21 March 2017

New(ish) Macbook Pro (2015)


My old MacBook Pro had been showing serious signs of decay over the last few years, not a surprise since it was over 6 years old and well used. It took 5 - 10 minutes just to fully turn on. I was becoming unusable for my work so I started looking into new laptops to replace it. Luckily, my brother had bought a MacBook Pro less than a tear before and wanted to sell it so while it’s used, it’s practically new - to me anyway. 

This past weekend I transferred my old files and programs to the new computer. I used Apples Migration software and it was going pretty poorly. I was using wifi for the transfer and it just wouldn’t work. To top it off, the new machine did not have an ethernet port, the way I usually transfer from one computer to another. In the end I had to buy a Thunderbolt to Thunderbolt cord and the transfer flew by with no more issues. The next day, I tried to wipe and re-install the OS on my former machine so I could sell it - dead… it couldn’t do anything. I guess I waited until the very last moment to make my upgrade. 

How is the new MacBook Pro?
This is the pro before the new miniscreen on the keyboard that takes place of the F keys and gives more functionality to certain programs. I was interested in having that but the price to get a new  MacBook with it was too high. There were other reasons to reject that newer model, however. The new models have one port… one! This MacBook has USB, A flash card port for my camera, 2 thunderbolt ports, hdmi port… all of which are useful to me and I really did not want a portable that needed 100 widgets to connect things. 

There is a vast improvement to the screen, I can now do colour corrections and work on my photos with less worry it won’t look the way I want on my bigger home system. The updated graphics card and 16 gigs of RAM really make it a real alternative for my 3D work and should help me with rendering complicated projects. The i7 processor and flash drive boot it up in seconds and all my software just flies on it. No more beachball of death as I try and save a photo or Indesign file.  It is also thinner and lighter, features that don’t really impress me much but are nice to have  just not essential from my point of view. 

Conclusion

This was a great purchase for me. It’s fast, practical and should service my needs for at least another 5 years. It will have to, my lack of actual paid contracts and home renovations this year with cripple my finances for years to come. At least now I can continue to work no matter where I am. 

As an aside, I also stripped the application folder to the bare minimum of software, which means only the Adobe program I can't replace with something else. (Namely Indesign and After Effects). This, I think should save me from running low on RAM as much and frankly, the Affinity products I am using are much faster and practical on the laptop. 

13 March 2017

Auto portraits 2017


So every ten or so years I do a profile portrait to embarrass myself. I guess it is good thing to do, especially now since I really don't get photograph people much anymore.


Since I had to set everything up in my studio, I took a variety of portraits, including some with "my hair up". It looks like this when I wake up so I'm sort of natural punk rocker. When I was younger it was more Ziggy Stardust-like, it just stood straight out (and was often orange, red, or... well name  a colour).


Since going to digital, the voice of doing colour or black and white can be put off until you are processing the photo instead of having to start off with that choice already made for the next 36 photos. I tend to go b&w in the end but here is a comparison of my choice with one of the photos.


I am actually always embarrassed by how I look and very private so it is always odd for me to put images of myself out there. I had to set up the backdrop and camera and be on my knees to keep in the frame for these so it felt a little silly. Luckily I have a remote to set off the shutter or I would have to set a time delay and run into position before it goes off! 

10 March 2017

Learning Blender 3D



As the price of Cinema 4D has jumped astronomically over the years with less and less improvements and new features to pay for that extra cost, it has become apparent that unless I get a hell of lot more work that pays a hell of a lot more money, eventually my current version will run out of steam and be unusable. Already, I am trying to adapt to the untimely death of Cactus Dan whose plugins are essential to rigging in C4D (In my opinion) and are no longer being updated.


To start finding alternatives, I decided to learn Blender, a free program that has been used for some amazing animations and has ALL the features and more of C4D and frankly just about any other software out there. Of course being free software it has its pluses and minuses , a big minus being not many places use it professionally.

Just Starting to Learn

Blender is a very deep program to learn. I decided to start very simply as I had tried to learn it unsuccessfully  in the past. Despite having used a number of software over the last few decades, I couldn’t even place a cube into the scene or render anything. It was frustrating and I have to say, it still is. The interface is pretty terrible from an end user’s point of view. Like much of the freeware out there made by programmers, it is set up more to a programmer’s set of needs. Blender requires that you learn a huge amount of keyboard shortcuts in conjunction with a 3 button mouse just to navigate in it’s windows. Many of the shortcuts are non standard so it can be like learning a new language just to do the most basic of tasks. It’s a well known issue in the Blender community and there is an ongoing debate from what I read on various forums on what to do, if anything, about that problem. It IS a problem, despite the alleged benefits of typing in values by hand for some people, it simply isn’t how we work these days and limits drastically the reach of this fairly amazing effort. Many of the arguments for keeping as it is are reminiscent of those when computer went from DOS commands to a graphic interface and I would argue that argument was lost a long time ago.

