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Zoic’s Mike Romey discusses previs app ZEUS:Scout

By Randi Altman

Visual effects studio Zoic has released to the masses an iPad-based previs tool they developed while providing shots for VFX-heavy shows such as Once Upon a Time, Intelligence, Pan Am and V. The app is available now via iTunes for $9.99.

According to Zoic (@zoicstudios), ZEUS:Scout (Zoic Environmental Unification System) offers seven main modes: View allows the user to move the camera around and save camera positions for shock blocking purposes; Measurements mode allows users to bring real-world measurements into a virtual world; Characters mode can be used to insert character cards into the virtual location; Props lets users add, move, rotate and scale set props that are available for in-app purchase; Previs Animation lets users explore camera moves for previs and rehearsal purposes. The Tracking mode allows users to use the tablet as a virtual camera with the CG view matching the angle of the device; and Video Mode can integrate live video into a CG set by keying actors or objects on a greenscreen.

Mike Romey

Mike Romey

We reached out to Mike Romey, Zoic’s head of pipeline and ZEUS:Scout CTO/co-founder (along with Zoic VFX supervisor Andrew Orloff), who says the origin of the app came out of the studio’s desire to communicate more effectively with its virtual production clients.

Typically, Zoic communicated shots via Autodesk Maya and print outs, but most directors and producers aren’t hands-on with the 3D tool Maya, so they needed to find a solution that made more sense. According to Romey they found a common thread: the iPad. That’s what led to ZEUS:Scout.

In addition to communicating with clients, what other problems did you hope to solve with the tool and how did you go about developing it?
We needed a way to collaborate and talk about a virtual location in regards to a script and or on set planning before a production day. Our first builds of the app were unique to an asset and simply gave us a way to distribute an asset to our client that allowed them to navigate a location to plan and prepare for a production day.

Over time we realized that simply navigating around a virtual space was not enough. We needed to build a platform in which we could deploy new asset locations, but also build new features and functionality to complement virtual production. Over time this included features like animation, measuring, characters, video, keying, tracking and data streaming.

How long has ZEUS been in development?
It started in 2012 for the first season of Once Upon a Time. The first few iterations of the app were very simple with some simple user interface controls to adjust the camera positions and lensing data. Over time we realized we wanted and needed additional user interface controls. We quickly realized the amount of work necessary to build custom user interfaces in a game engine.

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After a few more years of using the tools we decided it was time to do a full interface overall and devised a workflow in which we could build the user interface in Photoshop and Maya then import the UI just like an asset and bind the event code to the UI elements.

When did you decide to take ZEUS and make it available for the masses via the app?
Initially we developed a very simple and rudimentary app template. Each time we had a new asset we would load the asset into the template and compile it and send a new ad-hoc build of the app to our client via Apple’s TestFlight deployment services.

After a season, our clients had close to 30-40 assets on their iPad desktop. It became a bit unwieldy managing the assets. Additionally we found ourselves wanting to add features to the app but having to back port old assets. It was at this point that we realized we needed to find a better way to interface with our clients to remotely and securely deploy new assets.

Because the tool was developed in-house during real-world productions it has a certain cache to it. Designed by pros for pros. Can you elaborate on that a bit?
This has always been an important point for us. Our first design of the app’s user interface was designed to mimic some of the physical aesthetics of a remote focus puller. Over time the feature request grew too great to maintain design aesthetic against the functionality. It was at this point we did a bit of an overhaul.

We took all the details that we associate with the pro 3D app and tried to find a way to make an interface that could scale to our future needs. This is where we came up with the idea of a mode dial that allows the user to jump to different mode palettes at the bottom of the user interface. Thus, freeing up the screen for the render view. Additionally we have systematically added features and functionality that we needed that was relevant to production.

For example, when we worked on Pan Am one of our on-set visual effects supervisors suggested that we needed a way to quickly toggle the camera view to the opposite view. The value add to this feature request was that it was a quick way for the director to see what the line of sight might be from the perspective of the actor. This became very handy for dialogue shot framing in a virtual world where everything tends to be green or blue.

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Building a tool like ZEUS:Scout with this feature now gives us a way to visualize the space quicker and with more ease. The result is a tool that sits alongside typical virtual production systems that compliments it and results in production days that are much more efficient.

Any plans to make it available on other non-iPad tablets?
ZEUS:Scout is feature packed. We felt that making a version for the iPhone would make it pretty difficult for the average users to navigate the user interface. Because of this, we have decided to focus on iPad development. For those users who are looking for a smaller footprint the app does run nicely on an iPad mini, which has a smaller form factor with a higher resolution LCD.  We also plan to investigate Android tablets once the feature development for the app slows down.

What’s next?
Our goal is to continue to develop tools that complement virtual production. We have a second app lined up call ZEUS:Track for marker less tracking. Additionally we are constantly listening to our clients’ feature requests for the tool. So we hope to regularly iterate new features into the app that make it easier to import your own assets and or access auxiliary camera feeds rather than just the onboard camera of the iPad.

Lastly, as technology advances so does our ceiling and what we are able to achieve in ZEUS:Scout on an iPad as a mobile platform.

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