CGI coffee


Revelations of a computer graphics apprentice

Get your body ready for Motion Capture with 8 minute workouts

While the full 32-neuron MoCap suit is on its way, I've decided to get back in shape and get rid of those unsightly love handles and give my amorphous muscles some real whipping. After all, I am going to document the MoCap sessions and certainly wouldn't want to put you through the horror of watching some mushy amateur clumsily jumping around in tights.

Therefore a month ago I went back to my favorite series of workouts developed by Jaime Brenkus called "The 8 Minute Body system" released on VHS back in 1995. The series consists of several short training videos targeted at different parts of the body:

  • Arms
  • Abs
  • Legs
  • Buns
  • And a general stretch/warm-up

Jaime Brenkus trainer

Those are great routines which definitely work. For example it usually takes me about a month to a month and a half to get back in good shape, shave off those extra fat deposits and all of that – with less than half an hour of exercises. I usually don't do all of them and only focus on arms and abs with the following schedule:

  • Monday: rest
  • Tuesday: arms + abs (once a day)
  • Wednesday: rest
  • Thursday: arms + abs (once a day)
  • Friday: rest
  • Saturday: arms + abs (twice a day)
  • Sunday: arms + abs (twice a day)

As you can see weekends are where it's at, this is where the whole upper body gets a real beating and shapes up nicely and in a very short time. I use free hand-held weights when doing arms to make sure it's not just aerobics but real strengthening exercises, and add more weights along the way based on the results.

You can find a playlist with all 8-minute workouts available for free on Jaime Brenkus' YouTube channel.

8 minute exercises

Now for a finishing note and a disclaimer: make sure to consult your doctor whether it's an appropriate activity for your body and supplement your diet with quality whey protein! Otherwise you'll be losing not just fat, but also lean muscle mass which you don't want!

Good luck on your path to the perfect MoCap body!

Film production and the upcoming blog post series

As promised, I will do my best to document each and every step of the process of the short animated film production (for archival purposes of course, for no one should ever take some weekend scientist's ramblings seriously).

Therefore, I'm starting a series of blog posts under the "Production" category I will gradually fill with new articles along the way.

Preliminaries

Film production is not a new experience for me. I've produced and directed several short films and a couple of music videos over the years with my trusty line of Canon EOS cameras, starting with the very first entry-level EOS 550D capable of recording full HD 24p video.

Canon EOS 550D camera

It has long been superseded by a series of upgrades and as of today - with EOS 750D with a Cinestyle Profile and the Magic Lantern firmware hack.

Kate Steadycam recording

I have a bit of practice working the cameras including rentals such as RED and Black Magic, the gear, all kinds of lenses, some steady-cams, cranes, mics and such.

Olga LS steadycam snapshot

Chuplin stories

Motherhackers trailer

Daniel Lesden music video

Long story short, I produced a couple of stories, which at some point led me to a series of videos for a client that called for a massive amount of planar and 3D-camera tracking, chroma-keying, rig removal and, finally, an introduction of CG elements into footage. It felt like getting baptized by fire and in the end it was what made me fall in love with VFX and ultimately – 3D CGI.

Now what does this have to do with the topic of pure CG film production?

How and why it's different

In traditional cinema you write the script, plan your shots, gather actors and crew, scout locations, then shoot your takes and edit and post, and edit and post, until you're done. You usually end up with plenty of footage available for editing, if you plan ahead well. This is how I've been doing my films and other videos for a long time.

Animated feature production is vastly different from traditional "in-camera" deal. Even if we're talking movies with a heavy dose of CGI (Transformers, anyone?) it's not quite the same since even in this case you're mostly dealing with already shot footage whereas in CG-only productions there's no such foundation. Everything has to be created from scratch. Duh!

The first CG-only "animation" I've produced up to this day was a trailer for my iOS game Run and Rock-it Kristie:

Here I had to adapt and change the routine a bit, but even then 80% of the footage was taken from three special locations in the game I built specifically for the trailer. So basically the trailer was "shot" with a modified in-game follow-camera rig with plenty of footage available for me to edit afterwards.

