Tag Archives: a moment in the sun

So that was 2018…

It’s 1 January 2019 as I write this, so Happy New Year!

At the changing of the years, I like to go back over the previous twelve months, and think about what I want do over the next year. I did a similar thing in 2017, and looking over it this sentence in particular struck me:

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.


– me, 12 months ago

The day (and often late night) job

I got the promotion. Yay! But the other thing happened too. Boy did it ever.

Before the year’s end, all but one other person in my team of six (not counting the new hire) had been poached by another (much better paying) company across town. Two levels of management above my team had already gone the same way, and one of those managers had taken over from another poached manager. My team in particular has domain knowledge the poachy company wants and so every single one of us was approached, me included. Only one of us flat turned them down.

When they approached me, I said “not yet”. At the time I didn’t want that kind of distraction hanging over a big unfinished project when it was so very close to done.

The project’s done now. It’s an enterprise search system. People tell me it works better than Google’s did.

This year’s big project

A search engine is sort of a specialised database. You feed documents into it to create an index, then you run queries on the index to retrieve information. The way it retrieves that information is calculating lots of points in N-dimensional space representing its documents, then figuring out how close those points are to the point which represents the thing you asked for. A well-configured search engine also transforms its index and query data to allow for more intuitive results. (If you search for cat you probably want cats as well. If you search for qoull, of course you meant to type quoll.) There’s quite a lot of domain knowledge involved in information retrieval but that’s honestly a series of blog posts all on its own.

The company’s Google enterprise search hardware was due to go out of licence in July, after which it would stop working. I couldn’t spend any actual money buying a replacement, but I had to come up with something all the same.

After months of working almost entirely solo, I put together a search service based on the open source search engine Apache Solr and it’s been received extremely well. Maybe it’s because the interface also shows a cat emoji if someone’s search contains the word “cat”. Or possibly because it authenticates people invisibly and actually finds things, something the Google one had no end of trouble with.

I’m really proud of what I achieved with it, but my creative momentum and mental health definitely suffered. That’s why I mention it.

Meanwhile, in Blender…

If there’s been an overarching theme to this year creatively, it’s been stepping back from big complicated things and working simpler and smaller.

…the Sun shines brightly!

This year AMITS stopped being the focal point for my creativity. I’m no longer under any illusion that it’s possible to learn animation from the context of making an animated movie. Animation is way too complicated to figure out as I go along, and I haven’t got enough practical experience to build on. Fair enough, though: I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

As a result, “A moment in the sun” was mostly back-burnered, although it continued to simmer. Then suddenly in October, there came a burst of inspiration: a story rewrite, a scratch audio track, thumbnail sketches and a story reel! Gosh! It’s now in its best ever state story-wise – short (90 seconds), dense, unambitious, silly and fun. All I had to do was stop working on it entirely for a few months and it came good. Yay.

I’m not holding myself to a deadline or a schedule on AMITS anymore. I want to work on it as time and energy allow – a proper crafty hobby project.

Little things (for the fun of it)

I wanted to become more confident and competent with animating anyway, so back in February, I started some self-paced courses in animation over at CG Cookie. I’m a long way from where I was a year ago, although I still have a long way to go again before I’m where I want to be. I know much more of what I don’t know.

My main blocker has been learning to use reference effectively. Stepping back from animation and understanding how I use reference in general has helped there too. In short, I let the reference dictate its own ideas instead of using it to inform my own ideas. It’s something I want to work on.

Beyond finally knocking half a dozen animation exercises over, I want to do more “little things for the fun of it” in 2019. I want to do more work on visible things which I can share instead of being stuck doing invisible things for months on end.

Keyframe Tools

Friendly animator Looch badgered me into porting a couple of tools from his favourite Maya plugin animBot into Blender 2.79. This became the Keyframe Tools add-on. The tools are functional right now but neither numerous nor super-polished. It’s still in a state of “feel free to use it but don’t expect much” (pre-alpha).

I want to get it working in 2.80 but beyond that, I have no big plans. I have more than enough software to support at my day job to want to support software outside of my day job, and Blender’s API for F-Curves is still too messy to want to deal with in my spare time.

Other things

Whatever happened to the synthesiser… ?

The interest in Eurorack petered out in 2018. The last thing I bought was the mighty Intellijel Metropolis stage sequencer – a reward after completing a release milestone for the search service.

I’m happy to report I haven’t spent a cent on any new music gear since August. (Yay. I’m cured.)

I recorded some nice whooshing noises from the modular all the same and put them up on Bandcamp. I also re-released an old album of loud ambient music called Music for Open Plan Offices. I haven’t had much use for it at the day job since everyone quit.

