Tag Archives: nuke

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

Why you need compositing in your 3d life

Recently I’ve been retraining in Maya and giving myself extra alone time with the Arnold renderer from Solid Angle.
I decided to use this as not only an opportunity to find out how my Softimage lighting and rendering skills translate to Maya, but to show how basic compositing is something that every 3d artist should embrace if they don’t already.

One thing which has surprised me again and again is how little students and graduates of 3d courses are given a grounding in understanding what goes into their image and why it’s beneficial to use the compositing process as part of their workflow. Some students are even penalised for not showing their raw unenhanced render, having points deducted for daring to composite. To give a parallel, this to me is like a film photography student handing in negatives and no prints. The job is half done.

This won’t be a tutorial, more a pointer in the right direction for those who are starting out.
The example I use, a still life of a bowl of fruit, is a model from the very first lighting challenge hosted over at CGTalk. The files and others are downloadable at 3dRender. The model’s pretty old now so it’s not especially high detail but is still sufficient to show you what I intend to.

After a bit of setup in Maya and throwing on some pretty rough textures, here’s the beauty straight out of Arnold:

Beauty renderer

It’s lit with 3 lights; A cool exterior light, a warmer interior light, and a fill for the shadow in the middle. On their own, the images appear like this:

Lights Contact Sheet

These images can be added together in any compositing software and they will give exactly the same result as the beauty above, to the extent that a pixel on the beauty will be exactly the same colour as when these three images are added together.

Each of these images is itself a composite image. Arnold, Mental Ray, Vray and other renderers consider many different material properties when returning the final colour for a particular pixel. Each property can be saved out as an image itself and added together to form the final image. In the case of the beauty itself, these are the images that I’ve rendered out of Arnold:

Component Images

Again, added together, these form the same image as the beauty above perfectly.

(A side note here: A few component images are missing, including reflections, but were missed out of this contact sheet as they are entirely black. As none of the materials are reflective in the traditional sense, the reflection image is returned as black, whereas the direct specular contains highlights that mimic reflections. Arnold is peculiar in that it can consider reflections in 2 ways and transparency in 2 ways, depending on what is trying to be achieved.)
 

So what am I getting at here?

Here’s the beauty again:

Beauty renderer

Now here is a warm, evening setup:

Evening

And finally, a night lighting setup:

Night

All three use the same component images, composited together in different ways: For example, tinting the lights, changing the intensity by blending the images with varying opacity, or even desaturating the key light to achieve a moonlit interior effect. On the night lighting I’ve changed the apple using a matte together with the specular & sss channels from the fill light. It was too bright and waxy. I could have re-rendered the 3d perhaps, but a tweak in Nuke was a lot more efficient.

The compositing process, even at this basic level, allows for flexibility from the get go. Where clients are concerned, flexibility is key. When passing work by a client it’s inevitable that changes will be requested and often they are something subtle that can be achieved in the composite. If you try to achieve that yourself using only 3d solutions, the render times will get long, especially when working on tv or film. Ordinarily I work alongside compositors and it’s up to them to do compositing tweaks whilst I work on a new shot or more substantial alterations to a current one.

Similarly, when first lighting a shot, working with many rendered channels, including additional ones of your own creation, is a rapid method of figuring out whether your setup is indeed heading in the right direction. Using the same component images for multiple looks is a time saver too.

One thing to bear in mind is once you know which channels are likely to be needed, it’s time to stop rendering the others as these can fill up hard drives quite nicely.

In short, stop tweaking your 3d scenes asap. Render out your initial lighting setup and see how much can be done in the comp. It isn’t cheating; It’s part of the process. It allows you to render the shot out, pass it on, and start a new one. Ultimately it will help your relationship with compositors who like to know what’s going into your image and what they need to add, plus [perhaps I shouldn’t say this, but here goes] it will make you more employable.

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

China and Mankind

After a long period of no blogging it is high time to update you all on what I’ve been up to in recent months, and indeed not-so recent months. Aside from the occasional time freelancing for others, I’ve mainly been encamped in Lola Post, London.

A little while back, myself and Tim Zaccheo, head of 3d for Lola, put together a TV ident for Chinese documentary channel, CCTV-9. I have yet to put this up here as I’m not sure it’s available anywhere else yet. Perhaps somebody in China could tell me if it’s broadcasting. If you head over to www.lola-post.com and look through the recent work there you will find a few screen grabs though! From my point of view, I did a fair amount of Terragen 2 work, really pushing the limits of what could be done with the time we had, recreating the somewhat iconic look of the Guilin Mountains and somehow fashioning a cubic mountain to go with CCTV’s cube theme they have. Tim was responsible for a rather smashing waterfall, comping, and the final resolve from the spherical Terragen world into a cubic Softimage one. It will make sense once I get hold of the video and post that up. Coming soon I promise!

After a brief hiatus of modelling trucks and various dockyard equipment I came back to Lola and started on the show that many others in London are working on, Mankind; The Story of All of Us, to be shown on History. It really is very VFX heavy and something to look forward to. Without revealing too much I’ve been animating arrows, maps, built an aqueduct faster than Caesar ever did, and worked on 2 bullet-time shots! Phew! It really is a cracker.

So expect a CCTV post soon and a Mankind related one closer to its broadcast.

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.

How will the World End?

Tidal Wave Greets Liberty

Every now and then a show comes along where I get told something a little unbelievable such as, “We have a high budget, almost limitless.” In this instance it was, “This show is presented by Samuel L Jackson!”

“Errr… come again?”

Well it turned out to be true. The show itself is a series of scientifically-backed explanations of how America the world may end. VFX-wise this mostly involves large explosions, landslides, tidal waves and the like. It’s all slickly presented by Samuel L Jackson who seems to be in a bunker, the dampness of which puts me right off hiding there from the impact of the apocalypse.

My input was to work on the tidal wavey goodness. This was using the aaOcean suite of Softimage plugins plus a few in-house ICE nodes at Lola. That and many many passes.

http://bit.ly/pw0FCG

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.