Wednesday, 20 February 2013


Last week we had the opportunity to be given a lecture from Doug Ellison, who is the Visualisation Producer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. I was extremely excited for this as I have always been somewhat of a space geek and an avid admirer of NASA and what they're capable of doing, and the unbelievable lengths they go to to reveal the unknown benefiting the whole of mankind. 

As I’ve mentioned Doug is the Visualisation Producer at JPL, which during the lecture he explained means that he works together with programmers and 3D artists, as well as the NASA engineers and scientists involved in NASA's missions to create visualisation tools for the general public. In a nut shell I believe he designs and creates key visual elements, primarily animations of various NASA missions to help less space exploration savvy people like us better understand NASA's ideas, objectives and the actual missions as well as to engage further with the missions themselves. Because lets be honest, how much interest do the general public really take in NASA today? I know I try my best to, albeit it may be slightly harder to keep up here in the UK, but with the wealth of information available today through the internet that’s hardly an excuse. A few years ago I did buy myself the NASA's greatest missions box-set on blu-ray, on its release day no less, (I did mention I’ve always been a bit of a NASA fan didn't I?). I also have NASA on facebook, which, however briefly, lets me keep up to date to some extent on NASA's current missions etc. But, on July 20th 1969, yes that’s right, when Neil Armstong and Buzz Aldrin aboard the Apollo 11 were the first men to ever step on the moon (the third man who stayed on board Apollo during the first moon walk was Michael Collins, and he was just as vitally important to the success of the mission, so don’t forget that name!), it is estimated that over 500 million people watched every moment of the arrival of Apollo 11's arrival on the Lunar surface.

So why such little interest today? Well there's probably many reasons and I'm probably not the best person to venture a guess as to why, but I can tell you that it isn't just our generation that have suddenly lost interest, interest has fallen over the past 30 years or so, and one reason is that NASA missions eventually become so routine that people began to feel it was too easy, especially compared to the likes of the Apollo missions which some might say were near impossible feats of human exploration. But also the Apollo missions were some of, some might say were actually the biggest and most incredible things humankind have ever done bar none. The engineering, the science, the discoveries and especially the finances were just mind blowing. But since the Apollo missions I myself, since being born in 1990 have been treated by NASA to some life defining experiences that I will always hold as part of my generation. For a start the Space Shuttle missions which I have been fortunate enough to be alive over half of the Shuttles life time up until the sad, but amazingly proud day of July 8, 2011, when I was able to see Shuttle Atlantis on the last ever Shuttle launch spread over the news. I am also growing up during the era when we see the International Space Station continue to expand, and one of the greatest things to be part of is the recent Mars landings, and most recently the landing of the Mars Rover Curiosity, and I can only thank NASA and count my blessings that I am fortunate to be alive at such a time of continuing great missions and discoveries.

And so I come back to Doug Ellison and his role at NASA, and if I'm not mistaken, if you were decent enough to follow the news during Curiosity decent onto the Mars surface, and shame on you if your didn't, then you'll of seen various animations explaining to the general public how the Mars Lander, and Rover worked and would continue to carry out various tasks on the Martian surface. Highly detailed animations, like those shown on BBC news, developed by the Visualisation team at JPL, with whom Doug is the Producer, helped to explain to the general public all of these things and helped us to feel engaged with NASA's ground breaking mission and subsequent discoveries. And it can be simply put that Doug's team at JPL, play the vital role of connecting us, the general public with NASA's current missions by moving NASA's communication with us into the 21st century with such animations as well as interactive experiences online such as JPL's 'Eye's on the Solar System' which I believe Doug worked on, and if you haven’t tried it yet here's the link, you must go and have a go, its awesome;

And we also see interactive augmented reality apps on the iPad, such as Spacecraft 3D, which I've also been fortunate to have a play with, which allows you to select from a number of various spacecraft and learn about and interact with the spacecraft, seeing how they move right on your dining table! Again cool! But most importantly these experiences provided by Doug and his team give NASA the opportunity to educate, and to help people like myself learn about the engineering feats used to expand our knowledge and understanding of space alongside the great minds at NASA. So I thank Doug and his team for providing us with these opportunities and experiences, and I also thank Doug himself for the great lecture he gave us on his work and his experiences within NASA and his life leading up to such a wonderful role, it was an absolute pleasure to be part of it.

I would like to end this blog by further cementing my appreciation of NASA and the benefits they provide for all of humanity, as some may not really understand what NASA has really provided us over the years. When I was seven I was unbelievably lucky to be taken to Florida by my Grandparents, and during our second week there, when everyone went back to Disney Land, my Grandad took me alone to Kennedy Space Centre, as mentioned I have always, always been so interested in space and NASA. It is an experience I will never forget. (I was quite disappointed to learn there was to be a Shuttle Launch on the same day the very next week! As you can imagine I was more gutted than dissapointed!), but nonetheless, the visit to Kennedy Space Centre was one of the most wonderful things I've done in my life so far, to experience the rocket gardens and actually see inside some of the rockets, to go through the huge facility with an actual Saturn V rocket inside, the sheers size of it, and even at such a young age to have an appreciation of how this unbelievably massive thing could get into space was purely overwhelming to say the least. And last but not least, despite not seeing the Shuttle Launch the next week, I was able to stand on the viewing platform were thousands of people would stand the very next week to witness the launch, see the launch pad off in the distance, see the countdown clock right in front of me and, amazingly, to see the Space Shuttle Discovery a mere few hundred feet away on the back of a mover on its way to the launch pad!!! I count myself very lucky for this experience, and as you can probably guess, it is one I will never forget.

Oh! and for those of you who haven’t yet guessed, the title of my blog post 'Opportunity', not only describes my experiences of NASA as mentioned in my blog, but, it is also the name of one of the twin Mars Rovers (Spirit and Opportunity) which landed on Mars on January 25, 2004, and unbelievably is still active to this day 9 years later! What more can be said about NASA's amazing work!

The Saturn V Rocket at Kennedy Space Centre

Me, age 7, at Kennedy space Centre.

Friday, 15 February 2013

The Mortal Engines Project

The last project for Game Production was a character project based on the book Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve. The characters we modelled had to be a self portrait in the style of Mortal Engines. I was excited for this project, I've always enjoyed reading and thought the Mortal Engines story was fun to read with plenty of good descriptive writing of various imagery, especially the characters. I've also always enjoyed reading because it gives me the opportunity to imagine for myself how a story would work visually so this projects has given me the opportunity to develop my ideas into a completed final design with concepts and a 3D model.

As per usual the project had some outlined aims and requirements specific to it. Our models needed to show good appreciation of the final aesthetic, proportion, colour, silhouette and detail density, and the character models were to be judged on anatomical accuracy and artistic interpretation as well as the technical requirements including, an efficient mesh with good surface topology, that demonstrates an eye for sculpting convincing body form, muscles and facial structure. As usual our tutor was looking for an efficient use of textures, conveying the different surface qualities such as skin, clothing etc.

I was a little concerned initially considering the time frame that had been given to complete the project, which included concepting ideas for the character, including sketches of various different ideas considering the different character elements from the book, complete with a final idea and reference drawings from the front, side and back for use when modelling. As many reference images were then collected in relation to my final character idea as well as mood boards and colour palettes. The project then required me to model my high poly version, unwrap and texture it, I then planned on learning some basic Zbrush functions to create and bake normal maps and ambient occlusion maps. My final model then had to be rigged as well as final renders being taken for presentation purposes. A low poly 'LOD' then had to be modelled, unwrapped and textured. Considering all of these components there was an astonishing amount of work to do in the four weeks give in my opinion, and as you'll find out, I did struggle to complete the work that I did.

As mentioned, I started by creating a number of concept sketches and then a final design for my character. In my final design I decided to mix various elements from my four concept sketches. With the 'Mortal Engines' world, I imagined that lots of things would be salvaged to be used like described in the book when London eats another city. My final idea was that instead of my Pirate 'me' character having a plain wooden stump instead of a foot he could have a car piston which could move when walking. This would add interest to my character design and would also create a challenging element when it comes to rigging the character. I also decided to add a mechanical hand on the same side as the foot, the idea is that my character would've sustained an injury to that side of his body and had salvaged parts to repair himself, it also gives the character consistency in the interest of his appearance. The final designs are shown below;

The modelling process went quite well, I feel that I am now at a stage where I am able to model with a reasonable amount of confidence, knowledge and experience in creating accurate models with clean geometry. After first creating a base model, with basic anatomy as a starting point I then began to focus on modelling the head, being as the project was a 'self portrait' I needed to try and get as close a likeness to myself as possible within a reasonable amount of time. I modelled the head using the box modelling method, following the previous method I used from the gladiator project and the tutorial from year one. It went well but slower than expected, and I was having to add lots of loops to increase the geometry meaning I was constantly going over the same area refining and optimising the geometry from all view ports. I finally reached a point that I was happy with, a point were the tweaks I was making were so small it seemed unnecessary to continue for such small details, again, if the time frame had been longer it is certainly an area were I would have continued. I then spent time beginning to add clothes to my body mesh by extruding out from the centre of the body and reattaching at the edges to create the jacket. For the pants I have simply rescaled the legs and added some extra loops where I'd expect there to be more defined creases such as around the knee area and above the boot. I also added some twist to individual loops to make the clothing seem more natural instead of pre-planned. I found that I spent a lot of time modelling the mechanical hand which was not as easy as I'd anticipated, especially in terms of how time consuming it was. Because the mechanical arm/ hand had to be rigged I specifically had to think and plan about which elements to include, where the hand was going to bend and where the joints needed to be placed specifically. Despite this I think the final hand looks great.

Into the texturing process and I was looking at taking a new approach to the process. Usually after unwrapping I will do the diffuse texture first, then go onto the normal map and finally the specular map. This time I planned to use the baking method to bake my high poly models (created in Zbrush) onto the mesh to create my normal maps and this time ambient occlusion maps also. From the baked maps I will then paint the diffuse maps using the UV coordinates as well as the information that has been baked in the the normal and AO maps. The first bake I did was the main body. I decided to do this first as I was trying to use ZBrush to sculpt various elements especially creases in the clothing. As I had never used ZBrush before, and because time for the was short, I decided to stick to the basic tools of ZBrush and use it purely for creating some defined creases in the clothes. ZBrush was a little daunting to get my head around but I managed to develop some simple techniques to get the final effect in the creased clothes I desired. I decided to import the ZBrush model back into 3DS Max to bake the normal and Ao maps in that program instead of using ZBrush's render to texture tool. I was informed by a third year that this would potentially yield better results because I'd be baking straight onto my actual model. This is what I did and I didn't have a chance to experiment with the two options so I cant conclude if one method is in fact better than another. I also baked the individual high poly props including the gun and telescope as individual elements. This just meant that I had to use the mix normal maps feature in nDo2 to combine the various normals I had baked which was an easy enough process. This was the same with the individually baked AO maps but these were just combined easily within Photoshop.

Using as much as my reference material as possible I created my diffuse texture maps. I also tried to texture my model to resemble my initial concept paintings as closely as possible. This meant that for a lot of elements, particularly the clothing I had to work quite hard in manipulating various reference images to get the desired final effect, including merging various colours, patterns, textures, and other things such as stains etc. For the mechanical hand and foot I used some good metal texture reference images I had gathered but when applied to the model it looked quite plain. I decided to also overlay a rust texture which I had taken myself last year which I then painted out in areas to show rust in the desired way, such as in the joints etc. I was quite disappointed, and a little annoyed at how my reference images for my head had come out. They appeared to be very low resolution and not a particularly good quality, even worse when they were stretched to fit my UV's. In the end I realised that my camera had been set to manual focus instead of automatic which was a silly mistake. Fortunately the lower quality reference images seemed to lend themselves well to the model as the skin tone looked much better. The final texture that needed to be done was the specular. This time I decided to try out a colour specular map which was to be placed both in the Specular Level and Specular Colour map slots within 3DS Max. They were quite easy to prepare as from what I can understand it is simply manipulating the diffuse maps to get the desired effect. I did this by changing the hue/ saturation/ lightness adjustments as well as slightly changing the levels when needed. The only major change to colour was in the skin tone. From a tutorial I followed it showed that the skin tone within a specular map should have a darker blue tone to it and this seemed to work well on the models.

Once the model was finished I hadn’t left myself much time at all to complete the rigging. Fortunately I have now rigged a few models, from the gladiator project to the texturing competition last year, and once I had picked up the tools and functions of the skin modifier I was fairly comfortable with getting a basic but solid rig. Unfortunately that was a long time ago and my mind needed refreshing somewhat, particularly with the method of setting up the biped correctly and the specific tools and how to use them properly and efficiently within the skin modifier. Once I had everything set up properly though I began to remember quite quickly and followed a method I used last time for getting a nice clean rig. The method includes attaching verts in the centre of bones a full 1 and verts either side of a joint at a 0.6/0.4 or 0.7/0.3 respectively and then try to follow a steady gradient of weights. I then use the animation I've set up with the biped to change any verts weights independently that look out of place.

With hardly any time left to complete the project I tried my very best to try and optimise my model to a low poly LOD. The aim was to do a 2000 tri low poly model but after many hours refining and adjusting I was able to pull the model down to roughly 2,700 tris which is really still a way off from the initial aim, but, considering the high poly tri count really isn't bad. I also attempted a diffuse bake onto the low poly model, which was a really rushed job, it hasn't come out too bad in all honesty but I know I could do a much better job if I had more time to spend on it.

There are many positives about the final outcome of this project. The main one being that I am extremely happy with the final model as a whole, I think it presents a very interesting character, with a good colour palette which is consistent throughout yet diverse in its presentation.

I am happy with learning some basic uses of ZBrush which has given me a good stepping stone towards better normal map creation and although I’ve already been familiar with baking I think this project has helped develop my skills in this area.

I dont know what more I can say in regards to the time given for this project other than to say I have struggled to get the work done in time. I have tried to balance a quick and efficient work flow whilst still trying to achieve a high standard of work but until you begin the different aspects of the whole process you don’t realise how much time each aspect is capable of consuming. This has been a hard but valuable lesson to learn.

Final renders taken in Marmoset Toolbag
Final renders taken in 3DS Max 2012, showing the final model with normal maps and Ao maps applied.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Missing Projects (Catch Up Part Two) Blitz Environment Project

I'll take this opportunity to show you the work I produced for project two of the Game Production segment of the Game Art course. The second project of my second year for Game Production was another project from Blitz Games studios and based on a live art test they set for prospective employees. It was another good opportunity to gain experience of actual projects set by real game studios.

We were provided with two building frontages in the Blitz folder, the task was to create a third building to sit between the two provided befitting the age, style and location of the current buildings. We were given some examples of styles but obviously I wanted to do some concepting before hand to explore various possible outcomes.

I initially brainstormed some ideas for various building types, I then chose six of my favourites and began to gather as much possible visual reference, mainly from the internet to support my concepts.

My final concepts are below;

My initial thoughts were that I wanted my model to be unique and, although having to befit the provided two buildings, I wanted mine to also make an impression, I didn't want it to completely blend with the other buildings, I also wanted my building to be a focal point inside the scene.

Initially I decided to model the strip building, I thought it would be something different and it would be a good idea to do a day time scene and a night time scene in which I could illuminate the neon lighted signs as well as learn how to create neon signs once imported into UDK. After some thought I couldn’t see any reason why I couldn’t merge two of my building concepts into one model, and as I also quite liked the idea of the billboard building, I didn’t want to do it on its own as the rest of the building looked quite plain so I decided to model the strip club with a billboard on top of it.

To begin modelling I used elements from the provided Blitz models in order to give myself a foundation to begin working from. I took the Blitz models right down to their most basic forms and then began modelling on top of them. The odd thing about this project is that no definite tri limit (or texture limit) was set but a rough guideline was given by suggesting to use the provided Blitz models as reference for tri limit. The Blitz buildings were around 5000 tri’s each so I decided to try and stay around this count with my own model. I also decided to stick as closely as possible to my concepts whilst modelling so that I could finish the model with the desired look.

At the beginning of the project I was very satisfied with the outcome of my concepts and felt like the project was going to go well but now I’m at the end I feel because a lot of work has been done in just a short amount of time the work hasn't been to the best of my ability and lacking in most areas for the sake of just getting it done in the time frame.

The biggest positive for me in this project has been learning how to use and implement NDO2 within my work. It seems to be a very powerful piece of software and with further use I believe it is going to complement my work greatly in the future.

I am not completely satisfied with the final model for my building. I think it looks interesting from top to bottom but I do also feel that some areas are lacking quite a bit, particularly the middle section were there is just a row of windows which looks quite boring and breaks the detail between the sign and billboard at the top and the entrance and signs at the bottom. I also feel that some extra detail could of potentially been added at the bottom of the model.

I am also not completely happy with the outcome of the renders, one reason is that I was a little unsure how exactly to set up the camera to properly demonstrate the environment scene. The other issue I had was with the outcome of the night-time scene as I would of liked more time in which to research and set up lighting, in particular the glowing neon signs for the night renders.

The Art and Science of Level Design

From my research its fairly apparent that level design is as much as, if not more so a technical skill as well as an artistic skill. In fact, its most definitely a technical skill. Level design is a varied discipline which involves various methods such as concepts, sketches, 3D models and documentation to describe the interactive environment of a games universe.

In earlier 2D video games, such as Mario or Sonic, level design was somewhat more straightforward, it may of involved simple but major elements of the game, such as the placing of obstacles and enemies, power-ups. A designer would primarily focus on the consistency of the levels most of the time concentrating on making progressing levels in ascending order according to difficulty rather than a progressing story line.

Today's level design for next gen video games which include high detailed, 3D game environments, some of which are vast, is some what of a herculean task. It is an ongoing process throughout a games development from pre-production all the way through to completion. This means that level design is no longer the job of just one person or programmer. Typically studios use a team of level designers consisting of designers, programmers, artists and engineers who give input on every detail from the placement of a crate or plant, to rolling landscapes, aesthetic details such as texture budgets at certain locations, colour use, lighting and environmental conditions.

Because the design process is a large one, both in time and work, it will always be strategically and comprehensively planned to follow a methodical procedure. Studios will plan in various different ways but a typical design process will include first and foremost (as with any other design process) an idea. Gathering visual reference and the concepting, and most importantly setting a world scale for the whole process to follow. 3D blocking in, followed by texturing that will evolve in detail as the design process progresses along with the development of the game. Adding environmental and atmospheric conditions such as lighting, rain, mist/ fog etc and perhaps further detailing and texturing. The design will then move into final stages, any extra detailing will need to be completed ready for testing, tweaking and bug checks ready for the games release.

Level design has evolved massively over a a short period of time to now include realistic dynamic lighting effects as well as realist physics and now involves the design taking place in level editors or game engines. Pre-programmed software makes it easier for people with individual skill sets to actively input into the design process, work can be carried out much quicker and more efficiently, and there is much more scope and control given to the user. For a while now, level editors have even been included with games releases , a good example being the Unreal Editor included with various Unreal games such as Unreal Tournament allowing even the players, with no experience of video game design to involve themselves in using pre-made assets included in various editors to make there own levels. Another great example of a more recent game to include a user controlled level editor is Little Big Planet for the Playstation3. This game makes an exceptional approach of actively designing the game around the mindset of an inbuilt level creation tool for user created content and levels and not just as an extra feature included with, instead of just being an extra feature included with the game. It is now estimated that there are over 6 million user generated games and levels for little big planet which is just astonishing. For some games it has even gone as far as user generated content being sold, making just typical gamers, members of the general public, in some cases hundreds of thousand of pounds per year. This is becoming more of a big deal, so much so that certain individual game companies, such as Valve, are taking great notice in this shift in content generation by the gamers, which is starting to evolve the business plans of major corporations and developers to work alongside users making their own game content to share profits and much more complicated financial business properties that I have no idea about but I can assure you are readily being taken into account! User generated game content is no doubt playing a major role in the constantly evolving games industry, and some may go as far as to say that our roles as game artists may be under threat as good quality content only becomes easier to produce. On the other hand, there is a clear difference between good quality content and high quality and I'd like to think that there will most definitely be a demand for video game content to be produced at a professional capacity.

Level design revolves around certain important rules, or better still, goals which it strives to produce. The combined skills involved within a levels design of artists, programmers, script writers, graphic designers, 3D modellers, sound engineers ultimately has only a few main goals, whether the game is set in a sci-fi world or a medieval England. To provide the gamer with objectives and quality gameplay, and most importantly to create an immersive experience.  

Missing Projects (Catch Up Part One)

So here's some feedback on previous visual design projects that I promised. In project three we spent our time in Leicester City centre studying the urban environment and taking influence from the work of Gordon Cullen. Cullen was actually a very influential British architect and urban designer and produced works representing the visual language of cities and urban landscapes, i.e. cityscapes.

Taking more of an influence from Cullen's quick style sketches, which I found myself taking a particular interest in, I started by walking around Leicester City centre, taking plenty of reference images and completing some quick sketches on location too.

After returning home I compiled my reference images and preparation sketches and after completing a couple more sketches using fine liner and marker pen to try and capture the visual style of Cullen's work I wanted to complete a few more drawings in colour. One of the Cullen examples given to us buy our Tutor Chris appeared to be fine liner and colouring pencil with some very expressive fluid marks. Trying to represent Cullen’s style again I completed two further larger sketches using colouring pencil of DeMontfort university, somewhere obviously particularly meaningful to me within Leicester City.

To finish this project I also completed three smaller sketches using water colour, a medium I was unable to find being used in any of Cullen’s work yet I found the use of watercolours lent themselves well to the visual style. I have a few reasons for my fondness for his style of work. The actual ability to transfer as much information, particularly within built up, dense urban areas quickly and technically accurate is a skill we have been practising as part as our development as game artist from day one of the Game Art and Design course. As well as this, I find the rough, quick style expressive and lends is self perfectly in conveying the unmasked, dirtiness of a lived in, used and abused cityscape.