Monday, 21 March 2011

Practical procrastination

With the impending deadline for our literature reviews dragging its emaciated body closer to my feet, it's about time I hunker down and do some hardcore reading and remain focused on the matter at hand with no distractions whatsoever...

...So I saw Rango again last night.
I never got to praise it properly on here because I was much too busy, but I'll just say this now:
It's probably my favourite film this year.

You don't think Johnny Depp so much. More so, Kermit

Incase you have no idea what you're talking about, Rango is the story of a chameleon who ends up in a western-style animal town in the middle of the Mojave Desert, populated by various desert mammals, reptiles, amphibians and anything else butt-ugly they could think to include.
Seriously, the vast majority of the characters are hideous; Oddly proportioned and covered in wrinkles, wounds, sores and giblets.
I love it!

Rango is also wonderfully surreal at points, blurring the line between reality and dreams and possible desert hallucinations/mirages. The mariachi owls also do a great job of breaking the fourth wall, appearing with the characters thorughtout the film and narrating the story. They are also surprisingly dark, singing about the inevitable death in the desert and in one jail scene, they are all hanging whilst singing/playing a macabre song. There are also a lot of pop-culture references which feel good when you spot them.

The film also looks amazing. Possibly the best looking animated film I've seen (You could also go for Avatar, but Rango has a decent plot). The aforementioned ugly townsfolk look great, with stray fur and feathers covering fleshy and jiggling/straggly
bodies. Everyone is filthy and dirty to the point where it's tangible. The animation is smooth and dynamic, and there are even beaks which lip-sync well. (see Happy Feet's penguins speaking and be horrified)
The actual cinematography of it is great. I made an effort this time around to analyze the shots; their angles, their zooms etc and figure out why they were used, what they were trying to show.
As you'd expect, they borrow heavily from old western films, with the obligatory 'stranger-walks-into-a-saloon-and-everyone-goes-quiet-and-watches-as-he-walks-up-to-the-bar-with-the-camera-looking-down-from-the-ceiling' shot, or the SWIASAEGQAWAHWUTTBWTCLDFTC shot, for short.

Oh yeah, and the water is beautiful.

Water is a substantial part of the film's plot
There is a scene where Rango and a girl lizard named Beans are locked in a container of water, and the way that the reflected and refracted light plays on the walls looks incredible.
Water is a tricky beast to master in CG, it requires a large amount of programming just for rudimentary fluids, and not only does Rango have running water, it has flowing sand, which like the water, has a surprising level of realism.
I noticed a particular shot where Rango walks along a sand bank, and the camera cuts away to show the rivers of sand rolling down the bank with each step.
Now they're just doing it to show off.

So, yeah, it's a great film, go see it.
It has a snake with a gun on its tail, a bunch of animals riding roadrunners and flight of the Valkyries played on banjos.
Why would you not see it?

There's a story to be told with Beans' backstory and her father's ranch which was perfectly open to exploration, but the film left that part mostly unexplained.
I'm glad they did, and that they focused on Rango and the town. I imagine that had they delved into this ranch business it'd just be Australia all over again. And I refuse to sit through that!
I assume that they assumed that we'd already know about plots like that.

So, that post production business.


Well, at least it's over.
It could've gone better.

While I didn't start the project late, as such, it's just that things kept going wrong and I (and later, we) had to keep changing things to make it possible with time constraints.

Originally, the plan was to have a still camera and my disembodied arms moving a sketchbook around, showing off the 3D-ness of it all, with flat doodles popping out of the book and coming to life, even integrating some real 3D in the place of the disc-shaped LifeGiver, which I'd planned to stick on the front cover to animate the doodles.

So after putting the footage through MatchMover and doing some automatic tracks, I found out that my initial footage was too noisy, possibly due to inadequate lighting. So I we shot it again.
This time I decided to use a different book; a small ringbinder. The advantage here was that the pages would stay almost perfectly flat, making integrating the doodles much, much simpler.

