samedi 7 février 2015

Some personal thoughts about 3D, VFX and video editing.

Unlike usually, I will today separate this article in two different versions (English and French), for an easier reading.

These are just personal conclusions that I reached after recent evolutions in the way I was considering my main hobby, which I would call "CG" in short. 

Over the last years, I have mainly specialized myself in 3D content creation (basically textured 3D models), but the reasons I started to play with 3D were completely different at first, for I started 3D only to give birth to my animation projects.
Because I started first with a passion for video editing. Though, despite the time I spent over the last years only in 3D modeling, I recently noticed I was growing more and more eager to go back to video editing and use only 3D as a tool for story telling. 
It is very important to me, because this is changing my orientations for the future, from a technical and material point of view, or, ore important, in the goals I will devin when shifting from my current job to visual graphics freelancer (e.g. I will try to sell myself as a "one man studio"). 

At the beginning was video editing.
I started with video editing about 22 years ago. I was studying in an academy, and we had to create a movie for the year's end ceremony. The promotion president asked me to create the movie, despite I had never held a camera before. And I did it...
I had to learn a lot of things, especially as we were at the old age of analogic editing, and VHS tapes. But I got the virus back then, so I rapidly bought some stuff to create some videos, very simple at first and more and more elaborate. At some point, I bought my first Macs, and one turning point was the apparition of the G3 iMacs with firewire ports and iMovie.
Once again, I rapidly evolved towards more elaborate products. I was editing at the time a lot of short films for my work, especially for my fellows when we were back from a mission abroad. Back then, I bought into Final Cut Express and Soundtrack, and a bit later, I added Motion to the toolbox.

Making a one-man short movie...
But what I was really thriving for, was to shoot my own short-movie, an epic one, but when you're moving to a new town every two years with a full-time job, it was a bit out of reach, even to find some actors among my friends...
As you can't get the geek out of the man, I was buying or testing a lot of softwares at that time. And the day I bought a bundle with Poser 4 and Bryce 4, I also got the 3D virus. I quickly dumped Bryce for Vue d'esprit 4, and Vue 5 Infinite when it was released. I also upgraded to poser 5 then 6. I thought I could that way animate my characters and import them in beautiful landscapes. But I needed props and layouts, and since they were quite pricey on 3D models sites, I decided to model what I needed by myself. For this I bought Hexagon 2 and started to learn to model.
I issued two years later my short movie, about the battle of Tannenberg (1412). It was an horrible piece of crap, with catastrophic "VFX" (made with the first version of Motion), and a bad cut. Maybe the soundtrack was not too bad, but I'm not even sure...

A still form my Dannenberg short movie

This said, I learned quite a lot of useful things with this experience, understanding much better animation and rendering tricks and optimization. Also by learning a lot modeling and texturing. 

Learning new techniques...
Anyway, the main lesson from this first try was that, without proper tools, you won't go far. The "cheap" look of my short, despite the editing flaws and my lack of technical skills, was also a consequence of limitations of my tools, mainly Poser and the very slow Vue 5 renderer.
I then took a long time to improve my skills and learn new tricks. I dumped Poser, Vue 5 and Hexagon, and I replaced everything with what is still my main all-in-one 3D tool today, Lightwave3D.
I also understood the that I had a huge technical gap to fill, so I went through the reading of several books about modeling, texturing, lighting, animating, some specifically designed for Lightwave, some more general. I worked a lot to approach photorealism, sometimes re-taking from scratch my first models to evaluate my progress.
Besides, I also went to the conclusion that 3D was a very expensive hobby, so I started to sell my best models to sustain my hobby and pay for the licences and upgrades without this passion being a financial burden for my wife and children. But I eventually forgot about video editing and specialized heavily in 3D modeling, mainly historical architecture, my other great hobby.

From Hexagon 2 (2006)...

