Changing tack

It’s hard to believe that over a month has gone by since I last posted. But a lot has been happening. For one thing, I finished the dog model, using balsa wood for the head. That’s really yesterday’s news though, because, as I’ll explain shortly, plans have changed. As much as I enjoyed building him, Fido here isn’t going to have a starring role in the movie anymore.

I’ve also created a tentative 12-day shooting schedule, and I’ve been talking to a professional director of photography who’s very interested in helping me on the project. Ivan’s got an impressive list of camera man credits for clients ranging from Coca-Cola to the Chemical Brothers, and he’s eager to work on Electric Town. The camera he shoots on is a RED Epic, which, in addition to being awesome in itself, will also give us a chance to fully explore the RED/Blender workflow. Didn’t know there was a RED/Blender workflow? There will be by the time Mango is finished!

As I mentioned, there has been a change in plans in terms of how this movie is going to be produced. In short, I’m going to be largely ditching the stop-motion aspect, at least as the primary means of special effects. Don’t get me wrong, I love stop motion. I love the physicality of building things for stop motion and the fact that you don’t have to sit at a computer the whole time to do it. And the results have a feeling to them that isn’t the same with computer-generated animation. But for this project, the goal is to make the movie and tell the story the best way I can. Given the variety of challenges I’d have to deal with to do a good job with a combination of stop-motion, puppetry, CG, and live-action compositing, and considering the absolutely amazing new features now integrated into Blender, I’ve decided to go all-CG for the special effects.

The biggest developments in Blender that has made it possible to consider this are camera and object tracking, and Cycles, the new unbiased renderer. These features already work incredibly well, and after the Mango project finishes off, they will be even more refined. I now have a clear idea of how all the effects necessary for Electric Town can be accomplished in Blender.

This simplifies things a lot. Matching lighting, for example, would be a nightmare if I had to use real lights in a (non-professional) stop-motion studio to composite into a natural-lighting live-action plate. On the other hand, using HDR image-based lighting in Cycles, it will be possible to get very good lighting matches in CG. Going with CG also gives me a lot more leeway in terms of character an prop design. I’m no longer stuck with shooting only what I can build in my basement.

This doesn’t mean that building the dog model was a waste. First of all, it was fun in itself, and now I’ve got a neat poseable robot dog model to use as a door stop. One of these days I might even animate him, just for kicks. For Electric Town, I think the model might actually prove to be very useful on set for blocking, lighting, and eyeline purposes, so it’s not a bad thing to have around. Plus, after all the work I did on the dog model itself, it was also trivial for me to build a nice dummy object for object tracking. When I bring this back to Japan I will paint it black and adorn it with brightly colored beads to make it easy to track. The actor will hold it (or in one case throw it) and the CG robot dog will be added in its place in post-production.  The clip on the front is for a shot where the robot dog is grabbing the character’s clothing in its mouth.

Making the decision to stick with CG for the effects lets me focus my energy on the skills and techniques I’ll need to master to get the results I want. There’s still a lot I need to learn about HDR image-based lighting, motion tracking, and compositing, but at least I know what it is I need to do.

Of course, it’s also cheaper. All those bolts and washers were starting to add up. And the various decorative elements I wanted to add to the model would have pushed it into fairly serious money. With a model made of verts and polygons, the only cost is in render time.

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2 Responses to “Changing tack”

  1. That physical dog looks awesome. I don’t know much about the background of this project and I know it’s not what you want to hear, but it will look *way* better than CG, especially if you don’t have the resources for a team of experienced vfx pros to pull it off well. Conceptually and visually it’s also a lot more interesting too. I really hope you reconsider, the model is looking really special!

    PS. Don’t expect any blender open movie project to make workflow smooth and life easy for anyone else who’s *not* working on their particular project. I speak from many years of experience.

  2. Hi Matt,

    Thanks for your feedback. It’s definitely food for thought. I do wonder if you’re not perhaps underestimating the challenges of stop-motion, though. Going that route would certainly also benefit from a team of experienced vfx pros.

    The more I worked on the physical model, the more I realized what would be required to animate and composite it into a live-action scene. I’ve done a fair amount of stop motion in the past, but this would be orders of magnitude more difficult than what I’ve done before.

    My real goal with the effects is to have them as unobtrusive as possible. I don’t really want to make a “Blender/CG” movie, or a “stop-motion” movie. I want to tell my little story as straightforwardly as possible, and do my best to avoid having it look shitty.

    I suppose there’s still a case to be made that I could accomplish this best with stop motion, but the challenges with that kind of production are really pretty staggering. I’m not completely convinced that A) I could get it done or B) it would look better than CG. I might look into it a bit further when I get back to Japan though, just to make sure I’ve considered all possibilities.

    I don’t expect Mango to make life easy. But both Cycles and the camera/object tracking functionality have been advancing rapidly, and are already pretty useful, and they’ll get a lot of attention during Mango, which I’m happy to see. I’ve already seen firsthand how a few weeks of development can make the camera tracker much easier to work with.

    Anyway, if I don’t make this movie one way or another, it’s not going to get made. I have to do what I think is feasible. Either approach has its challenges.

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