Scaling Mount Pipeline

It’s been a few months since our last report and we’ve been very busy dealing with the myriad of complexities involved in feature length animation production. The departments have been hard at work making assets for the film with Alex and I problem solving the increasingly complex and demanding pipeline. We have both been effectively doing about 6 jobs each to cover all the bases from motion capture integration to general rigging and TDing, shader and render integration, plus mastering all the various software and techniques required to bring our CG world and characters into existence and pass this on to the teams.
Stina Render Test

Stina Render Test

The seemingly never ending developments in CG mean that we seem to be learning completely new methods to integrate into our pipeline every week. The benefit of this has been that lots of what we only dreamed was possible is now quite feasible: things like layered cloth systems made from proper tailored patterns, dynamic muscle, hair and skin systems for the characters, clouds that react properly to light and environments and even systems that do geologically based 3d simulations of rock strata for our mountain ranges.

Animated Environment Render Test of Mountains and Clouds

Animated Environment Render Test of Mountains and Clouds

It’s slow going, there’s no doubt about that, but the amount being learned by us and the students is phenomenal and a reward in itself, if a little exhausting at times. We are hoping things will settle down once we have the pipeline working smoothly, as most of the pain at present comes from getting the assets to move between departments in a coherent and elegant manner. We have finally seen our first motion capture sessions coming to life on the  CG rigs and will hopefully have some great stuff to put up on youtube in the coming months. The deadline we imposed on ourselves for the trailer has been, unsurprisingly extended (the joy of being your own client) This has mainly come as result of all of the above. The reason we set out to limit ourselves to the trailer was to find, then iron out these bottle necks before we tackled the full feature, so it’s all going to plan, more or less 🙂  The imbalance in the department numbers has been occasionally problematic, as Alex and i have had  to step in and help out more than i was expecting and this is something we’ll be looking to address in our next recruitment drive.

Pipe Catcher Render Test

Pipe Catcher Render Test

The skill level of the teams is however rising rapidly and considering to what extent they have jumped into the deep end (We are working on the very cutting edge in a lot of cases, with software only just emerging into the professional VFX industry being learned by our students) They are now producing some fantastic work;  Recent examples include the sculpts the creatures teams did of their own heads, which i’m glad to say where scarily accurate in places and will be shoved on some of the characters for the crowd scenes. (Note to students – you won’t get any more money being an extra in this film, as 2 times 0 is still 0)

 We now have our project management software Shotgun in full swing and it’s amazing to see a complete industry production environment with all the shots, tasks and dependencies active and being used by the students. We also now have our NAS drive (big computer where we store everything) hooked up to the university system and the internet, so we should be able to let the team work, review edit and publish remotely in the very near future.
We have a pick-up shoot coming up at Easter, where we’ll be capturing a few extra scenes with Becky and also our dance director Natalie Curds, who will be impersonating a variety of exotic gypsies. I’m personally looking forward to putting the director’s hat back on, if only briefly and prizing off the rather cumbersome digital-fix-it hat.

