Space, Color & Light

Greetings & salutations, everyone! Yet again, it has been too long between updates, so allow me to share a few comments to let you all know that both The Price and I are still alive and kicking.

I thought it would be interesting to present an example of how a finished scene has evolved from what I had originally created in the animatic. Since it was the first shot I worked on back when trying to establish a look for the rough “blueprint” (literally) of the film, let’s take a look at frames from the two versions of the opening/title sequence:

Title-Sequence-Frame-Comparison

Space

One of the first things I realized during my visit to Castle Gaiman (once I began to get my ‘giddy-awe’ under control) was how the east-facing side of the house had far more visual interest to me than the west-facing…which of course was the side I had featured in the animatic. Now, I have said before that I’m not attempting to re-create reality, nor do I feel limited by what I have seen in visiting Neil’s marvelous abode, and yet I couldn’t help but be inspired by things I hadn’t thought of or imagined. After some contemplation, I decided to reverse the orientation of the house, but it took awhile longer to fully appreciate how making that one change would involve much more than simply moving the camera from one side of the scene to the other; in fact, the impact of this adjustment was felt in almost all of the shots that follow it!

If you look at the basic composition of the animatic version, the house is rather far off in the distance on the right-hand side, with the tree (bearing the engraved symbol that becomes the first letter in the title treatment) on the left. Flipping the house meant it would face the right of the screen, and I liked that the antagonistic forces would now be approaching from that direction, going against the familiar left-to-right flow to help establish tension.

But doing that made me want to put the house on the left hand side of the frame…and that wouldn’t work since the tree needed to be on the same side to allow the title to extend to the right of the trunk…

Hmmm.

It took some juggling and much trial and error to come up with an alternate layout that worked with the camera motion of the shot (the frame you see is the third and final stage of that motion), and conveyed a cozy, ‘nestled’ sense of the house being protected by its environment, rather than projecting an encroached-upon  or claustrophobic vibe.

Castle-Gaiman_01Color

Early one morning , I set up my camera to capture a time-lapse sequence of the house during sunrise. While the shutter clicked away for the better part of an hour,  I went for a brisk run along the roads that weave throughout the rural Midwestern landscape; as I made my way back to the property and glanced up at the home, I was stuck by the rich warm reds of the brick in the golden light. Immediately, I wanted to use those colors to establish (from the very first moments of the movie) that this place was one of goodness, warmth and of great value — worthy of protection and preservation. Once again, this was vastly different than limiting myself to the monochromatic blue-tones I had used previously — color changes everything! It is a powerful tool, and although I had been debating the merits of full color versus the “blue & white” scheme of the animatic (that many viewers mentioned was a compelling choice), the allure of what color could do to help tell this story won out in the end.

Light

Light is incredibly effective in leading the audience’s attention where you want them to focus, notice certain details, or to create a sense of depth and space. In this shot, using rays of sunlight and the diffused layers of early morning haze helps to separate the house from the background; keeping the foreground tree wreathed in shadow sets it apart from the other elements and lends an air of mystery or menace.

There were many other considerations, especially with the camera’s movement itself. At first, I had it set up to be very smooth and precise…too precise, actually. I decided to give it a slight ‘wobble,’ almost as if a real cameraman was filming the scene with a Steadicam device (which often adds a neat, ‘floaty’ feel to a shot), and suddenly, it all felt more alive and intriguing somehow.

For those so inclined, below is a full sized frame from the opening scene of The Price you can download and use as a desktop image.

OpeningShot_ThePrice

Hopefully these comments make some kind of sense; I find that a lot of the time — when those peculiar, artistic voices start suggesting things in my head — I can’t really explain “why” I made a particular decision or provide the rationale behind a creative shift in direction. As Peter Chan (an amazing concept/visual development artist who works in both the film & game industry) recently stated at the Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco, when your “Gut” tells you to do something, you have to make the choice to listen to it instead of to your “Lizard Brain,” that part of your mind that always wants to play it safe and logical; I wholeheartedly agree.

