Softimage Creatives

We’ve been slowly ramping up for the new term over the last few weeks, reorganising a few things in the structure of Foam. We are attempting to make our shots run more efficiently by combining a few departments and dividing up the huge world into more focused CG sets that we can use at an earlier stage in the pipeline. Our plan is to get as much lighting and texture detail in as early as we can, so we have a clearer idea how to compose the final shots.The process of making the trailer has made it clear that we need a lot more colour, texture and lighting information early on to tackle the cinematography in a way that we can be confident it will look good at render time. For the trailer we have had to revise a lot of shots after render, due to compositions not quite working when all the lighting and texture information is assembled. This early design process we are calling “post viz” and will involve the motion capture being brought into a low resolution model with the facial performance projected onto the character heads. (we are calling these “egg head” rigs. You’ll see why in the attached video) We are combining these with a highly textured set, which we will light to a level that gives us a good representation of the final render. Hopefully this will allow us to put together early edits that will give us a much stronger sense of how the finished scenes will look.

In other news: We were kindly invited to present the project to a group of industry professionals at the annual Softimage Creatives meeting in London (Thanks Andy) . It was a great opportunity to get some industry feedback and was good to put our work in a broader context. We got a lot of useful tips, as well as providing a few of our own, which was a nice surprise. Our weakest link at the moment was clearly our compositing pipeline, which we are addressing at the moment. (with additional help from some ex students who are now experienced pros: thanks To Luke Armstrong here)

We also now have the first full time paid staff member of Foam Digital: James Skilbeck, a student who graduated last year and was running our Production and Cloth departments. Thanks also to a few other recent graduates who have been helping out on the trailer in their spare time: Tom Lee for Animation and Owyn Abram for VFX. I’ll leave you with a video of our London presentation with Myself, Alex and James giving a breakdown of our project so far and a sneak preview of our trailer work-in-progress.


Trailer Show at MPC

Over the last few months we’ve been working hard to finish our trailer. A small core of about 10 of our best have been beavering away trying to compete the 52 shots crammed into our one and half minute snapshot of the film. With so many ambitious shots and such a huge variety of characters, sets and atmospheres, we realised early on that we weren’t going to hit our original deadline of June 21st. We planned to show it to assorted industry people at MPC in London as part of the end of year BA animation show. Instead we decided to show as much as we could complete of the trailer and VFX breakdowns as a “work in progress”, rather than a finished piece. In the end we got all of the animation completed and about half of the cloth done, with around 7 shots rendered and comped to a finished level. We still had a completed trailer that delivered all of the acting and narrative beats, and the shots that were finished looked great in the MPC screening room, particularly at our chosen 2k resolution. This made it all feel very cinematic. It was very exciting to see our work projected at its native resolution on a cinema screen, where it belongs. Also the addition of some fantastic sound design by one of our graduates Chris Popiel really bought it all to life. A few bits still required some imagination; we made all the non-completed work black and white to distinguish it from the completed shots. But it still managed, to quote one member of the audience, “..make the hairs go up on the back of my neck..” Which was very gratifying. The students worked extremely hard and given the size of our team, what we showed was a lot more than I expected we’d be able to produce in the time. Sadly a lot of the team have now left, as they have now graduated, but hopefully the experience and work they’ve produced will give them a  head start in industry. Luckily we still have some very talented artists set to do another year with us. The present deadline for completing the trailer has now been shifted to Christmas, as we have a reduced team, but the majority of the shots just need lighting (apart from a few massive VFX heavy shots!) I’ve posted up a few of the finished frames here. Watch this space for the full animated trailer coming soon.

Trailer2K_v42_0625 Trailer2K_v42_0869 Trailer2K_v42_1151 Trailer2K_v42_1456 Trailer2K_v42_1703 Trailer2K_v42_2118 Trailer2K_v42_2227 Trailer2K_v42_new2

Pickups and Trailer Work

It’s been a busy Winter and Spring for the project as we’ve been tackling a lot of the very ambitious shots in our trailer, trying to reach the dizzy heights of Hollywood with our oceans of simulated water, collapsing cliff faces and close up facial acting.
Our grant has helped a lot with the more computer intensive shots and we now have 2 6k computers stacked up on Alex’s desk grinding away simulating individual water droplets. we also have a new piece of software called “Flora”; thanks to FABRICENGINE for this, as it will be invaluable in helping us create  our massive mountain forests.We are starting our big push with full time studio practice this week,  now that the teaching term has finished.  Our dedicated Stina team will be working full time to finish the trailer. So far we’ve made good progress with our character pipeline, environments  and shader development and are getting closer to having an integrated muscle system for all the characters, which may possibly make it into the trailer if our R&D proves production friendly.  We are also well on target for animation and have already finalled a number of shots.

