Road to Echo: Into the Physics-Verse

Work In Progress / 19 October 2020

One aspect I had not originally planned on taking advantage of was to use real time physics for some of my characters, namely for use with their hair. The idea was brought up by Javier Altman, who was incredible in helping me get the basics of how to manipulate colliders and physics with a rig in Unreal. Once I understood better what I wanted the physics to do, I decided to do a test to see how far I could push physics for Echo's hair.

Because of the fact physics was not a planned idea when I was first building Echo's rig, there are a LOT more joints in Echo's hair than is really necessary for this process. Therefore, something I plan on doing is updating Echo's rig to take out some of the less needed bones. At present, there are over 300 bones, about 150 of which are in the hair alone. But, for this test, I used the rig as I had it.

INTO UNREAL

Importing the rig into Unreal went by with very little issues, though I did realize that I had to take the rig out of my group hierarchy in Maya in order to not have the entire hierarchy import into the skeletal mesh and convert to bones. It is a weird issue that I am not quite sure how to completely eliminate, but that was the workaround I had. Doing this eliminated my rig being scalable, but I do not plan on scaling my characters anyway so it was not a terrible compromise.

Depending on your import settings, Unreal can generate a physics asset for you with colliders and constraints based on it's best guess. I chose to create the physics asset separate from the import so that Unreal didn't create all of those constraints that I was going to delete anyway.

I started building outside in--that is to say, I started with overall ponytail colliders that would collide with the head and worked my way down each individual ponytail chain. I decided to stick more with cylinder colliders and play more with the Linear and Angular Limits so that, whenever Echo's head moved, there would be a limit point and the hair would return back to where it originally started once her head rested at any point in the film. I did use a sphere for Echo's head due to it fitting better as a form.

As you can see from the above screenshot, I worked my way down afterwords with smaller and smaller colliders. This is where I really knew I needed to readdress the hair in the rig later due to the number of bones that currently exist. Setting up a collider for each one was fairly time consuming. All the while I was doing this, I was constantly simulating and testing with the settings I had liked to see how the hair moved and reacted to itself and each other. Having inner penetration of the hair became pretty common at this stage. 

BANGS

The bangs were more difficult, as they truly needed to stay in their respective places while also giving the "bouncy" impression that I was going for. While doing test animations with physics, I realized the main bang would best function if animated independently in Maya, as all of my test thus far had only resulted in the hair falling out of place and giving Echo an "emo" look. 

Not exactly the look I'm going for, haha...

When I had the system set up to the point where I liked the overall result, I decided to do a full test run of animation, having animated a bob cycle in Maya and imported it into Unreal as well. I created a new level in Unreal that existed just to test out characters, set up a sequencer with a camera and some lighting, and recorded the output. This is the same workflow I would be doing in my final film, therefore it also gave me a test run in seeing how much time that would take and what obstacles I would hit. The only major one that I hit pretty consistently was the camera import from Maya into Unreal. Sometimes it worked... and sometimes it 1000% did not. I've yet to figure out why it only works some of the time with the same assets, but maybe others have run into that problem as well. Another issue I found was that physics was more unpredictable in the editor than it was in the Physics Asset when testing. You will notice in the final video that one of the hair pieces jitters pretty violently as a result. Given how far I took this test and knowing I was going to be going back to make alterations to the rig itself, I was okay with that artifact for now with plans to address it in the future.

The final result of the test, as well as the process from Maya to Unreal, can be found here on my LinkedIn. Here is also a vimeo link: https://vimeo.com/469773206

FINAL THOUGHTS

All in all, it was a great exercise to play with physics and learn more about the possibilities of using it for the short film. Setting up this test exercise and going through the pipeline really helped me target some obstacles that can be corrected now, and it proved for some valuable knowledge moving forward. 

Net week's blog post will likely be postponed so I can have some more to show soon! See you in 2 weeks time.

