners?, Jackson had set up an effects house called WETA Digital to handle the many CG shots. He was keen to get WETA’s teeth into a fantasy film and, when the prospect of King-Kong fell through, Lord of the Rings (LOTR) became that project. LOTR features many epic battles that have traditionally posed a challenge for effect artists. Whereas other films had attempted battles featuring hundreds, Jackson would have to swell the number to thousands and make each fighter appear autonomous onscreen. Needless to say, new technology was required.

In 1996, he asked fellow New Zealander Stephen Regelous, to become Technical Supervisor of WETA for The Fellowship of the Ring. Regelous wanted to start from scratch and build a system that would handle epic battles and character interaction intelligently. He spent the next several years writing Massive, a software program that generates crowds whose interaction is based on unique and unpredictable choices made by individual. Massive endows each character with a digital brain and gives it the power to act completely on its own. It was built on the understanding that the believability of a cast of thousands depends on the actions of individuals. “If (one Orc) acts naturally,? Regelous says, “so will the group.? Each character also has its own personality traits, i.e. boldness, aggressiveness, cowardliness, etc. In an early simulation, Jackson and Regelous watched as several thousand characters fought like hell while, in the background, a small contingent of combatants seemed to think better of it and run away. They weren’t programmed to do this. It just happened. “It was spooky,? Jackson said in an interview last year.

In the lead-up to the release of The Two Towers and Star Wars: Episode 2, ILM and WETA were to face off in the battle of digital characters with both Yoda and Gollum. Ultimately, Gollum came out on top, due to the sheer range of expression and realism achievable. The process, which went into the creation of Gollum, is equally astounding as the result. Andy Serkis, would first act out the scene with his fellow actors on set. Then a second take would be shot without Serkis but with the actors now aware of how the character would interact with them and the surrounding environment. The next step was motion capture with Serkis’s moves being translated by the animators onto the digital representation of Gollum. It would then be up to the digital artists to create the full range of emotion and expressions based on those of Andy Serkis. The team at WETA can be immensely proud of their achievement and it’s hard to believe that there is a lot more to come in Return of the King.

The Electronic Election: Coming Soon

Published May 2002.

As the politicians begin to form the next government, Anthony Mc Guinness, Voice Technology Correspondent, takes a look at the new voting system we’ll all be using at the next election.

Many herald it as an essential update to a system which has dated from the 19th century while others regard it as a system which presents security hazards and takes away the traditional aspects of the Irish electoral system. The issue of course is that of electronic voting. For the first time ever voters in the constituencies of Dublin North, Dublin West and Meath have had the chance to cast their votes electronically. It must be said that this move is almost unique in Europe with only the Netherlands and Germany having used these systems previously. However the issue has become a contentious one with many people complaining that the system has not been tested enough and also that it removes an aspect, which has been at the centre of Irish voting for years, the count. It’s supporters’ say that the system has been fully tested during its time in the German cities of Cologne and Dusseldorf as well as the Netherlands. The machine’s mechanical failure rate has been extremely low and any issues have been carefully examined and studied.

Many people have also asked what the benefits of changing the existing system are. Well, it does away with spoilt votes, provides greater accuracy in vote counting, earlier results and it modernises electoral administration. An information campaign began in April to distribute leaflets alongside a travelling road-show which visited a range of locations in the three constituencies. The actual voting procedure itself has not changed all that much. “The essential thing for voters to remember is that this system is simple. They go to the polling clerk in the normal way, get a permit which authorises them to use voting machine, put the candidates in order of preference by pressing the buttons beside the candidates’ names and finalise their vote by pressing the CAST VOTE button? said former Minister Noel Dempsey. “It really is a case of using your finger instead of a pencil.? The administration of the vote will be easier to maintain as there is a lot of unseen work in the organisation of elections. Supplies of materials ranging from ballot boxes, ballot papers, polling booths, forms, pencils, rubber bands, twine, sealing wax, stamping instruments and much more has to be requisitioned and returned after a poll. The voting machine will eliminate this complexity serving as a polling booth, ballot paper and ballot box. On the environmental side, it will also reduce the number of ballot papers from approximately 3 million to about 30,000 for each national poll.

