In an effort to post more frequently, I’ll spare you the lengthy epistle this time around, and share an image instead:Many details here were inspired by my visit to Castle Gaiman, but as with the layout of the other interior sets, I have taken many artistic liberties in order to capture the angle, composition and mood I’m trying to achieve. And for any of you CG-geeks out there, this entire set is built and rendered in real time (courtesy of Video Copilot’s Element 3D), all inside of After Effects — pretty cool, right? Hope you enjoy the sneak-peek — more to come!
It’s been another long stretch between updates, and I have been meaning to share the following experience with you for some time:
In April, I discovered to my great delight that Mr. Neil Gaiman would be visiting Park City on the book tour for his latest short story collection, Trigger Warning. After a call to my producer Cat Mihos to see if she might be able to help procure tickets (and who, as always, delivered in spades), my wife Glynis and I headed up the canyon on a very pleasant Saturday afternoon, albeit with some nervous trepidation. While hers was more general in nature (like not knowing what to wear mixed with being excited to meet him), I had a more specific focus: I have had several “stress dreams” over the past few years where I am visiting Neil again (somewhere), and he refuses to talk to me or even acknowledge my presence! I know (from Cat) that he occasionally gets asked about The Price and its progress, and I never want him to regret telling CNN about the project and the Kickstarter campaign,
“For an author, it’s fun. Instead of selling the rights to my story, to actually kick in a few hundred dollars – but I don’t think I could do that if I didn’t trust Christopher Salmon to make a great little film.”
Given how long this production has taken, you can see why I was a little concerned at what he might say, face-to-face.
Well, I needn’t have worried. Once we arrived and gave our names to a very helpful staff member of the Park City Institute venue, we were escorted backstage to join a group of about 40 other people, who were milling about and eating snacks while awaiting their turn for an audience with Mr. Gaiman. Glynis and I took our place in the queue and watched him take his time greeting fans and chatting amiably with each one (I’ve noticed with amazement at how patient and genuine he is with people in general). After listening for a moment, my wife leaned over and whispered, “Wow, that voice…” She has become well-acquainted with its tone, timber and cadence, having heard his recorded narration of The Price on countless occasions (mostly as it issues forth with regularity from my basement cave/studio), but it is exponentially more mesmerizing in person. I kept stealing glances at him and noticed he looked a little different since I visited Castle Gaiman 4 years ago, most notably with the addition of a beard. At one point, he actually called out “Hello Christopher,” while finishing-up with his current guest. Then it was our turn.
I said hello, shook his hand and hugged him, and introduced my wife. She has a natural grace with people no matter the circumstance, and stepped over to him, saying easily, “I have to give you a hug as well!” Then while still hugging him, she said very quietly, “Thank-you for believing…” As her voice started to break, the moment became something tender and heart-felt. He hugged her back with genuine affection, and the last vestiges of my anxiety melted away completely.
We had a wonderful conversation (while several of the bewildered guests backstage looked on, no doubt wondering why they didn’t get a hug); I mentioned his beard (“I do some teaching at Bard’s [a College in NY] and so I needed to actually look like a professor for the students to take me seriously.”), congratulated him and wife Amanda Palmer, who are expecting a baby in September (“I’m absolutely terrified!”), and that led us to talking about families and sibling age differences. Then, in a more somber tone, he said he knew that our family had experienced some very difficult events recently, to which Glynis replied, “Yes we have; but everyone has their own trials to go through, don’t they?” Neil paused and said thoughtfully, “It’s true, we all do.” Again, her response was perfect and seemed to acknowledge his sympathies without making things feel too heavy.
He then told me how much he has enjoyed everything I’ve posted about The Price, and surprised me by saying, “When you are finished with the film, we should get together and re-record my narration. I was very, very tired when I recorded it the last time, and once we have a copy in the studio and can play it back, I can read to match the feel of the film.” I was stunned, because that is precisely how I was feeling about the recording we made in LA at Rob King’s Green Street Studios — but I certainly wasn’t about to complain, or try and impose upon his good nature to do it all again! He said he watched the teaser trailer and remarked that the visuals were so good, he wanted to bring the audio up to the same level (I think my grin was so wide at that moment it almost cracked my head in half). I was deeply impressed that he recognized the discrepancy and then kindly suggested we do it again, sparing me the difficulty of having to ask, all the while reassuring me that my sensibilities were on track. I promised him of my resolve to never give up, and had the overwhelming sense that he was very pleased with what I was doing and confident in what The Price will become. We took some pictures, said our goodbyes, then Glynis and I took our seats and thoroughly enjoyed the next 2 hours as he enchanted and delighted the sold-out Eccles Center audience. (You can listen to a recording of the event here.)
