Saturday, April 30, 2005

Post-Post Mortem

This won't make it into my documentation, but here's the list of tweaks to make to this thing after it's all over:

  • Add slight wiggle to tubes every time papers go in or out
  • Smooth out music cues and levels

Thursday, April 21, 2005

That's All He Wrote

Wish I could say I'm done, but my documentation has to be turned in first, and I'll be working on this thing right up until 5pm on May 2nd, when they pry the still-warm DVD from my RSI-stricken hands. So my journal journey ends here. The real ending has yet to be written...

See you on the other side.

Monday, April 18, 2005

The Ears Have It

I'm so glad I added ear controls to these characters -- partly because they're just fun to animate, but they also give another opportunity to add some subtleties to expressions. I'm generally posing them based on dog behavior, and how dogs (and some other animals) broadcast their emotions through their ears -- up generally indicates alertness, interest or confident aggression; down indicates sadness or passivity; forward indicates attentiveness, and back is disinterest or passive aggression. I'm keeping these moves fairly small so that they only get noticed unconsciously, if they get noticed at all. But I think these cues help give an extra recognizable oomph to certain poses -- even to viewers who aren't fluent in dog.

On the progess front, I've gotten about 1/3 of the shots finaled and rendered in the last week, and have two weeks to go. Looks like I'll get done on time, though some shots will be more polished than others.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Coming up fast

There's a good chance there won't be too many more of these journal entries, as there's less than 3 weeks to go, and a lot of animation left to be done. Occasionally I have a few minutes to myself during test renders, like now, but that's about it. So right now every minute counts.

Prognosis: too close to call.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Current Issues

Tubes are looking funky in some renders -- old bump map? May need to re-render some shots.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Blah Blah Blah - Another Test Post

I just moved a vertex. Now I'm splitting an edge. Now I'm boiling my head in canola oil. Now I'm splitting the atom. Now I'm watching a test render. Now I'm going to sleep.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Papa's Got a Brand New Bag

I've been feeling a bit conflicted in the days leading up to and following my second panel review. By the terms of what we were supposed to present documentation-wise, I was not well prepared. I would have been fine with an incomplete, since I need to finish my documentation anyway (I'm putting final touches on tonight). But Mike and Misha felt that the incomplete wouldn't really help me in the process, which was a generous but uneccessary gesture. I don't think I could feel any more stress at this point -- at some point last week I think I transcended my stress level to achieve a level of "it-is-what-it-is"-ness. Either that, or I'm in the eye of the hurricane, and the winds are a-knockin' at my door.

The ambivalence is partly because so many classmates have started working professionally recently, either because their thesises (thesii?) are more or less finished, or because they felt that school was leading up to this anyway, so why wait. And while I deliberately chose a thesis that I cared about, and still want to see it done well, I'm starting to look at life after thesis, as well as occasionally at my credit card bills.

Long and short of it is, I sent my reel out to Brand New School, a small-ish commercial house in Little Italy, and they've brought me in as a freelancer for three days a week. What this means for my project remains to be seen, but it certainly lights a fire under my... Well, no sleep for me tonight!

Saturday, April 09, 2005

This is a test

This is how journal entries will look in the final documentation.

Monday, April 04, 2005

I'm a Geek, Part 10

OK, now my render pipeline is really done. Really.

Once I got my matte and dirt passes all set -- each of which had further things to work out which I don't need to get into -- I moved on to the depth pass. And found that I was not happy w/available depth shaders for Maya -- b/c I want to be able to pull focus in a few shots, and be specific about the DOF and so forth. Someone has written a nice shader for Mental Ray to accomplish this, but as I'm using this as a blur pass as well, I needed something that worked in Maya Software.

So I made one.

A pretty nice one, too: It's controlled by a curve, the position of which represents the camera's focal point in the scene. The curve also has attributes for specifying the overall min and max depth range, and an "F-Stop" attribute for controlling how wide the DOF is. It doesn't correspond mathematically to a real f-stop, but it's a natural way for me to think of it so I scaled it to work more or less appropriately at values like 5.6, 1.4 and 22. It also has an attribute to control the falloff from the focal point to the edges. All of the attributes, including the position of the curve, are keyable.

Then to go with it, yet another MEL script that gets executed at render time that hooks up that curve to whatever camera is being used to render the scene, so that the distance is calculated from that camera, rather than some other point in space. I guess if I wanted it to be really accurate, I could have it grouped under the camera node so that the camera maintains manual focus when it moves, as opposed to "autofocus." But not right now.

So when in a month from now, I'm wondering why I'm still scrambling to finish animation -- I can read these last few posts and know why.

But hey, I want it to look good, too. And who knows, even though I keep thinking I wouldn't want to do this scripting/pipeline/rigging stuff professionally, I seem to spend a suspicious amount of time on it.

Thursday, March 31, 2005

I am a geek

Just spent a few hours making my Excel batch file generator work. I hope that turns out to be time well spent.

It oughta be. Even though I've come to my senses since the last post and realized I don't really feel like setting up 7+ render passes, there's still a few to deal with. Specifically, four:


Pretty much same as before, except I'm not breaking out foreground and background because I don't need to composite them separately, and it doesn't save any on render time. Rather than try to render backgrounds in advance, I'll just render everything, and re-render if animation changes.

The third one is somewhat new -- it assigns an R,G or B surface shader to any shading groups that are tagged with a custom attribute. I can then pull those channels out in compositing to isolate materials that aren't behaving well in the workflow.