So until next time, keep those creative impulses flowing and ignore that Lizard Brain! :) And if by the slightest-of-chances you have never seen Mr. Gaiman’s hugely inspirational speech given at the University of the Arts (or if you just really need a boost & want to watch it again), here you go (and you can thank me later). Enjoy!!!

Neil Gaiman Addresses the University of the Arts Class of 2012 from The University of the Arts (Phl) on Vimeo.

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A Backer’s Tale

Happy New Year everyone! I hope your holidays were invigorating and that you were able to surround yourselves with family & loved ones.

If you are like me, the new year brings powerful waves of conflicting emotion; I have to exert conscientious effort to push aside anxieties in order to keep the feelings of hope and excitement pure and unsullied.

I want to let each of you know that I am still here, my heart and mind both filled to overflowing with determination and the force of my imaginations for The Price. And whenever that conflict between hope and despair (which seems to be an integral part of any creative endeavor) starts to tip the scales into darker territory, I think about them many, many encouraging messages I have received, always at just the right moment to dispel the gloom and restore balance.

The community of support that has grown up around The Price is built upon a foundation of common interests and emotional connections. Many of you have shared your stories with me, and it has been such a joyful experience that I wanted to feature one of them in the following Videoblog: allow me introduce you to my good friend, Dhugael McLean Perry…

I really wish it were a possibility to meet each of you and listen to what connects you to The Price, but I’m glad you’ll get to know a little about Dhugael. He is a wildly talented fellow in a broad variety of disciplines, including the creation (and sale) of a highly-successful company, to being a literal computer-guru, actor, foodie and a gifted photographer (check out some examples of his stunning photography — including a few featuring none other than Mr. Neil Gaiman himself). Passionate and intelligent, Dhugael is as inspiring as he is unique.

Sadly, 2 of his lovable “Baker’s Dozen”  passed away this last year: Joey (19) and Rorshack (21).

Joey-and-Rorshack

Photos by: Dhugael McLean Perry

And they were not alone; my Producer-Extraordinaire Cat Mihos lost her beloved Batman

CatsBatman

Photo by: Cat Mihos

… while Castle Gaiman lost its matriarch, the venerable Princess Snowflake (who is a featured player in The Price).

Princess-Snowflake

Photo by: Kyle Cassidy

The loss of one we love isn’t something we can ever truly prepare for; the deep things we come to understand from such trials are one of the reasons we pass through them.

I am so grateful for the things I have that continue to add richness and depth to my life: my wife and family, the kindness of both friends and strangers (many of whom have since become friends), and for the endless possibilities that pure creativity offers each of us.

My sincere thanks again for helping this dream to come true; have the very best year — ever!!!

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Our Magic Wand: Pixologic’s ZBrush

I thought some of you might want a peak at one of the rendering tests I’ve been working on — pretty scary stuff, boys & girls!!! Click on the image below & zoom-in to see it in all its full-size glory (I decided to make it into a desktop for those of you so inclined).

Devil-CU-Desktop_01

We have been lucky enough to attract the attention of Pixologic, the makers of the phenomenal 3D sculpting program ZBrush, which our character designer/sculptor Ryan Peterson has used exclusively to create all of the models  for The Price. Recently, Paul Gaboury of Pixologic has reached out to us and is helping our resident ZBrush guru, Michael Hoopes  to coax the types of images from these sculpted models that I need for the film. I am thrilled at Pixologic’s enthusiasm for what we are trying to do with their program, and I couldn’t be more pleased with the results we’re getting —  more coming soon!

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Tommy Tallarico: Celebrating the Culture of Video Game Music

The powerful effect that carefully crafted music can have over a medium which we primarily think of as visually-based (like a film or video game) is something I have developed a deep and abiding respect for. That said, you might still consider today’s post as being only indirectly linked with my production of The Price, but you’ll see the connections soon enough. Also, as the Salt Lake Comic Con is in full swing this weekend, I felt it even more appropriate to introduce you to my ‘guest star’ as he is one of the celebrities in attendance.

