The Pixel Crush

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

Thursday, 28 February 2013

Pixel Knitting: I

Which came first, the shader or the model? One of pixelosophy's most enduring conundrums.
Because without the shader the model is just points in space, but without the model the shader is merely material properties- yet to take form. I wonder if there's a niche market for poetry whose target audience is the philosophical CG artist?

When I started working for Aardman Digital on championsheeps I had just finished herosquad with them, championsheeps was in its prototype phase, development proper was beginning and there was a demand for assets. There was a desire to push the look of the games to a different/'nother level by using CG and rendering to 2D images, otherwise known as "sprites". Much the same as had been proven to work well before but on a much larger scale and spread over five games in a suite.
The first thing to be done was to take the existing Shaun model, ready it for rigging by making it bipdel (two legged), and begin look development on the fleece. I knew I wanted the wool to absorb the light the way it did in the real stop motion model. So I started with this ugly looking combination of an SSS shader and Vray's fur plugin.

A really quick way to completely slow up Vray, our renderer of choice, is to ask it to scatter some soft shadows through thousands of small hairs of geometry.
I casually string these renders together as though this process took a few tweaks and I spent no more than a few minutes on it, but it in fact kept me busy for a good few days. This is partly because in order for a project's look to be consistent all the shaders must be tested in the same lighting set up so as to ensure they will react to any given scenes lighting in a predictable way that allows all the objects to sit together. This helps prevent different materials over or under exposing, or appearing more or less reflective than they actually are.
Click this image for super enormous extra fluffy vision
I later revisited the wool shader and more closely matched the hue of the real Shaun, you can also see below that the lighting has been refined and the cove more fully surrounds the subject, as well as not appearing overly bright. I had some great reference photos from the model making department (real glitter and pritt stick [those are professional tools right?] model making) that showed their cove was a slightly creamy colour so I mimicked that.
In order for Shaun to bleet he needed some basic mouth shapes with different poses and positions. One of the show's creators even came and explained how they stuck on the mouths and lent us his personal Shaun model. Which we definitely didn't examine with slightly too much enthusiasm, with alarming consequences.
I had also by  this point added a slight bumpiness to the plasticine shader to get the little dirt indents and fingerprint marks.
Next up was Generic Sheep, who was basically Shaun with different proportions, though simply scaling the body had some undesirable effects on the contours of the fleece.
This weird fleece was flagged in one of our daily stand up sessions that happened every morning, we each brought the team up to speed on our accomplishments from the previous day, then outlined our intentions for the current day, and what any problems might be.
I actually didn't think this solution would work because its so simple. Make a sphere, extrude all the faces (turning the "keep faces together" option off in the channel box, and cover in wool easy. Except at this point I wasn't aware of this option until Nathan revealed its existence. So, like a fool, I selected alternating faces across the entire mesh like a chessboard and extruded those before inverting the selection and doing the same.
After some more shader tweaking and adding in a rim light I managed to perfect that glowey halo of fuzz round the edge of the sheep's fleece, its my favourite thing :) So fluffy.
With the sheep's look coming together it was time to prepare them for rigging. A back and forth process that gets the model just right for the skeleton, deformers, and various controls to be applied. My first taste of a process that Id better understand after completing my first character from scratch, and then later understand even more on the commercial we're currently working on. Still learning new parts of that process. A lot of lattice and blend shape stuff specifically.

Its nice to finally be able to post this stuff now that the games are out. Play it HERE! I finished my part of these games months ago, November I think.
I'm proud of the final games, though the strength of their design and playability has nothing to do with me, they look pretty great and the designers did an awesome job of making the CG, flash, and 2D backgrounds look cohesive and charming. This post is the first of several, hence the numerical title.

The digital team are an utterly fantastic bunch of people, one example of this being the personalised badges we were all given. Me and Jake had a stab at coining the trendy new term "custom", hence my badge declaring that I was just that! I wore this amazing thing every day for ages.
"custom" spread the word
 And then I sneakily crept into that magic part of the company photo where
the lens distortion makes me look around 200% more beefy than in reality.
rubbing shoulders
As these blog posts go on and I learn more I feel less and less qualified to tell people "how this thing should be done" or "how this technique works". Maybe that'll change over over the course of the next few posts, on this project.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

This Post Is For Nathan.

On the way back from this weekends bout, on the Kernow Rollers minibus, I felt there was an injustice, and I'm here to right it. Nathan Gutteridge is a man who deserves a mention, not because by my mentioning he benefits, just because his general excellence is due some recognition, he's king of the maths after all. "You've just got to add one, or take one away." I believe was the wisdom he once imparted. Nathan scripts, Nathan solves problems, Nathan hones his creature sculpting skills IN HIS SPARE TIME, Nathan makes sweet rigs. Nathan runs a tattoo parlour, Nathan is the chairman of S.H.I.E.L.D, Nathan is a hit with the ladies, probably the men too (he knows no limits) Nathan can scale a vertical wall unaided. Nathan's from Devon, who would have thought. So if you want to compete, your CV will need to rival that of Winston Churchill or Da Vinci. Also Nathan is just a great name that puts him in the company of Mr Fillion, Mr Drake, and Mr Hale.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

The Freelancer

I rarely update the blog when I have nothing to show and no news to tell, I can't convince myself that anyone wants to hear me ramble on nothing in particular. But sometimes I want to write anyway, so maybe this post (and perhaps others like it that follow) is for me.

I'm back at Aardman, 3rd innings. Commercials this time. Feels like real responsibility, more so than ever before, partly because I'm surrounded by people whose work may depend on me meeting my deadlines. Partly because CG dept can feel more serious that Digital dept, though no less fun, and partly because my go-to mentor and Jedi troubleshooter is off on paternity leave. So selfish.

After a couple of weeks getting to grips with the workflow behind Aardman's blend shapes- the (in this case facial) expressions created to assist animators in lip sync and unique poses, and practicing car modelling I'm now working a character for the commercial. This feels like a massive step up from prop and environment stuff and its really taught me another level of refinement and discipline in maintaining the curves in your edge flow. There have been some cool new tricks like flattening surfaces at odd angles by setting the scale tool to orient itself to the average direction of an objects normals, making sure to use symmetry all the time, transferring UVs using the correct settings so that the UV shell doesn't disintegrate (topology not component). The slide edge tool has, again, been invaluable.

See, I'm not sure why I include sections like that last paragraph, maybe someone reading knows what I'm talking about, but its not committed enough to be a tutorial, nor is it thorough enough to make sense to a layman.

I've been at friends and relatives the last 3 weeks, I'm just now looking at potential short term lets, to find my own place at least until mid April. I am essentially a very well connected and employed homeless person (so in fact nothing like a homeless person you entitled and privileged bastard), and it gets to me. Long commutes, no space, no time to myself. Though that's not to say I'm anything less than completely and utterly grateful for those you have been so hospitable, I wouldn't be able to do this without their kindness.

It seems there's an archetype for the bachelor seeking a tenant. Must be mid 20's, girlfriend abroad, studying for a PhD, whilst also working overtime/running your own business. And I thought I had no hours in the day. Habitat is new, clean, tidy. Probably because its barely lived in considering how much time is spent out of it working.

A genre has emerged in games, someone dubbed it the FPW: first person walker. I like this, it produces interesting games. Dear Esther, The Stanley Parable, Proteus, and to an extent Miasmata. I really want to say more about both of those last two, especially the latter. I'll save it for another post. Since the game jam the desire for design has been steadily burning. I read a quote about inspiration:
"Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work." -Chuck Close.
And with that in mind, I'm going to stare at a blank page for a bit.