Setting up all those renders would be a royal pain, hence the Excel batch file generator. It's linked directly into my shotlist and derives all the frame counts and camera names from there. I created a grid so I can check off which scenes should render, and which passes I need, plus a manual override for start/end times. All that gets fed straight into another worksheet that formats it all as a batch file.

Then all I have to do is copy and paste, and run it. Sweet!

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Game Set and Matte

Solved one more compositing/rendering issue just now, though of course it will raise its own issues...

The problem was that I really liked the dirtmap compositing technique I came up with for this project, and it's a huge part of the overall look. But the problem is that certain textures can't be composited the same way -- they get bleached out and ugly. I tried to compensate for this by adjusting the textures in Maya, but no matter how dark I made them, when the dirtmap gets overlaid they just didn't look right.

So I needed to come up with a way to easily isolate elements in the scene in such a way that I could individually pick them out in compositing and adjust them accordingly.

So that's what I did. In a variation of my dirtmap script, which applies the dirtmap to all shading groups at render time, I created an "idMatte" script for a separate matte pass. It goes through all the shading groups looking for a custom flag, and if it finds the flag it applies a surface shader with solid red, green or blue based on the value of the flag. If the flag doesn't exist, it applies a black hole matte material. In compositing, I can then use the RGB channels from that file to create 3 separate mattes for color correcting the materials in question.

This is a perfect solution, since there are only 3 materials that need adjustment -- the tubes, the characters' hair, and pupils. The only place I have to watch out is when both characters are in one shot, in which case I'll have to manually split the matte so they each get their own hair/eye treatments.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Advisee Meeting

Major points:

By FRIDAY, must:
Identify 2-4 scenes that can be final animated now
Final the render pipeline -- and know how average render time per frame
Start rendering

By MONDAY, must:
Have those scenes finaled

And then:

Render those scenes!!!

Also, remember that final documentation -- printed and everything -- is due THURSDAY APRIL 28.

All deadlines are 5pm. :)

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Could it be... good news?

Yay, something worked!

How low my expectations have become.

But seriously, this is good. I've devoted this weekend to hammering out various little issues that have to be dealt with, and one big one is automating my render workflow. I've known for a while now that I'm going to be rendering this this out in passes -- 1) a background color pass to start next week, and 2) a character/prop color pass as each scene gets finaled in animation. Unfortunately, since there are a few reflective surfaces in the scene (primarily the table) and soft shadows, I'll need to revisit the backgrounds with 3) a reflection/shadow pass after animation.

But in addition to that, the compositing techniques I've come up with necessitate a few more: 4) a dirtmap pass, which is a key part of the overall look of this piece, and 5) a depth/blur pass, to give me better control at compositing time and to add depth of field effects. Each of these two passes involve dropping a specific shader on every single object in the scene and re-rendering. Which means it has to be done for both the 6) background and 7) character/props.

So when you add that all up, 40 shots times 7 passes equals... a lot. I'm not as concerned about the impact on render time, as the depth and dirtmap passes render very quickly. But going through and replacing all those shaders by hand for each pass, or saving out multiple versions of each scene and keeping them synced up with any changes? Bleccch.

Scripting to the rescue! I've written a quickie MEL script that will go through an entire scene and replace every objects shader with another one. Best of all, using a batch file it can be executed only at render time, so it makes no permanent changes to the scene.

And it works!

Combine that with some other batch file trickery I've done, including using Excel to generate batch files straight from my shot list, and queuing up all those render passes should be much, much easier. Of course, it won't prevent all the last minute scramblings and re-renders, etc. But it helps a lot.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

38 Days, 11 Hours, 23 Minutes...

...until I have to turn in my thesis, or so the timer I installed on my desktop tells me. Is that a bad idea?

This is going to be the toughest 38 days of my life, I think. Mounting pressures of post-grad opportunities and polishing my reel have all but halted my progress on this project. There's no two ways about it -- I'm way behind where I should be. All I can do at this point is keep ploughing ahead, knowing that I'll get it done, somehow.

The plan now: finish the damn blocking, lock down every camera and work out the entire piece to the frame. I'd like more flexibility, but I need to give Loren a frame-accurate version to score, and I'm determined to get that to him on Friday.

In addition to the huge amount of animation to be done, I'm looking at a ton of little loose ends that all had to be dealt with "at some point," and I'm all out of some points. So I've made a list of all of these that include little details left over from the earlier stages of the pipeline, and this weekend I'm going to hammer on them until I'm done. At that point, I can start rendering all the background stuff so I can figure out how big a problem that will be, and meanwhile animate my ass off.

Worked out one detail of how to animate the tube in all the later shots -- yet another rig, but at least this one's easy. Create a straight joint chain up the middle of the tube, with the root at the bottom. Create an IK Spline from the root to the base. At that point, pulling the controls by the root of the curve will slide the entire tube down, and flex it however I want. I'll probably just use straight out clusters to control it, though I guess for the shot where it's swinging loose I could create a dynamic curve.... yeah, right.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Congratulations, Dr. Mazia!

My fiancee successfully defended her doctoral dissertation today and earned her Ph.D. in clinical psychology -- her schoolin' days are over. Yippee!

It's worth noting this in my journal, since her process leading up to her culminating academic project has definitely impacted mine -- whether commisserating over the various trials and tribulations we were each going through, or annoying the hell out of each other because we've each only been able to talk about one thing for the last X years. But now, I get to be the only one who's stressed out and crazy for a few weeks.

