Johnny’s Workshop

June 15, 2010

I ain’t got time to render.

This little experiment left me convinced that pure CG was not the way to go; not when you’re a few hundred CPUs short of a render farm, anyway. I guess that line could be used as a clever insult in the VFX industry. “I’m afraid Billy’s a few CPUs short of a render farm.”

Of course, in the games industry, if you worked as a level designer and you weren’t very good at your job, your co-workers would say, “That guy’s a few destructible wooden crates short of a level.”

Pretty clever, huh?

I began this experiment toward the end of March last year thinking I could do with some practice before having a proper stab at that “UFOs at the You Yangs” project. The latter was going to be entirely CG and involve a detailed ecosystem, clever lighting, and some kind of fancy atmosphere with clouds, haze, etc., so it made sense to try a simpler version beforehand. The following elements I considered essential:

  • A rural setting.
  • Stereotypical flying saucer.
  • Realistic lighting.
  • Handheld camera movement.

The other requirement was that I use Vue 7 xStream and nothing else. Ironically, I went into the project hoping to get a lot better with Vue and emerged from it convinced that studying Vue was a waste of my precious time (I think that qualifies as irony). Not because Vue is bad software—it’s really not; it’s awesome … awesome to the max—but because the render times are usually horrific. I actually spent a couple of weeks studying and experimenting with all the render settings. Achieving a high-quality result was easy enough; it just meant you had to wait forever.

Take this 7-second video, for example:

There’s only one model in the entire scene, yet it took ELEVEN WEEKS to render. Okay, that’s not true; it actually took 8 hours, 15 minutes but that’s still way too long. I mean, it’s not even a good video; it’s just an F35B from Battlefield 2 with some dark, menacing clouds in the background. Oh, and the resolution was 800×600. Imagine trying to render a high definition (1280 x 720 or 1920 x 1080) shot of a forest with a running stream or something. You’d die of old age before you had the first two seconds. Even if you lived long enough to see those seconds, you’d probably discover they were riddled with inexplicable artifacts.

Like these:

Took a quadcore CPU just over ten minutes to render that one frame.

“Uh-huh, and what are those stupid watery columns?” you ask. Oh, you noticed those? I have no idea where those came from; ask the propeller heads who engineered Vue’s built-in renderer.

So, to summarise: No matter how much tweaking / optimising you do, relying on Vue for complex, animated scenes really is asking for trouble. For single frames, it’s brilliant—just look at the e-on software gallery—but for pure CG video, you really need a render farm. Or else a whole lot of patience. I’m prepared to wait years for YouTube to produce a celebrity who isn’t a fucking obnoxious douchebag but you’ve got to draw the line somewhere.

Of the scene I’d originally envisioned, I produced only one clear render:

Also, besides a one-off, low-resolution test—with almost all the render settings set to ‘Low’—I didn’t even bother with the full animation:

(Some of the trees in Vue don’t look so flash when they’re subjected to wind.)

Eventually, in a bid to salvage the scene, I removed the flying saucer and rendered yet another clip featuring the Strider from Half-Life 2:

Strider at Farm

Click to enlarge.

After testing a couple of atmospheres and their impact on render times …

… I went ahead and rendered a very basic version of the entire animation:

I might have experienced a sense of relief when it finished rendering but my hard drive died a few hours later.

So, why all this Strider crap? Well, back then, I was still hell-bent on creating a Half-Life 2 short film. My ingenious plan was to take advantage of the massive, pre-existing fanbase of Half-Life players and thus have a guaranteed audience of millions. How’s this for vindication of that theory? The Purchase Brothers actually did make a Half-Life 2 short film, racked up over 1.5 million views within a week (on YouTube alone) and were then signed up by CAA, one of the biggest talent agencies in Hollywood.

Man, I’m glad that didn’t happen to me!

After conceding that I’d been beaten to the punch, I said to myself, “What the hell was I thinking, anyway? I should be using my imagination to create something entirely new; not exploiting a pre-existing franchise for personal gain. I’m not Uwe Boll.”

I went on to write just under twenty stories and from that batch selected one to turn into my first short film. So, from now on, my every waking moment will be dedicated to that project.

Hopefully, it won’t suck.

