The Pixel Crush

-------------------------------------------|Digital Animation & Game Criticism|-------------------------------------------

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Animated Existance II

Modelling continues apace. Well, it continues. I thought I'd try and demonstrate what I'd learnt about the my latest tool of choice when it comes to render-type procrastination. Final Gather!
Its a method of indirect lighting developed by mental ray and part of a quicker solution than something like Luxrender's more physically correct approx

I've done a little comparison for myself to justify the different render times. The first render is just raytraced shadow using one directional light attached to the mental ray Sun node. The shadows are pitch black and there is no indirect lighting at all. As ever click the images for full screen.

render time: 1.24

This next shot uses Final Gather, which is a mental ray feature that seems to be (from what I've read) an approximation of Global Illumination which is what calculates bounces light from the main light source and creates more realistic rendering. Final Gather uses a different algorithm with fakes G.I (global illumination) isn't as physically accurate, but can create better looking renders that reveal more fine detail in models rather than bouncing light into every crack and creating an expensive and boringly diffuse look.

render time: 2.59

This render refines the Final gather settings to add "secondary diffuse bounces". I tried this with both 2 bounces and 5, and the was no discernible difference. What it appears to be trying to do is Final Gather but with the benefits of G.I's bounce lighting, so the darker faces and corners in the 2nd render are smoothed out by the light more realistically bouncing around and creating a more organic look. It also helps even out the tone of the shadows as they fall across the geometry. G.I can even out the tones so much that all contrast is washed away in a wave of light bouncing goodness, to the extent that the mental ray manual even suggests using ambient occlusion to re-introduce shadow to the scene.

render time: 3.26

As you can see from the fact that the only new thing in this render is a drain pipe and the castellated turret on the right, progress is slow.

Here's one where I managed to make it look like custard by screwing up the blending modes for the ambient occlusion pass which was broken anyway.

In other news here is one of the best and most comprehensive responses to Roger Ebert's continued denial of games as an art form, a debate that is starting to bore me as people on both sides have come to their own conclusions and won't be budging any time soon.

Extra Credits is a great resource for game critique, and this one is one of my favourite. It explains why everyone should go play Mass Effect
I might have to broaden these sharing sections, I'm starting to bore myself with the lack of diversity.

Saturday, 25 December 2010

Animated Existance.

Amazingly we got chosen to do the Animated Exeter intro trailer after the 3 groups presented their pitch documents. Kudos to Jake for coming up with the initial concept with Tom, and then doing the animatic on his own. I've begun modelling Exeter cathedral for what will be the centre piece of the animation as the robot emerges- Thunderbird's style, from the cathedral as it splits open. Here are some renders from the different stages of modelling.

I'm still not into the fine detail yet but it wont be long, I'm not sure whether I'm going to try and do displacement maps or create vectors to extrude geometry from for the intricate carvings but I certainly won't be trying to model them from the existing faces. Alan has been working on robot models based on the promotional illustrations for a while and its looking sweet.
I've been playing with final gather in mental ray and getting some great results from using just one light, and its not as slow as I remembered. It effectively calculates bounce light or "indirect" lighting, when combined with mental ray's sun light node (shown to great washed out effect in the final image) it starts looking really tasty. What I hadn't realised was final gather also calculates the colour of the bounced light so you get strong colours bleeding and reflecting onto nearby surfaces when brightly illuminated which really helps make the image feel cohesive and authentic. It also left me wondering what global illumination was, which I previously thought was for this colour bounce effect. Research time!

Click to enlarge:

I'm sure you also recognise our old friend ambient occlusion as well :)

I've been collecting interesting articles to share with you all, the mystery people who read my blog, and its been a while so there's quite a few.

Fascinating thoughts on Roger Ebert's refusal to acknowledge videogames as an art form, and whether we should even care what he thinks.

The debut trailer for the pioneering That Game Company's "Journey". If its even half as evocative as Flower it'll be worth your time. And here is the creative director talking about a number of topics not usually covered in an developer interview.

BBC's Panorama created a sensationalist documentary that, while raising the dangers of addiction in certain personalities, attempted to pin the blame on videogames. While its probably not on iplayer any more there's plenty of outraged prose to browse on the blogosphere.

Discussion of viable ways of getting into the industry from going Indie to getting a job as part of a bigger developer.

The game whose tech everyone is talking about because of it's ridiculous accuracy when it comes to facial motion capture. L.A Noire looks to build on all the great detective gameplay and digital acting Heavy Rain started, and deliver in a slicker package that will appear to the less open minded majority.

An incredibly affecting flash game that only lasts about 10 minutes and does exactly what it says on the tin. You have once chance to play this game, no amount of refreshing your browser will change this, believe me: I tried, after massively screwing up. The permanence of consequence explored by this game mechanic is something rare in a small flash game, and a pleasant surprise.

A good talk from one of the creators of Narbacular Drop, the game student project that became Portal, that touches on the differences between education and the industry. Invaluable stuff.

A wonderfully diverse talk on innovation from a number of more prominent Indie game developers at a panel in 2007. Each says his piece before they discuss points from their respective presentations and generally cerebral debate follows.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Metal Gear!?

