Learning new stuff: Digital tutors and scripting in Maya

Well… Long time no update…

I started to work at boutiq ag, an animation and motion graphics production company in Zurich. There’s only one other 3D artist so we pretty much have to tackle anything that is thrown at us. Which is why I have been trying to learn as much as possible!

Mainly I have been watching a lot of Digital Tutors tutorials. I can only recommend them. There are so many topics to choose from, it’s amazing. Some lessons are better (or at least clearer for me) than others but the overall quality is really good. For now I have been concentrating on learning Realflow, mental rendering techniques (shaders, sub surface scattering, global illumination, render passes, etc.) and brushing up on mel and python scripting.  Houdini is next on my list…

I have also decided to work some more on my scripting skills. I just bought 2 books: MEL Scripting for Maya Animators and Beginning Python: From Novice to Professional. I won’t be recieving them for a few weeks so in the meantime here are some cool internet links I’ll be checking out:

If anyone knows of any other good ressources, please let me know! Thanks!


Christmas project

Started a new project tonight. I hope to be finished before Christmas and send it out as a “happy holiday greeting email/movie/card”. I have been trying to learn more about maya fluids lately, so we’ll see if I can get something  working… But for today it’s just simple modeling and first texture tests.

View Day 3: Thursday 28.10.10 (Part 1)

Things to think about during a VFX production Adam Avitabile, VFX Supervisor, Look Effects

Unfortunately I missed the beginning of Adam’s talk which was about their work on Step Up 3D. When I came in he was talking about his experience as a VFX supervisor and giving a few tips he found useful…

  • Stay near Video Village
    You never know when the director will need to talk to you so you have to make yourself available. You should show your presence.
  • Get to know the crew
    If you have a good relationship with them you will be able to count on their help… and this might well save your life!
  • Never tell the director “no”
    Instead you should explain to him/her, what problems whatever he/she wants to do will entail and try to find a compromise.
  • Get to know the editors
    They are the first to see your work and give criticism. If you have a good relationship with them, they will trust you more and try to help you.

Stereoscopy in Film Production: Theory and Practice Parag Havaldar, Software R&D Supervisor, Sony Picture Imageworks

I know nothing about S3D so I was really looking forward to understanding the process a bit more. This conference was very interesting and gave a good overview of what this new technique entails.

There are different types of stero 3D projects:

  • For fully CG films, you just have to render everything twice.
  • For live action, you can shoot in S3D  but you will also need to make a lot of corrections in post (alignment, color, lens distortion, vertical disparities etc).
  • You can also convert to S3D in post. It helps to know beforehand that you will be converting to S3D, as you will be able to gather mode information on set that will help with the process.
  • There are also legacy projects, which are the conversion of older movies (Titanic, Gone with the Wind) This is mainly done to generate new revenue with a new theater release.
  • Finally there are hybrid projects in which the post production techniques are used to correct a badly shot S3D scene.

A few technical points:

  • When you increase the distance between the two eyes, you increase the overall depth of the whole scene.
  • You have to be very careful when setting the point of convergence. This is the point where both eyes see the same thing. It is also where the viewer will focus.
  • To create S3D in post you have to first isolate the different elements. You can then create depth and render the other eye. Finally comes the clean up process.
  • You can also create the second eye by using computer vision techniques. But this does not work for all shots. You need to have very high level of detail textures. Indeed, the algorithms look for correspondences in the images so if everything looks the same, they will not work properly.

Renderman workshop Dylan Sisson, Renderman Technical Artist, Pixar Animation Studios

I didn’t manage to attend the Renderman presentation in Annecy this year so I’m happy to be able to here.

Dylan Sisson started off with an overall presentation of Renderman and rendering at Pixar. It is specialised for feature film rendering so depending on your scene it might not be the fastest renderer. At Pixar they usually render everything in camera (no compositing). They only split a shot to speed up render times (not everything has to be rerendered for each frame). Here is a graph of typical render times per shot and their evolution through time.

Dylan Sisson then talked about one particular problem they encountered on the production of  Toy Story 3: trash. In the incinerator scene, some frames could take up to 40 hours to render! They are very complex shots with tons of geometry. The strategy was to divide and conquer: i.e. use different methods for the foreground and the background. For the foreground they used more advanced techniques to get interesting effects like point based color bleeding. For the background they used one general scalable shader. They could control the density and the type of trash directly in the shader. This is a very cool feature and must have  really facilitated the artist’s work!

