House of God

Posted Sunday, February 28, 2010, 10:56 PM


Since beginning modelling in 3D with any earnest, i.e. after I had gotten over the initial stumbling blocks of figuring out how the hell I can make all the myriad of options available to me in Lightwave actually do what I want, there have been a few things that have been near the top of my "want to try making" list.

I have been lucky enough to have had the opportunity to model very cool, and sometimes intricate, things for various projects, such as a steam locomotive, an old truck, a jet fighter plane, and an Imperial Shuttle. I have learned new modelling techniques, how to texture and light things to be as realistic as possible, and what most of the buttons in the menus actually do.

But there are a few things that I have yet to try my hand at, those that I plan to make, one day, when I have some time to spare. These include a steampunk airship, an accurate mediaeval castle, and a fully articulated robot.

But top of the list has always been to do a cathedral.

Cathedrals are arguably the most spectacularly beautiful examples of architecture in mankind's history, and personally are about the only thing I allow the Catholic Church to have gotten right. With huge towers, embellished with spires, and long vaulted halls supported by tall flying buttresses, and a multicoloured rosette window, they are works of art like no other.

There are thousands of cathedrals worldwide, of various designs, but they all have a standard layout they conform to. After all, if they didn't adhere to certain architectural consistencies they'd just be churches or chapels. But these are cathedrals, the grandest and most impressive of the faith-related buildings, and they have a job to do. Which mostly seems to be as tourist attractions.

One cathedral I was particularly impressed by is St Mary's in Sydney. I had a look around inside and out, and was in awe of its scale. Previously all the cathedrals I had visited had been comparatively small, though still with all the prerequisite features. The cathedral I have decided to base my CG model loosely on was randomly chosen from pics online, but turns out to be one based in Washington DC, called the National Cathedral. However, I am taking some liberties, and fudging the design when it's faster and easier to cut corners.

The interesting thing about assembling the model is how intricate and detailed it looks, but really it's very repetitious, with fancy delicate frilly bits and bold statement parts, all being repeated multiple times, sometimes hundreds of times, throughout the design. That means I need only model one spire, and then can copy and paste it 24 times to flesh out the tower details.

The bad things about this approach include that the repetition can sometimes look obvious; and that the high level of detail slows down the computer display, making adding each new level of detail slower and longer.

But in the end it will be worth it.

Alessandra, Magda, Caprica

Posted Saturday, February 20, 2010, 10:26 PM


Another desktop wallpaper, this time of two of the stars of the new show Caprica, which is the prequel series for Battlestar Galactica, covering the gestation of the Cylons.

On the left there is Alessandra Torresani, who plays Zoe Graystone, who dies in the first episode, but her video game avatar lives on inside the body of a robot; and on the right is Magda Apanowicz, who plays Lacy Rand, Zoe's best friend who was unwittingly caught up in the terrorist act that Zoe was killed during.

The original pic is a promo image for the show, but was in portrait orientation. I cut them out of the background, which was a wall of the set from the show, and layered in my own gradients to blend it into the landscape-oriented blank space to the right of the image. Then I just added in the title and their names.

The reason I chose this image is because Magda Apanowicz played my favourite character in the show Kyle XY, and after it was cancelled I was immediately interested in what she was going to do next.

It occurred to me as I was putting this pic together that Magda would be ideal to play Wren in Pegasus Rampant. If it were ever to get made (and it won't, this I know) she would be the kind of actress Wren would have to be played by: the tomboy-next-door.

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Socialising Without Meeting People

Posted Thursday, February 11, 2010, 10:45 AM


I value my solitude. I like the quiet, insular, solitary life I have made for myself. Sometimes I miss a little bit of interaction with others, but I could happily stay indoors and never meet another living soul for days at a time, with no ill effects.

Eventually I know I need to get out there and talk to someone, it's unavoidable, but I try to keep it minimal, enough to keep me happy, and then I can get back into my solitude again.

I don't even like talking on phones. The awkward pauses, the lack of a face to gauge expressions and intent, the crappy reception quality, the inability to do anything else at the same time without it being seriously inconvenient.

Link: 10 Reasons to Avoid Talking on the Phone

That's why I like email as a way to interact instead - it gives me the time to say things clearly, rewrite, rearrange, attach images or links, and generally express myself comfortably. Unfortunately, most of the people I email are really bad at responding to them at all, let alone to every point I need a response about. Maybe three of my regular correspondents give me good emails in return, the rest are horrible at it. Or they can't spell, which also gets on my nerves sometimes.

It seems email is not going to be the primary choice for communication in the future, like I would have expected. For one thing, mobile phones are more prevalent than they ought to be, and still dominate as the method of choice to talk to others. Much to my annoyance.

I do like to use instant messaging. Back in the late 90s, I joined up to ICQ and have been using that ever since. It was really big and popular, at the time, and I "met" a lot of people, some of whom became great friends. However, Instant Messaging has taken a tumble, replaced by SMS texting and Twitter.

