Saturday, 5 October 2013

When is a cow NOT a cow?

When its a flying machine for a Swedish childrens show called Ljudhjältarna...

 Late end of 2012, I was approached by film maker, director and editor/compositor Arvid Eriksson (whom I'd met through a colleague when creating a conceptual 3D space capsule image for an indie film pitch) to produce a 3D steam-punk styled airship for a Swedish childrens show.  The plan - to create a 3D model that he could then import into Adobe Aftereffects and animate in post.

Arvid's a very talented director, producer, editor and compositor - and he's also a lot of fun and infectiously enthusiastic.  Obviously, I just had to say yes - and hey, nothing says fun like a flying air ship that travels through outer-space... On top of that, the conceptual art we had been given had a stylised "cow" look to it - 4 hooves, rope tail and wings that formed the ears.  This should be a blast...

The finished model as used in the opening titles

Getting it started...

Based on the concept art, I produced a very low quality proxy model using LightWave3D's modeler.  Exported out as an obj, this meant the model could be imported into AE by Arvid to animate and get his project blocked out quickly.

Rough out proportions, and something for the director to get started quickly.

Taking it from there...

There were a few things to consider during this project when it came to building this model...

Obviously one was that it really couldn't be too poly heavy or texture heavy since it had to be importable into a compositing package.  While most CG applications will quite happily render high poly detailed models, After Effects isn't exactly a full featured 3D rendering package - and that also meant a lot of internal custom shaders and texture mapping techniques I could use with my rendering tools would need to be instead based heavily on colour image maps and the general capabilities After Effects offered.

Most the detailing came from image maps, with small detailing modeled where needed.

One other thing was that the ship wasn't going to need to hold up to extreme close-ups.  That meant that detail models and precision texture mapping could be relaxed a little more then I'd normally need to with a more CG detailed project.  There did still need to be at least some detail to make the machine look real.  Details in the leg mechanics and wing/engine/rudder areas needed a little planning...

Details such as legs were low-poly - however the 'mechanics' had to still hold up.

However, there was a close-up pulling back from the bridge to show the pilot flying the ship (video composited into the shot) - but this luckily was achievable with higher-res texture maps and minimal additional modeling (there was some, but only on details where the lower poly tessellation stood out in shot)

Luckily for me, the only real textures that were noticable at full HD was the overall wood on the main ships hull.  To get this to look clean and sharp in a close-up, I simply created the texture map at 4096 rather then the original 2048 resolutions I'd originally been using.

Replacing the 2048 res with a 4096 higher quality image fixed close-up issues.

Then it all changed.

After Effects is not a 3D animation tool - we knew that - and as Arvid's project went on, the limitations of what it could do started to become quite apparent.  In particular, objects that would move a fair distance would render with artifacts (caused, I can only assume, by depth calculations messing up the back face culling).  It also doesn't offer any real animation capabilities to add secondary motion - and this meant the model did have a rather "stiff" appearance.

Worse still - Adobe's decision to remove 3D model support suddenly meant that this project would need older versions of the software to be edited (and make any future changes quite difficult).  With the newer releases of the software having no backward compatible replacement - Well...  You can guess the answer on that one.

It was decided that we render it in a 3D application (in this case, LightWave3D) and instead plug the image sequences back into After Effects.  This meant I could throw in more polys, and while I did add some more "detail", I still let the texture maps control a majority of the look and detailing.

Most the look of this section are image maps. The geometry is fairly simple
Additional small secondary motions such as the hook hanging below the belly of the machine could be added.  It also meant I could throw in some occlusion to add to the final look of the machine, as well as softer lighting and shadows that AE could not.  More believable motion blur for the spinning of the prop's later on were also very easy to achieve...

It all worked out in the end

I had a real blast working on this project.  In total, around 25-26 hours were spent with modeling, texturing and rendering on my end.  Arvid's work can be seen below.  Credits also go to David Giese, who also produced this project along with Arvid for Cinelandia and Scandinavian TV.

Make sure to check out both of these guys' websites to see some of the amazing commercial work that they do.

Ljudhjältarna, Title Sequence from Arvid Eriksson on Vimeo.


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