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Lights Out!

by on Jul.10, 2013, under Uncategorized

Last night was a typical work night as I was putting together a character demo reel. I was very happy to be working on my own stuff when the lights went out. Literally. All over town.

My work office is windowless so it was past dark thirty in it but having been a boy scout ( a lousy one I admit) I was prepared as I had a flashlight on my desk just off to the right of my monitors. Why??? Because I’m incredibly prepared and foresee these things??? Because I can model one in 3D and make it work but I gotta have power! No… because its dark under my desk and I have so many usb items even with hubs I have to occasionally plug something into the front of one and the flashlight just makes it easy.

But… I found out one interesting thing about my battery backup configuration (which worked) and that was the simple fact my powered KVM switch was plugged into the cold side of the UPS instead of the battery side when power is out. It took me a minute to figure that out as my monitors were powered up but no signal… then I spied the dead KVM switch! AH HA! Springing to action I managed to plug that into the hot side of the UPS and all was well. I had attempted to shut down both pc’s with the power button and one pc did shut down. Probably had no apps open but my main unit was hung on the screen that asks me if I would like to shut down the eleven applications I had open at the time.

Being as both were on Windows 7 I wasn’t too worried but you never know with a power outage. My secondary pc was dark and quiet. Shut down with the power button while I switched over to my main unit and started shutting down apps then powered down.

With trusty flashlight in hand I made through the hallway into the main part of the building that was lit up by monitors and I could hear the UPS at each station beeping as they were in the process of auto shutdown using the software and usb connection that comes with each unit. NICE FEATURE! The office started getting darker and darker as each PC shut down and the light from its monitor was lost.

By this time I was at the main entrance to the building and locking up. Our local police force was already out… which is commendable as most had been on duty all day… and to my knowledge there were no problems as this town is a survival town. No real wealth in town and most households living paycheck to paycheck. You steal in this town… you certainly wouldn’t want to get caught by anyone BUT the police.  Hard working people value what they have… value their neighbors too and watch out for each other.

So… the night of the blackout is over and no problems on my end or anywhere in our office this morning. With modern operating systems like Win 7 and up it seems we don’t have to worry so much about abrupt shutdowns but any shutdown with open applications could cause problems so I’m glad for improvements in the operating system.

More importantly… I’m glad for the light the monitors cast in each area. It was strange watching them shut down one by one… almost surreal but my God the stars were BRIGHT that night when I stepped outside! Sometimes we forget how much man made lighting changes our environment until its gone.

Who would have thought a random blackout would be so inspiring but those stars were just awesome!

 

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New Adobe Premiere CS6 Book

by on May.30, 2013, under Uncategorized

I have had the pleasure of reading and reviewing Paul Ekert’s newest “How To” book,  Mastering Adobe Premiere Pro CS6 – HotShot, which is an amazing collection of learning projects that open up the sometimes mysterious workflow of the application to new users. The project based approach is a great learning experience with immediate real world applications.

This book cuts through the fog and clutter to get you up to speed on using this fantastic video editing application through practical, well thought out projects that demonstrate the possibilities of this editing program.

My review at Amazon was as follows:

If you have ever struggled with Premier or want to get on the fast track to learning the application then Paul Ekert’s newest book, Mastering Adobe Premiere Pro CS6 Hotshot, is the book for you. This is a project based learning experience with plenty of help from the author. I have always been a fan of project based instruction as there is little substitute for hands on experience. Paul is also an experienced author with several titles under his belt as well an advanced user of video editing applications.

Paul’s combined experience as an author and an editor is readily apparent as he guides you through the various projects to completion. Paul will lead you through the fog thereby greatly decreasing the learning curve and get you quickly into productive and satisfying territory.

This book can be valuable to experienced users as well as novices. The technical expertise and tips shared in post production alone are worth the purchase plus you will be exposed to some industry jargon and methods that will improve your workflow and final render.

An excellent resource by all accounts.

I came to know Paul as he was exploring writing this book with PACKT Publishing and was inquiring as to my experience with them.  Paul is not just a crackerjack editor and “How To” writer but is the complete package when it comes to practical use of an application like Premiere. Its always great to know how the pros do it.

If you are new to Premiere or an experienced user I believe this book will greatly benefit you and help your skills mature as an editor.

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Flooded with Email!

by on Apr.09, 2013, under Uncategorized

This is just a quick post to let everyone know that has contacted me by email that I am getting to it… I’m just inundated with questions right now. For sometime I have only been able to allow about an hour to an hour and a half a day to answer my iClone, Max, Vue and now zBrush questions. I’m certainly not an expert in zBrush and seem to be learning as much or more from these exchanges as the writers.

