Tag Archives: bbc

My oh my… I’ve done 10 years of VFX work.

It’s now a decade since I first cut my teeth doing VFX on music videos. Lots has changed, technology has marched on at a huge pace, and yet the fundamental way of approaching a shot is almost the same.

Simple solutions are often the most effective ones and in particular those you know and can trust. For me this has meant finding appropriate methods for a particular time & situation and sticking with them for similar projects in the future. Consequently alongside my extensive Softimage, Terragen and PFTrack experience, my VFX fingers have touched Adobe products, GIMP, Deep Exploration, SpeedTree, Global Mapper, Inkscape, Combustion, Nuke, Maya, Max, and Cinema 4D.

As a generalist with such a broad background skillset, I found myself recently in an unusual position; that of a 3D lead artist on a 60 episode long TV series. All in all I spent a year working alongside a team of staff from both the production and post production side of things. I was even on set for a stint, something I hadn’t done for many years. Rather irritatingly, the whole thing is under wraps so I can’t say a word about that directly until it’s broadcast.

In the past 10 years I’ve learnt more than I could possibly have imagined when I left college. Here’s a few things I’d like to pass on to those entering the brave new (actually quite old) world of VFX. They’re based on my experience, so might not match the opinion of others.

Firstly and most importantly, listen to those telling you not to be sedentary. Stand up often and walk around. Consider a standing desk. Exercise regularly. You need it. Yes you do. Fresh air too, and daylight. By daylight I mean directly from the Sun, not a simulation bulb. Plus if you work from home, which you may well do at some point, human contact is essential. You need those breaks from the screen to be a human being rather than a ‘zombie’ as I’ve heard execs refer to VFX guys as.

On a similar note, burning the candle at both ends does nobody any good. Try to avoid long hours, even if you are enjoying a project. Past a certain point in the day, I find the work I am doing is deteriorating in quality and my brain is no longer functioning at its best. On that note, drink plenty of water. Lots of offices are air-conditioned and will dry you out very fast. If you must work extra time, try to wangle a weekend, especially if you’re a freelancer. You’ll get paid an extra day and will have the benefit of further sleep. Some of my best work has been done on a Saturday.

Don’t be ashamed to take shortcuts or cheat. The whole of VFX is a cheat, a lie. It’s OK to use stock libraries for footage, elements, sound, textures and even models. Quality varies so do your research, but the time you could save will actually save money in the end too. For an HD project, consider rendering out elements at 720p, then upscaling in the comp. 720p has less than a million pixels in it. 1080p has over 2 million. Render times are much lower and many cannot tell the difference in image quality. There are rare exceptions to this, but I’ve even passed SD anamorphic widescreen renders of skies and the like to be composited before now and nobody’s noticed or cared. If it is matching something soft in the background footage or is out of focus anyway, it just doesn’t matter.

Keep curious. Ask questions of those around you, whether they’re older or younger, wiser or greener. Everybody knows something the person next to them doesn’t and in this profession, that’s especially true. Whether you are self-taught or degree educated, you cannot possibly know all there is to know about the huge amount of software and associated techniques. Remember what I wrote earlier about simple solutions? The more experienced near you will possibly know them, so just ask. Don’t waste four hours struggling to do something that could be done in one hour using a technique they know.

VFX isn’t all about big budget movies and long form TV shows. Consider using your skills elsewhere. There’s a huge amount of corporate and educational work out there. I did quite a long stint of work on illustrative animations for educational websites and kids TV. As another example, did you know there’s 3D warehouse simulation software, requiring many real-time 3D models? Now you do.

Finally, if you’re a freelancer, get used to this question: “So what are you working on at the moment?”
My answer is currently, “Nothing,” so feel free to get in touch!
If you have no money, don’t, but do read this: http://www.ajcgi.co.uk/blog/?p=855

Richard Hammond Builds a Planet – UK Airing

The first episode of the British cut of How to Build a Planet is to be shown this weekend at 9pm GMT on BBC One.

Information on what I did on the show is in my previous blog post.

The British cut is different to the US one. The cut shown on Sci had to be edited to allow for the ad breaks. So, if you like your Hammond unsullied, this is the showing for you! Additionally, this being the UK, Hammond appears in the title of his own show. The international cuts often drop his name so as to make them more marketable in countries where he is little known.

The second episode is likely to be broadcast a week or so later but is yet to be confirmed I think.

More info at the at the BBC

How To Build A Planet – My VFX Input

Not so long ago I worked at Lola Post, London, on another documentary hosted by Richard Hammond. Similar to the Journey to The Centre of The Planet and Bottom of The Ocean shows I worked on some time back, this entailed a heck of a lot of vfx.

The concept is that we see the constituent parts of scaled-down planets and the solar system being brought together in a large space over the Nevada desert. In order for Hammond to be able to present things at the necessary altitude, he is up at the top of a 2 mile high tower, which is obviously not real for various reasons. Nor is the desert much of the time. Or Hammond.

