One of the things that I'm really looking forward to doing when I make the Iapetus movie, is doing practical miniature effects for the exterior spaceship shots. One of the earliest things I designed (back when this was an animated film) was the ship..
It's intended to be a colony ship, holding about three thousand people in the five cylindrical habitats, and the engine is a long linear array of accelerators. In real life, its about 3km long.
When creating convincing miniature effects, the real trick - apart from creating a highly detailed model - is miniature photography. The key to the effect is focus. In order to make a small object seem large, all of it must be in focus at the same time. You can see this very clearly when you look at the reverse of this principle. To make a large object seem very small, you blur the foreground and background, an effect known as tilt-shifting or miniature faking. This is the look you want to avoid at all costs.
The solution is to make the aperture on the camera as small as it will go. This reduces the light that reaches the sensor, so you need long exposures. But, long exposures mean lighting effects (like windows, engines) get over exposed, so you have to do those in separate passes. That's where motion control cameras come in. They can perform the same movement as many times as needed to capture all the elements.
For the shots I wanted though, all I need is a simple pan. As it happens, there are motorized sliders out there which will do the job. They are usually used for time-lapse photography, but the principle is the same – capturing multiple long exposure images over time. It turns out the guys who made C had the same idea, so we now know it works.
Ok so miniature photography is important, but you still need a miniature to photograph. Because the design of the ship contains a few structures duplicated many times, I can take advantage of that and only build one of each. These objects can be physically repositioned, and a pass can be photographed on the motion control slider. When you composite them all together in the correct Z order, they appear to all exist at the same time.
To see if this effect would work, I decided to build a mock-up of one of the engine modules out of paper. I also put some lights in there to test how the engines would appear on screen. After photographing each element separately, I composited them together against a background. The result proved that the effect was convincing, the objects all appear to be part of a larger whole.
So I have a way to do the large scale close up miniature shots, but for distant establishing shots of the ship, a smaller model will be needed, large miniatures don't look 'small' enough when shot from a distance. I was originally planning on just constructing this from scratch using bits and pieces, but then I discovered 3D printing over at Shapeways. I created a quick mock-up of an engine pod in Blender and printed it out.
This is printed using the coarse grained 'strong and flexible' material, a kind of nylon. Because there is no edge smoothing, and the mesh doesn't have enough faces, the curved surfaces are stepped. The Ultra Fine material with a high resolution mesh and a good paint job would be more than adequate for a long distance shot.
And that takes us up to today. I'm continuing to build out the small scale model myself, but I'm going to get a professional model maker to work on the larger scale piece over the next year or two.
The 21st century brought about a kind of an artistic wilderness for me. For most of my life up until that point, drawing was so habitual I didn't think much of it, but as I got more involved in software development, I moved further away from pen and paper. If you don't have the opportunity to maintain a habit, then it eventually withers.
But old habits are also hard to break, and whenever I did have a pen and paper, a doodling distraction was never far away.
One evening while working on a web site project I randomly sketched out a figure that fired my imagination. This was going to be the template for a Kapitar, a mercenary assassin in the world of Iapetus. I'd doodled bits and pieces around this idea before, but this was the first time I had a complete picture.
It slipped back under the surface though, and not much happened for years after that. Until, some time around 2007, I got my hands on a Cintiq tablet, and started wondering what it would take to produce a comic entirely digitally. I started sketching out some ideas, but I was so out of practice, it took hours and hours to produce them, and I figured it would take a lifetime to produce a comic book this way.
Once again, things subsided.
Years later, the advent of cinema quality digital cameras - within the reach of everyday folk - and some inspirational short films, made me wonder about trying to come up with a small film around Iapetus. A few summers ago, on holiday in Bulgaria, I got about writing a short script. But my thoughts were dominated by how I was planning to do the miniature special effects..
I think the first encounter I had with 3d graphics was on my trusty old Amiga 1200, a cover disk program called Real3D. I made a model of the Dropship from Aliens and animated it flying about. I remember it taking a long time to render out that animation, but still pretty exciting to see the end results. Years later I managed to lay hands on 3D Studio MAX and became, obsessed. A huge part of my waking life back then was associated with that program, even now when I see the interface I get a whack of nostalgia.
It was around this time that I decided I was going to make an animated film from Iapetus, instead of a comic. Instead of doing sensible stuff like coming up with a concept, script or even a story, I just got straight to work, scribbling out plans and ideas, and building them as I went.
The opening scene was going to be a guerrilla raid on an urban building during a Dark and Stormy Night. The one thing that I really wanted to see was a building which had a real interior, with complex internal lights, and a sort of industrial gothic feel [this is just a guess, looking back on it now :)]. I must have been fairly influenced by Blade Runner as well.. look at the design of the base! I actually quite like that I used all sorts of campy lighting effects - for the exact same reason you would in a low budget movie - as a cheap way to add detail and mood.
Because I was working on a P90 with a 14" fishbowl CRT monitor, I had to build things one part at a time (one file contained a single floor, another the base, and so on). It took a long time to render an assembly of the entire building, and consumed enormous amounts of memory (even though my machine had a whopping 48mb of ram). It became a special occasion, something to look forward to, which was good, but it resulted in very few actual images. Any time I got a hardware upgrade, the first thing I'd do is fire off a render to see how much faster it was.
I'm not sure why, but I gradually spent less and less time on it. Probably the enormity of the task, the lack of actual goals - but by '99 it was .. done. Not finished, just done.