Best,

Ana

Road to Echo: Rigging Neo

Work In Progress / 12 October 2020

Neo had a similar base set up to Echo with IK/FK switch arms, IK legs, and a face rig. He did have additional clothes on him, however, that required some extra joints and the ability to take off the bandana on his head altogether. I laid out all of my intended features for version 1.0 down as follows:

  • Face Rig / Blendshape correctives
  • Ear Control
  • IK/FK Switch
  • Foot Roll
  • Shirt Adjustment Joints
  • Head/Neck Space Switching
  • Eye Space Switching
  • Hand Set Driven Keys/Adjuster Controls
  • Nose Nuzzle Option
  • Bandana Visibility Toggle
  • Stretchy Spine

STRETCHY SPINE

I started working first on the spine before tackling the rest, taking care to make a separate spine chain that I would be messing around with and parenting each joint to the actual spine chain. This was something I saw first with Echo, as doing this directly on joints that would be going into Unreal would create a transform node due to my scaling to get the spine stretch. 

Stretching it out super out there really helped me get my skinning and edge loops weighted correctly, though it was a much longer process than I first thought as Neo had a shirt that also had to stretch. That is still being worked on.

LEGS

The legs had a smilier issue as Echo's legs because of how hamsters/gerbils have more fat collected towards their legs, making placement of te knee joint to be a tad more challenging. Neo does not have a lot of scenes in where his legs/knees are shown, however, therefore for animation and the intended shots in the film as it stands,  it will not be as much of an issue. Regardless, there is a basic setup in the legs should that plan change for now.

SHIRT AND BANDANA

I wanted to have the option of a little more control for the shirt when it deforms and moves around the body, therefore I included some shirt joints in the rig that were parent constrained to controllers. The same goes for the bandana in case Neo were to move his hand up and adjust it or if I wanted to move the clothing to achieve a specific pose. Similar to Echo's hair, the actual bandana ends are simple IK handles that can move quickly and easily. These additions could also be used by Unreal for the physics asset and have it be procedural, though there is still some testing to be done to see which approach is better for the purposes of the film.

EYES

Neo's Eyes are much bigger than Echo and most of the other characters in the entire film. Because of that, I wanted to have pupil scaling play a more significant role in Neo's rig than it does in Echos. Instead of doing UV adjustments of moving the actual UV map around the eye when moving the controller, I elected to do joint based pupil dilation to give the impression that the iris was also shrinking and growing as the pupil dilated. The final result looks like this:

FACE

Hamsters and gerbils have very large "pouches" in their cheeks to help them store lots of food, therefore to get correct movement for anamorphic facial expressions, I had to pay very close attention to what the cheeks would look like in 3D space. I consulted a lot of different 2D designs, namely character like Hamtaro and Chip and Dale, to see how the forms of the cheeks play out in 2D. The first pass at different expressions is not a final polished one, but I believe it is a step in the right direction. Doing this did help me notice some texture issues, however, as the ambient occlusion map baked into the overall skin texture and is most noticeable when I move the eyebrows away from their starting position.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Neo's rig built on the knowledge I learned from Echo and also carried it's own unique challenges. Working on Neo's face for blend shapes will be more challenging and time consuming, but I'm confident that it will lead to much more expressive emotions and acting once we get into animation. I worked on this rig in a more spaced our process than I did with Echo due to other factors of my life taking more time away from this project, but I do think that ultimately helped the process overall as I had more time to think about why certain issues were occurring and how to go about solving them. What is a good thing to always point out, though, is that rigs are often never really finished until the project itself is done. It takes rigorous testing with animators' help to identify problem and deformation issues, and thus the rigger would adjust and iterate to help. Rigs are living files, and I see that as being especially true for our little friend Neo.

Best,

Ana 

Road to Echo: Designing Cato

Work In Progress / 05 October 2020

Cato is the mischievous bully of the film that acts as the main antagonist by picking on Echo for who she is and what she looks like. 

CONCEPT

Because of his bully-like nature and the fact that he is the class troublemaker, I gravitated to the monkey as the animal I would start basing the design off of. I also looked at apes for some of the facial features specifically as I am purposely meshing the two animals together and taking different straights from each one. Nailing Cato definitely happened more in the actual sculpting than it did in the initial concept phase.

