Before reading any further, please find the time to watch these. I promise, you won't regret it:
Now let's analyze what we just saw and make some important decisions. Let's begin with how all of this could be achieved with a "traditional" 3D CG approach and why it might not be the best path to follow in the year 2018 and up.
I touched upon this topic in one of my previous posts.
The "traditional" 3D CG-animated movie production pipeline is quite complicated. Not taking pre-production and animation/modeling/shading stages into consideration, it's a well-known fact that an A-grade animated film treats every camera angle as a "shot" and these shots differ a lot in requirements. Most of the time character and environment maps and even rigs would need to be tailored specifically for each one of those.
For example if a shot features a close-up of a character's face there is no need to subdivide the character's body each frame and feed it to the renderer, but it also means the facial rig needs to have more controls as well as the face probably requires an additional triangle or two and a couple of extra animation controls/blendshapes as well as displacement/normal maps for wrinkles and such.
But the worst thing is that the traditional pipeline is inherently linear.
Thus you will only see pretty production-quality level images very late in the production process. Especially if you are relying on path-tracing rendering engines and lack computing power to be able to massively render out hundreds of frames. I mean, we are talking about an animated feature that runs at 24 frames per second. For a short 8-plus-minute film this translates into over 12 thousand still frames. And those aren't your straight-out-of-the-renderer beauty pictures. Each final frame is a composite of several separate render passes as well as special effects and other elements sprinkled on top.
Now imagine that at a later stage of the production you or the director decides to make adjustments. Well, shit. All of those comps you rendered out and polished in AE or Nuke? Worthless. Update your scenes, re-bake your simulations and render, render, render those passes all over again. Then comp. Then post.
Sounds fun, no?
You can imagine how much time it would take one illiterate amateur to plan and carry out all of the shots in such a manner. It would be just silly to attempt such a feat.
Therefore, the bar of what I consider acceptable given the resources available at my disposal keeps getting...
There! I finally said it! It's called reality check, okay? It's a good thing. Admitting you have a problem is the first step towards a solution, right?
All is not lost and it's certainly not the time to give up.
Am I still going to make use of Blend Shapes to improve facial animation? Absolutely, since animation is the most important aspect of any animated film.
But am I going to do realistic fluid simulation for large bodies of water (ocean and ocean shore in my case)? No. Not any more. I'll settle for procedural Tessendorf Waves. Like in this RND I did some time ago:
Will I go over-the-top with cloth simulation for characters in all scenes? Nope. It's surprising how often you can get away with skinned or bone-rigged clothes instead of actually simulating those or even make use of real-time solvers on mid-poly meshes without even caching the results... But now I'm getting a bit ahead of myself...
Luckily, there is a way to introduce the "fun" factor back into the process!
And the contemporary off-the-shelf game engines may provide a solution.
As I mentioned in my previous post, I had an idea for a practice sculpture project and needed to find some software to bring it to fruition.
If there is one thing I love doing, it's trying out different pieces of software. This time an app of my choice would need to be capable of providing a comfortable and intuitive sculpting workflow as well as being more or less affordable.
So let's check out the results of my quest to find the perfect sculpting app.
In the upcoming blog post series I will share my experience of creating a CG rendition of the Super Sonico School Swimsuit anime figure (with an OC bathroom set) which I was preoccupied with in October.
In 2014 when I was working on a prototype of my first mobile game Run and Rock-it Kristie I initially decided to make the game 2.5D, which would mean assets would need to be produced as 3D geometry and not sprites.
In fact, here's the early rendered prototype:
In the video you can see the first iteration of 2D character development, but even before that I was going to have Kristie as a 3D CG character and decided to sculpt her myself.
I was young and naive back then and decided to recklessly dive deep into that amazing piece of software everyone was talking about. I'm of course talking about ZBrush.
So I tried Zbrush... and simply could not adapt to its navigation style. I was struggling for hours and finally installed a trial of a Maya-style navigation plugin called ZSwitcher. I was then actually able to get to sculpting. But due to the fact that the plugin changed many default hotkeys, it was very confusing to try and follow ZBrush docs and training videos. So in the end in terrible frustration I gave up and switched the game to use 2D sprites.
I then returned to Softimage|XSI and its old-school sub-d modeling workflows, thinking that sculpting simply wasn't for me.
As I am slowly but surely working on my first animated CG film, I will at some point need to produce a bunch of realistic 3D assets for set dressing as well as develop the characters themselves.
As the animation-rich previz is in the process of making, I have to establish the sets, including placements of assets and overall presentation. I could simply place boxes and spheres around, but it's not fun and absolutely doesn't help to see what the movie would actually look like even if it's just a previz. So I've been creating assets in XSI with classic sub-d modeling workflow, when I remembered that there was another way.
The sculpting way.
Hence I had to get sculpting another chance, but this time – making an educated choice of the tool which would suit me the most.
Therefore I needed two things:
Mass-produced quality figures (or "statues") never seized to amaze me. Not just because most of them are small pieces of art, but also of the sheer production quality of such mass-manufactured products.
