The Pixel Crush

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

Sunday, 27 November 2011

The Animatic

The animatic has gone through four and a half iterations before it achieved the perfection it is now.

There's so much wrong with that sentence but I'll start by defining what an animatic is. The animatic is the script in the form of drawings, drawings which are taken usually from the storyboards and put into a loose edit to ascertain the timings for each scene, shot, movement, and get a feel for the pacing and structure required throughout the film. So with that intention I turned my months of storyboarding into an animatic in a single day, it was such a relief to be done with drawing. So I thought. Then there were the numerous edits, tweaks, and revisions from all sides.

If you only have time to watch one, watch the last one.

Animatic 1.5 features the most extended version of the original cut with the inhaler scene and other bits and pieces, things that added to Leonard as a character but didn't enhance the plot. They had to go. Also a foley scratch track from Jon Bernhardt that really grounds the visuals.

Then off the back of lots of feedback I added a scene which made Leonard's exodus more imperative by having his winch sabotaged, making him directly effected.

Then more cuts and shuffling happened, and I added more appropriate music plus foley cobbled from Jon's sound effects.

I'd love it to be double the length to allow the story to play out at a more naturalistic pace with its bits and pieces that flesh out Leonard as a character but as it is I might even make a brutal 2 minute animatic after all this in order to prioritise shots and ascertain what is completely necessary in order for us to have a complete film to hand in, as opposed to a complete story.

That was a horrible blog post. Short and functional. I shall return soon with pretty brain renders, flowery language, and hopefully some videogame prose as I have coursemates and podcasts to plug. Until then:

Pixel Propaganda

A touching and comical piece of anecdotal game criticism on Skyrim and its characters, one in particular.

An article that recognises the importance of what certain games are doing with narrative. .

A great series of tutorials on linear work flow in Maya and Mental Ray and lighting.

Thursday, 24 November 2011


Firstly a sickeningly self-congratulatory pat on the back for the Pixel Crush on reaching 20,000 views in total. Something a big internet site might do in less than a day, but still feels like an accomplishment for me.


Pre-production is the stage of a creative project where everything is iterative, fluid, and conceptual. It involves a lot of drawing, quick ideations of every aspect of the project. The props, the environments, the characters, the overall art style/direction, all need designs. Because without drawn designs modelling tends to get sucked into the quicksand of moribundity. The result of all this is that I've had to do a lot more drawing than I'm qualified for. In order to maintain some kind of consistency I made basic style guide that covers mostly form with only a brief mention of colour.

Style Guide

So I present to you a sample of my scribbles, reluctantly contorted from my mind and onto the digital page. Very reluctantly...

This is a cross section of Leonard's greenhouse and shed.

Here is the top down, I have drawn all the different levels going down into the ground too but there's no way of showing that without posting each layer as an individual image.

The symbolic Act plant that ties the structure of the story to nature's growth.

Here we have the Cathexis tree being fed:

Leonard looking like he's in a graphic novel...

...whilst he has a moment of vertigo.

The troubled intellectual. Now you know it's a student film.

Wrinkly and ponderous

Leonard writing in his journal, getting ready to document his legacy and store it in the Cathexis tree.
Today we presented the animatics in front of all the 3rd years and I got a whole 60 minutes or more of feedback and discussion, on the one hand this is worrying as there was a lot of confusion over even some of the basic plot elements. Luckily 75% of this will be cleared up when the whole thing manifests itself in three dimensions, replacing my vague and dodgy drawings. But the rest needs some tweaks and slight re-structuring.

The last bulb, Leonard's bulb. I keep calling them bulbs though now they are technically fruit as they hang from the tree instead of growing in the ground.

The fact I was up there for so long actually was really heartening that people had so much to say about how they interpreted the world of Kernel and that there was something of worth there that needed to be clarified for the audience. I actually went up there feeling terrified as my work attempted to communicate an idea for 4 minutes and as always you get the feeling that 'this is a direct reflection of me and therefore every criticism is of me as a person'.

