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Special effects in Avatar made possible thanks to European technology

Highly effective and scalable digital technology developed originally for television has transformed the production, post-production and viewing experience in high-resolution feature films. A joint UK/German collaboration has helped change film production worldwide, turning a work-intensive craft process into viable global phenomenon that adds a high level of realism to special effects. Results of this work have since won technical oscars for many of the researchers involved.

As you settle in your cinema seat and attack your popcorn, you are increasingly amazed by film imagery mixing the real and the virtual totally seamless. From Avatar or the latest Harry Potter movie to Where the Wild Things Are, digital effects now have a crucial role in playing on our emotions. Yet 10 or 15 years ago, such levels of realism in high-resolution imaging were unimaginable. Digital technology has transformed the production and post production of all types of film – particularly feature films – as well as creating a whole new viewing experience. UK company FilmLIght played a crucial role in this transformation through a range of high productivity software products based on breakthroughs in the EUREKA E! 1683 FILM SPECIAL EFFECTS project that finished in 1998. “TV and films were starting to converge in the late 1990s,” explains Peter Stansfield, who managed the FILM SPECIAL EFFECTS project on behalf of lead partner Framestore. This company had started in conventional film special effects and helped pioneer the move to digital effects. “Framestore saw it could use what were thought of as video techniques in film. Video people having smaller images had been able to develop all sorts of things that you could not do at the time in film. These techniques could be used on live or real-time video. In film you could not do such things as the images were so much bigger– but by applying techniques used by the video people, it was possible run some of these things quite fast.” Project partner Pandora International had pioneered digital processing that ran in real time. By sharing and collaborating with Framestore, which was working on much higher resolution film images, and also with the digital imaging and multimedia research institute in Babelsberg, Germany, the consortium believed that it would be possible to develop such techniques for feature films. Step change in technology “The result of FILM SPECIAL EFFECTS was a step change in technology – it meant you could suddenly start to cut out and combine images together at a higher quality and higher productivity than had ever been done before,” says Stansfield. “Such things were not totally new but had only been achieved at a much lower level – more labour intensively and much, much slower – that really limited the amount that you could do.” With the technology emerging from the EUREKA project, special effects became cheaper, faster and better. The new approach could be used to make a given budget go further and to do a much better job – often making possible jobs that would not have been achievable before. The key outcome was to enable effects-heavy movies to be cost effective. The product developed in the end was purely software but it emulated the hardware required – this was part of the unique approach developed. “Give the problem to a programmer and he would do it as a series of sums,” adds Stansfield. “Give it to a hardware designer and he would shuffle it around and come up with a way of doing it much quicker or with less hardware than someone using general-purpose computers. Such an approach is more common now but this was 1997.” As a direct result of the EUREKA project, Pandora was able to improve some of its hardware products, and Framestore ended up with a software package for creating realistic special effects which was then sold commercially. Keylight was a bigger hit that expected and sold more than forecast; improved versions are still for sale – unusual for 13-year old product! Making a global impact “This EUREKA project made a difference to global filmmaking,” says Stansfield. “The results were initially adopted in London but Hollywood pretty soon came knocking at the door and bought many, many copies. And there has been an enormous market more recently in New Zealand for licenses for use on the Lord of the Rings series.” More recently, Framestore participated in the creation of the special effects of box office hits Avatar and Where the Wild Things Are. It was also the start of many other things for the partners involved. The R&D department from Framestore was floated off to become Filmlight. Based on the EUREKA project experience, this new company was keen to work collaboratively with other technologists, end users and academics to develop further products. The first result was the Northlight scanner, honoured in the 2010 technical Oscars – this was developed with the University of Derby, funded by the then UK Department of Technology and Industry (DTI) Link scheme. The company subsequently worked with a Spanish university in an EU Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) project that resulted in the Baselight non-linear grading system – another product honoured in the recent Oscar awards. Other funded projects included the EUREKA ITEA software Cluster DIGITAL CINEMA project. Impetus created by the FILM SPECIAL EFFECTS project is still going on. Now 13 years on, the other partners are still taking on collaborative projects to develop new and better products and tools. Pandora has been in seven or eight funded developments, as has Babelsberg. And the researchers behind the technology have also received global recognition. FilmLight founders Wolfgang Lempp and Steve Chapman were awarded a Technical and Scientific Achievement Award in 2005 by the British Kinematograph Sound & Television Society (BKTS). And, in January 2010, an unprecedented sweep of four Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Sci-Tech awards recognised the achievements of ten of FilmLight's founding engineers. EUREKA is one of the leading platforms for R&D-performing entrepreneurs in Europe. Founded in 1985, EUREKA now unites 39 member countries. Together, they promote international, market-oriented research and innovation through the support they offer to enterprises, universities and research institutes. Results stemming from EUREKA projects are everywhere: mp3; mobile phone technology; navigation systems; smartcards to support mobile and electronic commerce; special effects software for cinema; state-of-the-art medical devices and technologies to monitor and limit environmental pollution.