Even though I never cared for anime it never stopped me from admiring the enormous figure market and the variety of figures available.
A couple of weeks ago I had a conversation with a talented engineer. We mostly discussed 3D printing and that's when a question popped up: "how are figures produced"? I mean it's obvious that mass-production of PVC products is done with Plastic Injection Molding, but what about the prototypes? Are they still being created with classic sculpting techniques or did 3D finally come into the mix?
That's when I started digging up through the web to find the answer.
While sifting though the Internets I stumbled upon a TV show called Culture Japan. It is a Japanese TV show developed by Danny Choo – a British-born pop culture blogger currently working in Japan. The first pilot episode of Culture Japan was broadcast on Animax Asia and in it Danny Choo visited the offices of the Good Smile Company – one of the Japanese manufacturers of hobby products such as scale action figures.
You can watch the episode on Youtube. The GSC-segment begins at 33:22:
So that's how it's done!
Welcome to the future, where an artist creates digital prototype sculptures with a force-feedback haptic device called Touch X, then sends them to an in-house 3D printer. What a great idea!
Since I was already going to look for an amateur-friendly sculpting app, naturally, being a control freak, I decided to create a project out of it.
Some time ago out of curiosity I ordered an anime figure from the Super Sonico series by Nitroplus, a Japanese visual novel developer. Super Sonico character was originally created by Tsuji Santa and first appeared as a mascot for a Nitroplus-sponsored music festival in 2006.
The figure turned out to be a bootleg, but it was one of a decent quality (save for the missing signature Sonico metal headphones frame), so I didn't care to order the original version.
When the figure arrived I showed it to a friend and he suggested I should sculpt it as a practice project.
It seemed like quite a challenge for someone without any artistic training, but I liked the idea and accepted the challenge.
So having something to sculpt already picked, I went on to look for an amateur-friendly sculpting app, and will share the results of my search in the next post.
Remember how in this post I was looking for a sculptor?
Well, scratch that.
Turns out all I needed to unleash my inner sculptor was a suitable tool and gawd knows it wasn't ZBrush.
Which one was it, exactly? A-ha! Now that is a great idea for a post, isn't it? ;)
Well, the first motion capture session is over and I finally managed to find time to write a post about this exciting experience. The video of the process is still in progress and I will probably be able to post it after finalizing the 4-th and final redaction of the previz.
Or not, since it's getting more and more difficult to find time for logging. Go figure.
Hence today I'll mostly talk nonsense about the differences between optical and inertial motion capture systems and what pros and cons the latter can have in comparison with traditional optical systems like Optitrack. It's something I had to study before investing into the full inertial Neuron MoCap kit to make sure I'd get the most bang for buck when recording action sources for the film.
Pretty sure you're familiar with those "classic" motion capture markers used by cameras and specialized software to track each marker's spacial data for transferring calculated translation onto 3D objects or skeletons. If not, here's an excellent article at Engadget to get you up to speed.
Among optical MoCap solutions Optitrack is arguably one of the better known ones. Guys at OT aim at providing the most affordable optical MoCap cameras and gear. Here's the simplest set-up one would need to capture motion using an optical MoCap system:
I've been quite busy playing with the Perception Neuron 32-sensor Motion Capture kit recently. Long story short, it's an amazing affordable inertial full-body MoCap solution which can produce seriously impressive captures (some amateur examples below). By affordable I mean really affordable, since the only rival that comes to mind is the Xsens MVN suit which has a starting price of about $12,000. You can now clearly understand why I was so excited to receive my very own complete inertial MoCap suit for a fraction of the price of Xsens.
I received it about a week ago (not long after I reviewed the 6-neuron Lite kit) and still can't stop wondering how NOITOM team were able to achieve such level of performance with such democratic pricing.
The kit comes with everything you'll need to start capturing right away (apart from a 2-amp USB powerbank you will need to do captures over WiFi).
Everything is neatly packed and grouped by the body part. Cool thing is that this is a universal MoCap system. That is, you can only equip certain parts and connect them to the hub and capture, in case you don't need the data from all 32 neurons.
I've also found out that the neurons' cases (not storage cases, actual sensors) are made of aluminum, so they are very sturdy which helps, since you need to pop them in and out every time you put on the suit and take it off respectively.
I believe the gloves are the highlight of the system:
Being able to capture hands is really something! Imagine animating all those digits frame by frame! Granted, captured data is not production-ready off the bat, but it's stable enough you can get to cleaning right away and save tens, no, hundreds of hours on animation!
This saturday I will be doing my very first motion capture session. To satisfy your curiosity while I record and edit the MoCap session video, I quickly put together a couple of short clips I produced while testing the kit.
In the video:
Note: one of those will probably end up as a very short animation I will do before the main 8-minute film to practice every aspect of a feature production. Try to guess which one it is. =)
Well done, NOITOM, really, really well done... Thank you for making top-quality affordable MoCap available for the masses!
Thank you for reading and stay tuned for more MoCap related posts.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
In a way it was quite close to what I've well gotten used to over the years.
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.
So, all things considered I should probably feel overwhelmed and terrified at what lies ahead. Right?
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!