I do try to answer simple questions as they come in but it seems I’m getting more and more complex actions that require me to work through some steps before I answer and I don’t want to give anyone erroneous information.

I very much appreciate the email. Every contact is a new person to learn from as it seems I learn quite a bit myself about how people use iClone and that is a tremendous boost to my skill set.

Once again… thanks to everyone that writes me… I will write you back just please have patience. I don’t mind the email if you don’t mind waiting till I can get to it and I very much appreciate anyone that takes the time out of their day to email me.

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3DXchange 5.4 – Another Game Changer

by on Mar.11, 2013, under Uncategorized

Actually… to say this update is another game changer is a bit of an understatement as this update is close to giving us:

any character… anytime… with facial morphs and lip sync converted by anyone… not just 3D pros.

Now take a look at the statement again and tell me that isn’t a nice little breakthrough! The only reason I can’t say for sure that any character anytime can be imported is because I haven’t tried all the available characters but as a beta tester I can tell you I converted a lot of disparate characters with major differences between them to find that they functioned quite well in iClone. Even got to animate my old time favorite Poser characters Cheech (think monster of the Black Lagoon) and Klank the comical robot.

Creech – One of my Favorites now usable in iClone.

Like that Daz character? The conversion profile is included if it’s Genesis so no real conversion work on your part to get it into iClone. Like that old Poser character? Does it have jawbone or facial morphs? If so… you are good to go with a little trial and error.  Older characters with no phonemes available… get creative and make your own with the morphs and bones that are available.

Another old Poser character with unusual bone structure. It can walk too!

Full body morph as in human to werewolf? No problem. Do it on the fly as this flavor of 3DXchange also reads body morphs which can be controlled by the facial puppetry or face key dialogs. This might be an unintended consequence of development but it opens many possibilities.

Talking spheres and other props? Sure… why not? If it can be morphed it can probably be controlled in some form with this new update. We have not only bone driven meshes but now we have the ability to capture morphed meshes making both types of mesh manipulation available to users. It will be great to be able to use the morpher modifier in 3DS Max or the morph layers in zBrush knowing they will translate to iClone.

The four arms accessory for Genesis can be mapped as extra bones with a pop up controller dialog similar to the Non-Human controller.

This post is mainly about DAZ and Poser character conversion but I have successfully converted Dexsoft and other custom made characters too. There are standard profiles available for 3DS Max, DAZ Genesis and Maya skeletal rigging.

This is a huge breakthrough and in typical Reallusion fashion its more of a major release than a minor  upgrade but that is the way Reallusion does business.

I do have some tutorials online now and will be doing more the coming weeks plus Reallusion has really stepped up with lots of their own tutes once again.

My YouTube Page.

Legacy Poser Characters ready to rock and roll. The wings on the Dragon are mapped for animation.

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Machinima in Commercial Projects

by on Dec.27, 2012, under Uncategorized

This year was a high water mark in terms of using machinima in my commercial projects. It also marks the first year I have expanded the use of iClone by others on the freelance team and we did an unusual amount of pilot projects.

Over the years our work is never quite the same which is not unusual for digital freelancers but I do find myself coming back to using iClone for 30 to 60 second commercial ad previz. It seems to help sell the project to first time media advertisers. They see what they are buying. We have even worked on spec and we hardly ever do anything without a contract and down payment first but iClone reduces the budget so much that I can actually take a gamble that we are going to get the contract and payment based on the spec work. Spec work in this case means pure speculation that you will get the job and be paid. Something that is very risky when using high end tools like Studio Max, Vue or Maya due to the cost of production.

I can’t gamble with $10,000+ production costs but I can certainly take a gamble when the money invested is less than a few thousand dollars. iClone’s ease of use and ability to get a project completed quickly saves money in the budget making it possible to consider spec work. This opens yet another door for commercial opportunity.

When I first discovered iClone in 2006 I had to sneak in usage generally in still image storyboards which was a big part of the workload back then. In fact I was not able to use its output with some of my employers for many reasons but those have all been addressed over the years and the engine is being recognized for what it is. A mid-level (skill wise) animation tool that can work with high end productions. The render still needs to mature but with the lighting and effects in version 5 the render is usable in apps like After Effects and Hit Film which can composite the iClone render with high end footage. Also had good luck using iClone footage in Vegas with it’s various tools and effects.