View Day 2: Wednesday 27.10.10

Ironman 2: Monaco Sequence Paul Davies,  Animation Supervisor, Double Negative

They shot this on location just before the actual Grand Prix. All the cars are fully CG as well as most of the set for the fight sequence.

The Ironman suitcase scene is a very special scene. A separate team was assigned to it and it was dealt with outside of the usual pipeline. They built custom rigging tools and even used Mental Ray for the rendering because the artist felt more comfortable using it rather than Renderman. The design and look of the suit also was special.  You only see this suit  in this particular scene. As it has to fit in a suitcase, it’s not the same design as the suit modelled by ILM. But even though it is different,  it still has to feel like Ironman.

I must say I am a big fan of this scene: totally love it. Apparently the team really sweated over this one… but man did they deliver! It looks AMAZING!   My most heartfelt congratulations to everyone who contributed to this scene.

For the fight sequence, they had to test out lots of choreography and animation ideas. They ended up using motion capture to be able to iterate faster. They also learned a valuable lesson: you should show a shot as filled in as possible. Never show block animation, add as many FX as possible and animate the props. For example,  just adding the whip changed everything for the director. He couldn’t “read” the animation properly without it.


Why animation rocks Tim Johnson, Director / Producer, PDI Dreamworks

It was very interesting to listen to Tim Johnson going over his amazing career and the different experiences and projects he contributed to.

1980 – 1985 Cel animation

1985 – 1988 Alias

1988 Pacific Data Images

1992 Pilsbury Doughboy This was a TV commercial and one of the first CG animated character to go on-screen.

1995 Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror VI”

1995 Dreamworks

1995 – 1998 Antz (Director)

2001 – 2003 Sinbad (Director)

2002 – 2006 Over the Hedge (Director)

2006 – 2010 How to Train Your Dragon (Executive producer)

2010 Kung Fu Panda Holiday Special (Director)

On a side note: we were lucky enough to see the Kung Fu Panda Holiday Special in 3D as a world premiere. Unfortunately it was in italian… Po isn’t quite the same when not voiced by Jack Black…  But still… nice stuff!


The Visual Effects of Avatar Bruce Holcomb, Digital Modeling Supervisor, ILM

ILM was brought rather late onto the project. Everything had already been decided: the look, the design, the models, the shots etc. They had very little wriggle room. Most of the assets had already been built by Weta, but as ILM have their own proprietary pipeline, they couldn’t just reuse them. They had to rebuild exact copies within their pipeline.

Lots of FX were involved in the shots they created. A few notable facts:

They used cloth sims to  make the grass move around when the helicopters land. Cameron was so specific about everything that he would actually come in with numbers for the force field values!

Even though Cameron wanted to go all CG, there is one practical effect in one of the ILM shots. When Jake first arrives on Pandora the big ship he lands in causes particles to swirl on the ground. These were  created by using a hose and blowing around different substances (walnut dust, baking powder, etc.) After several tests, they finally got the perfect effect and used it in the final shot.

View Day 1: Tuesday 26.10.10

Opening Talk “The Lighting of Toy Story 3” Kim White, Director of Photography, Pixar

Great talk by Kim White about different aspects of lighting in Toy Story 3: the challenges they faced, how they used the lights to serve the story and direct the viewer’s eye, the different color themes etc.

One of the challenges was to keep the Toy Story feel but still take advantage of all the advances in technology. Now they have  new tools at their disposal like occlusion, irradiance and reflection but they also had to stay true to the original Toy Story world. So what defines that world? There are lots of colors. Everything is very saturated. In the first two movies they even tinted the shadows to give more color. In Toy Story 3 they wanted to go for a slightly more realistic feel so they left that out. They also used a lot of indirect lighting: the character’s face isn’t always lit by the brightest light but by secondary bounce lights.

Now for the colors:
Blue=Andy and safety
Green=Bonnie. They also used alot of dappled lighting (lighting coming through trees) for these scenes.
Yellow and Red=Lotso. Bad and frightening.

She then went through a couple of scenes from the movie and showed us how these techniques were used and how the lighting enhanced the scene and what was happening in it.

