I’m rarely impressed by anything that happens in the After Effects world these days, but I have to give it to Mr. Kramer – he always seems to find a niche for his tools and then is pretty thorough in implementing the features. His latest, FX Console, is no exception. The biggest irony here is how he puts the shoddy Effects & Presets palette to shame, which of course could/ should have had all these features built-in natively for over a decade. My favorite are in particular the Overrides. The useless default settings on many effects have always been a thorn in the side of many artists. That’s of course assuming I actually were using animation presets. I rarely have/ do, because of their inability to store complex dependencies such as I usually create them when using my kind of expressions and of course the whole procedure is rather clunky when you have to select a large number of properties that go with the preset. So for better or worse, FX Console solves a bunch of problems, but how well it integrates into your workflow will hugely depend on the kind of work you do. for the most part it can be a time saver when you do assembly line kind of work, using specific effects and presets over and over, but perhaps not so much when you’re experimenting around and exploring things creatively, shifting things away from those preset values…
What a day! My father just passed away this morning with all the full bells and whistles – emergency ambulance, resuscitation attempts for 45 minutes and all that and my mum and I were there all the time. Not that we weren’t expecting it after his liver cancer diagnosis, but how fast things went downhill took us all by surprise. And in case you have that picture in your head: No, he wasn’t a drunker, this is a side effect of over 20 years of diabetes and certain medications having a negative toxic effect on other organs. Well, now all that’s left is to organize the funeral. My 90-year-old grandma will certainly not be on the best of terms putting her son to rest.
Speaking of these things, I now finally and ultimately put the Error Code Database to rest. Given the state of most Adobe products these days it just didn’t seem worthwhile any longer. No point in being obsessive in explaining errors and bugs when there’s so many of them that you can’t even advise on workarounds. I haven’t done anything on it in over a year, anyway, so it was out of date and well, it’s always been a financial burden that didn’t even recover any of its cost. You can quit poking for it now…
If it wasn’t bad enough that we have to update our software every few months or every year, tiered roll-outs of major versions have now become all the latest trend. Aside from the devastating psychological effects – you always feel like you paid for something that you are not getting and have to continue to pay to actually get it – it leaves you with the issue of having to adapt your workflows over and over again. Sadly, Modo has adopted this scheme all too well and so it is only now, about half a year after the initial version of the 10.x cycle has been released, that we’re talking about the “real” thing with Modo 10.2. So what’s new?
First and foremost I want to mention of course the procedural cloning and replication tools. It seems so silly that something fundamental like a radial array wasn’t part of the original feature set in 10.1, which ridiculed the whole idea of procedural modelling on some level. Tweaking the number of spokes on a wheel really is a way more obvious use case to keep things parametric than applying funky beveling to a flat plane based on random selections. If you get my meaning: A lot of what was in there previously had limited value since it still required you to use manual operations way too often. Things are still far from perfect, but at least it’s now possible to clone something, select and delete a bunch of polygons and combine them as one surface with some bevel and bridge operations.
Whether or not this will actually ever become practical to use is another question. One of the things that really rub me the wrong way is the complexity of the procedural networks in Modo. There’s way to many extra nodes required even for what should be simple operations. The usual dance is something like that: You add selection operators to pick out your polygons and apply your operations, but then need to use a Merge Mesh to be able to create a consecutive selection for your next operations. This goes on and on and that way your simple extrusion-based cogwheel from a cylinder ends up looking like you constructed a whole gearbox, at least as far as the node network goes. Assemblies and the new Assembly Aliases, the latter of which can be locked to not expose internal channels and data to the uninitiated, if you so desire, but still, a lot of this just seems wrong to me. You shouldn’t need to obfuscate your internal logic just to allow other people to use it without messing it up.
The funny thing is, the new Schematic-less MeshFusion workflow nicely illustrates that they can make things user-friendly if only they want to. It’s not perfect, either, but, to insert a cheap pun here, it shows that even something like Mesh(Con)Fusion can be tamed in a manner that it’s actually usable without frying your brain over order of operations in a node flow. If there’s one thing, it is that kind of “artist-friendly”, simplistic stuff that would actually win over people from other programs.
The same could of course be said for everything to do with spline tools. They can go all crazy over their new auto-tool-enable and minor things such as closing splines with a right-click, but the truth simply is that the curve/ spline tools in Modo are just completely crooked and wrong from the ground up. From the way the handles are drawn to how you deal with tangents to that weird and unnecessary distinction between different line and curve types without being able to convert between them easily. I’ve always been critical with Cinema 4D, but even before the major overhaul in last year’s R17, the spline tools there were exponentially superior to what Modo has on offer. In that department Maxon‘s implementation beats The Foundry‘s stuff hands down and it only shows how bad, bad, bad Modo‘s spline tools actually are.
