Thursday, August 21, 2008

Software Part 2 -or- How to be Your Own Full-Service Animation Studio

Teach yourself animation:
The page belongs to Shawn Miller, animator at LucasFilm. Great links. Spend a day there.

Now, on with today's lesson. Software: what you'll need to survive. Or, a wishlist for the independent cg filmmaker. Last time we covered the all-important 3D app, so what else is there?

You need Photoshop. End of lesson. Seriously, if it's the only thing you buy outside of your 3D app, get Photoshop. Everything else is just icing on the cake. But this lesson would be boring if it was just cake, so on to the icing.

Painting on a 3D model is sooooo nice when texturing. By far the most intuitive way to handle things. Photoshop CS3 is teasing us with its ability to import 3D models, but we still do our painting on a 2D plane. Boo. (CS4? Fingers crossed?) Until recently, the choices for painting on a 3D model were twofold: Deep Paint 3D or BodyPaint 3D. And neither was perfect. BodyPaint 3D is probably the most vigorously updated of the two, but it has a learning curve for anyone who does not use Cinema 4D (which it is integrated with). Deep Paint has always been a bit wonky (and crashy) but it has some really awesome brushes. Trouble is, they moved the UV tools to a separate app, Deep UV, so now you need to buy a lot to get integrated functionality. For this reason, you may wish to just stick with Maya's own (limited) 3D paint tools until the industry puts up a stable, affordable, intuitive new standard. Any coders out there want to take this challenge? New industry standard 3D paint tool? Anyone? Here's a darkhorse candidate that was brought to my attention: Thirdbrush. Only thirty bucks. Haven't tried it yet. Send me your reviews if you use it.

Let's turn our attention to 2D apps. You'll need these for previs, storyboarding, conceptual art, matte painting and texturing, as well as fixes on final rendered frames. Corel Painter is the standard natural-media app, as it simulates watercolor, paint, pastels, etc. The main thing to note is that it is a painting tool, not a photo-retouch tool like Photoshop, so it does what you want it to: it mixes the pixels onscreen wet-on-wet style. Not too expensive, but check these cheap-to-free digital paint app alternatives:You can also get some quick-sketch tools to do storyboarding. Sketchbook Pro comes to mind, but if you already have Photoshop, this is redundant. And for 200 bucks, seems kinda lame. When you start doing animation thumbnails, you'll want a "flipbook"-style sketching app. Both Painter's stacks and Photoshop's animation palette can handle this, but if you want a FREE standalone I highly recommend Plastic Animation Papers. It's a full-fledged 2D animation app, but it's also perfect as a previs tool for cg character animators.

Now image organization tools. Adobe Bridge is wonderful, and if you have Photoshop, you probably already have it. But also cool, each in their unique way, is Irfanview, ACDSee, and IView MediaPro. I use them all. Also, get Flipbook Pro so you can play back sequences of frames without making movie files out of them.

You'll also need presentation tools. Your short film needs a website, some business cards and publishing materials, and you'll have to make pitches ad nauseum. (Even if you plan to do your own funding and distribution, you'll end up putting together project pitches and portfolios if only to obtain collaborators). To this end, besides Photoshop, you'll want Dreamweaver (or some web app), Flash (maybe), Acrobat Pro (slideshows and documents), or Keynote (on the Mac). And MsOffice or OpenOffice. And CD and DVD authoring tools.

You still want to make a short film?

Now for the production apps. Google Sketchup can be handy as a previs app - mainly because it's fast and intuitive. Mudbox or ZBrush would be nice for creating high-res displacement maps or just for cool-looking previs work. They are competing modelers in the 3d sculpting paradigm (works like digital clay). Mudbox is by far the easier to use, but purists insist ZBrush produces higher quality results.

Editorial. You'll want Quicktime Pro. No faster way to make little movie files to pass around. You'll also want some image-format and video-format converter utilities. Find some freeware for this. After Effects for compositing and post (or Shake or Fusion or Combustion or Toxik). I recommend Sony Vegas for editorial on the PC: the app that "puts it all together" in the work reel. I use it for audio compositing too. Speaking of audio, you need an audio editor like SoundForge or Adobe Audition. On the Mac, use ProTools LE as your sound mixer (instead of Vegas) and Final Cut for your editing.

Now you can make a short film. With all that money you have left over. Wait, we forgot about hardware. I'll save that for a later post.

Don't cry. Think of all that money your short film will make. Oh, wait. Shorts don't make money. Well, it's still a small price to pay to be a YouTube hero. Have you considered sock puppets?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Stuff You Guerrilla Shortfilmers Need vol 63: Software! Part 1 - The 3D App

Hey check this out:
Saw these guys at work, and again at SIGGRAPH, showing what they did with free open-source animation software (Blender).
Funky thing is, you can browse their entire production repo here. This is wonderfully informative from a production management standpoint, as it shows how one group of guerrilla animators organized their stuff. You can even download the entire 200 Gig studio backup! Now that's what I call Open Source: even their techniques are transparently shared. The bigwigs here in Hollywood could learn a thing or two. Alas, we still barter in the antiquated currency of "ideas", as if a simple idea can make or break a film. Part of Catmull's keynote at SIGGRAPH addressed this issue. At Pixar, they build teams, and teams are their currency. Ideas are worth nothing in the hands of an inept team, but a good team can wrangle the gold out of any old idea. To reiterate: ideas are worthless. So we should all quit hording them. Let's open-source knowledge! It's the rising tide lifting all ships thing.

