The Pixel Crush

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

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Once Upon A Pixel...

Story time.

Since what was probably nearly a week ago now I've been angsting over the same things I was grappling with in summer. I was supposed to be prepared so this didn't happen, but I failed to base my initial idea on anything more than environmental or political ideas. My Frankenstein of a story I had neglected to give a heart, so when the feedback came that it needed to be cut down, without its complexity it would've been a husk. So me and Loz opted for the backup plan, to develop a second idea in double time. This back up idea was one I had suggested to Loz back when I was having a particularly despairing moment about Specimen Paisley and he reassured me we were onto something and shouldn't change tack (rightly so) and the context I had tacked on was just that- tacked on.

Early, Early Concept Art From Summer.
Coming back to it with no alternative has been an interesting and creatively harrowing experience, to resurrect that concept and try and grow something intriguing, symbolic, and evocative out of its literally fertile imagery and visual metaphor has not been easy. But we know this, all I ever seem to whine about now is my chronic inability to tell a story. Well, I have surfaced triumphant, or to something that creates a thoroughly convincing illusion of triumph. Or maybe its more proof of chronic inability, ultimately its for an audience to decide. I will present this new script with the single caveat that being a dialogue-less animated short the majority of storytelling is visual, therefore a script is not the ideal format for it, so use your imagination and think about it.

Kernel (Working Title) Script

There are a number of people who I owe a debt to for providing feedback and allowing me to bounce ideas of them whilst they tell me theirs, and I encourage you to do the same.

Meanwhile I'm transferring Noel's (now Leonard: cue confusion all round) uber detailed sculpt onto the original low polygon model in readiness for facial rigging. This process also required some better unwrapping than my shoddy job last year so that the displacement map (the texture that creates all the wrinkle and pore detail) was better distributed across the face. Where there was pixelly blotches before, around the nose and ears, there is now a smooth texture creating all the little blemishes I first sculpted. But until I got that point there were the glitch renders, which I love.
Nothing like spending 7 minutes waiting for a constructive preview of your work only to be shown what it looks like when Maya b*tch slaps Mental Ray in the face.
Also when downscaling the fur description from the 10:1 scale Mudbox sculpt Noel's beard went rogue with some spectacular results.
Note the fancy cinemscope aspect ratio.
Here the downscaling also meant I had to tone down the displacement maps alpha gain from 1.00 to 0.10 in order to avoid retarded results: pro tip for anyone experiencing the correct displacement at monstrous values.
Part Brain Coral, Part Clay Beast.
But of course if you press all the buttons for long enough then you eventually find the right one.
I win, at last.
This render breaks my heart a little bit, hopefully if I can inspire some sort of empathetic response in the audience it won't matter what symbolism I'm trying to convey because they'll care regardless.
Now back to storyboarding again, then animatic, then pitch, then production!

Pixel Propaganda

More fascinating stuff on the dynamic character AI in the Bioshock Infinite E3 Demo, this time narrated by Ken Levine and two other important members of the Irrational Games team.

A talk explaining the elaborate and fascinating lighting tech in Crysis 2.

This Extra Credits episode explains why the "it's just a game" argument doesn't hold up anymore, god I hate it when people say that.

Gamasutra interview the narrative designer and writer of Deus Ex: Human Evolution and at last I'm excited for this game a month too late, love me some behind the scenes narrative mechanics. Brilliant. Excuse any typos, it's 3:30am.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Requiescat In Pacé

Recently I went on a 12 day European adventure; towards the end of which I visited Rome for 24 hours.
Rome. Circa 2011
I didn't know what I was expecting but I'm sure my desire to visit the place stemmed from its iconic culture, architecture, and landmarks. Images so iconic even my pitiful grasp of history had them branded onto my mental world map. I wanted to wander between Roman temple pillars, brush my fingers against red bricked residences, admire the craftsmanship of statues and paintings, look down upon terracotta roofs stretching out under the sun...and eat a ton of ice cream and pizza. Rome is a city that was home to an empire, a re-birth of culture and science, and now the most influential men in modern religion.
Bringing Religiosity To The Fuzzywuzzies.
Visiting some of the religious locations was an intensely ironic experience. Instead of gazing at these incredible feats of architecture and engineering and being awed by God, I was awed by humankind, and the lengths they went to and heights they reached to achieve these literally towering tributes to their God(s).
The Pantheon.
You may be wondering how this is relevant, or why its on this blog? Well here's the part where I make some tenuous connection to videogames and proceed to draw an elaborate analogy between their current state and that of the renaissance. Actually no, I feel the industry is far from that point, though there are those that can better praise the advances made so far in digital entertainment hailing it not so much as a re-birth, but just a birth. In an interview with Peter Molyneux, Tom Bissell raises this topic and Molyneux's response points out just how far videogames have come since that birth.

TCB: I went to the Hideo Kojima lecture this morning, and he showed slides from the first Metal Gear game and then the most recent, and seeing those images in such close proximity made me realise, "My God- we've gone from petroglyphic rock art to the Sistine Chapel in 20 years!"
Pretty Much Everything We've Done, We've Invented.

