Tuesday, 10 April 2012


Once again I find myself apologising for a late blog post. Shortly after completing the Masterclass project I set about producing my innovations project. The brief for this project allowed us the freedom to explore almost any aspect of animation and encouraged creativity and innovation. I chose to create a Nuke gizmo which would allow the user to add realistic camera lens elements to images, movies or CG renders read into Nuke.

I've always been a firm believer that realism, especially in CG, lies in imperfections. CG renders, for the most part, come out looking too perfect - too symmetrical or too clean. Adding in the imperfections of real world filming; lens dirt, camera shake, depth of field and lens flares really helps convey realism.

I was happy with how 'BensFlares' turned out, but there were so many more features and tweaks that I wanted to include. The main issue that I want to fix before releasing the gizmo to Nukepedia is that it's based ontop of an existing lens flare gizmo called 'Flare Factory Plus' written by Doug Hogan (http://www.doughogan.com/toolbox/flarefactoryplus). Flare Factory Plus allows the user to place one of many different flares into their composition and have the position affect the shape and orientation of the flare itself. Flare Factory Plus made a great base for my gizmo as it let me focus on the actual innovative features of the product. Ideally I want to write my own flare utility to base the other features on top of, giving me full control over the final effect.

The basic functionality is there for the different features of the gizmo and once my major animation project is completed I'll be able to make the necessary changes and release it.

I really enjoyed the development process of this project. I purposely chose an area of CG in which I wasn't particularly comfortable; expression writing and scripting. I'd never been a confident programmer but Nuke's expression interface combined with it's node based architecture made the task less daunting. I ended up really getting into the problem solving mindset needed to write the expressions which drove the program.

Monday, 13 February 2012

SCEE Masterclass Project Finished!

I feel the need to issue a warning before I start this post: It's going to be long!

Since the last update the deadline for the Masterclass project brief set by Sony Computer Entertainment Europe has been and gone, and although I didn't keep this blog updated I made sure to keep a record of my progress as I worked. As a result I have around 50 screen captures and renders that I intend to talk through right now.

Before I arrived at the above result I had to finish the modelling and unwrapping stages before moving onto texturing, lighting and finally rendering.

Once the models were 90% in place I turned my attention back to the generator. This was one of the more intricate models and was important to the environment and so I modelled and textured it separately to the rest of the scene. I decided to use an entire 1024x1024 map just for the generator. Although this wasn't consistent with the pixel ratio of the rest of the environment I felt it was necessary to achieve the look I was after.

I wanted the generator to be leaky and dirty and not look clean and sophisticated as people may expect from alien technology. I used Photoshop to create the colour and specular maps and then used Crazy Bump to create the normal map.

I then started to texture the rest of the environment. I started by planning out how I would utilise the remaining 4 maps. I chose to split the textures up into walls, wooden objects, alien objects and organic objects and assigned a 1k map to each of them.

Before I could actually texture any of the objects I had to re-arrange the UVs to fit into the maps. For duplicated objects such as the fence posts I had to use the 'Transfer Attributes' feature in Maya to map the UV co-ordinates to multiple objects.

After the UVs had been organised I started to texture the wooden areas.

At this point I was pretty excited. I'd applied specular and normal maps to the wooden areas ontop of the colour map and I was starting to get an idea of how the end product would look.

Moving onto the wall textures was a challenge. I knew that the large wall in the Oceanarium was decorated with a mural of a tropical beach. To make the texture I had to grab some photos of a real world mural and stitch them together to roughly re-create the design of the actual Oceanarium. The problem was that the mural was really saturated and looked too new. This is the texture before I worked it over in Photoshop...

...and this is the texture afterwards.

I really wanted to make the wall look dilapidated and broken. I like the symbolism of an image depicting paradise being subjected to the harsh reality of an alien invasion. I used the normal map to give some depth to the damage; the cracks look like deep crevices and the paint stripped spots on the walls are recessed. I had to hide the mural layer in Photoshop when creating the normal map or the palm trees would appear recessed too!

I made a hole in the wall at the rear of the environment to open it up and also to liven up that area which I found to be lacking details.

I took a quick break from texturing to complete the rock wall faces which make up the walls of the lower level.

I could then apply a mossy rock texture. The normal and specular maps did a good job of making the rocks seem more 3D, hiding the simple geometry that they were made from. Ideally I would have loved to have taken the rock mesh into zBrush to sculpt but I ended up not having enough time.

I duplicated the generator twice and placed them into the scene. I placed one up high onto one of the lateral beams (not there in the render) and one to the right of the tunnel, which was also textured by this point. I found that from the entrance to the tunnel the player had an interesting view, with the spikes silhouetted against the sky making them seem daunting.

I added in the cables coming from each of the generators using the 'Extrude Along Curve' feature in Maya. I made them droop low into the players field of view, which really made the generators feel imposing and give the impression that they're active and plugged into something. I'd also textured the broken frame of the tunnel and other minor areas such as the rusty edges to the platforms.

