I got a couple of new synthesiser bits this month, including the venerable complex LFO TINRS Wobbler and a portable enclosure with a built-in power supply. The week that the enclosure began its journey over from Melbourne, my car decided once and for all that my modular synthesiser was getting far too much attention. There soon came an ominous and expensive rattling noise from the engine…
If my chances of making it to Blender Conference 2018 were slim before, my car’s repair bills have now nailed that particular coffin shut, set it ablaze and launched it into the sun. Foo.
The Blender Institute began their super duper code sprint up in Amsterdam and the daily builds of Blender 2.8 are getting super duper interesting as a result! I’ll hold off from making any remarks because it’s all very much a work in progress, but there’s some promising developments.. as well as a reignition of the old LMB/RMB select debate.. ah well, may as well take the good with the bad!
I finished up CG Cookie’s Animation Bootcamp this month. This was my first submission for Exercise 11, the first walk cycle of the course!
I got some feedback from Instructor Wayne on this submission and had another crack at it.
Not great, true, but not awful either. The second full-body walk cycle was a little better.
It needs some polish but my peers at CG Cookie decided it was good enough to pass as is. I’ll come back to both of these another day.
I went on to the next CG Cookie animation course, Animation Workflow and Body Mechanics, and now that I’ve got a better eye for when something looks off it’s taking much longer to get my exercises to the point where I’m happy to submit them. Knowing when something’s off is easy, knowing how it’s off and how to fix it efficiently is what I’ve yet to learn. Better stick with it!
Out of the blue one Friday, I decided to challenge myself to realise a character design because it’s been a while since I tried. I did up this orthographic reference in Krita.
Then I tried to sculpt it. It came out looking different but so much better:
Here, Mr Pig is an unretopologised sculpture. The animation is done by shape-keying a deforming lattice (head and cheeks) and the sculpted mesh (eyebrows). The freckle texture is done with vertex painting. The animation is extremely limited – he can’t open his mouth or blink yet, for instance. Still, cute pig!
I’m retopologising the sculpture to a mesh so that I can use it to practice UV unwrapping and surfacing, specifically texture painting. And maybe a little bit of animation too. We’ll see!
That’s all for April. If you’ve got any comments or questions or just want to rap, you can reply to this post’s toots/tweets on Mastodon or Twitter.
I experimentally tried streaming my patching sessions too. This is a 44 minute jam which starts off a bit slowly but it finds some nice little moments!
Movies and animation
Fishtank is parked because I’ve decided there’s something I need to deal with first.
Since I set myself the goal of becoming someone who makes animated movies, I’ve spent a lot of time learning about and getting practical experience in the pre-production bits. When it comes to outlines, thumbnails, storyboards, animatics and even 3D layout, I’m confident. But I’m too comfortable there to draw a line and move on from it.
At the beginning of this year, I resolved to work on smaller self-contained projects and exercises without extra strings attached. The effervescent Looch Muñoz posted an animation which brought home that I’d never looked into literal animation to any practical extent. So this month I dusted off my old CG Cookie account and got started on their Animation Bootcamp course.
For a few days, my spare time was all about the balls.
At the same time as I was learning how to see timing and spacing and how to manipulate them into illusions of mass and force, I felt like I was rediscovering my tenacity too. I was sticking with it. I was pushing through. I was learning.
I did four exercises over four days. I had a head of steam up. When it came time for exercise five and comparative ball bounces (basketball versus tennis ball versus bowling ball), my frustration got the better of me. I knew enough to know that I wasn’t getting as close as I ought to. My intuitions had outpaced my abilities.
This resulted in some impressively dedicated procrastination where I spent several nights in a row getting 24,000 words into an urban fantasy novella before writing myself into a corner and getting mired in rewrite hell. I’ve got it out of my system now, though. Sort of. (Not really.)
Animation-wise, I want to finish the rest of Animation Bootcamp as a priority. Having someone check my work and provide crit is invaluable. Beyond that I also want to tackle Wayne’s other animation courses at CGC to get my eye and confidence up many notches to where the prospect of animating doesn’t put me off so much any more.
And maybe in the process I’ll rediscover my tenacity again. That would be great too.
The secret project I’ve been hinting at since late 2017 was a sci-fi album cover for the trance musician Alien Force. It was completed back in November last year and has been waiting for a distribution slot since… until now!
Back in October 2017, Alien Force told me to make an album cover for him on the basis that I knew how to use 3D software. It would be unpaid work, but I took it anyway because it was something that would take me well out of my comfort zone. I appreciated that he asked me to produce something without seeing anything like a portfolio.
The brief was to capture something of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar but “menacing and awesome” too. After a month of back and forth outside of the day job, we settled on this:
After slogging through one too many full 3D re-renders, I learnt the value of being able to iterate as rapidly and painlessly as possible. I broke the scene up into layers which would only come together at composite time. Each element (the background star field with nebula, the swirly orange clouds, the black hole and the spaceship with its jets) was rendered separately as multilayer OpenEXR and composited together.
The background nebula and stars are done procedurally, pretty much as Aidy Burrows and Gleb Alexandrov teach it in their excellent Space VFX Elements course for Blender. The swirly orange bits are from failing to make Gleb’s accretion disk shader to work but getting something usable anyway. If any of this stuff interests you at all, check out that course!
The blown-out glow of the black hole was one of the key bits of Interstellar’s look which Alien Force wanted to keep. I used a super bright emission shader, Blur, Sun Beams and Glow filter to blow the glow out from a line a couple of pixels wide to something which better sells how bright it is.
The spaceship is a relatively simple model which uses the “Follow Active Quads” UV unwrapping trick along with some 32-bit textures to greeble it up. This technique was the centre of a five year old thread on BlenderArtists called “Sculpting with UVs and displacements”. Definitely worth checking out if you ever need to build a detailed-looking spaceship quick!
