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A guide to creating virtual urban environments

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Following on from Tuesdays’s discussion of the direction of student animation, BAF continued its series of informative lectures with a talk on computer generated cityscapes for use in games, film and architecture.

While the festival has, for now, kept its video game and film and video content separate, here the purpose is to bridge the gap between these diverse mediums and to give budding animators a taste of the diverse range of options they have to choose from when they enter the industry.

(l-r) Martin Walker, Complete Vision; Ben Hall, Criterion Games; Jonathan Gales, Factory Fifteen; Vanessa Boyce, Double Negative

The speakers on hand to offer their experience and expert experience come from a wide range of backgrounds and specialities. Beginning the session is Vanessa Boyce, CG Supervisor for VFX Company Double Negative whose impressive portfolio includes work for Cloverfield, Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy and Inception and the recent remake of Total Recall.

Software tips from Double Negative

Invisibility, for Boyce, is the key to a successful CG environment:

If you notice that it is a CG city, then it doesn’t work.

Their goal is to create urban environments that fit a photo-realistic model (which involves the use of extensive referencing to and geographical surveys of real city environments), extensive detail (with entire teams dedicated to the creation of road signs, lamp posts and building interiors) and a few subtle tricks to counter the clinical perfection which is all too visible in CGI, but missing from the real world (in particular, straight building edges are something of a problem in this regard).

She mentions Maya, CityEngine and their own software Stig and Windowbox as vital in the creation of their environments.

The benefits of real-time and procedural modelling

Martin Walker agrees with Boyce’s argument in that CG modellers have to think like photographers and call such concerns as composition and lighting in to consideration when constructing their environments.

With experience in video games and architecture as well as a current role as a lecturer at the IGAD in the Netherlands, Walker has extensive experience in many corners of the animation world. He is here to primarily talk about his work as a visualiser in which his knowledge of computer animation is put to use creating conceptual artwork for architects and merchandisers and the ways in which students can learn to improve and expand upon their work.

Drawing from his own experience, Walker argues that a background in real-time is an excellent way for budding animators to develop the technical skill and problem solving techniques necessary for working in all aspects of computer modelling while scripting skills are also of benefit.

He also asks the audience to consider the benefits of procedural modelling especially for those wishing to create environments for video games: a lucrative talent, it was a technique responsible for gaining a former student fourteen job offers.

A graduate of Bradford University, Ben Hall talks about his move from vehicle modelling for the Burnout series towards environment work for Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit.

Pay attention to detail—do your research

Mentioning the difficulties faced in creating realistic environments in a game that craves a less-than-real approach to racing, Hall discusses working with physics teams to create courses that are suited to the movement of the vehicles the player controls as well as studying factory surroundings in depth (which includes the knowledge of how a fully functioning power plant works) in order to create an accurate version of the game’s industrial setting.

Last to speak is Jonathan Gales of Factory Fifteen whose lack of experience in traditional animation was no bar in gaining the skills needed to pursue a career in film and computer modelling.

Find fonts of creativity on your doorstep

While living in London, Jonathan was drawn to the presence of construction sites near his home and became interested in the repressive and controlling qualities these places hold channelling this creativity into his final year Masters project, a short film called Megalomania.

Jonathan’s piece is a beautiful ode to incomplete cities, modelling dystopian images of skyscrapers under construction over existing photos of London, which attests to the artistic capabilities of CG software.

The overall impression of the lecture is of pluralities and endless possibilities for those wishing to break into the computer animation industry and of the ways in which CG is coming to shape the world we are living in.

This post was written by Chris Shackleton, who writes about film over at filmcraicwithchrisshack.

Written by Chris Shackleton

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