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Friday, November 2, 2007

Everything has just changed

I have seen the future, and it is here.
What do I mean by that, you ask?
If it's the future, how can it be here?
Isn't that the present? Yes, but also
no. Let me explain...

I have been getting familiar with the new
Sandbox 2 editor that comes with the
demo for Crysis, the new game from
Crytek and EA that comes out in 2 weeks
or so (November 16). In fact, the image
that is at the head of this post was
rendered in real-time with this game
engine (click to make larger).

It is, quite simply put,
unlike anything you have ever seen. It is
an animation program, real-time renderer,
game modder, shader creation tool and all around
incredible software accomplishment all wrapped
up in a free (yes, FREE) software download. In this one
program you have everything you need to create your
own animated movie. Really. I am dead serious. You have
characters (which can be totally recreated with external
applications like Softimage XSI and others), lip-synch tools
motion capture tools, motion detection/tracking algorithms,
terrain creation and texturing tools, vehicle dynamics,
cloth dynamics, ai, real-time shadows, volumetrics... Need I go on?

Of courase, the one thing you don't have, that you have to provide,
is a great story. Funny thing is, that has always been the hardest
part to get! Well, it still is. But now, assuming you have that, a great
script, great voice actors, etc., you can achieve what, literally, last week
was impossible. You can create a cinematic-quality movie with limited
hardware and software cost.

So, if this is here now, what is the future part, Perry?

It's only going to get better from here, that's the future part. More and
more of these type of programs will no doubt be making debuts
in the years to come. As real-time rendering gets more sophisticated,
it will completely replace off-line rendering. After all, why wait when you
don't have to. For those of us that use the mental ray renderer, goodness
is already here, because mental images has ported their entire renderer
to run on nVidia cards and within the framework of the Cg shader language.

The future is indeed bright and shiny!

Pinch me all you want, because I am not dreaming anymore.
I had foretold this day about 5 years ago, and shared it
with some of the people I worked with at the time. We all agreed it
would happen some day.

Looks like someday is today! Here's to tomorrow...

Thursday, October 11, 2007

"As a matter of Cosmic History...

"As a matter of cosmic history, it has always been easier to destroy, than to create."

-Spock to McCoy, from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

With that one sentence, the writers of Star Trek II (Paramount, 1982), Jack B. Sowards and
Nicholas Meyer (who also directed the picture) encapsulate my feelings exactly on
not only computer graphics, but on life as well.

Let me explain...

How easy is it to pull a trigger?
How easy is it to say something that you regret?
How easy is it to fight with someone for so long that you forget what the fight is about?
Unfortunately, too easy.

Now, let me ask you this...

How easy is it to create an image that makes someone cry from joy?
How easy is it to create a song that brings people back to their childhood?
How easy is it to write a book that changes the world?
Unfortunately, not very easy.

Why is this? Well, someone once said that nothing worth doing is ever easy.
I agree, although at times (many times) I wish it were easy.
The pain, the struggle, the sheer effort of creation makes the end result all
the sweeter. If it were easy, well, what would be special about anyone's creations?
Nothing really.

If it were easy, what would you say about someone who was unable to create
something special? You might tend to put them down, ask why they weren't
able to create a thing of beauty when, clearly, it is so easy.
If you did that, then, how long would it take before they stopped even trying?

Unfortunately, not long at all.

The fact that it IS NOT easy to create, to make things of beauty or wonder,
is the very reason people keep trying. If it had been easy to go to the moon,
would we have even tried? No, we would have gone to Mars.

Think about that one moment in history,
and imagine it gone. No more "One small step for man, one giant lep for mankind".
That one sentence (like the one at the top of this posting) completely summarizes
what I am writing about. The giant things in life are accomplished by small steps.
It doesn't make them any easier, just possible.

What the students at Flashpoint Academy are doing is very difficult. They are learning
an amazing amount of information in a very small amount of time. Standing at the
bottom of, what to them, must look like a huge mountain, they often feel that it
is going to be so much effort that they don't know if they can do it. Then they start
climbing. As they take those small steps, they look around, and to the left and the right,
it doesn't look so steep. In fact, it is kind of beautiful! Not easy, but beautiful.

I encourage them to take the time to look around, as they climb this mountain.