To get over this hurdle, I bought a 600 page book The Complete Guide to Blender Graphics (3rd addition) by John M. Blain. I don’t find the writing style so easy to understand but it covers seemingly everything and should be a great reference source as I go on. Another thing I did was follow tutorials, a few about the basic interface which were somewhat helpful and a few at www.LittleWebHut.com which I am using as my work samples here because of the simplicity of the projects and the instructor never assumes you will remember the complex series of shortcuts and goes over each progression step by step which helps me to slowly memorize and adapt to the interface while creating something interesting. I picked two basic modelling projects, an animation that involved particles the node based cycles render engine and one that creates a robot dog and introduced me to the key frame and timeline system in Blender.



My Impressions So far

Having only scratched the surface, many of my opinions will surely change over time. I plan to keep at this another 3 months intensely, hopefully ending in doing a complete short animation in Blender from start to finish.

The modelling tools are interesting and while not intuitive, cover all the bases and have some interesting ideas behind them. You have to accept each change before moving on to to the next - this is pretty annoying and slow. The bones IK/FK system is clunky and something like setting up an IK chain (so far, there are certainly plenty of functions I have not been exposed to yet) is manually accomplished bone by bone while it’s a simple click in C4D and other programs. The particle system is pretty good from what I’ve experienced. Not as good as X-particles (which is an unfair comparison) but I found using them fairly easy. Rendering is a little complicated. The Blender engine is only barely serviceable and might be good as a test render while the Cycles engine is nodes based and manages to give flicker free animations using techniques that take longer and are not as usefully implemented as they could be. You have a lot less control in Blender in the final render from what I see and a lot more control in setting up the textures. The key framing is not great sorry to say. It’s hard to get a handle on and I found myself swearing quite a bit just moving a sphere from on spot to another.


Things I need to Learn for this to be Practical 

Compositing is a large part of my work flow, not just 3D into live action video but often separating  things like motion blur and depth of field to be adjusted in another program like After Effects or Motion to gain better control and save on rendering time. The capacity is here, I just have to learn how and if I can save different layers (like a shadow, z depth, motion vector or object layer) as separate files on export. Mograph-like clones and animation are the bread and butter of many 3D artists and Blender is lacking in this department but they update with new features regularly so who knows how long it will stay behind in this aspect. Blender has some pretty awesome character rigging tools, if you can learn to use them. I think I will gain some very much needed experience in more advanced rigging techniques as I go along.

Blenders Biggest Advantages

Being free is one, but not the most important as functionality and ease of use trumps free while doing serious work. Time is money and also the less aggravating something is to use, the more you will use it. Blender’s add-ons are nothing short of amazing and super useful. They provide easier and faster ways to do things you would pay tons of cash for on another platform and many are freely included. Some examples are an auto-rigger, a room builder and even a very adaptive character builder, something all high end 3D software should have as making characters is the biggest time killer and often the most discouraging aspect of 3D work fro many animators. I wish there was a clothing generator as well! Those working on this software update it quite often and it’s always improving. They seem very transparent and open to suggestions - something Maxon (C4D) has most definitely not been in recent years. While far to many features are hidden and hard to find, they are there and I was surprised to discover many features I paid for in C4D plugins were just sitting below the surface in Blender. It should be stated that overall, it is fairly stable and doesn’t crash often, but it does crash. It can be a little buggy as well. So like all complicated software, save often!



Conclusion So Far

I can’t say I love Blender or that it will come my main software anytime soon. I can say it’s got the potential to become those things. I also find that learning it has already opened possibilities I had not thought of in C4D in terms of workflow and other things but can be applied to it. I can also see using some of the features in Blender as a way to get around or create things that C4D does not offer or do well and importing them.

I have joined a forum for Blender that seems friendly and helpful, something that really pushed me into C4D was the C4d café forum, one of the best ever. I need to get more competent and comfortable with Blender before I post anything and start to interact. I am sure when I do, I will gain better appreciation for this software.

