The Pixel Crush

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

Saturday, 31 December 2011

Grey Matters

Too Dark
What with Kernel and a 10,000 word dissertation to write I thought I wouldn't have enough on my plate (sarcasm), so I took up Adam Warne's offer to produce a small amount of animation for a documentary he's making on the subject of the brain's capacity for creativity. Most of the documentary will consist of interviews, but for the bit where new neural pathways are forged during the conception of an idea is described a visual explanation was required to augment the crazy science.

Too Pink
I believe the shot will play out with a slow shot roving over the undulations of the brain's exterior before diving between the folds to a shot of the camera squeezing its flash-lit way deeper into the brain. Much like the stomach cam effect seen down a patient's throat, often used for surgery. Then the camera will dive further in, at this point down to a very high level of magnification, and here will be the neural pathways being forged.
Neural Pathways
This is the visual reference I need to aim for. I'm not entirely sure how to depict this yet, if all I have to show is the currents pulsing up and down a modelled set of neural pathways that shouldn't be a problem, but if the pathways have to be shown connecting I'll have to try something new. This is all subject to collaboration and revision at this point but its definitely an exciting challenge.

Mmm, Drained Brain.
I made an exceedingly basic model in Maya comprising of about 6 polygons. I jest, of course it wasn't a cube but very simple none-the-less. Then I took this into Mudbox after UV unwrapping it and subdivided it about 7 times.
Sculpt 0.75
 Here it is at about 75% completion, I often forgot to mirror the brush strokes in order to save sculpting both hemispheres separately which meant there is a certain amount of organic asymmetry in the sculpt but also some dodgy bits where the brush was mirrored even though the geometry wasn't symmetrical. I then went through the usual ordeal of exporting the thing to a displacement map and setting up the correct nodes (why does this never work quite the same way every time?).
Then I decided to start tweaking the shader with the texture applied only as a bump map in order to generate quicker test renders.
 Too much sub surface scattering so I turned that down, a lot.
 Better but still too soft, don't you just love these work in progress comparisons? Yeah, me too.
Then I turned the displacement on, and realised it looked nothing like the final sculpt in Mudbox, and I can't quite remember what I did to solve this but I think its because I hadn't exported the base level mesh from Mudbox to displace in Maya, and was instead using the original model. Therefore the alterations the high level sculpt had made to the low level mesh weren't there.
Here are better specular qualities to the shader more accurately representing the spotlight flesh aesthetic I was going for.
Here is the correct base mesh for the displacement and all the bulges are now in the correct place.
Slimy and Inflamed
 The detail of the folds of the brain in this render was starting to get closer to the look that I wanted but due to the fact that its only really the sub surface scattering powering the shader at this point its quite dark and the redness makes the brain look kind of sore and inflamed.
Squidgy and Creamy
So with a pastelly flesh tone and some indirect lighting its starting to look much healthier but until I have a proper diffuse texture I won't be able to quite replicate the look I want which is something closer to this:
Real Brain
So veins will be a key feature which I think I can just bump map on, gloriously revolting aren't they?
and I need to figure out a way to create that gooey caramel type stuff between folds in the shader or texture. So there you have it, a nice visually stimulating post for those of us who are as sick of the words as I am from dissertationing. Pretties abound!

Some of you may have noticed how sneaky this project is as I can just reuse this sculpt in Kernel for the bulb brains, yeah, cunning. All it'll need is a simple texture replacement.

No propaganda this time but for Loz's astute response to my gamification piece.

Also, happy one hundred posts to The Pixel Crush, I think I planned to make a big deal out of it but
then forgot :/

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Hate The Player, Not The Game

Perhaps time for a rambly, ranty, vent to counteract my dissertation work (which is coming along poetically by the way), let us begin.

Why I Hate Gamification:

Gamification is the use of game-like techniques used to incentivise activities in everyday life. For example- nectar points, or any other card/point system like this (air miles etc). My problem with this is the same problem I have with it in game design. The points provided as an incentive are often false incentives. In a game where the player is required to perform a task, that task should be engaging and interesting enough to warrant the investment of your time without needing to pat the player on the back with an explosion of points, xp, or whatever currency the game deals in. If there is a point system in place even when the tasks are compelling then this just works to undermine the focus of the gameplay by moving the focal point to the acquisition of points.

So there you are, in the shopping centre, one product offering more points than another, its not necessarily a better product, it might even be inferior, but the customer buys it because the points lure them to that option with the promise of (quite meagre) rewards later.

Here is an incredible talk about the ramifications of gamification, its really worth watching even if you don't give a hoot about videogames, because its relevant to our consumerism and lifestyles too. Though I'm guessing if you bothered reading this far you give at least a small hoot:


I believe Ian Bogost has also written extensively on gamification.
He says it is 'bullshit'. He titled it 'exploitationware'.


All this comes as a response to a question from Loz who is now writing uber interesting type things on his fancy new blog over at Gamasutra, that's like professional, and stuff. We've also been collaborating on a podcast with Alan, Hugh, Dan, and Nigel. Its all at a very formative stage at this point but hopefully when we've got something stable up and running people can download it from iTunes etc the page on The Pixel Crush titled podcasts has some broken links due to renaming of the podcast and other changes.

