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Posts Tagged ‘visual effects’

With three years between the release of Episode 1 and Episode 2, you might expect I had plenty of time to improve upon all aspects of the visual effects – but actually a lot of that time was spent simply getting the vast amount of content created and finishing the episode to an acceptable standard! Nevertheless, I think Episode 2 features some pretty good visuals that build upon those created for the first episode. Have a look at the six-minute breakdown below:

The first thing we knew we would need for Episode 2 was a larger amount of virtual environments. For Episode 1, we had time to build secondary sets, such as the bedroom, the briefing room and part of the transit room. We also used a real forest for a big chunk of it. Basically, at the time, we weren’t sure how well the green screen would work, so we intentionally kept it to a minimum. Once we knew how well it could work, we were free to expand its use in Episode 2 and were able to put our characters into locations that would have been otherwise impossible (or at least highly impractical) to build for real.

I had time to improve upon the chroma key technique, changing some of the plug-in settings and using the high resolution masters straight from the camera to get the best colour pull. This produced a neater, cleaner picture in most instances. Combined with shadows and depth of field effects, I got some good results.

Virtual environments had to be modelled, so this is where I spent a lot of my time. Creating the banks of computers for the IT room, modelling the computer monitors, creating the interiors of the outpost station – these were all time-consuming processes that I worked on over several weeks and months. Wherever possible, I would re-use elements. You might notice in the background of the Nottingham control room are computer screens, control panels, pillar lights and vents, all taken from Britannic environments. Here and there, I have used pre-built 3D models for some background components (the plant pot, for instance), but most of it is my own modelling work. I’m still learning, but I’m becoming more ambitious every time!

Re-using assets was a time-saver. I was able to bring back the Smegulon fighter ships from Episode 1, giving me more time to spend on building the mothership. The Britannic itself is also the same – in fact, I was able to reuse a few bits of stock footage from part 1. However, once I’d set about adding the weapons and shield domes to the hull, I could no longer re-use the old clips, so I had to render all new ones for the latter half.

Some of the seemingly ordinary shots actually had a lot of work done to them. For instance, we needed a room for the Jenkins character, but all we had at the time was a living room, complete with decidedly contemporary-looking skirting boards, plug sockets and curtains. These scenes had to be extensively modified to remove those elements and keep the room looking spartan and spaceshippy, which involved lots of “rotoscoping” (ie. frame-by-frame drawing around the actors). The other detail I wanted to add was the colour of the carpet; due to throwing the old one away, our rebuilt set had a black carpet instead of the original blue one. I decided I would digitally alter the colour of the carpet for the first half of the episode, up until the point where the bridge gets its systems upgraded, for the sake of continuity. This also involved rotoscoping around legs and feet in a few shots. Yes, I am quite mad.

Other scenes, like those in the dining room, were even more complicated than they look, due to the green screen not being wide enough to cover the whole frame, and due to the fact that two of the extras at the table were not available on the same day. So to get the shots where you see the whole table, I had to composite two pieces of table together, two sets of actors filmed on different days, and then painstakingly draw around anything that fell outside of the green screen. One shot in particular, lasting a mere 15 seconds, took about a week to fix!

The most noticeable improvements are found in the space shots. There are a couple of things that I was able to do that I couldn’t do in Episode 1, which made the biggest difference. Firstly, I had a faster computer that was able to render sequences with motion blurring enabled. This meant that, as ships and missiles were whizzing around the screen, they would appear to blur realistically with smoother and more natural motion. Secondly, since I finally worked out how to apply a spherical map to the environment, I was able to do any camera movement I wanted without having to worry about matching up the stars in the background by hand. Thus I was able to move camera and ships independently, which is of course very useful when you want to have big space battles going on.

Finally, I really pushed the boat out in doing some ambitious visual effects shots. Mixing live action with CGI, mixing planet scenes and space scenes together, doing big reveals, pull-backs and zoom-ins – I used every opportunity to produce some impressive sequences on our budget of nothing.

All the visual effects were created using a combination of 3DS Max, Adobe After Effects and Photoshop. With a sprinkling of fairy dust and crossed fingers.

Of course, Fallen Star is more than just a vehicle for expanding my technical skills; it’s also a fun and creative endeavour of writing, acting and hopefully making people laugh and cheer. That said, for the purposes of this website, I hope this has provided an interesting look into some of those technical aspects, which make up a huge proportion of the workload.