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May 28, 2010

Oh, that’s right. I have a blog.

Filed under: Vue 7 xStream — april15th @ 5:57 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Yeah, I’ve been neglectful … but thankfully, no-one noticed.

For more than a year, I kept telling myself (and others), “I’ll resume the blog when the average number of visitors drops to less than twenty a day.” For some reason, though, that never happened.

Seems the Internets Web is full of surprises. Hence my desire to dust off this blog and resume with regular posting. Think of the past fifteen months as similar to that period between the closing of Wonka’s chocolate factory and its re-opening; it’ll lend an air of mystery / intrigue to my lengthy absence … and that seems preferable to the sad reality that I just couldn’t be bothered posting new content.

Anyway, here’s an image I made in Vue the same week I posted my last blog entry:

Click to enlarge.

Render Time:  1 hour, 29 minutes, 30 seconds.

My goal was to depict an off-centre blue- and yellow-sailed yacht on a calm ocean at dusk.

NAILED IT.

February 12, 2009

What’s it been? Six months?

Filed under: Vue 6 xStream,Vue 7 xStream — april15th @ 5:39 am
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Thought I’d write a new post … much though I loathe the idea of spoiling you people.

By the way, what is the deal with screenwriters establishing a character’s history with the phrasing I used for the title of this post? As in: “Hey, Mitch … you’ve been on the force for, what, twelve years?” or “You’ve been working on that novel for how long? Eight years? When are you going to face reality?”

I’d really like to create a montage of shots that use that exact phrasing; it really bothers me for some reason.

Incidentally, the “UFOs at the You Yangs” project has not been abandoned or anything. I’ll be sure to post an update very soon — perhaps as early as next week — because it is something I’m keen to prioritise. In recent months, though, both the need and desire to learn more about Vue has taken precedence.

I can’t believe it’s been, what, five-and-a-half months since my last post? All that time I’ve been learning cool things, taking photographs, crying for no reason, and conducting all sorts of CG-related experiments. Though I haven’t taken the time to write, I’ve always had plenty of things to write about. Just now, for example, I noticed one of the pictures behind me was hanging at an angle. Interesting!

Most of my studying time has been devoted to Vue and because I like to practice as I go, I’ve been slowly-but-surely accumulating a weird array of experimental images and video clips.

This time last month, I spent a couple of days learning how to simulate depth of field (the distance between the nearest and farthest parts of the ‘sharply focused’ area of an image). When you’re taking photographs with a decent camera, you can achieve a lovely depth of field by using a combination of aperture and exposure settings. Like so:

Cat

Vue allows you to achieve a similar effect by specifying a blur percentage and range of focus:

Ship - Depth of Field Settings

See those dotted lines to the fore and aft of the ship? They outline the depth of field. The settings in that screenshot (12m Focus, 15% Blur) yielded this:

Ship - Depth of Field - RT-6h5m2

For the sake of comparison, I also rendered two versions of an X-Wing, one with depth of field and one without:

Cool, huh? Now, how about a row of pyramids at sunset:

Pyramids - Depth of Field, 10-passes - RT-53m11s

Boy, do I envy people who wear glasses. All they have to do is take them off and they get to see the world that way whenever they want! Lucky

Another awesome thing you can do with Vue is create EcoSystems. Generally-speaking, they’re the means by which users create natural-looking forests, rock formations, cities, etc. but you can also use EcoSystems to create all manner of cool-looking shit:

(You can click on most of those images for larger versions, so … go nuts.)

I’ll leave it at that for now but before I sign off, I’d really like to congratulate the WordPress code monkeys on coming up with the most insane image-management system yet. Every incarnation is more aggravating than the last. Nice going.

August 23, 2008

UFOs at the You Yangs (Part 1)

Filed under: Vue 6 xStream — april15th @ 5:04 am
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of UFO footage.

Enough to warrant the design of a simple, hierarchical classification system?

Err … sure, why not?

You may have noticed the absence of a category for crystal clear, non-hoaxed footage of extra-terrestrial spacecraft. I’m afraid that’s because I’ve never seen any footage that would warrant the inclusion of such a category. Find me some and I’ll update the system, otherwise I’m sure whatever you’ve seen could easily find its way into one of the pre-existing categories.