I'm going to sell this hard because I love what I do and I love this industry. Here's whats even more amazing: if I were to draw on the wall what a computer game character was just 20 years ago it would be made up of 16 by 16 dots, and that's it. We've gone from that to daring to suggest we can represent the human face. And pretty much everything we've done, we've invented. There wasn't this technology pool that we pulled it out of. Ten, fifteen years ago, you couldn't walk into a bookshop and learn how to do it. There weren't any books on this stuff. They did not exist. Painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel? No. We had to invent architecture first. We had to quarry the stones. We had to invent the paint. That really is amazing [...] We're going to change the world and entertain in a way nothing else ever has before.
Roma. Circa 1500
While 24 hours in Rome is nowhere near enough, and what I did see was inspiring and thrilling, it made me thirsty to walk into the same city when all these monuments were being built, when these historical figures lived and breathed, when it was on the cusp of just about every field of every area of knowledge. It was an enlightened place. There is only one way I know to quench a thirst like that. Fiction. Immersive fiction.
Rocking The Robin Hood Look.
Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood is set during the early 1500's in Roma. It faithfully recreates the city with such authenticity that I could follow the route I took that night past the Pantheon step for step, followed by a scramble up the roof of the Pantheon, clambering down the inside of its vast dome through the only light source of the entire structure: it's central skylight.
The Pantheon.
For me the appeal of exploring a place thoroughly and outside the bounds of what is socially acceptable has that childhood allure of climbing over the fence into the neighbour's garden just to try their slide (or this is how you justify it but really its the thrill of trespassing), or crossing the stream and looking back, to see what home is like from the outside. The citizens of Roma make Ezio aware of his noncompliance with their approved methods of travel, recreating the very same trespasser's thrill. They remark on how he'll hurt himself if he falls from that height, 'He must be late...or she's very pretty.' or 'He must be drunk!' All this enhanced my mischievous sense of treading on forbidden ground. Being above the rules. Above the city.
Lens Flare?
If there were a game to simulate hubris, this does a pretty good job, but it never lives up to the "nothing is true, everything is permitted" motto the assassins hold. But thematically this seems a good thing as the game keeps the warped moral code of the creed at the forefront of the player's mind, preventing a GTA style mess. This double standard also applies to the open world, where whole sections can be cordoned off by the game's translucent white walls making the classic 'invisible wall' visible.
The Creed
Climbing trees in the garden used to occupy whole afternoons of my childhood. So if a videogame wants to offer that experience, minus funny looks, plus historical interest, then its found its target audience in me. Navigation is something videogames have done since they made the transition into the 3rd dimension, and this franchise has capitalised on that with a convoluted but nuanced control system. Mapping buttons to limbs creates a physicality to navigation that satisfies. For me the combat elements of these games could be entirely removed and they might even benefit from focusing on what they do best.

Thursday, 6 October 2011


Telling a story is hard, all that build up leaves so much hanging on a climactic emotional pay off that may not evening be coming. That's the beauty of the pilot episode, while it still needs that cathartic moment of character development there is a greater focus on reeling the audience in to a world of intrigue and mystery. At least that's what tends to happen in the genre I have chosen. This isn't easy either though as the line between mystery and confusion is a fine celluloid thread, blurred further by audience interpretation.

These thoughts are some of the conclusions I have come to as a result of finishing the script of Specimen Paisley which you can read here, I sincerely welcome feedback providing it is constructive and gentle, I am after all a fragile artist, and much will be told through the way the animation is put together which can't all be described within the confines of a script. Or is that just an excuse for bad narrative? Enjoy

At one point after re-reading the script I found the ending so unfulfilling that I began pondering an alternative idea out of desperation, thankfully I had Loz reassuring me I was onto something that wasn't a complete waste of time, and so I began re-writes.

Also during the summer I have been perfecting little details in Noel's shaders, nothing noticeable but the eyes have a little more life to them now (complete with corneas and all), this is pretty much the final look I've settled on for old Noel.
You My, Brown Eyed...Old Man
Here I managed to get the illusive portal light mental ray shader to work with an area light acting as a window. This helps the light channel final gather rays from outside into an interior. This creates finer detail indirect lighting without having to cast a million billion rays outside the room itself.
Oh Sweet, Sweet Sub Surface Scattering.

Not only shaders have been experimented with, but also different methods of indirect lighting. This next one uses only global illumination from several area lights. The colours are much richer than final gathering but the overall image has a much darker look as light doesn't seem to be bounced into all the nooks and crannies quite so well.
Grease Paper Skin.
This is my magically coloured version of the Cornell Box. I added a blue ceiling to see how colour bounces from all sides. In this way I can test how the shaders react to different lighting conditions. One of the biggest impacts the colours have is how much weaker the bounced light is, bleeding colour- but creating a much dimmer scene than the bright white room from the first render.
Cornell Paisley.
G.I Vs F.G
Here are two identical renders with the two techniques replacing each other so as to illustrate to different aesthetics they achieve. Ideally both would be used together to reap the benefits of each but this is costly in render time to the extreme when weighed against the meagre benefits of combining the two techniques.

Pixel Propaganda
A short making of for a (French?) animation worth keeping an eye on.

850 METERS, the making-of : #3 Design, Modeling and Texturing (VOST-FR) from THURISTAR on Vimeo.
Something to help justify my position that blogs, and internet academia in general, is contributing an enormous amount to intellectual debate: especially around videogames.

This animation is from some guys whose rigging blows minds and bends meshes with such extraordinary ease and sophistication that even this stunningly well done facial and character rigging doesn't quite do it justice. Humorous too.