An analytical essay on MGS4: GOTP that was for my A2 media coursework

How Does Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots Subvert the Conventions of the Genre? Why Does The Franchise Continue To Be So Popular?
The Metal Gear franchise has always been the intellectual property of Konami, developed by Kojima Productions and essentially the vision of one individual: Hideo Kojima; Kojima has been working on the Metal Gear concept, story and gameplay since the beginning. Consequently the institution is entirely Japanese; this has noticeably influenced the game in various ways with Japanese culture and mentality prevalent in the ideologies and themes perpetuated. On nearing the end of the game the player finds himself/herself manoeuvring Old Snake down a microwave rigged corridor, Snake is clearly struggling and it’s up to the player to repeatedly press the “Triangle” button to keep Snake from collapsing completely. The Japanese are notorious for their value system which endorses honour and a refusal to surrender during conflict. The player’s motive to reach the end of the irradiated corridor is to shut down a devastatingly powerful nuclear weapon known as a Metal Gear- this purpose is the ultimate goal and essential to the narrative development in all the Metal Gear games and it often culminates in one of the spectacular boss battles for which the franchise has become renowned. This theme of the threat from nuclear weaponry and warfare is another of the manifestations of Japanese history and culture upon the game. Though there are these references to the conflict that has passed between Japan and the U.S the game’s characters are predominantly American in order to cater for an international audience and maximise the product’s market.

Metal Gear Solid: Guns of the Patriots’ target audience spans 16 to the average gamer of 35, this slightly more elderly audience, I believe, is due to the complexity of the game’s narrative and the amount of attention the player must devote to the mythology of the Metal Gear franchise. Though this requires the investment of more time than the average plug-and-play game it creates greater brand loyalty as the player has now invested in the product emotionally, financially and spent more time with it than is healthy. The audience is predominantly male due to this thoroughly hardcore approach to gaming, also-while others subvert this stereotype; there is a certain female character whose appearance subscribes to Mulvey’s theory on the male gaze. The hardcore gaming market that is dominated by the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 consoles is far more gender specific to males than the Nintendo Wii and handheld systems which target a much more balanced audience. While the audience and institution of Metal Gear Solid is very male focused this is not the same for the industry as a whole: “Forty percent of all game players are women. In fact, women over the age of 18 represent a significantly greater portion of the game-playing population (33 percent) than boys age 17 or younger (18 percent).” - The institutions are also more balanced with successful producer Jade Raymond of Ubisoft and creative director Amy Hennig of award winning developers Naughty Dog.
The lengths of the Metal Gear Solid games make them great value for money. Consider that the average new DVD release cost £12 and contains several of hours of entertainment depending on bonus features etc, MGS4: GOTP cost £40 and contains 25 hours of entertainment which can vary; allowing for excellent re-playability on differing levels of difficulty plus infinite amounts of online multiplayer. The online multiplayer that has become a staple for current generation games as it adds a human element and brings diversity to the gameplay. With developers now creating DLC (downloadable content) they can now extend the period of time for which the gamer plays the game by steadily releasing expansions and updates over several months, this prevents the game joining the used game market which- while good for the gamer, is bad for the industry. The amount of entertainment that the average game delivers in comparison to a film has always been a strength of the industry and this value for money is what has lead to claims of the gaming industry being “recession proof”, though companies have gone bankrupt and people have lost jobs it is one of the industries that has seen the smallest decline in revenue. 

The Metal Gear Solid franchise has always been firmly rooted in the stealth genre whilst experimenting with aspects of various other genres and the subtitle demonstrates this clearly: “Tactical Espionage Action”. MGS4: GOTP employs mechanics and conventions from the action, role-playing and shooter genres, hybridising more than any of the previous Metal Gear Solid games. This has broadened the potential audience but possibly at the cost of disappointing the core fan base with its mild deviation from the formula that it has grown to love, but Metal Gear Solid has always been about innovation and MGS: GOTP is no exception. In the original Metal Gear Solid there was a battle against a boss called Psychomantis who possessed the abilities of mind reading and telekinesis. When he attempted to prove this he would read the save games from your memory card and depending on what games you had saved he would comment on your taste in games “so you like sports games.” When your attacks were ineffectual the solution was to switch controller ports in order to bypass his mindreading abilities. These literally “thinking outside the box” moments were what made the game so legendary. Metal Gear Solid’s self referential tendencies firmly place it in the self-conscious-formalism stage of Shatz’s genre cycle when it comes to narrative. In terms of gameplay it would be more appropriate to classify the game as a revisionist title. MGS4: GOTP has the inventory interface, stealth mechanics and iconography of a stealth game. It innovates and hybridises by adding action conventions in the form of a more substantial combat system. The role playing conventions come into play where Snake can choose to aid local militia and in return they will greet him as an ally; allowing him safe passage through their territory and supporting him on the battlefield.
The Metal Gear Solid franchise has always expressed ideologies, particularly on topics such as war and violence; that subvert the norms of the genre and videogames as a whole. Players are encouraged to complete missions without taking the lives of the enemy or triggering alarms and are even rewarded for this style of gameplay. There are guides on the internet devoted to explaining, step by step, how to go through the game in this way, for example: . It has become a kind of holy-grail of gaming. This anti-violent attitude is something that has always set the Metal Gear Solid series apart from other games, there is a particularly good example of this philosophy in the Playstation 2 prequel- Metal Gear Solid: Snake Eater. Snake Eater is set in the jungle adopting a new emphasis on survival; during the course of the game the player must undergo a series of boss fights against individuals whose names symbolise the emotional by-products of war: The Fear, The Pain, The Fury and The Sorrow. That context in mind, when you come to face The Sorrow the game completely changes and turns the traditional boss fight mechanics on end; instead becoming an emotional vehicle. The player finds himself/herself walking down a shallow river with mangroves either side, as you progress upstream the dead gravitate towards you. You cannot defend yourself from them. You cannot destroy them. These are the people whose lives, as the player, you have taken. Overhead looms The Sorrow himself narrating the sorrow and death you have caused. The emotive music, sense of helplessness, and subversion of everything a boss battle is: instead of making you feel powerful as you improbably defeat something significantly mightier than yourself you are rendered powerless, all work to bring home what the player has done under the guise of entertainment. It turns out it was all a dream that took place whilst you were unconscious and half drowning and the only way to escape is by taking a revival pill. It is through moments like this that MGS3: SE continued the subversive trend.

