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 🙂
Paul

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..

Paul

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.

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