Lexhag VFX studio employs ftrack on BBC drama series ‘Poldark’.
ftrack 3.2 launches with customisable new workflows, a re-worked
API and a mobile app due later in the year.
Lexhag Employs ftrack On BBC Series ‘Poldark’, ftrack 3.2 Launches
Lexhag VFX studio is using ftrack project management program on the BBC drama series ‘Poldark’, and ftrack version 3.2 is launching with customisable new workflows, a re-worked API and a mobile app due later in the year.
ftrack is now launchingversion 3.2with new Workflows customisation functionality for creative teams that makes it possible for a user to align ftrack better with a particular industries and improve project structure by removing the rigidity of the system’s sequences, shots and tasks.
Instead of being forced to work under the task groups in the previous version of ftrack, the layout in version 3.2 can be customised in whatever way best suits a project. Users can rename each group to match the terminology of their domain to make ftrack relevant to a wider range of creative disciplines and markets, such as video games, motion graphics and architecture, not only visual effects. In short, ftrack will now adapt to your workflow, rather than the other way around.
This adaptability will extend across a project as work progresses. When the production’s needs become more defined, you can reorganise the ftrack project layout as you would a file system, making project management easier, more familiar and appropriate - but without having to continuously rewrite code.
Fredrik Limsäter, CEO at ftrack, said. “By allowing users to set their own project structures, ftrack opens up to industries that previously found the VFX shot and sequence structure too to work around." ftrack’s developers also say they are currently working with people in various industries to create custom Workflows templates. These templates will work like preset file structures that are tailored to different kinds of work.
Because its old API was locked to specific workflows, making it impractical to support Workflows naturally, 3.2 also has a rebuilt, open source API with more flexibility and deeper tool customisation.
Written from scratch for the new Python pipeline and built on normal Python data structures, the new API is faster and covers more of ftrack’s functionality with more avenues for developers to tweak and hone performance, opening new ways of working with the software. It does the heavy lifting to make coding and tool customisation easier, and takes care of time-consuming processes such as caching. It has been fullydocumented.
Coming in September, a newftrack mobile appwill allow team members to stay in touch with ongoing projects when away from their workstation. Users can check in on the status of tasks, log time, stop or start timers, receive notifications, and instantly contact anyone else involved in the project, wherever they are. Meanwhile ftrack has been working with a team atThe Foundryon integration withNUKE STUDIO. This integration is taking longer than expected, but when it arrives later in the year, it will enable still further ways of using the software.
‘Poldark’ – Television Drama from Lexhag
Lexhagstudio in London is an ftrack customer, and has been using the software to work on the current version of ‘Poldark’ for the BBC, a period drama series devoted to the stories from Winston Graham’s historical novels. The BBC first produced ‘Poldark’ for TV in the 1970s, but for this 21st century production Lexhag is using modern VFX techniques such as LIDAR scans and building full-CG elements. To organise and track the work, they are using ftrack.
VFX producer at LexhagHasraf Dulullremarked that recent TV dramas are reaching for higher production values, facing similar challenges to those that Hollywood blockbusters have dealt with. He finds larger budgets are available for visual effects, and more time is allotted to them in production schedules. He said, “We are interested in making TV executives think a bit differently about how VFX are used. VFX doesn’t just mean post-production anymore – it’s pre-production too. We need to be on board a lot earlier, the same as for feature films. That is the kind of approach we mean to take with projects like ‘Poldark’.”
Lexhag prefers to work as a second unit for productions as well as a post house, going on set to capture their own VFX elements where necessary. “We did that on Downton Abbey for the Christmas special,” saysDan Marbook, also a VFX producer at Lexhag. “Using those techniques means we can offer up shots that other facilities might not be able to at the price we offer. We think a great deal about how we’re going to achieve the effects we’re brought on to deliver.”
For example, to enhance the rolling, panoramic shots of the English southern coast, the Lexhag team chose an approach blending matte painting work and set extensions, first capturing a LIDAR scan of on-set elements to help them accurately replicate the 1700s seafront.