Writing novels

I don’t really talk about my writing much either, except in the context of “I’m writing to procrastinate animation”. But since this is a recap of the year, this is what I wrote.

I got through writing most of a first draft of a novel in February. It was about a cut-throat society of vermin living in a sort of midway universe between Mundane Reality and Deep Magic, and the chaos that ensues when someone indefatigably pleasant finds their way into a scheming nest of bastards who all want him for themselves. I put it down because it was too complicated to work out the middle and I didn’t like it enough to go to the effort of finishing it.

Before the cholecystectomy in late October, I decided to bust out a novel NaNoWriMo-style for the hell of it. Two weeks and 63,000 odd words later, I’d drafted a story about a gifted magical being more concerned with lording his talents over the easily impressed than doing anything useful. This arrogance winds up getting him exiled into the human world where he has to fit in for a whole month or face a terrifying forfeit. It’s a sweet little story with some fun characters.

I mention these only to see if anyone will ask about reading them.

Japanese

I started learning Chinese in November 2017 when Duolingo released their Chinese course, but this year Japanese was coming up a lot more in my day-to-day life (following sumo, mainly). I don’t have much use for Chinese other than saying dissidenty-type things at my Chinese-made mobile phone.

Recently I’ve kicked it up a notch and got into spaced repetition systems to boost my vocab and grammar. It’s intense but it’s definitely delivering results. I feel it turning into one of those things where the challenge, frustration and reward make it fantastically addictive – except instead of having spent loads of cash and time with electronics, I spend less cash overall and understand a whole other language. Bonus!

The future of the blog

I started keeping this journal back in 2012 on Tumblr. Back when AMITS was really roaring along, I posted something every weekend as a show and tell. The idea was to represent the passing of time as the project got made so that when someone goes back and reads it, they get a sense for the tempo of the project.

AMITS’s tempo subsequently dropped and the weekly updates became monthly. I got interested in other things again and the monthly recaps got much less focussed on animation.

My engagement levels from here are pretty close to zero as well. I would love to say that I’m not fussed about engagement but even I’m at the point now where I want to re-think what purpose this blog even serves. Regular posts feel more out of habit than for having something interesting to say.

I’m going to just get on with my 2019 and if Something Happens, I’ll make a concerted effort to be interesting about it. Very possibly I’ll blog about Japanese.

For now, that’s it. Have a great 2019!

December 2018 retro

December 2018! Western quolls at the Arid Recovery desert site appear to be doing well, and (as feared) all but one of the team-mates at work has resigned. Also I have a new-fangled block-based editor to play with for this blog. Gosh.

The sun and moments therein

I finished a cut of the AMITS: Hello! story reel at the beginning of the month. It’s just shy of 90 seconds which is a nice compact running time. And here it is! (Spoiler warning, obviously.)

After literally years of struggling to write a story with these two characters, this story reel is a quietly magnificent relief.

I modelled and rigged the Hellobot in the Blender 2.80 beta. It’s a simple rounded cylinder, with the eyes rigged to change colour and shape. It should be more than enough to get me through layout. Here is a short demo. (Very slight spoiler warning.)

There are now eight assets left to build, including scenery, a few props and two characters. Producing AMITS to any kind of deadline or schedule is completely unthinkable at the moment, unfortunately.

Blender 2.80 beta is coming along nicely but I haven’t made any updates to Keyframe Tools just yet. Hopefully the API to access keyframe data is not as convoluted as it is in the 2.7x series.

今日は、日本語!

This month mainly I’ve mainly been studying Japanese. Or should I say Kongetsu ni watashi wa omoni nihongo wo benkyou shite-ita. Or should I say 今月に私は主に日本語を勉強しいた。I can do that now. 今は出来るよ。OK, I’ll stop.

I’ve shifted gear from five minutes a day farting around on Duolingo to at least an hour a day learning Japanese characters, vocabulary and grammar. It’s really worth a blog post of its own. IOU!

That’s about it for December. I’ve got a yearly recap blog pencilled in for New Year’s Day or thereabouts, so expect that soon!

November 2018 recap

That was November! California was on fire and Queensland is now also on fire. Also there was a giant cow called Knickers and Blender 2.80 finally went into beta.

In summary…

  • I’ve been recovering from having my gall bladder removed
  • I released some sleep-aiding whooshy noises on Bandcamp
  • AMITS: Hello! got a first pass of storyboards on index cards
  • The robot has not kicked the soccer ball yet.
  • I helped out with a compilation error in Blender
  • I’m learning Japanese!

Please read on for specifics…

Surgery!

I had my gall bladder out at the end of October and I’ve been in recovery mode since. Fronting up to work in tracksuit pants is fun.