Actually, seeing her complete something that seemed so daunting (400 pages or so) has given me new inspiration for completing this project. Despite my sense of mounting panic as March melts away, leaving only an oily residue on the curb, I'm feeling simultanesouly overwhelmed and excited. I know that one way or another, I'll get this done.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Next Year in Boston

So much for SIGGRAPH 2005... the deadline for submissions was yesterday. It was a tough blow -- since I volunteered to help the jury during deliberations last year, I've had my sights set on this festival, determined to make the deadline and try to use everything I know to get a piece in the show. I guess I felt like it would be a way for me to come out of the gates as a filmmaker, rather than as "just" an animator. I've been trying to shed that whole "vague generalist" feeling since I started at CADA -- in fact, the main reason I'm in grad school to begin with is my determination to pick a decisive track as a short term goal and get there. Right now I want to jump into a job as an animator, not float around as an independent artist, at least until finances get back under control. But there's still that feeling of ownership over the entire process, not just the animation aspect.

On the positive side, Misha submitted Steamed, so I still have a film in for consideration. I don't have real high hopes for it, but hey, you never know. It may do well in the separate student competition -- and maybe I can get In Out done by that deadline.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Fixing the face

Finally took 5 minutes to identify a bug on the face controls that's been bugging me ever since I started blocking. The left eyebrow expressive control was behaving differently, all because one of the interpolation curves in one of the node utilities was incorrectly remapping the values.

That doesn't make any sense to me either. Good thing I documented this rig...

In case it comes up again: the node in question was L_BrowExp_Xremapper.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Review Notes

...from meeting with Misha today:

shot 09 -- lose the moving camera. In general, remember what the camera movement conveys -- a moving camera may add interest, but a static camera can build tension. And if the character is already moving a lot, and that's the focus, then the moving camera detracts more than adds.

shot 11 -- may be able to cut. Too bad it's an easy shot.

My notes:

shot 12 -- old another second

shot 17 -- the initial stabbing of calculator is funny, but take down the later ones so they have less anticipation, become these tense little movements. Will also help to sell losing grip on pencil.

shot 21 -- add 5 frames pause before ollie gets the pencil. Make his grip disdainful, like he's picking up a pencil-shaped turd.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Forward March

I've been watching my carefully constructed thesis schedule gradually crumble away... The main problem is that it was predicated on this beautiful idea that all I would have to do this term would be thesis, and I could devote every single day to it. But of course, it never works that way.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Misc TTD

Reset face script doesn't affect eye stretchiness

reset body doesn't affect necktie

Facial ctrl panel doesn't hook up to ollie -- and in same scene they sit on top of each other
same with FK/IK,

-- probably b/c ollie_301 hasn't been updated w/new scripts

FK/IK seems to break w/keyframes -- character set issue?

Stan's eyebrow moves wrong on one side

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Notes from First Panel Review

First of all, I passed. Hooray!

Important process notes:

Make sure storyboards are better organized for next review -- readable, in order, no sideways crap, no outdated material

For documentation, expand on the specifics of movie references -- what I'm taking from this or that, specifically how it's influenced this project.

Bring 2D animatic, too.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Workflow TTDs

I need a place to keep a list of workflow ideas that I may want to implement further down the road. So what better place than the journal? Note to self: make this a sticky post on the blog.

Script Node -- Execute on Software Render

Maybe create a script on the character & office that automatically sets the smoothing levels, hides proxy geometry, etc. so I don't run into a lot of screwed up renders.

More Hotkeys -- DONE

Set up keys for Playblast scripts, and also for ieWorldSnap and ieWorldOrient -- useful when animating too.

Motion Vectors

This is a definite one -- build into the render queue a depth pass that also incorporates motion vectors for applying 2D blur in a post process.

Continuity Check

This one's important -- there have been a bunch of scene-specific changes to the setup that have to be checked over close during the next animation pass and before rendering -- things like whether Stan's pencil should be hidden, or where those final pieces of paper are, or aren't.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

"Look All Around, Nothing But..."

So what happened this past week? Mainly, emotional drama. I hadn't expected the job world to intrude so early into the process, but one of my fellow students just landed a job as a junior animator at a leading CG film studio. No surprises, he's really good, but I just didn't expect that stuff to start already and it threw me for a loop.

He really saw school as a springboard, and everything he did was geared towards getting that job. He blew off other classes to focus on his animation, and he chose his thesis based on what would best showcase his talents. It's made me look at my own priorities, and think about what route I've chosen here. I know what it takes to get that job, and I understand the need to focus, but I still devoted time to the group project from last term, and I still picked a thesis based on the story. Is this going to take me where I want to go? And where is that, again?

On the plus side, it kicked my ass into getting my reel updated, which will make the job hunt easier as more of these opportunities present themselves throughout this term.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

It's a Blur

When working on our bauhuas project Steamed, we were having some issues with the way Maya handles motion blur (as has every Maya user at one time or another). I noticed the "keep motion vectors" option in 2D blur, had a cool idea for our production pipeline -- we would render everything without motion blur, then do a second pass where we re-rendered the same scenes but with all surface shaders, no lighting, and keep motion vectors. Finally, we would use the motion data from the blur pass and apply it to our high-quality renders. This way we would also have the flexibility to adjust the blur on a scene by scene basis.

This seemed like a wonderful idea at the time, until we hit a snag -- I couldn't get it to work, and from the Maya documentation it didn't seem possible. The blur2d tool that Maya provides for this process, besides having boneheaded file naming constraints, did not seem to provide this feature. Additionally, we ended up in such a time crunch on that project that there was no way we could go back through and fine-tune blur shot-by-shot. So we abandonded that approach.