MODELING

I played with how far I wanted to go towards the monkey vibe without losing the child-likeness of some of the features. The final base of the model came in somewhere in between the two extremes and really came into it's own when I added some of the sculpted fur, which can be seen in Thomas Leaf Monkeys. Because of his more antagonistic-like nature, there are more triangles in his fur.One of the areas I paid close attention to is the legs for when they will be deformed. Monkeys can be extremely athletic and acrobatic, therefore I wanted to take the time to get the proportions right for gangly limbs that wouldn't completely break when I began to rig. The "pockets" on the knees are there for when the leg does deform, it deforms in a cartoon-like way similar to how Abu would move in Aladdin

ROUGHING OUT THE HAIR

I do my hair in Maya with the topology I wanted compared to Zbrush, therefore I had a base for the hair in place for Zbrush and exported that out to start blocking out hair strands in Maya. The result is a side-swept hairdo that gives Cato a more rambunctious personality. I took advantage of the smooth mesh preview options here a lot as well to get the defining edges I wanted. Once I had the hair where I wanted it, I converted the mesh preview into polygons and took down the number of subdivisions from the default 2 to 1.

After modeling the rest of the body in zbrush, I took the model into Maya again to retool the body and shirt. The zbrush model didn't have a tail since it was easier to attach a long cylinder in Maya at the very end.

TEXTURING

Texturing is still an ongoing process as originally, I envisioned Cato as a brown monkey with a pale skin. After getting some feedback and looking at Neo and Echo next to Cato, I realized that I had a theme of primary colors going that I could push into a defining personality for Cato. As a result, Cato's hair color became more of a blonde color on the hair and a off-white body. I took special care with the face to play with subsurface scattering potential, and for additional hair detail I used the same anisotropic map trick I had mentioned earlier when texturing my other characters. I did have to tweak the sideburns in Substance to get the effect to work more, however, due to how I'd UVed that piece.

 FINAL THOUGHTS

While Cato's overall textures are being finalized, I applied a lot of what I'd learned from previous builds to this model when it came to construction and UVing. Having skin be a massive role in Cato was a great chance for me to push the stylization more, and I'm eager to see how he'll express himself soon.


Best,

Ana

Road to Echo: Rigging Echo

Work In Progress / 28 September 2020

With Echo's textures and model ready and prepped, it was time to start the rigging phase to be able to bring Echo to life in the film. I learned how to rig over the course of a spring break my junior year of college, but every time I start to work on a new character I still learn something new.

If you're not a rigger or do not know that part of the pipeline, a character rig comes in two parts: the physical joints that act like a skeleton of a character and the controllers that allow for the animator to animate the character via the joints underneath. The first step that I take whenever I start a rig is planning what I want for the character to do.

PRE-PRODUCTION

As Echo is the main character, she'll be the focus of attention and the primary character on screen for nearly the entire film. She must be expressive and movable with the ability to tweak minor details for up close shots. Because she floats, however, her legs do not need a lot of attention beyond a simple setup that can be adjusted.

BODY

With this in mind, I began laying out all of the actual bones and taking time to adjust the placement. Thinking about the joints acting like an actual underlying skeleton is really helpful as it lets me visualize where the body parts are actually pivoting from. Because Echo doesn't really have knees, however, or rather, she won't be walking a ton, placing the knees was more of an educated guess.

Parenting the joints to a proxy mesh also lets me see how the rig underneath starts to function before hitting the bind phase.

THE FACE

Because of how expressive I wanted Echo to be, I decided to go with a hybrid approach between joints and blend shapes in where the face will primarily be driven by joints while using blend shapes more as correctives to the face. This approach was more helpful for me because I have more experience with joint based rigs than I do with creating blend shapes. 

I placed joints in the eyebrows, eyelids, cheeks, upper mouth, lower mouth, and tongue. Adding joints to the eyelids as well as a pupil joint allowed for me to manipulate the eye blink and make it adjustable in the future while also letting me make the pupil larger or smaller depending on the emotion.