MGS4: GOTP opens with the protagonist, Solid Snake, dressed as part of the middle-eastern militia, travelling with other soldiers through a dry and inhospitable looking landscape that bears the connotations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Snake in previous games has been the stereotypical alpha male reluctant hero but this time there’s a twist, in MGS4: GOTP snake has suffered from advanced ageing due to his genetic condition. In MGS 1 snake carried a virus in his body designed by Naomi to infect the “terrorist” organisation he was infiltrating, by the events of GOTP Snake’s virus has mutated and developed the side effect of advanced ageing. This subversion of the stereotypical male protagonist has become increasingly popular with Hollywood in recent years, the most successful examples of this being John McLane from “Die Hard 4” and Indiana Jones from “Indiana Jones & the Kingdom of The Crystal Skull”. This could be in response to a post 9/11 state of mind where institutions resurrect heroes associated with a time when the superpowers of this world believed they were invincible. In the first twenty minutes Snake’s age is revealed, not only in his appearance but in the way he moves. During gameplay Snake gets back pains, has coughing fits and vomits, all in relation to the stress gauge that responds to the situation the player finds them self in. This mechanic helps to foster a connection between Snake and the player, a bond that will already exist for some from previous games and will only be strengthened by Snake’s suffering. While these subversions exist there are still aspects of Snake’s character that conform to the stereotype for example his severe smoking addiction. Though there are connotations attached to smoking that might classify it as a seriously cool activity, characters throughout the game reprimand Snake for this habit and reinforce the ideology that, while it may be perceived as mature and stylish, it is in fact lethal and probably the sole cause of Snakes ferocious coughing fits. So while on the surface it may appear that Snake is conforming to the stereotype, it is in actuality highlighting the impracticalities of the reality of this facet of the stereotype. Or is it merely enhancing his machismo by ignoring the repercussions of his self-destructive tendencies?
MGS4: GOTP’s representations of women are slightly contradictory at first glance. The characters Naomi and Eva are both clothed according to Mulvey’s male gaze. Naomi’s laboratory coat is always half unzipped down her font in a revealing manner, this bizarre exception to the otherwise intelligent representations in MGS4: GOTP is perhaps justified by the subversion of her stereotyped and submissive character later when she is revealed during a plot twist to have been the mastermind from beyond the grave who engineered the virus that destroyed the AI’s. Also balancing up these slightly sexist representations is Meryl’s character, a love interest in previous games, now turned professional soldier whose headstrong and dominating personality subverts the patriarchal values of videogames as a whole.
Snake’s attitude towards what he does is far from proud. When asked whether his age of heroes is finally over he responds: “I’m no hero; never was, never will be...” the inference is that killing and following orders are not heroic qualities, this reluctance to assume the mantle of “hero” only reveals qualities of humility within Snake’s character emphasising his role as a reluctant hero in the vein of a protagonist such as the previously mentioned John McLane. This stance on violence and death subverts the trivialisation of death that occurs in not only other stealth games but games in general. In comparison to the Splinter Cell series (where the player is a similarly aged agent) the varieties in which the player can dispose of the enemy: usually Russian, Chinese or some other nation that is deemed a threat to the U.S’ hegemonic stranglehold on global society, is what delights the audience, to sate the player’s bloodlust; a mysterious and primal desire to witness brutal acts of violence which are so far removed from their own reality. In MGS4: GOTP the player is given freedom of choice, this imposes an ideological quandary that the player must overcome according to the way they wish to experience the game. This choice between blazing a bloody pathway through the game’s levels and sneaking by unnoticed is the most obvious way in which MGS4: GOTP has straddled the divide between the stealth and action genres broadening the appeal of the game to a wider range of players as a consequence of this hybridisation.
Metal Gear Solid’s narrative is, and has always been, self indulgent and complex; employing parallel narratives, flashbacks and ellipsis. As a game, there are interactive elements to the cutscenes which are what lifts the videogame’s potential as a storytelling device above and beyond anything films could achieve as a passive medium. For example the flashbacks are player triggered; a signal in the corner of the screen during a cutscene indicates that there is a flashback of archive footage from a previous Metal Gear game that is relevant to the current scene, by tapping the “X” button the flashback will begin: adding context and deeper meaning to the players understanding of the events unfolding in the present. These moments will be recognised and remembered by players of the previous games and help to further associate themselves with Snake’s character as they will recall themselves playing through the moments re-presented in the flashbacks.

