Evolution of an Airship

Posted Friday, October 26, 2012, 11:20 AM

When I decided to make my first short film, Eleanor Xandler: Temporal Detective, I knew immediately I would have to film the entire thing on greenscreen. I wanted to have real locations, but that was just so difficult and complicated to achieve as they had to be so specific in their look, and there was at least one part of the story that had to be on greenscreen anyway, that it made sense to just shoot everything in one place and fill in the backgrounds later.

There are flaws with this approach. When it's been done before in the past it has had a spotty success, and this is from professionals who really know what they're doing. Films like Sky Captain, the Star Wars prequels, Lord of the Rings, and King Kong, all have at least some greenscreen in every single shot, and a few environments that are entirely digital from top to bottom - and yet, to me, it's somehow glaringly obvious. Something about the compositing, the lighting, the staging, the artificiality, I'm not sure what, gives it away, at least to me. Even Avatar was convincing only a few times.

This gives me hope. My compositing skills are not ever going to be at professional level quality, but as, apparently, that can be a bit dodgy at the best of times I am in good company.

The first artificial background I have begun creating is for the opening sequence. I figure chronological order is as good a place to start as any. This means a cloud-filled sky, and a Steampunk Airship called The Wandering Star.

My first image is crude and simplistic. That's because I quickly slapped this model together in less than an hour, as a guide to show the cast and crew what we were filming. It oriented them somewhat, and gave them something to imagine was surrounding them as they stood in an endless sea of green.

After filming was complete I began to model the final version, carefully going through it step by step to include as much detail as I could. My normal approach to 3D modelling is to be a bit slapdash, to save time, cutting corners where things won't be seen, trying to find short-cuts to achieve the look I'm after. But this time I couldn't afford to be so cheap with my attention, and tried to give the model all the detail it needed, even if it meant hours of just pushing points around in a mundanely dull fashion.

The above image is a good start, but notice on the image below that there is an adjustment between the two. The windows are bigger, the railing is thicker and closer spaced. That's because I realised the scale was wrong.

I imagined the Wandering Star as a two-person vessel, that being Eleanor and her robot pilot Gadzooks. Therefore space to move could be minimal. She's not going to be playing Shuffleboard on the Lido Deck, after all, but she might have a passenger. I adjusted the scaling to a more logical size, from 25m down to 16m long. This is not only more realistic a scale, it also means she doesn't get too tiny in the shot when the framing shows the full profile of the airship.

I then added in the water tanks. Being steampunk, there needs to be steam. That means a lot of coppery brassy tanks and pipes and whatnot, so I put in the engines that drive the propellers. I also bought a plugin for Lightwave, a handy automatic rope generator that allows me to concentrate on the placement of the rope in a simple string, and it automatically fills in the twisty detail. The ropes do make the model polygon-heavy, which causes a bit of a slowdown, but it's well worth it. They add a level of realism that brings it to life, especially when twisted around the block-and-tackle.

Texturing is a complicated procedure, something I've never been very good at. You have to adjust so many factors to get things looking right that it gets bogged down in maths and angles and trickery that I frankly struggle under the weight of. Colour, diffusion, specularity, reflectivity, occlusion, transparency...

The brass and deck textures are relatively straight forward. Brass wraps around everything evenly, so it just has to be a golden metallic colour applied on all things I have deemed should be brassy. The deck is flat, and can have the texture projected directly from above. But the rest of the objects all have UV maps.

UV maps are when you unwrap an object, especially one with an unusual shape, so that it lays flat within a square page. That way you can apply the texture as a 2D image and it will apply itself to each individual polygon consistently. If you then subsequently move, rotate, or scale the object the texture remains fixed where you want it. But unwrapping each object into its UV shape is fiddly work. The weird shape of the airship's hull means I have to wrap a wooden plank texture that follows the curvature logically, with no distortion or irregularity. Laboriously adjusting the UV point by point is the only way to achieve that.

