The Pixel Crush

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

Thursday, 24 March 2011


The post production project is over and done with, so is cinematography, and as I write, my printer is churning out the two pages of masterfully constructed literary criticism that are due in tomorrow. Which concludes this term, though that won't stop me carrying on work on The Last Trophy  through Easter, plus a couple of other things I have planned.

I feel I've said all I need to about this and its been a good combination of excuses, pride, and information so enjoy the full clip.

Though me and Hugh didn't win at our small award ceremony, I believe we still deserve recognition for our epic use of lens flare, radial blur, and chromatic aberration.

And in case you wanted a peak inside such brilliant and creative minds, here is the interview we had to record as part of the project for some reason.

For some reason I completely neglected to put my showreel in an actual blog post, though it now has its own page on the blog. Or maybe I did put it up and can't find it/remember where it is. Hello Games, the company behind Joe Danger on the Playstation Network, put up a job listing and it sounded so perfect that I scrambled a very thin CV together, along with some turntables I rendered out specially, and my most presentable animation clips for the showreel. It took about a week and made me realise that I have a nice range of work from the my time here in Falmouth, but only a few things that really make me proud, or really illustrate the best I can be. I plan to correct those over the course of everything I ever do from now onwards.

These literature reviews feel like they really snuck up on me, one moment we're all sitting there having tutorials and talking about potential research and then suddenly five hundred words a piece seems insurmountably lengthy on the deadline unbelievably soon. Luckily, I visited the library on a sunny afternoon and found to my joy a whole shelf dedicated to videogame theory, study, design, culture. Even two books which I'd been considered ordering were there, who knew that such a holy place of academia could shelter works whose subject was the bastard medium of this generation? So the last few days have been dedicated to pretending its not warm and sunny, and my fascination with videogames extends to the dullest areas of the medium, wherein dwell subjects like procedural rhetoric, and incoherent world fiction...okay I lied, that stuff fascinates me too.

 Speaking of which, must be time for...

Pixel Propaganda

What was probably weeks ago, I read this piece that examines the ways in which a games systems might relate a story or theme to the player, its never been more relevant with all this research, and its still something that very few games are literate enough in their own mode of expression to do.

I completed my play through of Amnesia: Dark Descent, and its everything I hoped it would be, the enigma  of the whole scenario really picks up towards the end of the game and the focus seems to shift away from horror, in order to emphasize other emotions, though that doesn't make the memories you uncover any less disturbing. I wont include this screenshot except by link in case people don't want to see it but there were some pretty f*cked up tortures in the 17th century. (All Amnesia's tortures draw from actual historical events.)

Agrippa, your jawless buddy with a favour to ask.

As you reach the final leg of the game you are introduced to Agrippa, whose character is impaired a number of supernatural ways, but as the first living character you meet who doesn't want to dismember you, the player instantly forms a connection with him, and Agrippa offers the only chance from redemption in the game. Once again Frictional Games prove that use of contrast in their games creates storytelling moments that resonate much more with the player than 90% of AAA titles, which is pretty impressive for five guys in Sweden. Here's a blog post from them about character creation.

Once again Michael Thomsen provides an interesting take on a current release, this time being Killzone 3.

Though I wasn't at GDC, it appears a lot of content from the talks, seminars and panels can be accessed in audio, slideshow, and video form! AMAZING!

A little indie game called Trine came out a year or two ago, didn't seem like anything special, but its getting a sequel, my god is the trailer pretty:

My brain is too frazzled to proof read, so apologies for retardedness in the way of grammar and spelling.

Sunday, 13 March 2011


This week me and Hugh finally got all our cinematography footage that we needed (or so we thought).
After numerous takes of my spitting out some foul tasty diluted fake blood, we were happy with the final result, complete with epic lens flare and door kicking. The lens flare even serves an important story function of obscuring the antagonist's face and keeping his identity secret to the audience. Unfortunately a couple of shots are over-exposed and out of focus but the hand-held style and pacey editing both help hide these little slip ups.

This is the first draft which we showed Frankie, he liked the style and temporary music, but wanted us to add a couple of shots and change the order to better clarify the relationship between our only two characters. Though to me its fairly clear who is chasing who, Frankie felt that captions and additional footage is needed. We shall see.

Torture Island (First Draft) from Hugh Herbert on Vimeo.

We've talked about pushing the hyperbolic B-movie style aesthetic that we seem to have developed, plus that takes the pressure off any story shortcomings. I have a list of excuses for the story which keep circling round my head, there's nothing wrong with the story, apart from the fact is slightly pointless, but its not really a story at all. Its just a plot. There is no underlying message, over arcing theme, or any redeeming value to what is currently just a series of events that are presented in a mildly thrilling way. Story is really important to me and its something I'm dying to explore and develop but I've found this cinematography project something of a false vessel for my narrative hopes.

The Panasonic P2 camera that we've all been using
A 90 second limit is too short to establish anything interesting, and just the fact we don't have any actors limits what we can do with characters. The module is called cinematography after all and its been great to get to use the cameras and experiment with different techniques, but Frankie has stressed the importance of preparation of story and it just feels a shame that this emphasis feels frustrating. Though now I'm starting to think its my lack in ingenuity rather than constraints that has limited our ability to tell a compelling 90 second story.