Getting tired? Is it really difficult? Good!
You are doing something that will make you
feel great when you are done. Still tired? Kind of scared?
Then stop for a second and turn around.
Look down at the path you have walked. See how far you have come
in such a short amount of time?
It will only get better (and harder) from here.

But in the end, when you are done, it will also be all that much sweeter.

Every one of you reading this blog has the ability to do great things.
Those things are not easy. Nothing worth doing ever is.

Now stop reading this blog and start climbing that mountain!

Monday, September 17, 2007

Do you believe in...

Not a long post today, but just wanted to log the feelings
I think a lot of us felt today as we kicked off
the start of something magical.

Magical, not in the way we teach (although
I'd like to think the students think the experience is magical),
but in the way it will change
the way media arts education is taught from here on out.
When something as groundbreaking and impactful
as Flashpoint comes to a field as important
and fast-paced as the media arts,
the effect upon the way it's taught from this
point forward will change as if it was done
with a snap of the fingers, leaving no doubt
in anyone's mind that it is the best way to teach this.

I felt the awe and wonder in some of my students that I recognized
as feelings I felt when I first started working in the industry (but
NEVER felt when I was in school). I am so happy that they are
able to have that experience even before they enter the fields of
their choice. It's that excitement, that sense of wonder, of, yes, MAGIC,
that will have to carry them through the hard 2 years that lay ahead of them.

I have no doubt that it will be enough. More than enough.
The way I felt today, and the looks I saw on their faces,
were proof positive that this journey
we are teaching them how to take,
will be one that they will
never forget and will serve them
for the rest of their professional lives.

Congrats to our students on their first day!

All of us at Flashpoint are so excited to be helping to teach them to be
the artists they want to be, and in doing so, they are helping us to be
the type of teachers we want to be
(and the type we always wished we would have had).

Monday, September 10, 2007

...while you work!

The thing that makes all of us so into what we do for a living
is the actual "doing" of it. In deciding to take a full time
teaching position, I wanted to make sure that the
"doing" would be a large part of it.

Boy, is it ever!

Today I got to spend time with John Murray, Chair of
Recording Arts at Flashpoint Academy while he worked
on the sound design for our summer film project called
"The Collector". The film, directed by our Academic Dean
Paula Froehle, was shot in August and has now been edited
to a fine cut. It's in post, with John working on the sound design,
myself working on the visual effects, and our Chair of Game Production,
Simeon Peebler, working on a game that will accompany the film's release.

It was great sitting in the sound editing room with John today, listening
to the beginnings of the sound design for the film. It's amazing what
just a little well thought out and subtle ambient noises will do to
make a film shot on a sound stage feel like it was shot in a house
in the 1940's. John played a section of it that used to be Paula shouting
instructions to the actor, but now included the humming of the actor
as he worked on his collection of Butterflies, and the sounds of a dogs
barking in the distance, mixed in with crickets. It all worked, and suddenly
made the images on the screen start to feel genuine. Not that the images
are not good, they are actually fantastic, shot by a really talented DP
by the name of Peter Biagi, with a Sony CineAlta F900.

It's just that they lacked 50% of what makes something read as "real".
That's John's job. He fills in the missing 50%, and makes the images come
to life. I can't wait to see the whole thing filled out with the music of life!

I also got to spend time with Peter Hawley, our Associate Chair of Film.
He's a really great guy, with a great sense of humor, and we have an
easy time talking at length about what it is we love about this business.

When we were done talking, he had work to do, which was shooting more
interviews for the "Making Of" documentary that he is doing to document
the creation of, not only this film, but the building of a new way of teaching
students how to work in the media arts and sciences.

Heady stuff! But Peter takes it all in stride, makes people feel at ease, and gets to work.

He interviewed me for the doc, and made it quick, easy and not a big deal
(even though it is). I am sure the final doc will come together smoothly
thanks to how he makes it easy for everyone to just relax and talk about
their role in the making of the film.

It was after all this was over that I realized how great it is to not only
be able to "do" what I do for a living, and teach others how to do it,
but to be able to be around other people while they do what
they love to do.

Hey, it just doesn't get any better than that!

Sunday, September 9, 2007

One week to go!


The time is almost upon us when Flashpoint will open its doors to the first
class of students. How time flies when you are working like crazy! In addition
to all our normal Flashpoint work, we are all working industry professionals,
with projects going on the nights & weekends.
Even trips to the bathroom are not safe from work!
When do you think all that reading for class assignments is done, huh?

