Blender Stuff I made

Alien Force artwork breakdown

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!

Don’t get too close!

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.

Spaceship! The pink bits are sharp marks, the nicer way to get sharp edges while doing subdivision modelling.The grey texture map is used for displacement.

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!

Spaceship! With UV-mapped greebles…

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.

Default LUT in top left, filmic LUT at lower right.

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.

A moment in the sun Blender Journals Modular synthesisers Music & Synthesisers RYGCBMK◯ Stuff I made

What I did in 2017

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.

And it got done.. with nodes!

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.

The one we actually went with is way cooler.

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.

To me DASYRAC looks sad and naked and unfulfilled without patch cables, but at least this way you can see the actual modules.

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.

This is the schematic for Music Thing Modular’s Simple EQ with my troubleshooting notes. Looks like I forgot to solder one of the pins on an op amp.

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.

A pyramid monk from AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA.

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.

Meanwhile, in the Sun…

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!

A moment in the sun Journals Modular synthesisers Music & Synthesisers

December 2017 in retrospect

Seasons Greetings! Although we are still a whole day and a bit away from the end of December, here’s a recap of what I’ve been up to this month.

A moment in the sun!

I last worked on our old friends Pointy and Gronky properly back in May. At the time I felt like I left the story in the best possible place. Pointy’s now a happy little nerd with a laser fixation instead of a simmering angry idiot who wants to get home. Gronky is still a big guy who buries things in the desert.

I’ve started looking for ways to bring the pace of the story up and creatively solve some limitations. So now Gronky digs things out of the ground lightning fast. We never see him do this directly, however – it’s always off-screen. He also buries things glacially slow, just for contrast. This helpfully marks the passing of time as Pointy interrogates the robot.

The line-up, as seen previously..

Speaking of Pointy, I’m revisiting his character design so it fits his new bubbly personality better. On the very first day of December, I rendered Gronky and Pointy together with the bird from AAAAAAAAAAAAAA out of curiosity. Two soft round characters next to an angular character made me realise how Pointy’s sharp edges didn’t feel right anymore. He’s still ultimately a 2D design in a 3D world, but now the spiky sharp angular edges are friendlier-looking flowing curves.

Choosing a design and realising it in 3D is January’s problem.

Other animated things

Other ideas included robot creatures who make weird and fun noises into a microphone while doing strange things. I’ve collected enough strange and delightful noises from the analogue synth which suggest whimsical robots. The working title is “Noisies”. Here’s a slightly hyperactive animation test in Blender Grease Pencil featuring a roboty thing who is definitely not Gir from Invader Zim beatboxing to the introduction of “One Note Samba” by Perrey and Kingsley.

I don’t think the timing is right to start on it yet, but it could be a fun little project one day.

Electronics and music

I expanded DASYRAC by quite a few modules this month, with three pre-mades and five kit builds! (It would have been six kit builds but no such luck.) The last couple of modules are waiting on parts or availability.

  • Music Thing Modular’s Spring Reverb mk 2 (kit). This was a replacement for my Doepfer spring reverb. It’s got a cleaner sound and has more features.
  • Doepfer A-124 VCF5 Wasp Filter Special Edition. The Wasp has a cult following, partly for being cheap and partly for sounding more like an intergalactic shortwave radio than a filter at high resonance.
  • Polaxis Talko (kit). Talko uses old-school linear prediction coding (remember the Speak’N’Spell from “E.T.”?) to say preset numbers and words.. or for robotic burbles and growls.
  • Fonitronik Cascade (kit). A cascading attenuverter for sourcing, attenuating, inverting and offsetting voltages.
  • Befaco A*B+C (kit). A dual quadrature VCA for attenuverting and offsetting signals under voltage control. This is my second one of these!
  • Bastl Instruments Tromsø (kit). This is a triangle oscillator which feeds into a comparator which in turn feeds into a sample and hold circuit, good for analogue “ratecrushing” to add some (fake) lo-fi digital grit over hi-fi sounds.
  • Doepfer A-152 Addressed Track and Hold/Switch. This is a combination of an eight-way switch, an eight-way track and hold and an eight-stage trigger out. Uses I’ve already found for this include a pitch CV distributor and something that allows “hocketing” (switching between oscillators from note to note).

