Check Mate CGI

In 2008 I watched a move called "Iron Man" with Robert Downey Jr.  If you don't live under a rock, you should know the reference.  In this movie I was amazed at how realistic computer generated imagery had come.  It was one of the first movies that I felt convincingly merged the real world with the digital world.  Many movies had incorporated digital effects, but this movie showed the mastery.  From this point on I become very interested in how they are able to create such "digital reality" in full featured film, but yet not be something commonly used in still photography.  I did some research and learned that Advertising agencies were using photo illustration and 3D rendering with programs such as Maya and Light Wave.  So, I tried to find friends who had such skills, but to no avail.  

In the summer of 2010 my assistant had gone to art school and was familiar with Maya.  I had first used him to create digital snow flakes for me (read in my Winter Wonderland story).  After the success of that effort, I decided to push him further and asked him to digitally create life size chess pieces carved out of stone.  One of my main motivations to bring CGI into everyday editorial production was reducing production cost and opening up creative possibilities.  In this case you can see the advantage of CGI in both of these areas.

If I were to set out to do this shoot in "real" cost, how much time and money would it take to commission a full life size chess board made of two types of Stone?  What would be the logistics of moving them to location, and once on location moving them abou the board for the story? How many issues would I have permitting a national park where the background rock shots were taking.  How big of a crew would it take to make the desert chess board, how many days of accommodations, transport, Kraft services, and pay?  How would you move the pieces and not destroy the chess board?  How long would it take to "set" the set between shots, how much variance in the suns positioning would occur in relationship to the subjects/models and the board through out the day?   Everyone of these variable make a creative "vision" like the one I had for this story impossible to do on the small budgets magazines provide for editorial work. 

It was a perfect time to explore the potential of CGI.  So my partner in crime Stephen Kamifuji at Genlux, who allows me free reign to explore my creative impulses, agreed to let me attempt this ambitious undertaking with no proof of concept.  We shot at Smash Box in Los Angeles.  I brought a small chess board from home, and with my little canon G9 point and shoot, and natural sun light, I took placement compositions.  Once I shot a cool angel/composition, I imagined where the models would go, and then knew how I would light them based on the way the chess pieces looked.  We set up the studio to replicate the concept shot the models.  Once back in my studio, I used photoshop to rough out the story and get Stephen's approval.  Once we had the story roughs approved, I could make the investment in time and money to have the chess pieces recreated in the program Maya (CGI).  I showed the CGI artist the mock-ups and asked him to replace the wood pieces with digital stone pieces.  As you can see below the computer texture mapping of the digital stone has many issues and is not out of the can ready for prime time.  So the next step is color grading and adjustments to light, and most importantly using photoshop to add more real stone texture to the digital stone to make feel a bit more "real".  This shoot was done in 2010, so now you can get much better results in this area from the Computer Generated Image.  Anywho.... The next step is to find the "right" background textures to make the environment.  I had driven out to the Alabama Hills in Lone Pine, and to Joshua Tree just outside of Palm Springs to look for "texture".  With my little Canon G9 I just snapped away at the rocks knowing that with the magic of post, something would work.  After scanning the images for good ground and background rocks, sky, etc.. I roughed in the texture.  Then I worked on making the digital chessboard merge with the real ground and some post magic tricks along with a lot of patience, and voila, you have the rough rough.  But in most things in life, the Devil is in the details.  So once all the roughs are done and I am happy with the story, I break out the digital fine tuning chisel, and get to work.  Making the hair blend, making the objects not "float". Edging every element in the photo pixel by pixel.  Matching all the shadows, tones, key light, bounce light, and over all color grading.  AND.. finally, just performing the "normal" retouching on the model's skin, hair, makeup, wardrobe, and shape.  

But once it is all said and done... you can explore possibilites never imagined in the practical world.