Run and Rock-it Kristie trailer scene layout

In a way it was quite close to what I've well gotten used to over the years.

The process

As soon as you decide to go full retard CG, boy of boy, are you in trouble.

Since I'm not experienced enough in the area of animated CG production I'll give a word to Dreamworks and their gang of adorable penguins from the Madagascar and let them describe in detail what it takes to produce an animated film:

Wow that's a lot of production steps...

So in the long run you are free to create your own worlds, creatures and set up stories and shots completely the way you want them to be, the possibilities are limitless. The pay-off is obviously a much more complicated production process which calls for lots of things one often takes for granted when shooting with a camera: people, movement, environments and locations, weather effects and many more objects and phenomena that are either already available for you to capture on film or can be created either in-camera or on set and in post.

Hell, even when it comes to camera work, if you don't have access to the sweet tech James Cameron and Steven Spielberg use when "shooting" their animated features (Avatar, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, respectively) you'll have to animate the camera in your DCC or shoot and track real camera footage for that sweet handheld- or steadycam-look.

James Cameron virtual camera, Spielberg TinTin virtual camera rig

Unless you have this kind of technology, working with cameras in 3D will be a pain the the a$$

Scared yet?

So, all things considered I should probably feel overwhelmed and terrified at what lies ahead. Right?

Nope.

It's a just a Project. And as project manager I thrive on challenge and always see every complication as a chance to learn new skills and follow each and every project to the end. And this one will be no different.

Thank you for reading and stay tuned!

Armen on location

The games are over. It's previz time

All right, gang. As the title suggests, the games are over and I'm officially working on a previz (previsualization) of my upcoming short film.

The way I see it, and judging by how the big studios are doing it, the first thing to do is a very basic 2D-previz which would allow to estimate scene and event timings and check whether the whole story "works". I've already done this using GIMP and then edited all segments together in After Effects.

2D previz of the short film

Coupled with the soundtrack I've composed together with a talented music producer, I finally "saw" the whole thing "outside of my own head". And it works! The story, the tempo, the camera angles - just like I originally imagined them. Now it's time to bring the whole thing to life.

I'm currently in the process of redoing the previz in 3D as can be seen from the screenshot below. This will help polish timings further and see actual animated camera and character movement, which is uber-cool.

XSI previz screenshot

For character rigging I am using the wonderful Exocortex Species tool-set. It will allow me to not only generate MoCap and manual animation-ready rigs from my production geometry with a click of a button, but also quickly create previz-ready characters which is a true blessing.

I will be talking more about Species as I go along.

XSI window with Species rig

And yes, the whole movie, every single scene, animation and 3D special effect will be done with one and only Softimage and rendered out with Redshift. For compositing and editing I will use After Effects CS6 that I was also able to license a couple months before the whole monthly subscription thing came along, which I'm not very fond of. But I digress.

It is on, is what I'm saying.

It. Is. On.

Quick review and test of the Perception Neuron Lite MoCap system

Noitom is a company who specialize in affordable inertial motion capture devices and software, specifically their own line of MoCap systems called Perception Neuron.

Yesterday I finally received my Perception Neuron Lite kit which is a promotional 6-neuron system for those who want to interact with 3D objects in a virtual reality headset or are just looking to try out Perception Neuron before investing into a 18- or 32-neuron kits. I was interested in Noitom tech since the first days they started their Kickstarter campaign back in 2014, so it's only natural I jumped the bandwagon as soon as the opportunity presented itself.

This is what arrived with the order and what I'll briefly review:

perception neuron lite box

Perception Neuron Lite carrying case

perception neuron lite case contents

Perception Neuron Lite carrying case contents

It's important to remember that this is an inertial MoCap system, which means it comes with extremely sensitive sensors which only work in a relatively magnetically safe environment. They are so sensitive in fact, that they come in a special anti-mag container. After use they should always reside inside to make sure they don't magnetize which would render them useless.

Perception Neuron Lite Anti-Mag Container

Perception Neuron Lite Anti-Mag Container

Having said that I must admit that I had no issues whatsoever using them even in close proximity to a monitor screen, PC and even my Wi-Fi router. There's also a crazy amount of Wi-Fi networks available all around the apartment so all I can say is – the system worked like a charm even in such non-perfect conditions which was a very pleasant surprise!

