Sucked into the Mind-Frazzling Vortex of CGI

So, I’ve been working hard on the Stina model the last few weeks. Modelling, rigging, testing and shader writing.

Although she’s CG, i really want her to have a physical and textural presence, so i’ve been working to get the shaders used on her cloths/boots/skin to have a real sense of depth and physicality. This has been a real challenge and pushed my creaking computer to breaking point. Unlike the good old real world, you have to work your arse off in CG to make things look translucent/rough/dirty… anything but smooth and shiny in fact! I’ve posted some eye tests where i’ve been trying to get the translucent jelly like effect of the white around the eye and the glowing gem like highlight you get cast across the iris. She will be doing a lot of eye acting, so the eyes need to really have it.  Similarly with the clothes i’ve been experimenting with velvet like shaders to get a touchable, physical sense to the cloth.
I’ve also been trying to get the cloth to react well to the body. As with much traditional sculpture, i want to describe the body and it’s movements through the shape and movement of the cloth . (tests below) it all seems to be going well but has pushed my computer to the point where it crashes pretty much constantly. (Trying to secure funding for some new computer stuff, but as i’m in the education sector.. during a recession.. with a right wing government i’m not holding my breath)

These are admittedly fairly excessive production values i’m attempting.. verging on WETA DIGITAL levels, but as i used to work there it seem only right and proper. Of course, they have hundreds of skilled staff and a massive super cooled render farm. I have my home PCp.c. i bought in Portsmouth 2 years ago, and a dim memory of a well paid over worked job.

On the story front (easy to forget about story, once you’ve been sucked into the mind frazzling vortex of CGI) I’ve started storyboarding, which is a relief from the colourless tweaking of minute variables in digi-land.  Its actually a relief to see the story arc and characters coming to life and getting lots of the themes i’ve been mulling over  finally fleshed out. Unfortunately my drawing skills have become so god awful that only I’ll ever be able to make sense of the boards. To solve this, I’m planning on poaching a talented student to help me draw them (particularly as there’s about half an hour of them), as a director has, at some point, to start delegating. Even if he is a demented control freak.

Stina Character Tests and Story Ideas

So, after far too many late nights of obsessive compulsive work on my laptop (i’m sure this is how i started the music blog!)  i have a first design for the main character Stina. I’ve uploaded a render test of the close up character model. It’s been done in the 3d animation package XSI using some subsurface shaders for the skin and eyes and my own custom setup for the facial animation system (check out youtube.com/filopastries for more examples of this system)

This is the result of many design iterations. She went through hundreds of different age/shape/colouring variations. I suspect she  may continue to evolve, but i’m happy with her look, at least for the moment and the underlying animation system seems pretty robust. She needs to be able to switch from looking young to old and also be able to pull of pretty and ugly so it’s been quite a challenge to say the least! The next stage is to do some animation performance test to see how well she can pull off some of these characteristics (not to mention to see if i have the chops to nail her performance for the animation reference; Or whether its time to seek out a proper actor / actress for the task!) .

I’ve tried to make her look tomboyish and blandly pretty, leaving the facial expressions to do all the expressive work, but still with a base appeal.  I toyed with the idea of making her look ugly, but it just drew attention to the fact and i decided it would distract from the narrative ideas i want to explore. Particularly as i want to be able to achieve a high level of aspirational romanticism for the viewer as well as visiting the darker side. I kept coming back to David Lynch, who i suspect will be a big influence on this film. Having visually attractive characters seems key to his ability to explore the darker sides of life and sexuality and clearly helps in creating real visual contrast with the darker, ugly and shocking imagery.  I still haven’t settled on the age range for this film, but i think it’s going up, as i want to get into the darker themes that lurk in Angela Carters “The Bloody Chamber” short stories (..mine being a rather poor cousin of the aforementioned!)

