Thursday, December 6, 2012

Working in Unity

After completing the texturing and animating of all our game assets, it was time to transfer everything into Unity and start focussing on the cinematographic elements. I ended up doing this part of the project, which I was fine with as I enjoy figuring out lighting effects, camera angles, etc. to compliment a certain atmosphere.

We exported our Maya files in sections as .FBX files (so the cabin, warehouse, Tabitha and Albus were all separately exported). The first thing I realised, to my horror, was that when I imported Tabitha into Unity, some vertices on her hands had gone completely awry:

This happened in Maya, and is an issue with the weight painting, where if a vertex has no joint influence it seems to stick out at strange angles. I managed to solve it within Maya but unfortunately in Unity it's still there - after trying a handful of different solutions with my tutor, including adding a transparency mask on the texture so that it might be invisible for those vertices, and using Maya's weight hammer tool, I decided there wasn't enough time to go through and solve the issue for each scene's model, so we've had to leave it as it is.

Another issue was with the texture of her skirt - the normals were facing the wrong way, which I should have reversed whilst modelling, but instead I ended up using a self-illuminating shader in Unity (one that's generally used for leaves drawn on flat planes) and tweaking it so that it didn't appear to glow so much. This was an adequate solution but meant that light had no effect on the skirt, so it looks a little off, but should hopefully not be too noticeable.

We knew it was very important to get the right lighting and atmosphere in the warehouse room where Tabitha comes across the robot - we wanted shafts of light coming through the window like a spotlight, casting dramatic shadows. We spent some time experimenting with bloom camera effects to really emphasise the mystical quality of that moment. We were also hoping to add particle effects such as floating specks of dust and smoke, which we couldn't do in time for the deadline but still hope to achieve for the exhibition next week.

(it doesn't look nearly as good on my non-pro edition - there's no shadows or effects - but just to get an idea...)

I also had to work on some scripts and animations to control camera switching, texture switching (for Tabitha's changing expressions), and camera movement. These took me a while to grasp, but I'd just about got it before my Unity started playing up, and I ran out of time to finish the cinematic before hand-in. I always say it, but next project, I definitely need to be more realistic with on time management.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Tabitha - final model

As our group slowly came to realise we only had a weeks or so to texture, animate and create the cinematic, we decided to split up the tasks we needed to do. I decided to take on a majority of the texture work, whilst Alex and Ryan began working on the animations. Here's Tabitha's final textured model - I perhaps went into a little more detail than was necessary, considering we were going for a fairly simplistic, colourful style, but I think that my painterly style of colouring fits the tone we were trying to create. 

I used a similar style to colour the props, as seen below.

And here is "Surveillance Bot"'s texture: 

Alex created the main robot's (Albus') texture whilst I worked on the environment, but made sure to use a similar brush style so that it would look consistent.

As well as Tabitha's main texture, I had to paint a variety of expressions for her with the intention of using a script in Unity to switch expressions using animation events. It was fairly straight-forward to work in layers and combine different eye and mouth movements to come up with different faces to suit the progression of the story, and hopefully give her a lot more of a personality.

Are game cinematics good or bad?

Creating a game cinematic has led me to think further about how they are used in the industry. There are many debates over whether the film industry's influence on the game industry is positive or negative, with many differing opinions on the effectiveness of cut-scenes within games.

I've been having a look at various forums and sites discussing the topic.

On one forum, a game discussed in particular is Dead Space, which features no cut-scenes. Apparently this was done intentionally so that at all times, the player feels like they could be attacked at any moment - the feeling of apprehension and suspense that the player is experiencing throughout the game is never broken by a cut-scene, even whilst engaging in dialogue with other characters. This increases immersion for the player. However, others said that adding cut-scenes to this game would have given the opportunity to showcase the characters and their personalities more clearly, and went further to say that they'd forgotten what many of the characters were even like.

It was suggested that a cut-scenes effectiveness depends on the game's genre. One person stated that Half-Life, which has no cut-scenes, essentially made using them in first-person shooter games "taboo". However they are still effective in RPG's where they can really help drive narrative and lore-heavy games.

They can be overdone, as is arguably the case for some of the Metal Gear games where you can be sat watching a cinematic for about half an hour - but they may also be there as a welcome break from intense gameplay, and to make the story clearer. For example, a character may be talking to you within a game giving vital information, whilst at the same time you are having to fight enemies. You may be too focussed on defeating enemies that you miss what information you've been told. A cut-scene ensures that you follow more complex narratives and understand what is going on around you, whilst also making the game feel more dramatic and emotional.

Personally, I think they can be at wildly differing levels of effectiveness depending on the game. I find that if you are in control of a character during a particularly dramatic moment (that might usually have been put into a cut scene), it can be some of the most exciting aspects of a game. Yet, also, because of the lack of traditional film techniques such as cuts and dynamic camera angles/movement, close-ups, etc. you possibly lose some of the emotional impact that the scene might have if presented as a cinematic.

My experience of video games is still shamefully limited considering I consider myself a game student, but looking back on those that I have played, it is easy to see that it is impossible to draw such a black-and-white opinion of games. Simply, for some, it works - whilst others, don't.