My main uses for commercial machinima output this year were:

  • Still Image Renders for Advertising, Books and DVDs
  • Previz
  • Storyboarding
  • Shot/Camera Re-directing
  • Pilot Episodes and Movies
  • Training

Most of the iClone work is pre-viz of some sort meaning the general public never sees it but it pays just the same as taking longer to use higher end tools so… why use those expensive tools when you don’t have to? The other really big selling point on iClone is that the creative director, main unit director or principle photographer/videographer can take the project file and move things around to see the possibilities for themselves. The times I shared my project files have been real eye openers for these people. Does this mean they’ll learn the tool and cut us out? Hardly… using the tool with someone’s else file is different than creating that project file yourself and I found them to be very happy being able to move things around.  These project files were then sent back to me for corrections and polishing before being rendered in it’s final form.

I’m still a long way from making a large percentage of my freelance income with machinima but that amount keeps growing every year it seems. Also the opportunities iClone has presented such as my Beginners Guide that was published last year have made this such a busy year for us that projects had to be postponed into 2013 and one writing project will not be completed till early 2014. The upgrade of the guide to version 5 has been shelved many times because of the amazing progress and changes Reallusion has made to the iClone engine making any such attempt at quantifying obsolete before it hits the printer!

All in all it has been another wonderful year of freelance production even without the time to do a personal machinima project.  I can feel burn out coming from the workload which in turn means its time to do a private machinima project where I can do what I want to do instead of what I’m contracted to do.

Anecdotally (is that a word?) its seems machinima in general had a good year while distancing itself from the run and gun screen caps that used to define it. With studios like Chat Noir and machinimist like Underpants Man, Tom Jantol, AnimaTechnica and others it truly seems that machinima is taking a big step forward to wider acceptance as a skill and an artform.

Thanks to everyone for all the email. The load is still high but I eventually answer them all and I’m thankful for the correspondence as I learn quite a bit myself with the interaction.

Hope all of you have a happy and prosperous year in 2013!

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Gamesalad and iClone

by on Dec.16, 2012, under Uncategorized

Just added a new post over at iCloneRevolution about using Gamesalad and iClone for rapid game development. Now I’m not going to tell you that this is a great game because it was built as a testbed for a proof of concept demo to a client. It is a full game but as is explained in the article not much time was spent on gameplay but rather in learning the mechanics of Gamesalad and trying to remember how to logically structure a game.

More importantly it was used to test the graphics of iClone with the application since these types of games are dominated by simple, vector style graphics that load quickly and are easy to push to a smartphone or tablet. This game was developed with HTML5 standards and as long as one keeps in mind that the graphics need to be as slim and trim and possible then it appears to work just fine.

There are some things to remember when working in game engines and Gamesalad is no different.

  •  Images need to be divisible by 2 like 64X16, 128X128 and so forth. If your image is 66 X 128 then the game engine will kick it up to next level in terms of load and might possibly treat it as a 128X128.
  • Images need to be PNG or will be converted and photoshop does a better job of converting raster images like jpg than Gamesalad does.  The Gamesalad converted png is a bit bloated in file size.

I used 8 Bit png when possible and 24 bit when I needed very clean transparency. I also downsized the palette to a minimum such as 16, 32 or  64 before saving. The background images (480X320) came out of iClone anywhere from 120K to 250K but Photoshop optimized this down to 30 to 50k if you played with the palette settings. You will notice some heavy dithering in the larger images that is to be expected with this type of optimization.

While this type of game development is rapid you will still need to have a basic understanding of game logic, working with attributes and generally what to do next as Gamesalad does not do this for you. Instead it offers a clean interface to drag and drop a limited number of commands/attributes that when used in a logical manner can formulate some very ingenious game levels. This particular testbed game offers several different types of arcade game interaction… more that you would normally see in a well developed game but again… this was to make sure I could do what the client was asking for.

Its a greenlight to start on the first game and I’m excited about it. This is what I love about digital freelancing… you never know what you’ll be doing next!

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Self Branding – Establishing a Digital Identity

by on Sep.11, 2012, under Uncategorized

I get asked quite often how I got started on the road to freelance. Was it hard work? Luck of the draw in getting a break? Well… yes and no as both apply to my case.  It was not only luck and hard work as much as it was branding or to put it another way… establishing a digital identity.

When I started I had very limited skills in graphics, had no idea what 3D was but knew I wanted to do this type of work. Like a lot of digital hobbyists (for lack of a better term) I was well versed in computers, knew my operating system and could build my own computers. Not earth shattering skills by any means but solid basic skills just the same. I have just described almost everyone in machinima at this point. Yes there are those that struggle with the computer but for the most part we all “get it” when it comes to learning new software and developing our skills.