As I continued to apply the textures one by one I adjusted the model to fit. I'd suddenly have an idea of what should be wood, what brass, to give it that industrial elegance that steampunk requires. The rudder, for example, I was looking at in its plain wooden state and just thought it looked boring. So I added a brass strip and some bolts. Then another. Then some hinged joints. And some cog gearwheels. Suddenly it looked like it actually operated in a mechanical way, something quite elaborate yet logical. I am now tempted to adjust some of the other parts of the ship to match...

This is the final model of the ship, from the angle it will be seen most often, and in profile as it will rarely be seen at all.

Someone pointed out to me that the placement of the balloon causes an apparent imbalance that would make the rear of the ship topple backwards. But hey, it's science fiction. Technically the balloon isn't big enough to lift the vessel at all. I moved the balloon that far forward to give a sense of speed and dynamism to the design of the ship, though most of the time you won't see the ship from that side and it won't look quite so awkward in motion. But if it makes you feel any better, imagine there's a heavy counterweight in the forward hold.

More Punk, Less Steam

Posted Tuesday, September 4, 2012, 9:56 PM

It was a long time coming. I have helped out on other films for the last twenty years, off and on, in both small and large capacities. An aborted attempt at helming my own a few years ago discouraged me a bit, but at long last I finally committed to an idea that really spoke to me as being a decent bit of fun, and last weekend I went ahead and directed my very first film shoot.

Leading up to the shoot day I was not at all nervous, and that surprised me. I was concerned that I'd forget something, and I wasn't entirely confident that people would listen to me and do what I ask of them, but it turned out those worries only led me to take extra care and do things right. By knowing my film sideways and backwards I had a clear picture of what I wanted, which meant I could answer questions with precision, and present myself as confident and focused. That seemed to cause everyone to respond, and led to a fast shoot, a fun day, and a creative atmosphere.

It did help that most of the crew were already friends of mine who trusted me, but there were a couple of other things that really helped me along. The costume design by Alex Chambers of Clockwork Butterfly was exquisite, and the props built by Adam Gill were perfect. That combination, when seen on my actors Sarah Breen and Phil Zachariah, as they recited their lines in the first takes, brought my vision to life, and everybody on set could see now what I was trying to create. It proved to them, and more importantly to myself, that I could do this.

I was on my feet all day. Every time I sat down, not two minutes later I was called away to something new. I had to prepare a few shots ahead at every step, I had to make sure all my crew were doing what they needed to do, knew what they needed to know, and were as busy as they needed to be, to keep them alert, interested, and informed. And it seemed to work.

I had a lot of fun, and it was strangely compelling to be in charge, something I've never felt comfortable with in the past. I think in my heart I am a co-Director, and would also love to be a co-Writer, but stepping up to the plate to take full charge is now something else I think I can do occasionally.

I will be editing a rough cut of the footage over the next couple of weeks, and then preparing the assets for the backgrounds over the coming months. A greenscreen shoot means every single shot has to be composited in, and that's potentially fifty different images and animations. It sounds like a lot, but really it's only three distinct "locations" I have to build - the airship, the exterior of the building, and the interior of the building. There are a few additional special effects like the Time Vortex and the weapons powering up, but they'll be relatively straightforward I think.

It's all in hand. I am confident I can do everything I have set before me, and have people to help when it starts to get complicated or falls into zones I'm less familiar with. This is finally happening.

More Steam, Less Punk

Posted Sunday, June 17, 2012, 10:53 PM

Steampunk means different things to different people. Indeed, to a large chunk of the viewing public it doesn't mean anything at all, as they have no idea what you're talking about. But to the geeks who are into it, it's a kind of retro-style science fiction that has great appeal.

Based on the Jules Verne, HG Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs era of adventure stories, it stems from a time when steam, clockwork, and airships dominated technology and therefore influenced their futurism. Aeroplanes, cars, and computers weren't easy for the writers to imagine, so they tended to just extrapolate from what they knew. Now it comes across as antiquated, but nonetheless quite stylish, and the naivete of their predictive tales have a compelling charm.