The secrecy of the ballot has also been questioned with many fearing that the individual vote could be traced back to the voter. The software behind the machine prevents this eventuality though. There are also contingency plans in the event of data storage failure, power failure and the attempt to switch a ballot module with a fraudulent one. When all votes have eventually been cast, the vote modules are brought to the central count centre where a result can be obtained almost instantaneously. The returning officer will have detailed documentation on the result and the machine will produce a report from each count.

With the results of the election now known (aside from a few recounts) we asked a spokesman from the Department of the Environment about the pilot of the electronic voting system. “It was a great success and we had no technical issues with the software or hardware units? he said. When asked if there would be any changes to the system for the next general election he said, “The hardware and software will largely stay the same except for the possibility of tweaking the interface after receiving feedback from the voters?. He also outlined that security was of the utmost importance. “We decided not to transmit the results from the polling stations because of fears over security. We cannot compromise in that aspect of the system.? So with a successful pilot programme completed the future is looking good for electronic voting in Ireland.

FAQ
Q. How will people vote on polling day?
A. Very simply and in four easy steps:

  1. Voters will have their name marked off the register in the normal way and will be given a token by polling staff
  2. They will go to the poll clerk at the voting machine and hand over the token
  3. They will record their preferences by pressing the buttons beside the candidates’ photograph on the ballot paper displayed on the machine and finally.
  4. They will cast their vote by pressing the “Cast Vote? button on the machine

Q. What if the voter makes a mistake?
A. If the voter makes a mistake or wants to change their mind they simply press the button opposite the candidates’ name a second time. This will delete that preference and any other lower preferences and they can start again.

Q. Is it possible for the controller to see how a person is voting?
A. No. The controller can only see a visual display that the voter has pressed the “Cast Vote? button on the Control Unit screen.

Open Source

Published in April 2003

Open Source software has long been ignored by the public as the preserve of geeks and those with too much time on their hands. However, with large corporations now switching to open-source alternatives, people are re-assessing whether or not they want to pay hundreds of euros for one software license. Anthony Mc Guinness, Voice Technology Correspondent, explains the open source ideology and gives alternatives to popular programs that can be downloaded for free.

What is Open Source Software?
The idea behind open source is that applications are developed by an unlimited set of developers and distributed for free. For example, with Microsoft Windows, there is a core team of programmers for each component. I cannot come along and obtain that code because Microsoft owns it. With an open source alternative, I can download the source code of the program, work on it and then give my version back to the development community. It’s this sense of fostered community, which sets open source apart. In fact the ideology is nothing new. Open source applications have been around for years, ever since Unix was developed in 1969, but up until now have seen little or no use in the public domain due to their lack of user friendliness. These hurdles have been overcome though and open source is now a viable alternative for any business or individual.

One thing you don’t get with Open Source software is a warranty or tech support line to ring if anything goes wrong. You do however, have a lot of experienced users and developers, who often run message boards where you can detail a problem and get an answer pretty quickly. Errors within most Open Source programs are rare due to testing periods and early versions. Even those that appear are normally dealt with in a matter of weeks instead of months or years when dealing with large software vendors.

Operating Systems

Instead of Microsoft Windows use Linux

Linux is an open source operating system that was developed initially by a student named Linus Torvalds. Today Linux is used in millions of servers’ worldwide and is gradually being introduced to the desktop environment. Linux comes in many guises called “distributions?, with most of them being completely free for download. Probably the most famous distribution is that of Red Hat Linux. You can buy the suite of CDs from Red Hat, which entitles you to technical support, or you can download the majority of the components at their site (this is quite a large download though so you’d be advised to use a broadband connection). The many variant distributions can be linked up to graphical front-ends which look and feels a lot like Microsoft Windows. The main incentive to use Linux is its stability but some drivers and software are yet to be ported for the OS. The future is definitely bright for Linux though.