I also regularly post on discussion forums, but it's rare to establish a decent community of regulars that way. You'll make friends, perhaps, or at least acquaintances, but generally it's just a big miasma of faceless names, each easily mistaken for another, and also more prone to serious confrontational arguments. This is where flame wars began, and sometimes they can be so serious the forums have to be shut down entirely.

The impending arrival of the live version of Google Wave may make some impact on online communication, as it seems to be a way to concatenate all existing forms of chat into one system with ultimate adaptability and control over how you involve others. But I don't think it's social media as much as corporate. It behaves more like a chat room or virtual meeting, but using existing, recognisable methods like email and instant messaging to interactively communicate with large groups, so it will be perfect for meetings, or discussions, but not so good as a social networking tool.

The two biggest social networking and communication tools currently in action, though, are Twitter and Facebook. I have not joined either, but the world and everyone in it is desperate to get me to be a part of both. And I am wondering if my reluctance to join is justified, and if I should give up on my stubborn refusal, as there may be some small benefits.

I still hesitate.

Every new buzzword widget that gets put out there tries to be the next big thing, and I am always wary. I have seen too many of them burn up and die, usually very soon after ignition, or more likely just after someone like me joins them at long last only to see they missed its peak and it is about to tumble into the abyss of forgotten nothingness.

I am lucky in that has never been me, but other people, though I have witnessed it happen. I can usually predict the inevitable failures with 80% accuracy, so stay away from them. MySpace, for example, I could see would inevitably fall by the wayside. It's no longer the phenomenon it once was, mostly brought on by its horrendously revolting interface and unacceptably bad HTML.

Facebook, on the other hand, was pretty, and gentle on the eyes, and had some actual substance behind its fa├žade. Though I haven't joined it, I at least saw that it had a better future ahead of it. Except, as so often happens, they've started to change some of the fundamentals, and there are rumbles amongst the faithful. If they don't fix some of these issues soon, it could all collapse.

Facebook's singular purpose seems to be to hook up with long lost friends and catch up on what they're all doing with their lives, maybe renew friendships, or make new ones through a chain of "people who know people". I can't see that being very appealing. I moved to Australia to get away from my old life, I don't want to expose myself to them all again. It's almost intrusive. But having said that, there are some friends I truly miss, and wish I could hang out with them again, or at least touch base. I am almost tempted.

Twitter seems to be a way for strangers to talk nonsense, and hopefully occasionally one of them will say something profound with their 140 characters and they'll become a flash-in-the-pan phenomenon for 15 minutes, which might lead to a book deal and an appearance on The View with Barbara Walters and Whoopi Goldberg. I am not a very profound person, especially in 140 characters. My humour is usually absurd or esoteric, my contributions minor and inconsequential. I am a quiet achiever, and don't usually say much in a conversation between more than three people, though I am absorbing everything. I'm not sure if I'd involve myself much.

However. My life is currently in a state of flux. I am running out of money, so I need work - website designs, visual effects, or even writing if I am lucky. Where do I find the people who can help me get those kinds of jobs?

It seems to me I need to network. Socially.

Aha.

Maybe I should join them after all; maybe that's where I'll find my next step in my working and social life that I need to survive.

I think I may have succumbed. But hopefully it's for the right reasons.

Piece By Piece

Posted Saturday, February 6, 2010, 2:11 PM

I made another babe-related wallpaper today, and I thought I'd show how I made it.

To look at it, I hope that you'd think it was a genuine untouched photo. That's certainly my plan most of the time. Whenever I make a matte painting, I try to get it as seamless as I can, so it's sort of become my default approach, though I don't always achieve it (I am notorious for cutting corners and cheating).

So I started with this original photo of actress Missy Peregrym (from the TV show Reaper, and a brief role on Heroes). If you look her up on Google Images, this is the pic you'll find most often.

But there's a minor problem with adapting it directly into a wallpaper - it's in a profile orientation; that is, it's taller than it is wide. I could crop it to fit, which I did try, but it cut off too much of her lower half, which was a great shame; plus, she's so centralised in the framing, it was not as nice a composition.

I took the highest resolution copy of it I could find, kept it full length, and scaled it to the vertical height of my monitor, which is 1050 pixels. Then I expanded the width to 1680px, leaving a huge block of empty space to the right.

There was a second pic I found online, from the same photo shoot, which had a little more of the door behind her, so I knew I could match that up if I distorted it to align the perspective. This filled up about a third of the empty space, but still left a lot more to fill. So I took that same pic, flipped it, and, after more distorting, joined it up like a mirror image. An overlap and a soft edged eraser blended the mismatched edges.

Because simply flipping didn't match exactly, I extended the edges of the panels with the clone stamp tool, maintaining their angle. Then I deleted the light on the wall, eliminating the obvious repetition, and mixed in a dark gradient to keep the corner in shadow. That not only drew the eye to the lighter part of the image, where Missy is standing, but also helped hide the fact that there's no door handle. I bet you didn't notice that.

I removed the word that was painted on the door, and added Missy's name there instead.

But a couple of days later I was looking at it again and I realised a couple of things. One is it had a horrible green tint to the image, presumably as a stylistic choice. I am red-green colour blind so it wasn't as obvious to me as it might have been to others. I have adjusted the tint back to a warmer red.