Later there was an after-party held in a local gallery where we had a chance to meet other NG admirers and talked with two different couples who recognized me and were following the progress of my little film (one was a Kickstarter backer, the other had attended a presentation I recently gave at the Life, the Universe and Everything Symposium). It was humbling and extremely gratifying to feel their enthusiasm for the project. Despite the occasional negative comments I get, having the opportunity to interact with people standing right there in front of me who are as excited as I am to see the finished film was uplifting and hugely inspiring.
I drove home that night wondering at how — just when your reserves feel as though they are about to run dry — these incredible experiences seem to come along in the proverbial “nick-of-time.” Personally, I don’t believe them to be coincidences. Getting those gentle reassurances was exactly what I needed… and now I pass them along to you.
One of the (many) difficult aspects of creating filmic images from a computer is being able to light things the way you would like. In the real world, you can use actual lights and place them relative to your subject to achieve the look and feel that good lighting can provide. Since the “actors” and objects in my film don’t exist except as zeros and ones somewhere on multiple hard drives, this process can be much more difficult & tedious.
Because the “rendering” of a character image (think of it as the way a computer creates or “draws” something) can take a long, long time, there are real disadvantages in creating the lighting wholly within your 3D program; as you might imagine, waiting for 3 hours to see how an image actually looks with the lighting you designed, only to discover it isn’t at all the look you were trying for…that process gets frustrating rather quickly and stifles creativity. You can literally go back and forth for days, making adjustments and tweaking things in the endless pursuit of matching what you see in your mind’s eye. (Makes me feel anxious just describing it!)
One of the great techniques I’ve discovered from my After Effects Guru Andrew Kramer (at Video Copilot) is being able to “re-light” an image after it has already been through the lengthy rendering process! The key is to create what is known as a “normal” map of your 3D model along with the regular image. In CGI parlance, a “normal” is a piece of information that tells the computer which direction in 3D space an object is pointed, so that lighting can be properly calculated. It is kind of a strange concept when you first think about it, but makes sense when you realize that it is all part of the telling the computer exactly what you want it to do. Here is an example:
On the left is part of a rendering with pretty flat lighting, where I wasn’t concerned yet with trying to create the stylized, moody lighting that the final scene would have. The center image is the normal map; although it looks like something out of a 70′s-era DoodleArt poster, the intense and varied colorations on the image “map” out which way each individual surface of the model is facing. The image on the right was produced by combing both of the other images in Adobe After Effects (the compositing/special effects/animation program I am using to generate all of the shots for The Price) and introducing new 3D lights to create the look I want.
This process is enormously freeing, as I can rework it at any time to conform to new ideas or scene configurations without having to spend hours rendering just to see if an inspired thought had merit or not. Pretty neat, huh?
Here is an image from the same rendering I thought might be helpful for keeping everyone in the proper ‘spirit’ this week. Enjoy, and have a safe & spooky Halloween!
First off, to make up for not posting anything for a couple of weeks, here is another creepy image to keep you in the All Hallows mood:
Speaking of, you should definitely stop by All Hallows Read and watch Mr. Neil Gaiman explain how you can join in the fun.
I recently read a comment from one of my new friends (who is also a backer for The Price) expressing his sentiments about not yet having reached some of the creative goals he has set for himself. In trying to find a helpful way to respond, I got to thinking of several instances while pursuing various creative endeavors of my own when I felt threatened by the dangerous notion that I wasn’t making the kind of progress I’d hoped for in realizing my potential (despite consistent efforts to do so). I can recall moments of feeling a distant strain of jealousy for others who had seemingly attained their artistic ambitions — that had somehow made it past the gate that was keeping me out, and were now running for the far fence at top speed. It’s almost a literal ache inside that draws my attention to a void clamoring to be filled and I can’t let it go. I’ve been wondering why we sometimes have to contend with these kinds of feelings and what causes them.
