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

CCTV-9 Documentary Channel Ident

Update! The CCTV-9 channel branding, including this ident, recently won a Gold for Best Channel Branding at the PromaxBDA awards in Singapore!

I was called back in to work at Lola in London for this Chinese TV channel ident for CCTV-9 Documentary. Only 2 of us worked on this shot: myself and Tim Zaccheo, head of 3D at Lola.

The ident sees a waterfall coming down the side of a cubic mountain. The camera pulls back down a valley with scenery akin to the Guilin area of China, then out into space to reveal that the Earth is indeed cubic. CCTV have a cubic theme, so this makes sense in context. Thanks to the real-world scale of Terragen and the existing workflow at Lola, Tim was able to come up with a camera move that once imported into Terragen matched perfectly with the Softimage scene. The Earth’s textures and even the clouds lined up perfectly in both sections allowing a seamless blend.

My part in this was embellishing the initially blocked out Terragen scene with the necessary details to make it look like the Guilin mountains. A challenge there was that Terragen is great for pointy Alpine style mountains dusted with snow. That is easy out of the box. Guilin mountains are almost bell jar in shape, carpeted in trees with rocky cliffs here and there. The valleys between have been eroded away by rivers, leaving behind relatively flat farming land.

The solution to this was a variety of painted map shaders. Although this allows flexibility and great detail when it comes to controlling displacements, they’re best replaced with actual textures if possible, else the rendering gets very intense. In this case it wasn’t really an option. The painted maps were used to define areas of low and high ground, plus to define where the river goes and to control where the farmland appeared.

As there is quite so much foliage in the area there needed to be a solution that didn’t rely entirely on populations of tree objects. In come the procedural trees. This is essentially a series of overlaid displacement textures that build up to create the cauliflower head look to the trees. Similarly, the farming land was achieved using a tiled texture of fields and a few trees distrbuted along hedgerows. It’s very easy in a procedural program like Terragen to forget that a bitmap texturing approach is still a valid method and often faster.

Something that took a while to figure out was the cubic mountain at the start. The cube was initially displaced using a square displacement map with a falloff around the edges, plus an area eroded away at the front. The stoney displacements were then layered on to this, taking the new normals into account, rather than throwing everything up vertically as is the default. It was then eroded in various directions using extra displacement maps.

The waterfall was Tim’s baby, done entirely in Softimage’s ICE using fairly straight forward techniques, but along with some coloured mattes it all came together nicely in the comp.

There’s no sound on the video above by the way. I’ll replace it with one with audio once I’ve located it.

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.

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.

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.

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

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

Richard Hammond’s Journey to the Bottom of the Ocean

Just to confuse me, the second of the Richard Hammond documentaries has a different name, Journey to the Bottom of the Ocean!

It’s on Tuesday 26th July 9pm BBC One.

http://www.radiotimes.com/ListingsServlet?event=10&channelId=92&programmeId=201706224&jspLocation=/jsp/prog_details_fullpage.jsp

The first part, Journey to the Centre of the Planet, received praise all round on the whole which is great. Best thing I saw on Twitter was “Wouldn’t it be great if Richard Hammond reached the centre of the planet only to discover it was made of lego?”

A fair question I’m sure you’ll agree.

Freelance 3D Artist for TV and Film, based near London

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