The gall bladder recovery meant roughly a week of not being able to sit up without extreme discomfort – I was either lying in bed or standing up. I watched a lot of movies, including the restoration of Abel Gance’s epic 5 1/2 hour silent film “Napoleon”. Honestly I don’t remember a lot about those two weeks aside from that they were slow and full of nourishing home-made stew. I blame the anaesthetic.

My top tips for people about to have a laparoscopic cholecystectomy (keyhole gallbladder removal):

  • Stock up on oversized t-shirts and soft pants with drawstrings.
  • Work on your upper body strength and leg strength, especially squats. It will hurt like hell to bend over for a week or two.
  • Take a book to hospital which is capable of distracting you. I took “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and it was a perfect companion for walking off the CO2 bubbles.
  • Don’t plan on sitting up at a table or desk for a while after surgery. For me it was about a week and a half before sitting at a desk for longer than a few minutes was comfortable. Even four weeks later I’m taking extra doses of painkillers to manage the discomfort.
  • It hurts to laugh for a week or so. Aim for viewing material which is fascinating enough to pass the time without being laugh-out-loud funny.

Noises to sleep to

I live near a main road so having a neutral sound playing helps me sleep. I’ve been using a white noise app for years but lately my Bluetooth has been cutting out. Even worse, when it cuts out it cheerfully announces that it’s in pairing mode. Bah.

Fortunately the speakers can take audio over cables too, but my phone’s headphone jack doesn’t really grip anymore. Double bah!

Not to be defeated, I’ve patched up my modular synth to function as a white noise machine. There’s a video on the way going through the patch for the curious. I’ll update the blog post with a link once I’ve cut it together and uploaded it.

If you find yourself needing whooshy noises yourself, you can grab a 36-minute recording of these whooshy noises for a whole fifty cents over at Bandcamp. I’d offer it free but frankly I need to pay for this modular synth somehow.

A moment in the sun

In short: it’s on again!

Back on 8 November I finished up the first pass of rough storyboards for AMITS: Hello!

There are over seventy index cards – I used actual physical index cards because I could hold them in my hand as I was drawing them without needing to sit down. Sitting down hurt a lot at the time because I was full of holes.

Gronky lays down the law

Pointy has a moan with his new cuter look

Working smarter, not harder

Today I scanned in the index cards three at a time with a different chunk of the storyboard running at the top, middle and bottom. The Blender video sequence editor lets me crop video elements, so the idea was to run the sequence of scanned images three times with a different crop for each repetition.

Start at the top, middle in the middle, end at the bottom..

You can watch the entire sequence of scans below. The index cards are even thick enough to maintain their registration – at least, it’s close enough for rough storyboarding purposes.

If you can follow this after it loads, you’re an alien.

Batching the images up this way makes digitisation super quick – after half an hour of scanning and getting the right crop values, I have individual images of my index cards. Now I can import the images back into the video sequence editor and time them out to my audio scratch to see what I’ve got. Yay!

But has the robot kicked the ball yet?

Not really. I loaded the file up one night with no intention but to mess around and got a nice twisting faceplant happening in blocking. (Note: the first part of this isn’t timed out properly yet.)

This is how I feel about this exercise now.

Time away from animating has helped me realise something hugely important about where I’m going wrong: I’ve been taking reference pretty much as gospel instead of using it as a leaping-off point for my own ideas. It’s been screwing my creative process up a lot and it’s a thinking pattern I really must fix…

Other stuff

I helped troubleshoot a Blender compilation bug. It’s not much but I’m pleased to have found a temporary workaround nonetheless. 🙂

Between following sumo and getting back into Japanese animation, I find myself with a mighty strong urge to learn Japanese again. I’m trying out the site WaniKani to boost my vocabulary. So far WK is both challenging, aggravating and rewarding enough that I’m hooked.

That’s all for this month!

October 2018 recap

October is Blender Conference month. Did you miss it? You can catch the presentations on this handy YouTube playlist where you will find the likes of Captain Disillusion, Tangent Animation (makers of the Netflix movie Next Gen), Goya-winner Daniel Martinez Lara, and many more! The streams were a bit rubbish this year so I’m hoping to make it back up to Amsterdam next year. (Yes, malfunctioning streams and a slow internet connection were annoying enough in 2013 to get me physically up to Amsterdam in 2014.)

The biggest news I’ve got for you this month is that I’m going in for some keyhole surgery later this week to remove my gall bladder. I’m told the recovery process for this surgery is basically a mixture of lying down and pottering around on my feet as much as I can stand. Desk work is not recommended, and the recovery time is a week or two. Wish me luck!

Now, what did I get up to this month? I didn’t actually animate anything. Honestly, I’m still kind of avoiding that soccer ball body mechanics shot I’ve been stuck on for a while.

