Blowing Shit Up

Posted Tuesday, November 25, 2008, 11:20 AM

List some of the best ways to spend a weekend. You might have some sexual escapade with your loved one, or a great holiday to some exotic locale. Perhaps a sporty day where your team won. Possibly going to a big spectacular stage show.

Well, I got them all beat. We spent the weekend blowing shit up.

We needed some background plates for a film that involved a big ba-da-boom, so we had a miniature and simplified version of the building built, and got the pyrotechnic "experts" from our team to make some explosives. We spent the whole day watching fireballs and flames and things going bang and crash! Woohoo!

Haven't had a day of so much fun in a very long time!

Checkpoint: Hadrian's Wall

Posted Friday, November 21, 2008, 12:10 AM

Sometimes you never know just how complicated things can get.

Whenever I'm called on to do a visual effects shot for someone, my normal reaction is to say "Sure, I can do that" and about two thirds of the time it's true, I know exactly how to do it and that I'm capable of it with my current level of skills and software. But the other third of the time, I am secretly thinking "I have no idea how to do this!" and will rush out to do some research to figure some things out - can the software do it, do I need additional resources, am I really able to do this, how complicated will it be?

There's a shot in Checkpoint that I've been working on, off and on, in various pieces, over a period of six months. It's a simple shot - we filmed our hero on a bridge over a railway track, and had planned to do a crane shot over the wall of the bridge showing a train on the tracks, with a railway gun. So my original plan was to comp in the train, maybe replace the gumtrees with European pine.

Our attempts to do a crane shot handheld were a bit of a disaster, we really ought to have thought it through a bit better and borrowed a crane to achieve the shot. And we ought to have picked a day with nicer weather, too. But our hands were tied, as is so often the case, and we got what we could, as best we could.

So now it's my job to fix it.

The train model was already long completed, so that wasn't a problem, though it did take me a long time to build.

The first thing we knew we had to do was stabilise the shot as we follow our hero crawling along the wall, because it shakes all over the place. The problem is, with stabilisation comes distortion and motion blur. We can't really do anything about that, though, so I have reduced the shake down gradually as the shot progresses, so that the distortions are minimal.

Next thing we knew was that we would need a 3D representation of the railway line and valley, which had to be a matte painting including distant fields of the French coast, a complete replacement of the trees with European pine, and a French village. So I assembled the elements into a 2D matte image, using the best shot we had of the railway line, but it wasn't good enough for the final shot, and we knew we had to go back to the location to photograph high resolution images of the valley.

The day we arrived was a beautifully sunny day, and the shots of the valley we took were great, but as it turned out, not perfect, because as we crane over and tilt the virtual camera in the 3D environment, it distorted the verticals and all the trees looked like they were leaning over. The answer was to go back again and re-photograph the valley from a slight angle, so that the distortion would be eliminated, achieved by having the final angle of the shot match the actual angle the image was taken, and not fake it like the first try.

One of the issues I had with the crane move through the valley, though, was getting the sense of distance for the French coastal part of the shot. In reality it was a photo of a farm in Holland, but I had it comped in and needed it to move relative to the camera so it felt like it was miles away, and not a flat image. This meant finding ways to have the fiddly crinkly edges of the trees blend in with the background without distorting or obscuring it as it moved. So I had to mask them out using alpha masks, careful to keep the bleeding edge suitably coloured to blend, and move all elements to give a sense of depth. Rendering each layer separately was the only way to achieve this.

The good thing with this approach, though, is that I didn't need to use a tracking program to recreate the environment, and 'lock' the train model onto the real tracks. Instead I am able to apply the train actually to the virtual environment, because they're both 3D models in the same program, and are fixed entities. That is a relief, because 3D tracking is still not perfect, and is a bitch to get right.

The next thing I realised we needed was the wall of the bridge. It isn't enough to use a 2D image and animate it, I needed to have a 3D representation of the wall so that the depth as we craned over it felt realistic. I tried to find a way around this, because I was afraid it wasn't going to work, but in the end it was unavoidable. I built the wall, and the uneven rocky surface it possessed, and applied the textures of the real location that I took pics of. The end result is the wall looks completely convincing, and the crane move is seamless, so it was well worth it.

However, big problem. The original footage was taken on a grey overcast day, and the other photographs we took at later dates were in glorious sunlight. They don't match. I have to apply this footage onto the surface of my wall, while the virtual camera watches it and cranes over it. If the footage and the wall photos don't match exactly, it will look wrong.

I had to alter the colour of the wall image so it matched a grey day, then mask around it with a soft edged blend to overlap with the original footage, so you cannot see the mix between them.

