Thursday, January 31, 2013


I drew out some fairly rough storyboards, but I decided to make them into an animatic to get a better sense of timing and movement. The wiggle effect is there to resemble a handheld camera which I'm thinking of using to (hopefully) make it more tense.

The drawings are very scribbly so it might not be too clear to other people - the scene will be very dark, and the only light source will be from the camera's flash. Generally it will be paced quite slowly, with a focus on creating a sinister atmosphere rather than showing any action.

I was going to continue the story but I actually think I might leave it there on a cliffhanger - it's 30 seconds long, so paired with the first half of the film which will roughly be the same, it should equal 1 minute, which is the maximum length we're allowed.

I'm aware that the alien only makes a very brief appearance, but I'd still like it to be detailed and well animated.

A quick look at the UK's VFX industry

Although not investigating the actual working process of VFX companies, I came across these articles writing about how although the industry in the UK (London specifically) is huge and in many ways doing very well, it's also facing problems, ranging from a lack of focussed education for students leading to poorly trained graduates to rivalry from other major cities across the world.

"Cinesite, one of the more prominent VFX companies in London, has since 2009 offered an internship programme for students who have graduated (or are about to graduate) with degrees in the arts, or programming, with the hope of identifying new talent. On the day that visits Cinesite -- to see one of the sessions where hopeful candidates can see examples of winning work and ask questions of Cinesite's experience staff -- a showreel breaks down the effects used on John Carter. It's one of many modern films where filming primarily takes places in front of a green screen, and the effects are added later in post-production.

The students ask questions at the end, but very few of the accents are British. Spanish, French, Russian, and South African, yes; Yorkshire, Cornish, Liverpudlian, Northern Irish, no. While the UK's reputation for producing quality VFX is justified, its ability to produce the students who can work at these companies is lacking. Internships for kids leaving school at 16 are rarer than they used to be, and the education system does not offer specialisation in the kinds of skills that the VFX industry craves."
It's always beneficial to get an idea of what sort of problems these industries face 'in the real world'. VFX companies have evolved from being viewed as people "trying to run a hobby as a business" to a very important part of the economy, but it seems that they still aren't widely regarded as viable career paths and in many ways go unnoticed by students. This, on top of the fact that the industry requires students who have a rare combined talent for both the technical and creative sides of the process, means that there is a lack of British workers in the field.
"Double Negative's Franklin argued: "The big thing is getting the message out there that this industry exists; that this is not just a Hollywood product. The kind of people we need are those with technical and maths skills, and creative skills. It's difficult to find those people." Vaizey pointed to a speech by universities minister David Willetts arguing that "arts" should be added to the idea of the "STEM" subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), making "STEAM", as evidence that the government is taking this demand for a wide range of skills seriously in its review of education policy."

Monday, January 21, 2013

VFX ideas and initial concepts

After thinking a lot about how my film is going to play out, I came up with a few ideas that I'd like to incorporate.

Inspired by films like Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield, I've thought about switching to a first-person perspective seen through the photographer's camera once he reaches the ship. The reason behind this would be because it's black dark, and the only way he would be able to see is if he kept the flash switched on his camera - i.e. by filming. I thought that this would be quite suspenseful as the viewer won't be able to see anything beyond a meter or so, and it would be quite fun creating a scary atmosphere this way as we follow the photographer slowly discovering what's inside the ship. This would be quite practical, too, as I wouldn't need to worry about the actual structure of the ship as much, leaving me more time to focus on the compositing and the alien.

I recently played through the PS2 game Shadow of the Colossus, and found myself inspired by the designs and scale of the colossi. This led me to consider my alien being similarly massive, which, combined with the previous idea, could be reminiscent of films such as Trollhunter.

(obviously not to this level of detail).

I've been struggling with inspiration with my alien, as I don't want it to look too cliché. I found the unique "feel" of the colossi really interesting and inspiring - although they are huge, they don't feel that threatening or dangerous, and in the end their stories are actually quite tragic. Their designs range from humanoids to creatures, and combine organic fur and flesh with stone and architectural structures.

this size chart shows the vast range of shapes and forms, and will hopefully be a source of inspiration to help me create something less typically human-esque.

So although I obviously don't want to directly copy a design like this, it's helped me consider some more unique aesthetics.

Below are some very early alien sketches, where I tried experimenting with skull structures first to help create a more solid foundation for ideas. However I still wasn't too interested in any of these designs - they either leaned too close towards Alien or just didn't look very good.

