Friday, March 29, 2013

High/Low Games

It has long been debated on how video games fit into art and culture. Some see them only as forms of entertainment that shouldn't strive to be anything more, but many artists and designers have used the medium to great artistic effect, although arguably nobody has yet to create the definitive 'magnum opus' game that is to the medium what Citizen Kane is to film, or Watchmen to comics.

However, as with film and literature, there is a noticeable divide between the 'high-art' end of games and the popular games that are designed primarily for mainstream success. It's clear to see the huge number of first-person shooters and armour-and-sword-wielding RPGs, generally of varying quality, as it is known that these games have an audience and they sell - just as generic action films dominate the box office.

Usually 'arthouse' games are all lumped together under the definition/genre of 'indie games'. A couple of examples include Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP, Journey and Dear Esther. The development of these sorts of games could be viewed as a reaction against the mainstream titles, many of which lack originality and repeat the same tropes and gameplay mechanics. Although the indie developers' smaller budgets means they can't be as graphically or technically complex as AAA titles, they are still able to succeed in creating very meaningful and enjoyable experiences, as they are made by people who highly value the artistic integrity of their work. The focus is less on what to do to keep the player constantly occupied, but on what the game itself is trying to achieve.


However the audience for games will always be split between those who crave constant Call of Duty-type action and stimulation, and who find indies boring and 'pretentious', those who may not feel strongly either way, and those who are more sceptical of the top game companies and feel that all they want is money often at the cost of originality - as is the case for the film industries and other aspects of culture as well.

Popular Culture

What is Culture?

Raymond Williams, a pioneer of cultural studies, defined it as:

  • "One of the two or three most complicated words in the English language".
  • A general process of intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic development of a particular society at a particular time
  • A particular way of life
  • Works of intellectual and especially artistic significance

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Cities in Games

It's probably quite difficult to consider important city settings in games without Bioshock's Rapture coming to mind. Videogamer.com wrote an article listing the Top 10 Video Game Cities and Rapture was given spot no.1.   (http://www.videogamer.com/features/article/top_10_video_game_cities_of_all_time.html) 

"Ah, Rapture. A city where the artist would not fear the censor. Where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality. Where giants in diving suits stomp about in the company of mutated little girls, beating up all the nutty consumers who've chosen to play doctor with their own genetic code. Rapture is a leaking masterpiece of art deco design, a city built upon the floor of the ocean itself, and as such it's easily the coolest entry on this list. Of course, it's also an extremely dangerous place, thanks largely to the insane governorship of its creator and ruler, Andrew Ryan. Yes, this is Ryan's city - but with the sweat of your brow - and a copy of BioShock - Rapture can become your city as well."

Learning the story of Rapture is the driving force behind the game; the city was built to represent an ideal, a paradise; somewhere that 'the best and brightest' had the freedom to pursue their own achievements. Obviously this plan was flawed, as when the player explores it it is a hollow shell of it's former self. But the decor and remnants echoing back to it's former glory evoke a very unique, specific emotional response in the player - a strange mix of nostalgia and fear.


I haven't really played a wide range of games, so I can't really speak from my own experience, however the list linked above gives a great insight into how these cities are all significant in their story, not to mention very well designed and crafted. Examples include Half Life 2's City 17, which is a unique atmospheric blend of East European architecture and dystopian oppression.


A recent example would also be Dishonored's setting of the plague-infested Dunwall. Again heavily oppressed as a result of the disease, it is a sprawling labyrinth of grungy alleyways, dilapidated buildings and grimy underground paths.


Many settings are, in the game world, as iconic as Norman Bates' mansion or the Overlook Hotel, and similarly have psychological side-effects on the player and unique 'personalities' themselves.   

Cities and Film

This lecture explored the concept of the 'city' in Modernism and Post-modernism. It also investigated the idea of an urban sociology, the city as a public and private space, and the relation of the individual to the crowd in the city.

