Monthly Archives: February 2012

Even More Impressed With iClone

Just when I think I’ve learned how powerful iClone truly is, I find that I didn’t know the half of it.

All the meshing business aside, when it finally came time to pull my hard work into iClone and make a real character out of it, I have to say I was beyond impressed. Let me show you what I mean.

The first screenshot is the same Tom you saw in my Feb 22 post, except now he’s sitting on a bench I made today for Amanda’s trailer.  I’ve uploaded this pic for contrast with the next one:

As anyone who has read Amanda’s novel Syzygy knows, Tom goes through some stuff during the course of the story. Therefore it’s logical and appropriate that his appearance would deteriorate. I had no idea if I’d be able to bring this across in iClone. In the machinima based on Carol Kean’s Stonehaven (produced using The Sims 2), I was able to degrade Romany’s appearance to some degree. But wow! iClone gives me an incredible amount of control. I was able to not only “paint” bruises and eye bags on the skin texture image, but I was able to make the face shape more gaunt. Here’s how that turned out:

For a side by side comparison:

I’ve also figured out how to match the skin from the face to the skin from the neck and make the hands and feet blend convincingly. This resulted in a darkening of the overall skin tone on the “shaggy” Tom. I can correct that, but I want Amanda to see this version first. There’s a reason (and I won’t say it because of plot spoilers) that a more suntanned Tom might be appropriate for those particular scenes.

One last screenshot is a closeup of Tom’s hands, which are standard G5 hands not altered or customized by me in any way. The reason I’m including this pic is to show the fine detail rendered in iClone. Some of you might remember the frustration I experienced when trying to mesh a severed hand for Stonehaven. I couldn’t use a Sims 2 hand at all because it was lacking detail to the point that, at close range, one couldn’t even tell it was a hand. But boy-oh-boy, is that ever NOT an issue with iClone. From the fingernails right down to the veining, these hands look fantastic.

I promise I won’t make a new post every time I accomplish something in iClone. But sometimes I just can’t help it. 🙂


I’m A Guest Blogger!

A few days ago, my good friend and fellow writer Holly Michael asked if I would write an article about machinima’s potential as a marketing tool for authors. Today she went live with the post, and I’m thrilled! Check it out here:

Holly, you are awesome!

Tom, At Last

Oooh, I’m so happy. After months of beating my head against a wall, I can finally create a wardrobe for Amanda’s Syzygy characters!

I slogged my way through all those 3DS Max tutorials, meshed and re-meshed and adjusted bone assignments until I was scaling vertex weights in my sleep, and finally. . .voila! A Tom character dressed the way Amanda has described him.

The shirt is a little short on detail for tight shots. But I won’t stress too much over that right now, since I don’t know that I’ll actually film any close-ups of Tom in this outfit anyway. A simple retexturing with a better image and a bump map would do wonders for this shirt. But the graphics card in my laptop doesn’t render bump mapping, so until I can afford more sophisticated equipment, I probably won’t sweat the small stuff as long as the overall texture looks good on screen.

A “bump map” is a monochrome version of the primary texture image. 3D software reads it topographically—as highs and lows on a plane rather than dark and light on a spectrum. This gives the software information it uses when lighting the object in a scene, and the result is a much more detailed, realistic rendering.

Here is a typical texture file:

As you can see, it’s simply a jpeg image of boards like one might see on the side of a barn. I prefer to use actual photographs, but software doesn’t know the difference between a snapshot and a pencil sketch. It only reads the file type and digital information.

This is what the above jpeg image looks like once it has been applied as a texture:

There the jpeg image is, on the walls of that 3D building. A process called “UV mapping” has instructed the software how to place it.

The result looks fine, but programs like 3DS Max offer waaaay more capacity for detail, such as bump mapping. That’s the part my laptop can’t do. But I can show you pictures (rendered by a more powerful computer) of the difference good bump mapping can make.

Below is the monochrome bump map of the planks you just saw:

When this bump map is added to the information 3DS Max (and ultimately iClone) uses to render a scene, the result this:

The change is subtle, but look closely. All those little knotholes in the wood now look like bas relief.

On a final note, one experience I had during this process was an encounter with established content creators in the Reallusion forum. I tend to shy away from forums in general, and after the disheartening lack of response in a Mod The Sims thread last year, I was more wary then ever about asking for help. But I sucked it up and posted a question anyway. To my surprise, within a matter of hours, not one but two seasoned creators offered suggestions about the problem I was having. Hats off to “Animagic” and “Sen” for talking the new girl through a technology crisis without making her feel stupid. 🙂

Yahoos and Googles

Yahoo! Great news on the writing front! Ann Hite, a writing group friend and undeniably one of the most gifted authors in the publishing world, told me today that she has been nominated for 2012 Georgia Writer of the Year. How cool is that? GO ANN!

