Saturday, 20 September 2014

Owl: Final Comped Render (Still Image)

Tweaking and optimising the rendering has been a very time consuming process. I think it's important that the image itself holds up to scrutiny which means finding ways to incorporate the bells and whistles needed to make a convincing CG shot.  I do have a good recipe now, so my workflow is going to speed up dramatically.  While I'm not ready to show off animation just yet (because I'd rather it viewed within a final render, rather than disparate rendered elements) I am ready to demonstrate what a final render will look like. This is 95% close to the final image as it's going to get, so if you don't like it, you better stop reading this blog and start paying attention to some other animation! :)

The final composite is made up of a number of render layers, spread over a two different scenes. The scene in focus is a flat 2D plane with an animated sequence applied on top. The out of focus shot is another separate render. It's unconventional but it gets the job done. 

Generally, I keep specular and reflections within the same beauty pass, mostly because I've spent the time tweaking them within Maya that I never really have to adjust them anyway, and also because keeping track of reflections with lots of objects and layers in a scene can be tricky sometimes. In this case, I prefer ease of rendering. I do have a layer for shadow, as it's easier to mess around with the opacity and softness in post-prodcution. Otherwise, the beauty pass is very simple but with a few added effects. The only thing missing from this shot is Ambient Occlusion, which will be present in other scenes.


Motion Blur: With Mental Ray's Rasterizer, motion blur is a piece of cake to add. It's brilliant, with some limitations depending on the scene of course. You do have to sacrifice some image quality and I've found the edges aren't the cleanest (anti-aliasing) compared to scanline rendering, but it's the quickest and easiest way of adding motion blur. You can get the quality to a very high standard, but then you lose the benefits of the quick render. This is one of the things I've gone back and added to all the animated scenes which didn't have it in the first place. 

Depth of Field: DOF has been massive pain and has caused a few days worth of headaches. The problem is it's fundamental to the way I initially visualised the animation, so I can't sacrifice it. True DOF is easy to implement but very difficult to render out in a reasonable time. For a small time operation like myself, it's practically impossible to produce a 5 minute animation with high-quality DOF. 

Camera DOF AND 3D motion blur in an animation? You might as well aspire to build a giant render server on the Moon. Not that it being on the Moon would help, but that's certainly is how far out of reach it feels to be able even think about rendering an animation with both. Z-Depth isn't really a viable alternative in this instance either. The only way I've found of doing both (and someone please correct me if there is another way)  is to render every object requiring blurring onto a separate layer and apply lens blur in post-production, compensating the blur manually based on the objects position the scene. It's cumbersome and hard to keep track of, but it works and achieves roughly the same effect. I'm operating under the suggestion that my final 'camera' inside the vignette is set to infinity focus so I can get away with not blurring objects in the distance. 

Not a lot of posts recently, but I hope this post sheds some light on what I've been doing. I should be able to get a sneak peak of the animation uploaded soon.

EDIT - Some other stuff that will added: a film grain layer and a subtle telecine wobble applied to  the final comped animation.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Owl: Animation Philosophy

Each model will get roughly 10 seconds of screen time. Speaking loosely, I would describe the philosophy and theme of the animation (as in the actual movement of the models) as 'metamorphosis'. That is to say, I want the models to come alive, rather than move in some an arbitrary way. This isn't going to be easy to achieve, but I hope my experience in making mushrooms come alive will prove quite useful!


Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Owl: Test Renders Continued

Last batch of renders for a little while as I'm working on other parts of the animation. Again, not final. Lots to change and tweak but essentially what I've shown is the bulk of the imagery from the animation.





Sunday, 7 September 2014

Large Format Photography: A Journey into the Unknown.


Just a quick break from Owl, to talk about something new and exciting because right now I'm a happy chappy! 

When I started taking pictures two pictures ago, I often wondered how famous photographs like the ones from Ansel Adams or Edward Weston were so clear and so detailed. Before I did any proper research I just assumed they were all just using 35mm film with some super-duper amazing lens and camera system way beyond any budget I could afford in my lifetime. This was before I learned that fine-art photographers to this day, even ones considered the best of their time like Ansel Adams, had absolutely no money to speak of in their working career, and photographers with limitless pots of gold to buy the best and newest equipment is totally false. Anyway, for a long time I pretty much just assumed 35mm was the only film format in existence and that all the great photographers throughout the 20th century used it exclusively. While all this stuff is elementary for most people, being entirely self-taught, it took me a year to realise this is a completely wrong assumption. At least it was only a year and not say, 10 or 20 years.