I largely play RPGs, which are known to be the most dialogue-heavy, and it seems that dialogue within them hasn't evolved much over the years - often your character doesn't speak, and you simply listen to NPC's tell you pages and pages worth of information. One of the most jarring things for me in the Elder Scrolls games, especially Skyrim which sought to be so close to realism, was the dialogue and how it was presented (a similar thing can be said for Fallout 3). Because the entire game is from your character's perspective, whilst engaging in dialogue with somebody you will simply have their face on the screen, talking, often for very long periods of time, with limited movements and facial expressions on their part. Because of the lack of "cinematic" presentation of characters, they can often become forgettable and not feel as in-depth and meaningful as they could possibly be.

I can compare this to Bioware's style, such as in Dragon Age: Origins, which is again very heavy on dialogue,  but uses close-ups, switching cameras, and more movement and visual indicators of a character's personality, which led me to feel a lot more of a connection to the characters and care more for the story. Dragon Age 2 also featured a talking protagonist (the effectiveness of which is a whole other debate), so choosing how our character interacts with others, and seeing it presented cinematically, I think is a very good way to get a better idea of their personality and quirks.

Dragon Age 2's use of cinematic techniques during dialogue scenes helps effectively portray the characters' emotions and personalities

I suppose I can summarise by saying that I feel that action-oriented scenes should be part of the gameplay, as that adds more variation from just running through various areas and killing enemies. However, I think dialogue and character presentation is more effective when it is presented cinematically, as I think it's difficult to express a character properly if they just stand and talk at you. With the advancement of technology, though, we can see that characters are being presented more dynamically from first-person perspectives (I'm curious to see what Elizabeth in the upcoming Bioshock Infinite is like).

Well, this has probably been a very rambling blog post so I'll stop now, although I do find it interesting to think of how I'd present my game cinematic if I was actually making it as a playable game. On the one hand I suppose it would feel more personal and immersive if it was entirely up to the player where they wished to wander, and if the whole scene where they happened across a mysterious robot was entirely from a controllable, first-person perspective as opposed to being presented as a cut-scene.

As with anything else, I suppose there is no perfect solution and everybody has preferences - for me, the most important aspect is to make sure characters are being presented interestingly and in a way that reflects their personality, as I personally play a game to experience an interactive story and it's characters, rather than to just challenge myself with difficult gameplay.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Alien Tutorial

I've mentioned the alien tutorial a few times but I haven't actually written properly about it, so I'll do that now.

In order to grasp the techniques involved with modelling, UV mapping, binding, rigging and finally animating a biped model, we spent a number of weeks following a tutorial along with our tutor to create an alien character, with the intention of creating an animated character turntable of him/it in Unity.

Sadly I haven't taken many screenshots during the process, but you can see here that we made a control rig for the body and also one to control basic facial expressions. We've learnt, in more depth, about a wide range of tools in Maya, including the joint tool, weight painting tool, contraints and control/joint hierarchies and making the controls themselves from NURBS shapes and curves.

I've really enjoyed the whole tutorial as I've been keen to learn more about creating characters in more technical detail, as it's possibly the main area of animation I'm interested in.

A few key ideas I've learnt through this that I will take forward into future projects include:

- When modelling, it is vital to pay close attention to the topology and edge flow of the character you're creating. Generally you want your edges to follow the shape of the geometry and show how it will move, and not be all over the place, as it'll be crucial when it comes to animating. You also want to model using exclusively square shapes (in my model there are a few accidental triangles, but as it's very simple it doesn't effect it too much. I will be careful of this on more detailed projects).

This is of particular importance in the face, as illustrated below. Compare the topology around the eyes and mouth:

The "good" edge flow almost mimics the muscle structure of a real face, so that when the character pulls faces the rest of the face will move in a realistic way.

- When building the skeleton using the joint tool, limbs such as the arms and legs should be kept straight and posed far away from each other (like a T-pose). This is so that when it comes to weight painting it's easier to control the influence that a joint has on surrounding joints - if the arms are placed close to the sides, for instance, you will get influence from the arm joints effecting the torso, and a lot of time will be spent making sure there is no influence in these unwanted places. 

- On the arms, an extra joint should be added to the forearm which allows the forearm to rotate slightly when the wrist does, which is more realistic (otherwise the wrist rotates too sharply and can collapse inwards). 

- Set Driven Keys (SDK's) are custom attributes that are added to allow easy manipulation of more in-depth movement without having to move the joints themselves. Generally to create these you:
- Add a custom attribute to the controller of the area (e.g. the hand controller)
- Group the joints that you want effected together in the Outliner
- Edit the group's pivot point to reflect which direction the joints should move
- Open the Set Driven Keys window within the attribute editor
- In the window, load the driver of the attribute (the control), and the joints effecting the driven attribute 
- Set the custom attribute to 0, and place the joints in the position you want, and hit the Key button
- Set the custom attribute to 10, place the joints in the position you want, and hit the Key button.
These attributes are very useful for controlling hands and feet where there might be a lot of joints and intricate movement . 


Here's the final turnaround for my alien, which showcases my model and his walk cycle (I decided for no real reason to give him a swagger), idle animation and jump animation. I wanted to edit them further using the animation graph, but I couldn't figure out which parts to edit - they could all use some further tweaking as the movements look a bit "floaty", but until I get my head around the graph editor, I'll have to leave it as it is.

Unity Web Player | WebPlayer

Binding & Rigging

Tabitha is almost ready to be animated! 

Here is the rig I've built for her. It mostly follows the basics of what we learned during our alien tutorial, but this character had a few unique challenges we've had to overcome, the most obvious one being her skirt. After adding in joint chains at the front, sides and rear of the skirt, I first attempted to rig it and control it by manipulating individual joints, but this proved to be very difficult to define with weight-painting and it didn't offer very natural skirt-like movements.

