Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Tree Quadtych

Scanning a tree

I was kicking around the park while my daughter was furiously trying to learn the monkey bars (No help daddy!). To kill some time I took photos of a tree with my phone. The tree was in the shade so I figured I could do a low-quality photogrammetry pass on it. It turned out blobby but usable. Not bad for an old Iphone 6.

I pulled the normals and displacement in Xnormal. There was still a lot of directional light in the diffuse so I de-lit the diffuse in photoshop using the world normal of the lighting direction as a color mask. Also did some color correction.

I used Substance Painter to create a roughness map using the curvature, occlusion and some procedurals. Rather than guess at a roughness range I checked the histogram of a quixel tree scan's roughness then crammed mine into that range.

Working the model

Then I had a perfectly fine tree model. But that's boring. I thought it might be cool to make a quadtych. 4 distinct images that make up a larger one. I wanted to upload it to instagram and thought I could post the 4 images sequentially so the full image could be scrolled through one piece at a time. I wanted the images to get progressively more surreal as they went. Images below, rotated vertical for format.

The work was done in Maya. The ferns and wood slices are quixel. Render in Arnold. Tentacles in Xgen. Post in Photoshop. Full render below.

If you want to learn more about photogrammetry and have an hour to spare, everything is covered in detail in the amazing Star Wars: Battlefront GDC presentation.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Comeback Kid

I made an unofficial music video for the band The Midnight. Check it out.

I've been a huge fan ever since their first ep. Last father's day my amazing wife surprised me with a plane ticket to San Francisco to see their first show. For their first show the band had put out a call on facebook for music videos of their songs. The best videos would be played at the concert while they performed. That sounded like a good excuse for me to get back into after effects. I love the cover art for their album "Endless Summer" so I decided to see if I could make an entire video inspired by the image.

My goal was to make something abstract, retro and colorful. First I dug up a bunch of ballet footage, edited various clips to the song and did a bunch of time-warping. I comped in clips of the aurora borealis, smoke, storm clouds and earth from space. I timewarped and scaled the footage to make abstract compositions that complimented the motion of the dancers. I wanted each clip to almost work as a standalone image.

I HATE rotoscoping. There was SO MUCH rotoscoping in this. There are still shots that could use some rotoscoping but I just can't. For instance, there's a long sequence near the beginning that is comped over star-field footage. I spent days rotoscoping the entire sequence so the star-field wasn't visible through the dancers. Somehow the roto got messed up and I couldn't fix it. I couldn't bring myself to re-roto the entire thing. The same thing happened with the close-up of ballet shoes near the beginning. I wanted the shoes and their reflection to be blue while the background was pink. Unlike the starfield example I really wanted this look so I re-rotod the entire thing. Hundreds of frames.

I still get PTSD when I see this clip

As for the effects stack, it was an evolution of techniques I learned while making this:

A BRIEF OVERVIEW: I imported the footage into after effects. I turned the footage grayscale and pixelated it. I created a 3d camera and offset the pixels in the z axis based on their luminescence value. I made several duplicate layers and added my favorite free plugin VC color vibrance to make each layer a different color. I offset and rotoscoped the duplicate layers. I used scanline footage to drive opacity and distortion. Finally I added glow and flickering to give it a hologram feel. I had originally added a bunch of noise and static to give the video a VHS look. It was way too effective and made the video seem tacky so I removed it. That's what gave me the overall look of the piece. Outside of that there was a lot of shot specific stuff. This was my first completed long form video and it took me FOREVER. I've been working on this video in my spare time for the better part of a year.

As for the concert, I missed the deadline to turn in the video. I had a complete edit but I knew it needed polish so I didn't submit it. I guess I thought that the other people submitting videos were also in the effects industry. That was not the case. The video they ended up playing for this song at the concert was a simple mashup of Karate Kid and Turbo Kid footage. I was kicking myself. On the positive side, without a deadline I was able to casually give the video the polish I thought it needed. Even without my video, I had an amazing time at the show. Easily my favorite concert.

A post shared by Jason Baldwin (@jasonsbaldwin) on

I hung out with the band afterwards and promised them that someday I'd finish this video. Great guys.