After some more digging around and I discovered that nearly all the fine-art photographers I really like used or continue to use something called sheet film which is very large photographic film. It's still all the same base film like Tri-X, T-Max, Velvia etc but it comes in a variety of sizes such as 4x5 inches and 8x10 inches. Which compared to 35mm or even medium format in it's various sizes is absolutely humongous. This is called large format photography.

Large format offers a number of advantages, the most beneficial being the gigantic piece of film for a single image. This offers detail, superior tonality and resolution far beyond anything 35mm, 120 or even the best modern digital camera are capable of. LF film is still the medium of choice for any serious photographer in the world today. Why oh why did no one tell me sooner!? The downsides? It's slow, a bit cumbersome and the cameras are heavy. Strangely, many of these downsides can be considered a plus points, and this is ultimately the reason I really want to get into large format work.

It's rare I take a good picture (relative to my own ability) without realising it. This is mostly because I'm not really someone who goes looking to capture a single moment, among a sea of many moments (I don't want to say 'decisive moment' but I just have). I'm fairly studious when it comes to taking a photographs. When I'm out and about I'm actually shooting a whole roll of film, just so I can develop the one or two pictures I really want. When I use my medium format camera, because of the reduced shots of film per roll, I actually take far less pictures but end up with more I like because as the cliche goes, I'm forced to think about each shot more. LF is the ultimate expression of this idea. Yes, the amount of the photos you can take is essentially limitless, but each of those images is a tangible amount of money being spent everytime you click the shutter button. In theory, this improves your photography because every single shot counts, so they better be damn good otherwise you're going to be broke very quickly. Many will tell you that LF is much cheaper in the long term because of this. In the end it's not really about how much the film itself costs, but how much it's costing you each time to get one good image.

To cut a long story short, I've acquired a large format camera; a Graflex Pacemaker Crown Graphic, a picture of which is below:


A bit of history about this brand of camera. The Crown Graphic is not a typical 4x5 field camera, it's a press camera, meaning it's original use was intended for newspaper photographers who attached big flash bulbs to the side of the camera and prowled the streets and crimes scenes looking for that elusive front-page image. I suppose they wanted the larger format over 35mm or 120 because it allowed them to do quick contact prints for newspaper without the need for enlargement. What's interesting is that any of the famous press photographs you see from the 1940's to the 1960's were almost certainly taken on a Graflex Speed Graphic or Crown Graphic like the one I own. The most famous examples being Weegee's photographs of crimes scenes in New York or Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima. It was a very pervasive camera as the Graphic's design never really changed throughout it's entire history. For many it's considered the highest point in American camera design, partly because of how good it is and partly because of how much an icon of American design it as well. These days, there isn't any use for these as press cameras so they've found their way into the hands of people like me looking for an inexpensive but high quality route into large format.


The serial number dates it to roughly 1957 I believe. Unsurprisingly like all good cameras from this era it still works very well but I'd predict unlikely to come without a few quirks considering it's age. I've yet to discover what these might be other than a small mark on the inside of the lens. I love the Deco-style typography and layout.


The camera has an optional rangefinder on the side for focusing but embarrassingly, I don't really understand how it's supposed to work. Instead, you can focus through the lovely ground glass in which the image appears upside down. I like the idea of this, because it reduces a scene down to it's simplest form of shape and colour. If the rangefinder worked you could actually handhold this camera like a dapper news reporter from the 1940s and 50s!

At some point, I will of course upload some photographs, but there's still a few bits I need to buy to be able to develop the film at home. There's also the small matter of an animation to finish!

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Owl: Latest set of renders.

NB: Visuals aren't final. There are lots of things to change and tweaks to made before final rendering. Consider these images as just a rough indication of how the final shot will look.

I've was a bit unhappy with certain aspects of the renders. As I've never done this sort of thing before, the process has been very trial and error. Sometimes I think I've found something that works, but on another scene I discover something new and then have the desire to go back to the other scenes and alter the lighting and materials with these new ideas and processes. Here's the latest batch of test shots, with a few more to come soon. Some work better than others but hopefully now you can really get a feel for the visual style.













Friday, 29 August 2014

Owl: Material

I apologise for the lack of updates, as among other things summer related things, I've been away from the computer while I enjoyed a week away from home. You'll be glad to know I'm still here and  I will endeavour to post some more behind-the-scenes nuggets as I go along, but it's all go from here on out as I push on with final animation. Though, to be honest, anything I haven't explained already is is actually very simple, mostly achieved by extracting what I can from the very basic toolset within Maya. The material I'm using a is good example of this approach.

