Virtual Environments

Posted Saturday, July 25, 2009, 7:46 PM

The main role for a digital matte painting is to create an entirely virtual environment, which is to say, a completely artificially assembled background for a shot.

They used to be made using paint, often on glass, which is then blended optically, that is practically, and re-photographed. But these days you can use photographs, blend them together seamlessly, and then apply them directly to 3D CG models to give them a small amount of dimensionality.

The art of putting all the elements together for the final shot is that of the compositor's. Though I have to be familiar with compositing as part of my job, it's not quite my forte; I am better at dimensional-related things than I am at colour matching and rotoscoping (clipping around edges). So the compositing for Checkpoint is being handed over to its Director, Rob. My job is just to create the background plates.

One of the pickup shots we filmed a few months ago contains possibly the most creative camera move of the entire shoot - a dolly and pan combination. The camera moves rightwards sideways along a track, simultaneously the camera pans left, while the actress runs up to camera, all in front of a greenscreen, which we set up in Rob's backyard.

The usefulness of a greenscreen is simple in effect, but it's not until I started actually doing all this work that I have come to realise just how wide the potential really can be. We can film anybody in any clothing and doing any activity, and then place them in any environment you can think of - in a French village, a Cafe, on a roof, off the side of a skyscraper, in a sewer, on the Moon... or on a country road near a UK airfield.

What do country roads near airfields look like? Well, almost anything we want it to look like. I decided on a stony road surface, a length of grassed verge, and then, 30m beyond, a line of pine trees. I figured I could put that together, using photographic elements, combined to look photoreal. Then I apply that onto 3D geometry, each plane representing a textured surface. Simple, but it has a limitation.

In my software, the only way for that to be useful is if the virtual camera stays static. The projected image is always oriented from the camera's point of view. That means if I move the camera, the image will move with it. This is no use, as I want the image to stay locked onto the geometry, not slide along in relation to the camera.

There is a solution, which is to check the box that fixes the image, relative to a specified frame of the camera motion. For example, if I set the camera up on frame 1 to point where the image best matches the geometry, and then set it to be fixed there, then, when I move the camera, the image will stay locked at that orientation, even though the camera is in a different place by frame 257. But what that means is the camera then leaves the image behind, it disappears out of view, and now you're pointing at blank geometry.

But there are solutions to that, too. One is to orient it to a different camera, perhaps one with a different frame scale, to give you more space to move your proper camera through.

Another solution is to use the tiling feature, which lets you repeat the image in any axis you wish. But that means your matte painting image has to be seamlessly tileable, and with its geographical features oriented in a parallel fashion to keep the tiling logical.

And this is what I did. I included four horizontal stripes - road, grass, trees, and sky - and blended the edges so they repeated seamlessly. Then, when the camera moved and panned sideways, the landscape continued horizontally along the geometry, and, though it repeated, it wasn't too glaringly obvious.

The repetition can't happen on all axes, so the top of the image, the sky, needed to be blended. I repeated its edge colour infinitely, so the "sky" continued up as a solid shade of blue.

And though that's the crux of this shot's makeup, it doesn't take into account the hand tracking of the three dimensional move (because the tracking software didn't fnd enough points to figure it out), the car model that is sitting on the roadside, the particle-created grass blades in the foreground, and all the other doodads that make up variation in the landscape.

I love creating something out of nothing.

Don't Say The "Z" Word.

Posted Tuesday, July 21, 2009, 11:56 PM

It's fun to work on short films. I've managed to involve myself in all sorts of different sides to making a film, in pre-production, actual production, and post-production. I like to write, and draw storyboards; I have been a general dogsbody crew member, and even a co-director; and I have edited, and created visual effects.

But these things can take a lot of time and effort, sometimes to the point where you just don't want to do it anymore. Then you get over that feeling, and keep doing it anyway, like you've broken through the wall of exhaustion and doubt.

But one good solution to that exhaustion is to film, edit, and deliver the film all within a one day time limit.

