Tag Archives: vfx

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.

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.

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 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.

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

Human Centipede Sequel Banned In the UK

First things first, I didn’t work on this sequel. Don’t email me requesting to see it or any other such shenannigans! In their opinion, the BBFC consider the sequel to The Human Centipede to be too horrific for UK audiences.
There’s sexual mutilation and all sorts so it’s not a huge surprise. Plenty of you come here solely for news on this film (and the original which I did work on), so here it is!

http://t.co/eyfUbPh

My opinion on the controversy is that occasionally films like this are made and without them we wouldn’t be able to define boundaries, whether they are in the correct place for all viewers or not. Boundaries are there to protect the younger generations. Many friends and colleagues of mine who have seen the original film have either got half way through and decided it’s too disturbing, finished it and decided it’s the grossest film ever, or merely watched the trailer and stopped there. My goddaughter watched the trailer at the age of 12 and couldn’t sleep for a week. Thanks YouTube!

I saw the highlights of an edit with the director before working on the vfx and have to say I would probably choose not to watch it, but then horrors aren’t my favourite type of film. I do enjoy working on horrific content as it’s fairly challenging. I nearly worked on this sequel and recall being told by a colleague, “It’s extremely graphic. Far more so than the first film… erm… *cough*… how are you with penises?” I presume those shots would be challenging for any man to work on.

Eventually, it’s inevitable the ban will be lifted. Prior to that torrent sites will carry the film from its foreign releases. The original film carries quite a cult following and is far more famous now than it ever was on release. Banning this film will actually make it more desirable to many as it instantly becomes the forbidden fruit. I’ll be steering clear of that apple tree myself, but in the meantime, feel free to go scrumping.

Update: What a shocker, the ban is overturned and the film awarded an 18 certificate.
Guardian coverage on the matter.