Everything in Owl uses the same base material but with variations to the: colour, bump, reflection, rim light and glow depending on what the scene requires to work. The 'texture' is actually the reflection of a tiled environment sphere which you never seen in the animation itself. All really simple stuff. I've never been one for over complicating things in Maya, because when it goes wrong it's that much harder to fix. 

I think with this project I've always tried to utilise all the disparate elements, without compromising their natural properties. Neither one nor the other is trying to be imitative of the other: the models aren't trying to be photos and the photos aren't trying to be CG. From that point of view, I would say it's the most unique thing about the art style. Will it be it successful? I hope so!


Thursday, 28 August 2014

Photography: Colour Holiday Snaps

Lots of sea and a fair few rocks accurately sums up the short getaway break I took recently. It's funny how even being away from scenery I'm very used to, I'm still drawn towards photographing the things which elicit the same sort of emotions and responses. Sadly I didn't find any deceased creatures other than a few rotten crabs too small to photograph, then it really would of been home from home...

All shot on cheapest 35mm colour negative film I could find. I did attempt some more serious black and white photography as well, but those will be uploaded when I can get around to developing them. They're probably rubbish though so don't hold your breath. 50 points if you can guess the exact GPS coordinates for the locations of where all these pictures were taken.














Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Photography: Vivitar Ulta Wide Test Shots

It's been a long time since colour film graced this blog page. I recently acquired a natty Vivitar Ultra Wide and Slim: a tiny plastic toy camera, with an incredibly short focal length. It's a cute little camera and has the potential to take some really interesting lofi pictures due to the plastic lens and the very wide lens. I took it for a spin on a dingy day. Not the best photos, but always interesting results!

A good example of the properties of the UWS lens. This pylon is huge but it's able to fit into the frame quite comfortably, even from a close distance. However, you get a lot of distortion towards the edges of the frame but I find all of it quite desirable . There's also some nice natural vignetting.




Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Owl: Test Rendering Continued

I wanted to push the rendering a bit. The last one was a 'one size fits all' kind of set up, but this one is a more refined. I'm not aiming for super-realism but I've also given the objects some texture to remove some of the CG-ness. I am however, going to keep the dramatic rim-lighting because it helps distinguish the model from the IR background.


Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Owl: Test Render

It's coming together. A still image can only show so much as it looks much more dynamic when moving. There's still a few bits I'd like to refine but it's all heading in the right direction.


Thursday, 31 July 2014

Owl: Static Match Scenes

It's been a hectic round here lately and what with not wanting to reveal too much, blog posts have been a bit scarce. One of the more time consuming tasks I've had to do is set up the photographs so that they're 'CG-ready.' This can be very simple such as only roughly positioning a 3D camera to fake a bit of perspective, or more complex scenes where I have to model certain elements of the photographs making sure the perspective is more accurate. The objects in these scenes are only placeholder and should be noted that because of the lack film grain, they look a bit too clean. I'll be working on reducing the CG-ness of them in production and post-production.



Saturday, 12 July 2014

Owl: An Update

It's been a little while since any updates as I've been sorting out a few loose ends. Firstly, I've finished up the modelling I need for the animation. At most I'll probably end up using 14 models, so that leaves a few spare. It's always good to have too many than too few and I can also squeeze in a couple more if needed, but honestly, there aren't too many more sketches which will translate well for use in 3D.




Following this I've been doing material tests as all the previous lighting and materials have been placeholder. My aim is to give the models an otherworldly, mercury-like quality which can work alongside the infrared photographs.



Eventually looking something like this if you subtract the spheres and replace them with the models above: 


The animatic is 95% complete. This has been a bit of a thorn in my side, but all the main cuts are now in place and there's a definite structure to the way the animation plays out. At this point I can just drop in sequences and not have to worry too much, which is always a good feeling.


I haven't found a reasonably quick but convincing method of making foliage move, but I have a good method of giving clouds some subtle movement. Overall, it might be enough considering the longest shot in the whole animation is three seconds. 

I've noticed in films which use still photographs there's a slight 'jitter' where the film frames are fractionally moving side to side and up and down. This isn't a shakey-cam effect, but an actual property of the film transfer. You can see it quite dramatically in La Jetee. Playing around in After Effects and Premier Pro it becomes clear if the image stays perfectly still, then it ends up looking like a Powerpoint slideshow. Without this jittering, the frame looks far too clean and certainly not like film would normally look. I'll be applying a very subtle jitter in post. You can see the cloud effect and jitter in the video below:


That's it for now. From here on out, it's all about the making of the final animation and I apologise if updates relating to this project aren't as regular as they usually are. At the end though, there will be a brand new short film (of some sort) to enjoy. 

Please stay tuned!