Download: ftp://ftp.redhat.com/pub/redhat/linux/8.0/en/iso/i386/
Size: Approx 3.2 Gigabytes

Office Software

Instead of Microsoft Office get OpenOffice.org

OpenOffice.org includes the key desktop applications, such as a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation manager, and drawing program, with a user interface and feature set similar to other office suites. The killer feature with OpenOffice.org is that you can open and save to Microsoft Word file formats. This allows you to switch from Office with relative ease as documents you have saved before can be opened with the new package. It’s also available in 25 languages with more being constantly added by the community. Two components missing from the OpenOffice.org suite are a database program and an outlook-style email program. However, work is ongoing at the Open Source Applications Foundation (www.osafoundation.org) on a program to better Microsoft’s Outlook so keep an eye out for that.

Platforms: Windows, Linux, Linux PPC, Solaris (S) , Mac OS X (Final Beta for Darwin, X11)
Download: http://www.openoffice.org/dev_docs/source/1.0.3/index.html#windows
Size: 51.4 MB
Version: 1.0.3.1

Word Processor

Instead of Microsoft Word use AbiWord

If you’re not too keen on downloading the whole OpenOffice.org package but still want to take advantage of an Open Source alternative then why not use AbiWord? The AbiWord project began as a desire to create a stable, feature-savvy word processor unbound by a single platform or proprietary file formats. AbiWord’s feature set includes almost everything you’d expect in a modern word processor including: a familiar interface, Word file import and export and unlimited undo and redo capacity. One of its best features however is the fact that any document saved with AbiWord is written in plainly readable text, making it possible to use any text editor to view AbiWord documents. This means that users are free from depending on a single program and can switch around easily.

Platforms: Windows (all versions), Linux, Windows, BeOS, QNX, and GNOME.
Download: http://heanet.dl.sourceforge.net/sourceforge/abiword/setup_abiword.bidi.1-0-5.exe
Size: 3.9 Mb
Version: 1.0.5

Browser

Instead of Microsoft Internet Explorer use Mozilla

Internet Explorer currently holds the lion’s share when it comes to browser stats with its only serious opposition, Netscape Navigator, having trailed off in recent years. With Microsoft seemingly content to release minor bug fixes and tweaks for Internet Explorer, the door was open for a serious competitor to enter the fray. Hence Mozilla was born. Mozilla pushes the boat out when it comes to handy features and looks. A pop-up ad killer along with tabbed browsing has seen Mozilla make a substantial impact in the past year. You can alter the look of the browser with free themes that are widely available on the net. It also imports your Internet Explorer favourites without any extra configuration. Definitely work a look.

Platforms: Microsoft Windows (95,98,ME,NT,2000,XP), Mac OS X, Linux x86
Download: http://ftp.mozilla.org/pub/mozilla/releases/mozilla1.3/mozilla-win32-1.3-installer.exe
Size: 12Mb
Version: 1.3

Media Player

Instead of Windows Media Player 9 use Zinf

Zinf audio player is a simple, but powerful audio player for both Linux and Windows. It supports MP3, Ogg/Vorbis, WAV and Audio CD playback, with a powerful music browser, theme support and a download manager. You can change the look of Zinf using themes downloaded from the site and the player looks a lot like Winamp. While Zinf doesn’t have the advanced features of Windows Media Player such as DVD playback and recording capabilities it does have all the basics you need from an audio player plus its feature list is growing all the time with continued development.

Platforms: Windows and Linux.
Download: http://prdownloads.sourceforge.net/zinf/zinf-setup-2.2.1.exe
Size: 1.7Mb
Version: 2.2.1

Photo Manipulation

Instead of Adobe Photoshop use the GIMP

GIMP is an acronym for GNU Image Manipulation Program. The GIMP has many uses such as a simple paint program, a expert quality photo retouching program, a image format converter, etc. It isn’t as pretty as Adobe’s graphics heavyweight but it does offer a lot of the functionality for free. It’s also highly extensible so you can plug extra modules into it if required. Whereas Photoshop has an established user base of print-houses and graphic artists, the GIMP is gradually starting to gain acceptance as a serious tool for both individuals and the industry.