Paul

FOAM Digital Triples in Size

So it’s been a few months since my last blog and it’s been a very busy few months.  FOAM Digital has tripled in size and we’ve added a few new departments to accommodate our evolving VFX pipeline. We now have the following departments:
ANIMATION (All things animated)
CREATURES (Character face and body modelling, cloth and hair modelling and simulation, associated texture and shader design, skinning and muscle systems)
MODELS (Hard surface and non-deforming models, associated texture and shader creation)
PREVIZ (Animatic and storyboards)
MOTION EDIT (Motion capture cleanup and processing)
RIGGING (Rig creation and Mo-cap integration)
CONCEPT (Shot, character, building, clothing, prop and environment design)
VFX (Particle and dynamic effects simulation and rendering)
ENVIRONMENTS (External Environmental design and building e.g.mountains, forests, caves, associated shader writing, concept look-dev, lighting and rendering)
PRODUCTION (Managing and scheduling the project)
DOCUMENTARY (Filming behind the scenes footage for documentary content)
COMPOSITING (All 2d comp work)
Here is a list of all our present industry partners:
Shotgun Software Inc. –  Film Industry online asset management, scheduling review and tracking software; as used by many VFX and film production companies. They have agreed to lets us partner with them, allowing us to use their software for the duration of the project. We will be testing and feeding back to them as we integrate it into our pipeline.
VICON – World leaders in Motion Capture hardware and software, provided the free loan of 8 of the latest motion capture cameras (worth £120,000) for the duration of our shoot in August. The hire cost of these cameras would have been in excess of £30,000. Vicon have also offered free software training and technical support during the project lifecycle.
The Foundry – Providing free software licenses and development support for compositing and project management. They are working with us to develop a new software tool for managing the assets in a CG film pipeline.
Image Metrics – Providing us with the latest industry Facial capture software technology FACEWARE
Solid Angle – We are on the beta development program for a piece of rendering software called ARNOLD, an as yet unavailable commercial product, but used exclusively by Sony DreamWorks in their latest feature: GREENLANTERN. They have also offered us educational licenses for the project at a reduced cost. We are currently in negotiations as to final costing.
Red Rabbit Films – A local charitable film company provided £2500 of audio and video
cabling, audio mixing equipment, facial mask making equipment and production consumables.
Rabbitskin Ltd. – A multimedia production company who provided the loan of 4 facial capture systems worth £2000 for the shoot.
On the finance side of things we are still in negotiation with Faculty about a yearly budget. Talks are currently focused around ironing out the legal issues surrounding student Intellectual property rights as regards the film content.  As the project now has a proven track record in providing industry related experience and software skills (that are being utilised on quite a few different degree courses), we are confident the money will be forthcoming soon. Hopefully more news on this next month.
That’s all for now,

Paul

Performance Capture Shoot Wraps

So the shoot has finally wrapped. It’s been an amazing 5 weeks and the time has flown by. We had a great atmosphere on set and the cast and crew worked together brilliantly. The speed and imagination that went into transforming our trusty ramps, mats and plinths into everything imaginable would have made even the The “A” Team gawp; forests, snow drifts, waterfalls, cliffs, houses, meadows, carriages, weird angular underworld rock landscapes, rubbish tips, guard huts, beds… And then there was “kes” the startling realistic cardboard eagle with training weights in a sock for feet! It a shame it’s all over, as a lot of new friends were made, but we have pick-ups and plenty of ADR left to do yet, so we’ll be arranging future sessions over the next few months. Over the weeks the cast really lifted the script off the page and took it places I’d only started to visualise from the text and storyboards (on the subject of storyboards, there was much excitement over master Chavdar’s on set story boarding. If we fail to get finance for the rest of the movie we’ll be selling his drawings online; could probably raise a few million) As a result we have some great solo and ensemble stuff and I’m not ashamed to say my eyes welled up when we filmed Becky’s tumultuous beach scene. (assisted by our use of onset music.. The finale of Mahler’s second symphony in this case) The hard core technical work begins now, to bring all the performances into our CG world. It’s not going to be quick but it’s going to be good 🙂
Paul

Report From the Shoot: Week 2 (8th – 13th August)

Week 2 now over with the bulk of the ensemble drama now captured. This week we saw a huge range of shots from fast visceral action (thanks to our “stunt” Stina: Lucy.) to satisfyingly awkward kitchen sink drama. The film is now taking shape and we’ll clearly have a wealth of material to select from after the shoot. (A rather terrifyingly huge amount in fact) A hectic and thoroughly enjoyable week; Plus the actors and crew got wave swords around. (until Alex hid them under the ramps)

Report From the Shoot: Week 1 (2nd – 6th August)