Below are some very quick ideas inspired by Shadow of the Colossus. I'll be developing more ideas for this sort of look, and will be trying out different forms and structures.

 (I still need to scan in my sketchbook designs, which I'll do soon to show some more development of concepts)

Also, yet another little update on sculpting.
I modelled a face based on Nyreen, the female turian from the Mass Effect 3: Omega DLC.

And a human guy, done without using reference.

I need to practice creating a low poly mesh in Maya which roughs out the overall shape of the alien, which I will then export to Mudbox and build upon. I've only been focussing on facial features, even though that's only a tiny portion of the actual alien... I still need to practice sculpting bodies and anatomy. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

More sculpting

Just a couple more shots of my progress in sculpting.

I've started getting familiar with the material presets and effects, and have been able to add different attributes such as specularity onto my models, giving them that shiny, glossy look.

After generally experimenting and creating the bottom two faces, I watched a couple of tutorials and decided  to try something more realistic, resulting in the third sculpt. I'm still not great at colouring using this software, but I think I'm becoming more able to sculpt more realistic forms. It's clear that in comparison my previous models were very flat (and not just because they're aliens). 

I'm still not 100% on my alien's actual appearance yet - I've been working on concept art which I'll upload soon.

p.s. thanks for the kind comments on the last post :)

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Backwater Gospel

I recently came across the animated shot film The Backwater Gospel, a story of death, hypocrisy and the power of fear in a small God-fearing town directed by freelancer Bo Mathorne,. Within seconds I'd fallen in love with the visual style - it's not often you see 3D models in short films that are so unique. To me it's reminiscent of the work of Jamie Hewlett but with a much darker, scruffier edge.

Fortunately there's a making-of video. Mathorne's drawing style is really fantastic and expressive, though what I find interesting here is the structure of the models. They seem to have been made largely out of angular or completely flat planes that have been arranged one on top of the other - the ragged sketching style of the textures dictates the shape of the final asset, meaning that the outlines of the models are similarly sketchy, giving the unique artistic effect. The amount of detail in the models and props is astounding.

The compositing, shown towards the end of the video, is surprisingly involved - I still don't really know much at all about compositing, and although I have no idea what the technical process here is, it's still a useful insight.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Digital Sculpting

I've been interested in using digital sculpting software for a while now, and after making the decision to include a digital sculpt in my VFX project I've finally had the perfect opportunity to take a closer look at the software available to me.

The first I tried was Pixologic's ZBrush. I've seen a lot of fantastic work done in ZBrush, such as the strange alien creations of Kurt Papstein which I first saw in 3DArtist magazine:

I have tried a couple of times to grasp the basics of this software, but I find the interface very difficult to navigate and there are many terms, tools and other things that I have no hope of understanding without searching the internet, so I lost interest quite quickly.

I moved on to trying AutoDesk Mudbox, which seems a sensible choice considering you can easily export files from there into Maya. I also have free access to the student version which is always a bonus.

I found Mudbox much less frustrating and managed to pick up the basic controls. Because of it's visual similarities to Maya, it felt much more natural to me than ZBrush.

Here's the "works of art" I've managed to create today - in chronological order - whilst getting used to the controls. Obviously as they're my first attempts they aren't very good, but I still tried to experiment with alien/unnatural facial structures and designs.

I started off modelling a face from a sphere, but for the next two I started with the basic bust shape. As I got more used to the controls it became much more like painting, and I was able to experiment more with shape and texture, using a variety of tools and by imprinting "stamp" textures onto the model.

It's very simple to switch to the paint tool and paint directly onto the sculpt in this program, which is much easier than texturing in a separate program such as Photoshop and then manually applying it, although some of the detail might be lost this way. I think it is useful for getting an idea of what colour scheme will suit the character.

I was fairly surprised to see how in a matter of hours I'd managed to develop from the first model to the third. I still haven't the slightest idea how I'd transfer a model like this into Maya and animate it, so that'll be the next step.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

VFX "Abduction" - Moodboards & Ideas

In our next module we'll be combining live action filmed footage with computer-generated effects and set extensions using After Effects. The story of the short film involves a photographer getting abducted into a spaceship, where they encounter an alien of some sort. 

I knew from the start that I wanted to do something detailed and realistic as opposed to cartoony, like I've done for the past number of modules. As I'm focussing more on the visuals, I'm not too concerned about an interesting or unique narrative.