The key element for modern Steampunk adventure seems to be entirely aesthetic. You have to get the look right first, then after that the story fits within. The plot doesn't necessarily have to revolve around steam, though the limits of the technology of the time can play a part. But even that doesn't always apply, as new tech will have evolved to fill in some gaps. So you might have a road vehicle of sorts, but it will travel at 30mph and need a refill of coal instead, or there may only be airships, but they're small, efficient, and as manoeuvrable as a helicopter.

Many times I have thought about how I'd do Steampunk, given the opportunity, and I have devised a base that I think it would need to follow on from. First, the internal combustion engine doesn't get invented, so that means the aeroplane doesn't get invented either, nor cars, diesel or electric trains, and any sea-going steamships are limited in speed.

Then what if WWI doesn't occur. That would mean certain changes in attitudes that happened after are no longer initiated; which would be compounded further if there were no WWII either, as it was an era where views on equality and racism started to change. So if those huge world events never occurred, that would mean many old-fashioned attitudes would still linger.

But having said that, if we were to set the story in our own current year, via a Steampunk history, there would still be sociological development, and a certain amount of modern attitude would inevitably happen no matter what was different in the recent past, which opens up the world to strong-willed dynamic female characters, even if a lot of sexism still remains.

Also, a steam and coal based history means we still need to utilise horses for much of our transport needs, and therefore cobblestones would remain common. The smoke would cause all sorts of havoc to the climate, forming a thick grey cloud layer, leaving a grimy scum on water and every other surface, and an acrid everpresent stink of smoke and oil.

People would therefore dress accordingly, hence the prevailing popularity in Steampunk of thick wool and leather coats, goggles, and sturdy boots. The adherence of a Victorian fashion sensibility doesn't necessarily make sense unless you keep the story set in the era of the late 1800s or early 1900s, so many stories remain in that era, but my approach of no World Wars, which had sparked such changes as trousers for women, and fabrics developed for comfort and practicality, would explain why those never develop in my Steampunk universe.

A year or so ago, I was thinking about what it would take to make a short Steampunk film, and the problem that stopped me from proceeding was the need to find a lot of very specific stylish costumes for the characters, and very specific kinds of locations that would require a lot of props and expensive set designs.

But having recently completed a lot of 3D backgrounds for a short film that was shot entirely on greenscreen, the realistic results buoyed me somewhat and convinced me that we don't always need a real location to achieve a believable quality image. And as time goes on and our skills and equipment improve it only gets easier.

As much as real locations always look better than anything wholly artificial, I believe that if I do it right I can create something believable enough we can get away with it. Shadows, depth of field, and a great foreground to draw the eye will help hide the digital nature of our sets.

And so I have decided that my next production will be a Steampunk short film. We've already begun pre-production. I will be Directing, my first time at that most important of roles. In the past I've only ever been anonymous crew or post-production. I have sort of semi-co-Directed with my mate Rob on some little productions, but really it wasn't much more than as an assistant-poke-my-nose-in with no real responsibilities to stress me out, so this will be a whole new experience for me. I have tried to Direct once before, but I was discouraged by the rigmarole of preparing that shoot, things just never worked out the way they should've. Locations are harder to find, not only because people demand some kind of money for the use of them, but also the higher restrictions on what you can do and where you can go, due to the weird paranoid privacy issues that have evolved in the last decade.

This time, though, not only am I more confident with my own vision, I have already figured out how to work around the usual stumbling blocks we may encounter, by having a minimal number of actors, no live locations, a controlled environment, and a very short and simple shot list. I have every confidence this will work out very well.

I hope.

Blu-Rays Make Me Blue

Posted Saturday, May 19, 2012, 11:34 AM

Early last year my TV ran out of steam. It was on its last legs for quite a while, but a few kludgey fixes via my technologically minded friend Adam, and a couple of judiciously placed bangs to the case seemed to fix it, until one day nothing I did worked anymore and it was consigned to the forever after. At that point I had no job and even less money, so I just had no TV for what turned out to be around 8 months, and I watched all my TV online instead. I don't actually watch that much free-to-air TV locally anyway, I download it all. It may or may not be legal, but they get more real money from my DVD purchases than they ever got from my watching an ad. Plus my watching does not affect ratings measurements, so whatever. In the end, no TV wasn't too much of a loss.