Dan said Lexhag puts effort into researching techniques, including newer ones, to make sure they are using systems and equipment that will result in the effects they are looking for. “That’s why we’re doing a lot of work with LIDAR scanners at the moment - a lot of our shot design and thought processes go into what real elements we can get into the camera first,” he said.
“The scanners can geometrically map areas and buildings before we extend them in CG, so we know they are 100% accurate and will match up to the plate. We’re reluctant to immediately put up green screens, even though they have their value in the right time and place.” The Lexhag team would use LIDAR to scan derelict buildings on the sweeping plains of Cornwall, and then use that data to build out the mines that once pocked the landscape in the late 1700s. The accuracy of this data enabled them to build believable, authentic backdrops.
“LIDAR scanning is actually an architect and builders tool,” said Dan. “It sends out either a long- or short-range scan using two million lasers that face out of the scanner. It produces a complete reading that we can feed into Maya or 3ds Max, giving us a digital map of that landscape, building or room. This gives us a lot of options – we can build a full digital environment out of it, or do some previs, or just use it as a snapshot of the scene to makes notes on. We can map still photography on top of the scans as well, which means the textures are true to life. We’ll then have an asset to utilise across the series that the production wouldn’t have had otherwise.”
To undertake a LIDAR scan, they typically expect to be out of the studio for a full day to prep and completely scan an area. It is essential to be prepared befor going out, and Therefore the team hopes to incorporate ftrack’s production tracking tools into the process more in future. “We’re currently looking for ways to use ftrack to input our LIDAR scans. We supply sign-off documents back to production, which include the data we’ve collected from the scans, the photography, the shot compositions and pre-vis. We want that to be traceable through to the generation of the actual shot.”
One of Lexhag’s more demanding tasks on ‘Poldark’ was creating a pre-1800s galleon, seen in four shots braving the violent Atlantic waves before suffering a catastrophic shipwreck. While each shot itself was a composite – the background and water elements were shot in camera on a particularly stormy day off the coast of Cornwall – the boat itself was fully CG.
“It’s important to structure those tasks out separately, because full-CG shots use a lot of render power. It takes time to process all of the detail,” said Dan. “Also, lots of different artists are working on different aspects of that build - someone will be doing the animation, another buidling the model, and another doing research on the simulations and the way the sails would interact with the wind. As a producer I was able to track all of those different tasks, and to note when certain elements of the asset were ready. I could then plan for compositing of the asset to a finished standard and then have that ready to render and be delivered over to the client. It made everything faster and easier.”
Ultimately, Lexhag had to sell the audience on the believability of the ship, but first they needed to sell it to the client – a process that is rarely straightforward. Dan said that tracking tools were useful at this stage because they allowed them to record individual elements of the boat in either a signed-off state or a not-completed state.
“Signed off means that the client is happy. Not completed means there are more notes to address – and getting that right is important for a production. Say, for example, you get to the compositing stage and the client mentions there’s something wrong with the animation or modelling – it can take a long time to back-track through what you’ve done. ftrack is a good guide for confirming you have sign-off ahead of time, refering back to an email from the client at a specific time, for example, confirming a sign-off.
“Managing client expectations is a huge part of the visual effects process, and ftrack has tools that help overcome such problems.” Lexhag first adopted ftrack in September 2014, using it on the first block of ‘Poldark’ and other shows that came through at the same time, such as BBC drama ‘The C Word’.
“ftrack helped break up the tasks into subsets and letting each artist just focus on the task in hand,” says Dulull. “Time logging allows us to track the project’s resources, and the main spreadsheet with the task status works well in conjunction with filters. It makes it very easy to send daily status reports to clients and post supervisors.
“It also minimised emails, which is better because comments and feedback stored in email threads always get lost. Also, we can instantly tell when a shot is about to go over budget – the system would flag this in advance to ensure we don’t end up digging into our own funds to make up for overages. ftrack has a lot of potential, and has helped us manage several large projects simply.” www.ftrack.com