Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Fun With Sculpey - Chapter 1

Here's Vince in a whole 'nother kind of 3D.

Sometimes I like to break out sticks, sporks and other things that poke and prod so I can make feeble sculptures. My medium of choice is Super Sculpey, a polymer clay which can be purchased in alluring fleshy bricks at your local craft store. I did a few pieces with regular Sculpey, but prefer the flexibility of the Super kind.

I promised Vince sculptures to a couple friends some time in the late precambrian period, so I figured it was about time to break out the tools and get something done. I'm posting about the first half of the project here on TOC mostly so I'll be more motivated to finish this up. The first sculpture I'm attempting is of Vince sitting astride a tombstone, happily playing a ukulele (or tiny guitar).

As I said, my sculpting skills aren't much to shout about. The process I describe here was taught to me by Tom Collie, who was the resident sculptor back at Humongous. Tom made great, polished pieces of the characters in the kid's games at HE. These were handy reference for animators, and dang cool to look at. Here is my bastardized, sloppy version of what I learned from him.

First, I start off with a wooden base. I drill some holes for the primary armature pieces, which I fashion from quarter inch copper wire. The base can be a simple post cap for fencing from any home improvement store. Craft stores have more polished (and expensive) wooden bases. I went with the slightly swankier craft store kind here. I use a narrower gauge of regular metal wire as an armature for the smaller protrusions. I'm the worlds worst engineer so I do a lot of needless twisting and bending so I feel like I'm making it stronger. I'm probably not.

No, that's not an energy being from Star Trek.
Just flash photography gone awry.

Next, I jam aluminum foil into any major gaps within the wire armature. This should be packed as tightly as possible to avoid any sizable air pockets.

Once this is done, I slather a base layer of Sculpey onto the armature. If I don't like the way things are shaping up, I can still nudge the wire and foil pretty easily. I try to work the material into the many, many nooks and crannies I have created in my sloppiness.

After the basic Sculpey is in place, I add another layer or two. Something of where I'm going has started to emerge at this point.

Next on Procrastination Theater: the detail work which will include a big pile of bones around the tombstone, Vince's other arm and other untold wonders.


Monday, November 13, 2006

TA-ncient History #8: Destroy With Care

The intro movie for Total Annihilation was a pretty important piece of work. This was the first impression we made when players launched the game and it was the only piece of snazzy video we would display at the humble little Cavedog corner of GT Interactive's booth at E3 that year.

The cut scenes were headed up by Kevin Pun. He started with a rough framework centered on a long, continuous pullback I tossed together, but added an amazing amount of drama and wonderfully orchestrated motion to the final sequence. Kevin created a huge chunk of the assets used in the introduction. He also incorporated models and animations from the unit artists, and a small team we added specifically to help out with the cut scenes. The movies came together so quickly the intro was extended by about one third at the last minute, incorporating new shots largely created by Rebecca Coffman. Cavedog was the third job I'd been at with Kevin and Rebecca, and it was a pleasure to see them kicking so much ass.

Page one of Kevin's storyboard for the final intro movie.

It's amazing how well most of this sequence holds up today. The movie was made by a handful of folks using relatively simple, inexpensive tools, but it delivers a great sense of action and anticipation.

Two excerpts from the original storyboard.

Once the final animation was rendered, a few dissolves were added using Adobe Premiere. The sound effects were added by Frank Bry, using an early pass of the theme music for Total Annihilation (by Jeremy Soule, of course) as a backdrop.

The question at this point was about what sort of media to use for E3. This was before DVD's came along. Plenty of video displays at E3 were still played off various formats of magnetic video tape, which necessitated rewinding your cool eye-catching movie every so often. To avoid that I asked if we could burn the intro sequence to a laser videodisc. I figured this would avoid the risk of jamming or wearing out and the movie could just be set to repeat all day.

I owned quite a few laserdiscs, but had no idea how to go about getting a single one-off disk made. It wasn't hard, but there were lots of little steps. First, I had all the individual frames for the movie rendered and numbered sequentially. We didn't have a CD burner in the office (we were that low budget) so I had to transport the frames on a stack of Zip disks. I took these, along with a stereo .AIFF file of the soundtrack to video post facility in Seattle, called Pinnacle Post. They combined the frames with the soundtrack and recorded the assembled movie to a betacam tape. This was FedExed to a facility in New England where they burned a single laser disc, containing the intro movie.

Make that two disks. I found out that unlike regular laser discs, a one-off was burned onto glass. Instead of the typical aluminum and polycarbonate plastic used for CD's, DVD's and regular laser discs, we would receive a disk made of perfectly flat, brittle glass. I had a bad feeling about that. Between getting shipped back and forth across the country, sent to E3 and the chaotic process of setting up the booth in Atlanta, I just knew something would happen to that lovely circular mirror containing our movie.

The shockingly reflective intro movie disk.

I was right. A teamster sat on one of the disks while the booth was under construction.

The version of the movie shown at E3 was slightly different than the one that shipped with the game. We hadn't done the full orchestral recording of the soundtrack yet, so the music was an earlier synthesizer-based version. It sounded pretty convincing to any casual listener, but lacked the punch of a real orchestra. We also hadn't recorded the narration, so the introductory voice over was accomplished with on-screen text.

Back to the story... The surviving disk played perfectly and we didn't have to worry about looking up to see if a tape needed rewinding. Next to booth babes, the most common way to lure dazed attendees into your booth at E3 is a mind-numbing display of sound and video. We had a fairly small screen, and the audio was almost impossible to hear, but the little TA intro movie did it's job. I couldn't believe how many businessmen would walk up to the big screen and dutifully record the intro movie on their camcorders -- and never once turn around to actually play the game itself.

That was fine, since lots of people wanted to play Total Annihilation anyway.


Thursday, November 02, 2006

Virtual Vince

This might look familiar to anyone who read the previous post about the Voodoo Vince storybook. In the early, heady "let's start a company and not get paid" days of Beep, our art director Gary Hanna made the first 3D rendition of Vince. It's almost eerie when something you draw is recreated so perfectly in 3D. This image was done using Maya. I really like how crude and craggy Vince is in this rendition. The burlap is nice and raspy looking. Those pins mean business. The patches look like they were stitched on in a hurry. After looking at this I almost think Vince got too smooth and cuddly later.