At this stage I'm thinking of having an organic spaceship, and the person will be abducted and held in some kind of giant gooey pod. I'm not certain yet how the alien will reveal itself - I thought it would maybe be quite dramatic to have the room filled with eggs, then have the alien burst from one of them. They will then ominously approach the person. (The film's going to be very short so there probably won't be much more to it than that).

I started off putting together some moodboards.

Here I looked at a variety of approaches to a more 'realistic' alien. Of course something that came to mind was the film Alien and HR Giger's dark designs, so I think that will definitely be an influence to the overall tone of the setting. I'm also very much inspired by Guillermo Del Toro's style when it comes to non-human characters. His models are highly detailed, I find it astonishing that they are actors covered in special effects make up rather than CG - you don't often see that nowadays and it's something I really admire in his films. But, because I would like to develop my CG skills (and I wouldn't know where to begin with prosthetics) I think in this case I'll stick to digital modelling.

Another particular feature I wanted to look at here was the texture on the aliens, and how they have been made to look creepy and organic. I would like to experiment with Mudbox to model the alien as it'll allow me to go into great detail, although I need to figure out how to take information from a Mudbox model and use that with a Maya model using displacement maps and things like that, so I'll be able to animate it - it will involve a lot of self-teaching but I think it will be worth it. 

Either way I will be depending heavily on the textures to 'sell' the look of the alien. I'm going to have to look at creating realistic textures in Photoshop using photographs and other references, rather than just painting.

I'm not sure on the look of the spaceship yet. Here there's a couple of typical spaceships from before I'd decided on the style I was going for, and a lot of jellyfish. I really love the look and movement of jellyfish, although obviously I don't want to just have a giant jellyfish for a spaceship I'd like it to perhaps influence the structure and details. I've also included an image of Leviathan from Mass Effect 3 - this was interesting to me as I want to have an organic spaceship, and the appearance of the Leviathans resembles an organic approach to an otherwise mechanical-looking structure (reapers). 

I'd like one of the central focuses to be the alien pod, whether that is holding the alien itself or the abducted person. I've looked at other designs for pods and eggs, and also some peculiar plantlife that show some interesting shapes I could use so that it's not a typical egg-shaped structure.

I was inspired to do an 'alien bursting from a pod' scene whilst playing Resident Evil 6, when on Leon's mission they come across video footage of a character bursting from a frozen zombie-like shape (I'm not entirely sure what was going on).

You can watch it here at around 13:24.

I like how the expectation of a gruesome zombie is pretty much the opposite of what actually comes out of the thing. I haven't decided on the character yet, but it's something to consider. Of course I'm not expecting to be able to reach anything near this professional standard, but if I can increase my knowledge of bump/specular/displacement maps and experiment with animating goo/ooze I could hopefully do my own interpretation of something like this.

Even though I've thought quite a lot about this approach, I don't want to tie myself down to the first aesthetic I think of, particularly as the 'gruesome dark alien' look is one that has been done many times before. So another idea I've thought of and would maybe like to do is something more fantastical and magical, whilst still being detailed and realistic.

I really like the colour scheme of this moodboard, even if many of the images are from the same thing (Avatar). The jellyfish idea I mentioned earlier would probably fit better into this look. It would also be a great opportunity to experiment with unusual lighting and atmospheres, and shapes and textures inspired by the enchanting feel of underwater life.

At this stage I'm probably more attracted to this idea as I'm not the biggest fan of horror/scary stuff. I'll need to develop some of these ideas in to my own designs and see what inspires me the most.

Friday, January 4, 2013

The Gaze and the Media pt.1

'According to usage and conventions which are at last being questioned but have by no means been overcome - men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at' (John Berger 1972)

This lecture investigated the idea of the 'gaze', in particular the male gaze in relation to portrayals of females in the media. 

Un Chien Andalou – A Psychoanalytical Review

A review of the surrealist film Un Chien Andalou, taking particular note of the symbolism used within the film that relates to Freud's psychoanalytical theories.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Psychoanalysis - Lecture Notes

Over the year we've had a series of lectures introducing a variety of theoretical practices which help to broaden our scope and develop our academic and critical skills.

Our first was on Psychoanalysis. Although unfortunately I wasn't able to attend so I couldn't make my own notes, I've done my best to grasp the topic by reading the Powerpoint and doing some research.

(under page break)