Well, I was just trolling CG talk and discovered I was right -- you can indeed render a fast, untextured version of your scene w/Maya software to store the motion vectors, and then apply them to another file -- like a high-res one, or even one rendered in Mental Ray... :)

The reason why I doubted it could work -- turns out you need to use command-line flags that are undocumented in the Maya help files. They also aren't listed in the flags you get from calling "blur2d -help". Typical.

I'll test this out this week, as if it works I'm going to make it part of my thesis pipeline. I also want to hook Marty Geren up with it for his thesis, as his 12 hour-per-frame renders don't have motion blur, and rerendering them would be prohibitive.

Only things to note:

1) It's 2D blur, not 3D -- but I think it generally looks as good or better, and definitely better than a generic blur applied in post.

2) Applying it will be a klugey process -- though if it works then I'll script it and am happy to share the fruits of my labors...

Monday, February 07, 2005

Notes from Rigging Hell

Some things I learned this week against my will:

1) You can never over-estimate the time you think rigging will take, even if you're really good at it, even if you enjoy it, even if you've rigged a bunch of characters before. It doesn't matter. It always, always, always takes longer.

2) Many talented riggers out there post tutorials and provide insightful comments. They are not always right.

3) Sometimes the thing you think was broken is actually fine -- but something else is broken, and it's something you'll never suspect.

4) Putting extra joints into your rig to improve deformations -- good. Maya's handling of rotate orders once you start doing that -- bad!

At some point I'm going to have to drop a thank-you e-mail to Dave Walden, a rigger at Blue Sky who I have not yet met or ever communicated with, but whose skinning tools and posts on CG talk have helped out a ton this week -- as well as his awesome character demo on his website that inspired me to put squashy eyes back onto my list of must-haves.

Meanwhile, I am definitely off-schedule, and have been working 16-20 hour days to rectify the situation. I'm hoping to be caught up by next week -- just in time for my FIRST PANEL REVIEW.

Also, while I'm on the rigging topic, a technical note for myself -- I noticed Maya wasn't updating its nodes properly and was screwing up the rotations in my characters wrists. The symptoms were the wrist not updating its position from the control skeleton when rotation values were being typed into the channel box -- but using the rotate controller or flipping IK/FK would force it to re-evaluate. I solved this by deleting the direct connection between the control wrist and the skinning wrist, and constraining it with an Orient Constraint instead. This forces the wrist to maintain the appropriate position. Remember this in case the same thing starts happening to the other arm joints.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Frigging Rigging

I'm no longer a fan of rigging, having spent the better part of a week struggling with trying to integrate an automated clavicle into my FK/IK arm setup. Meanwhile, my own personal rig seems to have some issues, as the entire left side of my back has been killing me for the last two days. I'm definitely thinking that while I could probably be a good rigger professionally, it would probably drive me nuts. Though if I don't get animating soon, it may be my only option.

On a positive note, I spent some time fooling with Photoshop and combined composite layers in various combinations, until I arrived at this:

I really like this look -- feel like it imparts a mood, gets some color in there while still having a slightly surreal quality, solid-feeling. I think a little judicious lighting and this could be it. More on that over the weekend. Right now, I've still got a crick in my back. And my clavicle.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Riggin' awesome

I can't decide on whether I'm having fun rigging this character, or whether I'm just getting obsessive. Probably some of both. But I am very excited to say that I've completed the facial rig setup today, and I'm happy with the results.

This is definitely my most complex facial rig so far, esp. considering there's no mouth on this guy. The whole thing is joints and directly connected nodes -- no expressions, and no blend shapes. Apart from the one seen here, which morphs from Stan (young) into Ollie (old).

But since part of the point is to express everything through the eyes, it should hopefully pay off down the line. I've tried to give them as broad a range as possible, though I'm not sure if they can necessarily express every possible subtlety of human expression without a mouth.

(good-natured skepticism, or seductive confidence?)

However, this story generally centers around a few major emotions, namely boredom, astonishment, anger, hostility, and brief happiness. All of which I think these characters can handle admirably. (Screenshots of each TK)

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Stage 1: We have lift-off

Made it through my thesis treatment review today -- the next official stop on the road to Masters-town. Wait, that's like three travel metaphors in two sentences. Good thing I'm not getting an English degree. Then again, too bad I already have one.

I felt pretty confident about the review, because I've been living with this concept for a long time and am completely at home with it. Plus I'm far enough ahead at this stage to justify the scope of my project -- although compared to where I'd like to be, I'm a bit behind. But regardless, it's nice to have that first part done, especially now that I've discovered it wasn't a forgone conclusion for everyone. A lot of people seem to have run into some snags getting approved -- but I'm sure it'll work out in the long run. Despite the fact that the academic/theoretical aspects of the thesis process can be frustrating, I do believe that it's important to understand what you're doing, and why you're doing it -- beyond "it's a love story between a waffle and a pancake, and I'm doing it to get a job." I know in the industry you can't always pick and choose your projects, but I really hope to be working on something I can be proud of. And that's how I'm approaching this project.

The review process doesn't really worry me too much, because I'm fairly confident in what I'm doing. Ultimately, I'm doing this for myself, and I'm going to be much harsher on myself than the faculty will. At the end of the day, I have to answer to myself, and that's scarier than any thesis panel could be.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Thesis Group Meeting

Group thesis meeting with Misha today. Notes:

For first panel review, schedule w/Misha in the room.
For second -- Misha's usually not there.

