Thursday, 2 April 2015

Computer Animation or: How I Learnt to Stop Worrying and Love Pandora's Box

It's been some time since I updated my blog with any detailed content, so here's something to help break that silence. Over the past year or so, my freelance work has changed a fair bit and I'm starting to work on things more attuned to my style. I've also been working on non-CG projects, which have been helpful to get my head out of the game and reassess the best ways to work as an independent artist.

With all of this in mind, I'd like to start talking more about the things I'm learning and the things I care about within my work life. So, to start, I'm going to discuss a recent project and how thoughtful art direction / methodology is making my life way more manageable. In addition to how this is enabling me to find a new way of working in the computer animation field.

In January of this year, I completed some work for an independent film which has significantly helped me rethink methodology and art direction. Until now, I just kind of made CG assets to look the way I expected them. I tried to art direct to an extent, but I guess you could say I was still finding my feet. So, for a long time, I never really felt like the work I made was expressive of me. It's been a weakness for a long time, but I think it's changing. 

The big shakeup during this project was time. The project deadline was really short. Like really, really short, with only a few weeks to complete a full sequence. This meant it would be impossible to make the film using my traditional pipeline. There wasn't time to render, or make smooth, animated characters. There wasn't time to UV and texture paint assets. There was only time to be as efficient as possible. Economy was key.

The director expressed a real liking for some of my paintings, so instantly there was an aesthetic to my drawing that needed to be captured within CG. This was great news, because I suddenly realised my drawings are expressive of me, whilst my CG work so far, tends to feel distant to my intent. So, I sat down and tried to figure out how it may be possible. The first thing I did was look at other artists who seem to be in control of there work. So, I reread David OReilly's paper Basic Animation Aesthetics for guidance.

The importance of animation aesthetics is such a subtle yet vitally important one. It might seem superficial to discuss these things, especially because cinema is so much more to do with content and story than a pure aesthetic experience, but nonetheless the visual nature of animation calls for debate on the subject. There is a continuous raft of animation, both commercial and independent, which looks the same, and I donʼt believe it has to be so. The more we think about the subject the more playful and interesting computer animation becomes, the medium feels to me like a recently opened Pandora's box which is still being examined, understood and tamed.
David OReilly

Preproduction Character Sketches

OReilly's outlook, that the software is a Pandora's box waiting to be explored, is hugely relieving. I used to be a man who clung to rules. I worked the way I was told and followed the rules at every turn; and I was never happy. But this has never been the case with drawing or painting, those mediums always felt expressive and exploratory. The complexities of CG require rules, but for a long time, I'd been a slave to those rules. So, with this project, I decided to just see where things went (I know I've said this before). I started with a quick character sketch based on the director's description and preferences to help define a solid art direction. Instantly, the director was on-board, so it was time to open Pandora's box and start making things. This usually is where the problems start...
One of the main problems with 3d animation is that it takes so long to learn and then to use, from constructing a world to rendering it. There are many knock on effects of this, mainly it prevents people from attempting to use it and employ it artistically, the process is very discouraging for the individual to go ahead and make their film. Simple changes can take hours to do, and very often the process is so rigid it doesn't allow any changes at all.
David OReilly

These problems are hugely stressful and discouraging as an independent animator. The time waiting for renders to tick by takes its toll and it is rare for Maya to feel like a creative medium. So, the time constraint of this project actually led me to a new way of working which is incredibly exciting. Rather than rendering using conventional techniques, I used hardware rendering, which captures the scene directly as it appears on my computer. You move the character or lights and they react instantly. What you see on screen is what you get. Obviously, you sacrifice a lot of visual fidelity but the payoff is refreshing, flexibility. The addition restraints actually lead you to be more creative. It seems like a really obvious workflow now, but no one had ever mentioned it to me as a viable way of film making.

This new approach of instant feedback film making was incredible (although I feel dumb for discovering it so late.) The one caveat however, is aesthetic understanding. A few years ago, I would have struggled to make a scene look good in hardware rendering. It's a bit like watching Blue Peter as a kid. The presenter would make something out of egg boxes and paper-mache and it looked great, but when you gave it a go, it looked like shit. Therefore, you need a certain level of visual understanding in order to make things work.

So, I got to work making some really simple characters and objects. Because the aesthetics were cruder, I had a lot more room for imperfection. I didn't have to spend 20 hours refining the vertices or adjusting edges. Once I had a few assets in software, I started testing out how to implement my art direction. Rather than using UV layouts and textures, I used vertex colouring to paint each face of a model. Again, it's a simple approach but instantly worked. These early tests were inspired by the amazing Eran Hall. Bold, simple colouring to make characters feel almost 2d.

This approach then transitions across to the production of the environment. The environment of the film was an abstracted void space, so it was open to interpretation. Hardware rendering made this super easy. I could model things, vertex paint them, light them etc and instantly see the results. It forced me to try out new techniques, bodging ideas together to make the visuals I wanted. For example, rather than using a glow (as seen on the table) I just vertex painted some geometry with transparency. A lot of the projects I work on involve hyper-real CG, which means spending crazy amounts of time test rendering. This time, things came together pretty quickly. It all felt so much more natural and uncluttered.

And then it was time to rig...I stuck to my rule of economy. I kept the rig simple, partly because of time, but also because I didn't want the headache associated with slow, complex controls. The low poly nature of the character allowed for really nice deformations as well as simple animation using blendshapes. I had animated on 2's for a previous project and wanted to use the same technique. It felt natural to the aesthetic quality of film and also is becoming a personal preference. 

I can't show the film online, and unfortunately, some unforeseen circumstances affected the project and the deadline became even shorter, so the final film was more a complex previs than a fully animated sequence. However, as an exercise, this was huge. The restraints and pressures that came along with this project forced me to analyse my work in the best way possible. I'm guilty of just making things because I think it might please someone or because I assume that's how things are made, so this allowed me to almost step outside of my own head and reassess my whole body of work.