Kojima productions have always been praised for their ability to squeeze every drop of processing power out of which ever console they turn their hand to and this has resulted in the Metal Gear Solid games showcasing impressive production values leading game development in its technical advancements. It is generally agreed that in game design: technology is redundant without art and vice versa, MGS4: GOTP has both and it flaunts them in a ridiculous number of lengthy cutscenes as well as in game. These cutscenes are what make or break Metal Gear Solid as a franchise for the gamer. Some hate the large amount of narrative the player has to wade through (for the benefit of such people a skip function has been added in MGS4: GOTP) while others revel in the narrative’s depth and complexity. The Playstation 3 has afforded them the capability to create larger and more detailed environments for more expansive gameplay, better looking character models with higher polygon counts allowing for close up camera angles. Effects like depth of field, motion blur, camera shake, realistic physics simulation, particle effects, real-time lighting and high dynamic range lighting, longer draw distances and accurate water effects all contribute to the realism of the Metal Gear universe and the overall experience of the gamer.
All this new technology is presented in ways that make MGS4: GOTP’s cinematography some of the closest to film in gaming, Kojima even being hailed as a frustrated film maker responsible for further blurring of the line that divides film and games. Nearly all the shots that follow Snake are done in handheld, cinéma vérité style. This immerses the player in the experience by physically bringing the player closer to the character. When Snake is battling Gecko after Gecko (enormous bipedal biological robots) the screen is split down the centre to reveal a beautifully choreographed fist fight between Raiden and Vamp that uses the motion capture technology that has become increasingly popular in the current generation of videogames. This split screen technique is just one of the ways that MGS4: GOTP attempts to create for the player a greater sense of scale and context whilst without losing sight of who really matters to the player: the protagonist. During gameplay the camera, as in any 3rd person game, is under the player’s control and it is entirely up to them as how they wish to frame the action. This is a break away from the camera systems of the first 3 games, though there was a fully mobile camera in Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence- the amended version of Snake Eater (the 3rd game). In the original games there was a slightly angled top down camera which players had a small amount of control over. MGS4: GOTP gives the player total freedom over the camera and even an option to position the camera to look down the barrel of Snakes weapon; a convention from the FPS or first person shooter genre. It is through this convention that the player and Snake converge and are one and the same.
Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots is a game. Throughout this and the preceding three games the institution has gone out of their way to point this out to the gamer in an interesting choice to bring the player out of the experience. This is done on a number of occasions. In Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty for the first half of the game you play as Snake and the second half you play as Raiden. This was done to give players another perspective on the franchise’s protagonist before they made MGS3: SE which was a prequel to the first two and starred Naked Snake a.k.a Big Boss; so the 2nd game is in fact the one before the 4th chronologically.
In MGS2: SOL there are moments when the codec- the game’s primary source of dialogue and plot development, malfunction. These malfunctions alter the voices of the characters speaking, de-humanising their words which leaves the player wondering what’s going on. This enigma code (Barthes) leaves the player speculating as to what is wrong. As the game progresses the codec starts saying some really bizarre things and Snake explains how the virtual reality training missions that Raiden undertook are just the same as what the Metal Gear they are currently trying to shut down is doing to them; it is not reality, you are within a virtual reality created by the Metal Gear. This surreal “Russian doll” situation, where the player is experiencing a virtual reality (the game) of a character experiencing a virtual reality (Metal Gear), reminds the player that the game is just intangible entertainment. This realisation links the game with the player’s reality and causes all the characters, narratives and ideologies in the game to hold additional relevance and truth. Then a large number of enemies appear and if you die the game over screen appears, but within the window that usually displays your corpse the action continues. The patterns and rules within which the player expects the game to unfold are broken and the player is forced to stop and think. How can I beat the game when it doesn’t follow the rules? Every gamer has expectations in a game of what can and can’t be done, what to do, where to go; it’s the re-writing of these rules that provides the player with a fresh and new experience. It is perhaps the greatest strength of the Metal Gear Solid franchise.
Other moments like this include The Psychomantis and The Sorrow boss battles I mentioned earlier. MGS4: GOTP’s moment of genius innovation is perhaps more subtle. Right from the beginning MGS4: GOTP, through Snake’s narration, sets the scene by telling the player how war economy has become the largest in the world and private military companies (PMCs) fight proxy battles for reasons that the soldiers never believed in. The Patriots, an organisation introduced in MGS2: SOL, are now extinct and in their place are three enormous AIs they built to govern the world’s economies, resources and governments. These AIs were so advanced that they have now evolved to understand that a world constantly at war is a world of scarcity and profit. Along with the advancement of the AIs came the implementation of nano-machines into the soldier’s bloodstream and a system called Sons of the Patriots. Snake has an older version of the nano-machines, by using a syringe to suppress them he can bypass their effects upon him; this is the way in which you defeat the final boss in the beauty and the beast corps (a group of female soldiers whose traumatic childhood experiences with war have crippled their minds). The beauty and the beast corps are the doppelgangers of the original bosses from MGS game on Playstation 1.