It was around this time that my career in software development began to take the place of experiments like this. Instead of creating 3D artwork, I was teaching myself to create 3D engines. It was fascinating to understand how it all works, and programming is a highly rewarding and satisfying hobby, but looking back, it seems a shame to have just abandoned that kind of pure no-forethought creativity.
One thing is for sure, it was the start of a long drought in artistic expression, that would stretch on for a few years.
Until one night, working on a programming challenge, I drew a rough sketch on some copy paper, and got a glimpse of the character that would set my imagination off once more...
It's 1996, and I'm 15 years old. Back then, I spent all of my time dreaming up stories, and drawing, constantly drawing. I drew on envelopes, newspapers, schoolbooks, even exam papers. Iapetus arose on one of those exam afternoons.
It was an English exam, on a really nice sunny afternoon. The exam hall, imaginatively called The Green Carpet Room - even though the carpet was now blue - was huge and fairly empty. This day it was rather peaceful, with the sunlight streaming in through the oppressively high windows. I finished the exam early, and instead of leaving the exam hall, I stuck around and started writing out a story. By the time I was ushered out with the rest of the students, I had furiously scribbled out 3 foolscap pages, the examiner was confused when I left without submitting them with the exam.
When I got home, I typed up the pages and started expanding upon them. This was going to be a science fiction story, and the one thing that fascinated me was that it would be set in the distant future, thousands of years into the future. In this time, the Sun has started to 'break down'. Now, this was about 5 billion years too soon, but like Sunshine I didn't bother coming up with a good reason - the Sun just stopped working right. This was going to have all kinds of bad effects on the Earth and the inner planets, and the idea was to escape the dying solar system in some kind of ship. It's all very clichéd, but then, as now, I was more interested in the characters and the action.
I didn't have a title yet, so I dug out a battered old book on the Solar System, and started pouring through the index looking for interesting words. Iapetus was the only one I felt was pronounceable-ish, but obscure enough to not be basically just the name of a planet.
Even though I was intending to do a comic, I started writing out the story in a little notebook, the kind policemen use. I took it everywhere, and any chance I got, took it out and just kept writing where I'd left off. I typed it all up, all 20,000 words, and printed it out. Now it didn't make a lot of sense because I just made it up, in tiny 5 minute chunks in between class. In fact, it made no sense at all, but it did have some over-the-top violence that amused my classmates, so I had a small audience waiting for the continuing instalments.
I didn't think much about how to structure a comic, I just figured I'd draw the pages as I went along, one at a time, like this one:
I only managed to get a single page drawn though, because I had discovered 3D graphics, and I was already wondering how Iapetus would work as an animated film. It would open with a night-time attack in a vast cityscape. I began to design the centrepiece, a glass and steel skyscraper in the heart of futuristic Europe...
…I saw the trailer for C and I found it inspirational to say the least. Not only because it was an independent film, but because it had integrity and vision, and because its being made right now. I admire this.
Soon after seeing it, I wondered why I couldn’t do something similar for Iapetus, my own science fiction film concept. I set about writing a short screenplay and thinking about ship designs. I also decided to use miniature photography instead of CGI.
Some of the (film related) things that I remember most about my childhood were space sequences in science fiction. Sure I loved the whizzing adrenalin of a Star Wars dogfight, what kid wouldn’t? – but what I remember most was the Enterprise leaving dry-dock in Star Trek II, or similar sequences in Star Trek III. The scale and volume of the ship as the camera very slowly moved past it were awe inspiring, it’s reality seemed beyond question.
This has been lost in recent years with the proliferation of CGI. The hard limitations of physical miniature photography: physics, time, optics and budget, made sure that every shot was extremely well planned and executed. Here, the story was king. If a shot wasn’t helping, it was dropped because it was so expensive, and because it was relatively inflexible all the thinking went in at the start.
With CGI the focus seems to have shifted from story telling to shiny effects reels, perhaps because of the enormous flexibility. I still think Jurassic Park is the finest execution of cinematic CGI to date. It’s no surprise that they spent a long time studying animal movements. Walt Disney did the same thing for Bambi, bringing in all kinds of artists and experts to try to capture the natural movement of wild deer. What strikes me in both films, is that the medium was exactly that, a vehicle for the story, not the other way round.
Unlike the creators of C, I’m not adverse to using green screen or digital compositing for these effects, and in fact the approach I’m using demands it (more on this later). Next time I want to post some more detail about the film in it’s current format, as well as some test shots for the space sequences.
Apologies to readers for the lack of a favourite scene post last Sunday, I was in Vancouver on a business trip last week, and I've finally recovered from the 8 hour jet lag. In case anyone is wondering jet lag feels exactly like staying awake all night, perhaps a bit worse if you haven't been getting much sleep while you were away.
It just occurred to me that the one thing I haven't posted about yet is any kind of practical plan on how I plan to achieve my rather lofty goal. I have a few ideas that I've been playing around with over the years, but the flagship is a feature animation film, currently titled 'Iapetus'.
The film I plan to see on the big screens will be based around the following points:
- Visually inspirational, but not distractingly so
- Solid intelligent storyline, but not too clever
- Realistic human depiction, but not photographic
- Satisfying conclusion
- Several movements, a solid arc, over about 2 hours running time
- Lots of satisfying action
- Laugh out loud comic violence and black humour
- A solid main character with a human reason to drive the story forward
You'll note that none of this describes a specific storyline or theme, instead they outline the experience I want the audience to share when they see it. I'm describing the film I want to see, and the reasons I want to see it.
Next up is to create a short clip of one of the more frenetic scenes, currently titled "Bullet Wind". I'll post some storyboards on that fairly soon, followed by some concept artwork.
Feels good to be finally starting on this.