One thing I had going for me was a background in old school Banking in which as a loan officer I was required to market our bank to potential loan and deposit customers. From this vocation came a better understanding of how image was everything to everyone. Didn’t matter what you may be hawking… skills or product… the image projected was far more important than the skills possessed or the product being sold.  I may not have had the skills of a digital journeyman but I did all I could to promote an image of professionalism while still being able to back it up… albeit a little weakly at the beginning… with letters of reference from previous clients. All were very glad to give me the letters even though my skill level was very low at the time.

I was also fortunate to learn marketing from some real pros in the business and these folks drove home that same simple fact. Its about the brand! Think in terms of what comes to mind when a person see’s your work, logo or name.

Ok… let’s say you have an online identity. Do you manage it or just let it roll naturally? If you are not managing it then I hope your “roll” is positive because it only takes a few petty words here and there, acting like a primadonna (we all know at least one) or abusing your position within a team or project to set back years of positive work and project an image that you might not be able to repair. After all… who wants to work with an overbearing ogre?

Freelancers are truly a dime a dozen so think carefully about how you interact with the public. If you have a tendency to not play well with others then you may find that you are losing that tendency and actually getting along because you are being proactive instead of reactive when you manage it.

I can’t say that my brand in Machinima is well known as I travel in small circles but my brand in my areas of freelance expertise are known well enough to keep me employed. I’d love to be a household name for my type of work but I’m happy staying busy and I stay busy working with people who make me look good and protect their brand as much as I protect mine.

I will admit that it  is easy for some of us to do this as our personalities allow it but we are almost all alphas in the freelance world or we wouldn’t be disciplined or driven enough to work as freelancers. Apply that discipline to your brand. Seize on a logo, a name and a screen name then stick with them. Continuity is very important to good films and just as important to your digital brand.

Skills alone are not enough. There are many gifted artists out there that could do my work in their sleep but they aren’t. I want to keep it that way so I manage my brand which involves being the guy that the Creative Director or Videographer wants to work with instead of the extremely gifted primadonna that ruins the project for everyone.

That’s all part of managing the brand in my world. So from my point of view I would say that establishing and managing your digital brand/identity is as vital as your skillset. Simply put… define yourself and manage what you are and what you do.

Its hard enough to get started in freelance so concentrate on your brand and work may FIND YOU!

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Are You Ready for Commercial Success?

by on Aug.31, 2012, under Uncategorized

OK… as stated that is a LOADED question because of one word… commercial. If you are a machinimist that is strictly in it for the artform/storytelling and so forth then this won’t be of interest to you. If however you would like to monetize your machinima experience then what are you willing to do to make that happen when the opportunity arrives?

When your project becomes “financed” are you prepared for the limitations that may come with financing? Even though you’ve already decided commercializing your work might not necessarily be the ultimate evil or betrayal of your creative soul are you willing to accept the fundamental concepts of commercialization? Making a profit so you can keep doing it?  Playing to the largest audience possible and so on? Again… if you think compromising aspects of your project is selling out then you might want to move along as there is nothing that will interest you here.  This entire post is based around the idea that commercialization of your work can actually be… GASP… a good thing!

Not all projects require that everything be compromised or dictated (dictated is a word you might want to become familiar with if you want to stay busy in the industry) but there will be compromises when you are not given total control. When someone else is paying the bill then they usually retain a significant amount of control both administrative and creative.

Where does that loss of control come from? As most of you have already guessed by now its the contracts you sign to finance and administer the project.  Something tells me that machinimist will be a bit shell shocked after seeing their first contract offer and that doesn’t count the fact that machinima as the platform for their project (excuse me… what used to be their project) is dead in the water.  You will no longer have control of every aspect of every scene. In fact… you will not be animating it or shooting it live as that will be for others to do and they most certainly won’t do everything like you envision it.

This is just the tip of the iceberg in a wave of changes that could overwhelm the machinimist that finally gets a break unless they somehow maintain control which is a rarity.

So… hence the question… are you ready for commercial success?

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What is the purpose of a critique?

by on Jul.25, 2012, under Uncategorized

Better yet… what is the purpose of your critique concerning other people’s work?

I had the recent displeasure of having to listen to a very creative person give every reason in the book for tossing out a good project based on the criticism they received from their peers. This involved a private machinima project not a commercial job and I was really blown away by the fact that this person had let a group STOP them from telling their story.

I mean really… is this what criticism is for?

That certainly is a loaded question and relative to the situation at hand but stop and think about it. What is criticism for? Is it to improve, to move forward, to stop, to discourage? I’m sure we’ll all pick the more positive points but how many times do we actually do the negative and what is the effect on the creativity of the team or individual being critiqued? What did the critique accomplish?