Here are some examples:

Type 1-Ai1, 2, 3,

Type 1-Aii1, 2, 3, 4, 5,

Type 1-B1, 2, 3, 4, 5,

Type 2-A1, 2, 3, 4,

Type 2-B1, 2,

I’ll keep adding links until there are at least ten for each category. If you want to nominate any, just let me know and I’ll do an update.

Now, I’m not saying spacecraft flown by extra-terrestrials have never been filmed by humans; only that I’ve never seen any conclusive footage. All the high-quality UFOs videos I’ve seen have been hoaxes or artwork.

Why are there no high-quality videos of the real thing? I know what Occam’s Razor would have us conclude … but that’s no fun. I’d rather believe the government has seized all the best footage and kept secret our regular contact with extra-terrestrial civilisations. Bastards!

I’m probably coming across as skeptical to the point of being close-minded but I’m not. Honestly. I would love nothing more than to be provided with unassailable proof of the existence of advanced extra-terrestrial civilisations; it’s because I’m so taken with the idea that I can’t settle for lousy footage of some tiny, blurry shape in a distant cloud. Nor can I settle for eyewitness accounts because I have no way of knowing whether or not people are reliable / honest / capable of distinguishing between oil refineries and flying saucers. There’s a huge difference between seeing something incredible with my own eyes and merely wanting to believe the testimony of an eyewitness.

The reason I brought this up is that I’ve decided to create CG footage of a UFO (or two) at the You Yangs. I’m going to make the entire video CG and strive for photorealism but I’m not going to try and pass it off as real. Mine will be Type 1-B footage; a project undertaken so that I can learn more about visual effects.

I’ll post blog entries as I complete each stage of the project. Partly to keep you, my loyal reader, in the loop but mainly because I’d like to receive feedback and ideas throughout the video’s development.

Sound good?

August 17, 2008

To the xStream!

Filed under: 3ds Max 9,Vue 6 xStream — april15th @ 6:53 am
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Although I’ll be using 3ds Max throughout the foreseeable future, lately I’ve been flirting with Vue 6 xStream and getting a feel for what it can do. So far, I’m impressed. Even the shit I rendered whilst working through my first set of Vue tutorials could be passed off as carefully-designed desktop wallpaper:

Click to enlarge:

Okay, maybe not the rocks … but each of those scenes required fewer than five minutes to set up and the rendering times were surprisingly fast. Everything’s a cinch with this new software.

July 30, 2008

A sample of my early prose.

Filed under: Writing — april15th @ 8:56 pm
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My grandmother, bless her, recently unearthed some of my early creative work:

In the years since, my handwriting has noticeably improved.

In the years since, my handwriting has noticeably improved.

Yeah, those were the days; back when Mum – sorry, “mummy” – could unlawfully seize my hard-earned birthday money and use it to buy me clothes. What a scam! Only now, with the benefit of hindsight, can I appreciate that she was trying to teach me an important lesson about the dangers of “big government.”

I’m still trying to work out what I’d written before that almost-imperceptible transition to the word “clothes.” Was it “claths”? Damn, I hope not.

July 25, 2008

Pearls before swine.

Pearl Gross likes to do a little bit of comedy once in a while about her brother Bob. You can see her well-refined act and discover her other great talent (singing) by clicking on this LINK. If you’ve not seen the video before, then by all means, take a look. I find it hard to believe you’ve got anything better to do.

As John Daker and Reva Unsicker would attest, the audience that night was comprised of unappreciative, brain-dead Philistines who wouldn’t know talent if it smacked them in the face. My tap-dancing instructor would have fit right in.

Pearl deserved better. My friend Robin agreed, so we set to work on a new version of the video; one with a livelier, albeit fickle, audience.

Making our ‘Special Edition’ was a lot of fun, too. We imported the original clip into Adobe Premiere Pro 2.0, then spent several hours coming up with ideas, playing around with various edits, and gathering audio and video clips to splice into the original footage. When Robin hit the road to take part in a nationwide musical tour with the Mace Francis Orchestra, I was left to refine, finalise and upload the clip. Damn thing took a lot longer than I thought it would but just knowing it’ll accumulate a good 300+ views over the next 15 years makes it all worthwhile.

