Tag Archives: General

February Fun Roundup Post

January was an odd month in terms of our brand spanking new blog schedule (which you’ll notice, has already morphed into Saturdays instead of Fridays). On the other side of the words, I’ve been working on a project I’m really excited about and I’ve started work full time. Those two things haven’t quite figured out how to play nice yet but the hour long lunches are helping.

There’s a hint about my project a little further down the post, but if you’re interested in helping me out I’m looking for some testers. Anyway, much more on that later – lets get on with the tasty goodness for this month.

SIGGRAPH is Returning to Vancouver!

In a couple of years. Before I start gushing about just how happy this makes me and why, here’s a quick summary of what Siggraph is about for the uninitiated:

SIGGRAPH (short for Special Interest Group on GRAPHics and Interactive Techniques) is the name of the annual conference on computer graphics (CG) convened by the ACM SIGGRAPH organization. The first SIGGRAPH conference was in 1974. The conference is attended by tens of thousands of computer professionals. Past SIGGRAPH conferences have been held in Los Angeles, Dallas, New Orleans, Boston and elsewhere across the United States.

It’s basically one of the biggest graphics conferences in the world. Last time it was held in Vancouver and broke its prior conference attendance records. I love Vancouver and its close to a lot of my friends; if I’d known about it a little earlier last time I’d have saved and gone.

I couldn’t be happier that they’re returning in 2013 – saving as we speak. Is anyone else planning to attend?

Get a head start with this month’s Online Event

Escape Studios are holding a webinar on the 15th February called ‘The Industry’s Best Kept Secret: Houdini‘. If you were around for my take on skills needed by a VFX Artist then little bells should be ringing all around your brain right now.

Here’s what they have to say about it:

Houdini has been on VFX the scene for quite some time, but over the last few years it has benefitted from somewhat of a revival. The product is renowned for combining superior performance and ease-of-use to deliver a powerful and accessible 3D animation experience for CG professionals around the world. In this webinar, Mark Spevick, our VFX tutor, will explain why it’s become a piece of software which is near impossible to live without and will dispel some myths about it being difficult to use. Mark will walk you through some definitive steps to help you get to grips with the software so you can start integrating it successfully into your workflow. As an integral piece of industry standard software, which all artists need to be in the know about, this is a webinar you don’t want to miss.

I think that pretty much speaks for itself!  The webinar is free, if you have the time I’d recommend signing up and attending.

Best 3D Student Tweets of the month

Project: Creative Author Team’s Writing Club (Meow) | RocketHub http://www.rockethub.com/projects/5243-creative-author-team-s-writing-club-meow Finally updated the image! Have a look at our new logo

This may or may not be the project I referred to briefly in the introduction.

The results of yesterday’s animated GIF about SOPA – The Oatmeal http://j.mp/yY47wz And this is exactly what we love about the news. =)

Unless you’ve been happily living under a rock, you’ll have heard of SOPA over the last few months. This tweet is referring to The Oatmeal’s recent news coverage thanks to his efforts campaigning against it.

Are You Afraid to Pitch Editors? This Is the Reason You Shouldn’t Be | The Renegade Writer http://t.co/EvmfU6R0

Quick look at letters of intent from the editors point of view – useful and insightful.

How to Photograph Your Own Textures | Vandelay Design Blog http://t.co/nEk8R4Ix

A skill we should probably all have as graphics professionals, especially important for texture artists.

I Am Not a Web Designer http://j.mp/wRnQHw

Deceptively simple as far as tweets go. FreelanceSwitch talks about how we’re not really our job titles in the eyes of our customers and how we can take advantage of this.

Posts of last month

The Future of 3D; Mixing CGI with Auditory Illusions

Guest post granting insight into the use of auditory illusions and computer graphics with some speculation on how those techniques could be used in the future.

Alpha Mapping to Create Realistic Leaves

Mehdi Shay shows us how to use alpha maps to create realistic foliage without spending hours modelling.