As this post is a write-up of notes rather than an actual essay, it lacks some 'flow' and detailed analysis.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Panopticism in "The Stanley Parable" and "Portal"

A really interesting example of a game that explores ideas of power, control and choice is The Stanley Parable, a mod based on the Source game engine. The mod was developed by 22-year-old Davey Wreden, who had never designed a game before, and has since been contacted by many developers, both professional and hobbyist following the mod's popularity. Not only does explore themes of panopticism, but it's wonderfully post-modern, frequently breaking the fourth wall, referring to the fact that it is a video game, and making a few interesting comments on video games themselves. The creator explains: “I wanted this to be kind of a slap to the face [to videogame developers], to say, ‘Hey, take a look at what you’ve been doing so far.’ I wanted to ask the question ‘Why are we doing this?’” (http://www.wired.com/gamelife/2011/08/the-stanley-parable/)



In the game you control Stanley who works a monotonous office job as employee #427, who spends all his days sat in his office pushing buttons with a monitor giving him directions on which buttons to push (already a direct reference to the act of playing PC games). Despite this he is quite content, up until one day he comes to realise that his building is completely empty.  

From the start of the game you are directed by an omniscient narrator with a pleasing English accent. As you are presented with choices in the game, he gives you directions on what is the correct route. The player is free to either follow or reject his directions, so there are a range of routes to take and endings to experience. I'd recommend watching the video below to experience the game in it's entirety (if you don't play it):


So Stanley is controlled by you, and you are controlled by the narrator (who may or may not just be a voice in Stanley's head, causing him to slowly go mad). The narrator is invisible - indeed Stanley is completely isolated - which gives an interesting conflict of whether or not you/he should be disciplined and follow the narrator's orders and do the right thing, and as a result 'win' the game, or fear the negative repercussions of disobeying the supervisor. The happy ending where you follow his orders doesn't answer any of the questions risen about where Stanley's coworkers are, and who the narrator is, which piques the player's curiosity into playing the game multiple times (with increasing skepticism towards the narrator's intentions) to find out what is really going on.

Constantly there is a very intriguing dynamic between the character, the player and the narrator which comments on the nature of playing games and obeying orders. For example, as he reaches a set of controls and monitors at some point in the game, Stanley is said to come to the realisation that he, like so many others that had been "reduced to images on a monitor, had been under someone's control, always at the mercy of this machine... a machine had altered his emotions to accept it blindly." This could place the player in the position of the panoptical supervisor, with Stanley being unaware of the effect this is having on his actions (and simultaneously this occurs between the narrator and player as well). Stanley has the opportunity to 'rise up against the oppressors' and win; if this happens, it is said that he "had seen power, he had seen enslavement, and he had destroyed it. The underling was in control now" ... "No more bosses, no more instructions on a screen, Stanley decides for himself now". Again, all can be taken to relate to how society nowadays is heavily controlled and supervised by invisible beings in power who we can't destroy.

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In many ways this game reminded me of the Portal series, but instead of a narrator the protagonist follows the directions of GLaDOS or Wheatley.


Similarly the protagonist is completely isolated save for her robotic companions (who often spend much of game as disembodied voices), and is presented with choices. In the first game she is essentially a test subject for GLaDOS's amusement, and the player follows GLaDOS' directions (and is continuously scrutinised by it) without much additional thought, with the only real goal being to complete the puzzles and get the reward (cake). As the game progresses, GLaDOS is revealed to be more and more sinister, until finally after failing to kill Chell, the player is able to gain access to the maintenance areas of the building and destroy it's hardware; the player goes from blindly following directions to questioning their mentor and discovering their sinister intent. GLaDOS panics and attempts to deter and mislead Chell, but it makes little difference now that she isn't following her instruction. 

The game again explores the relationship between the player and the 'guide' of the game, subverting the usual tropes and innovatively exploring gameplay itself.

Panopticism in this sense is interesting to consider, as all games require some kind of direction and control from both the player and a guide/tutorial in-game. The fact that newer games are finally starting to play upon this is a refreshing change in the scene. 

Panopticism

Panopticism can be loosely defined as a form of social control through institutions and institutional power. The theory was developed by Michael Foucault (1926-1984), one of the most important post-structuralist philosophers of the 20th century and author of many texts; these include Madness and Civilisation, in which amongst other topics he discusses how madness is not always a recognisable condition, and Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, which looks at the structures of prisons and forms of punishment. Foucault worked to deconstruct many of society's strict binaries, such as sane/insane, good/bad and heterosexual/homosexual.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Tutorials: Render Layers

So far I've only had experience of rendering from Maya on a single render layer. 
It's beneficial to use different layers as it allows a greater degree of control over the final look of the product. 

