Ottowa Firm Bids on CGI Modeling

Vito Pilieci
CanWest News Service

Friday, December 26, 2003

A tiny Canadian high-tech firm that helped bring The Lord of the Rings to the big screen is also in the running to bring 20 characters from The Chronicles of Narnia to life.

XYZ RGB, a six-person company in Ottawa, has also just started on director Peter Jackson’s US$100-million remake of King Kong for Universal Studios, slated for release in 2005.

And then there’s Halle Berry’s bust. To make a digital replica of the acclaimed actress, technicians at the company had to scan a cast of her legendary bust for a film version of the comic book villain Catwoman.

“We were the first company to get a hold of the actual life-cast of Halle Berry,” said XYZ RGB president Helmut Kungl. “When we scanned her life-cast, we even picked up the bra lines on her back from where she took her bra off.”

The company used its technology, created by the National Research Council of Canada in the early 1980s, to make digital models of massive four-tusked oliphants and the evil spider Shelob in The Return of the King, the last instalment of the J.R.R. Tolkien Lord of the Rings trilogy. In the movie, oliphants, which stand several stories high, are used by evil orc armies to wage war on humans. Shelob is a giant spider that tries to kill the hobbit Frodo, thanks to the nefarious Gollum.

The creatures in the recently released film that captivate moviegoers were just clay figurines before being being digitally rendered by XYZ RGB. “They showed up in very large crates,” Kungl said. “The fact that they would send their most valuable pieces halfway around the world to Ottawa when there are others who will do this says an awful lot.”

XYZ RGB took digital scans of the models, which had been flown to Ottawa from Weta Digital’s production labs in New Zealand. The oliphant sculptures were about three metres in length and stood about two metres high, while the model of Shelob was a little larger than a grapefruit.

Using a laser to scan the object in paper-thin sections, XYZ RGB was able to copy and reproduce every crack, raised surface or flaw in the models. The digital scans are then superimposed on computer-generated skeletons of the characters and used by producers to bring the imaginary creatures to life.

XYZ RGB got involved with The Lord of the Rings about a year ago after the release of the second part of the trilogy, The Two Towers. The company said the oliphants, which audiences only saw in a brief scene, looked fake and clumsy.

Kungl discovered that WETA Digital had been using out-of-date scanning technology to create the oliphants. So XYZ RGB talked the studio into sending a piece of a Cave Troll from the first movie in the series so that one of its digital scans could be made. The rest is history.

“When they showed the data, there were audible gasps,” Kungl said. “Ever since then they have been sold. They needed a level of detail that they just didn’t have previously.”

The company’s work was so impressive on the latest instalment in The Lord of the Rings that Jackson made certain XYZ RGB was involved in rendering digital models for his upcoming remake of King Kong.

Last year, Warner Bros., the studio behind The Matrix trilogy, used XYZ RGB to digitally sculpt models of Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Laurence Fishburne and all other actors involved in the movie’s computer-generated world. “Our name is definitely getting out there, which is a big bonus,” Kungl said.

XYZ RGB has placed a bid to help bring the magical characters of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia to life, in the upcoming movie The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which will be produced by New York’s Walden Media.

The firm hopes to soon see models of characters such as Aslan the magical lion, Reepicheep the talking mouse, Tumnus the fawn and 17 other magical creatures pay a visit.

(Ottawa Citizen)