One especially interesting scene is “Lotso’s backstory”. At the beginning everything is yellowish except for Lotso. He is lit separately and is very saturated and pink… until he gets replaced. He then is lit like the rest of the scene. This totally highlights the feeling that he was very special and unique. Oh and on a side note: they looked at Amelie Poulain for inspiration on this sequence…


Realflow Workshop Gustavo Sanchez Perez, Senior FX TD, Next Limit Florian Koebisch, FX TD, Pictorion das Werk
Seems like an interesting software to try out… Lots of cool features. I especially liked Hybrido which allows you to combine two different solvers: one grid based (for the base) and one particle based (for the details). So if aou are simulating an ocean crashing into rocks for axample. You can have the ocean base and then add particles to simulate the splashes and mist and foam. I’ll have to try it out!


“10 Obvious secrets in Animation” Craig Caldwell, USTAR Senior Research Professor, Digital Media University of Utah
Very interesting talk with lots of great references and examples. So here are the secrets!

  1. Basic skills that are transferable. not just learning the tools
  2. Weight
  3. Psychological gestures. Body language is the most important. Expressions and noth shapes will only work if you get the gestures right first.
  4. Thinking. If you can see the character think, this is what will lead you to no5
  5. Emotion
  6. Reference. Use all kinds of reference to get the animation right. (live action, other animation, yourself, etc)
  7. Audience ahead or behind. You should never loose your audience nor be too foreseeable.
  8. The gap. There has to be something unusual to make the story/character interesting
  9. Stereotypes. The gap works well with stereotypes.
  10. Change. The hero’s journey. The character has to undergo some kind of change during the story.


“The development of Nuke and Ocula in Support of Stereo 3D VFX Post-production” Simon Robinson, Chief Scientist, The Foundry

Wow I never thought S3d (stereo 3D) brought up so many challenges.  Just the rigs to be able to film with two cameras are really impressive. Then you have all the distortions and color corrections to deal with. The main problems the Foundry focused on when adapting NUKE for s3d were the following:

  • Color matching: With the rigs used to film with two cameras, one eye is filmed through a lens (polarized) and the other is not. You have to correct the color disparitied this will introduce.
  • Horizontal alignement: The cameras are never perfectly aligned. This has to be corrected or the audience will have a headache!
  • Rotoscoping: Automatic tools to transfer the rotoscoping that has been done for one eye to the other eye. Right now this tool doesn’t work very well yet.
  • Other lens issues: mismatched focal, focus, distortion etc.


“Career Realities for VFX” Pam Hogarth, Director of Marketing, Look Effects

Lots of great advice.

What does it take  to have a great career in VFX?
Of course: artistic ability, knowing the right tools, having the right degree and experience
But that is only half of it….
Collaboration, dedication, passion, communication, problem solving, flexibility, sense of humor, willingness to travel, willingness to learn, self motivation
are all very important and will take your career to the next level.

So what must you do?
Learn what you must, prepare your marketing package, network, market yourself, check your ego at the door and remember: it’s not YOUR vision.


“Enabling Wonderland: Technologies And Tools Developed For Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland” Parag Havaldar, Software R&D Supervisor, Sony Picture Imageworks

Lots of tools had to be developped to help the production of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. CG and live action were totally intertwined in this movie. Some characters were totally CG, some only half CG, some had a few features distorted by CG and scale went totally crazy during the whole with Alice getting bigger and smaller all the time.

  • Onset visualization
    With all this going on, they had to find a way to help the director get an idea of what the final result would look like. They used green screen live composition. They could triangulate the camera’s position and comp in the CG backgrounds on set so the director could immediately have an idea of where the characters were.
  • Pre composition for the Red Queen
    To get the big head effect, every scene was shot twice so they could get a very quick precomposition of the head of one shot (very high resolution) onto the body of the other.
  • Capturing performances
    They couldn’t use traditional motion capture as it was not set friendly. So they used inertial motion capture and developped a tool using a few optical markers to solve the root drifting problem you get with this technology.
  • Motion rig
    This was used for the scene during which Alice rides on the Mad Hatter’s hat for example. Alice had to experience the actual forces from the movement of the hat. To fake that, they built a big green motion rigged hat. They shot Johnny Depp’s performance and analyzed the movement of his hat. They then transfered that movement to the motion rig and shot Alice reacting to it.
  • Stereo
    Alice in Wonderland was not shot in S3D, it was converted in post. So they had to develop a pipleine to compute the second eye. (More about that in Parag’s second talk…


MPC Recruitment Presentation
Great prersentation. Totally made me want to work there even more… Fingers crossed!