So I've gone for single-chain IK handles instead. Although these offer less control over the smaller movements of the skirt, when I briefly tested it it seemed much easier to animate to move along with the legs. She will be fairly limited in her movement, for example if she were to kneel on the floor it might prove difficult to realistically have the skirt move with that, so I think we'll have to ensure we avoid using extreme poses and use clever camera angles to disguise shots where the skirt might go awry. 

I created some *very quick* playblasts to see how the skirt might move. Obviously her actual animations will be much more detailed and interesting - it was just to get an idea of how the IK handles work practically. It seems to be fine - I scaled the skirt out at the back as she walked to give the impression of it dragging along the floor, and the front section scales outwards as her knee moves forward to take a step. 

I came across another problem whilst creating custom attributes and SDKs for areas such as her ankles and feet. Because her feet are so small, the edge flow doesn't follow a natural foot shape, and so when I tried to set up SDKs to allow the animator to manipulate the peel heel/toe tap/twist heel attributes to create more lifelike walk animations, the result... wasn't so lifelike.

I tried to fix it by altering the weight painting, but I think this issue is beyond repair simply because of the way I've modelled her, so I've had to scrap all the SDKs on the feet. I've still added them to the hand so that she can clench her fist and move her fingers.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Development of my model

Some shots of the development of the model for Tabitha, the character I'm creating for my group machinima project.

This has been my first try (outside of the tutorial) at making a model in preparation for rigging and animation. I've made a couple of silly mistakes, including making the model as a whole rather than just building one half and mirroring, meaning that she isn't quite symmetrical. I also didn't pose her with her arms and legs completely straight, though I think I'll be able to overcome this when rigging by just being careful with where I place the joints. 

Originally the skirt was going to be a solid piece of geometry with her feet sticking out at the bottom, but I found this awkward to model so I just decided to construct her full figure and add the skirt on top. This'll also mean we can rig the skirt separately to the legs and animate it, which I think will make her movement a lot more dynamic and interesting.

Seeing as we are going for a charming, cartoony style her facial features are going to be flat and part of the texture, not modelled into the geometry. 

Her hair has been the most awkward part of the process, and I had to delete and re-model the geometry for the fringe pieces as for some reason faces were missing where the vertices met her head. Although I still need to smooth the model, I think I'm finally at a stage now where I can focus on the UV mapping, and then the rigging. 

Bradford Animation Festival

Last week I spent a few days at Bradford Animation Festival with the course. Last year we went to BAF Game, which focusses on video game art and design rather than animated films, so I was curious to see what the main festival was like. Most of my time there was spent watching short films, although to be perfectly honest I often struggle to become engaged by "artsy" short animated films so there were only a handful I could say I really liked.

One of these can be seen at the following link:

The main thing that struck me about this was that it was one of the few that appears to use computer-generated 3D animation techniques. The scenery and surroundings are illustrative and 2D, and the textures of the characters themselves have a cel-shaded look, which overall gives the film a unique and charming appearance, although the mood and narrative is quite dark.


There was also a panel discussing the importance of student films (as opposed to showreels) and how they can play a crucial part in defining the future of your career. The speakers included Tony Prosser, who established RealtimeUK, Caroline Parsons, a senior lecturer at Newport, Chris Williams, Dean of Computer Animation at Bournemouth University and Sophie Jenkins, Recruitment Manager at Double Negative.

A general opinion shared across the panel was that a short film should advertise the student's design ethic and attitude, and also demonstrate that the student has the drive, ambition and dedication to succeed within the industry. There were some differing views regarding creativity and imagination; Caroline Parsons, who values creativity above technical prowess, expressed how an ability to create characters and stories that have a real, emotional impact on an audience is key; how the student chooses to express that, whether in more simplistic animation methods or something more technical and involved, is irrelevant. Sophie Jenkins of Double Negative and Tony Prosser of RealtimeUK opposed this by saying a demonstration of excellent technical abilities was more important for their particular companies (which is expected of VFX companies - I suppose it is all dependant on where the student wishes to end up working). Another key asset is to have a specialist skill, but also a good range of generalist knowledge, and to have a broad scope of interests which feeds into your work.

Interestingly, members of the panel said that student film standards have been going down, and animation courses have been "losing their way", particularly in the UK where the courses are a couple of years shorter than those in other countries in Europe. Students are lacking creative awareness, and can even become delusional about their creative and technical abilities, because their scopes are often so narrow.

These industries are highly competitive and demand high levels of technical skill as well as creativity and intelligence. Thousands of people can apply for these positions but only the ones who demonstrate genuine talent will get jobs. It might have been seen as being fairly blunt and harsh for the panel to say this, but I appreciate their honesty - hearing this sort of advice is a really important part of developing and evolving as an artist.


Unfortunately this year BAF Game had a handful of exciting guests that I missed as I couldn't afford to attend both sides of the festival. These included Tomek Zawade of CD Projekt Red, the studio behind The Witcher and The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, giving a presentation about choosing between the movie and games industries, Lucas Hardi of Bethesda talking about the history of art style within games, and Neil Thompson who is currently an art director at Bioware.