My input on the show was working on dust and sand particle systems. I was working on 2 sequences of shots. I will warn you now that some of this will get technical.

The first sequence shows a large swirling cloud of high-silica sand and iron. This includes a shot which was to become my baby for a month or two. It pulls out from Hammond at the top of the tower, back through the dust cloud swirling around him, then really far back so we see the entire 2km wide cloud in the context of the landscape around it. The whole shot is 30 seconds long.

The second sequence of shots shows the formation of Jupiter out of a large swirling disc of matter. Jupiter itself attracts dust inwards, which swirls as it approaches.

A few challenges presented themselves quite early on. One was creating particle systems in Softimage’s ICE that behaved correctly, especially when it came to dust orbiting Jupiter as the whole system itself swirls around the protosun. The initial swirling round the protosun was solved using a handy ICE compound that Lola have kicking about on their server, but if you use that twice in an ICE tree it is only evaluated once as it sets the velocity using an execute node, effectively overriding the new velocity value for each particle, rather than passing that out so it can be added to the previous velocity.

The solution to this was to break apart the compound. Integrating new nodes, including some out of a Move Towards Goal node, meant that I was able to make a new compound that I could proudly label Swirl Towards Goal. It sets the goal, then outputs a velocity which can be added to the velocity from the previous swirling compound higher up the tree. It even has sliders for distance falloff, swirl speed, and weight.

The most challenging aspect of this project was actually rendering. The swirling dust in each of my shots is made up of about 4 different clouds of particles. One alone has 60 million particles in it.

Enter Exocortex Fury, the fabled point renderer that was to save our bacon. Aside from one fluffy cloud pass per shot, rendered as a simple Mental Ray job on a separate lower detail cache, each cloud pass was rendered with Fury. Unlike traditional particle renderers that use CPU to render, Fury is a point renderer which can take advantage of the raw power of graphics cards. The upside is a far faster render compared to traditional methods, and done correctly it is beautiful. To speed things up further, particles which were offscreen were deleted so Fury wouldn’t consider them at all. Downsides are that it can flicker or buzz if you get the particle replication settings wrong and it has no verbose output to tell you quite how far it is through rendering. Between us dust monkeys many hours were spent waiting for Fury to do something or crash.

Adding to the complications was the scale of the main scene itself. The tower is rendered in Arnold, a renderer that works best when using one Softimage unit per metre. Unfortunately the huge scene scale caused problems elsewhere. In a couple of shots the camera is so high off the ground that mathematical rounding errors were causing the translation to wobble. Also, as particles, especially Fury-rendered ones, prefer to be in a small scene to a gigantic scene for similar mathematical reasons, they weren’t rendering correctly, if at all. The particles were in their own scenes for loading speed and memory overhead purposes, but in order to fix these issues, the whole system was 1/5 of the main scene scale and offset in such a way that it was closer to the scene origin yet would composite on top of the tower renders perfectly.

How to Build a Planet is on show in the US on Discovery’s Science channel before being shown to the UK in November.
Discovery Sci – How to Build a Planet

Brand New Showreel!

The work in the following reel is created using Softimage, Terragen, Nuke and PFTrack.
Text in the bottom right shows what I created for each shot.
See PDF for further details.
Download PDF shot breakdown

Edited on 15th Oct – Now updated with work from The Bible Series and How To Build a Planet

Stick vs Carrot – Why I don’t work for free

This is aimed not at vfx companies, but at individuals who need help on short films, student projects, promo work on their first independent music video and so on.

Ever since I began in this freelance career of mine I’ve been asked to work on many projects of a low budget nature, and even more of a no budget nature. My stock answer to emails asking if I wish to work on a low or no budget project is no. Here’s why.

The most common phrase used to entice me in these situations is, “We have little budget now, but it could lead to more work in the future.” This works 2 ways. More work in the future shows that you believe in this project. Or does it? The future work is the carrot, the current low budget is the stick. In business that stick is a problem.

If you have your kitchen replaced it would be fair to say that even on a shoe string budget you would find sufficient coin to pay for a plumber and a gas man. Why? Because done badly, the plumbing could flood your house causing expensive water damage and worse, a dodgy gas fitting can blow a house sky high. You are effectively investing in your future. If those tradesmen have done their job correctly first time around you should never need to call on them again. They are skilled in their craft and charge accordingly.

When I finish a job, the intellectual property rights including copyright, must be handed over to the client. Past that they can do what they like with it. Every shot I have ever done to be shown on the BBC for example is legally allowed to be placed into any show of their choosing whenever they like and they don’t have to tell me or pay for it again. In that respect, production companies get astounding value for money out of vfx companies and thence freelancers like myself. In the same way as a plumber has years of practical on-the-job training and experience, so do I.