On a complete side note, this photo was what made me decide to get into shape. You'd think a picture with your favorite band would be social media-worthy, but I was so disappointed by how overweight I'd gotten in this photo that I never showed it to anyone. I've been hitting the gym and eating better ever since. It's been a tough journey and I've still got a long way to go, but I'm seeing progress. I'll write about it when I finally hit my target BMI.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

DJ Roadhouse spins the biggest 80's hits of 2017

Turntables are fun

Around the year 2001 I was at a friend's house playing with his cheap turntables. I was having a blast trying to match beats with his small record collection. He casually mentioned,"I'll sell you my setup for 100 bucks.".

"Sold" I said.

I was suddenly the owner of two proper viynl turntables, a coffin a and a mixer. This was the pre-youtube era, so I had to teach myself how match beats and mix by ear without the aid of the internet. It was incredibly hard, but I loved the scene so much that kept at it till I could pull it off. Once I'd learned to mix I became a regular at my favorite local Portland Oregon record store, Platinum Records. I have fond memories sipping stumptown coffee and sampling records on the in-store turntables, debating which vinyls were worth $10 for a single and a B-side.

DJ Roadhouse

When I was in highschool I lived in the small town of Longview Washington. Everyone in my school got their nickname from the gym coach, who's last name was Lupin but we all called him "the peen". To this day I don't know his first name. He was known only as "The Peen". The Peen gave everyone in his weightlifting class a nickname and that nickname stuck for life. Sometimes his nicknames were brutal, as was case of the overweight student, Shane Graves, who got his lifelong nickname one day as The Peen walked by and said,

"...graves... like gravy. Gravy train. That's your name. Gravy Train."

And for the rest of his life Shane Graves was known as Gravy. Suffice to say, getting a nickname by "The Peen" was  huge deal. One day he walked by me and said,

"Jason Baldwin... JB... I saw a restaurant called JB's Roadhouse. I was gonna name you roadhouse... but then I realized it wasn't JB's Roadhouse but it was BJ's Roadhouse. But I don't care. From now on you're Roadhouse."

I tried to protest, but once The Peen gave you a nickname, it was for life. My friends thought it was hilarious, and from then on whenever I'd DJ a show in my hometown they would make sure it was under the moniker DJ Roadhouse.

I went to college in Portland's Pearl District. Once the school found out I was a DJ they started offering me a few bucks to dj for their monthly open house. I spun a mix of progressive house and downtempo jazz. From there I met a few local business owners and ended up DJing for local art Galleries, Fashion shows and even a the Local Diesel store. I was riding high when technology caught up with me. Everyone was moving over to digital decks. Vinyl was a thing of the past. CD DJ's were the new thing. Then MP3's. Finally the software Traktor came along and made physical media oudated and I was sitting here with thousands of dollars in records and turntables along with hard earned beat matching skill that had been made obsolete by technology.

Rather than drop a few more grand in new gear I ragequit.

The best 80's tracks of 2017

I recently fell down a musical rabbit hole and found myself in the wonderful world of synthwave. Most people got introduced to the genre through the movie Drive or the show Stranger Things. 

I like the genre so much that I downloaded the mixing software Traktor onto my iphone and started making new mixes during my daily walk to work and back. I still enjoy the creativity of making two completely different tracks mix together seamlessly, but miss the feel of vinyl under my fingers and race against time aspect of matching beats before the make-or-break mix point.

Here are a couple mixes I made on my daily walks to work. They're back to back mixes of songs that bring me joy.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

A song for a panic attack

It's already a tired cliche to say 2016 was a bad year, but for me, it was unusually rough. And forgive me, this one is a bit personal, but it feels good to write about it.

I was already not having a great time when 2016 began, but there was something to look forward to mid-year: a European vacation. Wife and I were going to drop off our daughter with her grandparents, then the both of us were going to head off to Europe for 10 days. 3 days visiting friends in Denmark, then 3 days exploring London with a friend from Singapore, then 3 days in the British countryside for a beautiful wedding with friends we hadn't seen in 7 years. It couldn't come soon enough because I was struggling with something awful and entirely new to me. Anxiety. I've lived an entire life worry-free. Yet, for some reason, my brain decided to experiment with anxiety in 2016. Just for kicks I guess.