Matte Paintings

So I’ve started doing some matte painting tests to develop a look and feel for the film. At the moment I’m focusing on The Red String section , trying to create a distinct atmosphere for Stina’s trip down into to the underworld. I want it to evoke the old 50s Technicolor film look, particularly with Jules Verne  “journey to the centre of the earth” in mind: massive in scale but with a painterly and surreal quality to it.

I’ve been testing out projecting matte paintings onto 3d geometry in 3dsMax, then moving the camera around to see how much movement and parallax i can get away with before the illusion is broken. The idea is to keep control of the backgrounds by painting them and only having to use 3d CG to light the characters and specific elements like water. I’ve posted a vid on the main page if you want to see the results. It seems to be working pretty well i think, the main problem seems to be that the images need to be massively detailed to stand up to zooming in. I’m planning to do the film at 1080p HD resolution so my paintings will need to be a least twice that detail i think.

I should also mention the paintings are heavily influenced by (and maybe a little borrowed in places from a painting I saw as a child by John Martin (19 July 1789 – 17 February, 1854) who was an important and influential English Romantic painter of the nineteenth century.

Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion by John Martin

Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion by John Martin

First Complete Draft of Music Uploaded

So I’ve finished the  first complete draft of Stina and the Wolf. It’s been an obsessive month of late nights and neck ache but all very enjoyable. I shall be tidying bits up and tweaking stuff (mostly transition sections) as it still sketchy in places but the ideas are all in place now.

I’ll also be getting it ripped apart by some classical type persons to get some much needed perspective.

Now i have to pass it over to someone who really knows what they are doing with classical orchestration, to see how many liberties i’ve taken with instrument ranges and breath control! Oh and i need to work out the score.. I suspect that won’t be as much fun as writing the music.

A Bit About the Orchestration

Thought i’d explain a bit about how the orchestration and leitmotif work in this piece:

Each Act uses specific instruments (orchestration) and melodies (leitmotif) to represent the characters and ideas, with the instruments combining and the melodies evolving as the story unfolds.

As the tale is of Stina’s transformation from human to wolf, her signature melody and main instrument (oboe) develop, intertwine and are eventually replaced by the wolfs instrument (muted trumpet) and melodies. On her journey she starts out:

– With the villagers (viol, or guitar viol in the case of this sketch)

– Has a day dream about the distant snowy peaks and a better life (the harp represents Stinas imaginative life)

– Becomes a wolf (muted trumpet)

– Meets the wolf guardian of the under world (muted trumpet, here Stina has reverted back to her human oboe form, but learns a new melody to get past him)

– Meets the horde of the underworld (French horns and trombone. Here Stina uses a new melody to skip on the heads of the waltzing horns unnoticed)

– Then the beast (fluttery flute. At first the flute reprises Stina’s new melody sarcastically, but then Stina tries out different  melodies and eventually he softens and gives her the key)

– And finally back to the village (viol here, but as the village is now overrun with wolves, the solo viol melody is soon copied and overrun with trumpets and horns. Stopping abruptly when Stina passes the threshold and turns the villagers back)

And finally she leaves for the forest and is a wolf (muted trumpet plays out the final melody, having first duetted with the oboe and come through triumphant, leaving the human Stina behind)

About the Project

Stina and the Wolf is a project to turn a short story into a fully animated 25 minute film. At present i’m composing the music. It’s spilt into 5 movements (i’ve completed 4 so far) , each one based on the 5 acts in the story. Each piece is a narrative and attempts to combine orchestration and leitmotif to tell Stina’s story.

At present these pieces are sketched out on computer but hopefully (if i can organise funding) i plan to record them with a full orchestra. Being entirely untrained and having not the foggiest clue how to read music, I shall be working with a friend to help me through the final scoring and orchestration.

As for the animation itself. I am exploring lots of options at the moment. From full stop motion to painted and CG. I lecture in animation, so have an advantage. But i’m also very keen to involve other people in the process and am presently looking for talented artists to bring their own ideas to the project and help me visualise this world.