  • Doepfer A-110-6 TTZQ VCLFO. The A-110-6 is a through-zero trapezoid-core oscillator. Normal oscillators stop oscillating when their oscillation voltage drops to 0 or below, but a through-zero oscillator treats a negative oscillation voltage as a mirror of a positive oscillation voltage – a negative voltage just means “oscillate in reverse”. You can use this to create otherwise unachievable frequency modulation sounds. Here it is in action.

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through zero oscillators in a nutshell

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I’m at a point now with the modular synth where I’m recreating particular synthesiser topologies or experimenting with techniques as learning and familiarisation exercises instead of adding more stuff to what I have. With a modular synthesiser it’s hard to know precisely what I’ve got, because different modules connect to one another in different ways.

I still want to try to build my own simple modules to fill a couple of gaps. I wouldn’t hate to have another buffered mult or a window comparator, for instance, and both of those things are relatively easy to put together from op amps.

I impulse-bought a theremin kit at the local electronics store. It was a bit disappointing. People go on about how cool theremins are but I find them forbiddingly fiddly and I much prefer the sound of the ondes Martenot.

That’s all for now! Thanks for catching up. 🙂

A moment in the sun AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA Journals Modular synthesisers Music & Synthesisers

November 2017 happenings

Greetings, interweb. Here’s what I got up to in November 2017, starting with…

A secret project!

Can’t say much about this yet. It was a freebie album cover which I took on for the experience and to stretch my abilities beyond my comfort zone. I relied heavily on a certain Space VFX series and a classic thread on BlenderArtists for inspiration and techniques.

Once the associated project is out, I’ll show it off. 🙂

Animation and other Blendery stuff

The speedy green antics of AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA have been shelved for the foreseeable future. My heart’s not in it, but at least it yielded a great little cockatoo rig who also fits into the visual style of AMITS. Maybe he can hang out with Gronky and Pointy…

Does the cockatoo need big thick eyebrows as well? Answers in the comments.

Speaking of those two, I patched a nice zappy electricity arc sound for the robot in AMITS. This is a random five second excerpt from that session. (Warning: loud.)

Electronics and other beepbooping

Through the magic of soldering, I’ve added distortion, another audio mixer and another sequencer to DASYRAC’s arsenal of goodies. Here’s the distortion, featuring its quirky LED limiter section.

I also bought a drum machine because I got tired of patching together basic drum sounds every time I want a beat. I’ve started looking into Arduino to see what I can do to trigger it from the patchbay instead of needing to rely on MIDI.

I started doing write-ups on all the modules in DASYRAC too. There’s about fifty of them so I’ll still be doing write-ups a year from now if I can’t get through more than one per week.

That’s all for November. See you again soon!

Modular synthesisers Music & Synthesisers Stuff I made

Patch of the day – Happy little polymeters

Time for a new patch! This one is all about skippy electronic space bubbles.


The melody is a conversation between orderly euclidean rhythms (courtesy of my shiny new 2hp Euclid) and the chaotic randomised voltages from the ever-dependable Music Thing Modular Turing Machine. The random note pitches come out of the Turing Machine, and the basic shuffle rhythm comes from the Euclid, but the Turing Machine’s Pulses expander also throws in an extra pip from time to time which adds splashes of interest. Lovely.

The reverse delay is some sort of magic achieved by the Synthesis Technology E560 Deflector Shield patched into the feedback line of the Befaco Crush Delay. There’s this one knob on the Deflector Shield I normally leave at zero, and here it’s at five-ish. I don’t know what it’s doing exactly but it sounds quite nice.

Add slatherings of spring reverb to taste.