These nano-machines in conjunction with SOP allowed soldiers heart rates, adrenaline, thoughts and emotions to be monitored, regulated, suppressed and ultimately controlled by the AI. This essentially takes away everything that was human from the soldiers and they become a tool. “Now-a day’s anyone with a computer can get combat training. The FPS games that these children love are distributed for free by these companies. It’s so easy for them to get absorbed by these war games and before they know it they’re in the PMCs holding real guns, these kids end up fighting in proxy wars that have nothing to do with their own lives.”-Eva This truth is so relevant with the way our media manipulates our perception of reality with carefully censored representations that strengthen the hegemonic grip it holds over our freedom. The groundbreaking conspiracy film “Zeitgeist” shares a lot of these views with MGS4: GOTP but instead applies them to contemporary society: the nano-machines are substituted for micro-chipping, the AIs for giant banking institutions and soldiers for ordinary members of society. The war economies that the AIs profit from in MGS4 are a direct parallel for the few elite individuals who create conflict to further their own agenda. It is these elements of the narrative that make it so powerful and so significant that the player really feels the story because it is his/her story, not only because he/she is Snake but because these things are really happening. Though Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots presents itself as only a game; the story it tells is one that could be said to surpasses previous standards in the medium

I'm hugely impressed if you got this far.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

The Imaginators

I remember the first time I got to use my Mum's Panasonic camcorder when I was maybe somewhere in between 6 and 9 years old. The first thing me and my sister did with this fascinating device was to film an epic starring our cuddly toys. Not just one epic though, "The Beanie & Boonie Comedy Show" ran for a good 10 episodes over two or more mini DV cassettes constituting over 3 hours of footage. I loved that thing, the way the stories we'd been playing out could now be immortalised and shared kept me filming for years, even in those early days I was already mimicking film conventions before I really new what they were for, there were crazy close ups, slow-motion (faked, naturally), titles that were no more than sheets of paper with my appalling hand writing on. The structures and ideals that media embed into our malleable minds from a very young age would flow from my imagination with fully formed narratives involving heroic ducks, evil monkeys, hysterical elephants and the domestic troubles of a pair of owls. Its amazing how watching these things back; the mind edits out the hands holding the toys and the voices appear to emerge from the characters themselves, but I can only imagine that to a viewer who didn't participate in these film's creation, all that appears on the screen is two kids playing with toys.

Watching the Toy Story 3 bonus features suddenly reminded me of The Beanie & The Boonie comedy show, and perhaps brought me to the root of why these films had such meaning for me, and anyone who remembers a similar childhood. The beauty of Toy Story for me is also in the premise itself. It was the first computer animated feature film and what does it choose as its subject matter? The imagination of a child and the act of bringing inanimate objects to life through imagination. How perfect is that as a comment on the medium and a start to a flawless run of animated films? (nobody mention Cars). When Woody runs, the exaggerated flailing of limbs and excess of energy is such a perfect depiction of a Toy imbued with imagined life that the audience is always reminded of what the Toys live for. I am now 20 years old, and I didn't hand on my toys to a little girl under a Pixar sun, in a suburban American garden, bathed in purple shadow. I'm holding on to every bit of that past, there's a reason I became an animator...

On a different note. I recently purchased Castlevania: Lord of Shadows. What a pile of crap. Its basically Crash Bandicoot but much much shinier. I love me some Crash Bandicoot, it was the first videogame I ever played, in the days of the original Playstation. It's linear level design, fun platforming gameplay, charm, and one the best theme tunes in gaming all helped establish Crash as a mascot for his platform and genre. 14 years later and Castlevania: Lord of Shadows is employing much the same design techniques well over a decade too late. Its almost as if the developer's realised this and decided they needed to cobble together some more gameplay elements to create a bit of variety, so they stole some more stuff from Naughty Dog with a simplified version of Uncharted's platforming, they stole a few boss fights from Shadow of the Colossus-even nicking their grab mechanic and power points that had to be stabbed. This all amounted to something a little like a diluted God of War so they added some quicktime events just to complete the overall sense of deja vu thievery, if you're wondering what Kojima's contribution was to this smorgasbord of plagiarism it would probably be the pointless cut scenes that break up the "gameplay" (again, I love metal gear solid's cut scenes but they don't really add anything to Castlevania when they show you walking into the next area every 2 minutes).  Castlevania: Lord of Shadows, from what I hear, is almost nothing like the franchise its supposed to be based on, so why not draw from that and bring it onto the current generation of consoles instead of just taking a quick look at what some of today's games are doing and pilfering it.

In other news the 11 Second Club results are in and I came a mildly disappointing 70/295. I was hoping for a top 50. Its interesting how some I was sure I'd beat were popular and others that I thought were masterpieces didn't do nearly as well. My animation clocked an impressive 24 comments (well, I was impressed) nearly all remarking on the vomit inducing handicam-seriously fuck you, its awesome, and the shiny rendering- yeah I know it was a cheap shot. But others were genuinely constructive. Here are some highlights:

  • Matt 3 days ago
    Rander and effects are awesome, but animation needs improving, maybe by making some stronger poses to make the character look more agressive i.e have him point the shovel and the dude on the ground when yelling you stole it! But still nice job though!
  • Edgardo C. Padilla Jr. 3 days ago
    I don't see any problems here but I kinda wish there were more close up shots of their faces since its dialogue driven.
  • Olly Skillman-Wilson 3 days ago
    frame that shit tighter next time Olly, cant even see their bloody faces.
  • Alexander Baert 3 days ago
    Very nice piece! The gag with the lightning could have a bigger impact with a cut to a wider shot, more sky (he could be strecthed more also, making a stronger pose, and we would see the top of the spade, attracting the lightning going from top to bottom through him), and him actually getting burned or ellectrocuted, now it seems a bit 'on top' of him. Nice animation, both the guys dropping is very well done! The hands of the angry guy needs attention when he climbs out, they seem flat all the time. Cheers!
  • Tyler Johnston 2 days ago
    This is good. I think it will rate higher based on the great production values. I am 50-50 on the camera; while I think the movement is really well done, I'm not sure what purpose it serves to drive the story. Is it supposed to be another person's POV? Is the camera supposed to be floating on the water? I think you might want revisit it (but that's just one person's opinion). I think the animation itself is good, but given the cinematic treatment you have given it, I think you could have pushed it a bit further. When looking past all the glam, it seems a bit on the timid side. Obviously you've got a solid skill set here, so I think you can handle the harsher critique. I do like the staging, although with the lighting I feel like we loose out on the emotions of the characters somewhat, especially the angry guy. Nice work overall, keep at it =)
  •   Adriano Mariotto 2 days ago
    more appeal, the camera movement distracts, the faces not be able to read. good body mechanics, good poses, good idea.

    keep animating! 
  • David Wardell 1 day ago
    Concentrate less on the high-tech handheld look and the unnecessary action and special effects. You're a good animator, but you need to improve your timing and exaggeration if you're gonna make it. 
    Yeah that's right, I commented on my own video. This is probably the last post before Christmas, I'll keep blogging hopefully as I have a couple of things planned.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

The Science of Motion

As we near the deadline for this terms major projects I've been working to get my experimental piece done in time now that my 11 second club entry is taken care of (though worryingly it won't upload to the site). Before yesterday I only had 15 seconds of pixelation and some hand drawn stuff to go on top, by some miracle it has now fully formed into something I'm really pleased with.

Spontaneity 1 : 0 Organisation

Yesterday I took my camera out, to the nearby stream, with the intention of shooting some splashes of water to sync with the piano chords of my music clip of choice: the crazy jazzy blues one. I had fun running around in the undergrowth get muddy, soggy, and throwing rocks in the water, doesn't get much further from a sitting in front of a computer than that. It was really sunny and the light shone through the branches in a particularly cinematic way, at this point in winter the sun doesn't rise higher than about half way up the sky so there its like extended evening light. But it wasn't long before it clouded over, but I carried on, finding some crimson berries to animate to the tinkling of piano scales.

This done I returned home, stopping for a pasty and a plastic bag to shelter my camera from the rain. As I returned- berries in pocket, I realised I'd spent the majority of this project in front of a screen, instead of having adventures like that morning, so why not comment in this in the animation itself. When I got home I continued to animate, and crafted a metaphor for the dialogue between man and machine that occurs in digital animation, to remind me which comes first, the man, or the machine.

Friday, 26 November 2010

11 Seconds of Forever IV

My brain is the consistancy of that mush that bananas turn into when they rot, so no fancy prose today. Here is just under a months worth of animating in fully rendered form. I say fully rendered, I'm still not convinced by this motion vector business added in post, though thats coming form a purist ;)
I fear my dabbling in render passes will turn out to be more experimental than my experimental project, but I'll see what I can do to rectify that over the next few days.

I would love for this to do well in the competition, these things matter to me in the silliest ways, at least it matters when I've invested so much time and effort. And time. Did I mention effort?

Part of whats motivated me is this GDC business, to have something I'm proud of that showcases core skills which is purely my own, this ticks all those boxes, and will hopefully be an important addition the slowly expanding showreel. Something to show people who I am should I meet anyone or even get there in the first place. I've got to say it makes brilliant repeat viewing!

I implore you watch this full screen HD.

Monday, 22 November 2010

11 Seconds of Forever III

All animation for the 11 second club is now done except for the lip sync on the second character so here is one final work in progress before the final submission. Lip syncing has turned out to be surprisingly quick, mostly because I haven't done it to a particularly high standard. Considering the handicam style cinematography you just can't see his face that clearly and any flaws that appear in a close up just aren't noticeable, at least not in a high resolution playblast. This is both welcome, and a shame, I may have to experiment with different camera techniques to best frame the scene. The second character is more aligned with the camera so hopefully I'll be able to get some really expressive dialogue from him. Youtube willing I'll have the clip up here, but right now its refusing to upload anything so for now here are some shiny renders:

And the obligatory motion blur, you love it ;)

Meanwhile the gaming critique blogosphere continues to churn out prose on yesterdays, today's, and tomorrows games. Here is a place to find the best of it, including a particularly interesting article which talks about something I've always thought about in relation to war games, and a presentation on social gaming, realism, and gamification which devolves into a crazed rant. Fascinating all the same, I wouldn't put this stuff up if it wasn't important (to me at least) or thoughtful so please give them a read/watch.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Hellish Cutlery

Its that time of night again when my mind wont shut down and I turn to the prose. At least its not addictive or detrimental to my health, physical or otherwise.