I'd like to direct your attention to something really cool: Flashpoint is the
first new school to open in the Chicago Loop in over 40 years.
Wow! That's amazing, and sad, all at the same time!

Amazing because it's our school that will break that dry spell of more
than 40 years, and sad because it shows how little education has
been valued by the public for much of that time. But there is a
resurgence happening in the last few years. Education, in many
different forms, is exploding. Especially for the visual effects
and animation industries. DVD's that run 20, 30, 40 or more
hours are regularly selling out from online retailers. Usually these
DVD's are application specific, but not always. Books that teach
animation still continue to be high sellers in traditional and
online retail stores.

Online learning is also exploding, allowing people that are not in
close proximity to a school to learn from instructors and classmates
from nearly anywhere in the world.

We are soon going to be opening the doors to a brand new
facility that is second to none in the technology of teaching.
But even with all that metal, electricity and wiring, the most
important element is still the human one.

Speaking as one of the humans that will be teaching at
Flashpoint one week from now, I can't wait to
see what you all come up with when that spark of
creativity is lit inside of you.

Get ready everyone!
Buckle your seatbelts,
because the
ride is about to begin!

Saturday, September 1, 2007

T-Minus how long???

16 days.

T-Minus 16 days, and counting...

That's how long before Flashpoint: The Academy of Media Arts and Sciences is open for school! There is a lot left to be done, but it will all get done. The excitement is carrying us all through the long hours and the craziness that happens when anything new and groundbreaking is started. It's part of the fun, and it wouldn't be the same without the craziness.

To a degree, the intensity makes all creative and groundbreaking endeavors not just "bearable" but actually thrilling. Like when I made my first visual effects shots for a real movie. At the time, what we were doing was groundbreaking. No one had done digital effects at the price point we were doing them, on the schedule we had, for the producers we had. And to top it all off, we had never done this before. No, I don't just mean we hadn't done visual effects for movies (we hadn't), I mean we were doing creatures (we had never even attempted those on our own), sky replacements, rotoscoping, particle effects, morphing and the list goes on. Read today, that isn't really scary. But for a bunch of guys who only made animated logos before, this was like being given the keys to ILM, but with no one there to run the place. We had to figure it all out for ourselves.

And we did.


But that is the best way to learn something. Just do it. Anyway you can. Even if everyone else (including yourself) thinks you can't. Show them (and yourself) how wrong that is. Prove it. Learn how to do it by doing it, making mistakes, changing strategy, and doing it again.

A wise old puppet once said: Do or do not. There is no try.

What he forgot to mention was that trying means "thinking about it". When you do something, even if it isn't working, you are still doing it. If it doesn't work the first time, do it again. Don't "try it again". DO IT again. Eventually, you will do it right. And when you do, you will have learned the "how" in the phrase: "How it's done". The phrase isn't "How it's tried".

If you fail, you've learned something. You've DONE something.
Eventually you will win.

If you try, you're still just thinking about it.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Like a Frankenstein movie I tell ya!

Wow. That's all I can say. Last week, when we had those insane rain and storms throughout Chicagoland and Northern Indiana, I was driving back to my apartment, heading towards the Sears Tower and - - - - - - BOOM! A bolt of lightning hit the antennae on the top of the Sears Tower like you wouldn't believe! It was SO intense, SO bright and SO gigantic that it honestly looked fake. Like it was a bad effects shot from a Frankenstein movie! I have never seen lightning like that in person, and it was such an amazing sight that rather than being afraid of the storm, I eagerly looked around for more lightning. I wanted to see that again, but it wasn't going to happen. While completing my drive to my apartment that night, I began to think about something that has always been funny to me... Sometimes we, as artists, try so hard to replicate reality, that it ends up looking kind of homogenized. We try to make it have JUST the right color and JUST the right shape and JUST the right motion. Then, when we see something real, we are surprised, because it ends up looking FAKE! It's not, of course, it's just that our limited view of the "real" world is always filtered through a set of things we profess to know based upon past experience, and when something comes along that doesn't follow that past experience, we are thrown for a loop. I spend a lot of time people-watching. But equally as much time world-watching. It's such an amazing planet, Earth. The things we see (when we aren't huddled in some darkened room in front of a glowing monitor) are more amazing than anything we can currently recreate with the sticks and stones we have for making computer graphics. We have so much further to go until we are able to recreate reality, if ever. And when and if we are able to someday, it will still be limited by a filter known as "life". If we haven't experienced enough of it, then how are we to know when something looks real, or looks like an old Frankenstein movie?

