Interview with Michael Karp Matchmove Supervisor at Rodeo FX

Interview with Michael Karp Matchmove Supervisor at Rodeo FX

1- Starting out, tell us a bit about yourself?

I was raised in Los Angeles, in a show business family. My step-father was a regular actor in a big soap opera called Days Of Our Lives. Many of my classmates in elementary and secondary school had parents who had won Academy Awards and were very successful in front and behind the camera in Hollywood. So the film business was a natural for me. In high school and college, I worked in a camera store for six years. Panavision camera and Ultimatte bluescreen were just down the street from the camera store in Tarzana (Los Angeles) and I was able to meet many very famous cameras and visual effects people at those companies.
In 1981 I enrolled in photography school at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, switched to their film program and later graduated with a BFA Film. My instructors were awesome.


2- way to VFX

In 1980 Neil Diamond had recorded a successful song called America, about immigrants coming to the United States. Our introductory cinematography instructor gave us the assignment to film music videos of the song. In order to tell the story that I wanted to tell, I used the front projection of American immigration scenes projected both behind my actor and on my actor’s body. This was similar to the famous technique used by Maurice Binder on the early James Bond films. My film won me a partial scholarship at Art Center.
I wasn’t really interested in visual effects at that point, but the front projection technique served the needs of my script. I was mainly into screenwriting and cinematography. On the other hand, my Art Center computer graphics instructor in 1982 was Dr. Jim Blinn, who was already world-famous for inventing the Blinn light rendering shader and for creating his Mars flyby simulations at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and CalTech.
The head of the Art Center film department was Jim Jordan, who was also a director at a major Hollywood commercial house called Coast. In my final college trimester, he told me that he was setting me up with an internship at Coast. I was extremely excited because I was sure that this opportunity would make my career. But then he finished his sentence and told me that I was to intern at the sister company Coast Effects, not Coast Productions. I was disappointed because the sister visual effects company was where all of the VFX nerds worked. But once my internship started, I realized that I was one of the nerds. Know thyself…
One of the people working with Coast Effects was Bill Tondreau, who eventually won a lifetime achievement Oscar for his analog motion control robot Kuper Controls camera software. I learned a great deal about VFX from Tondreau at Coast and in my later career at other facilities. I also interned with VFX cameraman Pete Kozachik, who eventually was nominated for an Oscar for Nightmare Before Christmas.
After I finished my visual effects internship, I became visual effects, stop motion and motion control cameraman at David Stipes Productions, Praxis Film Works, Coast/Trio Effects, BOSS Film. ILM and eventually Digital Domain (Titanic).  


3- challenges and experiences in the early years

Star Wars and Close Encounters had come out in 1977. My visual effects cameraman career started in 1983. The analog motion control, glass painting and stop motion analog techniques that we used were very difficult. Even on big Hollywood productions, our VFX equipment was usually quite primitive and mechanically unreliable. But the end results were often visually stunning.


 4- resources they had when they started

Analog VFX production was very difficult and stressful in the 1980s, but paradoxically the digital post-production had become very sophisticated. Our visual effects production tools would be rickety and held together with chewing gum, but the digital post-production tools used to finish our VFX shots, such as Quantel Harry and the CIS system, were shockingly advanced. But the tools only worked for low-resolution NTSC and PAL TV commercials back then, not for high-resolution 2k feature films, Then in 1985 ILM had a landmark achievement on Young Sherlock Holmes when they applied digital compositing to a 2k theatrical film release, with the Stained Glass Man scene. They scanned the 35mm film into the computer, created the 2D and 3D CGI and then used a film recorder to output back to 35 mm film. For 1985, this was a jaw-dropping revolution.