19 February 2017

Game Review: Quern - Undying Thoughts


I am not a gamer, not by any stretch of the imagination. Occasionally I will find something I like and try it out but I am more likely to replay Myst or Riven (the other game sin the Myst series are only not available on the MAC) than add a new game to the list. I like the video game world(s) but not the gameplay. I love the idea of being able to explore a fantastic place, discover things but I have no desire to kill, decapitate or explode 100s of zombies, creatures or whatever and certainly have no desire to have those things happen to me. I love great graphics, mood and presentation over violence and action. In other words, take anything I say about any game with those grains of salt.

Off to Quern


While waiting for Obduction to be released, I came across another game in development that promised to be Myst-like in nature and was intrigued by the artwork I saw. It was to be released in November and Obduction in August, several months ahead of it. As it turns out, I have finished Quern and Obduction seems no closer to being released for the MAC than it was in August. So how is the game? 

If you like Myst, you will like Quern. It’s basically an updated version of the old game. The artwork, puzzles, and music is all VERY similar. That, however, is not a criticism in the least bit. While the puzzles are not so integrated into the story as in the games that inspired it, they are more than delightful enough to work your way through. Some of the set pieces are stunning and even surprising. For an independently produced video game, the creators really made a huge effort to impress and they do.


The game play is very simple, but not without quirks and even a few bugs. You can take notes but the resolution is low and they are not really much help. Pen and paper will be needed. I got stuck at one point and contacted the developer and they were great in helping me. Yes, it was a bug and when it couldn’t be fixed immediately they sent me a file taking place just after the puzzle needing to be solved so I could continue. We are talking only several hours before I was back to the game again.

Speaking of puzzles, I like solving them to a certain degree but after a time a few get tiresome and I just look at a walk through to get past them. Same thing is there are millions of steps, and Quern does have several puzzles that require far too much back and forth for my tastes. I play these things to relax, not get aggravated and frustrated so I feel perfectly justified in « cheating » when it keeps me from getting angry at the game.

The story is bare bones, typical puzzle adventure game stuff. Well thought out - but not eye opening or too surprising. Like the game it pays homage to, there is a choice to make at the end but unlike that game, the choice does not really change the ultimate outcome. That’s about all I can say without being too spoiler-y. I did hit a small bug at the end that made me think I had really screwed myself, but it cleared up. (A door that was open was closed but turning around and going back it was suddenly open again.)

Pros:
Great artwork, music, structure, support

Cons:
a couple bugs, no built in hints (which I think are essential for this sort of game) a weak ending.

* I would also liked to have the chance to just walk around the environment, like the old Cyan games did after finishing the story and be able to discover little hidden places and extras that don’t affect the game in any way. That is a lot to ask for in indie project, though. 

WillI I buy an almost certain sequel? Absolutely! After accomplishing so much with this, I imagine the developers will only get better and produce something even more intriguing.

07 February 2017

All 3 Lovecraft film showing online this week!


All three of my Lovecraft animations are being shown in the CYBERIA VR Film Festival (click for time and instructions on how to see them. Be sure to comment and tell them how cool they!  :)
Tell as many people as you can!

Restoring BigMa

BigMa was what we called my mother's mother while she was alive. I made a documentary about her many years ago.




Recently my mother found and old photo of her she wanted me to restore and print for her. Oddly I had a copy of this photo already, but it was a scan of a photo copy I used in the title credits of the film so when I had the chance to work from a much higher resolution scan of it I was really happy to do it. 


For years I worked with PBS on a few American Experience episodes (won 2 Emmys and a Peabody Award on those projects yet somehow haven't had any more work from them in years) restoring and animating images and I LOVED doing it. This little thing for my mom made me realize how much I love to bring back old photos to their former glory. 


I could have taken this even further but there is a point where only I will ever see the work I did in the restoration. I have a very precise series of steps I do when restoring something. I start fixing the largest problems first which are usually tears and missing body parts. If I have access to other photos from the same period of the same person, I can usually replace a hand or arm or eye, there are limits of course. I will then clean up the dust and stains, by hand. If there are big black sections with dust and scratches I might selects only the black and run a dust an scratches filter to save time, but only in areas of solid black. 

Lastly I will convert it to black and white (if the photo was in B&W to begin with of course) and then add back in the sepia tone if the client wants it. 

28 January 2017

The Inmates have Taken Over the Prison



Just a quick note to say I have taken over The Celluloid Slammer film blog site. I have been writing for it for many years at the request of Donna Lethal and since for almost two years I have been the only one writing for it, she was kind enough to hand it over to me. I am joined by Mike Luce who does a video series called The Movie Wrench where he fixes the mistakes in films under the character Hipster J. Douchebag.  I have asked several others to become contributors but no one else has stepped up so far. So if you are interested and have something to say about film and video... contact me!