Tag Archives: Maya

Step inside The Lightstream Chronicles

Some time ago I promised to step inside one of the scenes from The Lighstream Chronicles. Today, to commemorate the debut of Season 5—that goes live today—I’m going to deliver on that promise, partially.

 

Background

The notion started after giving my students a tour of the Advanced Computing Center for Arts and Design (ACCAD)s motion-capture lab. We were a discussing VR, and sadly, despite all the recent hype, very few of us—including me—had never experienced state-of-the-art Virtual Reality. In that tour, it occurred to me that through the past five years of continuous work on my graphic novel, a story built entirely in CG, I have a trove of scenes and scenarios that I could in effect step into. Of course, it is not that simple, as I have discovered this summer working with ACCADs animation specialist Vita Berezina-Blackburn. It turns out that my extreme high-resolution images are not ideally compatible with the Oculus pipeline.

The idea was, at first, a curiosity for me, but it became quickly apparent that there was another level of synergy with my work in guerrilla futures, a flavor of design fiction.

Design fiction, my focus of study, centers on the idea that, through prototypes and future narratives we can engage people in thinking about possible futures, discuss and debate them and instill the idea of individual agency in shaping them. Unfortunately, too much design fiction ends up in the theoretical realm within the confines of the art gallery, academic conferences or workshops. The instances are few where the general public receives a future experience to contemplate and consider. Indeed, it has been something of a lament for me that my work in future fiction through the graphic novel, can be experienced as pure entertainment without acknowledging the deeper issues of its socio-techno themes. At the core of experiential design fiction introduced by Stewart Candy (2010) is the notion that future fiction can be inserted into everyday life whether the recipient has asked for them or not. The technique is one method of making the future real enough for us to ask whether this is the future we want and if not what might we do about it now.

Through my recent meanderings with VR, I see that this idea of immersive futures could be an incredibly powerful method of infusing these experiences.

The scene from Season 1 that I selected for this test.
The scene from Season 1 that I selected for this test.

 

About the video
This video is a test. We had no idea what we would get after I stripped down a scene from Season 1. Then we had a couple of weeks of trial and error re-making my files to be compatible with the system. Since one of the things that separate The Lightstream Chronicles from your average graphic novel/webcomic is the fact that you can zoom in 5x to inspect every detail, it is not uncommon, for example for me to have more than two hundred 4K textures in any given scene. It also allows me as the “director” to change it up and dolly in or out to focus on a character or object within a scene without a resulting loss in resolution. To me, it’s one of the drawbacks in many video games of getting in and inspecting a resident artifact. They usually start to “break up” into pixels the closer you get. However, in a real-time environment, you have to make concessions, at least for now, to make your textures render faster.

For this test, we didn’t apply all two hundred textures, just some essentials. For example the cordial glasses, the liquid in the bottle and the array of floating transparent files that hover over Techman’s desk. We did apply the key texture that defines the environment and that is the rusty, perforated metal wall that encloses Techman’s “safe-room” and protects it from eavesdropping. There are lots of other little glitches beyond unassigned textures, such as intersecting polygons and dozens of lighting tweaks that make this far from prime time.

In the average VR game, you move your controller forward through space while you are either seated or standing. Either way, in most cases you are stationary. What distinguishes this from most VR experiences is that I can physically walk through the scene.In this test, we were in the ACCAD motion capture lab.

Wearing the Oculus in the MoCap lab.
Wearing the Oculus in the MoCap lab while Lakshika manages the tether.

I’m sure you have seen pictures of this sort of thing before where characters strap on sensors to “capture their motions” and translate them to virtual CG characters. This was the space in which I was working. It has boundaries, however. So I had to obtain those boundaries, in scale to my scene so that I could be sure that the room and the characters were within the area of the lab. Dozens of tracking devices around the lab read sensors on the Oculus headset and ensure that once I strap it on, I can move freely within the limits of virtual space, and it would relate my movements to the context of the virtual scene.

Next week I’ll be going back into the lab with a new scene and take a look at Kristin Broulliard and Keiji in their exchange from episode 97 (page) Season 3.

Next time.
Next time.

Respond, reply, comment. Enjoy.

 

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Rendering trickery is part of the process for the digital, online graphic novel — The Lightstream Chronicles

Page 43

This week, two of the stars of our web comic, graphic novel continue chatting it up in the public security command center at Police HQ. I will let the conversation speak for itself and focus today’s comments on the challenge of rendering these control room scenes.

As I have stated before, everything is “shot” on location. That means that Kristin and Toei are on in virtual space, in a control room location, atop the same police headquarters featured on page 41 with a view of the built city of Hong Kong 2 that has been featured on pages previously. (The latest being chapter 2 prologue pages ix2-x2). Hence, when the camera is framing our cast the view is exactly what is “outside” the windows, or with them “in the room”. One would logically think, then, after all this “building” that it would be a simple matter of lighting and “shooting”. Alas, it’s not so simple. And the problem is focus. Using a real camera, in a situation like this would most likely yield a background out of focus so that we could capture crisp focus on our characters. Unfortunately, in Autodesk Maya, incorporating the rendering algorithms to calculate depth-of-field into all of these renderings would have increased rendering time astronomically, and probably not yielded a realistic look when it was all finished — if it ever finished.