As Leonard reaches the point of no return he discards the key to his shed.

But in the end it was very reassuring that people are trying to work it out, and care enough to do so. Some got it of the bat, some got the gist, some missed little details which they saw on the second (or third) play through, and I'm sure some missed the point altogether but hopefully still enjoyed the atmosphere and visuals. Even telling the basics of a story is so easy to get wrong. But I'm getting there, and the experience of chopping the idea and story up publicly has even spurred me to get back on the storyboarding to perfect what will (hopefully) be the final animatic. Dear god it better be the final animatic.
The remains of his existence as he sets out on a new adventure.
In case you were worried where the shinies were he is Leonard looking more gorgeous that ever:
Here is Leonard looking as wrinkly as a tortoise

I've just realised I have no Pixel Propaganda this time. How did that happen? I haven't been reading any less game analysis. Alas, I shall attempt to compensate for it soon, there are podcasts and collaborations to discuss after all...

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Choosing An Opiate

A piece I wrote some months ago...

On Religion, Drugs, and Videogames.

There are many different ways which humans have developed to help them deal with, and escape from, the perceived pressures of our existence. The primary one being religion for many people, not as much in our predominantly secular English society any more, but in other countries and cultures. Religion as far as I understand it, involves study of your chosen faith’s religious texts, devotion to a specific god or gods, and ritualistic hymn singing and prayer. All these activities are undertaken within a close community of other believers who share the same faith as you, and its that sharing which I think forms a lot of religion’s appeal. If circumstances are right and your train of thought arrives at stations as strange as mine, then you’re probably considering how many parallels there are between the practices of a religious person and an avid gamer… no?

I recently saw Marcus Brigstocke talk about his new book God Collar, and in it he explores his own atheism, faith- why people need it, and the pro’s and con’s of religious doctrine. Many of the values he posited as beneficial, were values I held about videogames: the community, the shared experience, systems to exist within. Now I imagine this comes across as a statement that trivialises faith to a criminal degree, and I’m not trying to draw direct comparison and then claim they are equivalent but there are certainly similarities worth discussing.
In a sense religion is sublime example of gamification itself: gamification being the abhorrent application of game design techniques implemented in real world systems. So videogames are interactive systems governed by rules, as a religion is a set of commandments that believers must abide by in order to ‘succeed’ at their faith of choice. At the end of their life they are judged on their performance and decisions and either proceed to the next level or face game-over.
Following this line of thinking would lead me to classify Christianity as a kind of vertical platformer where the player ascends by adhering to the game’s strict moral system and making the correct story based choices. While Buddhism is a kind of recursive RPG with a unique levelling up mechanic in the form of reincarnation, that rewards players with better status and equipment each time they reach the end of the level having helped others and performed good deeds.

The third element to this discussion is the use of drugs, not medical drugs, recreational drugs: something I have no personal experience of and therefore all that I’ll say on the subject is based on observation, anecdote, and research. Again, there’s something shared in the taking of recreational drugs, its something you experience with other people, as an escape, to help you understand or cope with something, to enjoy an illusory experience outside of reality. The common themes being community, escape, and ritual. If you supplant faith with addiction (whether chemical or psychological) for both drugs and videogames then you have the complete set: three different methods of escape that serve the same function as both a coping mechanism and and a source of reassurance or joy in a person’s life.