All the crew and cast turned up promptly on the first day, except  the director, who came down with flu the day before: typical.   It transpired that the crew and cast had no need for his services anyway and Alex and the mo-cap team soon had everything up and running with the fitting and calibrating of the borrowed VICON super cameras. They provided fantastic coverage of all 4 actors at once, even with our set props occluding some of the action. No mean feat. This was a massive relief, as we hadn’t tested any of this kit and if it hadn’t worked with all 4 actors and set, we would have had a very short shoot!  Meanwhile the rest of the crew got the actors suited up and tested out shot process with call sheets,props, set, facial cameras and audio and made ready to roll for the next days shooting. The following days saw us finally getting our teeth into shooting the film, and with some great performances down (including some splendid “wolf” fights on day 1) We got a good few of the early scenes in the bag. By Friday the set was running like a well oiled professional film shoot, which is testament to the hard work and dedication of all involved, as it’s a particularly complex process performance capture: It involves separate audio, facial and body capture with all the attendant umbilical cords and re application of face dots and markers etc.  having be coordinated simultaneously. The sickly director dragged his sorry frame in on day 2 and croaked his way through the weeks directing,  whilst attempting to not infect the actors and crew. Time will tell how successful the later was, fingers crossed.  By Friday every one was tired but excited, as it has been a fantastic first week. Let’s hope it all goes as well in week 2.

Paul

On Set Rehearsals

So, we’re now a week into on set production. The mocap stage is finally in use with motion,facial, audio and set pieces all working well. We’ve been rehearsing hard with the actors, who’ve succeeded in bringing life to the scenes in ways well beyond what’s apparent on the printed page, crafting some vivid characters in the process. The crew have been particularly patient, working around the rehearsals and jumping in to action to build sets and test capture for the shoot next week. Special thanks go out to them, as they’ve had to do a lot of waiting around this week.
All in all Its been a very useful preparation for the shoot, with all the major scenes now rehearsed and blocked out and most of the kit tested. Next week we start filming. Its going to be hard work I suspect, but a lot of fun.
shoot+rehersal+8 shoot+rehersal+6 shoot+rehersal+7 shoot+rehersal+5 shoot+rehersal+4 shoot+rehersal+3 shoot+rehersal+2
Next report after we’ve wrapped in September.

Paul

Making the Movie

Paul here with a lot to report since my last post.  Our research  trip to the Carpathians was a great success and proved once and for all that lecturers have a much higher level of general fitness than the youth of today,  with myself and Jackie bravely leading the assembled student throng up a mountain with not so much as a nibble on a bar of Kendal Mint Cake. (Although we were forced to eat snow after the gallons of fresh mountain spring water promised by our Turkish/Romanian host failed to materialise. I’d recommend Kendal Mint Cake for future ventures) The landscape was stunning and when not resting, the students collected a great array of visual research material which is already proving invaluable in concept art and environmental design (see below) and should give us an excellent texture library.

Reference

Our hosts were marvellous and kept us stocked up on local delicacies, hookah cherry pipe tobacco and almost infinite amount of sheep’s cheese, also patiently accommodating our daily requirement for “English Tea”. Their dancing also far surpassed our puny English efforts.
Meanwhile, back in old Blighty, the cast were having their faces submerged in blue jelly in aid of capturing their likenesses for the facial capture process. Ros, Teresa and Graeme worked like Troopers keeping the casting production line rolling all day and the actors were by all accounts incredibly brave, and remarkably relaxed in the face of total head marination (not sure i’d of been so calm)
Other exciting news: We have been lent an additional 8 top of the range motion capture cameras by VICON for the whole duration of the shoot (By top of the range i mean each one is worth twice what I earn in a year; students please don’t leave your energy drinks on these cameras) giving us a total of 20 cameras to cover our new larger mocap stage. According to Alex, our motion capture supervisor, they are pretty much the best motion capture cameras available to humanity, so we should be able to capture every nuance of the on set performances.
Our wooden set pieces are half way finished, with Roy doing a splendid (and very speedy) job of helping us turn our flat mocap stage into a mutable rugged mountain terrain. We now have a team of around 15 crew recruited to work on set doing the facial capture, prop and set construction, audio capture, motion capture and logistical support (including biscuits). We also have a lot of new team members in FOAMDigital and will be listing a new full crew and cast list when we build our new slimed down site in the next few months.(after shooting)
The script is now locked for the shoot, having had a quite a few tweaks and revisions (21 to be exact) resulting from a varied and reassuringly positive range of feedback (Thanks to all those who took the trouble to read and feedback) Particular thanks go to John Brice (http://www.solent.ac.uk/staff-profiles/John-Brice.aspx) who gave up many hours of his time advising, emailing and giving inspiration during the revision process.
We now have a full cast with the final addition of Martin as the Pipe Catcher; An actor of stage and screen with a wealth of experience in TV and theatre and the owner of a rather splendid voice. Rehearsals start on 25th July and shooting starts the following week ending 25th August. We are spending the remaining 4 weeks frantically making the final preparations to our on set pipeline and the mocap stage. It’s going to be an incredibly busy time but it’s all very very exciting, as we are finally putting everyone’s hard work into action and making the movie we’ve been planning for the last 2 years.
Signing off for now,
Paul