The answer I keep coming back to is this: our dreams don’t die.
I’m not sure where they come from initially, but after all I’ve seen up to this point in my life, it appears that they don’t ever fully dissipate. To illustrate this in any kind of meaningful way, I’m going to have to tell you a rather lengthy story: mine.
I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey at the age of 3 (reportedly), and as far as I can remember, I’ve always loved movies and wanted to make them one day…but how? That was the ever-burning question for me growing up (and still is, really).
I began by teaching myself how to draw the things I was seeing in my mind’s eye. It wasn’t long before I wanted to make the monsters and spaceships on my paper more “real” somehow; I read as many books and magazines as I could find, and this lead to model building (space ships with kit-bashed exterior detailing and tiny “grain & wheat” bulbs inside the engine exhaust vents that couldn’t be turned on for too long or they’d melt their plastic housings) and making rubber masks. Using oil-based modeling clay, I first tried to re-create a “Planet of the Apes” character. With exceedingly crude sculpting techniques I fashioned a simian likeness, poured plaster over the entire thing to make a mold of it, dug out the clay, then sloshed-around some liquid latex, carefully following the rudimentary directions I’d discovered in the back of an Elementary school library book. I could barely stand to wait until it dried fully before peeling-out the quivering result of all of those long hours of trial and error; but looking at it — an actual rubber mask — I thought it was still pretty neat (for a first try)! Then, peering more slosely at the off-white surface, I realized I had absolutely no idea what kind of paint might stick to rubber without cracking off the minute it flexed (my simple text plainly wasn’t of any use). An albino ape, perhaps? I sighed and resigned myself to having only a partially-finished ape creation sitting on my bedroom shelf until such time as I could discover a solution. (I wouldn’t have an Internet to search through for another 25 years or so.)
Of course, I had attempted to make films featuring these creations using the now clichéd Super 8 camera (thanks JJ) that my Dad kindly allowed me to
borrow appropriate. Mostly pitch-black/out-of-focus, these 2-and-a-half minute “epics” were dishearteningly distant from the visions my head was showing me, and I knew there must be a better way.
Incredibly, my high school (and we’re talking all the way back in ’81) actually offered a Television Production class. Complete with bulky, Panasonic 1/2″ camcorder units and Sony 3/4″ editing bays, I began a new era in my creative mania. Most of the “movies” I made during grade 11 & 12 (as we say in Canadianese) centered around some special effect technique I’d figured out — like a chest-bursting alien fetus, or pulsating facial tumors that cracked open and bled on camera — you know, those kinds of uplifting, life-affirming things. I would stay late after school, sometimes far into the night trying to get these big, clunky machines to edit on the exact, specific frame I just needed to cut on; once, I left the editing room and went upstairs into the main hallway to get a drink from the water fountain only to be blinded by a police flashlight aimed directly into my face, with the requisite gruff voice warning me to stop moving and explain what exactly was going on! (Unbeknownst to me, the janitors had all left hours ago and dutifully activated the school’s alarm system — which I had apparently triggered twice already that same evening while slaking my thirst.)
What can I say? I just kept going.
Fast forward several years later, past a failed marriage and multiple failed attempts at trying to get into the film industry one way or another. I had done FX work on several movies far too crappy to name (well, one was so crappy, I just have to mention it: Troll 2, also known as The Best Worst Movie). I had tried pitching some of my own script treatments (complete with 1-sheet poster mock-ups and creature maquettes) to legendary low-budget movie mogul Roger Corman without success. (The day I arranged to meet with him, his mother fell ill and I was left with trying to impress some exec who seemed intent on getting me out the door as quickly as possible. Nice.)
Thankfully, my second crack at marriage was a game-changer, and many of life’s pieces started to fit together in new and exciting ways. I had gotten involved in the videogame industry, and began to see a potential in digital film production that appealed to me, especially with animation. I worked on several games, sometimes putting in absolutely insane hours for weeks on end until I wound-up sick as the proverbial perro. I learned as much as I could about non-linear editing, sound design, graphic design, 3D modeling and animation, and a million other ancillary things.
One day, I bought the book Coraline for my daughter, and worried that it might be a little too scary for her (but secretly, I kind of hoped it would be), I read it first. And I was astounded. Enthralled. Agog.