I had been using the Mental Ray Physical Sun & Sky to light my scene realistically and found that my textures would always appear more 'washed out' than in Photoshop. I found that the problem lay in the gamma correction that the indirect lighting added. I changed the gamma in the Render Global settings to 0.45 from 1.0 which corrected the problem. My textures looked much more saturated and made the scene look much more detailed.

The next step was to model and texture the alien eggs. The model was really simple but the textures, specifically the normal map, gave me some real trouble.

Once I'd wrestled with it enough I placed the egg into the scene onto a mound that I modelled and duplicated it a few times, varying the scale as went.

The environment was pretty much fully textured at this point. If I moved the camera to the entrance of the tunnel, to the same location from the concept, the silhouette and general layout of the scene was just how I wanted it.

The lighting stage was all that was left. I chose to stick with the Mental Ray Physical Sun as it gave a realistic lighting solution, especially with Final Gather enabled. The only problem was that wherever I positioned the directional light, the lower level would appear too dark. This was a problem as the player needed to be able to see the alien eggs to their right.

I positioned a couple of area lights to properly illuminate the space.

After a couple of quick tweaks to the models and textures, the environment was complete!

After some very quick adjustments in Photoshop and Nuke the environment was looking even better.

I'm extremely proud of the final product. I find it hard to believe that this was spawned from my concept and is now in 3D. I've learned so much about the processes and workflow associated with environment creation. I had a lot of fun and I'm definitely considering pursuing it as a career.

Friday, 27 January 2012

SCEE Masterclass Project Update

Wow, I'm terrible at keeping this blog updated! When I left you last I had altered my concept sketch to better convey the tone of the piece. Since then the concept has entered production in 3D.

Earlier this week the guys from Sony came down to Bournemouth to check out our work and give us some one-to-one feedback. The environment artist that came down was David Fletcher; an ex Bournemouth graduate who has worked on some of my all time favourite console games including 'Killzone 2' and 'The Getaway'. This is what I had to show him:

From the feedback we received from the interim hand-in, I was told to really think about the background of the alien race that have invaded, and how that affects the look and functionality of their equipment. I decided to change the Oceanarium into a breeding ground for the aliens. The generators would provide the right atmosphere for their spawn to mature properly. The environment would have alien eggs littered around. This required some re-designing and some straight up designing.

First up are concept sketches for the look of the alien eggs:

I also decided to re-design the generator to look more fossil fuel based

I settled on the design to the left. I liked how the tank and pipe shapes read well even in silhouette form. I started to model it in Maya

I had blocked out the Oceanarium in Maya. The geometry was really rough and there were intersecting edges and un-merged verts everywhere but it helped me get a sense of the scale of the room. I used my reference photos to help me position each of the objects.

And with the ceiling in place:

As soon as the environment was completely blocked out I positioned a camera with a focal length of 15mm down in the tunnel, in roughly the same area that I did the sketch from. I compared this to my sketch, and realised that the dimensions of the room were heavily exaggerated in the concept!

With the dimensions of the room finalised, I opened a new scene and imported the blocked out models into it. I combined all of the models into a single mesh, which I then set as a reference layer in Maya. I used this reference to help guide me as I modelled the actual clean geometry.

The final result of this project will depend heavily on the texture work. From my previous experience with texturing I figured that unwrapping objects early on in the modelling process will save a great deal of time and frustration; and so all of the 'neat' models have been unwrapped. Here is a screenshot of a checkerboard material applied to one of the models in the scene.

At the time of the feedback session this is how far I'd gotten with the neat, unwrapped models:

The feedback I got from Dave was overall very positive and really got me thinking about all the little details that I had overlooked. At one point he said that it reminded him of a Killzone environment. My face remained calm but the gamer inside of me was bouncing about with joy! It was great to be able to ask a professional environment artist how they would do a certain model or how they would manage their texture maps. Now that I know that the environment has potential I really want to make it as good as it can be!

I knew that I wasn't as far along with this project as I wanted to be, but I wanted to let David know that I had more plans. I ended up grabbing a quick render of the blocked out environment and making rough notes over it in Photoshop.

As you can see, there's a lot of work that needs doing here - so I'd better get back to work!

Friday, 13 January 2012

Animation Workshop 2 Day 1

Today we started the second in a series of intensive animation workshops. This time around we had Kevan Shorey and Robyn Mesher heading up the lecture series. They both currently work at Dreamworks PDI and have done for the past 8 years. Kevan was actually a graduate of the NCCA back in 2002 and so he understood that our minds were in Major Project mode.

We started the day in the lecture theatre where Kevan and Robyn talked us through the plan for the week. They had demo reels and videos of their motion reference which were shown during the presentation. Throughout the presentation they both pitched in with some sound industry advice, which we could put into practice every week. They gave us tips on presenting, as they had sat in on our presentation session the previous day. The advice they gave was to present our work in the most positive way possible, and not to explain what we 'hadn't done'. They said that if we did that with shot dailies to the director of a project, they may find it difficult to have confidence in our work. I really hope that I take this advice on board as we tend to present almost every week and it'd be good practice for when we (hopefully) transition to industry.