Then the other thing I did was changed the opposing wall. As it stood, it looked like a door at the end of a narrow corridor, but I think it was more likely to have been a corner of a larger room, so I took the rail and skewed it to be straight, and re-textured the wall to remove the corner-ish nature to it, so now it looked like the room was bigger.

And that's how I did it.

It was a relatively easy pic to put together, too. Some that I have done in the past have been ten times more complex than that. Always fun, though.

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Unjust Criticism

Posted Wednesday, February 3, 2010, 1:59 PM


Avatar has ticked over to be the biggest box-office hit in the history of film, beating James Cameron's previous movie, Titanic, and in a faster timeframe. Now, despite its achievement being trumpeted far and wide, box office take is an unfair measurement, because many other factors helped it to reach this milestone.

Firstly, this number is based on money earned, and not ticket sales; it doesn't accurately compare how many people have actually watched the films. Inflation of ticket prices, for one thing, make a difference. Plus, the ticket prices for 3D showings are higher than 2D, so compared to Titanic, for example, the 3D tickets in 2010 cost nearly twice as much as regular 2D tickets did in 1997.

The novelty of 3D is also a drawcard. Many people, both established fans and newcomers, are drawn to Avatar's cunning use of 3D to enhance the experience, rather than dazzle like a flashy gimmick, and those who have not gone to a 3D film have been enticed into letting Avatar be their introduction to it. More 3D showings coupled with it requiring more expensive tickets, is a potent combination.

On top of that is the fact that Avatar was released worldwide at the same time, a rarity now but virtually unheard of in pre-1995, so it has been less impacted by piracy, and is lucky enough to capitalise on the immediacy of online buzz and promotion. So, though it certainly does have a role to play in the machinations of movie production, you and I can't judge its success just on box office income.

Avatar has its fair share of critics, though. They tend to pick on its simplistic storyline, borrowed as it is from many films of the past, such as Dances With Wolves, The Last Samurai, Ferngully, and even The Smurfs.

They claim it has borrowed liberally from standard tropes, reducing it to a simplistic retelling of a familiar, and flawed, tale. "The Noble Savage" trope is the one I see mentioned most often, which is the assumption that a primitive culture, with its connection and reverence to nature, is inherently good and honourable, as opposed to the cruel and selfish nature of "civilised" man.

The problem with that is the movie clearly shows that the Na'vi have a literal link to Eywa (Gaia), through a biological connector that all the native creatures possess, which they use to join their body and mind to each other. Plus the planet has a literal central nervous system, actually physically located in itself. They do have a connection with Nature, and there it makes sense for them to be more respectful towards it.

Other tropes include the weapon- and destruction-mad military leader, the corrupt corporate executive, the turncoat within the ranks, and, most obvious of all, the interloper who falls in love with the Chief's daughter. But every story has its tropes. They say there are only a few storylines anyway, and every story ever told takes elements from those and twists them into something new.

James Cameron had a few agendas he was trying to fulfil. First and foremost, he had a feast of visuals he wanted to showcase. The easiest way to do that is to have a simple, and not a complex, storyline to let us explore the world as we watch. Second, he had new technology he wanted to play with, and utilise as fully as he could. He managed to do that by having 75% of the story take place in Pandora's jungles, where all the characters are virtual CGI creations. And, by definition, the Na'vi lead simple lives, and therefore have simple characterisations.

And he was also trying to entertain. There's a fine line between complex and complicated. In the past decade, there have been only three movie series that have seriously contended the Titanic throne of success. They are The Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Harry Potter.

Lord of the Rings had the toughest job, in having to take a long and multi-layered storyline, revered amongst nerds everywhere, and reduce it down to nine hours of solid entertainment. This required heavy excision, rearrangement, and simplification.

Harry Potter was based on simple storylines, but very very long books, so had to take out huge swathes of subplot to keep them down to watchable lengths.

Both of those plot-altering decisions were lambasted by purists and nerds who have too much time on their hands. And yet, despite this: box-office slam-dunk blockbusters, every man jack of them.

But Pirates of the Caribbean had almost an open canvas, and used that as an opportunity to prove that complexity can have a place in a fun fantasy adventure, if you want. This was not the best thing it could have done, as the last of the trilogy was generally considered the lesser, simply because its complex characters and storyline confused and irritated too many (Though I do not count myself among them, as I absolutely loved it, especially after watching it repeatedly on DVD where the plot starts to straighten itself out more).

What does that, and Avatar's success, prove? That simplicity can be great, and is often better than unnecessary complexity. Complicated multi-layered plots and characters are perfectly suited for a family drama or political thriller, but all a fantasy adventure needs are simple, straightforward, excuses for fun and excitement. Anything more is just inviting criticism and confusion, and, worse, impending box-office failure.

Having said that, I have no doubts that James Cameron's plans for the sequel, which will inevitably arrive sooner than you'd think, is to amp up the ante in both visuals and storyline. He won't fall back on a rehash of what he's already told, and will need to develop a few extra levels of complexity to keep everyone's attention. And, just as I was with the expectation of Avatar's runaway success, I am confident that he will deliver it again.