The subtle outer glow of the spaceship was added in composite, something to make the silhouette pop against the nebula and stars. The green glow within the silhouette of the ship was a happy accident – I rendered out every single pass for the spaceship and stumbled on a mysterious pass called “DenoisingNormalVariance”. It made the end result look cooler, so that’s good enough for me.
The composite was put through Troy Sobotka’s awesome filmic LUTs. This let me work confidently with a high dynamic ranges, knowing that the LUTs would bring out the missing dynamic range instead of clipping it or losing it altogether.
Here’s a comparison between Blender’s default internal look and Filmic to finish off with. The biggest difference is visible in the spaceship. With the default LUT, the exhaust is blown out and the contrast on the ship itself is less. The Filmic LUT preserves more detail in the exhaust and brings out extra contrast in the surface details on the ship itself.
If you want to hear the Alien Force EP itself, you can have a listen on Beatport. It looks like in the process of slapping the logo on the black hole they also cranked up the saturation hard, but that’s showbiz. 🙂
Thanks for reading and I hope you liked this breakdown.
2017 was a rough year for me and seemingly a lot of other people. Here’s a recap of what I got up to.
Back in April I made RYGCBMK◯, a project which was weirdly central to a lot of what I got up to this year. Here it is if you want a refresher.
I’d wanted to try an abstract short set to music since I went to the Melbourne International Animation Festival in 2015. RYGCBMK◯ was my driver to learn procedural animation with Jacques Lucke’s powerful Animation Nodes system for Blender. I specifically wanted to synchronise abstract animation to a rhythm because I love that kind of synaesthetic stuff and I knew it would keep me going through an emotionally brutal bit of the year.
The end result was not perfect, but I got a high enough average score during the voting process for the Suzanne Awards 2017 to encourage me to try some more in the future. The important part was that there was an end result to speak of. It got done.
Working on RYGCBMK◯ also helped me tune into my artistic sensibilities. Given just shapes and sound to play with, the project took me away from complicated stuff like characters and dialogue to something which let me get a strong feel for the kind of work I want to put into the world.
I made important if not voluminous progress with “A moment in the sun” in its third year of development. I put together a new story reel in January and February, and a short stretch of that is good to go as is even with the big rewrite in May. Flipping Pointy from irascible and foolish to geeking-out cute was a decision that very much happened in the wake of RYGCBMK◯ too.
There was that secret project I can’t show off yet which happened in October-November. Here’s a concept which we abandoned.
I learnt Retopoflow this year as well – anyone doing modelling in Blender should grab it. Hard Ops is next on my list of useful plugins to get to grips with.
There was of course AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA which started strong but fizzled. AMITS now has a sweet cockatoo. Here’s AAAAAAAAAAA’s final resting point.
And then there was my first run at Inktober. I started practising with my brush pen and now my inking’s gone from “rubbish” to “slightly-less-rubbish”. This snail got the most likes on Instagram.
There wasn’t that much time for art or animation though. RYGCBMK◯’s soundtrack was part of a big jump back into music for me, something I did because I wanted a creative outlet but job stress was (temporarily) making the animation hobby unthinkable. Then it took over.
Just over eleven months after I impulse-bought that ARP Odyssey back in January as a shiny new toy to keep myself distracted, I’m now the owner of a 475HP Eurorack modular synthesiser which I mostly soldered together myself. I don’t need to look at a computer screen to make electronic music anymore (though the PC does come in very handy for recording) and the sound is even produced by old-school electronic components instead of simulated versions thereof. In playing around with it I’ve learnt a lot about how to patch and which modules are for what, but no doubt I’ve only just scratched the surface of what this thing can do.
This krautrocky jam from early December is one of my favourite tracks I did this year.
I didn’t even know how to solder before I started putting DASYRAC together, but I noticed the kit builds were a lot cheaper so I gave it a try. Now I’m actually happier owning synthesiser modules which I put together myself than modules I bought pre-made, because I’m comfortable fixing my own work when it breaks. Most times when I sit down to prod a busted circuit with a multimeter and pore over a circuit schematic, I learn something new and interesting.
So that’s what I learnt and did in 2017. (Mostly synthesiser stuff, to be honest.) This is what I’m taking away from all that for 2018 and beyond.
In terms of the modular synthesiser and music stuff, the build is almost complete. Once that’s done it’s all about learning my gear better and maybe getting some tunes released on Bandcamp. There’s one or two easy modules I want to have a crack at building for myself too, but that’ll need a little bit of extra equipment – it can wait.
In terms of Blender stuff, I want to jump into some short, focussed and contained exercises – animation, modelling, or otherwise. If it’s animation, I source the soundtrack and character rigs from somewhere else. If it’s modelling, I source a design from somewhere else. I go with pre-made assets wherever possible. The key is not giving myself too broad a set of creative decisions to make at once so that I don’t get lost.
By pushing beyond my own creative sphere and not trying to do all the things, it’ll save me time, help me focus on specific tasks, broader my artistic horizons, get me analysing work by other people and build up my confidence and patience again with some experience. With less to do, I can hopefully finish more stuff and get it in front of people to start that all-important feedback loop.
As for Gronky and Pointy, I feel like I’ve lived with AMITS long enough that there’s no big surprises left – just a lot to execute on. If I can stay organised and find a good chunk of time every week to work on it (five hours a week minimum is a good pace), it’ll get done. It’ll probably be not the best, but at least it’ll be finished.
The day job may have other things to say about all of this, especially if I score the promotion I’ve been working towards and people keep departing, but we’ll see.
Happy New Year for 2018, and I hope the coming year treats you all well!