The countdown is on. Three days until my iClone trial version expires, and I don’t intend to waste a single minute.
For the past couple of days I’ve been playing around with a new character. Meet Finn Wilde, star of Amanda Borenstadt’s novel Sygyzy:
Yesterday Amanda gave me the thumbs-up for this “actor”. I learned from making the Stonehaven machinima that casting is critical–the face we choose for the video will become the face of the novel for many people. I’m quite taken with this fellow–I wish he were real. I would definitely be a fan.
The process of character creation begins–at least for me–with a conversation. Amanda and I emailed back and forth a few times discussing her vision for the cast. Months earlier, she mentioned that the role of Finn would ideally be given to a young Russell Crowe. No problem, I thought. . .until I started hunting for high resolution photos of a young Russell Crowe.
It has never been my intention to hijack a real actor’s face for my project. But selecting a real person as a model for a character is the quickest and easiest way for a writer to communicate their ideas to me. I had planned to use a photo of young Russell Crowe to “skin” the iClone puppet, then modify bone structure so it didn’t look enough like Russell Crowe to invite a lawsuit. Alas, no usable photos of this man in his youth seem to exist on the Net. Yes, I did find some early pictures, but nothing of a quality I can work with. Face mapping photos must be high resolution, full face frontal with even lighting (otherwise one side of the puppet’s face will be darker than the other) and no teeth showing. Mug shots would be ideal.
After days of searching, I finally discovered that Russell Crowe has a lookalike. A young actor named Ben McKenzie has often been compared to Crowe, as in the photo below:
So I revised my search and found this one of Ben:
which I altered in my graphics editor to become an iClone texture:
I imported this texture image into iClone and began the process of creating Finn Wilde.
Below is an embedded link to a 30-second “audition” of this character. Don’t expect to be wowed. . .at least not at first. Once I explain what’s important about the scene, I’m sure my excitement over iClone will make more sense.
Like before, because I rendered this clip from a trial version of iClone, that awful, ugly watermark is stamped all over the video. Also, please note that the bleedthrough (tattering) around the edges of the shirt are related to an improper bone movement I made with the right shoulder. You can’t really see the bad placement in the video, but let’s just say it was another lesson learned. 😉
If you watch carefully, you’ll see that as the camera pans around him, one corner of his mouth twitches upward, then a slow smile spreads across his face. This would be absolutely impossible with Sims 2.
In Finn’s mouth are top teeth (one of the complaints about Sims was that only their bottom teeth showed.) They are dazzling white in this clip, but I can turn them any color I want by simply moving a slider in iClone. The amazing thing, at least to me, is that I had full control over this facial expression. I created it “from scratch” by working with a face key. This allowed me to first move each muscle group that I thought should be involved in a smiling animation, then go back into the “detail” panel and fine tune each feature.
This is where iClone really starts flexing its muscle. In the screenshots below, you’ll see the four-viewport window of Milkshape, where I’ve imported a Sim head as well as an iClone puppet head. The thing I want you to notice is the number of white dots in each mesh. Each white dot is what’s called a “vertice.” Each vertice is assigned to a “bone” that controls its movement when animating.
With only a glance, you should be able to note that the iClone head has a quite a few more vertices than the Sim head. Why does this matter?
Connected to each dot in the mesh is a line. These lines form tiny triangles that make up the mesh. Each triangle is called a “face,” or a polygon (poly.) If a mesh has lots of faces, or a “high poly count,” it requires much effort for a computer to render that graphic on the screen. Sims 2 is a game, and it’s played in “real time.” In other words, when you click on a character and tell it to go pee, you expect it to go pee immediately. If the Sims 2 bodies had a high poly count, it would take so much time for the computer to render each frame of their movement that you’d get what’s called “lag.” Lag is when the computer seems to freeze and think about what it should do next while the game actually continues at normal speed in the background. Say, for instance, you were playing a hunting game that required you to shoot a moving target. If the objects in the game had such high poly counts that they created lag, you might aim at the target, but by the time you had it in your crosshairs on screen, the game would register it being on the other side of the meadow. You’d miss your shot every time.
Game designers learned long ago that if their product only appeals to people with high-end gaming systems, they’ll exclude most of their market. So to combat the issue of lag and outrageous system requirements, they create most objects in their game as “low poly” items. Yes, you sacrifice detail. But when you aim and shoot at that low-detail deer, he actually falls down.
XBox and similar systems are made specifically for gaming. Therefore polycount is not an issue, and those fantastic, lifelike graphics are possible. For those of us who prefer computer interfaces, we must sacrifice some of the stunning visuals. Unless, of course, we’re fortunate enough to own a very expensive computer with a high-end graphics card and processor. Dear Santa. . . .
Sims 2 machinima directors are notorious for using custom content. Dissatisfied with the cartoonish appearance of the base game, they’ve crammed their “downloads” folder with items created by the community itself, not Maxis. Most of this custom content has a much higher polycount and was never intended for regular gameplay. It was for filmmaking only. As a director, I learned quickly that filming in real time rendered choppy, laggy animation that no video editor could remedy. A trick of the trade? Film in slow motion. Veeeerrrrryyyy slloooooooow motion, as in minus-10X the normal speed.
So if I knew all these workarounds for lag, why couldn’t I just mesh a whole Sim and make it do whatever I want?
To some degree, this has been done. New feet, new bodybuilder types, and fat meshes have all been created by the community. Yet they still use the same skeleton, which has a set number of bones. The game simply will not recognize a different bone hierarchy. So we might retexture faces and heads, but there’s no point designing a new mesh because no matter how many bones we add in Milkshape, the game will only animate the ones Maxis created. This is why I could do absolutely NOTHING about goofy Sim expressions, floating teeth, or half the stuff non-gamers complained about.
iClone is different. There is no “game” anywhere in it. The puppets have zero autonomy. There are no behavior algorithms constantly running in the background. But the visual detail is second to none. Look again at those screenshots of the head meshes. iClone has assigned bones to each and every one of those little dots and given us full control over how they’re used.
Doesn’t this create lag? Damn right it does. My poor laptop can’t even process a full 3D scene plus an avatar. It simply freezes. And yes, I can see this becoming a problem in the future. But iClone saw this coming and built “workarounds” directly into the software. During set creation and script-building, we have the option of turning off pixel shaders (a huge resource hog) and even viewing the set as a wireframe. This eliminates lag altogether during this phase. Then, when it’s time to film the scene, iClone provided this handy-dandy “by frame” option that renders each frame completely before moving to the next. This takes forever, but once it’s done, playback is flawless.
Now. . .I have other characters to create and audition for Amanda. Tom is next. He’s how I will spend my afternoon. 🙂