This – what’s his name? Neil Gaiman? – wrote something that was scary, funny, triumphant, haunting, and yet was actually uplifting and affirming as well! How was this even possible? I had been searching for some way to have my monsters, but not drown in horror, darkness and despair at the same time…and here it was, fangs and all!
Within minutes of Google-ing, I was crest-fallen to learn that the property had already been given to Henry Selick (of A Nightmare Before Christmas fame) even before the book had been published – geez!!! Henry is an awesome guy, however (apparently, he likes my hair); I just wanted to be the one to make that movie, you know? (Insert sound of a single, large bubble popping here.)
Then a few months later, I was asked by a friend in the home video division of a major studio if I could create a short animated film for a national client to use as an “exclusive bonus” to be bundled with one of their upcoming DVD releases? Given the budget he mentioned, I thought it was indeed possible, and when I looked over the list of new film titles, Mr. Gaiman’s name popped-up in connection with two of them. This got several wheels spinning at very high speeds…
Upon a rapid search through Neil’s repertoire of short fictions, The Price came into sharp focus, and hasn’t left the scope of my attention since. (Needless to say, the deal with the big studio never went anywhere, and the story of finding a way to finally make this movie took several more years of twisting and turning before finally connecting with Kickstarter and over 2000 new friends!)
So, why am I sharing all of this backstory? To demonstrate my point, that once they spark into vibrant, flickering life and fill your mind with the light of glorious possibility…those dreams don’t abandon you (although an argument could be made that we may choose to abandon them).
To further emphasize this position, consider some of the things that have occurred in my life since being gifted with the incredible experience of having a successful Kickstarter campaign:
There have been multiple delays caused by tech problems that seem determined not to be solved, including both hardware and software crashes. I’ve had to address “personnel issues” within a very small team, resulting in strained relationships and less than usable assets. I’ve needed a full time job instead of relying on freelance income and the benefits of a much more flexible schedule, leaving less time to devote to the film. Familial responsibilities and events have also keep things rather interesting: we’ve had to deal with broken limbs (my youngest broke both bones in his forearm at the same time), my father almost dying from a degenerative nerve disease called Guillain–Barré syndrome, and the death of my wife’s grandmother. We’ve put one kid into college and 2 more on full-time LDS missions for our church (in fact, we went from having all 6 kids at home to only one in less than 18 months). You may already know that our eldest son passed away in August of last year, but in addition, our eldest daughter recently had our first grandchild, and earlier this year, my sweetheart was diagnosed with colon cancer, and had to have surgery.
I mean, I could literally go on and on (and I’ve certainly gone on long enough already), but all of these things are what make up the collective experience of life, right? That swift current of joy and sorrow, of triumphs, failures and foibles all keeps rushing onward, whether we try to stand there and scream our defiance, or choose to go with it instead and enjoy the journey of where it may take us. The ebb and flow of life is the reason I believe that our dreams remain with us. They may seem to get lost for awhile, or they might change a bit to fit our current circumstances, but in the end, they are what keep us floating back to the surface when everything else seems as though it has been conspiring to drag us down.
So, when I write something like, “Please don’t ever give up,” it is not a trite, sentimental admonition or a blithe, naive piece of optimistic fluff; it comes from many, many years of frustration, failed attempts and a veritable landslide of everyday events that seems bent on tearing-away and burying that shiny, brilliant thing I am holding onto so tightly, with both of my hands. Like a diamond, I think dreams are made of the toughest elements we possess: hope and the sheer willingness to do whatever it takes, for however long it may take us. You put first things first, and you carry on. You love your family, be kind to others and trust in those God-given talents and inspirations that you were blessed with.
I am profoundly grateful for the connection that so many of you have felt to this project, and for your decision to be so generous, making it possible for me to develop The Price from the thing that has lived inside of my head and heart for all these years, into something others can experience. Because of your financial sacrifices and emotional investments, this has become your film now as well.
When you do finally sit back and watch The Price, I hope it will be with a shared sense of accomplishment and joy, without any tinge of remorse or regret for things not yet realized. That is the real genius behind Kickstarter: it’s an act of communal creativity. When this passion-project is completed, and I write here that it was all worth it – all of it — you will have a shared sense of what I really mean. And even better still: your name will be on it!!!
