Tag Archives: 3d

Lost Cities Revealed – 3D Builds of Past Civilisations

In 2023 I was brought in to Rumble VFX as a lead 3D artist on Raw TV’s documentary series, Lost Cities Revealed.

Each episode covers a different location where up to date archaeological methods have revealed settlements to be larger and of greater importance than previously thought.

The VFX task was to create a big moment at the end of each of the six episodes, the current landscape altering to show how things may have looked in the heyday of each civilisation.

The Scottish episode focussed on Pictic Celts, a civilisation a few of us had experience recreating together for Britannia many moons ago. In a sense that made it easiest to make it look convincingly real. It probably helped I holidayed in the Highlands immediately prior to working on the series too! Little circular huts, wooden fences, fires, smoke, a suggestion of farming all helped to set the scene and give atmosphere.

Oman’s episode focusses on the first ever trade post at an oasis, an area of water-fed rich soil in an otherwise desert landscape. For this one I had to create buildings based on a few drawings and the excellent feedback from the director. The actual archaeologists on the ground had moved on to another project and didn’t have ready access to comms. Having made a generic square hut with a procedural redshift material for the mud walls, I laid out a city based on a map of the area, featuring irrigation and date palms.

Each episode came with a LiDar scan of the site, produced by industry specialists, Visual Skies. The Oman one really helped as the 2nd shot transpired to not be wide enough to fit in the oasis itself during the reveal. I replaced it with an entirely CG shot, recreating the camera move, only higher and wider.

As with all documentary work I’ve undertaken there’s a strong element of artistic license, be that in the layout of the cities, the overall look of buildings compared to each other or colours used by civilisations. In short, research is key when working on scientific or historical stuff, but where evidence is lacking, artistic expression helps.

The video above also contains shots from Sudan and Mexico.

Lost Cities Revealed is on Nat Geo and Disney Plus.
I’ve done a lot of documentary work. To see more, take a look through the Projects page!

Season 6 of The Crown – Breaking down the VFX.

I’ve been fortunate enough to keep working with Rumble VFX for a while now, recently completing a couple dozen shots on Season 6 of The Crown, the final instalment of Netflix’s favourite. Our work, alongside Framestore’s, has been nominated for a BAFTA Craft Award!

See the full breakdown of what Rumble did in the video below and on the Rumble site here The Crown, Season 6 – Rumble VFX

Heraldic Banners

I began this stint on The Crown making many heraldic banners for St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, filmed on location in York Minster. The real chapel has many heraldic items which you can read about here. Of all the heraldry in the real chapel, the banners are visually the most impactful.

From a technical perspective, each banner is connected to a point on a line. Each point has variables to define the angle the banner droops at, plus some colour variance. A vellum cloth solution is applied to all flags at once in Houdini, with the fringing being extruded from the edge of the resulting mesh.

As I knew the order of flags, and indeed gaps between, were subject to change I renamed all the textures and shaders such that they’d pull in flag_1 textures for the first flag, flag_2 for the 2nd etc. This afforded the flexibility to merely rename the textures to change the layout.

Diana

The investigation into Diana’s death took a very long time, wrapping up practically a decade afterwards. As part of a montage surrounding the crash investigation, we see a computer simulation of the car passengers during their moment of impact. To give the impression of a ragdoll-like movement inherent in these things I used a ragdoll solver within Houdini on characters with very basic wireframe appearance, sat within a model of the Mercedes.

Many different simulation systems in 3D share a common trait – one tweak to a shot can change the whole thing, with characters falling the wrong way, leaping out their chair through the sunroof or slapping each other in the face. There were a couple of occasions where the motion appeared too violent, even given the wireframe appearance. With each revision we lost more and more visual detail, dropping frames to give it more of a caching computer simulation look and less of an emotional re-enactment.

Half a Dimension Lost

An odd concept I first read about a decade ago is 2.5D, that is to say a 3D look made in 2D. As I was tracking a few shots for a sequence of princes Harry and William having fun in Botswana I decided to drop in a temporary background in Nuke as a test. It made sense to use the digital matte painting provided and after a few tweaks and advice from others I realised that projecting that on to geometry in Nuke wasn’t so tricky. All my Botswana shots were Nuke scanline composites, not 3D renders. To me it pays to know a few little tricks involving multiple software. I’m hired to produce the end result not a convoluted Houdini scene nobody except wizards can understand.