I ended up spending extra money on going to see Neil Thompson, given my recent love for Bioware's games. He gave a detailed overview of his career from creating artwork for Spectrum and Commodore 64 games, to working for Psygnosis at the dawn of 3D game software, through to working on the Wipeout franchise and Blur, and finally Dragon Age and Mass Effect 3. He repeated the advice of previous speakers at the festival: that an aspiring artist should take their influence from everywhere, and particularly become interested in art history. Being a game artist who only plays games means that everything you create has already been done in some way - but being inspired by history, architecture, nature, art, films, and the general world will produce fresher ideas and concepts.
(I was looking forward to hearing about his work at Bioware, but unfortunately he didn't really talk about that, or about his actual work as an illustrator and artist - but it was still very interesting).

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Studying Anatomy

One of the main focusses of my drawing recently has been trying to make my figures appear more anatomically correct. I never really thought about this properly up until relatively recently, when I realised that even if you wish to have a stylised approach to drawing, a solid understanding of anatomy and the structure of the body really does help give your work that little extra polish and professionalism. For game concept art it'll be crucial to understand muscle structure so that I can create believable characters, or exaggerate features in the correct way.

I have decided to go about developing my anatomy in two ways: doing more drawing from life, and studying anatomy from books, tutorials, etc. (I briefly went into this last year).

One book that I've bought is Dynamic Anatomy by Burne Hogarth. Hogarth had a masterful grasp of anatomy which he demonstrated in the Tarzan newspaper comic strip, and this book is regarded worldwide as a classic text on artistic anatomy. 

It was first published in 1958, so the language isn't as simple and easy to follow as modern how-to art books, but the extensive range of drawings and detailed description of muscle groups makes it a very valuable reference.

I've learnt a lot already only from scanning and reading a few chapters; I've tried to correct the way I structure the head and facial features, though I find it a bit difficult creating the shape of the head that Hogarth describes, particularly from a low angle. and my faces always seem to end up looking to cramped towards the centre.

I'm also aware that I really need to study and practice the structure of shoulders, arms, legs, and just about the whole body... 

(I'll put scans here soon)

I went to a Life Drawing class here at the college (I hope to start going regularly - I attended whilst studying A levels and it was an invaluable part of my portfolio). It was a little strange drawing from life for the first time after so long, and it was fairly clear that I need to practice this more as my figures' proportions were completely off at first. I enjoyed working with white chalk on a black background, and generally allowing myself to be expressive with the medium - it's good to get away from digital art every now and then.


I'm hoping that after I learn more about the muscle structure of the body, my life drawing will become more lifelike.

I'm going to start carrying a small sketchbook around and drawing from life whilst I'm out and about - it'll be a good way to pass the 1-2 hour commutes to and from uni every day (although I get quite self-conscious whilst drawing in public). Learning to quickly capture the features or stance of a figure as they are in motion is an important skill to have for animation and storyboarding. 


Sunday, October 21, 2012

Steampunk Machinima cont.

Development of the main character for our game cinematic, from initial coloured design ideas to the finished turnaround. 

I thought I didn't need to completely render out the dress as the details of the patchwork design will most likely change when we come to create the textures, this is mainly so that we can get started on the modelling as soon as possible. I'll need to create a more detailed design for the goggles as that will be a fairly intricate part of the model. 

I wanted to make sure that the outfit was suitable for her character - she is a lab assistant, so I didn't want her to be too prim and pretty like many steampunk female characters. I also didn't want to overload her with accessories as that'd be impractical. Yet at the same time, her outfit needed to be eyecatching and stand out from the surroundings, so I thought I would add a patchwork and green striped design to her skirt.

Hopefully I haven't been too ambitious and will actually be able to model this!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

SWOT chart

In our PPP session we used a SWOT chart to define our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. These are a valuable way to gain insight on what you can do to improve your work and develop as a practitioner.

Here's mine!

From this chart I've realised that I really need to showcase my art more, and also present it at a more professional level. I need to take part in more events/competitions, and also in particular work on myself as a person and develop my self-confidence and communication skills. In this industry, you can't just sit back and expect other people to come to you and offer you work - you have to be out there, searching and ready to deal with whatever comes your way, whether that's rejections, critiques or work opportunities, and you need to have the confidence to get through it all and not give in.

Steampunk Machinima: Development

We've decided what groups we'll be working in for the machinima cinematic project. Our group (Alex, Ryan and myself) is fairly well-balanced: we each have a speciality, but would also like to branch out to try all aspects of the project. So, we've so far come to the conclusion we'll each be working a little on the modelling, rigging and possibly animation stages.

For the concept work, after brainstorming all our ideas together and deciding roughly on what the characters will look like, Alex and I have taken one main character each to work on in more detail. I will also be working on rougher storyboards for him to refine and tidy up.

We had to choose one narrative theme "prompt" from which the general story of our 1-minute film would revolve around. These were "exchange", "stolen" and "surveillance". We swapped our initial ideas and settled on an "exchange" story which takes place in a steampunk-style world, and features a young female as the primary character and a giant, malfunctioning robot as the secondary character.

We decided fairly early on we'd like to work in a cartoon style reminiscent of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Maker. A realistic or more detailed style would be a bit difficult to render well at our current skill level, and we thought that a bright, clean look like Wind Maker would be more suitable, as although it's simple it's still very effective.

Here are my initial sketches. I experimented with varying levels of stylisation - the top left shows a somewhat more Disney approach, inspired by Treasure Planet. We decided we preferred the character to be wearing a dress, so from there we tried different heights and body proportions. All-in-all we thought that the top right was closest to what we were looking for at this stage. My next steps will be drawing up some outfit/hair variations and a T-pose.