50 Sided Rubik’s Cube

It has been many moons (well 2) Since i last posted. Well things have been fairly hectic as we approach full production. FOAM digital now has 35+ people and we no longer fit in our meeting room, so we are looking to move from our existing premises (lecture room) into another premises (a bigger lecture room, if no one else is using it) Production has started on the construction of set props for the motion capture shoot and it looks like we’ll be able to create something resembling a set for the actors; window frames, doors, mantle piece, table etc. as well as 2 adjustable 8 by 3 foot ramps that we can use to make different surface inclines.. No really!  You are on a steep mountain meadow!!
We also now have a complete first draft of the screenplay which is presently undergoing revisions. Our Art director Jackie has already scribbled all over it with art related requests (demands). So it will hopefully at the very least look good (arty). We now have a rehearsal and capture schedule that takes us from 25th July through to the 25th of August. This has been a particularly challenging task for the director, as he has found scheduling 45 scenes, with 8 actors, conflicting holidays, differnt combinations of actors in each scene and different set, prop and capture requirements akin to solving a  50 sided rubiks cube, underwater, whilst tap dancing.  However, after a few nights of blankly starring at an excel spread sheet that is now too big to fit on a 40 inch plasma screen, we have a fairly concrete timetable for shooting.  Still lots to do, as we still need to organise some of the more technical aspects of each scene and dry run the audio, facial and motion capture processes so we can keep the shoot moving along smoothly.  Talking of dancing, We now have a new role in  the team: student Natalie Curds has joined us to help organise some of the dance elements of the film and presently has the title “Mistress of the Dance” until we can work out what her job’s actually called. We also have a Music student, Thomas Duffin,  who has offered to start looking at sound design, which will form a vital part in the overall narrative and atmosphere of the film. Also, our facial capture guy Geoff Samuels contunies to deveop his software and its coming along nicely; I know this because i now no longer fully understand his descriptions of how it  works.

Cast news: Steph from our Gregg school contingent has now taken on the additional role of Stina’s Aunt.  We have a new character: a boy in the village called “Petov”  who we are now looking to cast as soon as possible. We have also started auditioning for the role of “Pipe Catcher”.  All other roles are now cast. On the 2d art front, Dan Little our graphic artist has provided us with new logos for “FOAM digital” and “Stina and the Wolf” which are a vast improvement on the ones i knocked out last year.