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It’s been a little over three years since I finished work on the first “episode” of my Fallen Star film series, which was, at the time, only to be a one-off (although initially planned as a series). Those three years have been spent working on another five episodes simultaneously, but the last year has seen the final push to get Episode 2 out the door, and now it’s finally available to watch online. Check it out below:

We learned a lot on episode 1, felt what our limitations were, and decided to push against them here. With a better camera and improved image clarity, I was able to make more extensive use of our greenscreen background to put our characters into a wider variety of locations, most of which did not physically exist. I’d also improved upon my animation and rendering, and with a faster PC, was able to create longer and more dynamic space sequences.

We paid closer attention to our camera work and editing for this one, and more time was spent on the scripts and trying to flesh the characters out a little more. The practicalities of working on scenes from five episodes at once were difficult but we got everything we absolutely needed in time for this one, and more episodes are still being worked on now.

I personally think what we all, as amateurs, have achieved here, on practically no budget, is something to be proud of. However, I want to keep this blog focused on my technical skills, which I will get to in a later article, accompanied by a visual effects breakdown video. Thanks for watching!

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YouTube recently lifted the limit on the length of videos I can upload, so I thought it was time to republish “Fallen Star Episode 1” as a single 53 minute video, rather than a 10-part playlist. Here it is, one more time:

Eagle-eyed fans might have noticed some minor differences. George Lucas once said a film is never finished; you keep working on it until someone drags you away, kicking and screaming. (I’m paraphrasing, but that’s the gist of it.) So it is with Fallen Star Episode 1 that I’ve been through and made some minor visual effect tweaks, improved image clarity in a few places and made some subtle alterations (some of which will hardly be visible on YouTube anyway). I haven’t added anything silly (or anything at all for that matter), nobody shouts “nooooo!!” at any point and no little CGI critters scuttle across the screen; it’s just minor visual improvements.

On the whole, I was quite happy with how the film turned out, even if our script wasn’t great and our camera work was shoddy and our acting could have been better and our-… wait, what was I saying again? Oh yeah, generally pleased. Particularly with our space shots and other effects, which were all new territory for me.

Unfortunately, one of the main problems we had was a ‘stuttering’ issue, whereby our spaceship sequences were rendered at the incorrect framerate, leading to movement that didn’t look smooth. It was a rookie mistake and it won’t happen again. I was outputting these sequences at 30 frames per second, but the project was 25 frames per second (standard PAL DVD format). Imagine a one second sequence as a series of images, 30 of them. It’s like having 30 pegs and trying to fit them into 25 holes – inevitably 5 pegs are going to get left out. So it was that every second of these sequences was missing frames, causing a stutter or ‘jump’ in the animation.

There were two ways I could see to address this. The first was to stretch these sequences out, so that each 30-frame second would fit into 1.2 seconds (25 of the frames fit into one second, the remaining 5 carry over to the next second, and so on). That would smooth out the animation, but also make them longer/slower. The other way was to go back and re-render these sequences at 25 frames per second. Considering the amount of sequences present in the film, I didn’t fancy doing this, so I compromised by changing just a few of the key sequences here and there. Actually, on my new computer, the rendering time was greatly reduced anyway, so it wasn’t too big a deal.

Another problem we had originally was with some of our ‘greenscreen’ footage looking really fuzzy. I’ve since found a way to remove most of this fuzziness, and now the worst of it is gone, and several scenes look considerably better for it.

Other changes are just to bring some of the visuals in line with the ones I’m working on for the next episodes. Eventually, this revised edition will make its way onto a complete DVD set.

Below is a complete list of all changes, just in case you were interested:

  • Master volume raised by 10dB.
  • The porthole in the captain’s cabin has been made slightly larger, to more accurately match the exterior ship proportions. The starfield outside the porthole moves slightly slower. Noise has been added to match the video noise (various shots).
  • The first reveal of the Britannic has been re-rendered at the correct framerate (using the new Britannic model) to eliminate the stuttering problem.
  • The zoom through the bridge window shot has been improved. The bridge interior comes into clarity more gradually and better fits the movement of the camera over the ship.
  • Minor reduction of sharpness and increase in noise to all computer monitor graphics throughout the entire film, to better match the focus and noise level of the footage (various shots).
  • Very minor reduction of sharpness to the corridor backgrounds when characters walk through the bridge doors (various shots).
  • Additional noise added to CG wall / floor on numerous forward-facing bridge shots, to better match the overly noisy chromakey footage of Davenport (various shots).
  • Adjustments made to the chromakey settings for many of the greenscreen shots, reducing the ‘fuzziness’ and improving clarity as much as possible (various shots).
  • Minor increase of blur effect to many of the static starfield backgrounds to reduce their sharpness compared to the foreground elements in some of the space shots (various shots).
  • Subtle blur effect applied as the ship moves further away from the camera (or reduced as it moves towards the camera) in many of the space shots (various shots).
  • Slight adjustments made to the shot of the Britannic entering orbit over the Brinstar planet. The ship has been shrunk to appear further away, and reflects the yellow hue of the planet as it draws closer to it. The planet and starfield elements drift slowly to avoid the background looking like a static image.
  • All animation ‘stuttering’ in the title sequence is eliminated. The close pass sequences of the Britannic are now interpreted at the correct framerate (thus they move slightly slower and are cut slightly shorter). The ship flying away at the end is a re-rendered sequence at the correct framerate, using the new Britannic model.
  • The strip of light that appears around the main viewscreen whenever an image is displayed has been altered so that it glows a pale purple (various shots).
  • In the two shots of the Britannic leaving orbit of each of the planets, the movement of the ship is altered slightly so it doesn’t appear to stop and turn so abruptly. The Britannic is subtly colour-tinted until it moves away from the planet, then the background goes out of focus as the ship passes over the camera, to give a momentary sense of depth to the scene (2 shots).
  • The green helm station display screen at the beginning of the episode has been changed to a less vivid shade (various shots).
  • One instance of visible tape on the wall of the captain’s cabin has been partially erased so it is less obvious.
  • The moving stars in all external fly-by shots of the ship at zoom speed have been altered. The stars are either replaced with new CG ‘streaking’ stars, or the original graphics are sped up and stretched with a radial blur effect so they appear to streak in the same way (various shots).
  • The moving stars viewed through the main window whenever the Britannic is at zoom speed have been stretched and sped up so they appear to streak (various shots).
  • Slight adjustments made to the shot of the Britannic entering orbit over the forest planet. The ship has been shrunk to appear further away, and reflects the green hue of the planet as it draws closer to it.
  • Slight noise added to the CG corridor backgrounds during the weapons locker scene, to match the video noise on the characters.
  • The slow sweeping camera pass over the top of the ship to the briefing room windows at the back has been re-rendered using the new Britannic model at the correct framerate, eliminating the stuttering. The model is also now lit from a different direction, leading to greater contrast between the side and the back surfaces of the ship. A blue glow has been added to the rear of the starboard engine tube as it comes into shot. The original moving stars have been replaced with CG streaking stars that match the movement of the camera properly. The interior of the briefing room through the rear windows moves a little more smoothly as the camera zooms in on it.
  • During the briefing room scenes, the CG wall and ceiling have had noise added to them to match the video noise of the footage (various shots).
  • During the briefing room scenes, new streaking stars are now visible outside through the windows (various shots).
  • Noise has been added to the CG wall behind Jenkins and Darling in the briefing room, to better match the overly noisy chromakey footage (various shots).
  • Corrected the colour on Jenkins and Darling in the briefing room when Jenkins raises his hand, so the green tint is less pronounced. Also added additional video noise to this shot so that it better matches the following shot.
  • Erased the visible tape peeling off the wall during the door opening shots in the briefing room (3 shots).
  • The external shot of the Britannic dropping to sublight speed and flying past the camera towards the nebula has been re-rendered using the new Britannic model. The moving stars behind the ship have been repositioned to better match the angle of the ship, and made momentarily streaky.
  • The first shot of the Britannic flying into the nebula has been re-rendered using the new Britannic model at the correct framerate (a repeat of the sequence already rendered for the closing shot).
  • The second shot of the Britannic entering the nebula has been interpreted at the correct framerate, eliminating the stuttering. The ship movement is slightly slower as a result.
  • The external fly-by shot inside the nebula has been adjusted so the Britannic is now very blurry until it draws closer to the camera, making the nebula seem even more misty.
  • Davenport has been correctly colour- and brightness-adjusted from two previously missed forward-facing bridge shots (2 shots).
  • In the shot of the space station rising up over the hull of the Britannic inside the nebula, the movement of the cloud layers has been tweaked to better match the camera movement.
  • The colour of the Smegulon station’s laser beams has been changed from yellow to green (3 shots).
  • The close-up shot of the ship from behind as it flies through space has been re-rendered using the new Britannic model to show the new hull detail at the rear, at the correct framerate to eliminate the stuttering, and with motion blur applied to make the movement smoother. The rears of the engine tubes now glow blue, and the stars have been made streaky.
  • The shot of the Britannic flying past the camera during the captain’s final mission log has been re-rendered using the new Britannic model at the correct framerate to eliminate the stuttering and show off the new detail at the rear. Motion blur has also been applied so the ship passes the camera more smoothly.
  • The dark outline around Volgin as he stands on the bridge (caused by the previous colour correction of his uniform) has been almost entirely removed. The sharpness of the background has been reduced and mild noise has been added to better match the footage.
  • The closing shot has been re-rendered using the new Britannic model at the correct framerate to fix the stuttering and show off the new hull detail at the rear. The angle of the shot has been shifted slightly at the beginning so the bridge exterior more closely matches the orientation of the bridge interior. The movement of the interior through the window now appears smoother and better matches the movement of the camera as it pulls away.