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The King of Kong: can't wait!

Tonight a bunch of us from Flashpoint are going to see The King of Kong, a documentary about two players who have been locked in mortal combat (or, Mortal Kombat) for years over who is the world record holding Donky Kong Champ. Yes, I said Donkey Kong. Sounds ridiculous? Well, to us it is, but not to the two players. And that, in my opinion, is what makes for the start of a great documentary. No matter how insane or ridiculous the subject matter is, as long as the person who the documentary follows believes it to be incredibly serious, then you have fertile ground for humor, interest, and emotional connection to the film. You see, even though I think that there are way more important things to strive for that being the best in the world at a nearly 3 decades old videogame, someone might actually think that something I care deeply about is a waste of time and crazy. This gives me an immediate connection to a documentary like The King of Kong, which I hope will be another in a long list of great Docs alongside some of my favorites: American Movie (my number one, hands down); 30 Days in Hell: The Making of 'The Devil's Rejects (an amazing DAY by DAY making of which doesn't sugar coat ANYTHING about making a lower budget horror movie); Super Size Me (fast Food is Evil); This Film is Not Yet Rated (arbitrary censoring of movies is Evil); Crumb (a feast of weirdness) and many more! I am particularly interested in knowing about more documentaries about making movies (not just 'Making of's") in the vein of American Movie. Anyone know any others?

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Lightning Stikes are INCREDIBLE here

The few storms that we have had here while I have been in Chicago have been amazing. Thunder, lightning (lots of it, and often). Maybe it's because the area is so generally flat. I am not sure. All I know is that it is an incredible sight to behold. I talked with others from Flashpoint, and they said they have watched the Sears Tower hit multiple times (on the antennae), over and over and over again. Like a giant lightning rod, but it never seems to sustain damage. I wouldn't be able to say that about anything else that got hit, because the lightning seems to be very intense. Maybe I am just closer to it than I am used to, and it's no stronger here than back east. Or maybe it's lightning from Thor's Hammer! OK, it's probably not, but I needed SOMETHING goofy to end this post with!

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Render Theory

One of my friends, Robert Cole, has a great signature line on his emails and posts:

Render Theory. Either it renders or it doesn't.

I love that!

Especially, if you, like me, have ever used Autodesk Maya to render your animations. It's, unfortunately, not a given that it will render. It can, and does, often crap out on you when you hit the render button, expecting the magic to start appearing frame-by-frame while you walk away blissful in the hope that the cool animation you just created will look 100 times cooler with those awesome shaders you just made for your objects, and the incredible lighting that you just spent hours (no, DAYS) working on... You leave the office, counting the hours it will take to render by taking the average time per frame, and multiplying it by the number of frames, and adding a bit (a tad, a sprinkle, a smidge) of time for longer render times for some frames. The next day, when you get in to the office, you walk straight over to your desk, turn on your monitor, and you can't wait to launch the animation in fcheck. Wait!!! What's this?!?!? It's still rendering? But how can that be? By my calculations, it should have been done at, like, 4:30am... What the hell?!?! It's still on frame 7 ?!!!!!!?? But when I left, it was working on frame 5 !!! And that's when you realize, Robert is right. Rendering is a theory, and it isn't a given that it IS going to render. It's more of a hope. As in: "I hope this works..." or "I hope this doesn't die on me after I walk out the front door..." All this (and loads more) is what made me switch to Softimage XSI years ago. Sure, it's not perfect, but it renders (or it doesn't) right away. No more walking in to the office in the morning and being un-happily surprised. Now the only unhappy moments of surprise I get with it are when I make a stupid mistake, and the final render isn't as "awesome!!!" as it was in my head when I dreamed of what it would look like when it was done. Oh well, live and learn. Do you have any "rendering horror stories"? Let me know, so I can feel better... Oh, and one more thing! If I had a signature to my posts or emails, it would read like this: A big hollywood director and a visual effects guy are on set for a huge bluescreen shot. The VFX guy is worried that the bluescreen won't extract correctly for the composite. The director looks him straight in the eye and says "Don't worry about it, we can fix it in post".