Along side the production ramp up, we have also been developing a full film quality 720p demo sequence of footage taken from mo-cap right though to finished render and composite; complete with with foley, sound design and music. This is about 80% complete and we will post up the full sequence next month. For now. Here are some stills:

Stina Demo Stills

Other FOAM news: We now have a very large asset list for FOAM of all the characters, models and environments required for production. That should keep us busy for 25 years or so. Also, team members are now booked on to flights to Romania, so we can experience the Carpathian mountains for ourselves and hopefully bring some of that experience back with photos, drawings and video. (travelling out in 2 groups on 2 consecutive days.. the joy of on-line booking) Myself and Jackie will be flying out with 9 (at the last count) students. That’s all for now folks.
Paul
( Director of Spreadsheets)

Production Update

The last month has seen the production ramping up in preparation to tackle the complex shot process required to make the film. As the process planned is effectively the same as the one used in Avatar (quite a big production), we’ve been designing a pipeline to make all the departments hand assets between each other as efficiently as possible. We have a full production pipeline test planned this month where we hope to take a trial shot from motion capture (complete with facial capture and audio) through all the various stages to a fully realized shot that will see Stina in her native environment ( mountains or forest ) all done with audio and music. As well as testing out the pipeline, we hope to use this exercise to generate a finished sequence we can take to next years SIGGRAPH computer graphics conference in America; hopefully we can raise some interest and maybe even some money for the rather large amount of computer storage space we are going to need to house the full production data.
Other news: Becky patiently allowed us to plaster her forehead with quick setting bandages in the interest of getting a life cast so we could custom fit her facial capture camera rig . (when we’d finally stopped laughing: The fetching combo of green garden bags, swimming cap and plaster of Paris was a bit overpowering) regrettably no photos were taken here.
Also, we have started work on a virtual camera for the mocap studio; This will allow us to use captured camera movements, which should hopefully add a live flair to the direction as and when we need it. We’ve also commissioned a talented wood worker to help us build set pieces (doors, tables etc) and modular ramps ( for changing floor inclines) for the mocap studio. These have to be as transparent as possible for the capture cameras to work, so this should prove suitably challenging. Luckily it looks like we’re going to move to a much bigger room for the summer capture sessions. So we can at least pretend we’re in a very small field somewhere high up in the mountains and not in Portsmouth town center (I plan to dress the walls with Alpine images and maybe nip down Quiksave for some Forest fresh air freshner.. If we have any money left by the summer that is) All for now.

Paul

Hand Stitched Dalek Antennae

After a brief break to celebrate the hallowed festival of Winterval, the team is now cranked up and is back up to speed producing film related stuff.  We now have 3 functioning facial capture systems with accompanying Velcro straps and expertly sewed nylon strapping and have the talented Geoff Samuels doing some kind of magical giggery-pokery on the computer that will allow us to interpret the facial recordings into usable animation data. We’ve tested them all out on the actors, which went well once they had stopped laughing at the prospect of having hand stitched Darlek antennae strapped to the their fore-heads.
We now have the performance capture session scheduled in for July – August, accompanied by the reassuring knowledge that the planned 5 story university extension,  being constructed opposite the motion capture studio, is well behind schedule; so we won’t have the expected sound track of pile driving steel girders while we try and capture our actors.  We have, however, discovered that the university is keen to completely replace the air conditioning system in the mocap studio the month we are capturing the film data. This is in the process of being forcefully renegotiated.  Regarding the script we now have a solid first act blocked out on a scene by scene basis with the rest of the film tightly plotted, but without scene level detail.  We are confident the first draft will be finished by Easter and have lined up a collection of notable film industry gurus to give us feedback and help us iron out any loose ends by the end of June.  The work at FOAM is slowly cranking up to full production speed and we have a visual research trip to mount OMU in the Carpathian mountains planned for the Easter holidays, that should hopefully prove inspiring and useful, so long as nobody strays from the path or develops a fondness for the cheap Romanian wine. The work in Environments is going well and we have some excellent Carpathian mountain environments coming from Harry Ellard and some very spooky caves coming from Sam Hoffman.  We now have a generic facial animation system for the creatures department who will be modelling all the characters and their accompanying faces over the next few months (from the wonderfully weird and disturbing designs coming from our production designer Chavdar Yordanov) Our actors have now had their pictures taken and are in the process of being turned into virtual CG characters (with a few tasteful design additions from Chavdar) All for now.
Paul