I want to go to GDC. I want to go to GDC. I want to go to GDC. I want to go to GDC. I want to go to GDC. I want to go to GDC. I want to go to GDC. I want to go to GDC. I want to go to GDC. I want to go to GDC. I want to go to GDC. I want to go to GDC. I want to go to GDC. I want to go to GDC. I want to go to GDC. I want to go to GDC. I want to go to GDC. I want to go to GDC. I want to go to GDC, seems to be the pattern of my thoughts.

This involves booking flights in excess of £400 and booking accommodation for about £300, then applying for the volunteer program (writing an essay justifying why you should be chosen) where I work 20 hours in exchange for an all access pass to the conference which is an extraordinary opportunity. Thing is I wont know if I've got a place until January 5th, which is far too late to book flights etc, so I'd have to book early and then later cancel if I failed. Is there a deposit or cancellation fee? Or do you forfeit the whole lot? No idea. Are the flights even sensible times that I can actually be at the airport for?

Why do I want to go to GDC in the first place? Well just about everyone I mention in this blog post will be attending plus just about every leading game development company to talk in detail about everything from the mechanics of game design to where the industry is heading, where it should be heading, whats interesting, whats important, what will further the medium as an artform? All these fascinating people in just one place to converse and discuss the very things that interest me most. On top of that it would a great opportunity to present some work of my own to developers, get some feedback, get my name out there in some form.

All this makes for one psychotic cocktail of a headache, compounded by an 11 second animation where each frame feels like a battle in itself, and an experimental animation that won't get done on its own. Surely all this is some kind of indication of a fork and the road, a hellish piece of cutlery, prongs firmly impaling the pathway. I feel so naive, but if I can somehow force this beast of an event to manifest, that would magical.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

11 Seconds of Forever II

Another week goes by and production seems to slow rather than quicken, its as if time creates a membrane through which my animation has to pass, each frame becoming harder to key.

Recently Dan posted a video that caught my attention (not least because of my recent Half Life experience of admiration, mild obsession, and ultimately disappointment). This  epic animation was done by James Benson who has some interesting tutorials demonstrating his approach to animating, which is more akin to stop motion than CGI. I found these pretty helpful, they're worth your time.

Here's my work in progress for this week, its developed quite a bit since last week but not necesarily in the ways I intended, for example less animating and more:

  • Camera Shake
  • Lighting
  • Fixed Eyes
  • Set Decorations

Click to enlarge:
Shiny Shot No. 2:

I'm just starting to hit my stride so with more hard work I'll have a finished block through for next week so I can start lip syncing! Thrilling stuff.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

11 Seconds of Forever

coming soon...

I thought I'd see if i could procrastinate some more and avoid animating by:

Sunday, 7 November 2010


Here is my work in progress for the 11 second club so far.

But this clip is more of a disguise because what I really want to share is this blog post and the information it contains. The Witness is what Jonathan Blow, Braid creator, is currently working on, and in this blog post he address the quality of most game texturing and how it often detracts from the beauty of the modelled geometry. I happen to agree. I think its the reason I love ambient occlusion so much, it describes a three dimensional object's form in the purest way:

Mr Blow goes on to reference a particularly important pdf of Naughty Dog's art direction presentation at GDC this year. As I was reading it I realised I actually didn't have much of an idea of what game geometry looked like and what kinds of detail were possible, it was fascinating to see how techniques like instancing, shader blending and all kinds of crazily innovative design methods allowed Naughty Dog to create what is probably the most stunningly beautiful game I've ever played. How they budget detail on everything from models to textures to lighting and rendering is what makes this presentation a masterclass in how to make a game look good in the most efficient way possible.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010


Our month of the 11 second club has begun. I have been pondering various ideas for different scenarios that could explain the dialogue in this month's sound bite, the one I've settled on isn't especially original and I'm sure there'll be numerous other entries like it but it ticked a number of boxes including explaining the crackle of flames in the background, it allowed for the conflict between the two characters, and it allowed my to give the character's props that would give their hands something do whilst the scene plays out. This first reference video is before I had decided to add props so theres a lot of flailing which, while comic, isn't very expressive.

This next one involves one character holding a shovel and standing next to the freshly dug hole, while the other is holding a flaming torch to see by in the dead of night, dramatic I know. For some reason the sync is off a bit on the sound in the this one but don't let that tarnish your enjoyment of the fantastic, and nuanced acting exhibited here:

At this point I'm resisting watching the original clip for fear of it manipulating my view of the scene and limiting my clearly immensely creative idea. I just know if I watch it I'll end up subconsciously working it into my animation, maybe when this month is done I'll watch it in its entirety.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

What: Extended Edition

"How extended?"

"Oh, two whole brand new scenes!"

"No really, how much more is there?"

"(sigh) About 35 seconds."

We always planned to enter this short into animation festivals and competitions but not in the sorry state it was, so we all pledged that over summer we'd knuckle down and continue to work on it. But we didn't. I managed to animate and render one new shot, and there was one which we'd rendered before but not in time for the original deadline. With these new additions the runtime doesn't look quite so feeble; but as one of the new shots introduces the Detective character, the plot makes even less sense than it did before.

Enjoy. Spread the word. Don't expect to see it win anything. And please, watch it full screen and HD.

  • Dan Emmerson: Director, Animator, Character Modeller, Rigger.
  • Hugh Herbert: Producer, Animator, Environmental Modeller.
  • Olly Skillman-Wilson: Character Modeller, Rigger, Animator, Texture Artist, Lighting Director, Rendering Technician.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Emotive Change

This animation is supposed to show a change of emotion using only body language and poses, instead of relying on blatant facial expression. I'll let you watch before I explain and taint your perception of whats going on the characters mind.

I imagined a scenario where the character is anticipating the bliss of cold ice cream on a sunny day, and seems eager, almost impatient. Then as he fumbles for some cash to pay the ice cream man he doesn't pay attention to the angle at which he's holding his ice cream and the scoops tumble from the cone onto the floor. Devastated at the waste of ice cream he forlornly pokes with his foot, then as loss turns to rage he raises his foot and stomps on it violently. I'm reasonably pleased with the final  animation though it looks a little broken due to me playing with the focal something in the camera settings. Motion blur is back! (along with its good friend lens flare) and my god have I missed it ;)

In other news I'm still continuing my half life 2 play through, I have just started Episode  II and for some reason it barely runs, visually it looks about the same as episode one, and I used to play on nigh on mazimum settings, now I have to play it looking like sh*t just so it'll run smoothly. I don't get it.

When I read Extra Lives by Tom Bissell, there was a quote on the back of the book from a guy called Michael Abbot. Michael Abbot teaches a course at a university that studies readings of importance, be it cultural aesthetic of otherwise. The term readings is very broad and students on the course will read novels, plays, watch films and, for the first time, play a game. When pitching this addition to the course the game chosen was Portal. This game was chosen because of its antagonist; whose role in guiding, fooling, and delighting the player has great relevance to other texts on the course, and is also a leading example of the sophistication that is possible, but painfully absent, in contemporary games. Everyone go play it.

Michael Abbot runs a blog and podcast called The Brainy Gamer which functions to provide analysis and critique on gaming and the industry as a whole, its well worth following. Another aspect of the Brainy Gamer blog in the Vintage Games Club, a club that anyone can join that serves to bring people together for communal play throughs of "vintage" games that many gamers from this generation may have missed or never even heard of, its a great way to discover some of the best games from yesteryear and then have a whole bunch of people there to discover it with you, and discuss each others experiences. Currently they're playing Planescape: Torment, and for the first time I've joined them.

Its nice playing an old game, where conventions like cut scenes don't disrupt the game play, and heavy handed tutorials don't treat the player like a cretin. Planescape is a game where the themes are tightly woven into the gameplay, its about discovery and death/life, so when you "respawn" there's a plausible context for that occurance that reinforces the game mechanice of dying and resurrecting, you literally start in a mortuary every time you die.

Due to the protagonist's amnesia, you know nothing about yourself, so the player is free to explore, uncover memories, have conversations with NPCs that reflect who you want the character to be, and support the core gameplay of exploration. The conversations are all text based excpet for a few key lines from the supporting characters, but because of this text, the developer was able to create a world where nearly everyone has something to say and a branching conversation for you to take part in, this makes the Planes feel like a rich and alive place, though it does make for a lot of reading. God forbid we should have to read text in a modern console game.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010


Sorry, no motion blur, again...

This guy just looks like he should be whistling a happy tune, so I know I got something right even the the route I took to get the end result was hardly direct. This wasn't what I planned.


  • I didnt come up with the double bounce
  • His head is kind of immobile
  • No motion blur
  • One arm swings back more than the other

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Golden Pixels

On reaching my semicentennial (50th) blog post I am finally ready to post my modelled head.

Though not madnatory I really got into this assignment, it was the excuse I'd been long searching for to break out Mudbox, a high end sculpting peice of autodesk software. The process involves creating a basic model in Maya using the traditional polygonal stuff of translating, scaling and rotating stuff until it vaguely resembled the photographic reference Nigel had kindly shot for me:

Using the orthographic views I lined up the silhouettes of the models to the reference photos and slowly the face started to take shape. I was at this point only modelling one side of the face, which would later be mirrored.

To avoid an uncanny valley effect as much as possible I took this mirrored model and, using the reference photos, tried to match all the asymmetry in my face to create a more organic looking and authentic model. Apparently I have an innocent and evil side to my face, one side mirrored in Photoshop creates a maniacal sadist and the other a angel of purity.

Once this base model was made I imported it into Mudbox and began my first attempt at sculpting. I started with the ears as they required detail I wasn't willing to go into in Maya, then, due to the asymmetry, I did the other ear. Next I moved onto the hair, I detailed the fringe quite accurately and then did broad strokes for the tufts and strands on the head.

What Mudbox is really great for is texturing, It has the layering system of photoshop, but instead of painting over a UV snapshot after the unwrapping process you can paint textures straight onto the model using a projection brush which (ironically) projects an image or brush of your choice over the model and you paint away. You can even make separate bump or specular layers.

Not having reference photos for the back and top of the head I now have a pretty interesting hair style that involves pasting the sides of my hair all over the place.
 As you can see by this point I was crawling somewhere in the horrorific trough of the uncanny valley struggling to scramble up the otherside, doesn't help he doesn't have eye textures yet.

Here is the final turn around. I struggled with displacement and sub surface scattering shaders til 2am and it still looks like latex but it doesn'et matter too much. No motion blur either, epic fail.