Wireframe Character and Rig
Lately, I've been working on a lot of non-CG projects which have led me to think about my future work. I've still not made my own personal film since graduation (and I'm not necessarily in a rush to do so) but when I do, this will be the route I explore. David OReilly's idea of software as a Pandora's box reawakens excitement for the medium. In addition, the realisation that my drawings are most expressive of me gives me a new route to explore. Lots of this stuff all sounds so obvious, and that's precisely why I wanted to discuss it here. Most of my life has been spent just doing what was expected. Perhaps this came from education or just my own mindset. It is only now that I start to question it all. Perhaps it is the reintroduction of traditional artwork that brings back this sense of exploration. But whatever it is, I'm on board and I'm keen to see where it all goes.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Gouache Doodles

And then there were more gouache doodles. And god said unto him, "Give it a rest fella..." There will probably more gouache soon. I've got a little bit of free time from work commitments, so hoping to post some older freelance work on the blog tonight. Just a few bits and bobs from some interesting CG projects.

Friday, 27 March 2015

Gouache #07 and #08

More gouache updates! These have become nightly doodles and I'm still loving the medium. Still all little head studies, but I'll test out something more environmental soon. This weekend I'm away working on some illustration stuff, which means I'll have some environmental studies to post soon.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Gouache #05 and #06

Here is Gouache #05 and #06. Miserable looking humans are a speciality of mine.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Gouache #03 and #04

More lovely, lovely gouache doodles. I have plenty more on the go so will update as I finish. It is amazing how spending a little time away from the computer everyday makes me less of a shitty person.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Gouache Tests

I've been trying out some Gouache paint lately and it's bloody great. It's a watercolour medium, but dries opaque, which means it's super easy to work with, cleans up good and is dries fast. I'm planning to do more formal studies soon, but for now, here's a few glimpses at some sketchbook stuff. More soon!

Monday, 9 February 2015

Workshop Demo Paintings

Ok, it happened again. I've not posted on this blog for months. But, I'm back for another go. So, let's keep this short. I've been teaching a lot lately, and strangely, learning a whole ton from this experience. Recently, I taught a set of digital painting workshops down at the University of Portsmouth, which were great fun. I normally forget to post any little demo pieces that come from these workshops, so let's change that. Here's a colour comp from workshop 2. Developing a thumbnail with some very basic colour addition.

I'm teaching some new classes soon, which will start to look at fundamental painting techniques in the digital space. So, expect some still life demo pieces on here in the near future.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Phantom Limb - Zbrush Sculpting

As is always the case, things are busy. Recently, I've started working with the talented sculptor / artist Phill Hosking to develop some new ideas. There are things in the works, and ideas being explored, but we've started it all by creating CG assets for sale. The idea being that we sell high quality 3d models on Turbosquid in order to fund our own personal art projects. Things are developing a bit further from this, but I'll talk about that more at a later date. For now, here is a look at some of the stuff we've been making.

Firstly, a head sculpt I completed recently, to add to our library of models. It's been great working with someone who has such a keen eye for detail and anatomy. I'm learning a lot just by seeing new sculpts and finishing a model to completion. This was fully sculpted in Zbrush and then taken into various other software ready for upload. We purposefully chose this generic look for ease of use. It can be morphed, resculpted and retextured to help create various outcomes. From this, I'm currently making a set of heads that all originated from this base.

Phill has also sculpted a bunch of other awesome things for the site. My job was to turn these Zbrush sculpts into something flexible; either working on detailing and polypainting, or getting the models cleaned up and put into Maya. That has meant lots of retopology, UV mapping, texture painting etc but it's really helped make the models usuable in a variety of available formats.

At the moment, we are developing the library of objects in our spare time (which you can check out here.) But it will perhaps one day become a way in which we can fund more ambitious and artsy projects. More of which I shall discuss soon.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Character Thumbnails

Here are some more thumbnails for a personal project I'm working on. I'm really liking where this project is going, but at the moment it is still very early days so I'm not going to discuss what it is all about. More things of this nature soon. I actually update my Twitter more often with sketchbook doodles etc, so feel free to check it out here for more regular updates.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Character Thumbnails

Last week I posted some character thumbnails from a lunchtime paint session. This week, I have more. But this time they exist for a different reason. I'm working on a project with a best buddy of mine and I'm finally starting some development painting to get things kicked off. So, this page of character thumbs are a bit more specific to the project. These thumbnails exist almost completely as silhouettes, with just a few details to suggest some form. The project is a no budget, personal thing, but the scope is huge so there is a lot of exploration to be done. I'll talk more about all of this as things develop.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

untitled characters #02

A few months ago, I posted a page of character sketches that were produced as exploration for a new animation. That animation is still in the works and probably will be for sometime. It's a bit of a side project so I'm seeing where things go, rather than worry too much about making anything to a deadline. Here are a few more sketches for the same animation. More soon.

Thursday, 2 October 2014


A new concept piece which, for a long time, just looked awful. This was originally a thumbnail that I just couldn't translate into a finished piece but always had some promise. So, after some time away, I went back and managed to make something I'm happy with. I'll make a post soon to describe just how it went from a crappy failed painting, to this.

Blogger isn't the greatest platform to look at artwork, so I've cropped a couple of areas to see them up close. I've had emails about prints of my work on a few occasions, but at the moment I don't have anything organised, so here is a link to a high resolution version for print or download if you'd like it. Outskirts High Res Download

More work coming soon. Plus, I'll be posting about how this went from a disaster, to a finished piece. I'll talk about some of the things I'm trying to do in my work and some new techniques that I'm finding helpful.