Tag Archives: visual effects

How long is a piece of string? – Budgeting for your VFX

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.

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.

South Bank Show Trailer

A few months back I worked on a trailer for the South Bank Show, featuring Melvyn Bragg walking through the Leake St tunnel under Waterloo station. Bragg was shot on a greenscreen, with the environment being recreated in Softimage by myself and fellow freelancer Rasik Gorecha.

The obvious question there is why? Why can’t Mr. Bragg just go into the tunnel and we shoot it there, huh? Well, there are a few obvious answers to that. The tunnel, itself a road with access to a car wash half way down, is dank, contains certain undesirable types Mr. Bragg would probably best steer clear of, and is continually in flux thanks to it being one of the few areas in London where it is legal to graffiti. It’s also not the most comfortable of places to sit around in for long hours on a shoot. The other reason is that lots of the graffiti was to be replaced with animated posters and artwork featuring well known faces from the arts. That process is a lot easier if created digitally and lit using indirect lighting solutions.

My input on this was twofold. Firstly I set up the lighting in Arnold. After an hour or so of experimenting, the solution found was to place shadow casting point lights in the ceiling under about half of the strip light fittings, plus a spot light at either end of the tunnel. Additional fill lights were used to brighten up the nearest walls. The lights in the walls toward the back of the tunnel are merely textured models and not actual lights.

One of the things with a Global Illumination solution like Arnold is that it can lead to fizzing. One solution to lighting this tunnel would be area lights. This was ditched as a plan extraordinarily fast as it led to lots of noise, plus the modelled lights themselves act as bounce cards essentially negating the need for area lights at all.

Rasik had the majority of the modelling done by the time I joined in the project but was yet to embark on cables. Whilst he set up initial texturing, I became cable monkey. I modelled cables and brackets, trays for them to run along, pipes and all sorts. It took a few days of continually modelling cables before I’d finished them. Simple stuff but it really added to the believability.

South Bank Show Trailer

The top of the two images above is the model with finished textures and below that is the finished lighting.

The final trailer is not as it appeared on Sky for 2 reasons. They added their own logo at the end, naturally enough, and they own full copyright of the sound bizarrely, so mine’s a silent movie. Add your own ragtime soundtrack as appropriate.

The Bible Series – VFX

Recently in America, The History Channel broadcast The Bible Series, knocking American Idol into the weeds for ratings. The real reason of course to celebrate this fact is that I worked on VFX for this, along with many others hired by / working at Lola Post, London.

There were hundreds of shots. As the series covers many well-known events that are either epic in scale or miraculous in nature, it’s hard to cut corners with this kind of content.

One of the advantages of VFX is the ability to extend sets or create new ones. The most used model shared amongst the 3d crew was that of Jerusalem. It was originally an off-the-shelf-model of a real scale model, intended to be seen from a distance, so it needed to be tweaked and improved upon where appropriate on a shot by shot basis. With so many artists having touched the model at one point or other, the lighting setup, materials and textures got improved to the extent that once composited, the shots really shone out. Many of the shots I did for The Bible featured Jerusalem, either as an entirely CG set or an extension tracked into existing footage.

One story that is covered in the show is that of Moses parting The Red Sea, with the Israelites being chased by Egyptians through the parted waves. The shot I did for this sequence is a slightly top down shot, following the fleeing crowds through the freshly created gap in the ocean. To achieve this, I effectively split the 3d ocean into horizontal grids and vertical grids. The horizontal grids were simulated with aaOcean in Softimage. The vertical ones were distorted to represent the sea walls, textured with composited footage of waterfalls running upwards. The join where the two sets of grids met was blended using a matte and Nuke’s iDistort node. Softimage’s CrowdFX was used for the fleeing crowd. Twirling smoke elements were added once passed to the comp.

An advantage of Softimage’s ICE simulation system is that making a convincing cloud or mist is a fairly straight forward procedure. I was tasked with creating a storm over Jericho, a swirling mass of cloud and debris that had to look huge and imposing whilst looking down through the eye of the storm.
With clouds, water, and many other fluids, scale can be half the battle. A large wave only looks large if surrounded by smaller ones, a cloud only looks like a huge ominous mass if seen as a collection of smaller masses, but go too small and the effect is lost entirely. In the case of the cloud, if too many small details were apparent it very quickly seemed fluffy. Cute a storm is not. Once the cloud’s scale was correct, there was the issue of it having to spin, distort and generally seem organic. Handily ICE has a node for rotating clouds around points in space so that solved that one. The distortion was shape animation applied to a lattice attached to the cloud.

The rest of my involvement on The Bible was tracking shots in PFTrack and adding in set extensions. Most of the 3d content was rendered using Solid Angle’s Arnold Renderer.

The shots I mention above, along with a few others, are now online in my updated 2013 reel.

For further details on VFX in The Bible, check out FXGuide’s feature on Lola’s work.

Mankind – The Story of All of Us

For the past few months I’ve been working at Lola Post, London, on Mankind, soon to be shown on the History channel both here in the UK and the USA.

I worked on quite a few sequences, 30 shots in total. Most of these involved creating projectiles of differing sorts, predominantly arrows; People firing arrows, being shot by arrows, and avoiding arrows while simultaneously cheating the whole archer deal by using guns. All arrows in the sequence above are CG.