Now for the big one: The auto-retopology. As you may remember, I’m not doing any sculpting nor that much organic modeling, so naturally, I have limited use for this stuff. I gave it a quick whirl with some downloaded high polycount meshes, but how it compares to other such tools I cannot say. What struck me as odd is the lack of interactivity. Controlling the polygon size and flow via pre-saved weight maps (and having to call those up in the actual tool interface via pop-ups) certainly works, but in an age where other programs have interactive tools for scaling, orientation etc. this still feels clunky and inferior. On the bright side, Modo has all the prerequisites in place now and if they add it to the procedural pipeline one day, it could even see some cool uses as a shrink-wrap sort of thing to optimize and fix badly hacked together underlying geometry.
There are some other additions like deformer caching to improve interactivity while working, mesh-based lights and a few more “smart” auto-toggle features to facilitate e.g. component selection based on where you click, but overall the impression lingers, that Modo has turned kind of messy and it’s not really clear where they are headed. Many new workflows and tools are not carried through consequently and feel plugged-on and half-assed. The most apparent shortcoming, however, remain the various performance issues combined with an inconsistent user experience. This completely ruins the fun of working with the procedural stuff for instance. It’s always like you have to wait for the program to reorganize its internal scene graph, update some list or load the data into its viewport. They really need to take a deep breath for version 11 and figure these things out or else Modo ends up being the next Lightwave – lots of legacy issues to carry around that prevent it from ever making as big a splash as it possibly could.
…and every Babylon 5 had its Thornton. Yepp, exactly that one. Unfortunately the B5 curse seems to strike again and now Ron Thornton has some serious health troubles it seems and needs to raise some cash. The Larry Schulz story happening all over again? I hope not! After all, the effects on Babylon 5 were a big part of why I got into 3D graphics and obviously Ron was a big influence there. Given the limitations of the hardware at the time and Lightwave nowhere near being as sophisticated as it is these days, some of that wasn’t really half bad. Of course it was just as easy to see through if you were a Lightwave user, but who says that a few cleverly arranged and textured capsule primitives don’t make wonderful cargo ships. ;-) Back then I also always wondered how they could ever get anything finished. I vividly remember an afternoon at a friend of a friend’s secret cellar compound and us marveling at a single (!) lens flare on a then brand new first generation Pentium computer clocked at 90 MHz rendering in under a minute as opposed to taking three minutes on my 486DX. anyway, before I get lost in nostalgia, head over to the donation page. Perhaps you can spare a few bucks. I’m sure they wouldn’t mind going beyond those targeted 40k and have a comfortable safety margin, even if they already have collected quite a bit of money pledges.
One of the few luxuries I’m affording myself from time to time is trying to keep my DVD and Blu-Ray collections complete on my very limited budgets, and of course the fourth season of House of Cards was high on my list. It’s only been released here about a week ago after becoming available on Netflix a few days earlier due to the usual “international licensing” nonsense. Anyway, I was binge-watching it the last few days two or three episodes at a time and here’s my thoughts on it.
First, unfortunately I have to chime in with what many critics were saying when it was released in the US. Despite of a lot things thrown in to spice things up, this season is nowhere near as interesting as the first three ones. There are some definite pacing issues with the overall writing and the series loses itself in some well-intended, but ultimately ill-fated attempts to humanize the characters by exploring their backgrounds. Claire not getting along with her mother was “in the air”, as they say, from the beginning and it wouldn’t have needed so much attention, especially amidst a million other things like the assassination attempt and the numerous balance-shifting twists in the electoral race. They simply jazzed it up too much.
The Lucas storyline that ultimately lead up to the shooting is just plain ridiculous and they should have let it rest. If you met such a person in real life, you don’t have to be Frank to dismiss it as dealing with an utter lunatic. It does the series a disservice and takes it into a direction where it needs to squander another two episodes to explain everything away. I feel that’s also true for Hammerschmidt picking up the investigation again in later episodes. It just doesn’t have the bite and impact it needs to have in all the noise of the surroundings and the calm nature of this investigative journalist doesn’t help. I found myself thinking that it would be a good thing if he just bled to death after Freddy beat him up. That’s how annoying and bad it was. I also don’t think it’s the right way for Frank to go down. If at all, this should play out like a sharp court drama or a Western with a shoot-out at high noon.