The robot has required a bit more time to finalise the design. We experimented with a more human-sized, female-looking robot, though we thought that if it was much bigger than the girl it would offer a more interesting visual contrast. Here were some of my sketches (Alex has taken the design further and is coming up with the finished concept). The main influences here included The Iron Giant and also the indie game Machinarium.

Machinarium in particular I think captures a rusty steampunk atmosphere which I think will be a great reference when we come to making textures and the environment.

That's all for now!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Skills I want to develop

Although I will be learning a lot of valuable skills as part of the modules on my course, there are still other software packages I'd like to learn about and techniques I'd like to explore.

At the moment, the range of skills I'd like to learn about is rather broad and probably too ambitious, so I definitely need to narrow my focus if I want to really develop.

- Digital painting. I'm interested to learn more about the tools of Photoshop that I haven't yet got my head around, such as masking. I'd also like to have a look at other programs such as Corel Painter (which is rated #1 in a 2012 Digital Painting Software Comparison!).

- Drawing. I need to practice drawing and colouring anatomy, landscapes, buildings, scenery, non-human creatures. Storyboarding, sequential art... Anything that's involved with it, really.

- 3D Modelling. I'd like to learn more about creating models in Maya, and also try software that allows more organic sculpting like ZBrush or Mudbox.

- I'd like to become more involved in the online art community, by creating and uploading more work, taking part in competitions, etc. as I think this is probably the main way to discover opportunities, meet potential clients or collaborators.

- I definitely need to become better at "putting myself out there" and having the confidence to establish relationships with other people working in the industry. This will also involve attending local art-related events and meeting contacts that way.

These are the main ones, though I'd also like to explore:

Writing. I'm very interested in writing stories but I don't really know all that much about it. Studying what makes a great story or character would be very useful.

- Traditional cel and stop-motion animation 

- After Effects for 2D digital animation, I've also been interested in digital compositing, i.e. blending CG footage with real-life footage to create interesting effects.

- Traditional art. Particularly painting, I think that would help me learn more about colouring as I wouldn't be able to use digital shortcuts. I'm also curious to try sculpting clay models or making puppets for animations, but I'm not sure if I'll actually get the chance to do that. Another thing I've always been curious to try is creating prosthetics / costume make-up, but again, I don't really have the space/resources to try this.

As I said I know time will be strained so I'm not sure how I'd try all of these things, and it'd be more effective for me to focus on only a couple of new software packages. It's going to be a busy year...

Upcoming Events and Opportunities

Part of PPP this year is to get involved with events and competitions that can help us develop as practitioners.

I'm definitely interested in taking part in Thought Bubble this year. Although at the moment I've mainly been focussing on developing my digital painting skills and software skills for my course, I would at some point like to learn more about sequential art and creating graphic novel art. There are a number of panels, live events and also portfolio reviews at Thought Bubble that I think would be a great opportunity to learn more about the industry, about the professional's working and creative process and to even get feedback on my own work.

I haven't got my head around the entire program yet, but I'm interested in the SelfMadeHero Drop-In Portfolio Critique, and the Titan Comics Portolio Reviews. There are other critiques available from Marvel and Image Comics, though these require advance bookings and for your portfolio to be chosen. Getting advice from working professionals, especially those who's job it is to keep an eye on new talent, would be an invaluable part of this event for me, and if it lead on to an opportunity to work then that'd be a huge bonus. 

There is another event called Sketching Spotlight where artists draw live on stage and talk through their creative process. I think that this would be a fascinating opportunity to learn some ways that I could expand my drawing skills.

Another notable event is a panel about Women in Comics, where they talk about the presence of female writers and artists in the comic industry. I've always seen the graphic novel and comic world as male-dominated, so seeing the female perspective from a panel of professionals would be very rewarding. 

Otherwise, I think I'd like to develop my skills more before taking part in competitions, but I will be keeping an eye out on sites such as DeviantArt, CGSociety and the various other art websites for small-scale competitions or opportunities to work with other artists. 

Monday, October 8, 2012

Game Art and Machinima

Our first module this year revolves around Game Art and Machinima. In groups, we will be creating our own one-minute films using models created an animated in Maya, then controlled in Unity.

Up until now I had only really thought of machinima in terms of fan-made films made in-game, recorded either using a separate program such as Fraps or in-game recording tools. The main series that comes to mind for me is Red vs. Blue, which was made from games in the Halo series. I used to watch the show a lot when I was younger, and what struck me about it was that even though the animation itself was very limited (all the characters ever really did was run and "bob" their heads to indicate they were talking), and the only distinguishing features of the characters is the colour of their armour, you still manage to get a strong sense of their personality thanks to the great voice acting and scriptwriting, and as the series progressed, the recording and editing techniques became more advanced and cinematic.

However I still haven't really considered it a form of filmmaking I would seriously look into, mainly because I feel it's a little difficult to manipulate game characters into moving or posing in a way that fits your idea without extensive use of mods.

But our first lesson was spent looking at game cut scenes, and I realised that there is a lot more to machinima than what I previously thought. As games and films become more closely intertwined, with games achieving a highly advanced, cinematic quality, finding ways to progress the story in similarly cinematic ways - without necessarily resorting to extensive cut scenes with no player interaction - is becoming increasingly important.

There are a few different ways that games approach cut scenes, extensive dialogue and progressing the narrative. I'm going to have a look at a couple of different examples and explore the effectiveness of each.