Until next time, be happy & keep creating.
I try hard to focus on the positive aspects of this project taking so long to complete, and one of those has been the advent of new technology which enables me to use improved techniques in creating the imagery and style of animation for The Price. This week, I thought to share an example of this by using the logo sequence for my production company, Silver Fish.
(Sidebar: my youngest son asked me the other day, “So…where did you get “Silver Fish” from anyways?” He said this in a tone that was either mild disdain, or one of entreaty, as in: “Please don’t launch into a 24-minute explanation…just… keep it simple.” I took pity on the wee-lad, and said, “Well, you know I like the color silver…and our last name is Salmon, so…”)
Below is the original sequence that I developed for the Kickstarter pitch video, and have used at the beginning of the Video blogs you can find here on the site:
The image of the fish (a stylized hybrid of the Lion and Anglerfish breeds) had been designed as a simple, 1-color graphic in Adobe Illustrator, then painted to give it dimensions and a metal-like appearance in Photoshop.
That piece of 2D artwork was taken into After Effects and warped to create the “biting” animation and some slight movements in the body to give the impression of it swimming. I then used particles and simulated volumetric lighting effects (a fancy way of saying “beams-of-light”) to make it seem as though it was all situated deep in the mysterious, oceanic depths somewhere.
With editing and sound design, the final piece had a playful/foreboding feel that was darkly whimsical, which was exactly what I was going for.
I use After Effects a lot in my work — I pretty much live there — so I was thrilled when a new plug-in for that program was released by Video Copilot, a 3rd-party developer lead by Andrew Kramer (an extraordinarily gifted teacher/tutorial host who is genuinely fun to listen to, uncommonly generous with his knowledge, and is also an all-around good guy). The plug-in is called Element 3D, and it allows me to bring actual 3D models into After Effects and utilize the power of advanced video card technology (also called the Graphics Processing Unit or GPU, and is the part of your computer’s guts that make video games looks so pretty). I have a real monster of a video card, a GeForce GTX Titan; take a look:
Element can let you see your model in real time rather than having to wait for hours until it “renders” a finished image. While this real-time method doesn’t have all the über-deluxe bells & whistles that traditional 3D rendering programs offer, the advantages of immediately seeing if the lighting is right or moving things around in a scene to get the composition I’m after is hard to overstate.
So, starting with the same initial Illustrator logo graphic, I created a 3D version in Element (extruding and beveling the fins, teeth and main body of the fish), and textureing them with some of the professionally created materials (or “shaders”) available from Video Copilot to simulate scratched and worn metal.
Once this stage was completed, I could actually animate the 3D jaw snapping shut while the fins flared & undulated and the eyeball flicked back and forth, as if searching for more prey…
Putting it into a new shot with animated surface “water” and a rock-strewn sea bed, more particle “floaties” and those omnipresent light beams, I was then able to animate the camera to show the actual 3D nature of the fish, rotating around and then pulling away after it attempts to grasp the virtual lens in its metallic maw. Check it out:
I added camera shake, bubbles, and motion blur (an artifact from real camera film exposures that cause fast moving objects to blur, and to which we as an audience have become accustomed to seeing; when we don’t, something about the shot doesn’t feel “right,” or seems “fake”) to heighten the impact, and even made some water distortion occur when the letters zoom the past the camera to form “Silver Fish.” I chose to have the word “Productions” appear in a more dynamic fashion and in a contrasting color for emphasis (I like the color orange quite a bit as well). The whole thing was then taken into Adobe Premiere Pro for editing and adding the sound effects — the process of putting all of the carefully crafted pieces together, which I enjoy immensely.
By comparing the two logo sequences, you can see how much more may be realized; it could be argued, of course, that both are equally serviceable (true enough), but I am vastly more pleased with the second. To me, it feels much more dynamic and epic in scope — and being enabled to add both increased dynamics and a broader sense of scope to the world of The Price can only make it an even richer cinematic experience.
I hope this was interesting and not too technical (it certainly wouldn’t qualify as one of my son’s preferred types of answer); enjoy your week!