Platforms: Windows, Linux, OS/2 (under development) and Mac OS X.
Download: http://www2.arnes.si/~sopjsimo/gimp/
Size: 7.8Mb
Version: 1.0

Interview with Rob Coleman

Published in February 2003.

We all gasped and looked on in awe when Jurassic Park hit our cinema screens in 1993 but little did we know, or still do, about the process that goes into creating such complicated special effects. These days effects sequences are subtle in their execution so as not to overpower the audience but they are equally astounding considering the work involved. One company has continued to break new ground in the area of digital effects and that company is Industrial Light and Magic (ILM). George Lucas first formed ILM in 1975 to work on the original Star Wars trilogy. On the eve of the Oscars, Technology Correspondent Anthony Mc Guinness, spoke with Rob Coleman, Animation Director at ILM. Rob is currently nominated for an Academy Award for his work on “Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones”.

One of the latest advancements in filmmaking has been that of digital sets. Pioneered by George Lucas on “Star Wars: Episode II”, these sets are completely virtual. Many filmmakers, including Martin Scorsese, argue that these sets cannot possibly hold up against a real set built on location. I asked Rob Coleman about the merits of digital sets and how he thinks they stack up against the real thing. “Well, I think we’re getting better. The real problem with creating digital sets is capturing the realism, getting the lighting and grittiness into it. In the virtual world we have to put a lot of care into ensuring it doesn’t look “digital”. Computer generated sets can look too clean and polished. The audience will pick up on that, they may not be able to put their finger on it but in their subconscious they’ll notice it.”?

I then asked him how they test such effects to see whether they are up to standard. “I use the term of ‘would my mother believe it?’. If she would be fooled then we move on.”

With the summer blockbuster season fast approaching I quizzed him about the films ILM is currently working on. “Ok, well we’re currently working on The Hulk, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Pirates of the Caribbean, Van Helsing, Peter Pan and Dreamcatcher.” With so many projects running concurrently how does ILM allocate staff? “We’ll typically be doing 5-10 movies at the one time, and they can be small as in a small number of shots or enormous like Episode II where we had up to 2000 shots. There were only 6 animators here that worked on Jurassic Park in 1993 but we now have something in the range of 80 animators at the facility. Each person has a skill set that we are sensitive to in making the teams the best that they can be.”

Advances in leading edge technology have made it easier for special effects teams to create many effects but there are some areas such as fire, which still create a challenge for animators. I asked Rob how ILM models these difficult effects. “There are a variety of packages out there at the moment that can handle sophisticated particle systems which can generate water, smoke, fire and dust. If we find that the off the shelf software cannot get us the imagery we need in the timeframe we have, then the R&D team gets called in to write a custom piece of code”. Being able to write custom software has helped the company enormously throughout the years as off-the-shelf software hasn’t always been available.

As someone who is about to finish college, I then asked him about the qualifications needed to join a company like ILM. “The best thing to do is probably look at our web site (http://www.ilm.com/) and the specs are listed there. Specifically for animation, we look for a demonstration reel about 3 minutes in length, which shows us that you have an understanding of the fundamentals of animation. From that, but we try to ascertain whether or not you have the raw talent.”

Digital sets and effects have evolved over the past few years but an area that is completely new to major budget films is that of digital photography. Traditionally, the picture has been captured on 35mm film but on George Lucas’s latest Star Wars movie “Attack of the Clones”, high definition (HD) digital camera equipment was used. I asked Rob how this alters the process for inserting digital effects. “With digital, there’s a shorter turnaround time and the amount of iterations we can do is higher (making the performances tighter and more expressive). With High Definition we can just render it at high resolution and immediately send it to the main theatre for five minutes and make a quick decision.” With so much progress having been made in the past couple of years, I asked Rob whether he thought digital characters would become mainstream in the future. “I think 2002 will go down as a big year because of Yoda, Gollum and Dobby because it has shown film directors and screenwriters that a digital character can sustain a performance on the screen. You may see a character such as Yoda take a more leading role opposed to a supporting role.”