One more misstep is the choice of subject when referencing foreign politics. The writers may have thought having the Syria conflict in front of their eyes every day and using it as a model would be a good idea, but I definitely think it is not. This is simply “hitting too close to home” and is bad for the series, because in two years (when it’s presumably going to end) we will look back at it and laugh at how dated it already looks for the simple reason that even current events one year after filming show how unpredictable such stuff is and that it always develops in another direction than you think. That, BTW, is also the reason why series like Quantico or Homeland will fade into oblivion very quickly and radically one day. In my opinion it would really have been better that they kept it simple and abstract and used a different premise, even if South American or African dictators getting their due may be a cliché.
Overall it’s probably safe to say that this isn’t the best season of House of Cards so far. The writers threw too many ideas in the pot without really thinking things through and there was no good reason they even had to. The election scenario alone would have offered ample opportunities for all the bickering and political intrigue and ultimately that’s what I want to see. I understand that they need to explore other things, but everything loses too much momentum when they stray too much from Frank‘s plotting and scheming. I also felt that some of the acting just wasn’t as good and over the top, mainly for some newly brought in characters like that eccentric computer guy that does the search engine analyses or Gov. Conway. Don’t even get me started on Frank‘s many “bad hair day”s. A lot of it left a lot to be desired and one can only hope that in season five the series recovers and regains its edge, sharpness and wits that made it so brilliant in previous seasons…
The world of plug-in vendors is a strange one and in constant flux, not always for the better. There’s an unhealthy tendency towards market concentration and monopolization, which isn’t always a good thing for customers. You know, that thing with prices being higher than they possibly have to be due to lack of competition and lack of advancement in individual products for similar reasons. From a corporate point of view it of course always makes sense with cost savings due to removing redundancy, optimizing everything and thus increasing profit margins. In the world of technology this argument is then bolstered further by the usual “combining best of both worlds” and “merging technologies” stuff.
Generally there’s nothing wrong with any of that – if I were running a small plug-in shed, I’d sure welcome the backing of a bigger company and all the good things that come with it like better income or easier marketing and distribution – but it still makes me sad. Just recently I stumbled across the remnants of my After Effects Plug-in Guide thingy that I had some years ago, and it’s just painful to see how many cool things no longer exist because companies were gobbled up by others or went the way of the dinosaur. Red Giant and others haven’t been exactly particularly innovative and forthcoming in the last few years. It feels like their only concern these days is to maintain their existing product basis and keep it compatible with as many host programs as possible.
I have somewhat similar feelings about Boris FX and their of tools. I never doubted the technical quality of their stuff, but the BCC suite always seemed to be the lesser choice compared to Sapphire, first and foremost because it was aimed at “editor porn” and some of the stuff looked awfully cheap and tacky. That’s why I definitely have mixed feelings about their acquisition of GenArts. That is even more the case since Sapphire 10 doesn’t really offer that much new, which could be interpreted as a sign that things have been boiling behind the scenes for a while with the merger in mind.
Now not all is doom and gloom despite my skepticism, since there’s some potential here indeed. While you need to come to grips with the fact that some duplicate effects will disappear, others could benefit hugely. Lens flares are of course still one of my favorite subjects and I’ve dabbled with both sides. The Boris flares look mostly awful and I of course have created a shitload of flare presets for GenArts that suffered from some limitations, so why not bring everything together in one great effect? Adding some mocha tracking magic inside the flare builder could do fantastic things. Naturally we’ll have to see if and when such things happen and it’s going to take a while, but this could be cool as could be any number of other combinations…
In the olden days (that to you younglings is like twenty years ago) we used to joke that the easiest way to repair a computer is to throw it out of the window from the 2nd floor, pick up the parts and reassemble them. Back then hardware was quite heavy and bulky and was made of thick cables, connection plugs that looked like they could survive 10000 Volts and circuit boards that were so thick and robust, you probably could have used them to board up your windows before a hurricane, the whole thing would probably have worked. On a lesser level it still seems to work even today. Guess what – when I was turning on my computer this morning like I do every day, it crashed multiple times, citing an nVidia kernel failure in addition to drawing funky colored stripes on my screen. Of course I thought “OMG WTF!?” and used creative language, but to my own surprise I was amazingly calm otherwise and after a few minutes just got down to pulling out the cables, propping up the casing on my table and opening it up. After the usual dust-busting (amazing, what those fans suck in) I had a long hard look for fused resistors, melted diodes, exploded capacitors and loose cables, but nada! So I rocked my graphics card a bit in its PCI slot and tugged on the cables and somewhat frustrated closed up the whole thing again, hoping it would have repaired itself. Re-plugging the cables and flipping the power switch I waited for it to boot and what can I tell you? It worked like nothing ever happened. Strange magic! Of course I still have this bad feeling, that one day everything will go belly up and I will feel uneasy every time I hit that power button, but at least fo a while I may be safe…