Continuous Learning and Deliberate Practice for VFX Artists  and Recommended Deliberate Practice for VFX Artists

Theory posts on (you guessed it) Deliberate Practice for VFX artists written by yours truly. They show off a bunch of research I did on job postings interpreted into something we can work with.

So You Want to Become a 3D Animator? Here’s Everything You Need to Know

Guest post overview of what it takes to become a 3D animator. Not sure I’d call it exhaustive but its a good starting point.

Happy New Year; World Domination Just Round the Corner…

Plans, purpose, and all that fun stuff for the blog in 2012. Worth a read if for no other reason than to see the good intentions before they get altered. 😉

What to expect this month

Not quite so many posts planned for this month (though no promises on that count). Here are my plans such as they are:

Theory: Building Change into Your Workflow.

What do you do when you’re almost finished a scene, and suddenly you need to change something? Does it throw off your entire workflow or have you prepared for such eventualities?

Tutorial: Modelling or Unwrapping Small Accessories.

I haven’t decided which yet, if you’ve a preference let me know (and I’m happy to do both).

Review: Android 3.0 Animations.

I received a copy not long ago in a Giveaway and since mobile seems to be increasingly relevant for everybody – Why not?

Next Steps

Leave a comment to let me know what you thought of this style of post, and which ONE part you found most interesting.

Small Favour – Project Survey Time!

Post is sitting half-written in drafts as we speak, honest. Though in the meantime if you could answer this survey I’d be endlessly grateful!

It’s to do with the project I’m working on in college, proper introductions etc on Friday.

Create your free online surveys with SurveyMonkey, the world’s leading questionnaire tool.

Tutorials from the Past

When I was just starting out in 3D (properly, I don’t count the year while I was still on a programming course) I would surf more tutorial sites than I care to count, looking for some quick, fun things to make. Fortunately, a little into this time I had the foresight (read: dumb luck) to stumble onto Delicious. As a result, some of the oldest ‘beginning’ tutorials I followed are still there.

What follows are some of the best ones.

Escalight.com – Particle Forming into Logo

One of the first tests I did was using this tutorial.  It’s simple enough to follow, though you’ll have to adapt it a bit for the newer versions of 3Ds Max (or whatever other software you’re using)…  I like particles, what can I say?  Actually, I still have the renders I was testing from this on my Youtube channel.

3D Total – Particle Fire

Beautiful, simple, and using methods I hadn’t even considered beforehand.  This tutorial got passed around class a lot too, particularly in second year.  Naturally, I have test renders of it in a whole variety of colours – again some of which happen to still be on my Youtube.

3DM3 – Subdivision Body Model

I’ll admit, I never actually finished making this one (short attention span, and as I quickly discovered I’m not a modeller) – it’s simple and easy to follow though.  Made a lovely torso and the beginnings of legs this way and the principles were extremely useful with the rest of the characters I made.

Skymedias – Making Low Poly Game Hair

I was really bad at this at the time.  The concept is simple, and unfortunately simple concepts require lots of work to get right.  Lack of patience, abandoned it for good ol’ hair and fur.  Still useful, and I may look into it again at some point down the line.

Parting Message

Are there any tutorials that you particularly enjoyed working on?  I have a ton more, though some of them have disappeared, and others were never bookmarked in the first place (organised, very).  When I find them I’ll post them up!

Just a quick reminder as well that the competition from last week is still available – extending the deadline to next week while I go rustle up some people (ie. you).  Have a quick look at the prizes if you’re interested.

Project Management for Creative Perfectionists

Are you a planning fanatic or do you prefer to just dive in?

Since this post is based on a tweak to project management and how to use it to sidestep one of the most irritating design problems you can come across (in my opinion) it’s probably going to appeal more to the fanatics among you. If you do just dive in, it’s still worth reading – there’s something for everyone to take away.

For the duration of this post we’re going to define ‘projects’ as on-going, unique tasks that require you to be creative, and have a deadline of some description. This isn’t the only sort of project the concept applies to; it’s just the one I have experience with. Feel free to adapt, prod, poke, and squeeze it into your own situation as we go through.

