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.

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 13, 2008

My very first YouTube video.

Filed under: Battlefield 2 — april15th @ 3:09 am
Tags: , , , , , ,

I really don’t care for that title but every time I substitute it with my original choice – “Here’s a nice piece of SHIT!” – I feel guilty for using bad language.

Back when I was deeply immersed in the world of Battlefield 2 machinima, I felt contempt for anyone who posted their work on streaming video sites. I wanted crystal-clear, high-quality versions of everything. For a while there, Putfile.com was the most oft-used of those streaming sites but then YouTube arrived on the scene and everyone started posting their horribly-encoded, low-res crap there instead.

Eventually, I, too, was lured in by YouTube’s siren song but I vowed that I would always provide people with high-quality versions of the same clips. All they had to do was ask. (No-one ever did.)

My very first video was posted almost two years ago to the day and has since racked up 7104 views. To put that into context, there’s a ten-minute video on YouTube called Watching Paint Dry; it’s exactly what its name implies and it has amassed 39,720 views. Quite an indictment on the quality of my own videos.

Speaking of which …

The clip was actually a response to someone’s request on the TotalBF2 forums. The game had just been patched to include vehicle drops and someone had asked whether or not it was possible to exit a flying jet or helicopter and then land in an air-dropped vehicle before it reached the ground. I can’t remember how many times I tried it before finally succeeding. Maybe it was five. Maybe it was fifteen. When you think about all the pain and suffering in the world, though, does it really matter? What’s important is that I had a problem (my abject disgust for low-quality streaming video) and I overcame it … the feel-good story of the year.

November 10, 2007

Battlefield 2 in Real-Life.

Edit: The tutorial on getting Battlefield 2 models into 3ds Max is now available here:

http://machinima-tutorials.com/wiki/index.php/Getting_BF2_Models_Into_3ds_Max

Keen to put my patience to the test, I recently forced myself to learn the process of importing BF2 models into 3ds Max 9. I figure it’s another skill that’ll look great on a résumé; especially when applying for a job in which the ability to import BF2 models into 3ds Max 9 is a vital prerequisite.

BF2 models aren’t as high-poly or nicely-textured as those found in HL2 but they look fairly realistic nonetheless; especially when rendered using HDR Image-Based Lighting:

F35b BF2

Agreed?

I’ll try to do something creative with them soon and hope that Electronic Arts doesn’t sue. Not that you can get blood from a stone …

Click to enlarge:
f35s.jpg

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