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A general purpose showcase of special effects that I’ve made for film projects.

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Here is the third and final visual effects showreel from my Fallen Star project, this time focusing on the augmentations made to live-action footage.

Unlike the CGI space scenes or the green screen scenes, live action raw footage took up the majority of the shots used in Fallen Star. But most of that footage had to be modified in some way, whether it was to add laser beams, computer displays or even entire walls. Let’s go through the ones shown in the video…

Lasers! These were straightforward enough – just straight lines given a glow effect. They widen slightly as they fire and narrow again before they disappear, rather than just flicking on and off. They also swipe across in the direction of travel, just slightly. Real lasers are instantaneous, but you can use artistic license with sci-fi weaponry. The good thing about these laser effects is that they’re on-screen for just a few frames, so even if the camera movement is all over the place, it’s a piece of cake to track their motion. I added a glow to the impact points and the gun barrels too, just to jazz it up a bit.

Background enhancements! Our original footage had, for instance, a plain wall where we needed to have a porthole. Thus, I created a porthole and then laid it over the footage, so it lined up with the wall. The difficult part is if and when someone walks in front of these, at which point I had to do some ‘rotoscoping’, masking out the shape of the person frame-by-frame, to obscure the porthole.

Background stabalisation / extension! We had our footage of the briefing room interior, which was to be seen through the long row of windows from the outside. The actual footage showed only a small area of wall and carpet, so I had to extend this outwards to create a large room. A digital set extension, if you will! This was then lined up with the footage and finally inserted into the composition with the CGI exterior. A similar technique was done with the opening bridge ‘zoom-in’ shot, but I had to stabalise the footage to stop the excessive jerking about that our camera was doing. Stabilisation is mostly an automated process; it’s just a matter of finding a constant reference point for the computer to recognise and keep it locked in place.
On a similar note, there were a couple of shots where a door was removed and replaced with the corridor behind it. Most of our corridor shots were done on green-screen, but as you can see in the video, I squeezed an open door into one piece of live-action footage too, masking around the foreground as necessary.

Computer screens! This was where things got difficult. Our screens were physically black (or grey) with nothing on them. Thus, every single shot had to be amended to insert the graphics. The process would have been longwinded enough without having to draw around people’s heads and hands whenever they moved in front of them, but there was no other way. In hindsight, we should have fitted green panels onto the displays; that way, I could have keyed out the colour and saved myself a lot of time. The sheer number of shots where the screens are visible in the background was ridiculous! I’m glad the end result looks good, though. It’s just as well most of our shots had little to no camera movement – that would have made the process even harder!

Transport effect! One of the oldest optical tricks in film is to stop the camera, move something out of the way, and start it up again, to make it look like something has disappeared (or appeared, if you do it the other way around). We did this in the forest, to make our crew appear to materialise out of thin air. Digitally, this is a simple process to fade from one to the other. To jazz it up, I cut around the shape of the actors to isolate their shape, and then brightened them all up so it looked like they were glowing. Then I added sparkly effects over the top, which started small and then filled out into the shape of the actors, before fading away again. Additional glow effects were added to make it look like it was lighting up the forest floor slightly.

Miscellaneous! Little things can make all the difference. The scorch mark on the tree where the laser hit it? That wasn’t real! Although when the camera moved and I had to track it (and blur it) to keep it in the same spot, I did wish it was real. More lasers, this time going behind things – I had to mask out the character, tree or whatever else it was going behind, involving a small amount of that lovely rotoscoping again. Blurry eyelids opening? Those were drawn, with the colour fading from black to dark red to simulate the light filtering through, and the footage behind it is simply blurred. Finally, the squirrel scanner – I used a combination of automatic motion tracking and frame-by-frame adjustment to make sure the graphics stayed lined up with the scanner device. The opacity was set low enough to allow the reflections to come through, adding to the believability.

That’s it, that’s how it was all done. Wasn’t that terribly fascinating? If you pause the video, you might be able to make out some of the gobbledegook I wrote on the computer displays.

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Here is a collection of visual effects sequences from my Fallen Star project, concentrating on the green screen (chromakey) sequences that placed our actors in artificially-generated environments.

