There’s a solid reason why I’ve not updated my blog lately! This is because I’ve been fortunate enough to be working continually since April at Framestore on Nat Geo’s new super series Mars! Woo!
I spent a fair amount of time as a Terragen guru. At least that’s what I was labelled when I joined. After a long stint of planetary artwork and huge cliff faces, both of which Terragen’s great for, I moved on to doing layout and lighting work in Maya. It was the first time I’d used a Linux install of Maya, let alone as part of a Shotgun pipeline so there were some wonderful learning curves at times, but it all paid off.
Framestore is the first of the large studios I’ve worked at and one that I used to dream about after seeing Walking With Dinosaurs all those years ago. It was a real privilege to work alongside amazingly talented people every day. Mars was a great project to work on and what I’ve seen of it so far is top notch. Catch it on Nat Geo or Sky Atlantic in the UK.
As the show is currently airing I am unable to show anything here… yet. Updates to come!
After assisting on a PS4 ad, tweaking a few shots to help another 3D guy with his workload, I moved onto this advert for Swisscom.
Layout is a stage that many of us do as part of shot creation. It’s similar to photographic composition in that elements in a scene must fit together on screen to draw the viewers’ attention to the right things, give scale to a shot, or perhaps a sense of drama or relaxation. In this case the skiier has to look fast so the piste has to be described on the mountainside in a way that suggests quick downhill progress in each shot.
We placed lots of fences in such a way that when someone else came along with a working system for simulating the wobble of said fences they were already there and the layout wouldn’t have to be worked on. This is almost always wrong as the layout tends to be adjusted according to client’s needs. For example if they feel the background isn’t working, perhaps the matte painting will need changing and the piste now runs into a mountainside. Looking at the final cut for the first time recently made me notice this had indeed happened and the fences had been adjusted accordingly.
All in all the piste appears consistent in width and our skiier makes it down to the finish line in double quick time!
To me this is quite a clever little advert, something that Glassworks seem to specialise in.
Recently I was fortunate enough to work with the guys at Seed Animation in Soho, London. As soon as I sat with owner Neil Kidney and watched the initial storyboarded animatic for what was to be a minute long Egyptian commercial for fast food chicken giants Halwani, I knew it was going to be an interesting month or so. Every shot was packed with details, loads of characters, and environments that at first glance seemed to all be different. With the addition of an Arabic song and fast cuts of shots that seemed to include a concentration camp and a swimming pool of frying oil, this project became something I doubt I’ll forget in a hurry.
My involvement was as one of 2 TD and lighting types, picking up from where someone else had left off, a position that can be a little tricky. Everybody approaches technical setups differently, so some adjustments were necessary. Animators were brought in to animate chickens, and others were off site modelling and setting up the fluid simulation for the swimming pool of boiling oil.
As this was a Softimage project, much of the technical side of this animation was created using ICE. My first task to conquer was the external landscape setup and layout, while my partner in TD crime, Ogi (Ognjen Vukovic) was busying himself with initial lighting setups and a feather system based on ICE strands.
The landscape setup was similar for every external shot. There is a large grid from which another higher res mesh is generated. That mesh has weight maps on which drive the distributions of grasses, stones, paths, and rocks, all of which are instantiated using scatter tools in ICE. The trees are a simple underlying mesh with a pointcloud of instanced leaves at the top. Bizarrely enough I was initially using a feather system, FC Feathers, for the leaves as it gave me great control over the overall flow, but that was junked in favour of a random distribution, bar on one of the designs, the pine tree, where it still works well.
Once we’d blocked out all the initial layouts, we started to combine every shot into something that could be lit nicely and render quickly. Each animated chicken was cached out from an animation scene using the Alembic .abc format, then imported into Softimage using a Python script Ogi had written that applied the animation from the Alembic cache onto the feathered chicken.
