Thursday, May 5, 2011

I Guess I've Got A Thing For Tentacles

I mentioned yesterday that I was out taking pictures for a Cinema 4D project. C4D is a staple 3-D program in various parts of my field and I'm trying to learn it at a Fool's Pace (so fast that one stumbles over one's feet and crashes through objects with no regard for one's personal well being). I've learned over the years that the best way to learn a program by far is to dream up semi-difficult projects with a start, middle, and finish and then do the projects, figuring out the technical side along the way.

Let me back up a minute and explain the situation I'm in with C4D. Normally, Maxon Cinema 4D runs the purchaser between $1,000 and $3,700, depending on the package, with the former being the stripped-down base 3-D program and the latter being a combination of all of the in-between upgrades in one Giant Package (heh). The trial version, for people considering purchasing the software, is available as a free download on the Maxon website, in any form that's available for purchase. The trial period is unlimited, but the catch is that the user can't render anything bigger than 640x400 pixels and isn't able to save the 3-D file or any renders. A 42-day Saving Period can be activated so the user can save files, but once this ends the software reverts back to its non-save state until a full user license is purchased. I figured the best move was to download the full bells-and-whistles C4D Studio version, learn the hell out of its tools and interface, and then try the save thing if I start making anything really epic.

I used the software for a few days to start to get a feel for it and realized pretty quickly that what I had suspected all along was true: using 3D software is like driving a car. Once you've driven one car for a while, you can really get into anything else that's close to a car in function and pick it up pretty quickly because all of the basic functions are the same. The buttons are just in new places and the handling's a little different. I've had half a decade of experience with Blender (, the Open Source alternative to commercial 3-D software. It's free as in speech, not free as in beer, so it's awesome for the sake of being awesome and has a pretty badass development community. The base functions of Cinema 4D are all almost exactly the same as Blender's, which only a few slight differences; each has a few weaknesses and a few strong points when compared against one another. So if you're thinking of throwing down some Third-Dimension Nonsense, go with Blender and you're effectively getting a $1,000 piece of software for free.

The differences between Blender and C4D, at least from what I can tell at this early stage, really lie in the extensions. The fancy bit of C4D that I've messed around with the most is the MoGraph toolset, which is included in the Broadcast version of the software (and, of course, the Studio version, which has everything). These tools assist the user with motion graphics projects, offering fun, visually-appealing ways to array, duplicate, move, and smash objects. The user can input formulas to control the movement, shape, etc of objects and easily implement randomization into scenes that give them a really healthy does of Kick Assedness. MoGraph even makes use of the Bullet physics library for physical simulations, both rigid body and softbody. Blender can do a basic version of a lot of these functions, and even has the Bullet engine built into it, but mainly relies on the user to extend the tools with drivers and Python scripts to get anything really complicated and gorgeous. If you don't know Python, you're stuck with the basics in Blender (but hey, you're saving THIRTY-SEVEN HUNDRED DOLLARS - maybe it's worth using a tiny fraction of that to buy a book on Python). C4D makes it really easy for the user to pump up some insanely badass shit. A lot of the awesome stuff you see in commercials these days is likely just the result of some asshole clicking a few default settings in C4D and pressing the go button.

So Cinema 4D has been a ton of fun to fux around with and I'd love to use it at whatever place I end up working. I'm not going to abandon Blender anytime soon, but C4D is another great tool for the toolbox. With all of that being said, let's get back to the current art project.

The main idea behind the Cinema 4D project 'pon which I'm embarking is using photos as a bottom layer and then putting fun/awesome 3-D digital stuff on top, resulting in a still image with some cool-assed design stuff worked in, looking photorealistic or stylized in some rad way. I'd love to do it all as animation on top of shot video, but I simply don't have time for that. I need to be spending a day or two on each design piece at most if I want to finish all of the thousand things I need to do before I split next month. Motion can come in the future, where there will somehow be a great surplus of free time. Other alternatives for this project were things like creating a fancy scene entirely in 3-D and rendering it all out, but the inability to save or export images above 640x400 pixels is a major impediment (like a champion skier getting her legs and arms blown off).

The real root behind this project lies in the "analog hole" that's present in C4D. The exportable renders may be limited to 640x400, but there exists in the software a "render viewport" function that renders the currently active viewport in all its final render glory, with ambient occlusion and raytracing and global illumination and everything else a body can dream up. If one full-screens the active Perspective viewport, perhaps after setting the view to a sexy angle or setting up a camera in the scene, the resulting render is whatever the resolution of the monitor happens to be. So a 1920x1200 monitor (my laptop screen), minus the program's menus and frame, yields something close to an HD image. The real magic of this "analog hole" (The Analog Hole: sexy 70s music-themed porno idea?) is the PrintScreen button on the keyboard, which as many of you may know dumps your screen's forward image buffer directly to the clipboard, ready to paste into Photoshop. There's no easy way to get any transparency or alpha channels from this method, so most 3-D items need to be cut out by hand in Photoshop, but it's a small price to pay for a potential Awesome Result and proof that I can use the software. It also yields a very fun collage nature to the project, letting me render out each component and scoot, stretch, and recolor it until it fits nicely into the photograph. The extremely temporal nature of the 3-D files is also thrilling in its own way, kind of like graffiti or something, all knowing that it will go away soon and you'll be left with only the things you initially rendered out.

So i started working on an image tonight, rendering the 3-D parts in C4D and working them up in Photoshop.
Here's the original photograph, extended and balanced a little bit in Photoshop:
The Cinema 4D additions I made are next. A lot of the time was spent learning the sweep NURBS tools to make the tentacles.
The tentacles were each rendered in C4D (in a file which has now been lost to the sands of time) and all of the shadows and a few of the highlights were either painted by hand in Photoshop or created with some clever (if I do say so myself (which I do)) blurring and stretching of the original tentacle layers.

 And here's the Photoshop mock-up of what's to come.

Tomorrow's work is mainly going to be about using sweep NURBS some more, getting the flow of HDRI reflections, and creating some nice gross materials for the eyeball stalks. I'd like to end up lining the eyes and stalks up like some kind of horrific all-seeing flower blossom. I may even have some cruddy pollen-like shit flying/floating out to go with the Terrible Flower theme and add to the overall horrificness of the piece (which is becoming a well-set theme in my life). It should be fun to see how this piece evolves.

"There will never be a dearth of places for skilled people, but we have to recognize that the will to be skilled is not general. And even if the will be present, then the courage to go through with the training is absent. One cannot become skilled by mere wishing." -Henry Ford, My Life and Work

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