I wanted the reflections in the glass to be fairly crisp, but the buildings that were far off in the distance to be more out-of-focus. All this required separate renderings. One for our subjects, another for the glass, and a third for the cityscape. Then the appropriate amount of blur was applied to each layer in Photoshop and composited into one single image with a believable depth-of-field. All part of the process of making The Lightstream Chronicles as engaging and visually interesting as possible.

mask-demo
A few of the layers that made up the first panel of page 43. There were more.

 

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Graphic novel concept art unveiled

Phase 1 of my graphic novel project is now online. The book will be titled: LIGHTSTREAM The Graphic Novel: Moment of Truth.

Here is the synopsis.

The year is 2159. One major, global government — New Asia — has engulfed most of Europe and North America. The government maintains tight control of the Lightstream — the evolved Internet — as well as rights and freedoms. Science has made it possible to manufacture life-like bionic persons. Known as synthetics, these bionics are found in all walks of life and can be virtually indistinguishable from humans.

In the former America, the largest city is New Hong Kong (also known as HK2). Here, the celebrity-son of a high-ranking government official is brutally attacked and left for dead. Police investigator Keiji-T, the latest in synthetic technology is assigned to the case. Under pressure from above, Keiji is given 24 hours to find the truth or to pin the crime on “the usual suspects”.  Though confident that his highly advanced programming has prepared him for the task, Keiji suddenly encounters conflicting instructions from a mysterious data implant.

In the next 24 hours Keiji, together with his human and synthetic counterparts, must unravel what is true and false in a world where it is difficult to tell what is real.

There you have it. Concept art is being showcased in several places. 1. DeviantArt, 2. The CGSociety, 3. scottdenison.com Ultra hi-res images are on DeviantArt which is set up for big files.

A few notes on design which you probably have gathered from my previous blog posts. I have another year of work on roughly 100 pages of CG but this is the look and feel that I will be working toward on every page. Since the entire graphic novel will be built in CG, that makes the scope of the project enormous. I have had to resort to starting with base stock models primarily for figures, clothing and and some background architecture. This is something I’ve wrestled with this for a long time but if I have to create everything myself the project will never be finished and most of these have been greatly customized and 90% of the environments, vehicles and props are all custom using Maya and Modo. The rendering is in Bryce. There is only minor retouching in Photoshop and the framing and typography are using Illustrator.

Comments welcome.

I’m taking Labor Day off. Hope you enjoy.

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CG software: Does it ever stop?

As promised, I’m going to discuss the maze of CG software that I’ve been toying with and contemplating for my project. I will try to avoid this turning into a rant. Let’s go way back. When 3D software was still in it’s infancy, I fell in love with it and I wanted to learn it and know it as well as my 2D software. I started out with Strata (is that still around?) and quickly acknowledged its limitations. Somewhere around that time, I also adopted the early generations of Poser, and Bryce, which were inexpensive by comparison and managed to do a decent job (for that day and age). It must have been the early ’90s when I made the leap into Power Animator, which I still dearly love and miss. Of course, when all of those companies changed hands and consolidated and such Power Animator went away and Maya was born. There were some similarities, but ultimately, it was a different program altogether. Being self-taught and self-employed, by the late ’90s I ended up abandoning the Maya platform for a number of reasons:

1) Cost of software. Maya was too expensive. Way too expensive. And this was no one-time investment; this was a yearly outlay of big bucks.

2) Cost of hardware. In the beginning, I used SGI hardware, but then they vaporized and the price for new hardware to drive the relentlessly new software just got too crazy. (When the motherboard goes on your Octane and the company is out of business, well, you move on.)

3) Difficulty. Maya was no longer the kind of program that you could teach yourself. With each new iteration, there was new learning and I couldn’t keep pace.

4) By the time Maya was available for the Mac all of the above had already passed me by.

So, I resorted to Bryce for the lion’s share of my rendering. Some of you will laugh, but I exploited that software for all it was worth and still do, despite some annoying aspects and limitations. I also picked up a copy of SolidThinking to continue my NURBS modeling but this was a squirrely program that crashed often and produced unreliable results. I also ventured into Maxwell, Modo and now, since Autodesk lets students use Maya for free, (great idea by the way) I have come full circle. As I suspected, the learning curve is steep, stepping in after years of being away.

Where does that leave me now? As I stare down the massive project ahead, I think I’m going to end up using them all in some way, shape or form; Bryce, Poser, Maya, Modo and MaxwellRender. Life would be ideal if they all played nicely together, but as composer, conductor and first violin on this project, I may have to sacrifice tidy workflow for speed. And, unless Maya is your career, I venture to say that it is anything but fast. No discussion of 2D art (even if it’s 3D generated) would be complete without mentioning Photoshop, which I still hold out as one the finest pieces of software ever designed and thank God, they have never ruined. That’s my toolbox for now. I’ll keep you posted. Your thoughts, as always, are welcome.

 

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