With the feathers in place, the grass, rocks, trees, flowers, distant hills and the myriad of fences and buildings were beginning to add up, a challenge for rendering anywhere, let alone Seed, a small studio with only a few full time staff and a proportionally sized render farm. The solution to this challenge was the truly remarkable Redshift 3D Renderer. This uses GPU rendering with Nvidia CUDA compatible cards. It’s fast. No. It’s really fast. With all the aforementioned details in shot, render times ranged from about 6 to 10 minutes per frame for most shots, including the time taken to send the scene to Redshift. That’s with reasonable sample settings, sometimes volumetric lighting, and at Full HD. We had a handful of PCs, mostly with two 980GTX cards fitted, though others had Quadros inside. Consider that… the power of thousands of pounds worth of CPU rendering hardware in a pair of gaming cards!
The only limit we found with such complicated scenes was RAM. Redshift uses the graphics RAM for its rendering, not only your PC’s RAM which is a major limitation if you only have a 4GB card for example. With so many geometry instances, feathers and other models in our scenes, it was actually system RAM which was a limiting issue and thereby scene extraction time too as the PCs were paging to the hard drive. The solution to this was to cache out the animated characters from the assembly scenes to Redshift proxy caches, then read them back in to a new scene and render from there.
Technicalities aside, lighting and set dressing was wonderfully straight forward and a joyous thing indeed. I have actually used Redshift before at Glassworks, just around the corner from Seed, but this was the first time I was lighting such complicated scenes with it. I recently returned to a studio where they were rendering using VRay and my old buddy Mental Ray. The latter in particular felt archaic, much more so than it ever has. I guess I held on to that one so long because of its tight integration with Softimage.
We’re all very pleased with the results on this ad. It was a brilliant team of exceptional talent. The animation especially helps, adding to the madness of such a quirky piece! Altogether now! Bwaaa! Cluck! Cla cla cluck!
Apparently an English dub is in the works…
From the summer of 2014 through till the summer of 2015 I was involved in a project the scale of which I’d not played a part in before. A new series of Teletubbies was announced as being in the works, and Lola Post, where I was freelancing as a 3D type, had won the contract for all the VFX. All 60 episodes of it.
This amounted to hundreds of shots, a volume which is ordinarily associated with film projects. Initially I was involved in the pre-production, working alongside Pinewood-based prop-makers Propshop and the production company, Darrall MacQueen, in laying out designs for the set and other VFX assets. The actors were to be shot on a blue screen with the set being a 1:20 scale. It was our digital set layout which was 3D printed and then dressed by the prop shop staff. This allowed us to use the same 3D data when lining shots up in postproduction.
During the shoot I was working out of a hair and make-up room next to stage three at Twickenham Studios, alongside the DIT. This allowed me to continue developing assets for the 3D team back in London, while still being available on set for questions about set extensions, digital assets and so on.
Once the team on set were up to speed and questions of a 3D nature were thin on the ground I returned back to Lola Post in Fitzrovia. There we had set up a dedicated office and team specifically for the Teletubbies. My main responsibility there was to be lead 3D TD. However I was not the only one. Tiddlytubbies had become such a large part of the show that they had their own section, led by Jonny Grew and Josh George, with much of the animation by Steve White.
In the meantime, I had become what the supervisor, Garret Honn had described as ‘chief landscape gardener’. Every external shot has a set extension. The real scale model is only 4 metres across, representing an 80 metre circle in Teletubbyland. I had come up with a set extension system which was refined as the project went on, but allowed a few of us to continually churn through the many moving or high angle shots that required distant hills, grass, clumps of flowers and trees to be seen beyond the edge of the model set. For many shots which were lower or nowhere near the edge of the set, we got away with putting a large panoramic image in the background and sliding it around from shot to shot.
For the sake of generating distant hills with realistic lighting and so on, we’d gone down the route of using Terragen, a software I’ve used many times for external landscapes. However, with its relatively slow render times, it was only truly used for the opening and closing credits where the light swings round, creating raking shadows. The rest of the time, the background is a large cyclorama, rather akin to a zoetrope, constructed out of Terragen renders. This approach kept render times down, something that was very important with such a volume of material to get through.
Naturally enough, Teletubbyland needs more than just grass and hills, so there are trees, flowers, many tufts of grass and so on. The trees are based on illustrations created by an independent illustrator, brought to life through a combination of softwares; Speedtree, Mudbox and ultimately Softimage. Additionally, we created flowers based on the scale models from Propshop, alongside the stunt ball for Laa Laa, custard bubbles, snowballs and other non-spherical assets, such as the windmill. Naturally there was toast. Custard and toast. No wonder this bunch are funny colours.