Introducing today’s example

Our example refers to an Infomercial I have to create this semester in order to pass two (or more) of my classes. Up until now I’ve been horribly over-ambitious with every project I’ve undertaken, and this one is no exception. To pass it must have film footage, interactive elements, and be based on selling an existing product to a target audience.

The Famous Triangle

Step into any Project Management class and one of the first things you’ll be introduced to is the ‘Project Triangle’. While there have been some murmers of it becoming outdated, a lot of working project managers agree that it’s still a good way of viewing work and priorities.

Like all triangles it has three corners; Time, Budget, and Quality. The idea is that you can choose two of those corners to be fixed, and the last is where you’ll make sacrifices should they become necessary. For example, if you have to complete your project by a certain date then it’d be your main priority, and you could choose whether to sacrifice Quality and keep within budget, or sacrifice the Budget and keep within quality.

In another example you may choose to keep the Quality at all costs; then you can decide whether the budget or time is more important to the overall success of the project.

Whenever you keep the two corners you chose at the start of the project within bounds, even if the last corner gets blown out of proportion you can still consider the project itself a success. In theory this means that if your priorities are time and budget and the quality turns out to be very poor the project itself was still successful, though it’s possible others outwith the project may not agree.

Time and Quality

Continuing with our example I choose the two corners that most college students would; Time and Quality. Especially since I’m in my final year the Quality is important (that was a no-brainer decision) and with deadlines being more concrete Time had to be the overriding consideration.

However, there’s no wiggle room in the budget (unless I choose to spend out of my own pocket) because for college projects budgets don’t exist. Considering Time is our immutable corner, that leaves Quality as the only area in which I can cut back if necessary. Obviously this is flawed, but we’ll get back to that in a moment.

Let’s talk a little bit about the relationship between Time and Quality. Deadlines often mean that Time can’t move, or the project has failed. Everyone wants to do their best work to get the best grade possible. How many of us have, at some point, designed a project that was far too ambitious given the time available then had to scramble at the last minute to make it fit?

At that point, are we happy with the sacrifices we’ve made to get it done on time? If you’re anything like me, I doubt it. Sure, you’re happy you got it done on time and therefore haven’t failed – but it looked so much better when you imagined it! Oh, and if you’d had just a little more time, say a week, then it would have looked so much better!

Yet, when you have more time, you choose a more ambitious project. Same results, but a little better than before in technical capability (because you’ve learned a few shortcuts).

The problem there is that you always feel you could have done better, and never truly show your best work. Using whatever your piece was in your portfolio actually makes you a little sad, and you just know that no one else is going to see what you’re capable of based on that… right?

Let’s reframe!

Recognising that cutting Quality rarely left anyone feeling good about a project is probably what led to the modification of the triangle to what you see above. Quality has been moved to the centre as an ideal or goal, and Scope has taken its place as the third corner.

In real terms, this means that when you have constraints of Time and Scope, and you really need to cut Scope – you can remove features and maintain the Quality of the rest. For a student, that means you can cut out the ‘awesome’ extra parts and deliver your best on the main core of your product. When it comes time to add it to your portfolio, you don’t have to worry about how much better any particular area could have been with more time, and anyone looking at it can get a better idea of where your skills currently are.

Shifting Quality to an ideal or goal also gives focus to your triangle – the questions move from ‘How do I do x within y amount of time?’ or ‘How can I cut costs so that z will work?’ to something like ‘What’s the best way to get the right level of quality within x time/budget?’.

In short you move it from a passive ‘I’ll just do what I can’ to an active ‘How do I make this better?’ with regards to the level of work you’re producing. Emphasis moves from what you’re doing to how well you do it, and so far I see no downsides there.

What this also means is that the scope of your project is considered properly at the planning stage. If you know you only have a few months to create something, there’s no way it’s going to be the same scope as something you’ll have a few years to create. When you bring it into the discussion you can fine-tune your ideas into something manageable for the time or budget available. And you can do it without pulling all-nighters towards the end. Maybe.

