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The Enduring Story of Matte Painting in Film

Editor's note: This story by Cinefex's Graham Edwards is part of the 'VFX ABC' series exploring the lexicon of special effects. It's republished here with permission. In the VFX ABC, the letter "M" stands for "Matte Painting".

Take any film aficionado's top ten list of favorite movie tricks, and the chances are you'll find the venerable art of matte painting near the top. But what actually is matte painting, and what makes it so special?

To put it in a nutshell, a matte painting is a piece of artwork used to fill in part of a scene that can't otherwise be photographed. Take a cathedral interior, for example. Assuming you can't find a real cathedral to shoot in, do you really want to shell out half your precious budget on constructing that mile-high vaulted ceiling? Wouldn't you prefer to build your set up to a convenient height of, say, ten feet, then use a painting to patch in the rest?

Or, let's say you want to photograph Count Dracula's castle perched precipitously on top of a mountain. Are you prepared to ship a construction crew all the way out to the Bavarian Alps? Are you ready to face a mob of locals with torches and pitchforks protesting about how you're defacing the landscape? Doesn't it make more sense to photograph a suitably rugged portion of rocky terrain, then hire a skilled artist to paint in the vampire's looming lair?

In short, isn't the most straightforward solution to use a matte painting? Of course it is.

Unfortunately, matte painting isn't quite as simple as that…

In Brief: John Lasseter on the Role of Technology in Storytelling

On Medium, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has recently been posting transcripts of speeches given at its events, such as tributes to filmmakers from directors Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams. The latest is a wonderful speech by Pixar's John Lasseter, given at "The New Audience" panel discussion in May. It's about his approach to storytelling, and the relationship filmmakers and audiences have with technology. Well worth the 10-minute read, or you can watch the video of Lasseter's talk, embedded below:

Norman
DARPA Robotics Challenge: Team THOR

THOR (Tactical Hazardous Operations Robot) was one of the humanoid robots we met at the DARPA Robotics Challenge, designed and built by students at UCLA and the University of Pennsylvania. We chat with Steve McGill of Team THOR to learn about the disaster relief scenario and how teams direct their robots in each part of the obstacle course.

How To Get Into Hobby RC: Telemetry Systems

One of the fundamental challenges of flying RC aircraft is that you are separated from the machine you are controlling. You must assess the health and status of your vehicle from a distance using only limited visual and aural cues – rarely an easy thing to do. Sometimes the first symptom of a failing system is a trail of smoke that inevitably leads to the ground.

RC telemetry systems provide the means to accurately gauge certain parameters of your model during flight. Think of it as a remote dashboard. Do you want to know how hot your motor is running? How about an alarm that can warn you when your model reaches an altitude of 400 feet? Telemetry devices can provide those things and more.

What Telemetry Requires

There are several different ways to receive telemetry data. Some telemetry systems are standalone units with a transmitter/sensor package in the model and a receiver on the ground. For FPV flyers, On-Screen-Display devices take the data from onboard sensors and overlay it on the real-time video feed. The result is something like a heads-up display found in many modern full-scale aircraft. An increasingly popular form of telemetry system is the type integrated into the model's radio system. The pilot's handheld transmitter sends flight commands to the aircraft while also receiving downlinked data. The same onboard receiver that interprets commands also transmits telemetry data. In this way, both the transmitter and receiver are actually transceivers.

Telemetry data can be viewed in the transmitter screen, but you'll want to use the tactile and aural feedback options when flying.

The majority of radio manufacturers offer telemetry-capable systems in their lineups. The example that I've chosen to highlight in this guide comes from Futaba. As of this writing, there are three Futaba aircraft transmitters that are telemetry-capable (10J, 14SG, and 18MZ) as well as a handful of receivers. With these systems, their telemetry features are embedded in the S.Bus2 circuitry of the components. That nuance begs a brief explanation of S.Bus2.

HARV: Telepresence Camera System with Head-Tracking

Low-latency telepresence camera systems with head-tracking allows users to look around environments in near-real-time while wearing headsets like an Oculus development kit. We put on Telefactor Robotics' HARV remote vision system and chatted with CEO Martha Jane Chatten about the use of motorized gimbal systems for immersive telepresence.

Earth, Fire, Wind, Water: Alternative Battery Technologies

There are a bazillion solar-powered portable batteries on the market. But they have this little problem: they need the sun in order to work. Inventors and engineers, seeing the need for portable power generation that doesn't require daylight, have been hard at work coming up with some creative ideas for alternative energy sources. Let's call them the Earth element batteries (or just call them awesome). Now you can get a portable battery powered by wind, water, fire, and even mud. Here's the science behind how these mini-generators work.

Fire Power

The FlameStower is a portable device that uses temperature variations to generate electricity. It's based on a simple principle called the thermoelectric effect. To put it in the most simplified way possible: all you need is to put two materials that are effective at moving electricity next to each other and add an electricity-capturing device on one end. Then you heat one side and cool the other. Electrons move from the hot side to the cool side (because they like to be where energy is lower and heat has a higher level of energy, a concept you probably know as diffusion). As they travel into the cool side they release heat energy and voila! You have a battery. Yay physics! This method of power generation is regularly used to power devices in space, where it's easy to generate heat naturally with a decaying radioactive material while subjecting it to the extreme cold temperatures of the vacuum outside.

The FlameStower generator works over any flame or heat source (a cook stove, a campfire, or even the stove in your kitchen). You simply put one end of it over the heat, pour some water into the cold side to keep the temperature there low, and plug in any USB device. They even have a version that can charge your gadgets using a candle. Depending on how powerful your flame is, the FlameStower can produce about 3w of power, which its makers calculate out to about two to four minutes of talk time on your phone for every one minute of charging. You can get one for $70 on their website and their candle charger, which will cost $99, is expected to be available soon.

Meet the Inflatable Soft Robots of Pneubotics

The inflatable robot of Big Hero 6 was based on real soft robotics research, like the ones being experimented with at startup Pneubotics. We chat with Pneubotics CEO Kevin Albert to learn how robots can be designed and built with lightweight and flexible skins that have impressive dexterity and structural strength.

The Best Windows Ultrabook Today

This post was done in partnership with The Wirecutter, a list of the best technology to buy. Read the full article below at TheWirecutter.com.

The $1,100 Dell XPS 13 is the best Windows ultrabook for most people because it has a big, beautiful screen, the longest battery life of any Windows ultrabook, a great keyboard, and a decent trackpad. Above all, it's the smallest, lightest, best-designed ultrabook we've tested. We came to this conclusion after 70 hours of research and testing with seven different ultrabooks.

The Dell XPS 13 (non-touch) is the best Windows ultrabook for most people.

Who is this product for?

Ultrabooks are best for people who need a super-portable, long-lasting laptop and don't mind paying a premium for it. They're overkill if you just want something you can leave on a desk and use for a couple of hours after work. The ideal ultrabook has enough processing power to get work done and sufficient battery life to survive a cross-country flight, while still being slim and light enough to go anywhere.

In Brief: The Rise and Fall of Virtuality

The Kernel has a good feature documenting the story of Virtuality, the commercial VR game company that dominated arcades in the early 90s. There are some interesting lessons here about the enduring appeal of virtual reality, what early adopters found compelling about Virtuality's experiences, and how unrealistic expectations led to its downfall. Two decades later, I think a lot of VR enthusiasts believe that the current wave of consumer VR hardware is destined to succeed. But the truth is that it's still a fragile technology that has a lot of hurdles to overcome to break into the mainstream the same way that smartphones have done.

Norman