5- matchmove in VFX

A major step forward in match move was the 1993 Jurassic Park, with CGI dinosaurs and basic nodal shot (camera rotation only) match move. Originally the film was planned as Phil Tippet analog stop motion dinosaurs, with rear projection. But there was a secret skunkworks CGI dino project ongoing at ILM, by digital artist Stefen Fangmeier. Spielberg was so impressed by Fangmeier’s CGI dinosaur tests, that the project was switched from stop motion puppets to full CGI.
In 1994 Doug Roble (Digital Domain) and Thad Beier (Hammerhead Productions) created groundbreaking matchmove software, Roble Track, and Beier’s racetrack. These were revolutionary because they would solve seven degrees of freedom, using basic Surveyed Least Square Fit solvers. And then in 1996 3D Equalizer introduced their more automatic Surveyless matchmove software, which was another major revolution, since the shooting set did not need to be measured with survey devices.


 6- explaining matchmove in the simple form

Matchmove is where you take a live-action image from a film and determine very precisely how the camera, objects or body parts in the scene moved. 


 7- what’s are the typical task or job of a match movers

A matchmove artist will receive the image sequence (the plate) and use a commercial matchmove software such as 3D Equalizer, Boujou, SynthEyes or pfTrack to semi-automatically create a precise frame by frame matched animation of the camera or objects. Usually, there will be very high precision infrared laser scans of the set (LIDAR) that need to be spatially matched to. If not, then the artist will need to manually create simple proxy geometry of the scene (master scene). And if parts of the actor need to be tracked (rotomation), this requires a carefully rigged Maya Inverse Kinematics IK character and meticulous hand animation. Recently the open-source mmSolver plugin for Maya has become available from David Cattermole and this greatly facilitates rotomation. For example, in the Disney film Dumbo, the hero in the story has an amputated arm from being a soldier in World War I. Painstaking rotomation was needed for the digital arm replacement to match for the cloth simulations of the actor’s shirt.


 8- how to get started with matchmove

All of the major matchmove software has free demo versions available, with tutorial videos and training projects that can be downloaded. After that, it is best to enroll in a visual school online or classroom. But the best-advanced training for matchmove is typically received in a VFX facility.


9- growth in matchmove

In some facilities, matchmove is looked down upon and seen as just a stepping stone to “bigger” things. But in most VFX companies matchmove is taken very seriously and there are many high-quality artists who have been matchmoving for more than twenty years.


10- scope and opportunities with matchmove in VFX

Matchmove is mandatory on almost every visual effects shot, except for pure CGI shots, where there is no original plate. And for pure CGI shots, the camera move must be artistically designed by Layout artists and layout is the sister discipline to matchmove. In fifty percent of companies, matchmove and layout are completed by the same artists, in the same department.
As the need for matchmove has exploded, gigantic matchmove operations have been established in India, Thailand and in Western studios. Some visual effects houses outsource most of their matchmove to India, while many others in the West do most of the matchmove in-house.
Also, matchmove artists with basic python skills in Maya, Nuke or 3D Equalizer have an advantage.
I have done matchmove and cinematography in many countries, India for four years, Montreal, Australia, London, Vancouver, Los Angeles, Calgary, Dallas, Orlando, Calgary and New Orleans. Major employers include Double Negative, Rhythm & Hues, Sony Imageworks, Digital Domain, MPC and many more.


11- future technology of matchmove will it be AI originated or will it evolve?

There was a revolutionary camera introduced a few years ago called the Lytro. This sophisticated camera would create cookie-cutter hold out mattes and full matchmove data completely automatically, potentially eliminating a great deal of rotoscope, compositing and matchmove work. But the camera physically measured two meters long and seemed to only have a telephoto lens. But any production camera needs to be small and accept wide-angle lenses. So the camera was discontinued.
We typically use the Oscar-winning 3D Equalizer matchmove software and it evolves continuously. I am not aware of any significant Artificial Intelligence techniques being applied to matchmove, but anything is possible in the future.


12- advice /tips to Young artists how they can grow fast and be more efficient  
Every artistic endeavor has its own path. Matchmove is best mastered in a facility, with expert supervisors guiding the artist. Usually, a department with at least ten matchmove artists will have the artistic and technical depth to mentor the newcomers. And some matchmove facilities these days have hundreds of artists, so lots of depth there.
I have been working at Rodeo FX in Montreal for the last couple of years, certainly one of the coolest places that I have ever been at.

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