To Lightwave (2013) : two variants of the castle of Dourdan.
At that time also, Apple was not assuring retrocompatibility of older apps in the newest versions of Mac OS X. So there went out Motion 1 and Final Cut Express, which were no longer working on my newest iMac. I didn't even bother searching replacement solutions, because I was only creating very short sequences for testing purposes or tutorials and iMovie was good enough for that.
It went even worse when I added 3D-Coat to my toolbox, reaching a new level in 3D modeling and texturing, and thus drifting even more away from video editing. I also started to switch from purely historical stuff to science-fiction, mainly because I wanted to illustrate the sci-fi novel I was writing.

Back to the origins...
At that time, I wanted to shoot a short to promote the first volume of the Chroniques de Solaris, with the objects I had created. But then again, I was constrained another time. Since I had to dump Final Cut Express, I had used iMovie, but it was clearly too limited for my needs.
As a pure geek, I had tested a lot of alternative solutions in-between, but with no real luck. Though, for this short, I bought Motion 5 which was available on the app store for a very affordable price, and I used it for my VFX with much better results than the ones I had when making Tannenberg, 8 years earlier.

The movie can be seen on the page dedicated to this novel on my blog.

As I was making this short, I reach a new level in 3D animation, thanks to the release of Lightwave 11.5 and its Genoma rigging module, and later with Nevron Motion, which allowed easy and straightforward mocap retargeting in Lightwave.
In parallel, I started to use Allegorithmic's substance suite, thus taking a new step in texturing.
With all that, 3D was less entertaining for pure 3D modeling, but started to be more and more appealing for making live my animated dreams.

The last factor that changed my frame of mind was the buying of Final Cut Pro X. I've read and heard a lot of bad things about FCP X (such as it would be an "iMovie Pro"). I guess that some of its enemies were disappointed to find a different workflow with this version than with the previous ones. I know that the very first versions of FCP X were a bit incomplete (no XML...) but I consider that Apple was inspired to dump FCP 7 and replace it with a brand new version developed from scratch with a modern architecture. They lost customers in the short term, but should gain them back, now.
Because today, not only is FCP X very fast and efficient, but it also has a great room for enhancement thinks to its numerous and affordable plug-ins. Among FCP X developers, I especially like  MotionVFX and Pixel Film Studio, who develop very interesting products, adding a great enhancement in FCP X and Motion 5 workflow.
For instance, in 3D, volumetric renders take forever and have to be avoided in animation unless you have access to a render farm. So why bother with volumetric renders when you can fake them in comp in a quite convincing way ?
To sum up, since I can now consider removing from my 3D renders a lot of time-consumming elements (particles, volumetric lights...) and add them later in FCP X or Motion, animation becomes appealing again, relegating 3D as a simple tool for film making.
A very inspiring perspective !

My current toolbox
It is very difficult to define an ideal toolbox, as there is a dense jungle of available apps, for all tastes. The one I have is the result of my own experience, and mainly the one I need or am comfortable with, which is the only important thing at the end of the day.
Ma selection is very "mac-centric". In 3D, one might consider that you would benefit much more from using a windows-based PC. But for me, Final Cut Pro and Motion justify to stick on Mac (once again, for me).

Main 3D apps :
Lightwave 11.6 :
3D Coat 4.1:
Substance Painter 1.2 :
Substance Designer 4.6 :

Video editing apps :
Apple Motion 5 :
Final Cut Pro :

Useful apps in addition :
MakeHuman :
Terragen 3 :
Pixelmator :
CeltX :
Garage Band :

And now...
In the coming months/years, I will continue producing and selling 3D models, because I need to continue keep some cash coming for paying licences and upgrades (among which Lightwave 2015). But once again, it won't be my primary focus, as I really want to go back to animation with a lot of projects :
The trailer for the second volume of the Solaris Chronicles
A trailer for a steampunk novella I am currently writing,
A spoof of a z-movie trailer, just for fun...
A more serious, longer, short movie based on a short story I wrote some time ago : The New Dawn Project.

Well, it was a very long (and dull) article. Thanks for reading, and don't hesitate to share your thoughts.

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