So here's the meat of this post: you need software. From the results of Big Buck Bunny it appears that free animation software has come of age. Put this with my previous post on production tools ("How do You Manage?") wherein I list free ftp services and the like, and you have a 100% no-overhead production. Except, of course, for the emotional overhead of sleep loss, eye strain, loss of family and friends from your withdrawal into the long-hours world of computer animation; not to mention all the hardware to purchase and maintain. But hey, nobody said filmmaking was easy; if it was, everybody would do it.

If you have a few ducats to spend on your labor of love, however, you can make your life much easier. In the following posts I will provide a rundown of the barebones software you'll need to think about when contemplating creating a CG film.

First: decide on the 3D app. This will serve as the hub of your data pipeline, so choose wisely, as it will effect all your subsequent decisions. The big contenders include the aforementioned Blender (pluses include that it's free and seems to be well-supported; the minus is there's not a huge existing base of users so expect a learning curve). For a small investment look into Animation:Master - you can get a web-based license for 50 bucks a year! It is purported to be oriented toward character animators - rare for cheap-end 3d software. Next step up would be Maxon's Cinema4d. Still cheap, although how cheap is hard to discern since they don't list pricing on their website. The brag the fastest renderer in the biz, and they have the schweetest 3d paint system with full Bodypaint3D integration. Some award-winning shorts have been done with it, but I don't know much else. At the next pricing tier we move into the ones aimed at the professional market: Lightwave3d, SoftImage, 3dsMax, Maya and Houdini.

Lightwave3D has excellent modeling and lighting tools, but with character animation tools that leave something to be desired.

For a higher price point, you can try Houdini, which is the de facto standard for visual effects, so it would be the appropriate choice if you have an abstract or effects-laden project. The downside is, again, weak character tools. Also a big learning curve. The full version is pricey, as in 8 thousand dollars -ish pricey, but you can get a stripped down learning edition for free, and a watermark-free version for only 99 dollars!

Next there's Softimage. I always forget about Softimage (almost forgot to include it) which is a shame because it is as full-featured and easy to use as any other, but for some reason hasn't caught on big in the industry yet (they were late arriving in the game with their XSI version, by which time most companies had gone with Maya). Comes in a variety of price points ranging from 6000-ish to a 500-ish educational version.

Lastly, I'll talk about the two I recommend for most serious projects: 3dsMax and Maya, both from Autodesk. Max is the industry standard in games, Maya the same for films, but they crossover everywhere so don't focus on that. From extended personal experience in the two apps, I'll say that Max trumps Maya in the realms of modeling and layout, whereas Maya is better for character rigging and animation. Neither has the best on-board renderer so they both rely on mental ray to be their "full featured" renderer - so I'd say that's a draw. Maya is more configurable and transparent, so it's better for those that like to drill down into the guts of the software; this is also its drawback, as it has the steeper learning curve. Max has a more logical interface, and lots of funky built-in effects and dynamics. Maya has Paint Effects, which is not comparable to anything else in any package. In the end, it's somewhat of a draw. Even price-wise, they have similar versions, and the obligatory free version for learning. I'm not going to start a flame-war by picking my favorite of these two giants: download the free versions of each and decide what's right for you. Alright I'll tell you: Maya. And Netflix is better than Blockbuster.

Trade Show Wrap-up

Just got back from SIGGRAPH where this little flick won Best of Show:
This "making of" short is worth a watch:
As you can see, the look of the film is superb, and I'm becoming more and more convinced there's something in the Kool-Aid at Gobelins - year after year the students from this, Supinfocom and the Filmakademie totally rule. European schools have a connection between education, art and industry that we just don't "get" here.

Other highlights from the 'GRAPH included a visionary speech by my boss and my boy Ed Catmull - "Ecat" to us Mouse-ears. His corporate work ethos is so visionary that it made me want to work at his company - and then I remembered that I DO. If only middle management would pay attention, we'd have a little filmmaking utopia here. But I digress.

So festival season draws to a close - I also hit Comic-Con this year for the sheer spectacle of it all. My main purpose was to find European graphic novels - but the vendor wasn't there this year! Must have been muscled out to make way for the encroaching Hollywood studios that have seemingly taken over. Shame, because European comic artists have raised the genre to new artistic heights of late - another way they're schooling us across the pond. Check out the blog of one Mr. Enrique Fernandez for example. Here's a publisher of such wares:
Speaking of Wares, here's a shout-out to my all-time favorite comic book creator, Chris Ware, a fellow yank. If you don't yet own a copy of Quimby the Mouse, walk don't run to your local Biblioplex and grab two copies. One for each head. You Quimby-the-Mousketeers got that last joke.
See? Real comic art innovation isn't dead. It's just not at Comic-Con.