15/15 is a short film festival that we entered last weekend. We had to put together a film in just fifteen hours. Rob came up with a simple story idea ten days before, and I wrote it up into a script. We tracked down one of our regular actors, and he liked the script. We got a few props together, and a location. The usual crew all agreed to take part. Then, in one single day, after being given the inherent limitation of the competition (a line of dialogue and an object that must be included), we filmed something called Fifteen Days.

The plot was simple, as it had to be to get everything done in time: A young guy puts together a video blog, and describes a few events that are going on in his neighbourhood, that turn out to be an infestation of the Undead. He is trapped inside his home, and rapidly the situation devolves.

The actor, James, was brilliant. He took my dialogue and added some of his own humour to it to make it his own, and it just made the whole thing so much better. Dave, our DoP (camera man) did his usual wonderful job at framing and taking care of the camera. This time we had a lot less discomfort for him to endure. And Dags managed to edit the sound effects in the allotted time with great skill, which made the film zing. And actually, enhance the frightening nature of our little horror story.

It was a lot of fun to see something come together so quickly, and very satisfying to see such a rushed assembly work as well as it did. We managed to submit the film within the time limit (with literally ten minutes to spare) and now we just have to wait and see if they liked it and if it will become a finalist.

But that doesn't really matter. We did it to see if we could (and we could) and to have another film under our belt (and it's a good one, too). We learned that when we knuckle down and put our shoulders to the wheel, our ear to the ground, our nose to the grindstone, and our feet on the floor... well, we'd be circus contortionists, I suppose. But we also can put together a wonderful piece of entertainment.

Hopefully it will motivate us to make more.

Does Nobody Understand The Apostrophe?

Posted Friday, July 17, 2009, 6:44 PM

Apostrophes are certainly tricky, but they do adhere to strict principles. There is no need to guess, or stray, from consistent usage rules.

Missing Letters:
When letters are removed while contracting two words into one, mark the missing letters with an apostrophe.

  • Can not = Can't
  • Should have = should've (oh, don't get me started on this one)
  • Are not = Aren't

Exceptions include "Ain't," which is arguably not a real word (though I maintain it's short for "Am not"), and "Won't," which is short for "Will not" but the "i" changes to an "o" for some wacky reason.

This rule also applies to names like "D'Angelo," short for "De Angelo," which, when contracted, ought to be pronounced as a single word ("Dangelo"). However, some people choose to pronounce it as though the apostrophe is a pause or accent ("De-Angelo"). This is a hard one to rule on, as names are very much personal choice for the owner.

Plural Possessives:
When a described object "belongs" to someone, then the apostrophe denotes that relationship.

  • The dog's bowl. The bowl belongs to the dog.
  • My friend's car. The car belongs to my friend.
  • John's house. The house belongs to John.

If it's a plural, i.e. there are more than one of something, then an apostrophe is not used.

  • Dog bowls. There are many bowls for the singular dog.
  • My friend's cars. One friend, who has many cars.
  • John's houses. John is a wealthy man and owns several houses.

As an aside, there is the case of "its" versus "it's".

"It's" is a contraction of "it is". The apostrophe denotes the missing letters. But "its" is a possessive, and does not use the apostrophe. This appears to be in contradiction of the rule, but it actually adheres to the rule of "his" and "hers". If you can orient your mind to that way of thinking, you should be able to figure it out and make the mistake less often.

Anyway, back to the rules.

If it's a group of people who possess many things, it is a plural possessive, and an apostrophe must be used in a unique way. After the plural "s".

  • The dogs' bowls. Many dogs have a bowl each.
  • My friends' cars. Several friends each have their own car.
  • John's houses' lawns. The lawns of each house John owns.

And this is the key - you do NOT do this for every word that ends in "s", but ONLY for those that, because it is a plural, ends in the "s".


  • The walrus' tusk.
  • My dress' colour.
  • Jess' house.

Instead do this:

  • The walrus's tusk.
  • My dress's colour.
  • Jess's house.

Three of the same letters in a row may look strange, but that doesn't make it wrong by default. It adheres to the rule, therefore it is right.