Tommy_logo_01I first worked with award-winning videogame composer & sound designer Tommy Tallarico back when I started in the industry on a violent, first-person car combat scrapper called Redline for Beyond Games. Later, at Glyphx Games, Tommy was asked to compose the stunningly beautiful score to Advent Rising, the first in a proposed trilogy of games for publisher Majesco. Take a quick peek at the Advent trailer below I created back in 2005 for E3 (the industry’s premier  trade-show event), and turn the sound up to fully enjoy Tommy’s talents:

He has since created the touring sensation Video Games Live, a rock concert-style multimedia performance that combines a full-blown orchestra, stellar vocal performances, multiple video screens blazing away and Tommy himself charging across the stage, guitar in hand & ready to set the world on fire … it may be hard to explain in a few mere words, but trust me when I say you’ll never experience anything else like it!!!

Video-Games-Live-TommyVideo-Games-Live-2One of the purposes of Video Games Live is to shine a light on the tremendous positive cultural impact that video games can have, especially through their music. Tommy reports  not only are parents responding with elated surprise to their children’s enthusiasm at having attended what is essentially a classical concert (albeit on steroids), but even the local orchestral musicians he conscripts to join him onstage can’t believe the responsive audiences, giddily sputtering things like, “I’ve never had a huge crowd go crazy for something I’ve played before — I feel like a rock star!”

Tommy has already produced 2 albums containing some of the music he has so energetically shared with the world, but in order to reach even more people, he has something unique in mind for developing his third collection. To finance this endeavor, he has turned to Kickstarter (my personal favorite crowd funding platform) for help.

Having mounted a successful campaign myself, I am frequently plied by other potential Kickstarters to spread the word about their pet projects. I have personally backed several  wonderful ideas, but it is rare that I will actually promote any of them to my backers. Tommy however has put together a well thought out, transparent proposal that truly does merit your attention, so I’m embedding his link below:

The rewards actually have substantial value and are well designed to please backers of his project. This guy has been working professionally for over 20 years, and consistently over-delivers, so please check out his proposal and see if you feel inclined to help support Tommy’s vision, or at the very least, to share it through your social media channels with your friends. There’s only 5 days left, and remember it’s ‘all-or-nothing’ fundraising (either he meets his goal, or none of the pledges are taken).

Now I’ve got to get back to work — I’ve making something cool that I’m dying to post here, so more coming soon!

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Arms & Shoulders…

First, I want to express how deeply moved and profoundly grateful my wife and I are for the wonderful messages of support and reassurance we received from so many of you regarding the passing of our son Jordan earlier this month; we are overwhelmed at the kindness and concern offered us, and it has helped as we move along our path of healing. Please know we are more grateful than words can ever say, and extend our thankfulness to a merciful Heavenly Father who has sent us so much peace and comfort.

As mentioned in the backer’s update I sent out last week, Jordan had requested (multiple times) that I post more frequently, resisting the impulse to always make a full-scale production, and be willing instead to offer glimpses into the process of making The Price, be they up-beat and hopeful or frustrated and discouraging.

To honor his request, I’m sharing an image today that illustrates one of the grueling realities of using computers: they are dumb. Stupid. Imbecilic, actually.

They will only do what you tell them to; only that, and exactly that, no more and no less.

For example, you can tell them precisely what a 3D model’s shape looks like through sculpting programs (we are using Pixologic’s phenomenal ZBrush); you can also make custom wrappings for each part of their exterior (called texture maps) to give the surfaces the color and detail you want; finally, you combine those with shaders to make the maps and surfaces appear to reflect light and cast shadows as if they were actually made of the materials they represent, like skin, clothing, metal or hair. (If you’d like some examples, you can refer to this previous post.)