How to not animate a body mechanics shot, part 1

Apparently I will write an entire novella to avoid working through that shot. Which I did, because suddenly I wanted to get a NaNoWriMo-style story in. In retrospect it’s interesting how much time I can spend writing versus how much time I can spend animating. I have a clearer sense of what to tackle and when in the writing process which I’ve yet to learn in animation.

It was also interesting having a creative charge-discharge cycle bouncing between work and home. I could load up with ideas at work when I couldn’t execute them, then I’d come home (still excited to work on stuff) and execute. Pretty handy!

It was also interesting how themes from working on AMITS began creeping into it. Which makes sense because another thing happened in October: apparently I will also restart “A moment in the sun” to avoid that body mechanics shot.

AMITS: Hello! (aka HTNAABMS part 2)

I finally got a good story together which comes in at under 90 seconds, something I haven’t really had since 30 April 2014 when I first devised this project. I also have a scratch track, some thumbnails and some new character designs to sift through.

I don’t know how many shots I want yet, but I do know there’s nine major assets I need to make, including three characters, and some sub-assets to take care of like little stones and stuff. I estimate about 130 hours of work to realise those assets from start to finish. Roughly.

Then let’s say anywhere from a few hours to many hours per shot for the animation. The lighting and render work should be pretty quick to turn out because I’ll be using Blender 2.8 and Eevee and not doing anything super-complicated.

Is it doable? Anything is doable! Will it be doable without significant input from other people though? Based on how my day job is tracking, I suspect the answer will be no, and honestly I’ve stopped caring if I do this all on my own steam or not. It doesn’t matter.

And of course I’m looking for shortcuts where I can find them. As a rigging trick I was trying to get “sticky arms” working, where I could just get an arm to suction cup itself to the body geometry and tweak the normals to suit, but it didn’t seem to work as well as I’d liked.

I don’t want to give away too much about the story for “Hello!”, other than there’s a good reason it’s called “Hello!”: it’s easily the most frequent word in the script.

Hope to see you all without my dumb achy gallstones shortly! Good thing too because I’m almost out of Buscopan…

Edit 6 November: The operation was a complete success and one of my gallstones was a big black monster of a thing! More about that next month..

September 2018 retrospective

For me, September is a transitional season – warming weather and slowly emerging from the fog of late winter. Let’s recap!

Animation

I’ve stalled with the animation courses a bit. Partly the slow progress is from being ill at the beginning of the month, and partly because the day job ramped up again after I recovered. Most of the last fortnight has been pretty mind-numbing and exhausting, but at least this time it’s just made me brain-tired without robbing me of sleep.

Also animation is hard so I’ve been procrastinating like crazy. 🙂

When last we left our head on legs…

For this exercise, I’ve ramped up the difficulty a bit on my own initiative. I’m consciously pushing myself to break away from naturalism to attempt something more stylised. Ultimately, that’s what I want my animation to move like because it’s much more fun to watch than naturalistic animation. Here’s one small step in that direction!

Back to the kick. At this point, I have.. something, I guess? What you see below is recognisably a robot kicking a soccer ball but I don’t want to submit this. There’s a lot that isn’t working and I can definitely do better!

Where’d your momentum go, dude?

Another blocker has been my inexperience with using video reference. This inexperience was the reason I put down the lipsync course and started the body mechanics course. I shot reference but I couldn’t make sense of it. How do I find usable stuff like keys in this impenetrable tangle of overlapping action and acting beats? Gah! (Maybe something simpler, like body mechanics… ?)

It turns out that using video reference also takes lots of practice. I made the rookie mistake of starting relatively cold and hoping the reference would tell me everything I needed to know, and as a result the reference was nigh impossible to make sense of.

It helped me a lot to have specific questions for the footage to answer, questions like “how does this motion work, mechanically speaking?”, “where are the shifts in weight and momentum?”, “what striking poses/shapes are there?” and “what secondary actions are there?”. Even with more specific questions like these, the answers still take diligent work to find out. Animation is hard!

For instance, the body’s forward momentum in this kick was a mystery until I finally caught the kicking leg planting the body’s momentum hard into the ground about 1/4 sec after the kick. Because this epiphany came so late in the month, I’ve yet to turn it into anything except some thumbnails and these words.

A moment in the sun

I don’t want to say anything concrete and definite about AMITS for now, but I’m back to giving it some thought again. Many moons ago, Beorn Leonard of “Glass Half” suggested trying little sketches featuring Gronky and Pointy before attempting an entire short movie on my first trip out. That makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it?

Blender 2.8 is also close enough to beta that it would be crazy not to take advantage of Eevee. Initially I wanted to use Cycles for AMITS to get a more physical look, but that feels like something better left for a longer short.

That’s about everything for now. See you at the end of October!