As the vacation got closer, my anxiety was starting to be replaced by excitement. But, the day before we left, I got an awful situation dropped on me. That was it. My brain snapped. I got my first panic attack. It was surreal because at 35 you feel like you've experienced every feeling and emotion your brain is going to concoct. Suddenly, I was experiencing something entirely new and singularly awful. I couldn't sleep, I was sweating, shaking, my chest was heavy, and the situation that had been dropped on me constantly swirled around my head, consuming every other thought. I had no control over my brain and was unable to think about anything else. It took all of my focus and willpower to not dwell on it, but it was almost impossible, and mentally exhausting. It reminded me of my first time meditating and how frustrating it was to try to think of nothing, only to discover seconds later that my mind had wandered and I was thinking of stuff again. I'd get so tired of fighting it, that sometimes I'd just give in and let it overwhelm me. Night was the worst. I couldn't sleep. At one point I stayed awake for 3 days straight. I'd just lay there panicking, waiting for daylight, my face hot and my head cycling through the same thought over and over and over again.

Needless to say, the entire vacation was ruined. I was having a hard enough time fighting this mental battle, but we were also navigating across Europe with no cell service, sometimes with no English speakers and an old-fashioned paper map. We'd also made the rookie mistake of packing large, heavy suitcases. There's a reason people say they're "backpacking across Europe" not "Lugging 50 pound suitcases across Europe". We'd wanted to do a trip like this our entire lives, and now that it was happening, I was locked in my head. Completely unable to be in the moment or enjoy the country, my wife or our friends. Thankfully my wife and friends where incredibly supportive, though my wife often says we need a vacation do-over.

There was a memorable moment during the trip. I'd been awake for several days with panic. We were staying with our friends in Jelling, Denmark. It's a beautiful, isolated little town at the ass-end of Denmark. Everyone but me was napping. I was sitting behind our friend's electric piano, rocked with panic, looking out the window at the beautiful countryside under a light misty rain. I started playing piano. All my panic and emotions rolled out of my fingers into the keys, and for the first time in days I felt peace. I played for hours till my wife woke up. Without saying a word she pulled out her phone and recorded me playing. Here is the video. It's surreal for me to watch. Photos and video always have a layer of pretense to them, like when someone takes a photo and everyone stops acting natural and smiles or duck-lips or does that thing with their chin that stretches out their neckfat. The video my wife shot is completely genuine. It's me, going on 3 days awake, battling a horrific panic attack through a piano.

First thing after getting back i got my panic attacks under control and addressed the situation that popped up before we left. Panic hasn't been a problem since. But, it's still wild to look back at this video and see a panic attack in a song.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

We're off to Canada

This January we're moving to Canada. Let me get this out of the way right now. It's not because of that moral bankruptcy of an election. That's a legitimate coincidence. Now that that's out of the way, lets talk about something else:

Just shy of two years ago my workplace, PDI Dreamworks, shut down. I assumed we'd be moving to Vancouver BC for my next gig, which was just fine with us. But then I got a cold call from Apple requesting an interview. This was unexpected. I wasn't sure what a guy who makes cartoon characters could offer Apple but I did the interview and before I knew it I was an Apple employee.

If you know anything about apple, you probably know they value secrecy, so I'll go light on the details. But, if I had to describe the job it would be this: 

Come in on a Monday to a problem you don't know how to solve in a program you don't know how to use, and hopefully, get it sorted by Friday. 

It was profoundly difficult, but thankfully, I was surrounded by titans of the industry that I could lean on for support. It's the first time I've ever had a job that has actually changed me at a fundamental level. At the very least I learned some damn humility. I'd like to say I had a good time, but change doesn't come from comfort. It was Awful. And euphoric. And miserable. And the best experience of my life. 

