Tag Archives: visual effects

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.

Preview – The Planets

On my longest stint working for one client, 14 months at Lola Post, I was lucky enough to be working on The Planets, first airing on BBC 2 on Tuesday May 28th, a decade after the previous BBC show of the same title aired.

A lot has happened in the last ten years – scientific advances and space exploration has led to us having unprecedented imagery and data from our solar system which has altered the theories as to how Earth and its sisters came into being, why we have life and other planets currently don’t, inspiring future voyages into the unknown. Down here on our little blue marble, technology has marched on apace, supporting space exploration and indeed driving it, but it has another positive outcome too – a huge improvement in visual effects.

This series has hundreds of VFX shots in it, many of them involving visualising locations we can’t possibly send a film crew to and times so far in the past it’s hard to imagine. With so many shots, and so many different terrains and planetary destinations to represent, I was brought in early to do look development and some research into how things may appear. Once the series was underway this was supported by the Open University who informed of correct details and current theories regarding how a landscape looks, the colour of the sky, the variety of tones on the ground and so on.

Helping all this was the fact that NASA and ESA put a lot of their data out in to the public domain, so written information, photographs, global textures and even elevation data, are available to you and I for free. There’s a lot to wade through but it was well worth the trouble.

Much of my terrain work and planetary imagery was pieced together in Terragen, though some of the wider planet shots including contemporary Earth, Jupiter and Neptune, are made in Houdini, that also being the 3D software of choice for laying out camera moves, adding asteroids, dust clouds and so on. The probes, asteroids, meteors and landers were mostly tackled by a team of talented artists and operators, some being hired for their lighting skills, modelling, others for more challenging Houdini simulation and destruction work.

Many were working for several months, a few of us well over a year, with production itself taking 2 years in total! That’s a lot of people putting in a lot of effort, and if my recent viewing of an episode is anything to go by, it’s all been worthwile!

For more info, check out the BBC Earth site at https://www.bbcearth.com/theplanets

The Alienist – Emmy Win

It’s not often I find the time to write something for my blogs these days. Even this news is 2 months old at time of writing. Back in September, the first episode of The Alienist, a show I spent many months doing modelling and texturing work on at Peerless, won the 2018 Emmy for Outstanding Special Visual Effects in a Supporting Role!

Needless to say it has gone on the CV. My colleague and good friend Rasik hopped over to LA (bravely I might add) and picked up this little lady for us. Here I am holding what has to be the most obvious hiding-in-plain-sight potential murder weapon I’ve ever held. Those lightning wings are spiky. There’s a sentence I never thought I’d write. Anyway! Onwards and upwards!

Me with a shiny award. No I don't get to keep it. Stay outta my home! :P
Me with a shiny award. No I don’t get to keep it. Stay outta my home! 😛

The Alienist is now available on Netflix in the UK.

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!

Mars VFX work for Nat Geo at Framestore

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!

My oh my… I’ve done 10 years of VFX work.

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

London 3D VFX Freelance – Update on my Availability

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.

Britain’s Most Extreme Weather and How The Universe Works

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!

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.