Once the project had truly gotten underway I spent roughly half my time answering questions, watching dailies, attending meetings and keeping an eye on the render farm. In that regard it was the most technical role I’ve undertaken. The rest of the time was spent tracking shots, managing who did what and occasionally doing shots myself. Props to the rest of the 3D team for their untiring efforts, especially Olly Nash and Ismini Sigala who were both in it for the long haul. Between us and Tammy Smith we’ve tracked more than enough shots for a lifetime, animated many flowers and a lot of spherical objects.
Naturally, there’s more to life than the 3D side of VFX. The 2D side was phenomenal in scale. So many blue screen shots, so little time. It all needed keying, roto work, cleanup and the final compositing too. To list everyone here would be crazy and considering only a handful of people will read down to this paragraph, i’m not going to list them all! Just be aware that for every shot on Teletubbies that you watch with your kids, about 5 people will have touched it and most of those will be compositors and roto artists. Thanks to all involved. Your efforts did not go unnoticed!
Teletubbies is currently on air in the UK and is bound to be shown elsewhere soon. Response seems to be positive so far. Due to very strict licensing agreements I can’t currently post videos from the show here, so it’s over to the BBC with you!
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: https://www.ajcgi.co.uk/blog/?p=855
For those pondering if I’m available to work, here’s a quick update. I am currently fully booked until August in a lead role.
I’ve been working on the same project all the way from last summer until the one that’s coming, setting up systems, dealing with clients a lot closer than before. I even had a period of working on set daily which is previously only something I’d done on sporadic days, several years ago!
The project is strictly under wraps so I can’t reveal what it is, but it’s very exciting and I’ve certainly been learning a lot on the job.
After completion, there’s a strong chance I won’t want to jump straight into something else. If you want to book me in for September onwards, that’s a safer bet than August for sure.
This past few months I’ve been beavering away at Lola Post on 2 series of shows, creating VFX of a weathery, Earth-scale nature for Britains’ Most Extreme Weather, and shots of all scales for series 3 of How The Universe Works.
Ordinarily I’d put together blog posts before a show goes to air, but in the case of Britain’s Most Extreme Weather it slipped from my mind as soon as I rocked back onto How The Universe Works. Much of my weathery input was particle systems and strands, either using existing setups from previous shows or creating new ones as appropriate. A particular favourite of mine was a system showing the movement of air around cyclones and anticyclones; A strand system that rotates particles around many points, allowing them to move fluidly from one direction to another as if air, all wrapped around a lovely spherical Earth.
How The Universe Works is a series I’ve been on for many many months now. I first started on it in November I think. The first episode, all about our Sun, is to be shown on 10th July on Science in the USA.
For that show I took Lola’s existing Sun cutaway setup, introducing a more boiling lava-like feel through judicious use of animated fractals and grads.
Overall I’ve worked on 8 episodes with a handful of shots in each show. After all that dedication to spheres in space I am now supervising the VFX on one of the last shows for this series!
More geeky details and videos for both shows to come!
When I am asked what I do for a living, there is a follow-up question that is so common I begin to answer it right away now. That question is, “Ok, that sounds interesting. So what do you actually do? What is Visual Effects really?”
It’s a fair question actually and one whose answer changes as time goes on. If I’m stumped for an answer to the question, I try some of the following.
My staple answer now is,
“I add stuff to video footage that wasn’t there in the first place, or take it away if it wasn’t meant to be there.”
More often than not, the actual answer is,
“I create something with the appearance of having been shot as real life, but which is actually impossible to shoot, be that for practical, artistic or financial reasons.”
Ah, so that will answer it, right? Nope. I find these answers are enough for most people to understand at least vaguely what the end result of my job is. However, some are mad about film, TV dramas and whatnot and really want to show their interest. Again, fair enough. A question you might get is,
“So when you say you add things into video footage or film or whatever, how do you do that?”
That’s the really tricky one to answer, especially as everyone’s preconceptions of media, especially digital, are different. There’s the Make Awesome button right? It’s all done by the computer right?