Now, there are some official sources, such as the Chicago Manual of Style, that say the former is actually acceptable, but I call shenanigans, and maintain they are wrong.

Unfortunately, because that and similar manuals are used by a lot of modern journalists, we are being overwhelmed by this incorrect usage, and it is fast becoming a widely accepted standard.

I despair.

Sweet Tooth

Posted Sunday, July 12, 2009, 7:03 PM

I have blogged before how I should cut down on eating lollies, because of my constant teeth problems. But I rarely take any notice of such nonsense. I have been keeping my teeth cleaner than ever before, though, so that's something.

Australian lollies are decidedly bland, and extremely low in variety. All the jelly-based lollies taste the same, they only vary in shape. All the marshmallow or chocolate lollies are too sweet and sickly. Every shop you go into has the exact same range of lollies, across the country.

I miss New Zealand lollies. Jet Planes, Giant Wine Gums, Glo-Harts, "Ice Creams", Chocolate Chippie biscuits. None of these can be found here, outside of specialty shops. And until recently, there were no such specialty NZ shops in Melbourne (they're everywhere else in AU, including tons of them in Brisbane, for some reason). In order to get NZ lollies here I have to ship them down from Brisbane, or in from NZ, or occasionally I get my Mum to bring them when she visits. I'm sure this is far from unusual for immigrants like myself.

But finally a few NZ shops are starting to open in Melbourne, and I decided today to go visit one that is relatively nearby. It was a bit of a trek to get there, for I possess no vehicle and had to go by train. And then the place had only a small selection, which were quite expensive. Disappointing, but I splurged anyway, just for nostalgia's sake.

With luck, a more reasonably priced (and better located) option will make itself known sometime soon.

I Have The Key

Posted Thursday, July 9, 2009, 3:44 PM

Here's a handy tip. When you leave your house, make sure you have your keys with you before you close your door.

This may seem like an obvious tip, and one that many of you have suffered the brunt of before now, perhaps many times. But for me, this was my first time I had ever actually locked my keys inside anything.

At my previous home, the deadlock on the (only) door was one that could only be locked from the outside by using a key. This meant I always had my keys with me when locking the door.

At my new home, I have the lesser deadlock that has only one setting - always locked no matter where the keys may be located.

I don't know whose stupid idea it was to invent such a system, or why it's so prevalent, because it seems to me to be the stupidest method you could possibly choose. It makes no sense.

I have four keys on my keyring, and all of them are the same, as every lock in my place matches. But as I couldn't think of a place to secrete one of the spares outside without it being glaringly obvious to any nefarious evildoer who should happen to find themselves wandering around my back yard, I had not hidden any of the keys anywhere outdoors. I had hoped to have figured out a good alternative idea some day, but hadn't gotten around to doing so before I found myself in the stupidest of positions, that of being stuck outside my house with no way to get back in.

Luckily I was with my mate Rob when I discovered this foolishness, and I stayed at his place overnight, and next morning he drove me down to the Estate Agent's to grab a spare key. I am eternally grateful for his help.

I have now solved the issue of spare keys. I will have one on me most times I go out, as I almost always have at least some extra doodads hanging off me which can contain a spare key.

With luck, this particularly embarrassing situation won't happen again any time soon.

What I Did During My Summer Holidays

Posted Friday, July 3, 2009, 10:03 PM

In the industry I am hoping to be involved with professionally, that of Visual Effects, you don't apply for jobs in the standard fashion, where you send in a simple Word doc that lists your past places of employment. Though you still do that, it's less a list of places and more a list of achievements, skills, and software. And hopefully a little bit of name-dropping. My friend Cameron can name-drop a hell of a lot of cool movie names and Directors on his resumé.

But what you also must add is what's known as a Showreel, or a Demo Reel, which is a series of video clips and sequences that show off examples of your actual achievements. And before I can show up at an interview for an Effects job, I need to put one of those together first.