I know it’s a little early to start decorating for Halloween (although you wouldn’t know that from a casual perusal of your local grocery store), but I had a rendering test that I decided to turn into a desktop image I thought you might find intriguing…
I’ve begun using an incredible rendering program called KeyShot that has allowed me to get all of the intricate detail out of the digital characters than Ryan Peterson created for The Price. He sculpted these amazing pieces in Pixologic’s ZBrush, but the sheer size and digital complexity of these models made it difficult for other programs (needed to control the lights, materials, and camera angles) to handle without compromising the integrity of design and balance that Ryan worked so hard to achieve. (In fact, KeyShot is so effective in rendering ZBrush models that the two companies have joined forces and announced that the next version of ZBrush will include the KeyShot renderer for a fraction of the price of the stand-alone program!)
Even though this image has very dramatic lighting, you can still see the astounding realism in the anatomy of the hands — you wouldn’t think that would matter for an imaginary creature, but the more that looks intuitively “right” to the viewer’s eye helps add credibility even to a decidedly fantastical creation.
In other words, if you can believe in it, then you can be scared of it.
And on that ominous note, I hope you enjoy both the image and your weekend!
This week’s peek is of Shot TP-018, where The Black Cat, having decided to stay awhile, takes-up his vigilant post on the front porch:
As quite a few of the scenes take place here, I had spent many hours trying to visualize this particular location while creating the animatic for The Price. I had found a few reference images online of Neil’s home, and was so completely enamored of it, decided that my version of the story would reflect the actual location which inspired it. A rather crude 3D model of the porch was constructed from these photos (along with plenty of guesswork), then images of it were rendered for the storyboard shots.
Fast-forward a few years to a surreal afternoon in October of 2011, and I am somehow standing there in front of the real thing…does it seem strange to say that I felt a twinge of nervousness as I walked up those steps? I was already thrown far off-center by just being there at Castle Gaiman in the first place, but something about that porch…
I was alone, and it was quiet except for the gentle sound of several wind chimes that hung there, swaying in the autumn breeze. To say it felt magical sounds trite and even a little melodramatic, and yet…there was a sensation that lay about the place that was both peaceful and mysterious at the same time.
Checking to make sure Cat Mihos (or Neil himself, perish the thought) hadn’t suddenly come around the side of the house looking for me, I heeded an impulse to lie flat on my back, right there on that porch.
Resting on the surprisingly rich-hued wood of the decking, I relaxed and spent a few minutes to take in the whole of the experience, paying close attention to each of my senses. I don’t know why I wanted to do that, but in that moment it felt as though I should. (I am an artist, right? Sometimes you just go with the flow & don’t ask why. Luckily, no one did come across me and assume I had been overcome by the sheer geek-magnitude of it all.)
My hope is to somehow catch a little of that afternoon’s magic in the film; if I can transport you there as you watch it — even for just a brief moment — I’ll be very happy.
Have a wonderful week!
Hey everyone! This week, I wanted to share with you some images of one of the “featured props” from The Price: the night vision binoculars which the narrator of the story uses to find out just what is menacing the benevolent Black Cat…
As I’ve mentioned before on the blog, Mr. Neil Gaiman surprised me during my enchanted visit to his incredible abode by presenting me with the actual article and allowing me to take them home to use in fashioning a CG version.
During the Kickstarter campaign, I received several emails from talented individuals offering their services to help the cause; one of these was an up-and-coming 3D artist named Zack Dembinski. He was both patient & persistent, and because of this, when the time came around to taking him up on his kind offer, I wanted to give him something special to create — and thus, our NV binocs were created!
Here are some of the reference photos I took of the real thing to help Zack with his task:
I had him make some changes for aesthetic & technical reasons, like leaving off the straps and lens caps, and adding a custom label (which I may address in a later post…heh, heh, heh…), and here is the incredible result!!!
I remain completely blown-away by the kindness and generosity of people (the majority of whom I have never even met), and their willingness to help bring this dream-project to fruition.
I hope you enjoyed this tasty tidbit, and I’ll see you again next Friday!
Much has happened in the last few months, both in terms of the production of The Price as well as in my own life; despite the many twists and turns of the road (or perhaps, because of them), this journey remains a constant source of surprise and inspiration. I am excited to share with you some of these new developments, but by way of reassurance to all of you who continue to offer your patient support, I wanted to let you know…
…I’m still hard at work.
More soon. See you next Friday.