When Marx said “It is the opium of the people” in reference to religion, he also said it was “the heart of a heartless world”. He was hardly condoning religious activity as an alternative to authentic human experience, but he observed the importance of the part of a person that needs to explore bigger questions, or merely escape, in an environment that is safe and predictable. While you (or I) could argue that drugs are neither safe nor predictable, videogames certainly foster exploration and experimentation in a way other media are not able to offer. Different genres beget different methods of exploration, often this boils down to simple geographical navigation but in videogames like The Sims the experimentation is of a behavioural nature, or in The Witcher 2, where it can be of a moral or political nature.
The only place I’ve read about a correlation between videogame and drug addiction is in Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives, in which he talks about his cocaine addiction which went hand in hand with copious amounts of Grand Theft Auto IV. I don’t know what to make of the way the two appear to go hand in hand but it certainly speaks of a videogames ‘just one more’ nature. Videogames are designed to have a gameplay hook, they are intrinsically addicting in that the designer wants the player to experience as much of their game as possible. So when you hear about statistics where only 40% of players finished Assassins Creed II, or 39% completed Half Life 2: Episode I, you can (almost) understand why the developer might start employing devious techniques to lure the player into the experience. A weak story not resonating with the player? Hell, lets appeal to their OCD side and throw in some collectibles, some trophies, and a levelling up system to goad the player into progressing to the next cut scene. I’m not cynical. I am however, sarcastic.
These are all things that I’ve been trying to weave together into some kind of thought out and cogent paragraph that I can call a conclusion. But at this point it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. I suppose I am trying to equate the community I feel a part of to other socially identifiable groups. I feel a devotion to certain developers. I study the seminal games of various genres. I have affecting experiences with those games. I discuss my experiences with members of the community. I am a believer.
People of a more traditional and atheistic nature may prefer to experiment in- and explore the real world itself, but you know, when was the last time they saved the universe, swayed a medieval court, or survived a revolution in an underwater city?

Olly Skillman-Wilson is a digital animator/student/writer who worships at the alter of narrative gaming, and prays his faith will remain strong for many years to come.


Since the pitch progress has been jumping backwards and forwards. I swore I'd never draw another storyboard frame again, but here I am, after draft four of the script and its time to grace the Wacom tablet with my draftsman's touch once again.  So that's what I'm psyching myself up for on monday, Olly vs Narrative, Round IV: Fight!

Until then I've been busying myself with visual distractions in the name of sanity, satisfaction, and R&D. Ironing out all the technological challenges now is going to pay off massively down the road, so I started with a simple one: cheating translucency in leaves.

Front Lit

Back Lit
Hopefully if you enlarge the images you'll get a sense of how the light illuminates the fabric of the leaves whilst not passing through the thicker veins within each leaf. This was achieved using a simple blinn shader with a specific texture plugged into the translucency value to control light transmission through the leaf. I set the translucency focus to 0.750 meaning any shadows that land on the leaf scatter slightly though it giving a softer more organic look.

Front Lit

Back Lit
I'll be replacing this mouldy brown leaf texture (that I found from a photo I took for Art AS years ago) with some nice Ivy leaves I picked on my home from the cinema this evening.

I've also just today started doing some preliminary lighting for Fentil: Another Life today and damn does it feel good to be illuminating things again. I even found a way to calculate ambient occlusion using existing final gather information in a render. This takes mere seconds and is more accurate is some ways, whilst less detailed in others. SUPER EXCITING. Have a shiny:

 I started with the standard mental ray sun and sky, and then used the sky image's incandescence value to create a softer lighting effect, combined with the new final gather ambient occlusion you have a ridiculously efficient, pretty simple lighting setup. As more assets get created I'll hopefully get to tweak shaders and things earning my title as look development, and not just a mere lighting monkey.
 The colour palette here is the closest I could match to the original wow image with its pastel purples pinks and blues. Its tricky striking a balance between crushed and over-saturated colours, and washed out bland colours.
Can't wait to see this stuff when the dynamics guys stick some atmospherics in there ans slap some depth of field on, cinema verite, viola!

Pixel Propaganda

Uncharted 3 is fantastic for what it is. And few have said that what exactly that is better than here.

The best reason to be excited for Skyrim.