THE HAIR

The hair was going to be a tricky challenge because I as a rigger, didn't want to make the rig to heavy but I as an animator also wanted to have a much control as possible when animating depending not the scenario. Because of that, I met somewhere in the middle of rigging each strand of the hair and the base ponytail and having all of the joint chains be driven through IK chains. A gif of that can be found on my twitter. This was done before I realized I could also simulate the hair via physics in Unreal, but by already having this system in place, I have the option to use either physics, animatable hair, or a combination of the two. No lost work!

BINDING

In my opinion, the most time consuming part of rigging is binding the skin and painting weights. This is one of the most important parts of the rig altogether, however, so it makes sense that it's the most time consuming. I had the model broken up into different pieces, which I found helps me separate out the weight blending at first. This was especially helplful when it came to the hair ad separating all of the hair joints from the body so that one didn't accidentally influence the other areas. My workflow for skinning typically starts with the body and major ligaments (arms, torso, etc.) before locking all of those and focusing my attention on the face. 


All of these poses and testing is before corrective blend shapes took effect, but the goal here was to get the joints as even as possible when it came to how they deformed. It wasn't so much as making sure every face was "camera-ready" as it was every face be smooth and consistent. This part was a lot of fun to test, though. 

Once I got the initial joint influences to be where I wanted them to be, I added blend shapes to drive the faces further. For example, if I wanted to corner of the mouth to be up, the joint would move it up and the blend shape would create the crease of the cheek to drive home the motion.  


Some of the blendshapes were more subtle than others, but in terms of how the model deformed it was better. In total, there was over 30 corrective Target Blend Shapes and Combination targets. In Unreal, these are called Morph Targets. I hooked up all the animations to my main facial animation controllers so that they triggered as I moved the corresponding controller.

The final facial rig is made up of 28 different controls with the jaw and eyes being on the actual model as opposed to on the side. 


FLESHY EYES

Now that my model was skinned, I was able to also hook up fleshy eyes on the face, which allows for the eyelids to give a subtle move for more realistic eye movement. A gif of that can be found on my twitter. The way this is set up is due in part with how the joints are laid on in the face. I skinned individual eyelid joints that are connected to a main upper and lower eyelid joint that not only allowed for me to create a set driven key for the top and bottom eyelids for blinking purposes, but also allowed for me to include corrective controllers should the animator want a little more animation in the eyelids. I tried a similar approach on the mouth, but to really do it right I would have to redo some of my blend shapes. Therefore, I elected to not do it for the mouth for now.

FACE GYM TEST

Once I was comfortable with how the rig was looking and how all of the deformations played with each other, I decided to go an animated face gym test and render it out in Unreal. The final larger version can be found on my twitter and also below:


FINAL THOUGHTS

I learned a ton while working on this rig, especially when it comes to facial rigging and animation. After actually animating with the rig, I realized I would like to have a separate slider to control the center of the mouth and mess more with the eyes themselves due to how the geometry isn't as smooth in that area as I would have liked. Doing the test in Unreal also shed some light into using the Sequencer and playing with animation files, physics assets, and the skeletal mesh. I also needed to redo the arms FK system, as it was during the animation stage that I realized my arms get into gimbal lock whenever I try to move he forearm up and down once it's been moved inward. Additionally, I added eye and head world space parent constraint changes that would allow for me to change what those pieces of the model would follow if I moved anything under them. They came especially in handy whenever I'd want to rotate the world controller but wanted the eyes to stay in the same place, for example.

Best,

Ana

Road to Echo: Designing Neo

Work In Progress / 21 September 2020

WHO IS NEO

Neo is Echo's friend in the film, a hamster with a secret that gets revealed during the second day of school. He is based off hamsters and guinea pigs. His name comes from the idea of something new, as he is Echo's new friend in a new world.

Neo's design uses more blockier shapes to show strength and solitude, though because of how big Neo will be in relation to the other classmates and especially Echo, Neo will also be slightly clumsier and unsure of how to deal with his size. Neo is also meant to act as a symbol of two different worlds altogether--the normal planet we live on, but also a different place altogether. Because of this, Neo has a horn on his head that a regular hamster would not ordinarily have. It is because of this differentiation, that Neo tries to cover it up with a bandana for the majority of the film.