Metal Gear Solid - Grey Fox's Death Scene

Metal Gear Solid has been praised as one of the most innovative and immersive video games to ever be released, and a forerunner for the stealth genre. It has a complex, emotional storyline which is expressed through extensive cut scenes. Even though the PlayStation 1 graphics are relatively limited and simplistic, the combination of effective pacing, dynamic editing, sound effects, music and voice acting still makes it highly engaging and affecting, even more so than many games nowadays that can take advantage of more advanced graphics.

This particular approach to cut scenes is very much like a film. The protagonist, Snake, is visible and can speak and contribute to the story with no input from the player. The player simply puts down the control and enjoys the dramatic unfolding of events before them, until the next interactive segment arrives.

Although this approach does work well for telling a story and illustrating characters (and works well for games with excellently-written stories and characters like MGS) nowadays games are a becoming a lot more interested in how the player's choices effect the narrative and develop the character in their own unique way, and as such interrupting their experience of "being" the character by showcasing lengthy third-person cut-scenes can potentially be jarring and break the player's immersion.

Portal 2 - Introduction

 (specifically from about 1:24 onwards)

This video demonstrates a very different approach to cut-scenes. Valve have been called "experts of the silent protagonist", with mute characters such as Gordon Freeman from Half-Life and Chell from Portal being the character through which the player - from the first-person perspective - experiences the games' universes. This fact is even humourously played upon in this scene, when Wheatley asks the character to speak at around 2:40.
So how would a narrative progress without any vocal input from the player character?

I find this scene (or just about any from Portal 2) a wonderful example of how the first-person perspective can intensify the game experience. During the cinematics you never break the immersion because you are the character, and you are seeing what they are seeing at that specific moment. Also, whereas many games seem to be fairly clearly cut between cinematic cut scenes and interactive action sequences, here you always remain in control of Chell, which adds a whole new engrossing element to the game so that you never lose interest. When I was experiencing this for the first time, it gave me that adrenaline-filled, happy feeling you get when you know you're experiencing something great.

The other characters, whether they be the robots or recordings you discover as you explore the world, are excellently voiced with memorable dialogue, and it is entirely through them that the story unfolds - you barely notice that your player doesn't say a word. And once again, music and sound effects plays a highly important role in bringing together the whole experience.

Heavy Rain - Interactive Cut Scenes

Heavy Rain expresses narrative through interactive cut scenes using quicktime events. As a cinematic scene plays out, you still have to interact with the game by pressing a button at a specified time. Whether or not you choose to press the button can sometimes dramatically effect the narrative's outcome. This method has altered people's perceptions on what constitutes a video game, as Heavy Rain seems more akin to an interactive film. Breaking down expectations of video games and creating new, novel ways to experience a story made this game particularly exciting, and it seems more and more games are being made that act as more of an interactive story or film experience, such as the indie hit Dear Esther.

Quicktime events can occur in fighting or other action sequences, where the buttons or controller movements emulate your character's movements; punching/kicking or breaking free of your enemies grasp, driving a car, or doing slightly more mundane things like sitting/standing and household tasks.

As well as this, at some times in the game, you can press a button to see your character's thoughts or possible dialogue options. Their emotions effect the way in which the words float about their head, meaning that if the character is feeling high-strung or scared, it will be more difficult to see the available options and pick one, which makes the player share the character's frustration.

This is a rather unique approach to video game interaction, and I feel it really intensifies the emotional quality of the story - in this particular scene, the awkwardness felt between Ethan and Shaun, as although Ethan cares for and loves his son, they severely lack communication. This means that any happy moment from Shaun feels like a small achievement, and you feel happy for Ethan, no matter how short-lived and bittersweet it might be.

I think all three of these methods can be highly effective, although I like that games are exploring ways to make a game interactive without necessarily using violence, or to express a story without just using pre-rendered cut scenes.

Games which involve killing targets still seem to be the most popular, as it offers the ideal combination of narrative, challenging gameplay and clear objectives. But those like Portal and Heavy Rain raise questions on different ways in which we can interact in these environments, or gain valuable insight into the psyche of the characters, and it's refreshing to see something different.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

What I did over summer...

The second year of my degree is here - it seems to be flying by already!

This summer has been a good opportunity for me to take the knowledge and experience I gained last year and use that to develop my focus, which is drawing and creating digital art, specifically for character design.

The main outlet for this was the work I continued doing for the game project I mentioned in the previous posts. I continued working on the scrapper design and getting feedback from the creators of the project, and upon finishing that character, I was asked to also design the "ranger". The ranger is a female member of the team so I looked forward to hopefully taking her design in a different direction to a lot of female characters in video games today.

Here are the designs that the final models will be based upon. Another artist will be working on refining the faces, and another will also be tweaking all the final concepts from the artists so that they look consistent.

For the scrapper, an important aspect of his design was retaining a sense of his cocky, playful personality. His outfit also had to have a mismatched, handmade look whilst having a slight "punk" feel. The main challenge for this character was drawing all the details of his outfit, as I'm generally more accustomed to a loose, painterly style than a technical one. The feedback I received was very helpful and after much mix-and-matching of designs, we settled on this one.

I realise now that for this character, I should have started with rough designs before getting too involved in drawing up finalised outfits. I didn't experiment as much as I should have, and although I think the final design does convey the character's personality, I would have liked to have tried a variety of other outfit styles.

By the time I'd begun working on the ranger I'd developed a more solid understanding of concept creation, so I started with some silhouette designs to get ideas for the general shape of her outfit and how it reflects her personality.