Then I have to render the bridge part of the shot separately to the valley part of the shot, so that when Rob colour grades the two, he can either reduce the vibrancy of the sunny day valley, or increase the vibrancy of the grey day bridge, so that they blend seamlessly. I also have to provide him with an alpha channel mask of the footage so that he can separate the two shots when he grades them.

The train has to be rendered at high resolution. Soldiers have to be added, probably digital ones because we don't have any footage of live ones. Steam coming from the train, smoke from one of the stacks, atmospheric haze, and birds flying, all will add life to the finished shot and give it the energy to make it convincing.

It is the most complicated thing I have ever done. So many elements, so many techniques, so much preparation, and yet every single part of it I was absolutely confident about being capable of achieving it. Individually, anyway. If I'd realised just how complicated I was making it for myself, I would've come up with a different idea for the shot and convinced Rob to do that instead.

Like hire a real train.

Bass From Beneath

Posted Tuesday, November 18, 2008, 10:59 PM

The guy who lived below my apartment was a very mysterious fellow. He lived alone, with two little dogs, but I barely ever saw him. He always had his blinds closed, 24 hours a day, and appeared to only be home about half the year, the rest of the time he was who-knows-where.

Usually the only times I got a glimpse of him was when he went out to walk his dogs. Though now that I think about it, they were only ever in the car with him, so I wonder if they ever did actually walk anywhere at all.

He appeared to have a girlfriend. Certainly I did see a very very attractive young woman with him once, but several times I heard them arguing very loudly about something, though I only ever heard her voice and never his. He always seemed the calm rational one, and she was a squealing shrew.

I invented in my head an explanation of the behaviour I observed of him, including a job and lifestyle that sort of made sense. I figured he was a Fashion Photographer, and the girlfriend was pretty because she was a Fashion Model. She certainly looked like one. And he was always away during winter, because his work took him to exotic places where it's summer.

It fit the profile, but it's based on nothing but my own observation. I can't recall if it was winter he was most absent, hey, I don't even know his name. And apart from the girlfriend on only a couple of occasions, and apart from the dogs yapping for about ten minutes a week, he was a completely silent, perfect neighbour. For all I know I was the bothersome one, shouting at the TV, verbally abusing the computer, generally stomping around, acting the idiot up here in my apartment. But I never heard a complaint from him at all.

Then one day he was gone. I didn't notice his absence as anything out of the ordinary, I didn't see him actually make the move, but one day the industrial strength cleaning crew came in and restored his apartment to pristine condition, and a "For Sale" notice was placed out in the street, so he had definitely moved out.

Where did he go? Why didn't I notice? Who the hell was he anyway? I thought maybe he had died, hence the invisibility of his leaving (they chucked out his furniture and effects, he didn't move any of it out himself). But there was never a Police Investigation, or a Family Visit, so probably that isn't what happened at all.

Whatever the case, new people inevitably were going to move in. And, after three months or so of auctions and contract signing, a few weeks ago they did.

They're a young couple, I think they both work full time, and so far I have met only the male half, whose name is Stan. But the circumstances of the meeting bothers me - because I was complaining about the noise they were making.

Now I don't like confronting people, and even though I know I'm rapidly turning into a grumpy old bugger, I don't like to come across as a whinger. But inevitably that is probably going to be my fate, it seems to be a deeply embedded part of my nature.

So what do I do? Do I complain every time they make a noise? Do I bottle it up and hope they'll figure out the error of their ways independently? Do I let it pass and just carry on, because after all it's never after midnight, or keeping me awake? Do I invite them up so they can hear what I hear? Maybe to their ears it's barely worth bothering about, and I'm just being overly sensitive.

I'm just so used to perfect silence from my neighbours. I love silence. I hate deep bass noise. This is at odds with most of the rest of the world, where volume and bass seem to be what everybody else wants in their entertainment.

I'm never going to escape that particular insanity, am I?

Eventually I will move, as we all do, but that's not happening any time soon, as I do not have an income. When I do move I'll be sure to choose to live in such a way as to not have potential neighbour noise to interrupt my evenings.

Until then, I have to suffer through it.

Pegasus Rampant: The Reviews

Posted Friday, November 14, 2008, 11:19 PM

I mentioned my intention to write a screenplay on a messageboard website, and someone there pointed me to somewhere online that reviews them, with the intent to learn how to improve technique and storytelling, rather than just to be criticised.

When I visited there, they also suggested various different pieces of software to help with accurate formatting. This included a new program that was open source, and therefore free, so I thought "that's just within my budget!" and downloaded a copy.

It's called CeltX, and is an excellent way to get things looking professional, without having to labour over the small details. Basically you just keep writing, and it does the rest for you with barely any need for you to look up from your keyboard.

It also has scheduling tools, space for meta information like notes and tags, output to PDF, and loads more features than I could possibly want. Outstanding.