With me so far? Once you have the computer understanding all of that, then you have to deal with explaining what to do with your creation when you want to move it around, say, to create a specific pose by bending the arms so the character appears to be holding his hands behind his back (pondering something of great significance, no doubt). Take a look at the image below:

Neil_shoulder-arm_compare_01

The rendering on the left shows what can happen if you tell the computer most of what it needs to know. If you compare it to the ‘fixed’ version on the right, you can immediately see that some crucial information is missing — like how the bones of the elbow should stay rigid and poke out from the bending muscles, and that those muscles shouldn’t look ‘deflated’ when compressed.

So, since I don’t really want the ‘Macaroni-Neil’ on the left as the star of the film, we have to keep explaining things until the computer figures out how to make the ‘Much-More-Buff-Neil’ on the right.

Without burying you in the myriad of technical acrobatics that have been attempted, suffice it to say that we are trying to find a way through the correct combination of programs and creative problem solving to get our point across to these unwieldy boxes we slavishly sit in front of each day.

I hope this was somewhat enjoyable (or even informative), but regardless of this posting’s entertainment value, I’m sure Jordan has a satisfied smile on his face. Until next time, stay strong, stay positive, and do something creative!!!

- Christopher

 

 

 

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Tests & Results

Hello everyone! Without resorting to the already worn-out refrain of apologizing for the lengthy gap between updates, let’s just get to it, shall we?

First, take a quick peek at the brief animation/motion test video embedded below; for optimal results (and to best appreciate what I was testing), make sure the HD button is on, and click the ‘full-screen’ arrows icon in the lower right corner to view it as large as possible before hitting the ‘play’ button. Ready? Here we go:

I know, I know; it’s only about 12 seconds long (which is just the right length to be frustratingly not long enough), but I wanted to share a brief glimpse of what I’ve been working on, and offer the following explanation as to why this piece of the puzzle is so important:

This little clip represents the validation of a concept that began forming several years ago, while I was agonizing over how on earth to fund a fully computer-animated short film. Going through traditional channels had only yielded increasing despair as each response I received from investors/producers/distributors more clearly defined the conundrum I faced: computer animation costs a significant amount of money, and short films don’t tend to make any.

Even after the discovery of Kickstarter and the tantalizing potential of crowd-funding, I still couldn’t figure out how I could minimize the budget (back in “those days,” no Kickstarter project had come anywhere close to raising the amount I was considering). If you look at published production costs for recent animated feature-length films, you can begin to appreciate how large those numbers can get. Here’s a brief sampling of reported production budgets (in millions):

How To Train Your Dragon: $165

Wall-E: $180

Brave: $185

Toy Story 3: $200

Tangled: $260

Even one of the ‘bargain’ films like Hotel Transylvania at $85 million is fairly pricey to produce: running 91 minutes in length, that breaks-down to approximately  $934,000.00 per finished minute. (Tangled clocks in at an even 100 min. which works out to a jaw-dropping $2.6 million-per-minute!!!)

Trying to sit through the end credits of these movies reveals one of the main reasons for the exorbitant costs — a never-ending parade of digital artisans that can easily number in the hundreds. (I can’t even begin to comprehend the technical and mechanical forces required to enable an army of people that size.)

Now apply those kinds of figures to my little production; even if I was able find a very small team that could manage to make it all work at $50K per minute, The Price (at just under 20 minutes in length) would still require a budget close to a million dollars!  There was simply no feasible way to make it happen.

Until…

I started thinking about how effective the relatively crude animatic was at telling the story. Even though there were a few fully animated shots (featuring only a single character in a single environment), most of it was created with still images cross-fading into each other. I began to realize that I could try a similar approach with the final 3D models, and only render the parts of the image that were actually needed (rather than every frame, and every element within each frame). I figured with this kind of process, I could drastically reduce my projected budget — which I did — and even then, my Kickstater project was looking to raise (at that time) an unprecedented amount of money. (And all of you know the happy ending to that story!)