Final panel review: five voting people. Misha + two faculty + two industry.

The paper at the end should probably be more academic -- keep the subjective stuff more in here.

Remember -- the toughest part of the treatment review for me will probably be to convince Rob and Cushny, without too much of a fight, that I can get this done based on 1. Where I'm at, and 2. My plan.
More detailed schedule.
3D animatic.
Rig test.
Model turntable.
Pretty much everything.
Hudsucker/Brazil images would probably serve as good styleframes.

May need a plan B: the version where it ends before the big paperfight. That will seriously mess up the music, though -- it's got to be a last resort for graduation.

Rendering -- at 5 minutes a frame, would be 375 hours (over two weeks of 24 hr rendering). Basically, anything over 2 minutes a frame starts to get scary.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Thrills, Chills and Spills (musn't think about bills)

Feeling a potent combination of excitement, anticipation and a certain holy-hell-what-have-I-gotten-myself-into today.

Working on facial rig today, and while I've been scribbling a lot of notes down as I work, figured I'd take a few here since they'd be easier to find than in our apartment.


After revisiting work from earlier in the term, I couldn't remember all the intricacies of the facial rig I devised. So I went back through it and diagrammed it. WILL LINK HERE.

As for how the high level controls will function -- each eyebrow will be controlled by three sliders that can move in X and Y, a la Jason Osipa's Stop Staring. Unlike in his book though, I'm doing all the connections with nodes (well, that and there's no blend shapes here, just joints. And the control panel I've set up, that's new. Actually, I just took the slider idea, which is fantastic.)

Slider 1: Brow_Main (ranges from 0,-1 to 1,1)

Y direction raises and lowers the upper brow, multiplies with Slider 2. (equivalent muscle: frontalis)
X direction squeezes brows in (equivalent muscle: corrugator)

Slider 2: Brow_Exp (-1,-1 to 1,1)

Used in tandem with slider 1, it multiplies the up-down action of the brows while restricting it to specific locations along the browline.

Y raises and lowers individual parts of the upper brow.
X determines which part of brow is raised by Y, from inner (between eyes) to outer.

Slider 3: Brow_Lower (-1,0 to 1,1)

This one is fun, since it's a quasi-made-up muscle. Will be used to intensify facial expressions, sort of combining the functions of the cheeks and lower lids, even though they have these controls too. (approx equivalents: orbicularis oculi and zygomatic major) Control functions like slider 2, but on area below the eye.

Y raises and lowers individual parts of the "lower brow."
X determines which part of brow is raised by Y, from inner (between eyes) to outer.


So in terms of how to mechanically hook up those high-level brow controls, they are going to drive 10 controllers on the face via driven keys (SDKs). Those in turn have low-level controls parented underneath, so I can easily tweak out any expression that I can't get with the sliders in animation.

1) Set driven keys on pure translate Y driven by Y channel of brow Main.

More to come

Friday, January 07, 2005

Happy New Year! Again!

Had an awesome meeting today w/Loren Toolajian, the composer who will be doing music for In-Out. We basically sat down to talk about music, composing, life, etc. Since we'd mostly interacted before in the role of web site designer/client, we hadn't really talked about music from that angle before, and found a lot of common ground. He was surprised to know that I knew who Paul Hindemith was, and had actually played some of his music when I was in an ensemble in college. I, in turn, discovered that he had met and collaborated with playwright Arthur Miller on a production at Signature Theater.

We weighed the choices of either cutting together existing music, which would have the advantage of real instrumentation, or having Loren compose original music which would probably be recorded in MIDI. We decided that the first option wasn't worth the hassle of licensing, but more importantly, I wanted this to be more of a collaborative project. So I'll be giving Loren a more complete blocked version around the first week of February, and then can get something back by March which can inspire me as I head to the finish line.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

New Treatment and Animatic

Monday was T-day -- treatment officially due in to the powers that be. Most people complain a lot about the paperwork aspect of thesis, but I have to confess that I enjoyed writing it. Kind of cool, since throughout college I never really enjoyed any of the writing I had to do. And considering I was an English major, there was quite a bit.

I also had to present my thesis in Discussions class as a final project, so that was a great incentive to finally get my 3D animatic done. Sat down for a few days and cranked that puppy out -- I think on Friday I got through about 20 shots. Note to self-- get a more comfortable chair. I'll be in for most of the next semester.

Quite happy with the results, and the feedback from discussions class (from the few people who actually contribute) was overwhelmingly positive. I've still got to polish a few camera moves b/c I think I'm breaking the 180 degree rule at some point, and not in a good way. Also feel like some parts are still a bit rushed -- I was pretty intent on cutting this down to 2 minutes, but I think it's going to be a more comfortable pace at 3. Fortunately, I think the extra time is needed mainly on wide shots with little to no action.

Wish I could just focus , but I've still got several shots to finish up for our Bauhaus short, which is premiering at CADA's first film festival at Cantor January 19th. I'm getting slowly psyched -- it'll be the first short that I've ever written that I'll be seeing on a big screen. But I've got about two weeks of work left, and that's two weeks that I don't really have in my thesis schedule. We'll see.

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

The Pixar way

Read a great article today on VFX world about some of the animation/rigging stuff on the Incredibles that reinforces what I've been thinking about for my characters...

The approach to facial animation in The Incredibles followed the Pixar tradition of allowing animators direct control of all parts of the face. Facial animation was done with a multitude of deformers tied to macro-controllers, and without using blend shapes. Compared to the facial animation tools used in Finding Nemo these had more and better features, nothing groundbreaking but many incremental advances, for example: a greater number of controls to allow for squash-and-stretch, a new eyebrow package with spline-based controls, and the ability to do wild cartoony distortions of the face including the eyeballs something that Pixar animators traditionally did not distort.