While Echo's color palette stems from galaxies and space, Neo's stems from traditional hamster colors with a slight variation. His defining color is orange, though earlier iterations of playing with how the colors fell on the face led to it's final placements.

SCULPTING PHASE

I didn't do as many iterations of Neo from a concerting standpoint because I felt that I needed to understand the character in 3D and how the forms would play. Because of that, I jumped fairly quickly into Zbrush and just began with getting the head together. An early test was posted to twitter last year. Getting the proportions of the body was actually harder than getting the appeal of the face. When I returned to the project a few months later I enlarged the eyes and fixed the eyebrows.

Neo's body was trickier to figure out, specifically around the legs. Hamsters and guinea pigs have puffier legs without much separation between them compared to, say, how human legs have a clear separation from the legs to the torso. Originally, I had the legs more spread out and separate from the body, but a rework of the legs allowed for the puffier to show more with the legs standing out as separate. This will prove to be some more legwork (ha) on the rigging side due to figuring out the placement of the knees.

Placing them with the outlines drawn over shows the change in the character overall.

NEO'S HEADBAND

Neo's headband is a key part of his character in the film, as it hides his horn and insecurities. I played around with different bandana styles before settling more on the knot being at the front instead of the side. Having the bandana at the side made Neo look more like a pirate. Having it on the front, however, allowed me to play more with the potential for secondary animation once in the production phase.

TEXTURING

As previously stated, Echo's color palette would have more orange and natural tones compared to Echo's blue skin. With the addition of having a shirt, however, I chose red to keep the color palette analogous overall. A detail that was hard to figure out was the pattern on the shirt. I wanted something that could be abstract enough to have a connection to space without overtly giving the gag away. At first, I went with stitched squares as I was playing with no real thought behind them. They didn't give much to the character from a narrative standpoint, however, so I did another pass and came up with the idea of a graphic star that shows up through the roughness map on the shirt, similar to a shinier material on a piece of clothing. That alongside the addition of faded constellations on the star was enough for me to draw the connection visually but not enough to take away from the final reveal of the horn later on. When it came to texturing the eyebrows, I took the same approach as I did with Echo's hair with an anisotropic map as a base. The final result came out better than I anticipated and reads fairly well. Neo's final texture results can be found here alongside Echo in Unreal for scale. 

FINAL THOUGHTS

Neo's character approach showed nothing new in my process beyond exploring the bandana and narrative decisions behind he character. Having the legs be lower set in the body will prove for a challenge in the rig, but given that Neo won't be doing a lot of walking, the legs are not as much of a priority as the head and facial expressions will be. Additionally, Neo's hands will have up close shots, therefore it was important to have good topology and edge flow in that area so that no odd deformations will be visible in the final render. I'm excited to move forward to the rigging phase with him!

Best,

Ana

Road to Echo: Designing Echo

Work In Progress / 14 September 2020

Echo is the main character in this film of the same name. She is meant to be extremely different to everything around her and everyone else in the film with the exception of her mother. Creating her character, as a result, was a really exciting challenge.

There are some underlying symbols when it comes to character design in the form of squares, triangles, and spheres. Each primitive shape denotes a specific feeling in the character it creates, therefore thoughtful design lends itself to really thinking about the basic shapes a character is made up of. With Echo, this was one of the factors at the forefront of my mind.

In character design, this is what those shapes can mean, but by no means is this a final list:

Squares: strength, stability, clumsiness, protection

Triangles: aggressive, dynamic, harsh, evil, cunning

Spheres: soft, squishy, approachable, friendly

With this in mind, where would stars fit into the equation?

Echo is meant to come from space and the stars, therefore I wanted her silhouette to have a star shape with the triangles in the form being more rounded edges to help show the softness Echo is meant to be, compared to how aggressive triangles can see in silhouette. The final result is somewhere in the middle.

CONCEPT DESIGN

Echo's horns and hair were meant to act like a secondary star, but when you stretch her out in a T-pose she also has very pointy ends to also showcase that star shape. Her body, however, is very round and blobby like that of a baby. As stated before, the softer forms help offset the harder triangles and don't read as "devil" compared to what it could easily have been. The triangles also don't end in completely pointed shapes.