However, wonderfully, a lot of people use Photoshop now and kind of get the concept of layering things over each other. Lately, I’ve been explaining with,
“VFX has similar principles to editing photographs, only these photos are on the move. Imagine using Photoshop for moving images, with all the layers and masks moving, the colour corrections animating and so on. I make elements, series of 2D images, that are composited on top of others, like layers are in Photoshop.”
I do almost exclusively 3D VFX, by which I mean those elements are created in a 3D package, such as Maya, rendered out as 2D images, just like photographs have no physical depth to them. I no longer get bogged down into details when explaining VFX. To begin with, I don’t even mention the many jobs available; compositor, modeller, 3D generalist, render wrangler etc. I used to say I did 3D animation, but that would lead people down the path of thinking I did Toy Story or was about to reinvent Wallace and Gromit. Another danger with the 3D moniker is the recent resurgence in 3D cinema which is another kettle of fish altogether.
So there we are. A fairly basic answer which most people understand! Incidentally, I am a 3D generalist, available to hire in London, UK. Check out my work on the home page at https://www.ajcgi.co.uk.
This post aims to be a bit of a follow up to the Stick vs Carrot post I wrote a long while ago about why I don’t work for free. It presumes you are not wanting something for nothing, so if you are, or have little budget, I strongly encourage you to read Stick vs Carrot first. This post is aimed at exactly the same people, ie small industries, students/graduates wanting help with their videos, musicians wanting music video help. It is also for those who have never hired someone before to do VFX or consider all VFX to involve a green screen.
Regularly I’ll get emails saying something like, “I’ve just completed my first album and am looking to hire a VFX guy for help with my first music video. How much will it cost to add VFX to my dancers?”
Your question opens up a veritable Pandora’s Box of new questions. Much more information is needed.
In an ideal world, before you start a thing, even putting pen to paper to create a storyboard (you are creating a storyboard right?), plan out shooting, chat to VFX companies about what can and can’t be done. There are many quick, cheap solutions, but you may find some of your plans are way too adventurous. When filming with VFX in mind, rather than applying a fix-it-in-post attitude, a few pitfalls can be avoided, but also planned for. For example, many VFX are so-called invisible VFX. They don’t go bang, they don’t melt buildings into a raging torrent of water, they just sit in the background and hide things that may draw attention to themselves. Sometimes they’re even in the foreground. Period dramas are an excellent example of this. In Britain, we are lucky enough to still have many beautiful regency houses in fantastic condition, but they are often bordered by various modern paraphernalia such as electrical cables, gift shops, a nearby oilseed rape farm, a satellite dish, a Starbucks. All of this needs removing so it doesn’t feel incongruous with the regency feel of the drama. These invisible effects appear in many types of show or promo. On a small budget video they may also be invisible costs you haven’t considered. Look out for them.
When contacting VFX companies, (or especially in an effort to save cash, individual artists), check your budget. Really now, check it. If it’s really low, only a few thousand, consider how essential your chosen VFX really are. Junk things you’ve added because you saw it in The Hobbit and think it might be cool in your shaver advert. Don’t be offended if individuals like myself tell you to go away and save some cash. Add an extra contingency of about 40% on top if you can. Why? Things change. All the time. We’re all human and you may find that you don’t like the results, even if they do look thoroughly convincing. All VFX houses can provide quotes for you to assist roughly with your budgeting.
Make a storyboard. Even if it’s really rough sketches. There are guides to it online, but quick pointers are the following; an image for each shot, large arrows showing camera movement, VFX motion and direction. The more detail the better. It may seem time-consuming, but overall it will save you time and money. When chatting about VFX, refer to the boards, to scripts, to reference images, heck even full-on style guides and treatments are great. Knowing the camera you will shoot on is advantageous.
Even after all of this, there will be to-ing and fro-ing. This is natural as oddly enough it’s a creative process, but with some forward planning you’ll become a respected creative rather than one who inspires groaning upon entering a room. Take your time, plan ahead, ideally chat to VFX types before production, shoot only what you planned to, don’t move the goal posts and you’ll hit the end with minimal compromises.