While far from elevating me to award status on any front, my blog stats show an amazing trend. Most of the random hits I receive are from searches related to iClone. A few days ago, while Googling for information about a Reallusion plugin for 3DS Max, I discovered why. This blog ranks very high in search returns, especially with certain keywords. I was astonished to see “Meet Finn” landing fifth in the returns for one search, and “Dem Bones” fifth in the returns for another. Omigosh! This is incredible. . .and a little humbling. People I don’t know are actually finding and reading this blog. So I’m more inspired than ever to keep cranking out the posts, and trusting my subscribers to sort the ones that interest them from the ones that don’t.

For people who find me via iClone search, I want to make it absolutely clear that I DO NOT consider myself an “expert” when it comes to 3D animation or content creation. In fact, that idea is the polar opposite of the one that prompted me to start this blog. I’m teaching myself a hobby that interests me and airing all my goofy beginner mistakes in hopes that A) they will entertain and amuse, and B) they will give others beginners hope, because if a technophobe like me can learn this stuff, surely they can, too.

3DS Max continues to astound me. It’s a scary-powerful tool. Just tonight I learned about the “pelt” UV unwrap feature. It blew my mind. Yes, techies, go ahead and laugh. Doesn’t hurt my feelings one bit. Do I feel like an idiot for not knowing about pelt mapping before now? Uhh. . .nope. I’ve only owned 3DS Max since December. From just the bit of surface I’ve scratched so far, I’m becoming convinced that there’s no way one person can be completely proficient with all of its aspects anyway. It simply does too much.

So if you found me in an iClone-related search, I’m sorry to say I probably won’t qualify as a source for any useful information. But I do welcome you to hang around and watch me stumble through the learning curve. And hopefully, this wave of interest by writers all over the world will continue to build into a tsunami, opening doors for machinima that will mean a bigger audience for you, too. Now wouldn’t that be awesome?

Target Audience

I interrupt my busy schedule to bring you the most brilliant illustration of target audience I have ever seen.

First, though, a quick progress report on my iClone efforts. (Darn commercials, can’t get away from them anywhere.) I’ve successfully mastered the components of 3DS Max that will allow me to mesh unlimited custom clothing for iClone projects. However, the plug-ins provided by Reallusion for Primary Content Developers do not seem to work with my computer. It’s 64-bit, and apparently the plug-ins for G5 characters are designed for 32-bit systems. No other download options are offered. I’ve Googled until my eyes crossed and followed every tip I found on the Web about installing in this folder and that. No joy. The problem seems to be a particular DLE file that came with the plug-in. Maybe it’s corrupted? As of right now, I’m waiting on tech support from Reallusion. Will keep you posted.

Back to our (not so) regularly scheduled broadcast.

While most of my blog posts focus on either machinima or writing, each to the near exclusion of the other, this one is for everyone who ever tried to create a work product for public consumption. And it’s especially for those who’ve poured their heart into a novel, machinima, quilt, painting, photograph, or whatever, only to be met with a lukewarm response by people whose opinions are valued.

It’s our human nature to perceive this as rejection, to think if only we’d written better, filmed better, sewn better, painted better, then that person would be awed and gushing over the genius of our creation. This morning, Adriana Boettcher shared a story via Facebook that shoots gaping holes through that mental process.

At first I regarded the story with skepticism, as I do with all anecdotes circulating indiscriminately around the Web. However, after further investigation, I discovered this story is absolutely true. In 2007, a journalist at the Washington Post conducted an experiment that placed an internationally acclaimed violinist in a metro subway station, playing Bach on a 3.5 million dollar Stradivarius. Almost without exception, he was ignored (or barely acknowledged) by everyone passing through. Read the full story (and Hoax-Slayers’ take on it)  here:

Interesting note: the journalist responsible for this social experiment won the Pulitzer for it in 2008.

One possible conclusion of the experiment, as widely circulated in email and Facebook forwards, is: “If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing the best music ever written, how many other things are we missing?”

This is a little too abstract for me. A little too pie-in-the-sky. The way I see it, this is the best proof anyone could offer that we, as artists, must consider our audience. The subway station crowd was not Joshua Bell’s target audience, and despite the insanely expensive instrument and otherworldly talent, his best efforts went unappreciated. Does this indicate a flaw on the part of the audience? No. Does it mean Joshua Bell needed to revise his method and pick a different instrument, or play a different kind of music? No. At what he does, he is a master. But those subway folk, like me, would not pay $100 a seat to hear him play even if they knew exactly who he was. They were NOT HIS TARGET AUDIENCE.

Whether we are machinima directors, writers, painters, or world-renowned violinists, the same dynamic seems to apply to us all. Know your audience. Understand that not everyone will pause to appreciate your work even if you’re a master at creating it. It’s not our job to stop traffic or interrupt busy schedules. It’s our job to create beauty where others see only mundane, color where the landscape is black and white. And, as the following video demonstrates, those looking for our brand of artistry will recognize it no matter what the circumstance.

Watch to the end.