Eventually I got a new job, which is still going very well, thanks for asking, and could afford a new TV, which I purchased late in 2011; as this time it was an HD set I figured the least I should do to take advantage of that is buy a BluRay player; there certainly isn't any HD content to speak of on TV, which is ridiculous, so this is the only way to see HD in all its glory.

I made a decision pretty early on that I would buy most new movies as BluRays, unless there was no advantage from them, such as a comedy or romance, something without interesting visuals. And I would purchase only a few of my existing catalogue in BluRay, movies that I love and watch repeatedly. For the most part I have kept to that, especially when they're at affordable prices.

But it wasn't long before I began to suspect that BluRay wasn't all that special. I had always had doubts that higher resolution was all that much of an improvement over DVD, but now I saw that I was right. There is an increased sharpness, no compression artefacts, better range of gradient colours (no banding), and some extra detail in shadows, but in the overall scheme of things those are very minor improvements, and in some cases even those don't apply - the DVD copies are plenty fine. BluRay players and HDTVs both "upscale" a DVD, the higher spec components improving the image quality.

So I have made a second decision, and that is BluRay is only worth it if it's on sale. Otherwise I'll most likely get the DVD every time. If it wasn't for the fact that some BluRays have better Extra Features (a conspiracy they've implemented to encourage BluRay purchase) I wouldn't even hesitate. And these days I'm getting a bit bored with Extras as they are usually three minute sound-bite patronising self-congratulatory crap in fast cut edits. Ugh.

When they created the BluRay standard, it was competing directly with HD-DVD, a system that arguably would've had better features, but eventually capitulated under pressure from Studio support going to their competitor. I think BluRay rushed their development, and missed a lot of useful features that could've made the system robust and future-proofed. Instead they concentrated only on slightly more dynamic interactive menus and stupid interfering crap.

Here are a few things wrong with BluRays:
  1. When one starts, it asks for a language setting. That should be a default setting in the player, so the disc automatically plays in the language of choice, instead of just sitting there waiting for input.
  2. Many BluRay discs have copy protection, which slows down startup to sometimes as much as five or six minutes of pissing about. I don't know what it's actually doing, but it's the most annoying crap ever. Plus copy protection is a waste of time, it doesn't stop the Pirates and only inconveniences the legitimate buyer. Just stop it, already.
  3. Trailers are still sometimes unskippable. Fuck that.
  4. There should be a way for the player to detect the current date, and change the trailers to adjust their "Only In Theatres" to "Now Available On Disc" after six months.
  5. After the second time you've played the disc, the trailers don't need to play automatically anymore. Or those stupid disclaimers. Or any of the other crap that clutters up startup of a disc. We've seen them already, no need to subject us to them forever.
  6. BluRays have 25GB of space on the disc, single layer. A Dual-Layer disc has 50GB. You could store two entire seasons of a TV show each made up of 22 x 42m episodes, in 720p HD, and yet the box-sets come on as much as five discs per season. It's bullshit designed to make it seem like you're getting what you're paying for, but it's just an absurd hassle to be forced to get up and swap discs all day.
  7. BD-LIVE is a joke. You need an absurdly good internet connection for downloading, which I do not, and a home theatre system that works in tandem reliably, which is an almost impossible task, and in the end all you get out of it is nothing anybody could possibly find entertaining.
Here are a few things worth getting BluRays for:
  1. The image is prettier.
  2. The menus are easier to use, though they are a little bit confusing occasionally.
  3. If you want 3D, this is the only format that can do it. But 3D is a fool's errand.
  4. Apparently the sound is better. I am not very good with audio so I can't tell.
  5. That's about it.
Here are some good things about my new home theatre arrangement, though.