If you're interested specifically in character design, one of the places I turned to when I started working was a really amazing course by Jonah Lobe over on pluralsight titled "An Immortal Design". It goes over the basic shapes I mentioned earlier as well as the process behind character design. 

3D SCULPTING

Once I have an idea of what she looked like on a concept stage, I jumped immediately into 3D and sculpted forms. Echo went through a couple of different variations after the initial concept when I went from 2D to 3D Sculpting. At first she looked like this:

But as I worked on refining the forms and figuring out what all of the pieces were meant to be made of (hair vs. skin vs. clothes), the concept finalized itself in a very organic way. 

What majorly changed between the two were her ears, the softness of the horns, and the hair turning into pigtails instead of one mass shape. The face, as a result, looks more inviting and--oddly--human, even without the nose.

HAIR EXPLORATION

Echo has come a long way, hasn't she? At this point I felt that I could do more work in Maya as I switched to the retopology phase. I use Zbrush as a way to block out organic forms easier, though when it came to Echo's hair I actually modeled that in Maya instead due to the ability to manipulate the points using the final topology. Additionally, as I worked on the hair, I added bangs to help give Echo more of a child-like hairstyle. Choosing what kind of bangs I wanted was a simple case of exploring.

The middle part didn't work quite as well with her center horn as I had hoped. Having no bangs at all now made her look bald since she had pigtails. The side part now allowed for the hair to wrap around the horns while simultaneously giving a more child-like appearance. Here you will also see that earrings have been added. In hispanic cultures, it is very common for kids to have their ears pierced right after birth, therefore having pearl earrings or any sort of small earring isn't unheard of. In the greater context of the film, this is a key detail. 

 On to the next step! 

TEXTURING

Echo's color palette takes from the colors of galaxies and nebulas. With this in mind, I played around with blue variations as well as using stars as freckles across her face. There is even a little bit of emissive in some of the star freckles. As far as texturing the hair went, I laid out my hair UVs purposely to take advantage of a gradient to help break up the hair's forms. Playing around with the UVs and how I wanted the color to look ultimately really helped sell the sculpted hair.

One quick cheat I love doing for things like sculpted hair is adding an anisotropic noise map into the height channel on a layer in Substance Painter. Because of how I laid out my UVs for the hair, the map takes the straight lines and morphs them to give the idea of depth and shape. This is a great way to hit the ground running and adjust any specific hairs manually.

There's some more pictures on my twitter

Final textures

Overall, I got really happy with the textures towards the end as I kept noodling with the colors and breaking them up. It was halfway through textures that I also decided to add clothes to all characters, therefore Echo's star pattern on her body became overalls that will be seen in a later blog post.

FINAL THOUGHTS ON CHARACTER DESIGN

Echo is the main character of this film, therefore getting her look right was crucial to not only the overall appeal of the film but also how much the audience would relate to Echo. Once I got later into rigging and setting up her facial expressions I came to really love the believability of her expressions. The emphasis on the blues and purples will really make her stand out from her more natural toned classmates and the classroom as a whole, but the real test will be when I start putting everything together. What's important here, though, is that this is not "locked-in final" just yet--there will be updates and tweaks as I go from texturing in Substance Painter to adjusting materials in Unreal to take advantage of sub surface scattering. 

Best,

Ana

Road to Echo: Classroom

Work In Progress / 09 September 2020

About 99% of the film takes place in one room: Echo's classroom. The design of it has changed quite a bit over the last year as I worked on logistics and how I wanted to add to the overall story. Much of the design and color stems from my personal experiences growing up and my school's colors at the time, but the classroom undergoes a transformation towards the end of the film to become something greater. Because of that, designing a "mundane but still contemporary" classroom was quite the challenge.

PROCESS: CONCEPT STAGE

Originally, the classroom was going to be a long rectangle: 

I then took this very blocked out version and made a perspective concept piece to get a rough idea of items and placement. I'd used Echo's scale as a reference to try and keep everything in proportion.