I began to develop methods and test techniques for realizing these ideas, and was greatly encouraged. Until I had my actual models, however, I wouldn’t know for sure — and that’s why I am so excited by this little, 12-second clip!

Instead of rendering all 288 frames, I rendered a single ‘hero’ image along with a few individual parts, like the eyes blinking or changing position, and the slight smile at the end. Even the background was created from a single still image, making the clouds appear to move across the sky with a little help from Adobe After Effects. Both Neil and the background were positioned in 3D space, and a virtual camera was created that pushed forward during the shot, changing angle and focal distance. If you watch closely, you can see motion in Neil’s throat as he swallows and even the nostril dilate slightly as he takes a breath (again, courtesy of the magic that is After Effects).

These details and others, like the suggestion of a breeze through the hair and adding some moving film grain to the final composite, all helped bring ‘life’ to what is essentially a still image. Even while adding music and sound effects, I was inspired to go back and add some birds flitting across the screen for a little extra movement.

And I think it all works really well! Consider these numbers: it took about 3 hours for my computer to render the two dozen elements needed to create this shot, as opposed to the hundreds of files that would have been required by going the standard route for all 288 frames (I shudder to think how long that would have taken).

There are many more advantages and developments that have sprung from doing the film in this way, but I hope this helps you understand more clearly what I’m attempting, and that you can see and feel the same level of excitement that I do in those 12, satisfying seconds.

Now, back to work!!!

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Friends, Companions & Protectors

Last Friday, I had been planning a post to share one of the many stories I’ve received from supporters of The Price concerning their own pets and how this wonderful story has touched their lives, when I read the heart-breaking news: Mr. Gaiman’s own dog, a marvelous creature named Cabal who had featured in many of Neil’s own blog posts and was the subject of numerous photos he had lovingly posted, had suddenly passed away.

Neil and Cabal_gazebo

Photo: Cat Mihos

I had the great good-fortune to spend some time with Cabal and his playmate Lola on the sun-dappled grounds of Castle Gaiman in October of 2011, and was able to capture some footage of them enjoying the afternoon; I was also lucky enough to record Neil’s own recollection of how Cabal came into his life. I want to share it here, to pay my respects to both of them, and to express my gratitude at the chance to glimpse such a gentle and profound companionship.

Filming_gazebo_01

Photo: Cat Mihos

A brief caveat: regretfully, the sound on this video leaves more than a little to be desired. Although I had equipped myself with a reasonably sophisticated digital recording system, I was a slightly flustered at the time (hey — I was talking with Neil Gaiman, all right??!!) and had neglected to activate a critical component. I discovered this omission with great anxiety after the fact, and was left with only the poor-quality audio provided by the small condenser mic built into the camera. In addition, both Cabal and Lola were wandering in and out of Neil’s gazebo where we were talking, crunching through small piles of dry leaves they had brought in with them from their travels. A special thanks to my sound design/wizard Rob King for making it far more tolerable than I could have hoped for. I also wanted to thank Cat Mihos and Kyle Cassidy for providing the wonderful photos and Jouni Koponen for the use of his whimsical Cabal artwork.

hermionie1Hermionie by: Kyle Cassidy

princessPrincess “Snowflake” by: Kyle Cassidy

Both Hermionie and Snowflake (along with Hermionie’s sister, Pod, a notorious ‘hider’) are some of Neil’s real life friends who play small parts in The Price. (Sadly, the sisters have both passed away as well, leaving Her Highness to rule over her remaining subjects, Joey and Coconut.)

So many of you have shared personal and moving accounts of your own pets and the impact they have had in your lives. I most recently received this email from Emmi (who gave her consent to share this story):

“Just read you latest blog entry. Thank you so much for the update. I watched the original animatic and by the end I was crying. This project is very much close to my heart. I’m sure you get a lot of people writing to you telling you that. But for what it’s worth, here’s my story.