As with many documentaries, many shots on Mankind were illustrative map shots, presented as full scale Earth scenes and as full CG shots they were subject to much change. Luckily, the flexibility of CGI makes it easy to work outside the boundaries of reality and to change one’s mind.

A few of the shots I worked on involved creating digital sets. Firstly I created an aqueduct for a sequence of shots with Caesar in. This was a case of tracking shots, matching on set details and extending upwards.

The trickiest shot was a bullet time shot, first in the sequence above, showing an Irish navvy unwittingly getting a little too close to a tunnel blast within the Appelacians. The original footage was green screen with the actor effectively sitting on a green pole with the camera moving around him. This introduced a wobble but was significantly easier and cheaper than a timeslice rig. As the footage was ramped up and down as well as being slow mo, getting rid of the wobble was high priority and after many tests it was eventually solved with simple yet nifty 3d camera trickery.

To smooth out the wobble, I followed a suggestion of Lola’s MD, Grahame. Having tracked the raw footage in PFTrack I projected that original footage through the camera in Softimage onto a card, positioned where the actor should be. That way the actor stayed in the same place in 3d space whilst I moved my new 3d camera around him.

The entire environment in that shot is a 3d set I threw together out of multiple particle instances of the same handful of rock models.

Most of the other shots were relatively straight forward, the exception being another bullet time shot, this one actually being one of the first bullets ever fired! The footage for the start of the shot was different to that of the end, so although the start had lots of people thrusting spears and poles in a smokey landscape, the end was completely clear of people and smoke, plus the target dummy was way too near. To solve this I made a new 3d gun, texturing it with various camera projected textures from the original footage, then made a new background out of a humongous psd stitched together out of footage and photos. In the end none of the original footage is being used as footage, more as texturing inspiration! It’s a really long shot so I split it in the sequence above.

All the work I did on this show bar the Earth-scale shots was rendered using Arnold. This has an advantage over Mental Ray of being a fast method of getting realistic lighting complete with indirect light bouncing. The quality is superb. To me, Mental Ray is much more flexible, but Arnold trumps it for speed between initial light placement and realistic render. I’m very glad I’ve forced myself to learn it.

A few of the aforementioned Earth-scale map shots are shown below.

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: Earth’s Extraordinary Journey

This Sunday at 2100 on BBC2 sees the start of Orbit: Earth’s Extraordinary Journey, a 3-parter presented by Kate Humble & Dr Helen Czerski about the Earth, its orbit, its tilt and how these things affect us all.
It’s something of a VFX-laden job with the task of creating graphicky goodness falling into the capable hands of Lola, London. This included myself as a freelancer.

I worked on a handful of complicated shots for this including one where the hot air above india rises, sucking in cold air off the sea. That was a very dense particle system with a few caching issues, but we got there eventually.

The hardest thing with this show is there are a lot of shots which explain slightly different things but which share a similar 3D scene. Creating an appropriate camera move around what are essentially spheres in space should be a simple deal. One shot I was tasked with shows the Sun rising over the Earth. We pull back to see the Earth as a whole passing through space then follow it round its orbit. That was one camera move. Sometimes it’s the apparently simplest things that are actually the hardest. Moving the camera in such a way as to get the Sun to rise at a constant speed, then following the Earth at a reasonably constant distance, but continually orbit the Sun as well, took a lot of fiddling. We had a camera rig which worked really well for close to the Earth shots but not for wide shots. In the end it was hand-animated without a rig.

The second tricky thing with space is scale. We regularly had to move the Sun much nearer the Earth than it really is so it can be seen clearly as opposed to being a tiny insignificant dot with less drama than a wet tea towel.

See the link below for more details.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00xztbr

Richard Hammond’s Journey To The Centre of The Planet

Not so long ago I finished working at Lola on this project, soon to be broadcast on prime time BBC here in the UK. Can’t say a lot about it yet other than it’s CGI heavy and interesting stuff. The name is possibly in progress. Not sure, it’s changed a few times! Here’s a press release and no I didn’t get to meet him.

http://bbc.in/lwdbRu

Sequel to The Human Centipede: First Sequence

Seems Mr Tom Six has begun work on the sequel to his mad scientist centipede creation extravaganza. I knew this was coming, but was wondering quite how well the first film would be received. If you could see the stats on my blog you’d be amazed how much my traffic spikes when The Human Centipede is released in a new area of the world or every time it receives news! So plenty of interest and success which is great to see.

Total Film Feature on Full Sequence

http://www.totalfilm.com/features/the-story-behind-the-human-centipede/page:7

Strike Back has airing dates

Set your recording equipment up for 9pm on May 5th as that’s when Strike Back is due to begin! Oddly although it’s 6 episodes long, they’re being shown in pairs, so air dates are as follows:

Episodes 1 & 2    Wed 5 May 21.00 Sky1 HD & Sky1
Episodes 3 & 4    Wed 12 May 21.00 Sky1 HD & Sky1
Episodes 5 & 6    Wed 19 May 21.00 Sky1 HD & Sky1

Looking forward to the 19th!!! That’s where a lot of our work went.

I’m gonna get a few people to record this for me in case one or the other reveal themselves to be lame at setting recorders. There are people out there who can’t use Sky Plus let alone set an old VCR.

More details at http://sky1.sky.com/strike-back-about-the-show-the-story