Having completed my second draft of Pegasus Rampant to my own satisfaction, I uploaded it to the reviews website. In order to get a response I need to review other scripts also, as that's a way to engender a positive and helpful community. It also meant I could learn from experienced writers how to do it properly.

Though it also showed what not to do, because a couple of the scripts I've reviewed so far are not especially well written. I personally thought my own script was much better than those, though admittedly not as good as the others I've read so far.

But then, probably most writers think that about their own work. Now that I have had some encouraging reviews of my script, I can also see what their suggestions and hints and guidance has shown me - that my first attempt really was full of first-time amateur's mistakes.

Having said that, they mostly seem to like the story, and enjoy the characters, but I did write them sometimes too inconsistently, and there are a few loose ends that ought to be tightened up or rewritten. It just needs more impact. I think it is a very even script, but that means dull and monotonous. It needs higher peaks, lower troughs, and more of them. I'm cool with that. I can see that most of what they said is spot on, and definitely needs addressing.

The key technical mistake I made is that there's a difference between a shooting script and a speculative script. A shooting script is for the director, cast, and crew to read, so it has camera information, shot angles, scene numbers, sound effects, music cues, etc. But it's not my job to put those in when there's no director to read it yet - my job is to write a script that entices and interests people, so that they read it to the end, and are desperate to sign me up as their screenwriter. Therefore a spec script must have no camera angle information, and instead concentrate entirely on the story, the characters, the action; basically the imagery and the emotional beats. My problem was I was mixing the two kinds of script up, which is a classic beginner's mistake.

One of the reviewers said "I note it is an early draft. You will find by about draft six that significant changes will have been made!" Draft six! Crikey!

But she is most likely right. In my next draft I probably will change a few plot points, but in doing so I will have to wrangle them into line with my main story, which is a thread I hope I won't have to change too much. But even if I do, and reading their ideas I think it's inevitable, then it will turn into something quite different. I'm actually quite excited about that, though, as it means I get to create some new stuff. I hope it won't collapse into a struggle for me to deal with, and it will flow as easily as it did originally.

One thing that is a little bit hard to explain to them, though, is that as I was inspired to write this by watching a low budget TV movie from the Sci-Fi Channel that I thought I could do a better job with, I'm intentionally not aiming very high. It's not meant to be an epic fantasy like Willow or NeverEnding Story, it's really meant to be filler for a Sunday evening's TV viewing. I'd be happy if it went straight to DVD and was only available in the bargain bin.

Not that I don't have some amount of pride in the effort, because I most definitely do. It contains characters and situations that I love, and I put a lot of effort in making them feel like the kind of things that I enjoy seeing, in the hope that people like me would have a good time watching it.

But I also know that it is no literary masterpiece or visual spectacle. It's just a bit of a laugh.

I will work on draft 3 over the next few weeks, and see if I can address all the criticisms so that I have a better spec script, and a better film, at the end of it.

Checkpoint: Wheely Good

Posted Thursday, November 13, 2008, 6:52 PM

As usual, instead of doing the work I ought to be doing, I find excuses to do other work instead. Though at least this is tangibly related.

The opening scenes of Checkpoint, under the credits, will be of a C-47 plane heading to France, and I've been roughing the shots together one-by-one to show Rob. He's had suggestions on each shot so far, so it's a back-and-forth exercise to get it right.

To distract me from obsessing over one shot too much, I'm breaking it up by doing some higher detail modelling of the plane, piece by piece, in between each shot update. I've done the propellors, the engines and cowling, and a little bit on the fuselage so far, and this week I've been working on the landing gear, which is arguably the part of the plane with the most mechanical intricacy.

I'm adding physical detail to this part because one of the shots is of a close up of the wheel beginning to turn on the tarmac, and there's also a wider shot of the plane taxiing where the wheels are likely to be seen. It's best to have real detail on things like this, rather than using 2D tricks to give the illusion of detail (such as projecting a wheel hub texture on a flat disc), or hoping it won't be seen.

And anyway, I enjoy doing the modelling, as I learn new techniques and improve my skills every time I do it.

Seek It Elsewhere

Posted Sunday, November 9, 2008, 5:34 PM

I used to read a lot of Fantasy novels. It was the only thing I read for about fifteen years straight, and I am still a fan even though my enthusiasm has waned. One of the series I began, and enjoyed, but soon got tired of, was The Sword of Truth, by Terry Goodkind. It was a fairly standard fantasy tale, as tropes go, but with a dark edge to it, and almost sadistic scenes of torture and violence.

It has now been commissioned into a TV series, to be made by the same guys who brought us Hercules and Xena, and filmed in New Zealand. But The Legend Of The Seeker, as it is unfeasibly called, instead of being the almost comical adventures that the former were famous for being, is very very serious and dark.