With the story also changing drastically this past year, I merged the lunchroom and the classroom into one area, therefore my original idea of a square wasn't going to cut it with everything I wanted to put in there. So, I refactored my scene and expanded it, extending the initial rectangle, making the overall room larger to fit things like bookshelves and toys, and including a lunch and play room area towards the back. Some of the additions I made straight in 3D as it helps me think better to start blocking things out like a level designer would their levels or an environment artist their space. Some of this I posted over on twitter.

PROCESS: PRODUCTION STAGE

At this stage for this environment, the story could still change or adapt while deadlines remained the same, therefore I did much of the classroom modularly and kept certain things separate so that if I needed to, for example, extend a wall or rearrange a row of books, I could do so in Unreal without outright having to do anything crazy.

In order to maximize both my productivity and the models I would be making, I made a checklist of all of the items I would want in my classroom based off my research online as well as talking to teachers now that try to find ways to invigorate a space and prime it for learning. Here's just a screenshot of a portion of that list:


As you can see, I named each unique asset and the number of times it would be used in the scene, if I had reference for what they would look like, marked the priority it needed to be done in, and kept track of the progress as I worked on the entire scene. Making lists like these is perfect for whenever I work on massive projects like a short film or even in the professional setting. Environments and models can be made up of hundreds of individual models that all should meet a standard of quality.

Another thing I installed for myself during this stage of production was a deadline. With this being a personal project and one that I am not reporting to anyone about, I needed a way to keep myself accountable as well as have an end in site. I gave myself one month for the full process with the intention of adding and tweaking once I had something up on its legs. I find this to be the best approach because a lot of artists have a hard time even starting if they don't think they can see the end. With this 1 month deadline set, I can focus on making assets and completing a list that, upon the end of the month, I can look back on and see what holes I need to fill or what textures I need to look back on as a whole.

ONE MONTH BREAKDOWN

The list I had initially made had a total of over 50 assets with multiple texture variations planned, but because many of them were smaller low priority assets, I gave myself a strict schedule of completing anywhere between 8-10 assets a day. again, that may sound like a lot, but aside from higher priority assets like the desk chairs or the teacher's reading chair, it was very achievable. The last 2 weeks of the month were then spent on textures and placement in a maya scene.

Instead of placing everything in Unreal as a final pass, I elected to place and design my scene in Maya, something that will be a continuous process and will not stop after this month is over. Once I had the majority of assets placed or the boxed versions of the assets replaced with the final assets, I imported the scene into Unreal and started playing with what I could do with lights just for fun. Lighting was not something I'd factored as part of this 1 month sprint, with that being said, however, playing around with throwing even random lights in there on where I was thinking of having light sources made me realize I needed more light as a whole, so more windows were added to the design. 

ONE MONTH LATER

In total, I was able to get all of the models completed and in the process of being textured, though I did not get to all of them textured. But this brings back to what I said a little earlier: I can now keep going and start to look at the big picture as it takes shape and make adjustments as opposed to never having started at all. At this point, I want to switch gears to work on Echo's model and rig, therefore this will be put on pause for now and then picked back up later. I work best when I work on multiple projects and bring them up to speed so I can continuously see how each piece works and what I need to fix on one to make it make sense with the other.

STAYING MOTIVATED IN QUARANTINE

This part of the project happened back in June, smack dab in the middle of COVID-19 when we were still under a strict quarantine. I've had a lot of friends deal with lack of motivation to make art in such a bleak world right now, which is 100% valid and something I myself was not immune to. I've been furloughed from my job as well, so where I would normally be going to work I no longer had been since April. These kinds of times are extremely unprecedented, and it is very normal to feel like it's a dark time. I definitely felt that, and there are times I still do. 