Following some extensive feedback from the guys on the project, the final design ended up being a combination of silhouettes 7, 5 and 10. An issue with this design was that her outfit was a little too bland, so a challenge was finding a balance between reflecting her stealthy, agile class whilst also looking interesting and eye-catching. 

The ranger's concept had to show her tough, "lone-wolf" attitude, but still appear likeable. The main idea of her outfit was that she had made it herself from scraps of material found on her travels. It had to be suitable for the agility and mobility of the character, so no metal scraps, constrictive materials/shapes, etc. I also wanted to make her look attractive without depending on the usual exaggerated femininity of many women in games. 

Outside of this project, I have mainly been working on practicing human anatomy and proportions, as that is a big challenge I've faced in creating these designs - I know very little about drawing in proportion! 


In terms of films, games and animations I've discovered over summer, I've developed a big interest in Bioware games, particularly the Mass Effect series. I hope to play through their earlier releases. 

My experience of games isn't the most widespread, but I found the characters of Mass Effect to be some of the most interesting I've come across - I felt like I genuinely became attached to them (I even cried over some of them, which is a first). This was probably a result of some fantastic voice acting, character design and scriptwriting. I'm very interested in looking deeper into the creation of the game and concept art, as it might teach me some important things about character design.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

A foray into character design, cont.

So following the feedback I received on my previous designs, I knew I needed to correct the figure's proportions, pose and generally define my design.

I built upon the rough new outfit sketch, starting with a new silhouette and pose, and came up with this:

At this stage I sent the image to the designer to get feedback before I developed it any further. The response was really positive, which I was very happy about. I'm pleased that I managed to fix the issues I had with proportions and with portraying the character.

I finalised the design to this. (Unfortunately it won't link or upload the image correctly, so I'll have to leave the dropbox link. The file is very large)

As you can see, I used a reference for the face so that I could achieve much more realistic values and tones. Although this could be classed as cheating, it really helped me to understand this part of painting, so I can develop and eventually not have to use reference. 

I'm really hoping to paint more life studies (both digitally and traditionally) over the Summer to practice this, as it will really help to make my overall art look more polished and professional.

Even looking to the first drawing I sent a few weeks ago, on my previous post, it is possible to see already how much my drawing has developed over a matter of weeks. 

It's motivating and exciting to be working on this game project. Next, I'm going to draw up a turnaround and face studies.

Very basic colour theory

Colour theory is an integral aspect of any painting or illustration. Again, this is something I've never fully took time to understand, which is why the majority of my digital paintings up until now have looked flat, "murky", and just generally off. So I thought I may as well try to start understanding now.

Basic colour theory covers three categories: the colour wheel, colour harmony and colour context.

Here's a colour wheel:

Colour harmony is crucial as it prevents an image from being boring, but also from being chaotic and unpleasant to look at.

I have been working on my own practice speedpaintings, but unfortunately I can't access them from my college at the current time... So I'm going to use some examples I found on this website.

Analogous colours, which sit near each other on the spectrum, are harmonious.

Complementary colours sit opposite each other. Opposing colours create maximum contrast and make their counterpart "pop" in an image.

Colour context is noting how a colour "acts" when it is placed alongside other colours. 

For example, here, the red appears more vivid against the blue-green than the orange, and similarly it appears brighter against black than white. 

Understanding colour relativity in great detail allows you to fully manipulate and understand how to make certain shades stand out. 

Now all I need to do is put this into practice!

Practicing poses and anatomy

Creating concept art for a project has inspired me to take a closer look at my drawing skills, and study where I need improvement.

I have always worked in non-realistic styles, but it's become increasingly clear to me how it's very difficult to work, in even a stylised fashion, without a firm understanding of the fundamentals of drawing and colour theory. Only recently have I realised how out-of-proportion my characters really tend to be, particularly male figures, and it's something I really want to change and develop. 

I began by looking into the basics of proportions. I watched a couple of Youtube videos and came to understand that generally speaking, a character is about eight heads high, and is separated as follows:

I've been practicing this, and drawing poses, quite a lot lately. I've mainly been focussing on male forms as I've always known that is where I need to improve. I'm more comfortable with drawing the "curviness" of female forms, so I just need to reach a point where I can draw male figures in this way too.

Although I skim over the details, such as hands and feet (they'll be the subject of practice for another day), I can see how the practice has really helped me to be more loose and free with the strokes when drawing the shapes of the body. Again, all I need is practice, practice, practice.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Don't get ripped off - Understanding copyright

With the rise of the internet it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep track of original material. It's very important to understand intellectual property and copyrighting so that we can protect our ideas and make a living from our work. We had a lecture and seminar introducing us to understanding our rights.

What is an evaluation?

An important part of our course is learning how to effectively evaluate our own work and progress. In a lecture we had on the topic, our attention was brought to just how many choices we make on a day-to-day basis, and how it is we reach those decisions. Generally, our daily choices are based "on value judgements or appraisals and reviews based on certain criteria", i.e. price, brand, ethics, design, taste, convenience. Reviews are also an integral part of our decision making; checking a film review before visiting the cinema, or a game review in a magazine before investing money in the game. But are these evaluations?

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The importance of social networks

We live in an environment of networks, whether that is electricity, water, roads or, these days, the all-important online social networks. These networks allow us to directly link with people. In our lecture we went through the different social networks that are available today and how they can benefit our lives and careers.

Who am I?

At the start of our year we had a lecture that invited us to have an introspective look at ourselves, our personalities and our approaches to work, so that we could better understand ourselves and our potential. This was one of the main objectives of our PPP module, so that ultimately we have a clear understanding of the professional environment that we wish to work in and how we can achieve those goals.