June 1, 2008

MAME – Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator.

Filed under: Tutorials — april15th @ 9:15 am
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Remember the joys of playing immensely popular games down at the local arcade? You don’t?

Oh.

Well, screw you. You probably weren’t a child of the ’80s. This post is for people who grew up playing arcade games and wish they could play some of their old favourites again. I played Street Fighter II for a couple of hours yesterday and couldn’t believe how quickly I settled in to my old fighting style again. I suppose the 1991 me would annihilate the current me in any two-player tournament but even with just a couple of days’ practice, I know I’d put up a decent fight.

I so enjoyed Street Fighter II back in the early ’90s that being able to play it again was easily the highlight of my long and tedious, work-filled day. So many memories came flooding back, it was like reuniting with an old friend; one perfectly willing to waste months of my precious youth and take all my 20c coins.

In hopes of being able to provide others with a similar experience, I thought I’d write out a quick guide to acquiring and setting up MAME32 (“a version of the standard Windows MAME build with the front-end built directly into the application”), then downloading and readying a ROM for the emulator. I’ll use Street Fighter II: Champion Edition as the example but you’ll be able to play ten trillion other arcade games, too.

Oh, yeah, I should also mention that this guide is for people using a typical Win32 Platform.

Trust me, the set-up process couldn’t be simpler; it’s on a par with downloading a simple peer-to-peer client and then using it to rob artists of their rightful income.

MAME, of course, is perfectly legal. The legality of the ROMs (the games for the emulator) varies according to the game itself and where you live in the world. Some titles are now in the public domain, others are not.

If flaunting copyright laws is not your thing (nor should it be, lest you’re keen to burn in Hell), you should investigate on a game-by-game basis. For example, the copyright warning at the start of Street Fighter II: Champion Edition informs me that I’m allowed to play because I’m in Australia. Had it been illegal, I would have deleted the ROM that very instant and penned a letter of contrition to Capcom‘s legal department, begging that they forgive me for my having downloaded the game in the first place.

Okay, so here we go:

01. Download MAME32 (m32-062.zip, 3.01MB) from HERE.

02. Unzip the contents of the m32-062.zip archive. You do know how to unzip a simple archive, right? Just right-click on the file and select the appropriate option from the context menu.

The unzipped archive should look like this:

03. Now that MAME32 has been set up, it’s time to acquire the Street Fighter II: Champion Edition ROM. There are sites all over the web that host these ROMs but I got my copy from ROM World.

To save you the trouble of looking for it, here’s a direct LINK to the file (sf2ce.zip, 3.45MB).

04. Unzip the sf2ce.zip archive. This will yield the sf2ce folder, which you’ll then have to move into the roms directory highlighted earlier, giving you: m32-062\roms\sf2ce

05. Now, double-click the mame32.exe file to launch MAME32.

06. With MAME32 open, click File > Audit all games:

MAME32 will then realise you’ve added the sf2ce ROM.

07. Once the audit is complete, just click on the Available folder and you’ll see the Street Fighter II: Champion Edition (World) ROM, desperately awaiting activation (just double-click):

Easy!

The only thing left to do is kick the shit out of Ken, Ryu, E. Honda, Chun Li, Blanka, Zangief, Guile, Dhalsim, Balrog, Vega, Sagat and Bison.

Once in-game, use the ‘Tab’ key to access all the different settings and to learn / configure your controls.

May 27, 2008

Streetbattlefield Fighter 2

Filed under: 3ds Max 9,Battlefield 2 — april15th @ 1:13 pm
Tags: , , , , , , ,

I don’t know what useful and/or exciting things you, my fickle readers, did during the first two weeks of May but a good portion of my precious time was devoted to 3ds Max. The focus of my efforts? Learning how to import, reconstruct and texture some of the more complex models from Battlefield 2 (and its various mods).

After a week of rendering those models and experimenting with different types of lighting, I decided it’d be fun to make a little composition. Originally, the plan was to create an animated scene that I could upload to YouTube but within a few days I changed my mind and decided to do a single frame instead:

Streetfighter 2 and Battlefield 2

An animated version of the scene remains a possibility; it’s just that I’m still hopeless at rigging and preparing the soldiers for this scene would have required a lot more time and effort than I was willing to commit. An experienced animator probably could have done it in no time but I’m an amateur and burdened with other priorities. I still haven’t told my neighbour that I found her cat and that’s something I should have done weeks ago. I’ve also got half a dozen DVD rentals that are seriously overdue.