I'm not used to sitting still for so long, however. In a way, having this kind of structure was what helped me keep going. I could focus on something that wasn't the fact that the world was really bleak right now. I could turn my attention on a story I believed in. Towards the beginning of COVID-19, I struggled with the question of why make art right now in a time where everyone is collectively dealing with a massive pandemic, but the truth of the matter is now is the time to remind ourselves about our ability to use art for good and for healing. I am fortunate to have an amazing support group in my friends and family who try to keep each others' hopes up and high. I even made some new friends over on social media because they was feeling the same way. So if you're dealing with similar feelings in quarantine or have had your life disrupted by the inability to leave the house, find your way back to what you love to do and don't be afraid to ask for help from those around you.

Best,

Ana

Welcome to the Road to Echo

Work In Progress / 01 September 2020

Hello! 

With every passing week, I have been working and improving on a story that I had begun just last year as a project I am very passionate about. Due to COVID-19, I have had the odd grace of the one thing we all have issue finding: time, and as a result, I have been able to not only flesh out this story, but also work on the key characters and preliminary environments. In having posted little tidbits or screenshots here and there on twitter the past three months, I came to the realization that I wanted a space to talk about my process in detail and how I came about getting to where I am now and where I want to be in the future in the hopes that someone that has a similar path can learn from my mistakes and triumphs.

Thus, time for a Dev Blog!

I likely won't be able to post every day on the latest improvements, as some things can span multiple days or even weeks depending on complexity, but I can try to do a weekly check-in on progress and show some of the things I've learned. That's my promise to you!

Now that all that introduction is over, if you're not following me over on Twitter the last few months, then you have likely no idea what story or characters I'm really referencing. Well, here's the cliff notes:

What and Who is Echo?

I've had this idea for the last two years to make a short film that not only talks about what it was like to grow up as an immigrant, but also to portray that idea in the simplest terms and easiest of explanations. Thus, Echo and her friends were born. Echo, as a result, is also the title of the short film itself. The reason for it is because this film is very much like an "echo" of the past. The film will be animated using Autodesk Maya and rendered using the Unreal Engine. At present, it will have no spoken dialogue. The dialogue, instead, will be music.

As of right now, there are a total of 5 major characters and 2 NPC-like characters in the film. With the exception of Echo and her mother, who are both aliens and thus lean much more on the imagination side of character design, all are going to be based off animals. Echo herself has already been shown most this past summer, again on my twitter, so the first few posts on this blog will likely be me migrating some of what I've learned to this blog to keep everything in one place.

In terms of how much of the actual story you'll be seeing on this blog, I will say you'll likely read bits and pieces, but not the full story. Likely as I begin to work on specific shots of the film, I might add them here, which will give context. However, this blog is intended to be more of a technical "behind the scenes" to help show my thought process behind environment, character design, etc. With that being said, however, story is very much at the core of this film. The setting is a small elementary classroom on Earth, where Echo deals with her first few days at school on a brand new planet.

Where Am I In Production Right Now?

So far, I have a working animatic, one major environment, 1 fully rigged and ready to animate character, 1 retopologized character in the process of being rigged, 2 partially sculpted secondary characters, and many, many, concept designs for the rest of the world. The first few posts will be back tracking the progress on these specific pieces.

Why Unreal?

Excellent question, I'm glad you asked. My background stems from both animation and game design, and in the past few years alone the concept of animated short films being done with real time rendering engines has become much more common and a new medium for artists to create with. Having been on teams that have shipped games to steam and itch, I am familiar with both Unity and Unreal and what they can do. I specifically chose Unreal due to its more robust sequencer system as well as the light system. Plus, with UE5 just around the corner, this film will undergo a transitional period at some point to take advantage of new pipelines and ideas coming from the industry, specifically Lumen (which, if you have not seen, you can see the demo of UE5 here).

Don't be surprised if you find me also posting about a cool studio using real time rendering in their pipeline or how animation will be completely overhauled in the next few years as a result of the access to new tools such as game engines. It's not just the future, it's already happening. Just look at Rogue One's K2SO, or these absolutely adorable Unity shorts that also were spawned from animators having time on their hands to experiment and play with some new mediums as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. These are but two examples in a constantly growing pool of animated films using real time rendering tools. 

Well, that's all for now!

I'm really excited to start this adventure and to work on this project, and I'm even more elated that you are coming to read about Echo and her friends. 

Here's the the future!

Best,

Ana