I realize that I am simplifying the concept in the extreme because criticism is universal to every human being but there is a world of difference in the critiques I receive based on my professional work versus most critiques I see in the machinima crowd.

While there are great critiques being given most miss the fact that it is the machinimist story to tell… not theirs.  Instead of critiquing in a manner that improves and moves the story forward they pick apart the story based not on inconsistencies, technique, continuity or artistic talent but rather how THEY think the story should be told.

I’m walking a fine line with this reasoning as critiques are relative to lot of different factors and viewpoints but POINT OF VIEW makes a huge difference.  I also realize that my opinion on critiques is not the end all of the discussion… just another opinion in a sea of them.

My basic question concerns how we give a critique. Do we do so based on how we would do the project or do we try to get on board with their vision instead of our own? Help them improve their project based on their goals and not ours? If you work in production the answer is simple. You get on board with their vision relying on your skills and techniques to help improve it. If you don’t get on the same page you will not be a part of that project much longer so freelancers learn this immediately and that might give some of us a different perspective from the average machinimist.

Some things I have learned over the years from some extremely talented people:

  1. Identify CAVE people – Critics Against Virtually Everything – as they really don’t add much to the conversation but shouldn’t be ignored as any input is important… the input just needs to be identified and classified for what it is.
  2. Do not take critiques personally! Not even when aimed at you as a personal attack which is not a critique anyway so ignore it. Those type of critics only have the power over you that you grant them so let it roll off your back and move on.
  3. Identify critics that are constructive and learn from them while… as stated earlier… still listening to the destructive critics on the chance they will say something that will actually IMPROVE your project.
  4. Keep in mind when giving a critique it’s not your vision but theirs and help them improve and achieve it instead of rewriting it.
  5. Find a core group of peers from all skill levels that will be honest and on board with you when critiquing your work.
  6. Cheerlead when necessary. Most of my comments are not critiques as I’m not comfortable doing that. I’m a cheerleader as you can tell. I look for the positive or don’t say much at all. Anyone’s work can be picked apart anytime and positive comments are easily identified for what they are… encouraging the artist. Cheerleading is not evil.
  7. Don’t rag on them… write! Be concise with advice that can be followed instead of some pie in the sky abstract concept.
  8. Hold a very critical eye to your own work. Use the same standard or higher when judging your work. Some of the best machinimist and animators I know do not like their own work so this not unusual.
  9. Listen to all input but classify that input in terms of what it is and deal with it in that manner. If you react properly to the critiques you will soon find you are being more pro-active as time goes on and thereby eliminating recurring criticisms along the way.
  10. One more time.Help them tell THEIR story and use criticism that helps you tell your story and forwards your vision. It can’t be said enough. Your machinima project is just that… yours! Run with it not from it because some people may not like this or that.

With this in mind when I do give a critique I don’t try to stifle or stop, don’t critique for the sake of just pointing out flaws. I try to help move the project forward and help the machinimist complete their vision in the most professional manner possible.

My soapbox is getting rather tall at the moment so I’d better sign off and find a ladder so I can climb down from here and get back to work.  All this preaching has worn me out.

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Post Magazine: iClone in the Pipeline

by on Jul.23, 2012, under Uncategorized

Recently I was very fortunate to author a short pipeline article and video tutorial for  industry publication Post Magazine.  This production pipeline involves using Studio Max (with Vue and CityEngine assets) along with iClone and After Effects. The tutorial starts after the city image is rendered from Studio Max then into the pipeline for animation and final production.

The project involves:

1.) Using a render from Studio Max

2.) Bring render into iClone to animate all objects that require motion. Render that output to go into After Effects.

3.) Use After Effects for post work to tighten up the final render,

  • Create the masking for iClone animated objects to appear to pass behind or between buildings in the 2D Studio Max render.
  • Use a 2D render of the Studio Max city to fill in the holes created by the subtraction masks.
  • Use an adjustment layer to mimic fog to dull out the much sharper iClone animated objects (remove the sharp edges) and animate the fog.

This is a very basic and simple usage of iClone in a professional pipeline environment in which After Effects is used to mask and blend the differing renders into a production quality render. This magazine targets an audience to which editing and composite work are second nature so it was kept simple to demonstrate the concept.

The tutorial is located here:
http://www.postmagazine.com/Publications/Post-Magazine/2012/July-1-2012/Tutorial-Reallusions-iClone-animation-pipeline.aspx

PostMagazine homepage is here:
http://www.postmagazine.com/

iClone has matured to a point where it has a place in the animator’s toolbox well beyond it’s machinima roots as demonstrated in the pipeline tutorial.

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