As you go through a project it’s really tempting to add more and more features; small things that won’t take much time to implement but that could look really cool. Again, by bringing Scope into the discussion you have a way of analyzing these small additions and deciding (even if it’s further down the line) whether to drop them.

(For the record, this ranks very high on my ‘I wish I’d known before…’ list)

Getting to the point; How do we use this?

None of those concepts are new, in fact a google search for ‘Project Management’ will have you tripping over them before you can say ‘Search done’. If I’d really wanted, I could have just pointed you to various other websites and articles, wished you luck, and called it a day. Those parts were just the introduction; this next part is the bit that makes the difference.

Knowing about the updated triangle and the addition of Scope is great, but knowing how to apply it in the real world is better. I found resources on how to practically apply it to creative projects a bit thin on the ground when I was buzzing around like a headless wasp looking for answers. Having struggled with this for years (despite being organized with my projects to the point of obsession) I finally hit a realisation last week, the day before deadline (storyboard, not project – still a big deal).

With the infomercial I’m working on I’ve done more market research than in previous years; I got to know my intended audience, the product, the current audience, and method of communication. I looked at other advertising campaigns to see what worked and what didn’t, and I immersed myself in brand style.

Then I happily skipped off to draw up the first plan for the introductory video. Pitch one rolled around a few weeks ago, the first idea didn’t stick. That was ok, because it was horribly technical and anyway the new idea was much better.

The second pitch happened the day before the storyboards were due in (of course by this stage they’d all been drawn out). Attention was drawn to how ambitious all areas of the project were, how little time I had, and that the story itself didn’t quite gel properly.

Honestly? It was depressing. And demoralising. And with the deadline the next day I had a choice to make; try and fix it, or ignore an obvious flaw in the plan and carry on regardless.

The next morning I drew up a plan that I believe is actually possible and works better than the other two combined. The revised storyboard was submitted on time and I didn’t have to draw as many frames either. The only thing that changed was I suddenly started looking at time and taking it into account when designing.

Again, How?

Because I’d worked on projects involving 3D and Filmed footage before I had a pretty good idea of how long each part would take. Before while I was planning I’d plotted it all into a tighter schedule than I would have liked, telling myself that so long as I stuck to the plan I’d get through it.

When I looked at it that night when time was already critical I finally sat down and looked at how I could eliminate or scale back the more time-consuming elements. In this case it was the animation. I also re-worked the story and script, but how that works is the subject for another post.

Switching mindsets from creative designer to project team let me make massive time cuts and brought my enthusiasm back too (added side bonus).

More than enough about what I did though! Let’s break it down so you can use it too.

Step One – Define your timescale

It’s a good idea to work out how much time you have for each stage of your project before you start planning how to use it. Write down all the parts of your project (planning, design, parts of the product you need to create, etc) and your final deadline. Add any other deadlines you have before the final deadline as well; this will help when you have to schedule everything.

Working back from your deadline, write down each section and how long you can afford for it to take and still be finished on time. If it helps to have a rough idea of a project at this stage then work with that too, but at this stage the sections are more important than what you’re going to do with them. Once you’ve worked that out, see if there’s any wiggle room (in my project if I want a more complex video I have to make the game less complex) between sections and make a note of that too.

Step Two – Brainstorm

Sit and scribble for a while. See where you might want to take your project, write it all down, and hold nothing back. This is by far the most fun bit – have fun!

Important Note – Message

The most important piece of advice I can give you here though is to decide what the point of your project is before you go anywhere near the design stage. The point is to deliver the message, not always to create flashy, beautiful pieces of work (unless that is your message of course).

Step Three – Refine your Idea

Once you know what you want to do and how long you have to do it, take your idea and figure out how. This means (for me at least) writing down what tasks you’d have to do for your idea as it is, working out how long those would take, then seeing where you can make changes in the idea to use less time and keep the message.