Over the  Easter break we’ve also been holding our  last (possibly) round of pick-up shoots. A chance for Alex to get off the computer and start playing with proper boy toys.
Week one of our shoot saw Becky and Dave reuniting  as Stina and Gunter, our main characters,  giving us more insights into their stumbling romance. There was also a cameo from students Owyn Abrams and Lucy Spurge for our Rammstien Dance-athon.  I promise not to put this up on you tube. maybe 🙂
For week two we worked with professional Dramatic Violence group RC Annie, who helped us develop our Militia into a proper fighting force. They delivered some  fantastic improvised performances, including a scarily convincing sergeant  major and some terrifying fighting styles with scimitars, knives and spears. All the more impressive given our smaller capture volume. Their dancers also gave us a fantastic variety of weird, sexy, scary and surreal dance performances to capture the spirit of our uniquely odd Gypsy Caravan troupe.
Now we’ve completed all the performances, including our incidental and background action, we have the raw ingredients to make the whole movie. A lot of work lies ahead to build the rest of the assets, characters  and effects to wrap around the performances. Our next big challenge (once our promotional trailer is completed; which hopefully will be the focus of our efforts to finance  the rest of the production)  is to edit all the reference footage down to a solid 2 hour film. This will be cut with storyboards and assorted previz to get an overall sense of the structure and tone of the movie. Once completed we can make a definitive shot list and start ploughing through all the motion capture, cleaning it up and adding the cameras and the world around it. A massive challenge, but we have the solid base of a good story, a lot of our key CGI assets, great performances and a wealth of sumptuous concept and storyboard art to guide us through . Over the next few years we  should be able to complete the whole film, if the trailer does its job and helps us finance the rest of the production (our next very big challenge!).
All for now, check back in the summer to see our finished trailer,


3D Artist and New Funding

So I’ve been a little lax with my updates over the past few months. My excuse is that we’ve all been far to busy working on the movie to spare any time to write about it.
Our trip to LA bore fruit in the generous and unexpectedly lengthy article run by 3d Artist. Along with the accompanying 3d tutorial it stretched to a whopping 12 pages! Thanks to Lynette at 3D Artist for championing our cause on this. With our double page images (thanks go Solid Angle here for lending us some Arnold licenses for the super high detail renders) it was a great platform for talking about the film and Foam Digital. Myself, Alex and the students were given a lot of scope to frame the story however we wanted, with Alex and i writing over 10,000 words that were eventually edited into a very comprehensive piece.
Another benefit of our trip to LA was to help our ever expanding sponsorship base, with new people coming on board all the time, (mostly as a result of Alex’s tireless production efforts; he now has a producer credit to add to all the others!)
Other really big news is that we’ve secured new funding internally through the university HIEF fund. This will take the pressure off me and Alex a little, as it will allow us to buy some of our time out to focus more on the production. (Although I expect the odd all-nighters may still be on the cards here and there) We can now also afford a lot of the specialist software and machines we need for some of more challenging technical areas of the production. (Mostly related to fluid, cloth and particle simulation and rendering) We will also be able to bolster our back end systems with server hardware and software that will help us establish a solid and reliable pipeline, essential as we progress into full production.
The plan for the new year is to complete our ambitious cinematic trailer. It has a lot of variety and high end production value shots, so will take all the time and money we can throw at it to get to the quality levels we’re after. Our latest trailer edit showcases some exciting key scenes from the film and will hopefully offer a good slice of our narrative, thematic and stylistic approaches. It should also act as a launch pad for us to seek full film production funding towards the end of the year. We now have over a hundred staff in Foam Digital and our pipeline is slowly but surely starting to function like a real VFX film pipeline. We still have a fair amount of work to do on developing our assets publishing and control system: Tank, as we push it to deal with the realities and complexities of our full CG feature pipeline. We will be seeking help with this from some top Soho VFX houses over the coming months. We now have the scheduling software Shotgun functioning well with our integrated online artist review software Revolver (thanks for the fantastic support from Shotgun and Tweak software on this). We are already pushing shots through Mo-edit and Previz and off to the other departments, where animation, environments, vfx and compositing have started work. We have also started development on the sound design and folly for the trailer and have a professional sound designer and audio wiz Ian Palmer on board to help our talented homegrown (and now ex-Lionhead studios!) lead sound designer Chris Popiel.
We have a lot to get done between now and the summer, so it’s going to be a very busy Spring! But the Previz is looking great, as is the look dev. coming out of the costume, concept, animation, VFX and environments depts. (Plus some brilliantly realized models from the models dept. Pipe Catcher’s wagon is looking particularly cool!)
That’s all for 2012. If we can pull off our very ambitious shot list, we should have something pretty special to show you all in June 2013.