Although some aspects of ourselves are easy to measure and therefore define, such as our gender and level of education to our shoe size (demographics), this lecture helped us to define the aspects that are not, such as our capabilities, thinking styles and working styles. Learning these will help others to understand how we work and what it would be like to collaborate with us. They are personality type indicators.

Monday, May 14, 2012

A foray into character design

I have recently began working on contributing character concept art for a group of students who are making a multiplayer first-person shooter. I came into contact with them through my brother, who noticed an acquaintance of his requesting help for concept art on Facebook. This alone has made me realise the importance of keeping a steady social network as opportunities to work can be found almost anywhere and from anyone. I thought it would be an excellent opportunity to develop my character drawing skills, practice taking directions and working with other people's ideas

I was initially apprehensive about how well my work would fit into a gritty first-person shooter; after talking about the project, I was asked to create a character design for one of the classes to see how well my style would merge with a slightly more realistic aesthetic. I usually work in a slightly exaggerated, cartoon fashion so I thought it would be an interesting challenge to practice and perfect a more realistic approach to character design. This is the first time I've worked according to another's requests, so the main challenge has been fulfilling what they would like in the design whilst also adding my own personal touch.

After studying the reference images that I was sent that expressed the overall look of the game, I began my sketching. The character is a post-apocalyptic scavenger. These were my quick initial drawings where I focussed more on the impression rather than technical details (I was aware he's far too skinny and oddly proportioned here):

Following positive feedback from the designer who thought I had a grasp of the style, I sent over a more refined image that experimented with something slightly different:

This drawing, although giving an indication of a more developed design, was not quite right. I was sent an in-depth critique from one of the other artist's working on the project, which was in fact one of the most useful and motivating critiques I've had. It was noted that my figure wasn't anatomically correct or in proportion, and also that I perhaps hadn't thought through some of the physical traits of the character. It was suggested that I make him more lithe and "rat-like", as he spends most of his time searching through scrap for materials. Also the outfit wasn't quite reflective of the post-apocalyptic environment. It was also suggested that I work more on the silhouette and overall shape of the character before starting on the details.

He sent me this redline for help on drawing the figure:

I had read about these methods before, but for some reason I hadn't abided by them in my first designs... So, taking all of this on board, I've began sketching again, making sure to first focus on an interesting, unique silhouette, and then start on the details.

I roughly sketched up a new outfit after thinking more about what the life of the character would be like; I aimed to make his outfit look more ragged, like he's having to continually patch it up and build his own armour on top of it. I also changed the face so that he had some rodent-like qualities.

I got a more positive response from the designer over the design of the face and outfit in this image, although the anatomy and pose are still incorrect - his stance is too rigid and doesn't display the outfit well. So next I'll be refining this into a more solid, three-dimensional figure to make him appear more lifelike.

This is the first glimpse I've had into what it would be like to work for a client, and I'm looking forward to gaining crucial concept art experience and developing my drawing skills. This has already spurred me into learning more about colour theory and drawing the figure in the correct proportions, which I'll write about in another post.

Any feedback on this work would be appreciated!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Working in Unity

For the level itself, I kept the terrain size quite small. The main focus of the environment is the house, and the spooky atmosphere leading up to it, so there isn't any particular reason why it would be required of the player to wander deep into the surrounding forest. It was somewhat difficult to give the impression of a forest with only two tree varieties and an increasing polycount; I placed trees outside of the terrain to give the impression of them going into the distance. I'm also going to have quite a dense, dark fog present so that distant objects only become visible as you approach them, again giving the illusion that the scene is bigger than it is (hopefully). 

The main problem I found after I'd finished putting the scene together, was figuring out the lighting and how to make sure that the house stood out rather than just fading into the darkness. The scene is set at night time, but I had to incorporate some sort of coloured lights to guide the player. On our final crit where other people in the class tested our levels, somebody suggested I have something leading up to the house - some sort of candy lamppost. I thought that this was a very good idea as it would make the pathway much more interesting and add some elements of anticipation. I also added a light on the house itself so that it illuminates slightly.

After ensuring that the player can walk around and approach the house with ease, I looked into what sounds I could use to heighten the atmosphere. I knew I certainly wanted some quirky, Danny Elfman-esque music. I also added some diagetic sounds - the door makes a knocking noise when you click it, and upon walking towards the gate a spooky voice whispers "what are you doing?

All-in-all I was mainly trying to evoke curiosity in the player and express a slightly skewed but whimsical version of the fairytale.

Final texturing

I have finished texturing the gingerbread house! (For reasons unknown, the gingerbread texture appeared semi-transparent when I rendered this image in Maya. It worked fine in Unity)

For the areas that were particularly detailed and visible I painted them myself on Photoshop, as it was difficult to find textures suitable for a cartoon-style game. For example the wood on the gate and the tree bark was painted so that I could easily manipulate it's placement on the geometry.

However for some areas, such as the icing and to achieve a "gingerbreaddy" texture, I experimented with photographs combined into the UV maps so that it would appear a little less flat. I also used a ready-made texture for the grass as whilst looking for reference, I found an image that would be suitable to use.

These are the trees that I've modelled to use in the final scene. I'll mainly be duplicating them and altering sizes and rotation to give the illusion that there are more varieties. I painted the textures, although I found some difficulty in working out where the UV's met, so there are some very visible seams; I think if I use lighting it effectively it will draw attention away from this...