My work has seen me do many things in many ways – see other projects here.

The Impact of AI in VFX – Striking For The Right Reasons.

Faded Photograph of a Panda In a Liminal Space, though actually made by a computer.
Midjourney’s version of A Faded Photograph of a Panda In A Liminal Space – one of my early tinkerings with generative AI.

A while back I wrote a blog post on my photography site about AI image generation. I was wondering how long it would be until AI could create a convincing photograph. Fast forward to today and Photoshop has AI tools built in with Adobe creating AI video tools for After Effects and Premiere too, all with convincing results. There are many, many others doing the same.

Strikes

It’s understandable that writers and actors have been calling for strong protection against their own writing, voices and even appearance being used without fair recompense. At the time of writing, American unions have been striking for over 110 days for many reasons, but featuring in them is a desire for fairer AI protection. This lengthy period has led some to endure loss of income, jobs and even homes across California. It’s had far reaching consequences worldwide in fact, with plenty of UK projects being suspended or pulled thanks to the links to the US.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while. It’s easy to shout out and tell folk to get back to work. Imagine though, not having that desired protection or framework in place. In that scenario, the current 10 figure cost to California alone could potentially be far higher.

Actors and writers could lose out to an ever decreasing pool of AI-assisted talent. Voice actors might find their voice effectively bought with unfair terms in perpetuity. Their income would be gone. Actors could be placed in any video without permission, causing a Wild West of IP lawsuits.

Productions themselves could get weaker, with script after script of middle of the road shows, AIs borrowing sentence structure and characterisations from years of work. Visuals could homogenise, with actors turning in to uncanny-valley dwelling automata.

Even if this dystopia I paint here is temporary, the loss of earnings could be huge and quality of work underwhelming compared to the original content made by real humans daily.

A brighter future

The TV and film industry will likely shrink in light of the strikes and common usage of AI. It has appeal for small graphic design projects and concept work. I do also believe though that we are an incredibly diverse, creative species, capable of creating extraordinary worlds and telling beautiful stories. We are also able to diversify in what is a fast-paced industry.

I personally believe many VFX jobs are safe. Directors, producers and editors all like to put in their opinions on how a particular VFX shot can be improved. The first version will go in a creative direction they may or may not like but it will need iterating on usually. Many of the requests made are open to interpretation and fairly abstract. If you want great results out of AI, it pays to be specific.

Many software developers are integrating aspects of machine learning into their VFX software, making awesome tools that make our jobs easier. AIs are not likely to create entire shots themselves that fulfil a client brief first time, if at all. Let’s hope the strikes end soon so everyone can use these awesome tools to keep making original content that folk want to watch and those who need protecting feel safe in their chosen work.

What is CGI? Why can’t filmmakers grasp how films are made?

My recent CGI Cola

CGI – Computer Generated Imagery, as a term has always been an enigma. Personally I see it as being 3D graphics, but Wikipedia confusingly refers to it as including some 2D also.

VFX – Visual Effects, to many is synonymous with green screen. I’ve long suspected this belief comes from Behind The Scenes documentaries, vacuous DVD fillers that are so popular I do wonder if many people prefer so-called BTS content to actual movies and TV shows. 

The VFX industry is so vast in scope that keying green screen (or any colour really) is one of dozens of things you could be asked to do within a week as a compositor. In itself, compositing is one of dozens of jobs in the business. However, very little compositing work is what many regard as CGI.

There! Right… there! You see it? That’s the grey area.  If a viewer of a cinematic spectacle sees a hint of VFX they may well jump to thinking of it as CGI. Not all VFX contains CGI. Am I splitting hairs because I do 3D CGI and see CGI as 3D only? Yes. Yes I am. 

When people say that show X has no CGI in, they might be right, or at least think they are. Lots of shows I work on have literally hundreds of VFX shots but only a dozen or so contain 3D graphic elements. The amount of VFX work in TV is astonishing. If you don’t notice it, it’s succeeded in being excellent.