During the short interval in the presentation Kevan came up to us as we were sitting in the front row and asked how we thought the presentation was going. We told him it was going well and it seemed very relaxed. They seemed to have put a lot of effort into the slides and they worked really well.

At one point the pair spoke of the differences between working in the UK and the US. The main difference is the positive approach that the Americans take to their work. I think this is echoed in the differences between Kevan and Robyn and Campbell and Susannah. These two seemed much more upbeat and talked noticeably more about the positive elements of the job.

I got the opportunity during the break in the presentation to ask Kevan if he'd ever had to sleep in his workspace since being in industry; a common animation student practice.

In the afternoon session we gathered in the labs where we were given a list of animals. We had to choose one and gather motion reference from various online sources and use the notes from the morning session to design a 5 second animation sequence. The purpose of the morning session was to get us thinking about making our animations interesting by playing off of the audience's expectations, so our sequence had to embody this.

The animal I chose was the Hummingbird. Usually I would have chosen the simplest one to animate, as I'm not a very confident animator, but I was feeling inspired and was game for a challenge. I guess that positive attitude really does help!

After gathering motion reference, it was clear that hummingbirds are one of the most energetic animals out there. I noticed that the head leads the movement while they're flying; the head moves and then remains still while the wings and body work overtime to keep it there. I liked how there was such a contrast between the head which seemed effortless and the body which is obviously working tirelessly!

The sequence I designed featured two characters; a normal energetic hummingbird and a lazier, dopier one. The lazy one would hover slowly to a feeder where the energetic one would zip in front, performing aerial acrobatics and only staying still for small amounts of time.

I drew up some thumbnails and got Kevan to come over and take a look. He said that he liked the idea. :D The day ended and we were told that we would be developing our ideas the following day.

I had a really good time today and I'm interested to see how this week pans out!

Friday, 6 January 2012

Sony Masterclass Update

After posting up the progression of the colour study, I had some advice from Mr. Anthony Minto, a fellow NCCA final year student. He was kind enough to make some quick changes in Photoshop and then send the result my way. He explained that by adding dirt and grime, it steers it away from looking too CG. He also darkened the edges by copy merging the red channel into a new layer and setting it to the 'overlay' transfer mode. I'd heard of this technique before but never used it. After attempting to replicate the changes he'd made on my own, this was what I ended up with:

I'm really really pleased with how it looks at the moment! It's so much closer to what I originally wanted to convey, but I just didn't know how to achieve it.

I also realised that I hadn't uploaded the perspective study, so here's that too:

Sony Masterclass Interim Hand In

The interim deadline for the Masterclass brief laid out by Sony was just before the end of term. In the flurry of work I forgot to upload the work that I'd done to this blog.

The hand-in comprised of a perspective and colour study of our proposed environment. I put the environment sketching practice to use here and was quite pleased with the result. I've stuck the entire process up on here:

The first stage was to roughly sketch out the environment to get an idea of perspective and composition

I then cleaned up the sketch, making it less cluttered and easier to read.

After adding in a few more details I blocked in the values. I recalled the Feng Zhu tutorials that I had watched previously, in which he mentions that the most important thing is for the values to read; hopefully the piece should still make sense compositionally even when zoomed right out or flipped.

Here I added some quick highlights to bring the broken metal out from the background.

More details added; the decking and fence at the far end and the Alien 'generators' with their cabling.

Here I drew in the thatched roof of the walkway to the left of the tank.

At this point I tidied up the tunnel walkway and added in the archway into the foreground. I also added in the fake rock formations outside of the tunnel and the remaining skeleton of the skylight.

The Alien tower is added in and the opacity is reduced to push it back into the distance, giving the image a sense of depth. 

Here I defined the broken glass of the tunnel. I like the idea of the broken curved glass, which used to represent protection, now being absent and revealing the ominous tower.

I added Marines into the foreground as I felt that there was too much negative space around the archway. The silhouettes of the men break the comparatively boring lines of the arch, making the image more exciting from a composition stand point. I also duplicated some elements, mirrored and distorted them to use as reflections on the ground, which I decided would still be a little flooded.

I started to add general colour using a multiply layer. I wanted the environment to feel stale and stagnant, and so I used a kind of moody green to represent moss which would have grown on the glass and the rock formations due to the moisture.

Once I'd decided on the colours to use I set about painting the rest. 

Finally I added some environmental fog, which would linger because of the constant heat from the generators fastened to the walls. I also dabbed on some bright white dots to represent blinking lights both on the generators and on the tower, subtly linking them together.

I'm pretty pleased as I learned a lot about composition and perspective while working, although I'm not sure as it serves its process as a colour study. I feel as though I could use this piece to show the general mood and tone of the environment to a client but I really need more specific colour information.