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Rotoscope and Humility

Last week, without fanfare or explanation, I had a shot taken away from me and given to a more senior artist, and in one day he made the shot look finished when I had been struggling for a week to make it look presentable. This upset me, because my pride was wounded and my vanity shown up, but also because there wasn’t any warning, any notes that the shot wasn’t up to snuff. I mean, I knew it wasn’t looking right, but nobody said anything and I was scared by the thought that I wouldn’t have warning when I was failing,  that nobody would be catching me here, and that I might not be good enough. This was a frightening realization.

And the next task didn’t make me feel any better: roto mattes for moving foliage and foreground characters. In a grainy night-for-night shot. As a long-term career choice, becoming the best matte puller in the shop is not where I want to put my focus. Rotoscoping mattes (and painting plate fixes) is the sort of high-skill, low-creativity labor that won’t be done by high-paid domestic labor for long. It’s too easy to outsource and software may even make it trivial before long. But it is something that a VFX artist needs to know how to do competently.

So I had work for my hands while my mind reflected. Rotoscope can be a meditative process, especially when lots of hand-roto is required. Something in the nature of this straight-forward work, where the goal is clear and progress can be marked, is good for the lost spirit. I worked through it fairly fast and focused, too. Even though I’d rather be lighting and comping shots, I think I needed the humility of this task to remind me not to be too prideful, and its utility to the larger project to feel that I was contributing. Finishing it quickly and well helped me regain confidence. At the end I was ready to accept the situation and work with it.

So no-one is holding my hand here (or indeed anywhere in life), and I will need to take the knowledge that I need. I looked over what the other artist had done to see what he had done that made the shot look so much better. Different choices in lighting, changes to the texture artist’s choices, and lots and lots of real-world elements in the comp, for starters. An understanding of the Nuke lens flare tool. In general, he uses an improvisational approach that seems to be hunting out the better image, as opposed to my head-directed attempt to fulfill what I think should be the right approach. I think it’s a good example of letting the hands do the work instead of listening to the head. That, and quite a lot of knowledge and skill built over years and years of finishing shots. There is a wealth of knowledge to be learned here, if I can keep my eyes open.

Trust Your Hands

A productive few days: what needs to happen for these shots is becoming clearer, making it easier for me to act on them. Seeing the work in context, even if it’s crappy and rough, clarifies so much. I need to remember when I’m stuck at the beginning of working on a shot and I don’t have a clear vision to just make something. Trust your hands, not your mind.

“Trust your hands. Your hands make something that others can see, and that you can see as others would. Valuable stuff.”

And then there’s notes. Today we had a review of the two shots and I got a half-page of specific notes, which is exactly the situation I prefer. I’m going to tear through this list this afternoon and Monday.

Constant vs. Sprite

For a lot of unshaded renders, where lighting is not important, the Sprite material is a better choice than Constant, for the simple reason that transparencies in Sprite don’t count toward your ray-traced refraction count, but transparencies in Constant do. If you’ve got a lot of transparent layers (using a particle system, say) with cutout masks, Sprite material is the way to go.

Short film: FARD

“FARD” by David Alapont and Luis Briceno is a wonderful example of non-photorealistic rendering done well and in the service of the story.

Clever story, the design is great, and the NPR styling of the characters and the world is really well handled. I never had that uncomfortable feeling of “procedural lines algorithmically drawn over 3D solid” that is the bane of poorly-made NPR. The geometry and lines of the character faces have been optimized and carefully crafted to look their best in each different view, which I think is essential. Were they indeed 3D? Looking at that beefy credit list, I wonder how much was drawn. Either way, it’s nice work, and the integration of the photographic elements is handled perfectly. I’ll definitely investigate the production of this short.

Displacement Settings in Softimage

OK, here’s an annoying tidbit you’ll want to know about if you’re rendering with displacements in mental ray:  when using the “Fine” displacement method, you’ll get more satisfactory results with fewer polygons if you set “Sharpness” to 100%.


Two days after installing RescueTime, I’ve already noticed a difference. Today, aware that I would have to answer to an objective record of where my attention went,  I worked really hard at maintaining focus. My brain is exhausted!

Two things I did: while waiting for viewport renders or other quick processes, I kept my eyes on the render and my mind on the problem. Normally I might pop over to Firefox to read something for twenty or thirty seconds. What a way to lose flow. Second, long renders that hold up progress on a shot are usually a perfect excuse to hit the web or go for a wander. The lighting TD’s pal. Today when that happened I switched to a second project, one that was easy to pick up and set down where I could make concrete progress in small steps. I feel like I used my time pretty well. I can definitely feel the difference; I’m considerably more tired and my brain feels worn out.