Until recently, I have not had a lot of stuff to show, unfortunately. Most of what I have done in the past has been small potatoes, and not especially amazing. They show some amount of competence, but not really anything dazzling. So for the last two years, while working on more original and spectacular films, I have managed to slowly accrue quite a few examples of more applicable Visual Effects work.

At first I thought I didn't have much to show, but then as I was looking back on what I had handed in recently, it started to dawn on me just how much I had actually completed and was viewable. And when I assembled them together, I was surprised at how much variety there was, and, dare I say it, how good some of it looked.

So I have assembled them into my Showreel, and I am probably not too far away from starting to put it out there for the Studios to look at, should an opportunity arise. Or maybe I'll just push it towards them all without a request required.

What Is Lacking In Aussie Drama

Posted Thursday, July 2, 2009, 1:03 PM

I don't watch any Australian Drama series. I do, however, watch a lot of US and UK Drama serieseses. Here's why.

Australia tries very hard to do realistic and significant drama, that has a unique Australian voice. But they really don't know how to do it without it falling into a soap operatic melodrama. Australia, you see, excels at soap opera. They have had worldwide success with all their shows which have melodrama and overwrought plotlines and "serious" acting moments in it.

For example: Neighbours and Home and Away are cheap, and easy to make. They have almost no requirement for skill in either writing or acting talent. They're really good for learning how to organise the production of a TV show, though. These shows are very popular in overseas market who like soap opera cheese.

Macleod's Daughters is an excellent example of being uniquely Australian in its theme, being set in a rural Cattle Station. But it is a relationship drama. It has no real action or adventure elements, except in that typical plot-driven way to push two characters closer together, or further apart. It's entirely about people, and not situations.

Similar concepts are central to shows like Water Rats, A Country Practice, The Flying Doctors, All Saints, Blue Heelers, Seachange, Packed To The Rafters, Stingers, RPA, Young Lions, and pretty much everything else you can think of.

When they try to be a little less melodramatic, and try to emulate the successful American shows, they do what ostensibly ought to work. They take ideas and inspiration from what they perceive to be the successful factors, twist them to fit Australia, then add in some of their own originality.

But the problem is, without fail, they inevitably take the wrong elements from the US shows, then add in either unnecessary "sexy" elements, or melodramatic cliché storylines. It's heartbreaking to see they still haven't learned anything.

What they don't put in is humour. Yeah, some of the characters joke around occasionally, but that's not what I mean. I mean the concept itself has to have a central comedic element to it. The ideas have to be super-real, and stylised, to make it fun, to make the adventure over-the-top just enough to be a rollicking joyride. Instead they lay it thick with realism and drama, sucking the fun out of it, until it's just a bland standard Australian drama, exactly alike to all that has gone before.

Their latest adventure action dramas are Sea Patrol, which is one of the stupidest titles for a show ever, like it was something made up by a twelve year old in 1967, and Rush, which doesn't seem to mean anything, and is just an exciting word they randomly picked from a thesaurus.

Sea Patrol is set on a Navy Frigate, and appears to be about border patrols and stopping the criminals from getting into or out of the country. But, inevitably, what it's really about is who is sleeping with whom on board the ship.

Rush is trying desperately to be an action packed Police Rescue show, so it has tons of people abseiling down buildings, or being stuck in cars precariously sliding over clifftops, or helicopter rescues in floodwaters. Except it's really about who is sleeping with whom back at the Station.

Even the most celebrated mini-series of recent times, Underbelly, based on real events in Australia's history, and widely lauded, is still more notable for how many nudey sex scenes it could cram in.

The UK is great at dramas that are realistic and yet not cloying or melodramatic. America is amazing at coming up with heightened reality, adventure with a sprinkling of self-awareness to make it zing and sparkle off the screen.

Get over it, Australia! Do we have any fantasy adventure shows for adults here? Not one. Do we have any action adventure shows with a stylised plot, and a range of quirky funny characters? Nothing. Do we have any drama at all that doesn't fall back into the "Who is sleeping with whom" premise? God forbid we try something original in this country.

Save us!