More fantastic words coming from the brain of Richard Lemarchand, here he talks about the barrier between emotive games and game developers.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Paused Pixels

Leonard Paisley Character Concept.
The pitch for our final major projects is over and done. All that remains now is to find out which 10 of the 27 is to be chosen, we are waiting, as if paused. The pitches, as everyone has already said, were amazingly consistent in the quality of the presentation and artwork. Looking through the brochure now I wanted to give some of my course mates their due. Miguel's 'Escuridao Decente' had the most phenomenal artwork of all the pitches which blew me away, stunning colour and use of light, I think the term is chiaroscuro. Insa's 'Eighteen Ninety' had a cool premise based around the lack of a platform for female BMX riders to compete, its nice to see an animation with a purpose. Sian's 'H0le' had an iconic visual style and a personal premise that seemed to resonate with both the panelists and the audience, hopefully we'll get to see it realised. Dan's 'Fentil: Another Life' came across well with Dan assuming a fictional persona to raise funding for the project, though the fact his pseudonym can be broken down from Adden Mesa to 'a-dan, me-is-a' I think is hilarious. Another idea that the panelists loved. Alberto's 'Stream' was one of my favourite pitches, the idea was intellectual, well thought out and constructed, exciting in implementation and I hope it gets picked just so I can see whats possible with the techniques he proposed. One of the panelists insisted on belittling it to the status of 'chill-out video' but it seemed much deeper than that.
'Wow' Image
The panelists asked some great questions getting to the heart of each idea and uncovering the detail which couldn't fit into the pitch, but they did seem to have an irritating penchant for simplicity. 'I like the simplicity...' 'Nice and simple...' 'Too complex... 'Keep it simple...'
Don't anyone try anything elaborate or intricate, god forbid we raise the bar for animation as a mature medium for storytelling.

"Congratulations to you all for presenting fantastic pitches on Friday. The panel thought your professionalism and creativity was exemplary. Well done!
The panel have given us their feedback and we are now collating the feedback forms before releasing the information to you about which projects were successful in being put forward to the next stage. There has been some ferocious debates and some hard decisions to make. I'll have this available as soon as possible by the latest tomorrow, and will put the results up here.
We will then be giving each project constructive feedback, and tell you how the next stage commences"
-Andy Wyatt
Thrilling stuff, I'm desperate to find out. Though I've made my peace with not getting chosen I now can't imagine what that will feel like. There may be tears?
Charlie's Concept Piece
For the pitch some bespoke artwork has been created and it looks great for the most part, especially Charlie's concept piece that took a lot of preparation work on his part. He went to great pains to recreate the correct perspective, I then went in and graded the image also adding some lens and grime effects just to create a cohesion between the disparate styles of the pitch imagery.

Also for the pitch I created a head turn around to show the rendering style and even got a question about it! (To which I smugly got to boast my 90 second render time per frame.) I scrambled together a texture using the ambient occlusion, displacement and diffuse maps which looks pretty good but managed to screw the eyes somehow, might have been the giant white sphere I was using for reflections that blows out the specular on the eyes. What's remarkable here is that I actually nailed the hair at long last, the secret here being to turn off final gather for mental ray's volume fur shader, this both removes the blocky artifacts and blown out lighting for the hairs. Observe:

Pixel Propaganda

Batman Arkham City came out last month and some were perturbed by the needless sexism in its language and characterisation. Here is a fantastically well reasoned piece of writing on the subject.
The internet, it turns out, doesn't like to have important cultural issues raised about its favourite new toys. Here is the same authors response piece that starts as a point by point reply and ends with a rousing call to reason.

Uncharted 3 came out. Uncharted for me, is the one piece of fiction I dive into regardless of any analytical or conceptual reservations I may have and just immerse myself. So here is the review that nearly brought a tear to my eye, and here is the review that made me see reason, and points out how Uncharted falls apart when the player deviates from the script the game has laid out.

The co-lead game designer on Uncharted 3 was Richard Lemarchand, an idol of mine, and he recently gave this enlightening talk at Game City in Nottingham.

Here is a video I found when researching lens effects for my wow image that illustrates just how transformative they can be. Turning a render that doesn't look much better than playblast into this sci-fi cityscape: