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Silent Night, Silent Release

In the madness that surrounds my life with three medical appointments again just this week some things slip by. It so happens that I totally forgot to mention that Sapphire 8 is now officially available just in time for Christmas. If you haven’t participated in the public Beta because of potential compatibility issues, you should be safe now and might consider getting your upgrade or new license…

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Flowing inside a Box

As a part-time geek/ nerd of course I’m no stranger to node-based apps and workflows, be that XPresso in Cinema 4D,compositing stuff in Fusion or Blender or modo‘s Schematic view. I even dabbled with Nuke and Houdini every now and then and of course if it wasn’t for the price and licensing restrictions would also enjoy The Plant Factory. What am I getting at?

While I certainly appreciate the power of nodal workflows, there have been a few things that always made me scratch my head such as:

  • Most nodal apps/ tools are just plain ugly to look at. (Hello Nuke!)
  • Some of those things are extremely focused on structure without a good visual feedback.
  • Often the lack of realtime updates of viewers/ viewports, obstructions from drawing the nodes or obscure naming conventions further reduce accessibility.
  • There is many times a lot of stuff going on that the user never can access or reasonably understand (think of  “invisible” connections only used internally or things like expressions).
  • In an odd contrast to the previous point few tools leverage the power of nodes in terms of the underlying data structures and processing models, but only use them as a different representation of more conventional approaches.

Now at long last it seems some of those points have been addressed. The latest FXGuide TV episode features quite a few bits on Flowbox and while I had heard of it earlier this year, but only now some info is trickling out (and their web site has some content), I’m actually getting a bit giddy. This is not only nice to behold, but it also seems extremely powerful. Too bad that I can probably file this under the “would be nice, but too expensive” category and will never actually get to use it.

In that same category is of course Houdini. A question on my dashboard here reads “Houdini 2014 suicide” and even though it seems funny, financially that’s certainly true on some level, at least for the “big” FX version. “But there’s Houdini Indie?!” some might say. Yes, of course, but that doesn’t really cut it for me. It’s sure a nice way of learning the ropes, as it were, but as I (mis-) understand it, I could never really use it due to the licensing restrictions and some of the technical limitations. Most notably I could not be able to easily exchange stuff with other people and send stuff to a render/ simulation farm due to the node-locked licensing and limited “tokens”, as they call it. In fact I would already need a second license for my perfectly legit second install of my MSA license for Cinema 4D. Ah, tragedy of my life…

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The Update that shouldn’t even exist

The interesting thing with After Effects lately is that the more grandiose the promises of “we will fix this and that, improve performance and add new features” are, the more messed up each release actually seems to be.

No, kid’n, even calling the interface changes controversial or the issues on Macs and the troubles with high-DPI displays (on both sides) only mildly annoying would be an understatement. A lot of people downright hated the way 13.1 turned out (me included) and it was simply a collection of crappy code and bad ideas in several noticeable areas. The 13.2 update tries to rectify and undo some of these things (though, honestly, with the UI you can only call it mucking around – it’s just as ugly and painful on the eyes as before). Of course if they had gotten it right the first time and not rushed the previous version out of the door just to meet some marketing deadlines, we shouldn’t even need this update!

The one interesting (but also in a sarcastic sense funny thing) that stands out to me is that the finally have implemented the sourceRectAtTime() feature for expressions. At long last an easy way to match backdrop boxes to dynamic text (or whatever else you have in mind), but, and that’s the weird part, it took them like 7 years or so. This stuff has been available with scripting since CS5 or so, so one can only wonder what took them so long…

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Buy – Sell – Put – Hold

Money makes the world go round, does it not? Inevitably bigger companies buy smaller companies because they have something to gain and smaller companies will many times all too happily sell their asse(t)s to bigger organizations and take the money. So far nothing unusual here, but I must admit even I became a little nervous when I read that bit and the thread that unspun on The Foundry‘s forum thereafter. Of course Brad Peebler is right in that thread – this wouldn’t be the first time the company has changed its coat and so far every of these changes in ownership has not had a negative impact. We will have to see.

Elsewhere Imagineer are selling themselves to Boris FX. Not sure what to make of it, quite frankly. Since essentially mocha is their only product,  it seems to me they have exhausted all markets already with little or no room to grow. You know, there only seem to be two types of apps out there: Ones that have licensed their technology, guarantying them a steady, but probably not so big flow of licensing fees and then all the others, that have their own tracking systems. Either way, this seems to be an odd coupling.

Finally we naturally cannot leave out Adobe‘s acquisition of Fotalia. Quite some time ago he big red A of course already had their own stock photo thingy, which many of you younglings probably won’t even remember. No doubt you will see this surface as some addition to Creative Cloud, though I’m less than enthusiastic about it. There’s already so many web sites that don’t have a single original photo and only endless lists of stock photo credits. This can only get worse…

Experimental Elemental

As I wrote a while ago, I didn’t have much time to finish up some of the stuff I had lined up for showing how cool some of the new features in Element 3D v2 are due to last minute bug fixes pending and so on. Now, two weeks later and with a bugfix update already released inbetween here I am and finally have a few bits ready to show and give away. As always, they are more experiments to illustrate techniques than production-ready assets, but I’m always hoping you can learn something from them.

The moon set comes with a “generator” version of the file that shows you how to create the surface structure just using a bit of procedural texturing in Cinema 4D. When you expand the technique, this can be used for all sorts of meteorites, comets and rocks as well and then you can convert the geometry and bake the maps. The barley field is a bit on the heavy side, so don’t be surprised if it can make your program crash. When opening it, do not let Element relink the files automatically. Instead open up the scene editor, right-click on the missing mesh and choose Replace model.

Moon

Barley Field

Moon project files

Barley field project files

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Opinionated Flares

While I was caught between flood and fire with another infection in my lungs that I seem to contract now with terrifying regularity every two weeks and at the same time trying to help out a friend again that has his own share of being under the weather with a cold by fixing up a 3D project (and really getting a bit weary of Cinema 4D‘s bad drawing performance in complex scenes), the respectable Mr. Maschwitz has posted a pretty interesting article on his blog. I usually love what he writes, but this time I think he got a few things wrong.

I’m not debating his points about everyone having an opinion about everything. Hey, if you read this blog, you sure see enough traces of my failed career as a film critic. ;-) And I love that part about Starbucks (or for that matter everyone’s favorite pizzeria, bakery, food chain, clothing store and so on). On the other hand, and that part is a bit surprising, I think he misses a few critical aspects with regards to the technicalities and process of filmmaking.

While it may be true that films  are 100% other people’s opinions, the question remains whose opinions are actually represented. Is it the director’s? The DOP’s? The editor’s? The producers’? The actor’s? In part certainly yes, but as we all know just as much not. Even on the production level there are so many influences that shape and color the result. And then there’s a lot of interference from “studio heads” who in fact may be just as much wannabe movie directors as you and I. Therefore even the most reputable’s directors opinions are formed based on the pressure from execs as well, the constraints of the overall budget (and hence the director’s paycheck), actors being divas and all the other madness that surrounds such productions. If you get my meaning: There is a lot more going on than the director saying “I want to make a great film.”.

Based on the previous point and quite specifically to the Star Trek flares this then begs the question if anyone else but JJ Abrams would have gotten away with it. What if he hadn’t had a free hand and a upper rank staff person that, as Stu puts it, “reacted” to the flares with “I don’t like flares.” and then scheduled a full reshoot or canned the whole project? I think this is one thing one might not wipe off that easily. Even people “in the know” from inside the industry do not necessarily form complex opinions because in the end they are more concerned with the (commercial) success of the project and make decisions based on other factors than artistic self-fulfillment. And not every director is afforded the luxury of working on big budgets and prestigous movies, putting them even more under the gun. Imagine you were some no-name director with not enough leverage and wanted to use those flares…. ;-)

One of the comments on the blog is also very, very true – these days there never seems to be a definitive version of a film. Different edits of movies are tailored for specific markets to avoid legal issues, ethnical discrimination, political tangles and what else you can think of and then they are again reworked when released a few months later on DVD, BluRay and VOD. Sometimes like in The Lord of the Rings this can turn out great, many times like in Star Wars or this year’s battle for the Weinstein‘s trying to trim Snowpiercer into a more family-friendly format it just goes plain wrong. And if that weren’t enough, this not just happens with contemporary movies, but also old ones. I mean it can still be great to see a fan favorite with some restored “lost footage”, but ultimately, wasn’t there a reason why this footage was left out in the first place? If you get my meaning, and now we are getting to a point: Is there actually one such thing as the perfectly realized vision of a director? We would have to ask those people directly, but often we simply can’t for very practical reasons like them being dead.

On a more technical note there is of course nothing wrong with lens flares. I do them for fun when I feel like it and despite my best intentions I’m sure I’ll do a fifth Sapphire flare pack one of those days (sidenote: You can quit poking around. There is no “free” version of the fourth pack. You seriously have to send me those Amazon voucher codes ;-) ) or create some for Optical Flares. However, even the greatest flare afficionado has a saturation point when it comes to what I call “uneducated use” of flares. For all intents and purposes they need to have a bearing on what you actually see on screen and make some kind of sense. Most flares in Star Trek did not and neither did those in the Star Wars prequel movies and I believe that’s ultimately what many people and I criticized. Those flares did not serve the movie, they really got in the way (at times). It also strikes me as a risky road to take in terms of longevity. People today poke fun at the old Star Trek movies but wait what future fans are going to say  in thirty years about Mr. Abrams‘ entries… Or in other words: The more stylish/ stylized your look is, the greater the risk of it going out of fashion and looking dated.

All bad? Absolutely not! I still respect Stu in every way and in fact Mr. Abrams is one of those people I would spend a day on set just to see him goof around and chit-chat. It’s just that it’s in my opinion not as simple as to say “You are not in this place.” The irony is in fact that most of that wouldn’t actually even be necessary to discuss if it wasn’t for the overflowing information from the Internet. In a way movies especially are a victim of their own in that regard – there are teasers, trailers, set photos, unofficial imagery, tweets and lots of other things that encourage or lure us into making up our minds – often prematurely – and this has a way of sticking with people for longer than anyone would like one way or the other. If I hadn’t seen so many of them already, I could still look up old trailers on YouTube for instance or look up their IMDB entries and think some of them are actually pretty terrible when they are not. Such is the nature of the beast…

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For ‘t is the Day…

…when Element 3D v2 is released. Yepp, finally you can grab and buy it here and since the price is still ridiculously low despite an ass-ton of features having been added, it’s almost a no-brainer to get a license or upgrade. As usual, I’m gonna spare you the marketing speech and only give you the short version of the features. And before accusations here on this blog run wild again: Yes, I have used and tested the plug-in more than you can possibly imagine. So what’s the lowdown?

  • Shadows. Yes, those cities from the Metropolitan pack definitely look more real with those as do many other things, obviously.
  • Geometry-based raytrace ambient occlusion. While the SSAO wasn’t bad as a start and also has been improved in v2 of course there are limitations in deriving this stuff from depth info like it sometimes just disappearing on fine details, the radii looking too big or too small and requiring lot of keyframing as you move around the camera and get closer or farther to and from objects or things just looking flicker-y. The new method should eliminate many of those problems, though admittedly it is a considerable performance hog.
  • Dynamic reflections. Similar to the shadows, this adds a whole new level of perceived realism in many scenes. not necessarily cityscapes since in those a global environment map will work just fine, but a shot with a car driving through town comes to mind as do things like this little logo experiment that would have been so much easier back then.
  • Physically based/ plausible materials. While personally I had no issues with the standard Phong materials (after all, before Reflectance appeared recently in Cinema 4D I had years of experience tweaking the “plastic” renderer there), I’m always welcoming things that make my life easier. It takes a bit of getting used to since inevitably things like glossiness behave exponentially and subtle adjustments can make quite a bit of difference, but you get the hang of it pretty quickly.
  • Deformers. Seems trivial on first sight, but you only realize that they have been missing once you start to use them. Not so much for the crude, obvious, graphically abstract stuff like curving logos or creating pulsing triangulated meshes, but one cool use I found is using the Animation Engine to blend between different levels of deformation with a dose of randomness to create organic motion like swaying fields or leaves on plants.
  • Aux Channels. Yepp, that’s another biggy that makes you slap your hand against your face and think “How could I ever live without it?”. It allows some nice tricks with counter-rotating gears being the simplest one and on a more complex level allowing you to create constraints or rule-based layouts for your particles.

There’s of course tons more like built-in geometric primitives making it unnecessary to always import even the simplest sphere, enhancements to the editor, sub-surface scattering and of course the unified renderer now allowing you to stack instances of the plug-in for nearly unlimited rendering in the same 3D space. Good stuff all round. The bad news? I quite literally have nothing to show or give away for you to play around. Since bugs were being fixed until the last minute I haven’t finalized any of my stuff and the projects from v1 on my site are broken due to the changes. Now that it’s out of the door I’ll try to finish up some of my experiments, so stay tuned and come back one of those days…

 

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