To practice this, we aimed to place additional assets (some alphabet blocks) in the bottom photograph as seamlessly as possible. 


Firstly we need a Colour Pass to capture the textures of the blocks. We created a new render layer and added the selected relevant geometry.


The blocks on the right are on a reflective surface, so we need a Reflection Pass on another render layer. By making the Blinn shader on the board as reflective as possible, we have maximum control over the level of reflectivity.


We only want the blocks to be casting shadows, though we need to add the table to the layer as that receives them. The shadow pass is an alpha layer, so we need to change the preset of this new render layer. To do this, we right click on it, then hit 'attributes' and click 'shadow' underneath the 'presets' menu.

When you render a frame, you can click to display the alpha channel to see the shadows.


Finally we create an occlusion layer, which creates a realistic 'self shadowing' effect. We add the blocks  to a new layer, and this time under the 'presets' menu we click 'occlusion'. Under the render settings, we need to right click Image Format and create a new layer override, in this case a JPEG, to take away the transparency so the image can be used as an overlay without creating any abrupt edges.

In After Effects, all the images and the back-plate are brought in and layered on a new composition. This is where it's clear to see the benefits of using render layers as you can tweak the colour without it effecting the shadows and vice-versa, change the level of reflectivity, and add occlusion without having to re-render any frames in Maya.

Tutorials: Blend Shapes

Although I missed the tutorial on blend shapes, I was interested in using them - they are necessary in creating organic animation and muscle movement. For example, when a mouth moves, the overall shape of the face and eyes move as well; they don't just remain static. Adding a blend shape to a rig means that you can recreate these kinds of effects.

My model isn't very complex, but I decided to add a simple blend shape to the body beneath the armour so that when he moves his arms, there is the suggestion of muscles tensing and relaxing.

To do this, I duplicated this part of his body, placing the geometry on a new layer.


On the duplicated geometry I used the soft select tool to move the vertices roughly where the muscle would be.


I then, in object mode, selected the altered footage and then the base model. Under Window > Animation Editors > Blend Shape, I clicked Create BlendShape under the Edit menu. 

A slider appears in the window which can be increased or decreased depending on how obvious the blend shape will be.


You can then delete the duplicated geometry or simply keep the layer hidden. 

Tutorials: Keylight

There were numerous tutorials over the course of this module to introduce us to the techniques we'd be using.

Firstly we learned how to key an actor filmed in front of a green screen using Keylight plugin, and about the different techniques you can use to refine the key.



After erasing the 'green' part of the image using the Screen Colour ink dropper, we used the Screen Pre-Blur attribute to smooth the edges slightly. We then changed the view to 'Screen Matte', which showed us something like below:



It's very important to ensure when keying that the actor is entirely opaque whilst everything around him is transparent. The upper image shows tones of grey, which indicates different levels of transparency. You can increase and decrease the Clip White and Clip Black attributes to achieve something like the bottom image, which makes for a clean key.

Colour spill from the green screen can be altered using the Replace Colour tool, and you can use different blend modes such as Hard Light and Soft Light depending on what the footage needs.

Additional refinements can be added to further tighten up the key, such as the Simple Choker under the Matte effects menu. A very slight amount should be enough to get the effect we want.

Finally, using the pen tool to create a mask around the actor omits unnecessary background elements. The key is then ready to be composited.


Filming

For our first filming session, we filmed the first part of the film which each person in our class will be working on. It was a great opportunity to experience what it would be like to work on an actual film set; we were all assigned specific roles - I was in charge of watching the camera monitor, logging shots and taking note of any discontinuity.

Although I enjoyed working on it at the time, I realised I didn't do a particularly good job as later on when checking the shots I realised we were missing a long, establishing shot of Luca with the camera out of it's case, meaning there was an abrupt jump to him holding the camera. Hopefully it won't be too noticeable in the final film.

Other roles included monitoring sound, holding the boom mic, assisting the director, generally supervising the area to make sure people won't wander through the set whilst filming, and acting.


For the abduction shot, we filmed the actor in front of a green screen, and then filmed the same shot without the actor or green screen to act as the back-plate. This meant we could show the actors running behind the actor while he is being abducted, and show an empty back-plate afterwards.



