Demo 2017 – A Storm in a Teacup

My 2017 demo, A Storm in a Teacup, is out!

Last year I put the focus on technical stuff: Bifrost water, nHair, rigging. Although it was a great learning experience, it fell short on a visually appealing standpoint. This year I made it my mission to make it entertaining for someone who’s not in my head to know these characters (aka everyone else). I decided to put the focus on animation!

I’ll be reviewing how I got to complete this demo.

 

Concept

When I think of something easily eye-catching, I immediately think of action sequences. However if I’m going to spent months working on something it as to be on something I love. I want to convey a story. Ideally I want to build on the world I’ve been working on for a while now. In the early stages I titled that story “Procella” which is latin for “stormy sea” because saying things in latin makes you sound smarter right? Yeah… I changed that for Fishpants. Short, sweet, rolls off the tongue, ladies love it… They will.

Which leads me to the tone I want to give my action sequence. There are two tones you can give a good action sequence: Dramatic and Comedic. As drama without build up and care for the characters always fall flat (I don’t have a counter example so I’ll use the word always for now), I decided to go for the comedic approach.

Now. How do I make a comedic action sequence fit in my universe? To those that don’t know much about Fishpants; what is left of humanity has been living in underwater cities for the last 20 years. You don’t get to “play outside” much. So what is bound to get pretty universally popular? Video games. Only when you’re making do to survive I bet making video games might not exactly be a booming industry. Noe is… well without going too much into it, let’s say she’s a pariah in need of a popularity boost. She’s also one of those fantasy tech characters that can build anything given the means. So why not make one?

And there we go. Fighting game parody. This also has the added perk of letting me do over the top fighting, which let’s be honest: Is pretty damn entertaining.

 

Storyboard

Storyboarding is something I had foregone last year. Mistakes were made. It is such a crucial step. At first glance you might think it’s a waste of time and/or restraining. What it really does is saving you a lot of time and letting you focus on the important stuff. Never going to see that side of the room? Don’t model it. The character is not in the shot? Don’t animate it. You end up thinking something would be better done a different way? Change it. The storyboard isn’t made of stone.

It also lets you control the length and pacing. You know where a shot ends up on the scale of the entire animation.

I hand-drew my storyboard. Paper might not be ecologically friendly, but it doesn’t run out of battery when you carry it along to work on it whenever you have a chance.

 

Modeling

I’ll freely admit I spent waaaay more time on the characters than the environment. You have to choose your battles. My characters were essential, my environment wasn’t. Also having good geometry on my characters makes it so much easier to rig. It’s just a good time investment.

I did most of the modeling in Maya, fine-tuned some in Zbrush and redid the characters and clothes’ topology in Topogun.

I had intended on using lots of royalty free assets from the web to clutter the rooms up without spending time I’d rather put on something else, but they cranked my polycounts too high and lengthened my renders too much for what I was aiming for. Sorry if that makes it feel like the room they’re fighting in is an empty can instead of the junk dumpster I had first envisioned.

A notable difference from last year: I modeled the hair as geometry. I ended up not using the nHair animation I spent a lot of time on last time, so I decided not to go that route this year. Saves a lot of render time too.

Oh. And if anyone can tell what I used as reference for Noe’s work-out outfit, color me impressed. Tell you what I’ll invite you to dinner, just send me an email (you can find it in the About tab).

 

Texturing

I used Mari again this year for the characters. It is an amazing software that lets you paint seamless textures directly on your geometry once you get the hang of it. Although it is way too expensive if you’re on your own, there is a free version you can use as long as you don’t need too high of a resolution.

It is to be noted that for best result you should do your UVs differently as you would for a game asset. Basically it is less about optimizing your space and more about making them as flat as possible while keeping the proportions they have on the actual geo.

If you do it right you can apply a tileable skin texture as a base and go fix the seams on your model. I also use skin scans for pores and wrinkles painting. I didn’t go as far as painting blood vessels and the nuances between the different sub scattering maps as I did last year for several reasons. First and most important: I had to pump my renders to ridiculous levels to see the difference last year, which was okay for stills but utterly useless for the actual animation.

Actually the best textures I got in the demo are Noe’s eyes as far as I’m concerned. Which is fine as a stylized look is pretty much the best I can achieve with realistic render times.

 

Rigging

Time to take the bull by the horns! How can I optimize the ratio Rig quality/time invested? Let’s remember that my focus this time is animation. I checked a couple of Rig scripts and came to the conclusion that using one to get the skeleton rig out of the way sped things and depending on the script even made the quality go up as long as you don’t depend on it for everything (A rig script is a tool, not a magic wand.).