The Price rings true to me in particular because I feel like it’s my story. We actually had 8 cats at one time. All strays and adopted. We’re now down to 6. When we moved into our house a few more strays found us (as always). I told my husband that I swear cats leave markings like the homeless so that other cats know our house is a good place to come. This was before The Price had been published.

One day we had a stray come to the back door. He was thin, his fur not very well taken care of. He had fleas and was missing his right eye. At first he was hesitant to come into the house, but he lingered in our yard as if it had been his all along. Eventually I earned his trust and in no time he acted like he belonged here from the beginning. He was our indoor/outdoor cat. Sometimes he’d go missing for a day or two in the beginning, but he’d always come back looking a little worse for the wear. We always wondered what he had been fighting with out there. We’d keep him in for a few days while he healed, but always he’d be scratching at the door to get back outside and we’d always, eventually indulge him.

“His routine over the years never varied. My husband would let him out in the morning and he’d eventually come back home.

“One day he was looking rather thin and moving slowly. He kept slipping when he walked and was unable to jump. This was very much unlike him. We took him to the vet and found out he was dying of kidney failure. We decided to put him down about a week later and I stayed with him while he passed. It was August 13, 2012. A day I will never forget.

“Whenever I reread The Price or get your updates, I always assume it’s my kitty wanting me to know he’s still out there protecting our house and family.”

She also enclosed this image of her “beloved Martin (aka Odin)”:

Martin aka Odin

A great number of backers for this project mentioned that they were donating in memory of a special cat or dog that always seemed to make them feel safer and loved a little bit more.

When it seems like there is such an abundance of inhumanity rampant in the world, it more than lifts my spirits to see how many people really do reach out to the “least of these” and give of their time and resources; how much they give of their heart.

Neil has been rather public with his love of needy animals to encourage others to do likewise, but I can personally attest to the acts of kindness he has also bestowed upon me (and I clearly qualify in the “least of these” category).

My prayers are with you, Neil, at this extremely difficult time, and I am consistently reminded as I work with your story how wonderful it can be to have someone want nothing more than to love you back.

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2013: Year Of The Black Cat!!!

(I know it’s really the year of the snake, but that didn’t quite fit, you know?)

HAPPY NEW YEAR, everyone — 2013 feels fantastic already!!! A friend of mine recently shared this wonderfully motivating thought: this will be a year of polarization and determinations … a time to either break-down or break-through.

I really, really like this sentiment.

After the past year of set-backs and frustrations, I am ready to break-through and conquer! :)

In that spirit, please enjoy the following Videoblog that contains updates and a few interesting tidbits, along with a tantalizing snippet of my video interview with Mr. Neil Gaiman (himself) –check it out!

And as I explain in the video above, I am also making available — for a limited time — the original, full-length animatic of The Price as a way to thank you all for your patience, perseverance, and your seemingly endless supply of goodwill. Please relax, turn up the sound (and dim the lights), click on the link below and enjoy it while it’s here!!! :)

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On Needing A Bigger Boat

First and foremost: Happy Birthday Neil!!! And a Happy Halloween to all of you!!! (Yes I realize I’m late on both counts; 5 days on the first and 15 on the second, but what can I say? That seems to be how I roll…) And to celebrate, here is a new image you can use as a desktop, featuring our intrepid hero know simply as The Black Cat:

I hope you enjoy it. Now, by way of explanation:

I’ve resisted posting anything for the past several months, worried that the stress and anxiety I have been wrestling with might spill out through my words and taint the flow of positive energy all of you have so generously radiated since this project began.

Despite knowing that there are many people who are interested in all aspects of the creative process (including the downs as well as the ups), I was hesitant and unsure of how to share.

Inspiration came after watching the beautifully restored BluRay release of  Steven Spielberg’s  Jaws.  I found myself thinking again about the relentlessly brutal series of events and intense conditions under which this still-astounding piece of entertainment was crafted; I am more stunned than ever that it was even finished, let alone being one of the greatest motion pictures ever made.