..... >> VFXWorld / Feature Articles << .....

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

The term's winding down...

... and I'm pretty wound up. I've gotten through the first third of my 3D animatic, and it's exciting to see it coming together. However, the next two weeks are going to be insane, as my two most time consuming classes end early and CADA is deluged by visiting industry professionals. (OK, it's maybe 3 people, but for CADA, that's a deluge.) So at Misha's suggestion, I'm going to lay off thesis for two weeks while I try to get the rest of my classwork out the door.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

"Weekly" Update

As of last week, I had the characters rigged except for the facial stuff, and I was getting really obsessive about it. So Misha pointed out that, seeing as I had the characters poseable and the environments in place, and since facial animation comes later in the pipe anyway, I already had enough to start putting together my 3D animatic. So I did! Start, that is.

I revisited my master shot list (to be posted here) and added in timings based on the 2D animatic. When I took Previz last year, one thing I figured out quickly was that keeping track of all the shots and cameras can be a daunting task, and a project can quickly devolve into a huge primordial soupy mess. So a technique I developed there was to create an Excel workbook to keep track of all my shots, timings, cameras, etc. There are multiple sheets within the workbook, so all in one place I can keep track of where things are in the production, what actions and shot sizes go with each shot, and can even generate render batch files straight out of the workbook. So before laying out shot 1, I put that together, and it's helping to keep me sane. If I can figure out an easy way to keep it up-to-date online, I'll link it.

I've gotten through about 11 shots so far -- I'd love to plow straight through and finish it, but I'm juggling two other really work-intensive classes right now. Looking forward to the time when I'll only have this to work on. Though that brings its own dangers, I suppose.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Group Thesis Meeting

Big meeting w/all of Misha's thesis advisees today. Here's notes:

Production schedule -- break it down by days.

Do the checklist for the panel reviews IN ADVANCE.

Rock on!

That is all.

Sunday, October 31, 2004

Facial update

Update on the facial rig: preliminary tests available to view here. This is just a really primitive test moving the control around kind of randomly, and using the default smooth bind which is crap. However, it already looks really promising, and I think with another week of tweaking it should be pretty killer to work with.

Oh, and happy halloween!

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Thesis Workshop

Had the Thesis Workshop today -- first (official) step on the road to completing this monster. Even though I pretty much had my treatment written months ago, have been meeting with my advisor for weeks, and have a production schedule worked out, it's still pretty scary seeing it in black and white. I have two previous versions of the thesis handbook, but this one is mine, and that makes all the difference.

Have spent the last week or so working out details of my eyebrow rig. I figure this is the most important part of the character, and deserves a little extra time which will hopefully pay off later in animation. I'm essentially combining real anatomical concepts with traditional art and animation concepts to create eyebrows that are capable of expressing a full range of human emotion (or that's the idea, anyway). To that end, I'm using a joint-based face setup for the brows, but the joints are laid out on and constrained by curves to give smoother deformations. The upper brows are not unlike real eyebrows, but even though topologically there are two brows, I'm treating them as one unit, so that changes made to one side affect the other. I've rigged the lower brow the same way -- people don't have a lower eyebrow, but on these characters it functions as part cheeks, part lips, and part lower eyelids.

I'll be driving the brow setup using a set of custom controls inspired by Jason Osipa's fantastic book on facial animation, Stop Staring. The top level of controls will drive the main brow movements, while a second layer of controls can be used to provide emphasis -- and if that's not enough, then I can go right on the face and grab a third set of controls to drag them around. I probably won't touch those until the very last face of animation tweaking (if that). I figure it'd be a lot harder to add this kind of control in farther down the road, so I'd rather take the time now even if it turns out to be overkill.

Monday, October 11, 2004


Man, I am excited. I started thinking about music for my piece, and how much I'd like something original, since I believe that working with a musician can really make animation sing. Then I realized that I have a few contacts in the music industry, and I figured it couldn't hurt to ask them. So I contacted Loren Toolajian -- a former client from my web design days. I'd set up his website for Sandblast Productions, and figured he could point me in the right direction. To my surprise, he said he'd be interested in scoring the piece! So now I know the music will kick ass. And now I just have to make the actual piece...

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Back on Track!

I have now finally, officially moved into production on what will be my thesis film, "In-Out." (The title change seemed like a good idea to avoid confusion with the 1997 Kevin Kline comedy, In & Out.)

It's currently at 2.5 minutes, but it's doable. I will have to revise the project plan, though. That's going to happen soon.

Modelled the character's head, and feeling good about that. I think I'm going to go for an Aardman-like use of eyebrows/lids in conveying expression. It's going to be an interesting challenge, since neither character has a mouth. But sometimes the limitations are what really pushes something over the top.

Also created my opening title sequence, which is a little scary but also motivating. Now I just need music that sounds exactly like that, since I don't want to pay for anything.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

What the hell happened?

So much for summer momentum...

Here's the latest update on In and Out: Aaaugh!

I dilligently stuck by my project schedule through the storyboarding/animatic phase, and that's where trouble ensued. After finishing storyboards and laying it out in animatic form, I found that the story was way too long -- pushing 5-6 minutes.

So then I cut the storyline down drastically, and went back to animatic: pushing 3 minutes.

Then I panicked, and decided I shouldn't try to pull off 3 minutes, and that the story couldn't be cut any further, so I stopped production.

