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,


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 🙂

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)

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.


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.

December Production Update

The Stina facial animation rig is now finished (finally!) and has all the functionality of the Gollum rig from Lord of the Rings (that it was initially based on) with a few automated extra features (such as automatic proximity based lip meniscus) that should make the 80 minutes of screen time vaguely feasible! We are now planning to build a full facial capture system to save us having to hand animate the whole 80 minutes (i.e. how Gollum was done – Incredibly time consuming) We’ll still be doing a clean up pass in Animation from the original filmed reference, but this should cut production time down radically. We’re relatively confident this can be done by FOAM without contracting externally. We’re presently chatting to various companies about their experiences doing facial capture and have a talented PHD student starting on the capture software full time in February; plus a wealth of knowledge on fuzzy logic systems within the university. This will hopefully form the backbone of the system. It does mean, however, that our actors will all have to have face casts made and have a camera (light weight honestly.. modern technology init! they won’t even know its there!!) strapped, very comfortably, to their heads.
This month we also cast our first male role GUNTER, who is to be played by the talented actor David Taylor. David is a professional actor with a wealth of experience in theatre and film. We did some workshops at the Gregg school with David, Becky and Lucy (who play Stina and Gunter’s side kick Olaf) and were very encouraged by the dynamics coming out of the session. It gave us some great ideas to enrich the screenplay. We’re also continuing with other workshops with the other cast members and its great to see them starting to inhabit their characters. And well done to Evie for putting up with all the ill people last week! Particularly as the last session rather dissolved into a flu infused laughter session by the end.
FOAM has taken on some new staff this month, with the ranks of MODELLING, ANIMATION, CREATURES and ENVIRONMENTS now up to respectable numbers: good work here John! The dept. leads are now leading their teams effectively and the work seems to be flowing from everyone. Good variety of stuff on show at dallies this week. We also have a new architectural student, Henry, who has joined as a production designer and is helping us fix the art work bottle neck by designing the village and surrounds.

We’d like to welcome the following new additions to the team:
Phil Shenton
Athos Cammell
Matthew Hernandez

Laura Millar
Tautvydas Katkevicius
Luke Wilkins

Tang tsz-hin

Stephen Campbell
Edd McDermott
Rokas kucinskas
Simon Pearce

Dan Little

David Taylor (to play Gunter)

cheers, Paul

First Motion Capture Tests

We’ve now completed our first motion capture tests with mocap supervisor Alex Council and a few of the actresses. It was a very useful exercise, accompanied by much amusement at the silly blue costume and the somewhat surreal situation of performing a scene supposedly set in the mountainside, in a white room, whilst covered from head to foot in velcroed reflective spheres. Becky was particularly patient, as she was this session’s mocap muppet 🙂 We are now using the collected motion capture data to test out the rest of the pipeline. We also tested out some high quality hands free mics in an effort to test out capturing on-set audio, as an alternative to ADR overdubs later. This worked well (although a few worries about air-conditioning noise – hopefully we can turn this off for final capture)

The effects on the film are now to be provide by the newly formed FOAM Digital, an effects facility imbedded within the faculty of Creative and Cultural Industries at Portsmouth University. The departments have been hard at work developing 3d assets for the production. The script is still under development by Red Rabbit Films and we are aiming get the first draft down by the end of Christmas. Concept and production art are still rolling out and we are aiming to accelerate the production of this in the next few weeks, as it’s starting to create a bit of a bottleneck in the production process.