It's been an exciting year in VFX and animation—lots of new developments, cool advances and interesting people. This is the fourth and final installment of this year's Golden Pixie Awards. This is the first time in nearly 20 years that I have included humans, and there is one more human to go. So, without further ado, Here are the last of the Pixies for this year.
Contributed most to the field of VFX technology
One man has contributed more to our understanding of real light and it's digital correlates than any other over the past two decades. Without his work, we would not have such things as image-based modeling and lighting and HDR photography. It was his technology that was used to produce the very first virtual humans that built a bridge over the uncanny valley. Without his work, we would not have been able to produces movies like Benjamin Button and Avatar or even the cool slow-motion bullet shots in The Matrix. Digital Emily and Digital Ira would not exist. There is so much more but, moving on …
He has gotten so famous that he spends more than half his time traveling the world talking about the latest developments in the field. He is a researcher, a teacher, and one of the best public speakers I have ever experienced. He and his team won the Scientific and Engineering Academy Award in 2010 for the design of his invaluable Light Stages. This year, Margaret Talbot featured him in The New Yorker as the man behind the digital cloning of actors.
This is a guy who never takes full credit because he has a brilliant team behind him. If you don't know who it is by now, you probably are not really in the VFX business. He is chief visual officer and head of the Graphics Laboratory at USC's Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT). Some years ago at the View Conference in Turin, Italy, I dubbed him “The Prince of Light,” for his contributions to the field.
I am pleased to award a Golden Pixie to Professor Paul Debevec, for his remarkable body of work contributing to the fields of VFX, digital photography, and animation. I got to know Paul nearly 20 years ago through mutual friends. At that time I was impressed, but did not know that we would develop common interests in virtual human design. However, over the years, he became famous for developing technologies that crossed the uncanny valley by enabling photorealistic virtual human animations. At the same time, I was writing the book Virtual Humans, talking about the psychological aspects of virtual human design. In my book, I addressed the problem of the uncanny valley. So you can see that I might have a prejudice towards Dr. Debevec. Well, I do. But that's not why he got the award. I set out to find the single most fruitful human in the VFX world. I looked at all aspects, from development of the DI (a major opus) to 3D particle and texturing systems to fluid dynamics. I looked at people with all sorts of science and engineering awards. But, honestly, there is one stand-out: Debevec. If you ever get a chance to hear him speak, make the effort. You will find yourself more inspired than you might expect. Oh, and Paul? If you must, you can share this award with your team at ICT.
Best digital sculpting software
Well, I've tried them all, from Mudbox to Sculptris. It is amazing what you can do with these programs, but one program stands out above all others. It has an annoying interface that is anything but intuitive. It doesn't use any of the usual Windows conventions. Scaling, rotating and moving can be a royal pain in the ass. And though it was originally a 2D and 2.5D paint program, I wouldn't use it for painting. All that said, this application is, by far, the most powerful digital sculpting tool you can get, and it is definitely an industry standard. Of course, it has to be ZBrush.
The Desire Machine by Gutalin (Alex Kozhanov), created with ZBrush (via ZBrushCentral)
Designed and programmed originally by Ofer Alon, ZBrush is now a 3D paint/sculpting program based on proprietary pixel technology where each 3D pixel contains color/material, lighting, and depth information for each of millions of points in a 3D sculpture. Originally, ZBrush was outstanding for organic modeling but not so much for technical, mechanical, and architectural modeling. That has long since changed. Over time, Ofer has incorporated many new and amazing original sculpting tools. They have become so sophisticated that there are brushes that contain many individual, pre-sculpted components. One internet site, www.badking.com.au, has a large collection of such brushes. Some contain various monster body parts; others contain spaceship/mech parts or even a library of different book models. ZBrush is often the go-to tool for sculpting alien spaceships, mech characters and complex equipment.
This "teeth and tongue" brush is part of BadKing's Mega Monster Brush Pack for ZBrush.
Most of all, ZBrush is about combining organic and hard surface design in one place to create stunningly complex models of amazing detail.
Most inspiring 3D environment design game for children of all ages
In a recent visit with my 7-year-old grandson, he was so excited to teach me how to create immersive game environments. I'm serious. I thought he was joking, but then he whipped out his iPad, brought up the Minecraft app, and proceeded to show me how one builds a world in 3D space. I was sore amazed. His favorite building was his “Bomb Building.” It was created entirely from boxes of dynamite! He said, “We have to be very careful in here Grandpa. The whole place could blow.” He created buildings and whole villages so fast I had trouble keeping up. At first the rudimentary feel and blocky construction of Minecraft worlds left me a bit cold. But as soon as I could see how intuitive the play is and how intensely my grandson engages in world-building, I started to realize this is pretty amazing. Minecraft is starting many young people in the art of immersive environment design, which is an interest of mine, being a founder of the 5D movement.
Minecraft is not new, nor is it completely original. Markus Persson, a Dane living in Sweden (and known as 'Notch' by his friends), is a programming prodigy. He started programming at the same age my grandson started playing Minecraft. He started working as a game developer a decade ago and worked his way up until he was able to leave Jalbum and strike out on his own with a company he calls Mojang. Influenced by games like Dwarf Fortress, Infiniminer, and Dungeon Keeper, Persson felt a drive to create his own intuitive approach to gameplay. When he left Jalbum, several others followed him to work on Minecraft.
