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Always Be Prepared! SoftImage|XSI in 'The Panic Room'
21 May 2002 :
Don’t get me wrong. Jodie Foster is a fine actress; tough, yet vulnerable in The Accused; vulnerable, yet tough in Silence of the Lambs; believably incoherent in Nell. She deserved her Best Actress Oscars for the first two, and even her nomination for the third. In her latest role, however, even the estimable Ms. Foster is forced to play second fiddle. In director David Fincher’s Panic Room, from the opening titles – which incidentally blend seamlessly into the New York City architecture – one thing is clear: this film’s “look” is the star attraction.

With a directorial filmography that includes the modern masterpieces (yes…masterpieces!) Seven (1995) and Fight Club (1999), and a professional resume that includes special effects and matte photography work on Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (1983) and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), it should come as no surprise that Panic Room is a great looking film. For one thing, Seven DP Darius Khondji returned to the same role on Panic Room, along with DP Conrad Hall. For another, Venice, California’s Pixel Liberation Front (PLF) provided Fincher with a lot more of the same extraordinary previsualization help on Panic Room as they did on Fight Club. Suffice it to say that the result is a truly winning combination of talents.

“We met David through our work on Fight Club,” explains Ron Frankel, Creative Director at PLF and Previsualization Supervisor on Panic Room. “Kevin Todd Haug, the Visual Effects Supervisor on Fight Club, asked us to previsualize a dozen or so visual effects sequences on that film. Initially, our previz was a tool to help Fincher design the complicated VFX shots in Fight Club, but it ended up vastly improving the workflow and efficiency and enhancing the creative control of the post production process. David wanted even more for Panic Room.”

Never has the camera been so in control as it is in Panic Room. The film opens with Meg Altman (Foster) and her teenage daughter viewing a magnificent four-story brownstone in the heart of Manhattan. Once the abode of an eccentric, paranoid billionaire, the house is equipped with a “panic room”, a supposedly impenetrable refuge for the house’s occupants in the event of a confrontational burglary. Meg and her daughter don’t have to wait long to put the refuge to the test. On their first night in their new home, three very knowledgeable burglars come in search of ill-gotten booty and are not about to take no for an answer.

Since the film is almost entirely confined to four floors of a single house, much of the considerable tension is generated through each character’s attempts to gauge where the others are and what they know. Silently and effortlessly sweeping through each scene like the wave of a sorcerer’s hand, Fincher’s camera is an all-seeing, all-knowing eye. The camera rises seamlessly through floorboards, weaves through kitchen appliances, stealthily approaches unsuspecting characters from behind. Like a chess master, it watches impassively as schemes are hatched and intentions are thwarted. It always controls the action.

Such creative control, of course, requires meticulous planning and thanks to the success of Fight Club, Fincher knew exactly where to go with his vision for Panic Room.

“When it came to Panic Room, David decided to previsualize not just the visual effects shots, but the entire film,” says Frankel. “Then he asked if we were up to it. We said yes, of course, even though the volume of work was far greater than anything PLF had handled before. We quickly came to the conclusion that there was no way we could do this without SOFTIMAGE®|XSI™. The benefits of the SOFTIMAGE|XSI toolset and the advances it provides in general workflow and productivity were so overwhelming that we simply had to go with it.”

Asked for a specific example, Frankel pauses thoughtfully before continuing. “In other packages, you could only render out scenes as pics,” says Frankel. “For Panic Room, we completely changed our workflow and rendered everything out as .AVI files. Doing so made it easier to manage the huge number of files we were working with, but it also made it possible for us to sit down with the director and review material by simple double-clicking on files. What’s more, we could load up an .AVI file, the director could make changes as he was sitting there and we could hit a button for the next frame capture. Sometimes he would still be talking when we were able to show him the new version he’d requested. Using SOFTIMAGE|XSI in this way meant we were able to keep David in the room with us, and created a completely intuitive, smoothly flowing process. To our mind, the success of the job depended on developing that relationship with the director, and SOFTIMAGE|XSI helped us do that.”

Another key feature that proved useful on Panic Room was the SOFTIMAGE|XSI Animation Mixer. Effectively acting as moving, instantly adjustable storyboards, PLF’s previsualizations had little need for complex character animations. More important at this planning stage were considerations such as the limitations of the planned sets, the position and motion of the cameras, and how the physical sets would need to be constructed to accommodate the camera equipment for Fincher’s dynamic camera moves.

Frankel explains: “We needed a quick way of generating large quantities of character animations,” says Frankel matter-of-factly. “Having a super-realistic walk cycle wasn’t going to mean much to the physical actors, so there was really no point in getting bogged down with complex character animations that might take days to create. With the SOFTIMAGE|XSI Animation Mixer, we created a generic library of poses that we could easily modify for what we needed for a given scene. Characters would sort of skate along, look left and right, gesture this way and that way, but because we were able to create a significant amount of character animation without a lot of time or effort, we were able to keep up with the pace of David’s imagination and vision.”

In all, the truly immense job of previsualizing Panic Room ran a little more than six intense months and resulted in over 800 camera setups, comprising roughly 70 minutes of animation. Despite the enormous amount of work, however, the PLF team ensured that, in the interests of a smooth creative process, no more than two animators worked with Fincher at one time.

“We found that using more than two animators was just too distracting,” says Frankel. “It was much more efficient to keep a relatively small group of minds working on the project. There was no way to do a project like this with an assembly-line mentality. To reach its true creative potential, the entire process had to be one-on-one.”

In the final analysis, both the story of Panic Room and the making of the film can be said to share a single moral: always be prepared! Thanks in part to PLF (and to SOFTIMAGE|XSI), David Fincher was flawlessly so.

Michael Abraham

www.softimage.com



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