To me, traditional 20th Century Hollywood was about in-camera practical effects and hand-painted backdrops. These days those are often, but not always, referred to as SFX – Special Effects. That historically has been used for so many things that now even VFX is lumped in with SFX in the media, to the extent awards are given out in the category of Special Visual Effects. Add in AI imagery and now nobody outside, or indeed inside, the VFX business has a clue what to do with all the acronyms.

The recent Barbenheimer furore made me think. Both Barbie and Oppenheimer contain a lot of VFX work – tonnes of it – but the directors’ favour of traditional methods was set upon by the media as a good thing, getting us all away from that pesky CGI. The CGI was never the issue. It was scriptwriting, acting, the terrible art direction, but most of all, a complete and utter misunderstanding of the whole VFX business and those who work within it.

To me, films and TV would improve a lot if the focus returned to making gripping stories with well-developed characters. Get that right, then speak to a VFX studio about what might work best as practical or VFX work. Read around the subject, talk to us VFX folk directly about what we’re doing, (and credit us if you would be so kind) but leave those misleading BTS docs alone. They aren’t made by those who made the effects.

To see the things I’ve worked on over the years and judge my qualifications for judginess, see Recent Work.

The Crown Season 5 at Rumble VFX – Period Set Extensions on Beautiful Plates

Before the late Elizabeth II passed and her son was coronated, I was a CG lead at Rumble VFX on Season 5 of The Crown for Netflix.

See the full breakdown of what Rumble did in the video below and on the Rumble site here The Crown, Season 5 – Rumble VFX:

For me, there was a lot of set extension work to do including a recreation of the famous 90s neon signs at Piccadilly Circus. Naturally, being The Crown, there were also ground level, rooftop and aerial shots of Windsor Castle. I created a dilapidated look for Villa Windsor (Mohamed Al Fayed’s gift to The Queen) and was even called upon to replace an errant non-royal yacht. (How dare the late Steve Jobs leave it in shot!)

Work on the show took lots of hours of research and meticulous attention to detail, creating 3D in Houdini, projections in Photoshop, painting up in Substance Painter, rendering in Redshift.

A challenge for me is that I really enjoy the show and wanted to work on it for years, so ended up treating each shot as if it was my last. At one point I was dreaming of various tones of wall in the shots of Windsor Castle. What helped immensely and stopped me painting myself in to a corner was the exceptional production team whose feedback and documentation of the shoots was on point.

The yacht was a peculiar beast. Yachts are often very smooth, white, shiny, looking like fresh CGI frankly. With this being an HDR project I had to make sure we had details that were matching the plate, even out of the range of the SDR monitors most of us work with daily. When doing my rough comps I knocked the exposure of everything down to check it matched, then brought it up again.

One aspect of this project that really helped is the mountain of photos out there on the web. I’m really grateful for those of you who visited Piccadilly in the 90s with a camera or indeed the millions who’ve documented Windsor and the show’s Windsor, Burghley House over the years!

Set work is just one string to my bow – see other projects here.

2020 3D VFX REEL

PDF Shot Breakdown of 2020 3D VFX Reel

After a few more years of pootling about working in London and 2 years of Houdini work, it’s about time I updated my VFX reel! The previous one missed many projects out, so it’s fitting that this one is practically a 2019 one, especially considering the months spent during lockdown working on a personal project or two.

This particular reel contains some of the more effective and impactful shots I worked on for The Planets and the second series of Britannia, both at Lola Post Production in London’s West End. The Planets mainly involved decorative spheres in space, with a strong style that leans heavily on NASA’s archives with inky blacks and no stars. See my preview post from a while back for details!

Towards the end of The Planets I moved on to Britannia Season 2 as the CG shots were ramping up considerably. See my previous blog post for more details on that!

As an aside here, as someone who has switched 3D software to Houdini, if you’re considering learning Houdini, don’t be daunted! Start with the simpler stuff. At Lola, I was given a Houdini Core license which gets used in studios to do the day to day 3D tasks, working on shots, bringing in assets others have made, plus creating shaders, doing layout work etc. If you can handle that, the FX stuff becomes a lot easier to get your head around because you are already thinking Houdini. Looking back, especially now I have my own Houdini license at home, if I had dived into the FX end of things first it would have put me off the software. I can now easily work around problems with wrangles, writing my own nodes in VEX, I understand the logic with which the transforms are put together, the reason why global transforms are hardly ever differentiated from local and so on. If I had to learn that AND how to make a custom destruction sequence I’d be a full time bowl carver by now.

