Watch our young reporter morph into a dinosaur!

Two of our young reporters, Ash and Owen, were recently invited to take a tour of ILM (Industrial Light & Magic) studios to see their awesome movie technology. Here’s their report of the day…

“We were so excited to be visiting ILM in London! This is the studio where they work on the visual effects behind some of the biggest films in the world, like Avatar and Star Wars. 

When we arrived, we were invited to have some drinks and nibbles in the green room, but we were too excited for that, so we were led straight through! First was a big room full of boxes and boxes of equipment and props, all labelled and catalogued so that they can easily be found and taken out on set. 

WPB reporters in front of LED screen
Here we all are standing in front of an ILM StageCraft LED screen

We then went past some dressing rooms where film stars get changed, and into the studio where the magic happens. The main studio was a large warehouse space with three massive LED screens and a vast padded floor. Behind us, a team of technicians were working away on a row of computers. 

The tech team working their magic

First, we learnt about ILM’s facial capture system, which is called Medusa. Medusa works by taking lots of photos of the actor. The actor sits in a chair that is surrounded by a bank of cameras. The actor has to make lots of different facial expressions and pull lots of silly faces! They have to say various sentences that have been designed to include all of the different sounds used in everyday speech, so that the computer can learn the shapes that their face makes when they are saying each sound. Using the Medusa software, a computer takes in all this information and creates a digital copy of their face which the tech crew can use to digitally create footage of the actor. This is useful for superimposing an actor’s face onto a stunt person’s body.

Next, I got to try on a motion capture (mocap) suit. These suits are made of grey fluffy fabric so that Velcro can stick onto them. After putting on the suit, I was then kitted out with lots of small reflective balls on Velcro pads. 

Owen in a mocap suit. ILM turned this toy sword into a light saber on the screen!

There are cameras all around the ceiling of the studio that emit infrared light and pick up the reflections of this light from the reflective balls on my suit. Computers can then track these balls to follow my every move.

Infrared Mocap cameras on the overhead rigging

With the suit on, the technicians were able to turn the screen image of me into lots of different characters. They made me into a robot with pistons for joints, a Stormtrooper, a velociraptor and a shiny humanoid, whose skin reflected whatever background they put me in.

The toy sword has become a light saber!
Owen became a Stormtrooper!

The suit was incredible, as the movements on the screen matched all the movements that I made in real time without any delay. My favourite was the velociraptor! 

The mocap suit translated Owen’s movements into those of a dinosaur!

Next, they showed us their virtual camera. This was an iPad with two Nintendo controllers attached on the sides. The iPad had been set up with a scene from Star Wars. The director could use the iPad as a virtual camera. When he walked around, it was as though he was holding a camera in the scene. With this contraption the directors can picture what different shots would look like inside a virtual world by seeing which shot looks good on the iPad.  

We got to take a look at a couple of virtual reality setups using VR headsets, which looked incredibly realistic. We were also shown how they could film a model of say an X-wing Starfighter and put it in front of a video of a fly-through. Viewing it through a camera lens made it look like the X-wing was really flying through the scene!

We learnt so much in this visit. It showed us just how incredible the world of computer generated imagery really is, and it was brilliant fun too! It was an experience of a lifetime – thanks so much ILM!”

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