And that is to its detriment. It is formulaic pulp in its storyline, with its evil overlord, magic sword, and mystical prophecies; and it really needs to lighten up if it's going to keep my interest. I don't expect it will be able to do that, though, as the original books are not known for their light touch; Quite the opposite, in fact.

I do not anticipate the series will last, but I am very bad at predicting such things, so who knows - it may run for years. I will watch the first few episodes to see where it leads, but I doubt my long term interest will be sustained.

Frankly, it may be false bravado, but I could write better stuff than this.

These Ain't Your Grandma's Matte Paintings

Posted Thursday, November 6, 2008, 11:20 PM

Matte Painting is an astonishing art. The real geniuses of this art of the last 100 years of movie visual effects are true masters. Using nothing more than paint and their eye, they could match colours, create photo-real imagery, that matched the live action seamlessly, all done effortlessly. It's bewildering what they're capable of.

These days that art is no longer practised in the same way. Computer graphics and digital cameras means we can now use photographs to assemble together, to make our background plates and matte paintings, eliminating the practised art, and replacing it with reality itself.

In many ways it's disappointing to lose that specific approach to a relatively young art. But on the other hand, there is still a good amount of skill and artistic endeavour involved in digital mattes, especially when creating a fantastical environment that cannot exist in the real world.

I haven't had to make anything too spectacular before now, most of the time it's been a "real" location. Augmented to suit our needs, true, but basically made up of tangible and familiar elements.

Click the image for large pic

And today's work was just such an effort. I had to make an airfield runway from a particular close angle. It shouldn't have been anything too fancy and modern, because it was set in 1940s wartime, so it needed to look suitably worn and well used.

I found a whole slew of pics that someone had taken of a WWII German airfield, that has long since been abandoned and disused. It looked overgrown, but it had a suitable length and flatness to it that worked perfectly.

The land around it was a little crowded with new trees that had started to fill up the unused empty field, and the photos were all taken on the runway itself, instead of to the side where the virtual camera would have to be, so my job was to blend the photos together in such a way as to eliminate the trees and replace one side of the runway to make it look like we are standing in the grass next to the tarmac. Coupled with having to clear the overgrown weeds, it was a little bit of subtle work.

I may have to green up the finished image once we go full resolution and finalise it, but until then I believe I have figured out the right angles and created a suitable matte painting for the shot.

Checkpoint: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Posted Monday, November 3, 2008, 10:23 PM

So there's more to Checkpoint's effects than a few bullet hits. I've been working on the opening shot of the crane shot over a bridge wall, past the British soldier and down to show the railway gun, for the past week, pretty much non-stop. It's finally getting close to being complete enough to render at full resolution, and I've just put together a rough version for timing purposes and approval by the Director, my mate Rob.

The number of elements in this shot is really quite daunting, and if I'd known what was involved I wouldn't have been half as enthusiastic about it when I posited it originally. These are the elements in the single shot:

  • Original filmed element of soldier crouching in front of wall, tracked and stabilised
  • Matte painting, projected onto 3D geometry, of:
    • Real railway line location
    • Pine trees replacing gumtrees
    • French village houses
    • Distant horizon of French coast
  • 3D model of trains, including:
    • Locomotive
    • Coal Tender
    • Railway gun
    • Caboose
    • Second train
    • Railway track
  • 3D model of bridge wall
  • Probably a 3D model of the soldier for accurate parallax
  • Additional atmospherics, such as shadows, steam, smoke, birds, and German soldiers
  • Depth of field and atmosphere fog
  • A sweeping crane shot of it all

It's really complex to put those elements together at all, let alone seamlessly and realistically. I mean, crikey! It's very satisfying if I manage to do it, though.

And to top it all off, there's the titles sequence of a C47 Skytrain, aka a DC3 aeroplane, launching off an airfield and flying to France, that needs to be done, which means I have to build an accurate 3D model of the plane. Have you seen the level of detail, the number of fiddly bits that is on a 1940s transport plane? Vents, pipes, bolts, cables, engine parts, windows, doors, landing gear, antennae, registration N-numbers, and dirt and paint and grime and other imperfections.

Holy crap!

I had considered cheating by using photographs of real planes for the close-ups, and animating them with 2D parallax and 3D propellors. So I made a relatively high detailed model of the props for a test, and enjoyed it so much I realised that I could make the whole plane if I approach it one section at a time, in small easily manageable steps. So I've done the cowling of the engines, and the propellors as mentioned. Next stage, the fuselage.

If I can pull this off, and if I could actually get paid for it somehow, I'll be a millionaire by the time I'm 45.