3 shots left and SIGGRAPH news

Here’s the latest from the Stina front line. Only 3 shots left and the trailer’s officially done. We’ve left the most challenging shots to last, of course. One has a mammoth 26 characters that all need cloth, hair, moustaches and face and hand animation. All the motion capture is now in and looks great (thanks go to recent graduate Kriszti√°n Kinder for lining all this up); It’s now all lit with composite tests done and we’re very happy with what’s turning out to be our most ambitious shot to date. We’re also delighted to have got the rendering times down from 24 hours a frame to something slightly more manageable! Another equally ambitious shot involves us simulating an ocean wave colliding with Stina’s dress as it creates a plume of spray, all back-lit by a sunset. This shot is being helped a lot by the new open VDB toolkit (Fast and good quality volumetric rendering) available in Arnold, on to the soon to be retired (don’t get me started) Softimage XSI. It’s all new and relatively tricky stuff for us (tech babble: particularly tricky has been trying to get vector motion blur to work with our Open VDB renders), but we’re still on target to get it all done by the end of May for our London show.



In other exciting news, we have been accepted to give a talk at Siggraph 2014 in Vancouver, and Alex and I will be heading out to perform our familiar double act. Please come along if you’re attending. We will be focusing mainly on the educational angles of the project, giving an insight into the students experience, but will also be premiering the new trailer and showing some new behind the scenes breakdowns, hopefully on a posh projector (a chance to justify our 2k resolution)

We are also continuing to progress with the short film sequence that will accompany the trailer. This won’t be ready until after the summer, but has now been storyboarded by our storyboard artists Chavdar Yordanov and most of the assets are built and ready to be assembled into the scene. This includes some cool new dynamic scatter ICE tools we’ve made for grass and trees (thanks to 3rd year programming wiz Scott Richards here), plus a fantastic new muscle system built by 3rd year student Tom Goodchild. We also have our second full time hire for FOAM Digital: Freya M Spencer, another talented 3rd year student who will be joining us as a character animator for 4 months to flesh out the new sequence. She’s already completed some very polished animation, but it will all be kept tightly under wraps until in the final edit. We are still debating whether to show the sequence publicly or not, or leave it for investors only, as it does contain some film spoilers. The sequence has also given us an excuse to use the wonderfully rich and characterful voice of Martin Daniels, who plays the “Pipe Catcher” character:

The next report will be in June, when we’ve completed the trailer.


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Trailer progress and Awards

Over the last few months we’ve been edging closer to our goal of a finished trailer. We are now well over half way to rendering and compositing all of the 52 shots and have finished the majority of the animation and cloth stages. It’s been slow going to keep our quality levels where we want them, but we are getting very excited about how it’s all finally turning out. We’re on target to get it finished by the summer, in time for our London show, a bit later than the February deadline we had originally planned for, but the loss of a few key staff to the bright lights of Soho (thanks to James Skilbeck for all his hard work on our cloth here) and the demands of our university day jobs (staff) and coursework (students) have slowed production a little. Just to make our life easier, we have also decided to run a separate project in parallel, featuring a key a scene from film that introduces one of the main characters, Griot. More details on this in later posts, but we hope to have this ready by the summer as well. It will form a key part of our “film pack” that will go out to potential investors, along with a book of storyboards and the 2k version of the trailer. We also hope to take this scene around the short film festival circuit, if all goes well.


We also have production designer and storyboard artist Chavadar Yordinov back on staff as of this week, and he is working hard to complete our storyboards.


His skills will allow us to develop a full set of artwork that can be developed into a graphic novel, in addition to helping us with the previz layout and final editing (He is also redrawing some of my earlier, and some what sketchier story boards!)

In other news, we were delighted to be awarded the Prize for Innovation in the 6th “Snow Wolf” Cup animation competition at the 4th Northeast Asian Culture and Art Week held in China for the test shot we did last year. We competed against over a thousand entrants from around the world and were very surprised to find out that we’d won! Next stop the Palme d’Or ūüėČ


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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.


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New Website

We are currently in the process of sticking together a new website to hold our blog and other information about the world of Stina. We hope to be able to update this site much more often that the previous blog, and include some of the content that previously was only found on our Facebook page. More to come about our recent trip to London once I have shown Paul how to use the new posting system.


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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

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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 ūüôā
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,


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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.


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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.
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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 ūüôā
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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..


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