How did this happen? Well, the behind-the-scenes story is told in lavish detail (thanks to the many wonderful supplementary features), but merely adding up the seemingly endless list of problems, setbacks and obstacles that mired the production from start to finish still doesn’t provide any  genuine, plausible explanation for why the film turned out so incredibly well.

I think it has a lot to do with the principle of resistance. If you try to push forward and something pushes back, you have to push harder. This works for building muscles, solving  problems, and invoking creativity. If you truly want to accomplish something, all the opposing force can really do is help you discover how strong your passion actually is.

My experience with any creative endeavor is that at some stage (usually well past the half-way point), what you have so carefully been constructing from the images, ideas and inspirations that have been swirling around inside, suddenly and inexplicably comes crashing down all around you! It seems to be the worst possible thing that could have happened, and always at the worst possible time.

And you just can’t believe it. You stare stupidly at the wreckage of what was once so full of promise, trying to grasp just what happened and far too stunned to consider escape from the black wave of despair that comes thundering down.

If you have ever experienced this, you’ll know I’m not exaggerating how awful it feels, but it is only a part of a larger process. It’s resistance, and while it usually comes at you in smaller chunks all along the way, invariably there will come that particularly vulnerable moment when — WHAM!!! — and it’s all gone…

But the good news is: it isn’t really gone. After the smoke has cleared, and you find the courage to go back and pick up the pieces, you begin to see how they might fit back together again — perhaps in ways you hadn’t even considered.

What I’m saying is that while this stage of the creative process may not be much fun, it almost always proves to be the most pivotal, maybe even the most crucial. If you can pull your project back from the edge, you will have developed the strength to see it all the way through.

I’m no longer as shocked when that break-down point arrives, but I find it still corrodes my resolve, especially when that period drags on and on…

Which brings me to our project, The Price. I started thinking seriously about adapting Mr. Gaiman’s potent little gem back in December of 2005 — seven years ago! And despite the heady rush of almost unbelievable good fortune I’ve experienced, the crash-and-burn this time around has been by far the most devastating.

Why so über-bad? I’ll invite you to draw your own conclusions to that one, but I personally believe it has something to do with balancing out the potential of the final piece…

So what happened? You can start with a variety of technical problems that have taken an obscene amount of time to resolve, then somehow no longer appear to be completely resolved. Let’s try another way around –  here? Nope, that’s blocked too. How about this way? Sorry. That way? Nay. Ugh!!!

Then there have been personnel problems, and while having a couple of guys not work out the way you had hoped doesn’t sound all that catastrophic, in a team comprised of only six — well, those are pretty bad odds.

In short, the last 10 months have been a very difficult period for the production, and an extremely difficult one for me. And yet…

Wonderful things have happened! New software and new technical solutions have been created, or in some cases evolved into  much more useful creatures. Designs have had time to mellow and artists have had a chance to go back for another pass (unheard of in most situations). New people have come onboard and brought their unique quiver of talents with them to share with the wonderful stalwarts of my little team. And most importantly, those precious lightning bolts of inspiration continue to flash, revealing new ideas and solutions, illuminating the way.

What I’m trying to say is that the dark cloud of discouragement has finally begun to break up as shafts of hope pierce through its mangy hide; we’re past the worst of it.

And I’m still here, still wildly in love with this story and my imagination still thrumming with the visions that keep me pushing back. The boat is big enough.

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Rendering: The Art of Creating a Good Hair Day (and Skin too)

Many of the comments I’ve received in response to these Production Blog posts have included some very positive remarks about the behind-the-scenes details and processes I’ve attempted to convey. With that in mind, I wanted to share the latest computer rendering of the “Narrator” (aka Mr. Neil Gaiman) character from The Price, and breakdown just how it was put together.