Then I moped around for a while, trying to come up with something else.

Then I went to SIGGRAPH.

Then I moped some more.

Then I started toying w/the alien commercial idea again, and worked up a project plan for that. Crazy.

And finally, I just went back and looked at my 2D animatic for In and Out again, and thought -- I can do this!

So tomorrow: I try to cut down the story one more time, and this week, decide once and for all what's up -- will I try to pull off an animation-intensive, character-driven project? Or the fun, crazy, shorter-but-just-as-much-work project? Or will the perfect idea come to me in a dream?

Let's see.

Friday, July 16, 2004

Project Plan

Big step last week: Spent a while inside Microsoft Project and came up with a bona fide project plan.
I'll say right off the bat: I am no project manager, and while I've been working for a while on improving my time management and estimation skills, I still have a slight bent towards the "hopeful" over the "realistic." However, I feel that I am committed enough to give this project the time it's going to need.
My assumptions:

I can allocate 50 hours per week for the rest of the Summer, until classes start up again in September. Considering my lack of freelance work at the moment, I think this is pretty doable.
I can allocate 28 hours per week during the Fall. This one is tougher -- I've got a full course load this fall, and two of those classes will be fairly demanding of my time. So I think I need to reconcile myself to the fact that I may not be able to give the other two classes as much time as I normally would. This is going to be difficult, and I'm going to have to watch myself. But thesis has to take priority over everything else. And hey -- Federico already wrecked my shot at a 4.0, so I think I can finally let the grade thing go now. :)
Also means no freelancing during the year, which is going to hit hard -- but it's an investment in the career that I want to have when I'm done. 
In addition, though I'm taking one class this summer, I'm going to use the final project to work out as much of the technical issues as I can. I've ended up picking a story w/a fair amount of dynamics in it -- specifically, a lot of flying paper -- and I don't want to spend all my time troubleshooting collisions. My focus is character animation, so I need to spend my time on that. Which brings me to my last (for now) assumption:
900 hours will be enough for me to achieve a high level of animation. Ideally, I'd like to give myself twice as much time to animate, but stupidly, I've once again complicated things by choosing an elaborate story. Right now, it times out to ~3 minutes, but I think it's really shorter -- I'll know more when I finish storyboarding this weekend.
From what I've heard, Blue Sky's animators used to do about 4 seconds of animation per week; now their production schedule is upped to 9 seconds.  That's about 5.5 hours per second. Sounds luxurious, but I think when you're shooting for really high quality, with all the secondary and other stuff in place, it can take that long. And if my story times out to 2.5 minutes, then I have about as much time as they do.
One advantage I have -- much simpler characters. And executive control over cutting the story.

Thursday, July 08, 2004

Treatment and Screenplay

Here are links to them in Microsoft Word format:



Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Take Two!

OK, I've made a decision: I'm abandoning my idea. Well, hopefully not abandoning -- more like placing gently on the backburner, where it can simmer along with other stuff that's not quite on today's menu.

I had to finally listen to the nagging doubts I've been having with my previous idea, most importantly the fact that I'm heading into character animation. And having just gotten some industry feedback on my animation, I realize that in order to get to the level I want I'm going to need to spend a lot of time on animation -- a lot more than I have so far. At least as much as a professional would spend on their work, which is at least twice as much time as I have. On the one hand, that's encouraging, because I think I am getting pretty good results in a short amount of time. On the other hand, if I'm going to take it all the way to completion, I need to focus. And my previous idea, while a lot of fun, requires too much time spent on environments and texturing -- and worse, doesn't provide enough concentrated character work.

All along, I had two ideas that I really wanted to do, and couldn't decide between them. One was the "Beastmaster 2000," the idea I've just chucked. The other one is entitled "In and Out." Originally conceived as a one-character, one-environment exercise, I've decided to expand it to a two-character interaction, in the same single, minimalist environment. I believe this makes it a far more dynamic piece, and has rekindled my excitement in seeing it happen.

So: tomorrow, July 1st, I am officially beginning pre-production. By the end of this week, treatment and screenplay. Following that, project schedule.

I can't wait!!!

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Rolling Along

So Spring of '04 is slowly winding down, and all the second-year students are doing their final panel defenses this week. A tense time -- for them, and for me a bit. I'm doing some trial runs on a character for Maya II / Character I, and discovering just how time consuming it can really be. I still think I have time to do what I want to do for my thesis, but it really does start now, and if I don't keep up the momentum over the summer there could be trouble.

Met with Rob last week and pitched him the idea for the first time. His initial response -- "What's the point?" -- wasn't exactly what I'd hoped for. But after some discussion he warmed to the idea. I think if I do it right, it's going to be something that you get right away, versus something that has to be explained. But that's pretty damn important, and I have to constantly remind myself of that as I storyboard this puppy.

Also added onto a compilation reel of stupid cheap commercials, so that I can watch them one after the other and pinpoint what they have in common. Besides the conventions, I think I need to watch out for some more fundemental ideas -- like the products they advertise are always cheap, flimsy, and serve a need that isn't really a need. This is the one thing I'm not really addressing with my idea right now... While I think my product idea is funny in and of itself, it isn't a clearly stupid product that fills an unnecessary void, and I wonder if I should try to go that route. Not sure how that would be accomplished -- something stupid that aliens don't really need a machine for... maybe the same thing, but somehow convey that it's plenty easy to roast your beast without this gadget? Or maybe I don't really need to worry about that.