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.


We were lucky enough to attend some fantastic after show events and got to see Digital Domain’s capture stage, where we witnessed the new Vicon software in operation with real time performance capture and what appeared to be a rock-solid real-time skeleton solve, (convincingly illustrated by a writhing pile of mo-cap zombies). I was also pleased to find out that our patented Egghead TM technology for visualising facial performance on pre-viz mocap puppets is almost identical to the process Digital Domain use. Although I thought ours had a better name.
We also got to attend some useful talks. Of particular note was Pixar’s pipeline talk on Brave, which gave us some great ideas for our pipeline and was the only illustration of a complete creative film pipeline on show at Siggraph. It encompassed the whole film making proses, from concept and ADR through to final render/composite; particularly  useful, as our organisation has a lot more in common with Pixar than most other VFX houses; as we are effectively producing our own in-house script/storyboard/concept art/costume design/performances/direction/sound design/music etc. It highlighted some specific design areas we need to address on our production, particularly  in the areas of costume design and cinematography. It also illustrated some interesting ways their concept team feeds back and forward with the VFX team. It was a very fluid work flow, that kept the dialogue going well past the initial concept phase and allowed the artists to negotiate creative elements that responded to the constraints and problems of high end CG production. They also had a miracle solution for making large amounts of controllable foliage called “Wondermoss”. A solution  that everyone, including us, was clearly in awe of. Unfortunately it transpired that it can only be made if you have a crew member that can think in binary 24/7 and views the world as a network of intertwined mathematical algorithms; Never mind then.
For the rest of the show Alex and I attended as many after show events as we could. Some were quite an eyeopener, as we dived into the world of the LA party networking scene, where the hunt for the next rung on the career ladder is always on and it’s best not to mention your humble origins, lest the attendant gaze drift to tastier prey on the next table.  As a result we decided a more suitable title for LA would be the “City of Angles”, as most of these party angels seemed to have an agenda. Maybe we were just too British. Either way we both agreed that it definitely wasn’t for us.
Jet lag aside, we came back with quite a glow, as we’d received a fair few complements about the student work and a lot more press coverage than we’d ever imagined. The FACEWARE guys made our experience at the show most enjoyable, as did VICON and SHOTGUN, who were both very accommodating and we’ll hopefully see them all next year with an even better batch of work. So roll on next year’s show, but with maybe slightly less evenings out and more cups of tea in our hotel.

Our First Shot

The production hit a very important mile stone this month. We produced our first shot, only a test shot, but it proved we can do it and more importantly get to the quality level we need to with the staff and equipment we have.  We feel the CG characters captured the performances we got on the day from Becky and Dave and the emotion comes across, which for me is the cornerstone of the whole process. It was very exciting and not a little nerve wrecking to see the first attempt at our CG Stina channeling Becky.
We worked very intensively for 4 weeks and produced around 4 minutes of footage. We decided on this test shot after being invited to show some work as part of the University’s end of year degree show for the BA Animation and Film in Soho, London, which is at the heart of the British film industry. This was a fantastic opportunity for us, but it carried with it a very tight deadline of 4 weeks. It was a chance to show off our work to the top people in the VFX industry, so we set about recruiting the keenest and some would say most fool hardy members of FOAM for a slice of true film production crunch-time.

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:

Scene_VSE_0000A_CONCEPTIn 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 :).

And lastly, FACWARE have offered us the chance to be their launch project for their new educational program. As a result Alex and I are flying out to SIGGRAPH in LA next week to talk about the facial animation we’ve done and hopefully spread the word about the project. Maybe even find a few more sponsors 🙂

A Director’s Big Day

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..


Gypsy Dancing and CG Crunch Time

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

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.


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,