As an artistic tool, computers are capable of creating truly astounding imagery; but as with all digital processes, you have to tell your box exactly what to do… and I do mean exactly. It is this aspect of CGI more than any other that causes those of us who attempt it to pull out the largest tufts of hair.

Exasperation. Frustration. Endless complication. In short, there are just a whole lot of “tions” to deal with!

So: the first step is to begin with an incredible digital model (please see Videoblog #04 for a peek at the superb work of Ryan Peterson). Looks fantastic, but now, how do you get the hair to look like, well, hair? And what about the skin?

For help with this highly specialized and technical artistry, I was lucky enough to find the talented (and generous) Michael Hoopes. Currently working hard on the video game Star Wars: The Old Republic for Bioware in the great state of Texas, Michael makes time to develop and test different shaders and to create render passes that he sends on to me to composite (or put together digitally). So, now you’re asking: just what-the-heck are shaders and render passes? Let’s take a look…

We’ll start with the skin. On the left is a rendered image called a “Diffuse Pass” (pass as in, the computer is going to have to make several “passes” or  layers to generate all of the information needed to make the finished image). It’s pretty good, but you can see right away what I mean about getting the skin to look right. As it is, it appears a lot like a rubber mask; there is no depth, no translucency, none of the layered colors you can see when you look closely in the mirror at yourself. Since we all do this every day, each of us is an expert in detecting “fakeness” in these Computer Generated Images. We might not know exactly how to define it, we just know it looks wrong.

Some extremely intelligent people figured out that we needed to teach the computer how our skin reacts to light. Instead of just being reflected outright, light actually travels past the surface, bounces around inside, and then meanders out, causing the flesh to appear translucent. After giving themselves some well-deserved congratulations, they decided to call this effect Sub Surface Scattering.

To simulate this, Ryan painted not only the surface colors of Neil’s skin, but the colors of multiple layers beneath as well! Michael then developed shaders in the powerful 3D program Maya using a rendering system called Mental Ray. Shaders are a way of defining the properties of a particular material so the computer knows what to do with it. Michael used Ryan’s painted layers to create the different levels or depths of skin — you can see the “Sub Surface Front” and “Mid” layers above. I combined these on top of the base/diffuse layer (using Adobe After Effects to composite all of these different images into one) and adjusted the balance until I achieved the level of translucency I wanted.

Next, we need something to make the eyes look wet and glossy and the skin to have a little shine. Looking at the Reflection pass on the left,you can see all of those highlights against the black, which are again blended with the Diffuse pass in the center image. You have to balance/adjust each area to achieve the look you want (for example, too much on the skin will make it look oily — ick). On the right is what is called the Ambient Occlusion pass, which generates the dark areas on a surface that are created when light is being blocked by the structure and features of that surface. Different than just cast shadows, this image really helps to define the shape of things and makes the lighting look much more realistic.

We’re not finished yet; the Backscatter pass simulates the way light bleeds through the edge of a translucent object, like, say a nose or cheek. Looking at the mixed image above, you can see how the Backscatter helps define those areas and makes them seem more “fleshy.” The Depth map is a way of telling the computer how far away different areas of the model are from the camera. The way this pass is set up, the darkest objects are closest. In the final composite, I can use this information to affect which parts of the face are in focus, and create a shallow depth of field effect.

Finally, that famous mane of his. The Diffuse again provides the base image, while the Specular gives me control over the highlights and glossiness, and the Ambient Occlusion defines the shadows and the shapes.

Now, one could easily ask if all of that is really necessary. My answer would be to compare the Before and After images, and see what you think; I much prefer the After! :)

Once all of these passes are ready, I add a background and then dig deep into my bag of compositing tricks… and you wind up with the image below (which you are welcome to download if you are so inclined).

Again, it is my sincere hope that this post will provide you with some insight and appreciation for the work involved in creating the images I have been dreaming about for so very long; above all, I want to give you a tantalizing taste of things to come!!! :)

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