I always feel a little apprehensive about filming as I feel the process involves a lot of preparation, organisation, and help from many different people (depending on the scale), however it went surprisingly smoothly and I found myself enjoying it as the day went on, though I'll never not be embarrassed by curious onlookers.

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The footage for the second part of the film was shot entirely in a studio with a green screen. There were a few of us using Luca as an actor and working on the set on the day of the filming, and again we all helped out with different roles. This time round I generally assisted with the equipment, holding the boom, and directing my scenes. 



I do enjoy directing, although I tend to be a bit of perfectionist and get too caught up with ensuring I can get the right shot, even if it's not entirely possible. For example one of my shots was supposed to be a high-angled extreme long shot, establishing the area and it's scale. We couldn't use a crane, so we ended up bending health-and-safety rules a little to achieve this shot. In the end, it was far too shaky, and although I tried to use stabilising techniques in After Effects the keyed footage ended up looking very strange and floaty, so I ended up leaving it out.

I was hoping to experiment with lighting to achieve a very dark, rim-lit effect, but I wasn't sure how to do this without compromising the effectiveness of the green-screen. I used only one light to emphasise the shadows, and decided to make it more dramatic using post-production techniques.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Post-production in After Effects

After Effects could be described as a sort of 'Photoshop for video'. Although this is the first time I've used it for this purpose, there are many elements of the interface that I recognise from my experience with Photoshop, so it wasn't too daunting.

I imported my green-screen footage into a new project, and used the Keylight plugin to key out the actor, ready to be comped with other layers. Keylight is very simple to use and it was possible to get good results with only a few tweaks of the settings, such as the clip black and white under 'screen matte'. I then used the pen tool to create a 'garbage matte' that omits any parts of the video that aren't needed.

With my keyed footage ready to be comped, I took some rendered shots of the interior of my spaceship for backplate images.

To make the actor appear to fit his surroundings more, I firstly used 'Tint', a tool that lets you select colours you wish to act as 'black' and 'white' in the video - in this case I used the eyedropper to take a dark and light blue from the rendered backplate. I then lowered the opacity until it was noticeable but not too blue.

I also tweaked the brightness, contrast and saturation to give a more 'cinematic' feel. I heightened the brightness and contrast to make the shadows more dynamic and desaturated the colours slightly to fit the overall mysterious mood of the film.

Finally I added an overlay with a slight gradient to the whole film to emphasise the shadows and highlights and pull the image together more, and added in a hand-painted mist effect (a painting done in Photoshop and added as a low-opacity layer).

Here's a quick look at the process:


The lighting conditions when I filmed the green-screen footage weren't the best - I only used one light to try and create the dark, lit-from-only-one-side look, but this meant the green screen wasn't lit properly and a lot of green tones reflected onto the actor.  This is particularly noticeable on the final shot. I did alter the midtones, shadows and highlights using the colour balance tool, but I still don't think it looks quite right, particularly around on the hair. I could probably fix this with more masked colour correcting effects, but I need to move on and start looking at the sound of my film.


I used lens flare to emulate the camera flash, and in the side shot I added a triangular-shaped solid with the layer set to 'screen'. I don't think it looks realistic at all (lens flare in particular has a tendency to look a bit tacky) but I really wasn't sure of an alternate approach. 


I used similar colour correcting on the outdoor footage. When adding the spaceship to behind the buildings I thought it looked too flat, so I added a misty effect that I found whilst searching for stock visual effects between the building plate and the ship. 

I struggled to find good-quality visual effects for free - the misty one is obviously some sort of dry ice machine and it's very noticeable in some of the outdoor shots, but I'm going to have to leave it.


I really wasn't sure how to go about the abduction shot; I couldn't really think of a method of abduction that would suit my alien, considering he and his environment are more stony and organic rather than technological. I ended up just experimenting with some of the preset effects, in this case 'CC Light Burst' and 'CC Light Rays'. I tried adding in a scatter effect as well, but it ended up spreading too far due the light and looked strange and confetti-like, so I didn't use it. 

The shot that I probably edited the most was the shot of the alien, as it had to look as if it was through the perspective of the camera. I created a quick camera interface in Photoshop, added noise, and darkened the animation significantly to make it all appear quite hazy and indistinct until the flash reaches the alien. 

I also added the 'wiggler' effect onto the composition to create a shaky, hand-held camera effect that sets it apart from the rest of the film.