HDMI, which is the cable connections between an HDTV and the BluRay player, via the AV Receiver as the main unit, makes for interactivity between all the devices. I can turn the TV on and my AV Receiver will turn on and switch to the optimum settings I've preset. I turn on the BluRay player, and the AV and TV turn on. Same when I turn one off. At first I had bought a universal remote to do all that, but turns out I didn't need to, and in fact it was more annoying than just swapping remotes anyway. Plus I can adjust things like channels and audio on one remote because of how HDMI works.

I download a lot of TV, and they come in two formats. It used to be only AVI, compressed in DivX, but recently they've added MP4, compressed in H264, which makes for smaller file sizes, faster downloads, and better quality image. However, there's a problem. The only way to reliably watch the AVIs on my TV is to save them to a USB stick and watch them through my BluRay player. Whereas the only way to watch the MP4s is to connect my TV directly into the Network. Any other method for each causes glitches. This is because of the brand of my devices, in this case Panasonic. Other brands do things slightly differently.

I admit these are 21st Century Problems. I live in a future arguably better than projected by science fiction. My ability to watch any TV shows from around the world, any movies only a short few months after cinema release, under my personal control, is an incredible situation that if I could've imagined it when I was a kid would have blown my mind to smithereens. But really it is a shame that a few missteps make the whole thing that much more irritating than it needs to be.


Posted Monday, April 2, 2012, 8:18 PM

Over the last ten years, I have had a hobby that has occupied an awful lot of my time, but has taken a long time to show results. Visual Effects was, at one time, what I hoped my career would be, but it hasn't worked out quite that way - currently I do 3D animation, which is tangentially related but not the same thing.

So instead I do it as a hobby, which means I've only ever done it for the films of my friends. Luckily, my friends make loads of films, some of which have needed a lot of visual effects, both very visible, and very much hidden. Sure I've had to make digital video displays, and flying spacecraft, and firing a rocket launcher, all spectacular and obviously not real, but I've also had to hide cables and film equipment, extend sets, and block in trees on the horizon, things that go by without you noticing.

Last Friday night we debuted the Finally Finished Film Festival, three very different films from three very different Directors, each of which had taken a long time to get made.

For Next, a comedy by Peter Sims, it was his first film, which I'm sure made him nervous, and the responsibilities were sometimes a little overwhelming for him. Plans to edit it himself were eventually put onto someone else to do. Visual Effects, done by myself, took some time to do as I had other priorities. Sound and music always take time to get right.

For Red, a dark take on a familiar fairy tale by Darren Maxwell, it was pre-production that took the time. A lot of money, a lot of people, a lot of details to get ready before you can shoot. Post production was relatively speedy, but the visual effects were a bit of a struggle. Some of the photography was a bit rough, and a couple of on-set effects needed tweaking, so fixing that and getting a decent result was hit-and-miss. We did our best, though, and after grading it looked pretty okay.

For Checkpoint, a WWII film by Rob Hamilton, it was a huge effort. Post production is where most of the delays happened, some of it because we kept adding new shots and scenes to the film. I had to model a huge steam locomotive, a DC3 plane and an airfield, an Opel Blitz German truck, the streets of a French village, and more besides. It was a huge effort on my part. Plus I co-edited, and we wanted a talented music composer to create our score (and he lived overseas), plus sound effects always take ages. Couple that with a little bit of despondency for a while that interrupted our post-production flow, and it was quite a long period of time before it was complete.

But they are now done, and they coincidentally happened to be ready at approximately the same time, which was perfect for all three films, plus a few teasers for upcoming projects, to be shown.

Around 60 people showed up to watch them with us, not all of whom were directly involved with these productions, which was very gratifying. And the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. Checkpoint was the film I had the most involvement with, more than everything I've ever worked on before, so the encouraging reaction was a real boost to my self-esteem.

We already have plans for new productions, some are quite challenging, some very exciting. Only a few are likely to progress to the next step, so I won't reveal any details of them just yet, but rest assured I will have a lot of fun making them, and cannot wait to start.