A quick report from Siggraph, now I’m finally over the jet lag. Much to our surprise we went straight into a press interview on arrival at the conference and conducted a fair few more over the following days with assorted Internet and paper based press. All thanks to our gracious hosts FACEWARE, who’s booth we spent a large proportion of the conference at. We were very excited to see our test shot playing on their booth on arrival (pics below) , particularly as we hadn’t planned to attend Sigraph until next year. We spent a few hours each day wandering around the show seeing what tasty software morsels we could add to to our ever growing shopping list. It was great seeing what’s out there at the moment and chatting to people about new methods and software that could benefit our ambitious pipeline. And we came away with quite a shopping list of new toys for the production. Having a project such as ours in full swing helped a lot, as we were able to engage on a production level and go straight to the nuts and bolts of production problems and requirements, rather than simply being a university asking for freebies. Alex managed to secure quite a few potential new sponsors, proving himself time and time again to be a honed conference panther.
The team who worked on it comprised of representatives from all of our departments, some of whom unfortunately didn’t get to show their work at the show; some shots were cut due to assorted software and hardware issues (VUE, you’re on your last warning) The teams worked incredibly hard, often having to deal with completely new methods and software on their own, as Alex and i were swamped with managing the pipeline. Particularly towards the end of the 4 weeks, as the deadline loomed, they worked fantastically under pressure and left most of the swearing to me and Alex, well mostly to Alex.
We were all very proud of the result and the majority of feedback we received was very complementary. Many of the industry people were surprised we could produce work of such quality in such a short amount of time, the cloth particularly drew a lot of attention. The lack of context of the shot created a few problems, as a few people found the edit confusing, as much of what was contained obviously had no precedent and forms part of a much longer scene. As a result our next release will be a stand-alone trailer that’s a bit easier to digest.
Thanks go to all our sponsors for the software we used on this shot, particularly to FACEWARE, who’s software allowed us to complete 4 minutes of high quality facial animation with only a handful of junior animators and 1 senior animator in 4 weeks. So here is the clip in question.
We still have some distance to travel before the look is completely what we want. Gunter is in need of a facelift and we didn’t get time to do any atmospherics etc. We plan to use this shot as a testbed for new systems and techniques. Watch this space for updated versions to see how we’re getting along. Here’s a concept of what we’re aiming for in the next pass:
In further news, we now have Solid Angle on board as a partner, which we’re very excited about as we used their incredible ARNOLD rendering software for the demo shot (it’s only a beta version, hence the word ARNOLD on every shot, but full versions are on there way) and are optimistic that the University has now decided to use this renderer as a core package. This will allow us to have an in-house render farm which should make rendering the whole film to the quality levels of the demo shot and beyond within our reach. For the demo shot we were also incredibly fortunate, as the University had just purchased 25 Alienware super-power gaming computers that needed a home until they could be properly installed; We gave them a home, for 4 weeks, and made sure they were thoroughly bedded in :).
Today was a scary moment for me on the production. To the extent that I actually said out loud what was running through my head. “I look around and there are so many people doing so many complex tasks, I can no longer fit it all into my brain.” “It’s alright, just trust them” replied the vfx supervisor and my co-collaborator Alex. He was right. But for the first time the complexity of what was unfolding; the cloth simulation collision issues, the snow scene not loading, the facial animation sync problems, the modeling pipeline confusion, the mocap and finger animation interdependence, the broader thematic context of the matte paintings were all so complex, so involved, I could no longer fall back on the comfortable cushion of omniscience a director craves, and that is often expected on a daily basis. There was just too much to cram into one brain, certainly one the size of mine. This is the trickiest moment i imagine for a director, as it requires trust, trust that when things break they will be fixed and decisions, big and small can be made that make things better, not in need of fixing at a later stage, or at the very worst sink the production. While I was mulling this all over in my head, the model had been finished, the fingers animated, the snow scene had finally loaded, the matte painting was looking like Ralph Macquarie had just grabbed the paintbrush and the cloth team had devised a way of making the costume work that had never occurred to me. I suddenly realised we were actually making a proper “feature film”, which for me should involve creating something from nothing with people I can trust; who contribute and improve on my ideas in way that will one day, possibly along way away, come together into some thing bigger and clever than all of us..
Over the last few months things have been very busy production wise and I’ve been very lazy about blogging about it. Firstly, we had a week long pick up shoot over the Easter break on our smaller mocap stage. As well as a few important set pieces from Becky as Stina, the students played a variety of exotic and occasionally ridiculous gypsies. Of particular note was Natalie, our resident dancer, who spent a whole day doing a gypsy Dance in a mocap suit, no mean feat; as well encapsulation a collection of weird forest animals in what was getting dangerously close to modern dance. Also Athos, our resident half Greek threatened to steal the movie as a lecherous yokel dancer, a performance for which i have no words, but can release the video for a fee. An unexpected display of acrobatics from Dan proved very useful and amazingly managed to fit on our small stage. I also put in a brief and much mocked turn as a gypsy foot slapping dancer. In addition to Stina, Becky played a variety of small Gypsy children, but struggled trying to imitate bad dancing, as her sense if rhythm was clearly too good; in the end one of our producers James had the idea of creating a unique piece of dance music by randomly hitting his iPad drum kit. Again the resulting performance is available from me on video for a fee. All in all there was some great footage obtained. At present we are running full time studio sessions with the Foam team, working flat out to complete a few shots ready for a show in London for film industry professionals. The idea is to raise awareness of the film, get some technical feedback and maybe even find a producer, as we sorely need an industry champion to help us raise some finance, as my pockets are getting a little thin. We have a massive challenge ahead over the next few weeks, as we integrate our cloth solves, dynamic VFX, Faceware facial animation software and Vue and Arnold renders, all to an industry standard. So far the students have treated the process seriously and professionally and we are hopeful we can get it all done by the end of July deadline. Also this month we have another pickup shoot with Dave and Becky for some more drama set pieces and hopefully an ADR session in early August, where we’re hoping to record some of the prologue.
Busy times! Paul
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.
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.
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)
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)