Sunday, November 30, 2008

A small lighting challenge

I thought I'd share a challenge that I'm giving my Animation I students in class tomorrow. Inspired by a similar exercise I was given back at Pixar University, the task here is to take the starting scene file and light the scene to match the target image. No shader changes allowed!

The target image isn't anything fancy, but matching it does require one to be comfortable with some very important basics of digital lighting. I'm thinking in particular of three-point light setup, using light linking (or whatever your software calls it) to direct lights to shine on only certain objects, creating soft shadows, making lights cast specular independently of diffuse light, and a few other things I'll keep quiet until the exercise is over.

The starting image (i.e., if you poke render after opening the scene file):

The target image:

The starting scene file can be found on my course website.

Please try it yourself if you're curious. Post your results and discoveries, too.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

white noise podcast II

Need free soothing sounds for crying baby (or babies)?

Sleepless parents, we are back.

Here you will find an hour of computer vent fan noise, lovingly recorded* and looped by me to soothe your child. Or yourselves. Or your Thanksgiving guests.

This has NOT been tested on any children at my house, but it's hopefully a nice alternative to complement the vent fan noise from my last podcast post.

The 82 Megabyte MP3 file can be found here.

Please let me know if you find these useful, curious, or just plain weird. Any suggestions for future recordings?

* confession: Lovingly, yes, but it was a quick-and-dirty recording. If it isn't up to your standards for quality, apologies.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Today's mail, and some Catch background

The TriggerStreet prize for Catch came today, and it is a lovely modern little thing. Compact. Solid. Heavy. Here it is next to the Sevincer prize I mentioned a few days back:

I love the contrast. Two prizes as different as the festivals themselves. And they're both great.

The TS recognition has me thinking about Catch again for the first time in a while. So I thought I'd share some of the film's history while I still remember this stuff.

Did you know? I made the original model of the girl's head in Sculpey on top of a Corona bottle:

I never really thought about preserving the sculpt, yet it's still mostly intact. She's hardened up and has lost half of her hair, but she's still sitting atop that bottle.

The tree was based on an awesome gnarly (as in, gnarled) tree I drove by in Amherst:

The squiggly line treatment that outlines her during the second half of the film was done in the following, rather involved way: Once the shots were animated in Maya, I rendered a high-contrast version in black and white in addition to the colored pass that you may recognize from the film. Then, I printed out the high-con images frame by frame, flipped them over and traced her outlines in pencil on the back of the sheets. Chris and Dan helped immeasurably with this work! Then, I scanned the drawings back in and composited them on top of the color pass.

Here are images from each of those steps:
The high-contrast output from Maya.

The pencil, re-scanned in (but not yet registered).

The "paint" pass (for the character).

The final composite frame.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

What's up with CS 286, Animating Fast?

Pre-registration for spring courses is now well underway at Hampshire. I was hoping I could spend January focusing on the syllabus for my new class, Animating Fast, but the pre-reg flood of questions has forced me to begin sooner.

This post offers information for potential students of Animating Fast that I fear was either missing from (or ambiguous in) the posted course description:
The tools and techniques of three-dimensional computer graphics (CG) have supposedly ushered in a new era of animated filmmaking. However, computer animation remains prohibitively slow (and therefore expensive) compared to its real-world counterparts of film and video. As a result, instead of seeing an incredible variety of CG features, the last decade has provided essentially only two types: the high-budget visual effects blockbuster and the high-budget children's movie. Why? Is it really impossible to make computer animated films quickly and cheaply? In addition to answering these questions, this course seeks to identify, develop, and use tools and techniques that provide order-of-magnitude efficiency gains in computer animation. Topics covered will include machinima, various forms of performance and motion capture, interactive digital sculpting, machine-assisted proceduralism, and others. Prerequisite: one or more courses in computer animation, computer science, and/or electrical engineering. This course satisfies Division I distribution requirements. PRJ, EXP


The course WILL focus on 3D computer animation. That is, we won't be studying 2D cel animation, Flash animation, claymation, etc., except for how they might inform our investigations into doing 3d computer animation more efficiently.


My goal for this course is to assemble a group of focused, motivated students who share a common interest in "debugging" the current practices of the computer animation industry. In fact, the techniques I teach in my own animation curriculum are exactly those that we will put under the microscope.

This is not the class for a student looking to learn more about computer animation. It is expected that if you come to the class as a student of computer animation, you will have substantial animation production experience behind you. In other words, you will already be a mature computer animator. You will have a fairly solid generalist's understanding of production, and you will know how and why it is "hard."

I am also teaching Computer Animation II this spring. Many students are seeking to take both Animation II and Animating Fast. Except for very few exceptions, I think that being enrolled in both courses is a mistake. Take Animation II first (and/or come talk with me about your case in particular).

The class will involve a substantial amount of group work and will rely on engaged discussions (that's why it's happening in the afternoon). If you are not comfortable participating in discussions, this is probably not the right class for you.

I will not be lecturing about the topics I list in the description, instead, we will build our reading list as we go based on the results of our conversations and investigations.

Some of you caught on to my use of "machinima" in the description. I'll tell you now, this will not be a machinima production course. Yes we may study some of the ideas and practices of machinima, but it will likely end there.

I seek to mix engineers and artists together. If you don't have a strong track record of working well with others, this isn't the class for you.

If you come to the class from the engineering side, it would be great if you also had some background in computer graphics and/or animation. If not, then it's even more important for you to be a very competent and independent programmer who can comfortably work with new languages and systems as necessary.