Perception Neuron Lite photo

Perception Neuron... well, neurons

Setting the whole thing up was quite intuitive, although I found the manual quite lacking in detail on how to assemble the cables and put it all together. Just a Quick Start Guide and you're kind of on your own.

Perception Neuron Lite photo

Perception Neuron Lite strapped to my quaggy arm

Perception Neuron Lite photo

The whole set-up is lightweight and durable

This particular kit doesn't come with a standard glove but rather some sort of a Velcro strap you wrap around your wrist whilst securing it with your thumb. In fact all non-electric elements or connectors have Velcro strips for placing on top of the base elements.

Perception Neuron Lite close-up photo

There's also a semi-interactive manual provided with the Axis Neuron software, but it mostly explains how the system works. Axis Neuron is a specialized app by Noitom designed to record and playback the MoCap data from the Perception Neuron system and it works quite well!

Axis Neuron Software

Axis Neuron Software

There are two editions: Standard and Pro, the latter costing about 700$ but (in theory) available for free for all Perception Neuron owners. I've contacted support on how to obtain access to the Pro version since it has all bells and whistles including motion smoothing, contact editing and other tools the Standard version is lacking.

UPDATE: Noitom support team replied the very next day with the info on how to receive my copy of Axis Neuron Pro, so now I'm a happy Pro user. Thank you, guys!

After quick set-up and calibration I was actually able to produce a descent take. Here's the raw recording without any smoothing or filtering to showcase what PN is capable of:

All in all, I can definetely say that the system works and can process even relatively fast motion. It will surely come in handy when the time comes to animate the characters in the film, so my next purchase from Noitom will be the 32-neuron full-body MoCap set. Can't wait!

Redshift presentation at SIGGRAPH 2016

Just an FYI for those who missed Redshift team's SIGGRAPH 2016 presentation.

Great stuff, guys. Go Redshift!

What did you render with Redshift today?

The questionable design of the Final Fantasy XV's female mechanic Cindy

I've been multitasking a bit lately: working on stages for the film, composing a soundtrack with a music producer and, with an artist – developing one of the main characters of the film who is (surprise-surprise!) a young attractive girl – a romantic interest of the other one who is male.

Girl character draft

(a very early design of The Girl)

While looking for references and such I decided to take a break a watched the latest episode of Conan O'Brien's "Clueless Gamer" where he played the latest game from the Final Fantasy series - Final Fantasy XV.

It was all fun and laughs for me until I saw the female mechanic character named Cindy:

Final Fantasy XV character

Yes, this is supposed to be a mechanic. Yes, they proudly display her on the game's website:

FFXV Cindy at FFXV website

And yes, this is the most uncomfortable, awkward and pathetic attempt at a "sexy" female character I've seen in a videogame for a looong time.

Now, don't get me wrong, I love the female form, especially when portrayed well, and especially sexy.

But this... This is just...

The height of just-too-muchery

I believe everything should have its time and place and be, well... logically sound. Even when it comes to entertainment products. With Cindy Square Enix clearly overdid it.

Consider the following:

You have a character that does this:

female mechanic photo

Looks like this:

open bra jean jacket

Talks like this:

trailer trash female

And strikes poses from the Victoria's Secret catalogue, like this one:

Cindy game pose

Really?.. Is that what a female mechanic is supposed to look like? A boobs- and panties-out, skimpy-clothed mess of a trailer-trash? I never knew that.

Maybe it was because at some point during development SE realized that they had a party of four metro-sexual men as main characters of the narrative and decided to compensate, I don't know. What I do know though is how female heroes were portrayed in the previous games. Although there were skimpy costumes for some of the characters they didn't seem to be out of place and were more of a fan service sort of thing for those who took their time to unlock or buy such clothing in-game. It was never such and awkward in your face presentation, especially not in the first hour of the game.