I have a long way to go, though: I hit my slack limit (goal for time waste) at 2pm. First goal: don’t hit the slack limit before 5. Then I’ll work on shortening the slack limit.

Some readers might think I must be some kind of oaf, crowing about how I didn’t dick around all day, but what can I say? I’ve acquired some unproductive habits over the years (to be honest, I was born lazy), and now I’m going to shake them. After, of course, a relaxing weekend…

Point-Based Rendering: A New Approach

via this article on, I’ve learned about a new method for calculating bounce light that’s  much faster than current solutions like ambient occlusion, final gather or global illumination. Point-based lighting, if I understand the article correctly, involves a pre-pass to create and cache a point cloud based on the scene geometry which can then be used at render time to calculate bounce light, color bleed, ambient occlusion, and IBL 4x to 10x faster than conventional rendering solutions.

Very interesting! It sounds like there’s a tradeoff in that the point cloud requires a lot of disk space (300Gb for some Toy Story 3 shots!) and is slightly less accurate than geometry-based methods (note overall darkening, as well as the shadow detail in the lion’s crotch in the example above). The article describes the technique as being most useful in very complex scenes where ray tracing/ radiosity methods are impossible. I will be very interested to see if this technology makes its way into other rendering packages (sounds like it is already available in the RMan commercial release).

Rescue Time: The Tool I’ve Been Waiting For

One of my big goals right now is building deep focus and eliminating habits of distraction from my workday. I want to come in, kick ass for eight hours, and go home happy. And just like budgeting money, it’s hard for me to know if I’m ahead or behind if I don’t have an objective picture of where I am.

Yesterday while browsing a productivity blog (oh the irony!) I stumbled across the time-tracking tool I’ve been searching for: Rescue Time. It’s a lightweight application that logs what window is in the foreground, and for how long, and uploads this information to the cloud. You assign ratings to various programs and websites as ‘productive’ or ‘distracting’ and it reports back exactly where you spent your time at the computer and how productive you’ve been, hour-by-hour, or month-by-month. SWEET. (And of course it has a variety of options for scrubbing data you don’t want tracked. Ahem.)

Rescue Time productivity report

Rescue Time productivity report

Better still: it can be set to nag or praise you based on goals you set, and you can tell it to enforce focused work by blocking certain sites or programs for a set period of time. Perfect for helping me exercise my focus muscle.

The Enforcer

A few years ago I spec’d out a tool that would do most of this but I never had it built. Rescue Time’s implementation is way better than what I envisioned. It’s beautiful and easy to use. Right now I’m using the free version to see just how much I am in love with this tool. I’ll almost certainly upgrade to the paid version eventually, which stores your data permanently as opposed to two month’s worth, tracks individual files as opposed to applications, and–oh–it appears the goals and blocker tools are part of the paid version as well; I’m just on the free trial of the paid version at the moment.  Well, I expect they’ll be getting my money soon.

There is a version for teams, too, with project tracking tools.  They suggest trying a fully-open workplace, where everyone can see everyone else’s time track. That would be an interesting exercise in radical transparency! I wonder if I would be brave enough to host a widget on this blog that would show my productive hours on a daily basis?

The Sun’s Path

This is so wonderful, both as a scientific document and as an aesthetic image, I just had to share it.

Sun's path June To December

Photo by "Mr. Mallon", posted Dec. 9 2009

Science teacher “Mr. Mallon” set a pinhole camera in his backyard and left it for six months to make a record of the sun’s transit across the sky. You can see each day as a separate line, punctuated by the sun going behind the clouds. As he says, “You can see we didn’t have a great summer by the broken lines at the top. More sun shone in the month of October.”

Isn’t this a delightful image?  I’m fascinated by it. It expresses real world information in such a beguiling way–the graceful arc of the lines, the not-quite random way they’re broken up, the echo of ‘high-tech’ in the colors and shapes–everything about it is just great.

Link to post on Mr. Mallon’s Video and Audio Media


Man, my body is a delicately tuned machine. Forgot my allergy meds this morning and spent the whole day with yuck belly. The yuck belly makes me feel hungry which led me to eating two Starburst candies I found in my jacket. Mistake. Even that small amount of sugar was enough to get me on the blood sugar rollercoaster, sending me into a crash right before lunch. I managed ok but felt uneven all afternoon. The blood sugar affects my focus strongly, so lately I’ve tried to avoid sweets at work. A birthday cake? Forget it, I won’t be getting much done that afternoon. Hard to decline, especially if it’s those little chocolate cupcakes from Hey Cupcake. But I really try to hit the low-sugar snacks like pretzels or bananas. Honestly, I do.

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