The jumping off point for the class is the aforementioned collection of animated features for kids and visual effects blockbusters. We will use our knowledge of them, along with other films we unearth, to define the visual and narrative space of the medium as it stands today. We will then use our understanding of the industry pipeline to identify all the places where we could increase efficiency within that space. Finally, we will collaboratively and creatively innovate to directly address some of the inefficiencies.

For me, the most exciting part of this class lies in the previous sentence. I want artists and engineers to be putting their heads together in the service of something that would seem impossible given the time and/or resources we have available. For example, "animate 60 seconds of a naturalistic 3D character (with lip sync) in one evening." Yikes, right!? Yes. WHY does this seem like an impossibility to many of you? WHAT makes it currently impossible (or not)? Could we do this if we were to throw away our existing 3D production pipeline and make a new one? That might be exactly what we have to do.


I think you can't make an informed decision about this class unless you know what we're going to do and what will be expected of you. Hence this missive.

More people signed up than I thought would sign up, and I honestly don't see the qualities I write about here in everyone who did sign up. This course will fail if people walk in expecting to be spoon-fed information, it will fail if people expect to work in their own little holes, it will fail if people don't come in energized to explore, discuss, identify, experiment, collaborate, create, and solve.

Please consider all the above and re-assess your participation in the class. Anyone interested in discussing their possible enrollment with me is encouraged to do so! The sooner the better.

Friday, November 7, 2008

An accolade for Catch

It was well worth the wait. A year and a half after announced Catch as a finalist in their (now called) 2008 Short Film Festival, they announced the winner, a great little documentary named Parallels.

It surprised me to find that unlike the last festival, they added a first runner-up award. I learned that Catch took this one when I got a simple email from the TriggerStreet operations team with the subject line of "Congratulations!"

Upon hearing about this, my son smiled and proudly bellowed out, "you got second place again!!" He was referring to last year's 2007 Sevincer Animation Festival in Brattleboro, Vermont, in which Catch received the Sevincer Prize. I really need to post a picture of the trophy (by Cynthia Houghton) because it was the coolest trophy I ever received. I haven't received the TriggerStreet award yet, but in all honesty Cynthia's prize will be hard to beat.

Anyway, I think it's interesting that a site like TriggerStreet, primarily populated by narrative fictional live-action short films, has once again awarded its highest honor to a documentary (another Canadian documentary at that). I also feel a great sense of pride (wow, it's been a prideful week) at having our films be the only animated films that made it to the "festival nominee" phase in TriggerStreet's history.

"Our" films: yes, it's too easy to give all the credit for a film like Catch to the person whose name appears in these articles and on the awards. So thanks again to Evan, Chris, Dave, Dan, and Ryan for their work on this project.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A digression on pride

I was proud of my country today, for the first time in my life.

I have always admired the founding documents and the values on which this country was built. I have always known I was lucky to be American. But for 38 years I have often felt apologetic for my country, embarrassed by it, sad for it. When I've felt surges of hope, they've been dismissed almost instantaneously, followed by the scary realization that more than half of the population of "my" country (or at least of the voting population) has shockingly different values than I have:

My "fellow Americans" admire chumminess over intelligence, gut over careful thought. They would rather listen to 2000-year old testimonies of hearsay than hear what's going on in front of them right now. They believe a lifetime of suffering for others is not only tolerable but inevitable for the success and comfort of the lucky. They believe in breaking up families and denying children loving parents if those parents don't have the proper mix of genders.

I was born after the moon landing, after Martin Luther King Jr., after Jackie Robinson, after the allied defeat of the Nazis. Instead of heroes and major events of national import, I have lived to witness 9/11, the Challenger disaster, the Iraq war, steroids in baseball, the rapid ruin of the planet from our over-consumption and blind burning of fossil fuels. I've seen a major economic collapse. There's been genocide in Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur without significant American involvement. American successes have been driven by greed and capitalistic forces during my lifetime instead of a desire for better lives for everyone.

I was very proud of my state of Massachusetts in 2004 when it claimed that allowing only heterosexual couples to marry was unconstitutional. I am excited by Al Gore's 10 year challenge to "Repower America" from July of this year. If we can actually get there, I hope to be celebrating the accomplishment with my (then) teenage son and daughter.

Today, however, the whole country spoke loudly with a voice that, finally, sounds a little bit like my own. A voice filled with hope, eager to pursue real challenges in order to benefit more than just a handful of citizens. Today we are a country that wants to lead by example, not by waving a fist. We elected a man for president who could have been another man's property in this country until 1865 and couldn't legally vote until 1868.

Laws alone don't do it, though. Racism didn't just go away because there was a new amendment. Like unfavorable genetic traits, the ignorant, harmful, dangerous ideas of the past must be bred out of the population. Barack Obama in the (formerly!) White House is so much more powerful than a law on paper, it is a demonstration, an example. After all, it's harder to justify a racist rhetoric to your children when the elected leader of the country is black! This isn't the choice of a few lawmakers in Washington, this is the voice of millions of people.

I want us to ride this wave. I want to see other things in my lifetime come from the focused efforts of like-minded Americans. I want to see us give health care to everyone. To beat cancer. I want us to figure out a sustainable way to feed the population good, healthy food. Our national goals should exist on a plane separate from capitalism. I am eager to direct my tax dollars and time towards matters of great import, and I'm damn happy the country spoke as it did today.

I'm proud of my country.