The idea to recreate Guile’s level from Street Fighter II appeared out of the blue. I knew the Allied Intent Xtended mod included a well put-together F16—modelled and textured by clivewil—and it was probably the availability of that model, more than anything else, that compelled me to try. Growing up, I was a big fan of Street Fighter II, so the prospect of recreating a familiar image and spending a few days reminiscing about my Godlike SFII skills held great appeal.

More importantly, creating the scene allowed me to get better at using textures, Bipeds and the Physique modifier, and required the careful posing of half a dozen 3D models of humans. I’d never tried that before and it seemed a fun way to learn the basics.

Except for the clouds (created in 3ds Max) and the HUD (added via Photoshop), everything in the scene was sourced from Battlefield 2. Well, everything except clivewil’s F16 which, as I’ve already mentioned, was from Allied Intent Xtended, one of the very best BF2 mods going around. Some of the models were tweaked ever-so-slightly because I wanted them to better resemble the objects featured in Guile’s scene. For the most part, though, they were left alone. Battlefield 2 offered the equivalent of virtually everything seen in the original SFII level, so it was just a matter of finding the right objects, importing them into 3ds Max, applying textures, then moving them into position.

3ds Max Scene

The only object that could have been more faithful to the original was the Supply Crate. In Street Fighter II, the corresponding object is a destructible wooden crate (a rarity in video games) and BF2 definitely had one that was suitable but I think the Supply Crate, for this version, has more novelty value.

The scene’s main source of light is a Skylight with its Multiplier set to 1.3, however there are also three Omni Lights; two within the hangars to prevent them from being pitch-black and one in the foreground to increase the overall brightness of the fighters and onlookers. Without the Omni lights, the lighting had a more consistent, realistic feel but video games from that era didn’t really strive for photorealism, so I had no qualms about brightening things up.

As hoped, it was a fun project and though I’m sure it could have been done better, I’m happy with the end result. Happy enough to move on, anyway.

Let me know what you think.

(Click to enlarge)

May 24, 2008

SMD Importer for 3ds Max 9

Filed under: 3ds Max 9,Tutorials — april15th @ 10:08 am
Tags: , , , , , ,

Every so often, I like to examine the ‘Search Engine Terms’ listed amongst my Blog Stats to learn which keywords are bringing people here. I know from months of doing so that most visitors will leave within seconds, annoyed that this blog didn’t include the information they wanted. For example, I have not written, nor will I ever write, a tutorial on how to create cotton candy using 3ds Max. Sorry, that guy. Try modelling a funnelcake instead.

Not everyone will navigate away from here disappointed, though.

At least once a day, someone visits in hopes of finding an SMD Importer for 3ds Max 9. My tutorial for Importing Half-Life 2 models into 3ds Max included the associated keywords but at the time of writing that tutorial, I was not aware of the existence of a functional SMD Importer for any version of 3ds Max beyond 6/7/8.

Well, there IS an SMD Importer for 3ds Max 9.

In retrospect, I should have written this post the very moment I learned of the Importer’s existence but I figured people would find it with or without my help, so I never bothered. I do, however, suffer minor feelings of guilt every time something like ‘smd importer 3ds max 9’ appears in my list of Search Engine Terms, so I thought I’d write this post and amend my tutorial.

You can download the SMD Importer / Exporter for 3ds Max 9 from HERE and read about it HERE.

At last, “do a good deed” can be scratched from my list of goals for 2008.

I’ve tested the Importer using 3ds Max 9 and it does work as both an Importer and Exporter, so ignore anyone who insists it only functions as the latter. They’re either using a different version of 3ds Max or they haven’t installed the Importer according to the (fairly straightforward) instructions provided in the download’s SMDImporter-Readme.html file.

Look, here’s a test I did five minutes ago:

Doesn’t work as an Importer, huh? Well, explain that, professor … with all your PRECIOUS SCIENCE.

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