How GPUs Are Taming Dragons on the Cheap for Indie Films

by Tony Kontzer

Coming soon to a theater near you: a full-length, digitally animated film about a fanciful world of fire-breathing dragons and fighter jets — made for just $2 million. That’s a fraction of the normal price tag.

Driving this ambition is an upstart — located over a Home Depot in the scruffy Bay Area town of San Leandro — that’s committed to showing how technology can turn Hollywood on its head.

PhaseSpace CEO Tracy McSheery is using his company’s patented system — which substitutes light-emitting diodes (LEDs) for the reflectors used with most motion capture setups — to capture performances that can be woven into elaborate virtual worlds, thanks to GPUs.

Virtual Movies

McSheery has already built a business helping would-be movie makers pitch their stories. At our recent GPU Technology Conference, he told attendees that the speed and power offered by GPUs helps filmmakers create “pre-visualizations” of entire movies for $50,000 or less. No need to sit down and read a script. “We can prototype every line of dialog,” McSheery says.

An early sketch for a scene from an artist...
An early sketch for a scene from an artist … fleshed out into something more detailed...
… is fleshed out into something more detailed …
...before being turned into a 3D model that animated characters whose movements are generated by PhaseSpace's motion-capture technology can inhabited.
… before being turned into a 3D model animated characters whose movements are generated by PhaseSpace’s motion-capture technology can inhabit.

But the UC Berkeley-trained engineer isn’t content to just give filmmakers the tools for putting together rough drafts of the real thing. He’s using technology to bring a long-time dream — “Tower of the Dragon” — to fruition.

‘Top Gun’ Meets ‘Game of Thrones’

If all goes well, the film will tell an intriguing tale. It features a young heroine on a medieval planet battling fire-breathing dragons with the help of a dragon companion and a team of fighter jets. McSheery wants to put the film on screens late next year.

A $50 million box office take for the work could open the door for many aspiring, low-budget filmmakers and really shake things up in Hollywood, McSheery says.

Revolutionizing Moviemaking

And it’s not the film itself that promises to be groundbreaking so much as how it’s being made. Using GPU-equipped PCs and PhaseSpace’s cutting-edge motion capture tools, his crew is employing the “pre-viz” approach McSheery believes will revolutionize how movies are made.

The system revolves around the LED lights PhaseSpace places on its actors. Instead of motion-capture cameras marking movement by locating reflectors, McSheery’s cameras are getting constant signals from the LEDs, giving them more information, and thus more detailed movement.

Using McSheery’s patented system, PhaseSpace’s 15 employees can record the motions of actors as they fight, leap, and emote their way through scenes. A director, meanwhile, carries a tablet computer that gives a peek at the virtual scenery.

“The attitude that we can fix it later is why Hollywood films are costing $100 million to $200 million,” he says.

In addition to PhaseSpace’s patented motion-capture systems, the crew is relying heavily on PCs equipped with NVIDIA’s Kepler-based Quadro K5000 video card and powerful Autodesk software.

Without the GPU component, says McSheery, the project would take much longer — and exceed his budget long before completion. Specifically, his graphic artists are getting more responsiveness from the software, with designs morphing in near real-time as they’re viewed from a multitude of angles.

“We’re proving that a PC and GPU graphics card can do the job of an army of artists,” says McSheery. “Artist months become artist days.”

Cheaper, Better, Faster

Behind all of his technological goals is a passion for movies, and a sense that the magic of moviemaking has been compromised. McSheery believes that Hollywood’s excessive spending is hurting the quality of big-budget films, with studios insisting that expensive scenes survive final cuts regardless of their flaws.

GPUs and other modern tools, he says, “allow us to try things over and over again, visualize them, and then decide whether we’ll use them.”

In other words, technology might be the key to improving the storytelling aspect of movies.

And it’s not just animated films that can benefit. McSheery says, the technology can be used just as effectively to assemble pre-visualizations of live-action films — a fact he intends to demonstrate with his next film project, a sequel to “When Harry Met Sally” currently dubbed “When Sally Left Harry.”