I just wrote a ton on Splinter Cell: Conviction but then realised all my screenshots aren't on my laptop so I'll pretty that up and post it when I get back to Nelson in Falmouth.

Back to the dissertation now, oh and that Brain post is coming, soon...

Thursday, 8 December 2011


I haven't written a post in just under a month which is pretty appalling considering how much care I've put into prettifying and creating content for The Pixel Crush (which, by the way, you might have noticed has its very own fancy domain name now which I paid a whole $7 for! Money well wasted.)
Official Website
Things to cover in order to bring everyone properly up to speed: lots.
And don't worry, the shiny pictures are further down.

Kernel got chosen as one of the remaining projects to go through into fully fledged production, so after we all return to Falmouth after a decidedly dissertation flavoured break it'll be pedal to the metal, as I keep telling people. And it will be, I thought I'd had no time to blog this term, it can only get harder.

There were various provisos and conditions for the directors to meet for some of the projects to get the green light of approval, and Kernel was by no means an exception to that. What was heartening about the whole thing was that, once again, people were able to crawl through the mire of ideas, designs, and emotions that make up Kernel and find something of worth. The industry professional from Cornish animation studio Spidereye gave all the feedback to the tutors (which was a slight shame as I would've liked to hear what he had to say) and with regards to Kernel he got the gist of things but was confused by most of the references to back story and context. This is by no means a reflection on his mental capacity but in fact that is the kind of feedback that the Kernel animatic (moving storyboard) got across the board, with a few exceptions where people got the whole thing with no problem, or people thought Leonard's greenhouse was a tortoise sitting on a know who you are ;)
Spidereye Animation
Luckily the tutors fought (I like to think tooth and nail) to justify Kernel's value as an animated short to Mr Spidereye and it got chosen to go through, providing I be removed from story development temporarily. That hurt a little. I've long wanted to have a vessel to see whether I could actually tell a story and the animatic phase of an animation is very much like the equivalent editing for film, something I believed myself to be reasonably accomplished in. But with the rapid change of idea early on, the brutal 3 minute run time restriction, and an acute inability to draw anything that involved perspective, I must've lost the plot somewhere as the story didn't read like it should've done and almost all the context, back story, and history that surrounds and forms the world that Kernel takes place in, what makes it interesting, was lost on the audience. Until I forcefully explained what was obviously going on anyway.

Fixed UV's showing Leonard's new squint pose ready for rigging.
So something that was collaborative to an extent anyway has now become more collaborative, while I feel attachment to certain aspects of Kernel its far from being 'my baby'. Hugh is at this very moment working on a scintillating re-write that includes, live and death risk taking, Big Friendly Giant style dream thoughts, radical seed dispersal, and bad-ass back story embellishments. Once that's underway Charlie will commence the re-storyboarding (of which, judging from the re-write, there is quite a bit to do). Its great to have their contributions as they both understand the message and the world enough to extrapolate new ideas that still feel coherent, the kind of thing Leonard would agree with.
Speaking of Leonard. Dan has been doing some fancy rigging which is always fun as we get to see the first hints of animation actually happen as the character is brought to life one twitching vivacious muscle at a time.

Broken UV's around Leonard's new eyes.
 I've been working on Leonard's model to create teeth, gums and a tongue for his head so facial rigging can commence but the rest of the credit must go to Sebastian for creating the model in the first place, bar the head and hands. Making better facial geometry at this late stage turned out to be a massive pain when it came to UV's as I had to re-unwrap with the additional geometry and this misaligned everything from the high resolution sculpt displacement map to the textures, so fun was had straightening that mess out, luckily I did a beautiful bodge job. I've also been hard at work sculpting a brain which is partly for the bulbs that feature quite prominently in Kernel but that's not the model's only purpose, I shall explain properly in a subsequent blog post.
...Brain Teaser...
While we're talking about modelling and how good I've got at delegating work to other people so I can focus on being opinionated and bossy I should point out both environment/prop modellers Jake and Ryan have also be creating some great work despite the lack of designs.
Ryan's Greenhouse, Jake's Shed.
Now I'm home for Christmas and settling down for a quiet panic about the prospect of an 8-10,0000 word dissertation first draft deadline. The Pixel Crush is hopefully going to be a nice antidote to the straight jacket essay writing style I'll have to adopt to attain good marks so expect more wit, whimsy, and words that ever before. Or maybe I'll just pickle my thoughts on ludo-narrative dissonance in mulled wine. Yes, I like that idea.

Pixel Propaganda

An Indie game I stumbled across has this fantastic art/rendering style that comes the closest I've seen to a very colourful stop motion animation, nothing revolutionary in terms of gameplay but very pretty. I recently purchased the Humble Indie Bundle 4 and have at last come to terms with the fact that I can no longer stand Indie games that insist on using a charmless pixel art style and game mechanics that are 20 years old. Thats not independant, thats OBSOLETE. Please, innovate, you can afford to.

The Autodesk Area posted a great article with insight and interviews into the asset creation workflow at Naughty Dog on Uncharted 3.

Someone let an idiot loose on the Edge magazine website who wrote the dumbest article about videogames inablility to tell a story whilst contradicting himseld at every turn by citing some of the smartest narrative games this generation. Luckily this blogger set him right by pulling his article apart piece by piece.