So we had all this footage and doodles ready to be smooshed together into something beautiful. That's when we found out that MatchMover was pulling a Steve Jobs and that we weren't doing things how we're 'supposed to'.
I learned that MatchMover is primarily for following stationary scenes with moving cameras, as opposed the still camera and moving objects that we did.
This explained why, even when we had more than enough adequate tracks, we were still given a camera that was seemingly wielded by a naked guy in greenland with Parkinson's having a stroke in a massage chair on an active tectonic fault line.

The two most distant points look about 3 miles apart

And I think that's the point - we were exporting a camera movement. The software doesn't know that this is a book about a foot away from the camera (even though we told it that it was). It just follows the tracking points and does what it's programmed to do.
So, after a swallowing of pride and admission of surrender, I succumbed to reason and we used a piece of still footage, instead.
This saved me and Loz a lot of time without any of that tracking nonsense to slow us down.
We trudged through composite and its lack of a skew feature (come on autodesk, REALLY?) so the shadows (the only thing left to really integrate the doodles into the footage) were complete arse. I did my best by making them at different levels for the pages and other surfaces (most notably the tree).

I'll add a not-quite-as-awful-quality (NQAAQ) version soon
Overall, I feel it was a botched attempt. I tried to do it on my own without realising just how much work is involved in this sort of thing. Oh yeah, that and I still want to do holograms.

So I've learned my lesson, and that's what Uni's about, right?

I've got a plan for something to redeem myself, which I'll probably give a go over the easter holidays.

I'm determined to do well at this.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Dead Space and rigs

Once again, blog is lacking due to just being busy and not having much to show.
But now I do. Hoorah.

So, firstly, I FINALLY got Dead Space 2 (after a month of email back-and-forth with Visceral). It was totally worth the wait, however, as not only did I get the game, they kindly sent me a few other goodies too:

Yes, that box was signed by the Dead Space team.

Now that I've -finally- played it (I'm already near the end, unfortunately, though I have been playing a lot over the last week) I got to see myself and meat cello in action.

This video shows both me and the move:

(I'm the guy scrambling into the lift at about 1:40, meat cello is at about 3:45. It's weird hearing someone else referring to it by name)
They ended up shortening the move, which I'm fine with - I think it looks better - but instead of the leaper jumping back onto Isaac once it's punched off, Isaac grabs it and does the 'cello business.

A here's a close-up of me pulling a weird face.

I'm known affectionately on the Dead Space wiki as 'elevator man'.

So the game itself looks really nice. The lighting is wonderful and the holograms look beautiful, character and environment textures are detailed and sharp, I've stopped on numerous occasions just to take a break and admire the outer-space scenery.
Playing it feels fresh and streamlined compared to the first game.
I love the new zero-G thrusters mechanic, it feels like a tangible and believable method of moving through a weightless environment.
The one problem I have is that we're never really told about them until they're used for a completely different reason, see here:

Now, I do like the idea of this sequence, but there's no explanation that he has little jets on his suit, he just jumps out of the train without warning and we just have to accept it and do the sequence.
I think that if they'd had just a short zero-G sequence beforehand, just to let us know that Isaac has these jets and what they're meant for, then we can take them out of context for this emergency use.
Or even a simple "Hey, I can use the CO2 thrusters on my suit to get to that carriage" would suffice.
Oh and perhaps adding the air meter to show that we're outside in space between carriages.
(I know I'm nit-picking, here, but the overall game is good enough, it's only little bits like that which I can pick out nits)

I'm still not sure if it's as scary/less scary/scarier than Dead Space. I've heard and read a wide spectrum of reviews, each with their own different opinion. There are definitely scary bits and possibly the necromorph which instills the most fear is the Stalker; On their own, they are relatively easy to dispense of. But they're never alone. They are always in packs of 5 or more in rooms where they have plenty of cargo crates to hide behind and sneak up on you and surround you from all sides, poking a head out just long enough for you to catch a glimpse in your torchlight before they retreat behind cover again. Taking them out requires some strategy, as one of them might come out of cover to distract you, while another creeps up behind you and tears your face off.

Clever girl...

There are also some well crafted scripted parts where the combination of sound cues, music and lighting make you scared to carry on because you know that there's going to be something ahead, and no matter how much you mentally prepare yourself, you still crap your RIG when something jumps out. They do mix it up by having some of those moments completely safe, giving you false positives and just generally screwing you around. These moments are well separated and the game is much better paced than its predecessor, having intense bursts of limb-cutting action separated by calm puzzle time and reflection time.
Some of the scariest moments are still, by far, when you've been stabbed, sliced and bitten down to a last, flashing red segment of health, gasping inside your helmet and limping through the dark in a panic to find the next save station or store because you've only got 5 shots left, no med packs and your stasis meter is empty.
It's this survival-horror aspect that makes most horror games so frightening; being weak and vulnerable, knowing a sudden and gruesome death could be waiting round the next corner. This was a big talking point when Visceral announced that DS2 would be more actiony than DS1 (and it is in isolated parts) and as such, would remove that feeling of vulnerability and lose the horror aspect. Olly wrote a good little bit about Amnesia: The Dark Descent (which I'm sure he's glad I introduced him to) talking about the same sort of terrifying weakness. And that game IS horrifically frightening.

There are some clever uses of Isaac's psychotic hallucinations and flashbacks in DS2.
One of the best examples was when Isaac returns to the Ishimura, walking down some of the same corridors from the first game, although now the walls and vents are covered in plastic and decontamination equipment and the occasional UV light (making all the blood glow a pretty purple)
There's a sequence in this part of the ship in Dead Space 1 where just as you leave a centrifuge room, a huge drag tentacle lunges out of the darkness and drags you into its tunnel, and you have only seconds to shoot the tentacle in the weak spot before it pulls you in forever.
Well as you leave the same centrifuge room in Dead Space 2, the drag tentacle returns and grabs Isaac, once more, by the ankle and reels him in. The same terror and tension from the first encounter is brought up in me again, ready to take it down. Only, it suddenly disappears. silence. Isaac is fine.
(this explains it better)

For me, this is where I empathised with Isaac's flashbacks and hallucinations the most, as they were sort of flashbacks for me, too. It almost made me sad that they couldn't have done more similar ones through the game before this point.
So far, they were used to show his late girlfriend, Nicole as a manifestation of Isaac's guilt and bereavement (although they don't quite hit the mark in the emotive sense.)
(Those videos are also great to compare how much better DS2 looks)

Overall, I love the game and I'm looking forward to how the story will unfold. I'm yet to try the multiplayer, but I'll report on it when I do.

Real work.

So I've finally finished rigging Sally the spider, and I'm pretty proud of the result:

Controls include:
Body segment control.
Eyes controlled by moving an 'aim box'. Scaling this yellow box makes Sally blink. Inside the box are the 4 individual eye controls, which are parented to the aim box. Above it are the eyebrow controls, which can be rotated to give the eyes more expression.
Individual IK control and pole vectors for each leg.
IK/FK switch for the front two legs (also used as arms).
Direct on-mesh point control of mouth (with cheek raising).

I discovered that rigging a model isn't complete until the animation is done, as little glitches occasionally pop up which need fixing, especially because this is the first proper rig I've ever made and I've learned on the go.
I've had a week off of rigging to let my sanity coagulate before I begin rigging Frankie, the old man in The Little Helper

Also, there's post production, I'm working with Loz to make little doodles pop out of a sketchbook.

We had to reshoot at the weekend because our last clip was just so poor that MatchMover was too busy tracking noise to follow the markers.

So the new tracking is under way. It's going much better.
I'm happy with the idea, but in the back of my mind I still want to make holograms.

Final of my stuff, here's some sketchbook stuff:

Life drawing.
I figured I'd use some different media in this session, I went for coloured pencils and my new markers, which haven't gotten as much use as I'd hoped.

I started with rough shading, then refined the shape with fineliner. I'm quite happy with how it looks. We were also told to draw the model in a more stylised way for one of the drawings.

Markers are no good for sketching, and they cause other pens to bleed like hell.

Here I broke the model down to constituent polygons.

Different music was played during these to see if the type of music would affect how we drew and the styles we used. It's a surprising result.

Just ordinary black colouring pencil. Could be done better.

I've been neglecting life drawing this term, which is a shame because we've had a different model to draw, and she's much more interesting to draw than Shaky McShakerson we've had so far.
While trying to draw spacesuits and more recently, scenes for the Inbetween project, I've come to the conclusion that I may have forgotten how to draw people realistically. None of the poses hold any weight and are all slightly anatomically off, and it's quite a concern. I guess spending the majority of one's time realistically depicting alien anatomy affects how you draw real body stuff.

At least these guys look muscular and shapely.

A new anatomical feature I've refined in Fentil Vertebrates is the 'spur' which has a soft pad on the end, allowing grazers to 'sit' comfortably while feeding.

Observe this with post-modern eyes.

Here's a sci-fi gun I designed (poorly) for a first-person reload animation thing (because they always look cool) in Maya. It taught me that camera settings can be a tricky beast - you can't just make a model of a guy, pose it all right then slap a camera in his face - it jsut doesn't work - you can't see anything. The only way to make the hands visible is to set the focal length so shallow that it looks like the scene is being sucked into a black hole.
I think some clever trickery is at work with FPS makers. I shall have to discover their secret.

Better quality version of those doodles I put up last time. Oh, and a dinosaur I doodled whilst practicing in Composite.

I saw Princess Mononoke the other night at the Poly - I forgot how good that film was. It made me want to watch all the Ghibli films again. While I was waiting for the film to start, I decided to sketch the DVD menu (that's right, I payed to see it on DVD - though it was on a nice big screen)

Oh, and more dinosaurs.

Now some cool stuff I found for you to watch:

Now, to bed!

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

So I've been working really hard on this 3D rigging business - this time on the spider, Sally.
It's been going slowly, but productively. The rig is almost finished - I managed to figure out how to make an IK/FK switch for her front legs, so they can also act as arms, her eyes are fully controllable. All that's really left is her mouth and blinking.

(There's a video of the IKFK around somewhere)

The plan for the blinking was to do a blendshape, because using bones would be difficult on her big, bulgy eyes. SO I had to meticulously move all of the vertices into position for all 4 of her eyes (I had to make 2 versions, one half-closed and one fully closed, so that there was a curved motion) So that took me a good couple of hours to do. And then Maya just closed. Gone.

A simple crash wouldn't be too bad, because I save regularly and could easily recover the file with only a few minutes' work to catch up on. This crash, however only seemed to happen when I tried to find the blendshape attributes. When I load the file back up again, it's as if I never did anything - even when I've emailed the half-done blendshape'd file to myself. Which isn't only weird - it's set me back a couple of days because it's happened twice!

It's a mild annoyance to say the least.

because of the time I've been spending on this project, I've been neglecting the 2D one I'm also supposed to be working on.
This is all I have to offer at the moment, an old and crappy test for a scene I'm not even doing anymore.

I do have a scene I'm allocated for, where a king throws petals out into a crowd, but TV Paint's learning curve is like a tepui (thank you UP) and I found out that I can't draw hands to scale.
I can draw hands fine (it's feet I can't draw. Feet and cars) but they always end up about 1/3 of the size they should be. So I've had to postpone the animation of this scene just to practice drawing him with his hands the right bloody size.

On a positive note, here's a cartoon I made in flash in 2004 (making me about 13)

I'd also like to show some of the doodles and life drawing I've been doing, but I haven't had the time to stop and scan stuff in. I have, however, been taking some crappy phone camera shots of a few doodles I'm happy with:
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Scary, angry man

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EVA suit with cool solar panels.

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(On the topic of this one, I'm still waiting for Visceral to send me a copy of DS2. It's been a month, now).

That'll do for now.

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