Final Fantasy female characters

And then as if to add insult to injury Director Hajime Tabata said that "Cindy was not meant to be an erotic character, but energetic and outgoing, and he didn't want to change the current concept. He talked about moderating the way she's presented, rather than covering her up".

Yeah. Riiight... I guess this is why there's a distinctly visible tan-line under her ultra-short shorts.

Cindy shorts butt tan-line

"Not meant to be an erotic character"? Are you kidding, Square Enix? =)

Or maybe instead of erotic you tried to make her sad and pathetic? Well done then! Well done, indeed. If you're trying to appeal to the male demographic just admit it and don't try to weasel your way out. SE. Have some dignity.

Final Fantasy isn't the first Japanese game to have overly-sexy characters, but I believe this is in fact the first AAA-title to do it so tastelessly and trying to cover it up with good intentions. Remember Dead or Alive game series? It sure had its share of overly-sexy character designs, but, first of all, they never tried to cover it up, openly discussing the physics of the breasts, and it's, well, meant to be hilarious and absurd with over-the-top character designs and nonsensical trivial story, it doesn't make you feel awkward and sorry for the developers who obviously had lots of fun making the game. And of course it's not an RPG which tries too much to be so serious and then trips on it's own shoelaces with pointlessly forced sexy characters, like FFXV does.

Well... Let's wrap up with another sexy mechanic – this Overwatch D.VA character fanart by Li Chunfu. It's well-done, on-character and most importantly, Mr. Li genuinely intends his females to appeal to male demographic, be attractive, and sometimes erotic and doesn't try to hide this fact which is what people with self-respect do.

D.VA Overwatch mechanic by LI CHUNFU

D.VA from Overwatch by LI CHUNFU

Well, enough of my rants and sexy mechanics ... Back to work!

NVIDIA PhysX FleX and other fluid solvers for high-quality fluid simulation

FleX and Redshift Milkshake Dragon FiestaBeware the strawberry milkshake monster!

Simulations are hard.

When it comes to doing simulations on meshes with a finite number of vertices it's relatively easy to achieve desired results. But as soon as you try taming hundreds of thousands or even millions of particles, you're in trouble. Especially when it comes to doing fluid simulations. You need a special kind of solver, a powerful rig or a network of rigs and a lot of patience. It took me by surprise how difficult seemingly trivial simulations can be.

In the animated film I'm working on I will have bodies of water large and small and certain gaseous liquids in the background for increased production value.

If you're a freelancer or a hobbyist on a budget in need to simulate some fluids, off-the-shelf tools available on the market can be a good choice... But there are so many of them that finding out their differences as well as pros and cons is a quest in itself. In this post I'll explore some of the ways an amateur like me can do various fluid-like simulations and what technologies there are to help get the job done.

The big guns

I'll briefly cover two of perhaps the most well known and renowned fluid sims on the market - Naiad and Realflow.

NAiad logo

There was the time when you could only purchase a single Naiad license for 5500$ or rent it quarterly for about 1400$. Luckily those times are over since in 2012 Naiad was sold over to Autodesk and turned into Maya Bifrost. So now you can get your hands on Naiad tech within maya for just $185 a month. You can find out more about Bifrost in this blog post at Digitaltutors. It's a powerful FLIP solver (more on this method below) and well integrated into Maya too with GPU caching and an ability to playback tens of thousands or even millions of particles in real-time directly within the DCC as well as a variety of tools for artistic direction of your simulations.

Realflow logo

Then there's Realflow, which comes with several solvers for you to choose (SPH, PBF, HYBRIDO) and with its Dyverso particle solver (the one which uses PBF) gives you the ability to simulate on CPU or GPU, the latter using OpenCL for computations. You can read more about Realflow's solvers here. Overall, Realflow isn't terribly slow and well scalable when you give it lots of cores to work with, but as soon as you realize your hardware limitations and the fact that the cheapest single-seat license with the C4D integration costs over 750 bucks you start looking for other solutions.

Other freeware and commercial tools for fluid simulation

I won't spend too much time on different types of solvers available on the market, only mention some of them for the sake of argument. There's an excellent (albeit slightly dated) article on the subject at fxguide explaining them in detail if you're interested in finding out more.