Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Transitional Spaces

Learning Arnold

This project started when I set out to learn the Arnold Renderer and grow as an artist. I chose a hallway setting to keep the project limited in scope and allow the light to bounce along the tight structure. I also liked the idea that a hallway isn't a destination but something you pass through. My hope was that these images would make someone want to wander through the halls and leave them curious about what's around the corners at the end. For most of these images I set out to learn a specific technique, then the concept would flow from that. I also found them incredibly calming to create and they became a release valve for me when I was stressed. This made it a very personal project. Here are all 15 hallways to date and the techniques/concepts behind them. I relied heavily on tutorials by Arvid Schneider and generous advice from my talented friend Jens Kafitz.


My first deep dive into the Arnold renderer. The goal here was to learn the basics of shaders and lighting. As with many of these, I started with quixel megascans then modified them.


I'd started working in the cloth and hair simulation department at Sony and wondered if I could do a cloth sim on an entire room. I'd recently done some photogrammetry of a wall detail during a walk to work and incorporated that into the sim. 

Here is my original photogrammetry pass.

Neon Latex

I revisited my original hallway with the intent of being braver and more surreal with my color choices.


The goal here was to get more familiar with the Arnold fur shader and create a mirror shader. 


Inspired by the art and music of the synthwave genre, this was another attempt to be braver with color, this time with lighting instead of surfacing.

Glass Installation

The goal here was to learn translucency and tackle the rendering challenge of multiple layers of partial transparency. This render brought my ancient computer to it's knees. By the end of  the Hallways project I had replaced my computer fan twice after it wore out from all the rendering.

The Creek

The goal here was to create a water shader and specifically tackle how light travels through murky water. I also used xgen to scatter moss cards, then scatter dewdrops over those cards.


I wanted to create a dark scene with a bright object at the end, then try to vary the quality of the reflections with procedural roughness and displacement.

The Sewer

In the previous image I'd started playing around with Arnold procedurals so I set out to create an image with minimal geometry and one giant, procedural shader. Here is the image, the minimalist scene and my shading network for the tube.

Long Exposure

I got inspired by long exposure photography and challenged myself to create a shader that mimicked the effect. I also limited myself to a single concrete shader and procedurally created roughness variation. 

Concrete variation


While looking up at tall buildings I noticed how their windows would distort reflections in a specific way. I tried to re-create that effect and also change the camera orientation while still keeping the hallway theme.

Making Sausage- a quick aside

I spent some time learning Arnold volumetrics (smoke, fog, ect) and found it one of the more difficult techniques. I made simple scenes to avoid huge render times. Here are a couple of those tests. The door was fairly successful and I'm now able to use that specific volumetric in scenes. The chair was an utter failure, but I learned a ton making it. Plus I used it as an excuse to model and texture a chair from scratch.


Another image based on changing orientation while retaining the hallway format.


I set out to create a scene that mirrored itself. The mirrored image was distorted by complex displacements. The result was a visually confusing disaster. Instead of throwing the scene away I lit it with primary colors and liked the result.

Day and Night in the Greenhouse

I challenged myself to create a single scene lit two different ways. These were a bit of a culmination of everything I'd learned during this project. And for those counting, I do count these as two hallways because 15 is a better number than 14.

It's interesting to look back at all of these. While I still like some, others embarrass me by their amateurishness. That in itself is a good thing. I can recognize my mistakes. It's an indication of personal growth. I may continue this project if time allows or stress demands. In the future I'd like to try to be more subtle and spend more time in traditional texturing rather than using Arnold procedurals. Maybe use a real-time render engine. I still have dozens of ideas, a half-dozen unfinished scenes and so much left to learn.

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.
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.

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.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Touch A Truck

My daughter's preschool is doing a fundraiser called Touch a Truck. They gather a bunch of vehicles like dump trucks and police cars along with their operators for kids to check out. They sell shirts, so they needed a design. I offered to make a vehicle mascot for the shirts.

The challenge with designing a car character is trying to avoid iconic car designs like:

Putting eyes in the windshield instead of the headlights was genius.

I decided on a dumptruck and made a sketch.

I modeled it up. The windshield wipers were too distracting so I swapped them for rear-view mirrors. Render in Keyshot.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The song I wrote while I lived behind a couch

Me completely terrified

I spent 3 months living behind a couch while I was in Australia. A couple of friends let me put a small bedroll behind the couch in their living room and that was my "room" for 3 months straight. One of my roommates, Thomas Price, had a keyboard in his room and we'd often jam in the evenings. One night while I was playing he fell asleep. When I noticed him sleeping I stopped playing but he instantly woke up. "Keep playing" he said,"I hear it in my dreams.". So, I kept playing. I wrote the foundation of a song while he slept that night. I later added ragtime elements and wrote lyrics about Tom sleeping.

A few years ago I gathered my courage and played the song at an open mic. I've skydived and, on two separate occasions, I've been jumped by groups of strangers looking for a street fight. None of those were even close to as terrifying as an open mic. I have crazy respect for people who can perform in public. The open mic was recorded so, here it is. My first time ever playing music in public.