Meanwhile on The Last Trophy more scenes are becoming available for me to light as geometry and textures are still getting churned out. While this is a fairly simple outdoor scene (in terms of lighting, obviously there are a lot of complex models) I've been trying to exaggerate the bounce light off the plants and bring out their wide range of colours, while this sometimes looks like a disco in the shadows, it looks vibrant and alive in other places. I'll have to work on finding a balance.

Looking more like sand dunes than anything at this point...
Boosted saturation on the Physical Sky node for extra green undersides on the mushrooms
I spent a ridiculously long time just to get a plane in the sky that I could shine sun light through to create this dappled effect. Maya is very picky with her file formats when it comes to alpha channels. I accidentally saved the render without colour management so it appears very dark, it looks lovely and shaded with the proper gamma correction. It shouldn't take too much work to create a simple warping effect, export it as an image sequence, and we can then have swaying dappled lighting. I tried doing this as a gobo, which is a real world lighting technique where you fake shadows by putting a stencil in front of the light. This is done using a simple alpha texture on the lights intensity in Maya but unfortunately it didn't work, probably because I was using it on the Physical sun node, so I'm stuck with the not-so-elegant solution of a plane for now.
Dappled Lighting
The Post Production deadline is looming in a menacing way and I'm still having a little trouble pasting together different elements of two tracks which have different bits that work, and bits that are downright broken. I've spent the last two days, pretty much non-stop, working on this and going round in circles, but, I'm starting to get somewhere, at least in terms of rendering it all out, in the shiniest of fashions.

Winch, complete with shadows, final gather and reflections.
The "use background" shader, which receives shadows but only displays whatever is in the background works perfectly in Maya, unless you want to use the physical sun & sky nodes (I see a patten forming, luckily you're worth it mental ray, xxx) so after doing some research, it turns out you need to use a mental ray production shader and plug it into the shadow section of the shading group's output shaders.

Tweaked lighting, better reflections, no shadows or final gather on the ground though.
 I think its because these production shaders aren't tested by Autodesk themselves that they don't show up in the hypershade, this means I had to type a createNode command into the MEL command line in order to create a node just to make some shadows appear. What the f*ck Maya? I shouldn't have to type sh*t just to do something that should be automatic, or at the very least a click and drag.
The upside is I've discovered some really really useful shaders in the production library, not least my new best friend, mip_motionblur! This is basically vector based motion blur that's applied to the image at render time, it has all the positives of doing it in post (the smoothness, the customisation, the ridiculous amount of render time saved) and none of the hassle. Genius. This is getting closer to the finished look, the final gather is a bit much in places and I've had to turn it off for a couple of things as it looks like sawdust coming of the brighter objects:

Final Gather, all in your face
Pixel Propaganda

At GDC there were some really interesting talks and panels that I would've have given anything to attend. Among them was a talk by legendary game designer and advocate of procedural narrative Clint Hocking, here are some notes from someone who was actually there.

Though none of the trailers really communicated the sheer amount of style and personality contained in the film, I went to see Rango and was really surprised how awesome it was, visually stunning, hilarious, and quirky enough to have the characters stick in your mind it was refreshing.

I was reading a fascinating blog post by one of  the designers at Frictional Games, the guys who made Amnesia: Dark Descent, about the essence of story, and how not only game's but other media, make the mistake of assuming that plot is story. Plot is merely the events that string the audience along from moment to moment, while story is the themes at the heart of it. Worth a read as its said better than that and in a more refined manner. This lead me to purchase Amnesia, which I'd read plenty of good things about anyway, in the hope I could witness some of this designer's narrative first hand. Though I feared for my sanity slightly. So I've taken some screen shots to document it:

The night I quit in a panic, only to have this greet me on my next play through...
Flashback Motion Trails and Colour Correction
 So far its been an utterly terrifying experience and a nice combination of familiar conventions like flashbacks, diaries, and items, mixed with a new approach to survival horror; running instead of fighting, hiding instead of fighting, piling stuff against doors and praying the shadow will go away (lots of this) instead of fighting. You are in fact so useless that the whole thing is terrifying, and it the game lets you know the your mental state through visual cues, you can then regain sanity but keeping in the light, and making progress.

Peering into the darkness
Insanity Distortion, Perspective Warp, and a nasty scratching sound.
I ranted a few posts ago about the lack of contrast in games, both in terms of genre and general tone. I've been playing amnesia with the developer commentaries on which occasionally spoils bits of story but its very interesting and this issue of contrast was raised. I had entered a brightly lit (in relation to the rest of the game) area with the sound of running water after leaving a dungeon where I had barely escaped but ripped limb from limb, the designer spoke about using both the lighting and sound design to calm the player after this event in order to let them relax for a second and focus on the next puzzle, whilst also create emotional space for the next big scare.

This area is "brightly lit" and that yellow thing is the commentary

And finally a nice little article on a game design challenge where some prominent developers in the Indie scene were charged with making a religious game or mod for GDC, Jason Rohrer won with a minecraft mod that has an interesting story behind it's making.