From the start of the project, we knew we would be limited in which areas of the ship we’d be able to show, and that principally the episode would be set on the bridge. However, early on, I suggested we might try to expand the range of locations using artificial environments modelled in 3D, using a green screen to isolate the actors from the background. The possibilities were exciting! I set to work on creating some interiors, a long corridor, a hallway, a ‘transporter’ room, not to mention the fourth wall of the bridge. I used actual photographs of our real walls and carpets for the textures, to try to keep things as consistent as possible.

We were lucky enough to borrow a green screen for our project. Unlike normal green screens, this one was colourless until light is reflected off of it. Using an array of LEDs attached around the lens of the camera, we could reflect back the green light off of the screen. The light would only be visible from the angle of the camera and wouldn’t reflect off of the actors or props.

We had a few teething problems with this, however. At first, we set the intensity of the LEDs too high, and it did in fact reflect off of the actors. Therefore some of the green screen footage appears quite fuzzy or has messy outlines. We got better at the technique the more we used it, and most of the other shots have turned out fine. One advantage of using this reflective screen is that it doesn’t need to be as perfectly lit as a normal green screen would be – it’s self-luminescent. Unfortunately the actors did need to be lit properly, else they ‘silhouette’ against the background. We did our best with this, but ultimately I did need to lighten much of the footage in post-production. This meant that some of it has poor black levels and visible artefacts. Not a problem in Hollywood, but it’s difficult when you’re on a budget of nothing.

We used the green screen for every shot of somebody leaving through a door. This is because none of our doors were real. They’re either stuck onto the wall, or in some cases they’re entirely digitial. So the on-set filming would have been done first, with the character walking up to the door. Then, later on, the green screen shot was done, with the actor continuing to walk away, passing through or around an imaginary doorway. When edited together, it’s almost seamless. Almost.

The green screen didn’t extend down to foot-level, so the few times when we needed full body shots, the feet were removed by cutting around them with a masking tool. Thankfully, there wasn’t much movement, and all the walking shots were done from above the ankles. But even with a physically small screen, it’s possible to insert large background or shrink the actors down, as you can see in the video.

You’ll also notice that we sometimes separated our actors into layers. This wasn’t done for technical reasons, but rather logistical ones. We actually lacked sufficient costumes to film everybody at the same time. This led to the rather ridiculous shot of four people walking into the transit nav room in single file, which we filmed all separately! There were also scheduling difficulties, which meant not everyone was available for filming at the same time, so again, I worked around this by compositing two (or more) bits of footage together into one shot.

Ultimately, we couldn’t have made this film without a hefty amount of green screen, so I’m very glad to have had it. Perhaps we’ll be using it more in future.

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Here is a collection of visual effects sequences from my Fallen Star project, concentrating on the 3D modelling that was used for the space scenes.

This is noteworthy for being my first attempt at 3D modelling. The Britannic was made over a period of a few months, adding bits of detail gradually, as I got more used to using the software. I do wish I could have added more to it now. The underside looks too smooth. If I had the time and ability, I would have made detailed shapes on the hull, rivets, panels, screws, dents and so forth. This simply used a generic metal material, which looks fine from a distance, though perhaps the close-up shots suffered.

Space scenes were reused as often as I could get away with, so some shots were repeated or reversed. The renders were output with ‘transparent’ backgrounds. That meant I could put anything I liked behind them, be it a planet or just stars or another ship or whatever.

On the subject of stars, for the vast majority of space shots, the background is just a static picture of a starfield. If the camera needed to move, I would just slide the background around accordingly. The one exception is the opening shot (seen at the end of the showreel above) in which the camera takes quite a complex course over the hull of the ship, spinning around and so forth. To get the background right for this, I had to apply the picture of the starfield to an environment map – effectively the inside a huge sphere – so that, as the camera moved within it, the stars stayed in the right place.

You’ll also notice from the showreel that the pink nebula was not part of the 3D model. This was added afterwards as layers in the background and foreground (the foreground layers are partially tranparent, so they look like nearby clouds or mist). Additionally, the pink-ish hue on all the ships was purely colour grading after the rendering was done. I had thought about doing some advanced lighting within the model itself, maybe having swirling patterns of light hitting the hull of the ships, but in the end I didn’t have time to learn how to do this. Additionally, doing it this way allowed me to reuse space shots and just change them to pink!

So, there was a lot of corner-cutting, but frankly, “spaceships in space” are the EASIEST thing you could possibly model. It’s just static objects with limited lighting and no backgrounds. I like to think that I’m good at making the most of a limited skill-set and finding creative solutions, but I’m also eager to pick up new skills that will let me do more ambitious things. In future, I hope to do just that!

Part 2 of the Fallen Star showreel will be focusing on green screen (chromakey) effects. Keep an eye out for that.

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