Also went to a small presentation on MetroCAF and what goes into that festival. It reminded me that concise is good, but so is weird and attention-grabbing. I think I've got a good line on the latter, and I need to just keep the former in mind. I still sometimes think I'd be better off with a clear story, single-character thesis, and worry a bit that I'm falling into the trap that I've been aware of for a while now.

Tuesday, April 13, 2004


After my firewire drive started making funny noises last month, I bought a new drive and a new enclosure with a beefier power supply and better components all around. I've been using the new drive (200GB!) for the last few weeks without a hitch.

So I was kind of upset when the directory containing ALL MY WORK FROM THE ENTIRE TERM DISAPPEARED from my drive.

I'm currently in the process of recovering it, thanks to some utilities I found online, but the whole directory structure is shot to hell. I have no idea at this point how bad the damage is. Now I get to spend another few wasted hours to get back to where I was yesterday. Damn. And I had just done some nice modeling on an upcoming character for projects this term.


In thesis news: my most recent meeting w/Misha went well -- I've started storyboarding the project so that I can get a better sense of its scope. Once I have that, I'll finesse a list of necessary items, and then take it to my next meeting to figure out whether it's actually possible.

Came up with a good alternate framework over the weekend: open the commercial with fake bars/tones and a commercial slate. At end of commercial, could cut to board room where presentation is being made to client. One attendee of the meeting still has reservations about the product itself; the rest agree ominously to break for lunch.

Next meeting: w/Rob Manuel, (associate) dean of CADA, to bring him into the loop.

Tuesday, April 06, 2004


After taking some time this weekend to break down my thesis idea into characters, sets, props, effects and so forth, I realized that this is a huge project. Still, I think I can handle it, but I'm going to have to prove that to my committee, no doubt. So I went in search of project management software and found a pretty good one, I think. We'll see how that goes.

Project Management Software - Easy To Use Timeline and Critical Path Planning with MinuteMan

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

It Begins

First exploratory meeting today with Patricia, CADA clinical professor extraordinaire, to discuss my thesis idea.

She liked it!

She also brings up some interesting, thesis-like points that I wouldn't really have thought about, since I thought I was just doing a funny story. Things like, why are cheap TV commercials for things like the Better Pasta Pot and Hairagami the way they are -- they've done focus groups, so do they choose that format because it works? My thought is that they are kind of the old school version of spammers -- it's not about delivering a quality product, it's about volume. Put your message in front of as many people as possible for as low a cost as possible. It doesn't matter if you have no message, or even no product -- if a fractional response rate can get you a decent profit, then go for it. Who cares if you are marketing pure crap? Airtime on cable and local networks in the middle of the day and night is cheap. The Eggstractor is cheap. So cheap, in fact, that if you buy one (within the next 10 minutes, and the clock is ticking) they'll give you two -- allowing you to produce hard-boiled eggs even twice as fast as this.

Why am I talking about these commercials? All will be revealed...

I've gone ahead and set up meetings for two weeks from now w/Michael and Misha -- if they go for it, then that'll be all the clinical faculty, and I can be fairly confident that I can go forward with the idea...

Thursday, January 01, 2004

Happy New Year!

OK, right off the bat, I'm lying. It's April 5th, but I want to log some stuff that happened back in March. I guess I could have just dated this in March, or said "Back in March..." but I thought a clean new blog would be a nice way to start off the new year. My New Year's Resolution: stop lying about what day I'm posting to this blog.

So happy new year, and welcome! I'm Ian Etra, and I am currently enrolled in the Masters (MS) program in Digital Imaging and Design at New York University's (NYU's) School of Continuing and Professional Studies' (SCPS') Center for Advanced Digital Applications (CADA) -- in my opinion, the best graduate program in New York City for animation, by virtue of acronym length alone.

The purpose of this journal is to record my progress as I go about the process of creating an animated short "film" for my thesis project, which I plan to complete in May of 2005. This a little bit of a daunting task for me, as I have never worked on a single project for this long before, nor have I managed to regularly keep a journal for any length of time. But I like the idea of having a record of this time in my life, and a concrete indicator of my progress -- plus it's required as part of the thesis documentation. So why not. I am looking forward to the challenge! I will be posting notes from meetings, schedules, screenshots of work in progress, and other stuff that will only be of slight interest to faculty and close friends.

The MS at CADA is a four semester program (full-time), and I'm currently in my second semester (though I'm working part-time in the industry). At the moment, the thesis process is as follows: a proposal is submitted during the third semester, a treatment is submitted at the end of that semester, and approved at the beginning of the fourth and last semester. This leaves approximately three months to storyboard, model, texture, light, rig, animate and render a project single-handedly.

Any animator would tell you that this is not nearly enough time to complete a project of quality. I agree with that hypothetical animator -- it's not! My goal is to submit this project to the Computer Animation Festival at SIGGRAPH 2005, and I have a pretty good idea of the competition. There is fantastic work coming out of schools like Vancouver, Ringling, and Supinfocom in Valenciennois -- where three students work for a year on a final project. Conclusion: I need to start now if it's going to be un against trois.

So I am quasi-unofficially beginning now, in hopes that the process changes by next Spring. (Not unreasonable, since CADA is still a fairly young program and the rules are changing every semester -- fortunately, in my experience, for the better). I will run every phase of the project past the faculty of CADA to make sure they are all aware of what I'm doing, and should have a pretty extensive journal by the end of this whole process. And if by next Spring it turns out that I can only officially start in my last term, then I have three words: search and replace.

So once again, Happy New Year 2005!