Monday, April 20, 2015

The A. C. Cobra project in Blender

The A. C. Cobra project was a test I did (mostly to prove to myself) that Cycles (Blender’s inbuilt render engine – read “free”) gives just as brilliant and realistic an output as any other industry standard (read “$$$”) render engine out there!

Recently there’s been a lot of hype with some “industry-standard” render engine being supported for Blender. But, I wanted to see for myself if this was really even necessary to bother with. The output here is pure Cycles.  Meaning – this is the Base Render with no compositing or jazz added in Photoshop or any other software. No enhancement whatsoever! Wow!

I was blown away with the versatility and power of the Cycles nodal system. It has great flexibility when setting up both simple and complex shaders and I feel it gives far superior and realistic results then has been attributed to it. The car body shader in this example is a very simple mix of a bunch of Glossy Shaders in addition to a Musgrave texture (also inbuilt) and is probably the most unpretentious system I’ve ever set up to get a “highly pretentious” Car Paint effect. A simple HDRI and one sun lamp are all that have been used to light this scene. With the bounce light, reflections, caustics, shaders, depth of field (also not done in compositing) I used in this scene, and with the moderate machine that I have, I was expecting a massive render time. But once again Cycles surprises by giving this output – Full HD with 1000 Samples -- in just an Hour and a Half.

Now, more than ever, I’m a bigger fan of Blender and Cycles for its ease of use and realistic output. This test very simply goes to show that you don’t need to put in 100s (if not 1000s) of dollars to get a better or more professional result from your 3D software!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Smells Like Team Spirit - I

“More hands make for lighter work.” “Two heads are better than one.” “The more the merrier.” As a kid I always thought these sayings were just that—sayings. Who needed other people when I had Me! I could work faster, better and best of all I didn’t have to worry about anyone slowing me down. After all, like I said, I was second only to The Flash at everything I did.  All this was of course before I graduated and joined a production house. 

Now saying that you can’t go solo at a project is absolutely not true. Of course you can! That is, if you have unlimited time, patience and you have the knowledge to do everything in said project. ‘Cause when you’re ‘on the floor,’ as they say, time is a luxury you don’t have (try having a supervisor breathing down your neck as you’re doling out a masterpiece) and knowledge is more instinct then anything else. 

I learned early on that being a ‘Team-Player’ is almost as important as having a killer skill set. So many supremely talented people I know crashed and burnt because they couldn’t communicate with their colleagues or were too uptight about sharing their knowledge or were just plain old lone players. A good team is any day more productive, creative, and motivated than individuals on their own.

As a student, a group project is the most effective way to build your ability to work and deal with other people early on. I say ‘deal with’ because when have 2 individuals come together and had less then 3 ideas? It’s not a cakewalk and you don’t find like-minded soul-mate type people every time. But you got to work with what you have.

Here's one way to work around this. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate! Cannot not say this enough. That doesn’t mean that you become a problem-sprouting machine. It means that unspoken assumptions and issues are the curse of working in a team. You just have to talk to each other about what works and what doesn’t.  In a production environment, a bunch of people with varying talents and egos are usually thrown together to work on one project. If you sit quiet a 100 times out of 10 (yeah, that’s the ratio) you’ll have people dumping work on you and basically walking all over you. If you are too aggressive people will cringe from wanting to work with you.

So what do you do? Play it cool for one. Don’t be a doormat but don’t shrink from work. I wasn’t born with this insight—I actually lived it. I was part of a project right out of college and it was just 4 of us. We were building a game module and that needed boats of research, tons of creativity and some killer organizational skills. Since we were all relatively new we didn’t assign a clear team lead (we all thought we were too awesome to be reporting to any one person) nor did we lay down too many ground rules on how things should be done. We were too pumped to get the idea running and take it to a potential buyer to worry about ‘trivial’ things like this.  Not too long into the project these so called trivial things started to become major hindrances. I felt too many responsibilities were being dumped on me alone. One felt that his ideas were being steamrolled over by the others. Three of us felt the fourth person in the group had just stopped being productive and was just not interested in being part of the project any more.

If we hadn’t met a mentor who had taught all of us in our college days, we probably would have parted ways and let the project die. Thankfully said mentor knocked some sense into us. He told us that we had to be professional in our outlook and not let personal friendships or new rivalries get in the way of a potentially great idea. The concept of ‘Weeklies’ was introduced to us this way. ‘Weeklies’ are meetings held every week by a team to assess progress made on a project, areas of difficulty, set new targets, do creative brainstorming, talk about any existing problems or ones that could crop up and ways to tackle them. Also, a ‘Weekly’ is the best time to thrash out any issues that group members have with each other—someone stepping on someone else’s toes, someone slacking off and so on.

I can’t even begin to tell you how much this helped us. Our productivity must have gone through the roof in the few weeks that followed. We worked far more cohesively and professionally than even teams in big time production houses do. What happened with our project is a story for another time but I like to think that students at FX School get to learn this even before they hit the market. The group projects that they have to work on in the classroom are a staging ground for them because when they do hit the ground or ‘the floor,’ unlike us, they hit it running.

I could go on and on, but information overload is a buzz kill. So tune in for more such nuggets of wisdom in next week’s blog.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Not Another Brick in the Wall

It’s been 2 and some years that I started my teaching career and I have to say I’m loving it!

As a person who’s worked crazy hours on projects in a bunch of production houses, this career choice was most unlikely. I met a friend recently, who couldn't believe I was teaching. Why?!? Because teachers, to a whole lot of people, are strict old people with spectacles and a stern look in their eye. Some memorable, some not as much, but all by the book. My friend was very curious to know how someone like me ‘teaches.’ “Are you the stern type? Do you make them stand outside class if they don’t do their homework? It’s so much power right?!?”

It is a lot of power. Power because a ton of young people look up to you for not just getting knowledge and helping them fine tune their creativity (we are a ‘Creative Field’ institute after all), but also to help them believe in themselves. My ‘job’ is not to just impart knowledge and then walk out of the room. I need to be sure that every kid in the class stays on track and also stays engaged. My challenge is not just knowing the topic that has to be taught, but also how to make it so interesting that no kid ‘phases out.’ The days of talking down to the student are long gone. Interaction is the key word now.

And then there is the other role. The one of mentor, friend, confidant. To not just be a facilitator of knowledge but also someone who can be counted on. A shoulder to cry on. Someone who can help their parents understand that what they are doing is actually a valid career choice. Someone who can talk them ‘off the ledge’ when they feel disappointed about their work. Someone to be trusted.
It’s been quite a joy ride so far, challenging and exhilarating at the same time and I can’t wait to see how the story unfolds further.

[Ruth Mapgaonkar is a full time CG Animation faculty at FX School.  When she’s not teaching kids in classrooms, you can find her in the institute’s café competing on the latest Sony Playstation video games with the kids she teaches.]