Since all projects are different, I can’t tell you exactly what to cut and what to focus on. If you know your project and your message well, you shouldn’t have too much trouble with this stage; the point is to know that you have to go through it before you start work.

Parting thoughts

Simply following these steps won’t magically make your project a success, but it should help you free up the time you need to make it shine (rather than spending the duration scrambling to fix all the features you’ve added!). Practice. See if it works for you. Or better yet, if you have a method of your own share it in the comments.

It’s time to step up and make the things we could make ‘if we had more time’ with the time we already have. We can do it; and I get to say ‘I told you so’ when we rule the world.

Further Reading and References

Project Management PDF by Marion E Haynes
Project Management Basic Principles – Project Smart

Scope Creep Management – Project Perfect

Traue – Let’s grow your Business (first image was from here)

Graphing the Triple Constraints of IT Failure – ZDNet (second image)

Practical Tips #4; Pay Attention to Time

Vancouver clock wikimedia commons

How many times have you had to re-work something that you thought clicked really well?

I’m going to assume it’s been at least once. Probably far more times than you care to really think about! In this last week alone I’ve had to change and tweak things on a project at least three times; I’ve a feeling we can all relate to that. The next few Practical Tips are going to focus on areas of planning that can help minimize repeat tasks, starting with taking time of day and season into account. You may not really think about these and still create some amazing pieces, however this series is about polishing things and making it even better. Besides, on the off chance it does become important, wouldn’t you like to know how to start?

This tip will show you how to add context to your scenes and animations by using the time and date.

It’s good, but…

There’s a city scene in your animation; one that you’re particularly proud of actually. You’ve got your lighting set up beautifully, you have wonderfully animated people in the background, your sound effects are realistic, and your camera fly-through is nothing short of an art form. Your textures even manage to work well together and approximate realism – but better!

When your project manager (or audience/client/whoever) sees it they start asking questions. Why are there people in party clothes first thing in the morning? Why are the lights on all the cars on in full sunlight? Shouldn’t the children be heading to school instead of skipping around in the middle of the park next to the old people on the benches? Didn’t the brief say ‘Monday morning’?

Your scene is beautiful; but it’s logic is so flawed that you’ll have to go and redesign parts of it. Think of the waste!

Avoiding the ‘but’

How much easier would it be if  there had been a way to plan this sort of thing before doing all that work?  Instead of redesigning parts and tweaking for a few hours, you could have been doing something more fun, or even getting a jump-start on your next task!  Your scenes would mesh together logically, you wouldn’t have avid fans (or, worse, your boss) wondering why certain things were there, and best of all your viewers would be able to appreciate your work without getting distracted.

Also, you could be secure in the knowledge that each item or piece of your scene was there for a reason; this means you could justify it if you needed to further down the line.

Prevention is better than a cure

1. Read your brief twice. If there are any mentions of time or date on it you may not notice until the second pass; if there aren’t you’ll need to dig a bit deeper to find your information. Go to the source and ask your boss or clients. Read the context of the scene too if it’s part of a larger project, sometimes this will give you more information as well.

2. Research. I can hear the groans now… Look at it this way – an hour (or less) doing research now can save you 2+ hours later. Check the background of the location, local weather, what people do at a specific time of day or season. Find out enough so you have a basic grounding in your chosen place.

3. Find ways to work it in! This is the fun part; use your research and the information you got from your brief, and come up with the most creative way to incorporate your new ideas. It doesn’t have to be anything big or particularly thorough, just show you’ve thought about it and avoid the obvious errors. (Note: don’t obsess over this. If you start to take longer making sure things are accurate than you do working on the project there’s something wrong.)


It’s worth running through these steps whenever you’re working on a big project, or you feel time might play a factor. While you might not want to use it every time it’ll lift your work when you do, and keeping it in the back of your mind will help you add an extra layer of polish.

And if things do go wrong and you have to re-do a part? You now have some idea of where to start.

Practical 3D Tips #2; Need your scene simplified quickly?