The story takes a sharp turn because Microsoft got so excited looking at sales numbers, they up and bought Mojang for an amazing $2.5 billion! It gets even weirder—they just get the company and the property, a single game that must by now be approaching global saturation. They did not get Perrson or any of the very creative founders. Those guys get to walk off with an 18-wheeler full of cash each! Rumor has it that Microsoft bought the company to lure younger people to the Windows Mobile operating system, and that the deal could only be done without the top guy staying. Can't blame them. But look what happened to Caligari once Microsoft got their hands on it. Bye bye company, and bye bye trueSpace. IMHO, Microsoft hasn't the mentality to carry on the wonderfully creative design of Minecraft without the originators. But I digress yet again.
Available on many platforms, Minecraft is the hottest-selling game of all time. At this writing, 17,261,994 people have bought the game with 6,161 in the past 24 hours! Crazy popular.
Markus is somewhat famous for his highly efficient programming and actually has a version of Minecraft that loads up in only 4 KB! He's always up for a challenge. A frequent participant and winner in Ludum Dare, he creates entire games in accordance with the challenge theme parameters in 48 hours.
This Pixie is given not to Microsoft, but to Markus Persson for his game, Minecraft. Congratulations, kiddo. You earned it. May your next adventure be a grand one.
Best free game design software anywhere
Okay, this is a filmmakers' blog but, honestly, the line between film and games is blurring daily. Games are getting ever more cinematic and, let's face it, there is far more money (ergo more jobs) in games than in just film or TV at the moment. The world is changing. VFX and animation artists are still out of work! It is time to be flexible. Think about getting started in game design as a backup. Learn the skills. They are highly transferable. (Look for more on this in my upcoming blog on skills you need to have to stay employed in VFX.)
After working with my grandson on Minecraft, and reviewing game-oriented texturing systems like Quixel NDO and Allegorithmic Substance Designer, I actually got interested in game design. The full, commercially licensed tools can be outrageously expensive, but that's only for big companies. I was amazed to discover that I could download a number of full-bore game development systems (SDKs or system development kits—I know you know that, but one of you might not). I looked at 21 game SDKs, some free and some pay, all with different licensing structures and strengths. I narrowed my Pixie choices down to the two best free ones. Though both are excellent, and come with lots of bells and whistles, they are not equivalent.
They are Unity3D (example video) and Cryengine Sandbox (example video). I've spent literally weeks trying to pick just one. I finally have. It came down to the graphics and play quality and the fact that Cryengine has made some major upgrades recently and now is much easier to use with game boxes and mobile games. Though I think Unity3D may the best choice for beginning game designers and it is an amazing tool, the best 3D Game Design SDK anywhere, in my biased opinion, is Cryengine Sandbox. With new improvements in the workflow and application interface, I also think Sandbox is now far easier to learn.
In brief, The Cryengine3 Sandbox edition is very sophisticated and more up to date. The graphics, lighting and atmosphere tools and game play are much better. Crytek has also put a lot of effort into its virtual human tools, including procedural animation for humans, monsters and animals.
Sandbox now has an excellent work interface. It takes a little time to understand but, once you learn it, the workflow is efficient. When you build games, you need assets, and Sandbox comes with a ton of them. It has good built-in creation tools, and it plays well with third-party tools like ZBrush, Autodesk and Adobe tools, Substance Designer and Quixel NDO and DDO.
How do you go about learning this stuff? It's easy. Download your free copy of Sandbox and unzip it to a drive where you have lots of room. It's almost two gigs, plus you'll be saving lots of assets and safety copies. This is not a beginner deal, remember. We're talking the full package here. So many hours of dedicated learning and practice are in order, but I think you'll find it's all intense fun. To top it off, Sandbox comes with a magnificent environment game called Forest. A walk through this interesting world will amaze you, and you can start creating places like this out of the box. Okay, I got carried away. I feel really bad. Just for the hell of it, I shot a chicken with my virtual rifle and blew it out of the water, literally. Nothing was left but a huge splash. Also, the water effects are so realistic the waterfalls even have mist around them—real moving mist. But I digress.
I was talking about learning, and there are a lot of online training opportunities. You will find good information from Crytek and at YouTube, but the best training is not free. It's at DigitalTutors and, since I have to keep up on software, I keep an annual contract with them. I'm deeply into their Cryengine tutorials, and I'm starting to believe I can create a really cool game.
Thanks for sticking with my four episodes of Peter Plantec's Entirely Biased Golden Pixie Awards. There are so many more that I will have to do another installment down the line. For example, I think the folks who have developed Blender and GIMP deserve recognition. Lots of small companies are doing great work. I haven't even given a Pixie to the big guys like Autodesk, with all their industry-standard applications, and The Foundry with all of theirs. But we have to move on to more important issues—like how to keep a job in one city, so that we can stop being modern-day nomads and have families and kids in school, etc. Be sure to catch my next blog—as mentioned above, it will be all about the skills that will help you stay employed.