I ended up using the Advanced Skeleton Script to get the character skeletons, even tried the facial one for John (That was a mistake, but eh… worth trying I guess). I redid the weight painting manually (automated processes rarely gets things right). Then did Noe’s facial rig and connected it to the skeleton. I used the Shapes plugin for sculpting the body deformations and Zbrush for the facial blend shapes.

I encountered a bug with the way I rigged my Eyelids. I used Marco Giordano’s technique (you can find his stuff here: https://vimeo.com/66583205. It’s my favorite eyelid setup. Gives you incredible control over it while making nice blinks and follow-along eye direction. I’m saddened that I’ll probably have to find something else next time. Basically when you move the character around too much, it breaks the blink function. You can emulate it by grabbing the controllers and doing it manually, but it kind of defeats the purpose. I had found a fix for it last year, but it only lessen the issue. It’s fine if you move the character a little bit, not if you have her do acrobatics. If anyone knows any good ones I’m all ears. Preferably one that is not dependent on a plug-in as it can cause problems if working with a render farm.

Besides John’s face being too stiff for my tastes and Noe’s eyelid bug, the rigs came out pretty well. I’d probably do a FK/IK switch positioning script next time though. It didn’t seem like a big deal at first, but I would definitely have saved time on the long run.

 

Animation

I took references from Kung Fu movies, video games (dah… or should I say DOA?), acrobats, a rifle shooting range, a bo staff instructor and of course yours truly. Taking video reference is the best excuse to fight invisible enemies as an adult.

As an experiment I started out trying to keep the animation rhythm on a 120 tempo (I’m working on 30 fps which makes it 15 frames per beat) to make it easier for music to go along with it (I already knew I’d have Martin work on that.), but ended up dismissing that rule once it got in the way of good pacing. As an example, in retrospect Noe’s first dash would have looked better if I hadn’t bothered with that. Again, it’s a learning experience. It’s always worth giving it a shot.

One of those experiments that turned out good are the slow motion shots. If you’re wondering, I slow-motioned my own movements to set the timing when shooting my video references, there was no post-processing involved there.

Animation is just so much fun. I really had a blast.

 

Lighting

In the fighting stage, most of the lighting came from area lights on the ceiling. You can see them in that one shot where Noe lands in the middle of them in the finale.

The other lights are small spot lights linked only to the eyes of the characters. In some points it makes them too bright, but without them they were way too dark most of the time. I believe it has something to do with how I setup my geo and materials for the cornea and the eye. The shadows become overwhelming where there’s no light going directly in them. It was cheaper render wise to do it that way than to add bounces for the entire room.

In Noe’s room, contrarily as in the teaser, I had a single light source which I gave a cold tint to give the feeling they were lit up by the screen they’re playing on. It came out okay.

 

Audio

Martin was in charge of the music this year too. You can check out his stuff over here (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC4pwSInr5q9frXk0jiAqFvw). He went for a style reminiscent of the 80’s to mesh with the light hearted tone of the animation. It’s a fight but no one is actually getting hurt no matter what the voice acting might let you think.

Speaking of voice acting. Christine Slagman took on the role of Noe in this demo. Her voice acting is top notch. You can find her stuff here (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCc_R2OPK8CUHOeiqm8I0x4g). On top of the dialogue she sent me a plethora of combat grunts to work with.

I voiced John and the Belefrog. Because I can. And it makes me giggle inside.

Martin also took care of editing the voices in the dialogue so they mesh with one another and with the music.

All that was left was creating and using a library of sound effects for the hits, firearm and mechanic sounds. I recorded most of them myself by hitting in a taekwondo training shield and a frying pan, by dropping metaling objects or falling to the ground. The only sounds I took from royalty free sources on the web were the laser shot, the weapon transformation and the sick gooey stab sound.

 

Rendering

Hello Darkness my old friend…

No seriously. It wasn’t a too much of a hassle this time around. I had planned from the very beginning to make it work and it showed. It also helps that Google Cloud Platform offers a 400$ trial which applies to their Zync Render Farm. As you might have seen in my earlier posts, I compared Arnold CPU rendering with Redshift GPU rendering in the context of my PC setup. Redshift was definitely faster, but I ended up using Arnold, which I already have a license for. It’s also integrated in Maya in the 2017 version which made it even easier.

 

Conclusion

I upped myself again. And while that is a reward in and for itself, I’d like to also say I’m happy with how it turned out. I couldn’t say the same last year. There’s definitely room for improvement (Isn’t there always?), but I think it is reaches the target I had set for myself for this demo and I hope it will grab the attention of my peers and public as I’m looking for my place in the animation industry.

Since I found the facial expressions to be stiff this time, I’ll probably focus on that on my next project.