This tip is for the people (like me) that love to load up our scenes with all sorts of junk so that they look as real as possible; whether we see them on camera at a specific time or not.

Your polygon count skyrockets, your materials are so complicated that a small piece of them takes ten minutes to render, and you’re ready to resign yourself to the sad truth that that particular piece is unrenderable. Don’t do anything; here’s what might fix it without impacting on quality.

Hiding the objects you can’t see will remove the extra calculations your program has to make, speeding up the creation and rendering process.

Can’t work because of the detail

Complex 3D environments and scenes take a lot of processing power and memory, particularly when it comes to rendering. Sometimes they can be so complicated that even working on the scene takes forever; have you ever had to wait longer than five seconds for a mouse move to register? You’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. You spend more time waiting on your changes to update than you do making the changes, and you keep getting more and more stressed out by the state of things. Deadlines start to collapse, pressure gets piled on, and you begin to contemplate throwing your monitor out of the nearest window.

Complex scene? No problem.

Wouldn’t it be so much more enjoyable if you were able to keep that level of complexity and detail on camera while ensuring your computer didn’t hang up over the slightest movement? Imagine being able to tweak things without having a super computer, being able to walk away from a render without worrying it’ll crash. Or being able to save without the program failing, your computer rebooting, and losing large amounts of work. You’d meet your deadlines far easier, there’d be less pressure on you, and your poor abused monitor won’t have to learn to fly.

Action Steps:

1. Look at your scene; what doesn’t appear on the camera?
2. Select all the objects that don’t actually appear, right click, and select ‘Hide’.
3. Enjoy being able to move around your scene with greater ease!


This method won’t work on every type of scene; only the ones in which you have a lot of clutter out of view of the camera. You can do something similar by assigning objects to layers and hiding the layers you don’t require while you’re working for a greater level of control.

However this is the quickest way to save your file if it becomes too crowded suddenly. Try it, let me know if it helps. I use it on all but my simplest environment scenes and it works for me.

Practical 3D Tips #1: Save Incrementally

If you’ve ever had one of those days where you spill your coffee, you arrive at work late, your computer takes forever to load, and then you lose access to your files – this tip is for you.

I can’t do anything about your coffee or being late, but with this tip I can make sure your files are suitable for use. What I’m about to tell you will save you untold hours of stress and frustration over your career; Interested?

Saving incrementally (by using the ‘+’ button instead of ‘Save’) will save your files, your time and potentially any colleagues in range when it all goes pear-shaped.

Disaster waiting to happen:

Picture this; you go ahead and try to open that file you’ve been working on for the last three days solid. It refuses to open because the file’s corrupted. Nervously, you try it again – your program crashes straight away and gives you another error report.

Alternatively, you work on the file for a few hours before realizing that you’ve made a huge mistake. You need to go back several steps and your undo button doesn’t reach. You’d saved over your old file less than five minutes ago, the base you started with is long gone and now you’ll have to manually undo everything you’ve done over the last few hours.

Imagine the amount of time and effort you’ve just wasted in either of those situations. Doesn’t it make you sick?

Light at the end of the tunnel.

Now let’s look at how they could have gone with a little more preparation;

Your file’s corrupted, so you go ahead and open the previous file without a problem. You’ve maybe lost about half an hour’s work.

There’s been a mistake made in your project and you have to go back to fix it; no problem, you just load the previous file and continue working from exactly where you need to.

Action Steps:

1. Create a folder for your project; name it something meaningful and name your initial file as something you can instantly recognize.

2. Every time you make an important or meaningful change, choose to save.

3. Instead of clicking ‘Save’ click ‘+’.


Using those three steps consistently may seem like a waste of time and storage space at first, there’s a definite argument for that. However I can guarantee you that at some point in your 3D career, probably several points, without using this simple trick you’re going to get burned.

Taking a little time to save now, will prevent missed deadlines, unhappy co-workers or clients, stress, and hours of work in the future. Boring; yes. Does it work? I’ll let you be the judge, however I’d swear by it.