A few months ago I got another cold call, this time from Sony Imageworks. Every time they contacted me over the past few years I'd send a reply along the lines of,"...not right now, but please let me know when a position opens up in Vancouver." Well, they finally offered me a Sr position in Vancouver to work on both animated films and live action VFX. I couldn't pass it up. Vancouver is stunning and LITERALLY 15 minutes from snowboarding. My wife's twin sister and my daughter's cousins live in the area. Most importantly, we can afford to live there. The San Francisco Bay area boasts the most expensive housing in America. We live in the school district the documentary "Waiting for Superman" featured as an example of the problem with the American Public school system. Unfortunately a 2 bedroom apartment in a good school district in the bay area will run you 5k a month. Even the run-down place we live in right now is heading out of our price range. The last time my mother visited I made a sweeping gesture at our half of a musty duplex with its cracked, canary yellow tile kitchen, water stained, sagging ceiling and matted carpet with iron burns and said,"Bet you never thought your son would live in a million dollar home!" So, add us to the list of people priced out of San Francisco.

Here we have a stunning 2.5 million dollar one bed, one bath in charming East Palo Alto.

Since I gave notice at Apple I've not been able to shake the horrible feeling that I'm making a massive mistake. It's a quality-of-life over career decision, and it's not easy to make. Apple is an incredible company and I work with amazing people. Some of the things my team has accomplished over the past few years have been remarkable. I hope I can talk about them some day. Most importantly, the project is the most important thing I've ever been involved with. It eats away at me knowing that I'll have to watch it succeed from a distance rather than it being something that I contributed to.

I can only hope that regret will be balanced out with all the snowboarding and poutine. 

Friday, September 30, 2016

The hair of a Rick James giraffe and the danger of complacency

It was my first day back at work at Dreamworks after a mind-bending week at burningman. My boss called me into his office and said,"Listen, Trolls is ramping up. It's the most hair-heavy show we've ever done, so we're building a dedicated team to re-work our hair pipeline. I want you on it." I might have had a mini panic attack.

For some reference, in our film pipeline modelers would make the geometry for a character and, at best, create some geometry that represented hair masses, then send into the ether of the pipeline. The actual hair itself was a whole 'nother complicated beast that would be handled by people who specialized in that discipline. So, to be asked to tackle hair, how it looks, moves and renders is like asking a plumber to "...redo the electrical wiring while you're in there". I'd been doing the same, specific task for a decade, so to be suddenly asked to do something so dramatically and technically different was daunting, especially considering the fact that I was just back from burningman and re-familiarizing myself with the idea that clothing was a requirement in the real world.

I'd just finished modeling the character Cooper who is best described as a "pink Rick James giraffe". I had a surreal moment where the model was approved, so I published him into the pipeline, then walked upstairs to my new desk in Character Effects and downloaded the character I'd just published to be handed off to myself. From there I got a crash course in Houdini, simulation, hair styling and the DW rendering pipeline. It was tough.

...but, with the help of the other talented people on the hair team I pulled it off. It made my brain hurt, and I put in a lot of long hours, but I did it. Cooper was a challenge because he had multiple different styles and simulations- His Dreadlocks, his neck fur and his body fur. I kept getting the note,"Make him feel softer". It's a tough note to address because you intuitively know what soft is, but when you're charged with making something "soft" what do you do? What makes a kitten look soft? how thick or thin is soft hair? How does soft hair move? I looked up tons of reference, but the best execution of soft I found were the trees in the movie "The Lorax".

I wanna frolic in that

I studied what they did- how the hairs clumped, tapered off and wafted at the tips. It wasn't easy since they had some rendering tech we didn't, but we made do. The groom was finally approved and I moved on. I worked on several of the character's grooms in some respect but the 3 characters that I worked on most were Cooper, the large blue troll and the fuzzy caterpillar. Check out the final product!

I love this clip because I'm intimately familiar with each of the troll's grooms and what the specific challenges were for the artist in charge. How does the main character Poppy's hair move differently at the base than the drooping tips? How do you simulate hair that is 3 times taller than the character himself? How do a clump of dreadlocks behave below a hair-tie vs above? Each of these things is something an amazing artist spent months figuring out, so a huge shout-out to those peeps!

It was an amazing experience because it taught me the danger of complacency. Over my career I've seen artists lose work because they were unable or unwilling to learn new skillsets. In film it's easy to get pigeonholed into a narrow skillset and get comfortable. If that skillset becomes obsolete, the artist is out of a job. In retrospect, I was getting dangerously close to that precipice. Since the hair team I've been fortunate enough to learn new skills constantly. Just outside my comfort zone is a great place to be.

Thursday, June 9, 2016