Enjoy the reel! And the drum and bass. Apologies, I needed something with pace and no lace. Feel free to use that last sentence in a conversation today.

Britannia Series 2 VFX

A breakdown of some of the VFX work by Lola Post

A while back, working at Lola Post, as things were winding down on BBC The Planets, I was handed a few things to work on for Sky/Amazon’s Britannia.

Initially this was a case of doing a spot of modelling. Barracks and cranes were needed to pad out the layout of an outdoor set. Aulus’ house had no roof in reality, then had my CG one, then a burnt version as some hooligans set fire to it using firebombs. Those also needed making as visual effects.

Two of the sets, one for the location known as Isca, and one for Oppida (an old name for settlement) were scanned using Lidar. Once that had been wrangled into something usable, it was handed over to us and used alongside many photo references taken on set to aid in all the modelling and set extension work that needed doing.

As there were many shots in both locations, there was a lot of tracking work to be done. I’m a firm believer in not over-engineering things. Whenever I could I pinned stills in to the plate using Nuke and then passed the whole lot onto compositors. However, being an atmospheric kinda show, this wasn’t always sufficient as said compositors usually had extra elements to add and a camera track was handy. Most of the shots tracked fine once we’d figured out lens info. Even when there’s loads of moving people in shot, there’s often enough to track between foreground and background for PFTrack to grab a hold of.

Isca had its own challenge. Being a hill fort inspired by some very old principles indeed, the actual set was tiny compared to the one that needed to be seen in wider shots. I was tasked with adding details in to aid its scale and believability. A quick fence creation setup in Houdini allowed me to draw in fences around the various huts dotted about. A series of particle distributions were used to scatter rocks, piles of logs and grasses around. Water troughs, buckets and other accoutrements were hand placed on to the set.

On the subject of technical work and Houdini, this was the second project where a large chunk of my work was done in Houdini, even layout and some of the modelling. This allowed me to continue learning an enigmatic software at a generalist level, only opening Houdini FX right at the end to set up a rigid body system. The project I’m on now (a story for another day) has seen me create particle systems, pyro smoke and even water, while all the time fitting that in within what many would consider the staple tasks of a 3d generalist, in one 3d package.

I even had an opportunity (much in the same way as my Latin homework at school was a ‘learning experience’ according to our teacher) to learn the basics of crowd setup in Houdini. When Aulus’ army arrive at Isca and indeed are en route, they didn’t have the decency to be real people. Luckily for me, much of the leg work of rigging soldiers and sourcing motion capture data had already been done, but setting up new shots based on others necessitated pulling things apart to understand how they worked, then making new setups from scratch. Much of VFX work is this and asking colleagues how to do things. Asking questions isn’t a weakness. Pretending to know everything is.

2017 Showreel

After many years of work I’ve finally built up enough new shots to replace much of my old reel. It served me well, bringing in many projects, and indeed some of the better shots still remain, but now with spangly new work alongside!

My contribution to each shot is shown briefly in the bottom left of the screen, with a much more detailed explanation written shot by shot in the PDF breakdown.

In the past few years I’ve been fortunate enough to work on some very interesting projects that have been subject to watertight NDAs. Now that they’ve been broadcast and the dust has settled, it’s a real bonus for me to finally be able to share some of these with you.

The MARS series and Teletubbies were two such projects. MARS was seven months of my time and if I recall correctly, Teletubbies was significantly longer. This left two large projects missing from my reel and consequently any updates to it felt kinda pointless as I’d only be adding one or two shots and labelling it a new reel. The thing with working in TV or film is not all shots that I work on are actually showreel-worthy. Many are similar to each other or shots I’ve made previously, or they may be created using other people’s systems, to the point that putting them in a reel of my own work feels disingenuous.

This reel has been a long time coming, so I hope you enjoy it!

Swisscom Commercial

A while back I had my first stint of working at Glassworks London.

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.

Halwani Chicken Commercial

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…