If I have a kitchen that needs plumbing I will pay someone that knows what they are doing. If they underquote, they are underselling, possibly inexperienced or trading illegally, all of which are bad. In that situation I would call someone else.

If you contact me for a quote on a small project, find it larger than you expected and go elsewhere, don’t be shocked if that elsewhere isn’t much cop or turns out to be just as expensive thanks to needing to hire someone else to sort out mistakes.

In short, you get what you pay for.

Quality, Speed, Affordability. Pick 2, the other one will suffer.

Orbit shots

On the Recent Work page, and indeed right here, is a video of a few of the shots I worked on for Orbit: Earth’s Extraordinary journey.

The first and last shots featured are both from the same ‘journey’ setup that was used for many other shots too. The setup featured many different elements on their own passes, each passed into its own part of a Nuke composition. As the project progressed, both the 3d scene and the Nuke script needed subtle reworking.

The second shot is a pair of emFluid particle systems, whereas the third is a simple enough ICE simulation in Softimage. The particles in those two shots were rendered with beta versions of Exorcortex’s Fury rendering system which loads the particles onto the graphics card, rendering them in OpenGL. Without Fury the second shot would have been particularly time-consuming to render. It contains millions of particles and took many many hours to cache out.

Atlantis – End of a World, Birth of a Legend

From September til December-ish I was working on Atlantis. Lola (www.lola-post.com) was creating visual effects for almost the entire thing, 550 shots, so there was plenty for each of us to do. In my case, I was working on falling volcanic rocks and boats, then seas. There’s a lot of sea involved in this show, much of which is actually real, but the rest is created using Aaman Akram’s aaOcean suite of shaders and deformers in Softimage.

All the shots were broken down into different passes, with that being especially essential for the sea shots. Water behaves oddly at sea. It’s hard to tell the scale of a large wave versus a small one without something giving you a visual cue. By creating various mattes and animating the large waves at different speeds to the smaller waves sat on top, we were able to keep the scale in check, adding elements like foam and colour variation depending on the shot composition.

Prior to this, I was involved in the pre-vis stage of the boat shots. Many of them involve particularly dramatic moments and it was necessary to nail exactly how they were going to work before getting bogged down in rendering water at HD. Pre-vis is short for pre-visualisation, whereby each shot is roughed out using rudimentary elements or low detail assets to get a feel for timing, scale, composition and so on. By having this stage, it’s possible to work something into the edited sequence as quickly as possible to see if it actually works. It saves a lot of time and takes some guesswork out.

Atlantis – End of a World, Birth of a Legend will be broadcast in mid March.

For now, here’s a preview on Youtube. There’s a making of and a couple of sequences in there too.

Do We Really Need The Moon?

If like me you did A Level physics, you’ll know the answer to this, but this documentary is worth watching.

For a good few months now I’ve been freelancing for Lola, working on a few things. Although broadcast first, this is the second show I’ve worked on there, with a few underwater shots like this pictured, a fly through the solar system to Jupiter, and a sweep across Saturn.

The water shots are mostly a 2d job run by a Nuke compositer, but in order to create a decent depth to things I tracked each shot, placing 3d geometry into a Softimage scene, then outputting depth passes. Fast Volume Effects output shader was used for the rays of light cast through the surface.

The solar system was a fairly easy task. There’s plenty of data freely accessible from NASA regarding where each planet is in relation to the others, their relative sizes and suchlike, but Jupiter was still cheated nearer for timing purposes. It’s also a little larger than reality for similar effect.

For a few more days, it will be up on iPlayer.

BBC iPlayer – Do We Really Need The Moon?

BBC 4 Electric Dreams

electric_dreams

Last night, a new 3 parter started on BBC 4 for which I did the title sequence. It’s a tunnel of disembodied electric items roughly in order of when they came about or at least became popular.  I put this together in a 3d composite in After Effects, made out of many many photographs, timed roughly to the music (Human League. Who could predict that?)  Three versions of the sequence exist. Each is the same bar the ending which is themed for the 70s, 80s, and 90s respectively.

The show itself was interesting stuff. A technology obsessed family has their house converted to a 70s theme with no central heating, one bathroom and nary a modern gadget in sight. As the week goes on they are allowed such luxuries as a freezer in the kitchen, a colour TV (which promptly breaks), and a teasmade (yes that’s spelt correctly). Next week is the 80s, then the 90s the following week.

In my opinion this show works best as a study in family social behaviour rather than a trip down memory lane. The target audience of BBC 4 is old enough to remember all of it. Living in the 90s wasn’t that different technologically speaking to now so I’m interested to see how the family sticks together as they get closer and closer to the current decade.

Check it out on iplayer if you fancy and be sure to have a nose around the supporting website, made by Illumina, the same company I put together the title sequence for.

[no longer on iplayer]

Official website

http://www.bbc.co.uk/electricdreams/