Extraterrestrial Visions: Creating a Cinematic Project in Just One Week
Student at PIXL VISN media arts academy, Ilias Morscher, shows us how he tackled a VFX Cinematic for an end of term project in one week.
Student at PIXL VISN media arts academy, Ilias Morscher, shows us how he tackled a VFX Cinematic for an end of term project in one week.
Ilias Morscher is a current VFX student at PIXL VISN | media arts academy and in this article, he shares details of how we prepares and executes his ambitious end of term projects. If you want to learn how to accomplish a polished project for your student at Rookies portfolio, this article is for you!
I'm a 27-year-old VFX student at PIXL VISN Media Arts School in Cologne, Germany, and I've got something cool to share with you. You know those dark and mysterious aliens from the movie "Prometheus"? Well, they've been on my mind a lot lately.
I'm currently in the second term of a six-term journey during my 18-month VFX education. Every 1.5 months, I find myself immersed in creativity and learning during my project week. These compact periods are both exhilarating and challenging as I strive to showcase the culmination of my learning from the term. Within just 6 days, I navigate the complexities of crafting a project that reflects my progress and newfound skills.
The time constraint adds a sense of urgency that can feel stressful, but it's within these pressure-cooker environments that I've discovered immense growth.
Each project week is pushing me to adapt, problem-solve, and innovate under tight schedules.
As a student navigating the world of VFX, I stumbled upon the scene mentioned above, and was captivated by the mysterious aura of the 'Engineer'. The way it blended the boundaries of the known and the unknown resonated with me on a profound level. And so, armed with my passion and a desire to explore, I embarked on a project inspired by that very essence.
The initial shot I tackled was a relatively straightforward one. The scene involved a camera panning from the top to the bottom of a dimly lit room. Due to the time constraints I've mentioned earlier, I had to manage my time efficiently. As a result, I couldn't dedicate as much time as I wished to this shot.
In just about 1.5 hours, I managed to finish the entire head sculpture with textures. To start, I quickly sketched out the head in ZBrush. To streamline the retopology process, I utilized zRemesher along with some reference guidelines. With this approach, I aimed to maintain a balance between speed and quality.
In this phase, I added some basic damage details to the sculpt, which gave it a sense of authenticity and character. The final touch was the displacement baking process, which helped me achieve the desired depth and texture in the sculpture.
It's worth acknowledging that the time constraint led to certain compromises, particularly in terms of the level of detail I could achieve.
While I wished for more time to refine and finesse the shot, I'm proud of what I accomplished within the limitations. This project illuminated the importance of efficient planning and execution, and provided valuable insights into how to manage time while maintaining a satisfactory level of quality.
In Substance 3D Painter, I used smart masks for a subtle texture breakup. When properly lit, it appears rough, as intended. I aimed to replicate the movie's lighting, and in the end, it worked well.
The second shot turned out to be more challenging than I initially anticipated. It was puzzling because I intentionally excluded a floor from all the shots. I wanted to create a hazy and mysterious atmosphere.
When I first scattered the breeding cases, it was clear that the absence of the floor was noticeable. The brightness of the cases drew attention to the fact that there was no base to support them. This disrupted the visual coherence of the scene. Additionally, there was an issue of depth; the proximity of the head to the breeding cases, combined with their similar color, caused them to visually blend together.
Initially, I attempted to address this by introducing a dark ground fog. While effective, rendering times skyrocketed due to the resource-intensive nature of volumetric effects. To streamline the process, I abandoned this approach and opted for a different solution.
I started by inserting planes with a gradual dark gradient from the bottom to the top, strategically placed between the rows of breeding cases. Additionally, I placed a larger plane in front of the head to accentuate the contrast between the eggs and the head.
This alternative method proved to be more efficient, eliminating the rendering issues while achieving the desired visual separation. It reminded me that adaptability is key in VFX – sometimes the most effective solutions are the simplest.
Through this experimentation, I learned the value of flexibility and finding practical solutions to technical challenges.
Alien breeding case
Similar to the head sculpture, this particular asset was a swift creation. I devoted approximately an hour to its development. I fashioned a cylinder in Maya, played around with scaling, and then fine-tuned it with a touch of work in Substance 3D Painter. While it might seem simple, it proved to be sufficient for the shots I had envisioned. Sometimes, speed and simplicity align perfectly with the project's needs.
The third and fourth shot closely resembles the second one. However, this is the point where I decided to introduce a robe for my character. You might notice that I only modeled a bust of the alien. This decision stemmed from the constraints of time. My goal was to create the illusion of a complete character standing amidst the breeding cases.
To achieve this, I recalled the Engineer from "Prometheus" who wears a robe. This seemed like the perfect solution to give the impression of a full character presence. I embarked on crafting and simulating the robe using Marvelous Designer. While I had limited experience with the software and had never delved into its animation capabilities, I saw this as a challenge worth embracing.
This phase turned out to be quite tricky, especially considering I groomed the robe. My grooming experience was minimal, and I had no prior knowledge of making it work on an animated mesh. Frustration set in, and there were times I almost gave up. However, my determination led me to invest 4 to 5 hours scouring the internet and experimenting with various approaches. Just as I was on the brink of abandoning the effort, I managed to crack the puzzle and make the groom work seamlessly.
In the end, all that effort paid off. The groomed robe not only added an extra layer of realism but also provided character depth. This experience reinforced the value of persistence, problem-solving, and embracing challenges – elements that contribute to growth and innovation.
The fourth shot holds a special place in my heart as my personal favourite. However, it was also one of the most intricate shots to orchestrate. The sculptural piece I included wouldn't have been visible from the character's vantage point. I had to significantly scale up the sculpture beyond its actual size and then experiment with its placement, rotation, and orientation until I found the desired look.
Even the fall of the cloth from the character posed a challenge. I had to manually pull the cloth in Marvelous Designer at the right moment. While I'm uncertain if there might have been an alternative method, I invested numerous attempts to ensure the cloth didn't pass through the body or glitch in any way. It was uncharted territory for me, but I'm happy to say it worked out.
Trying these new things pushed me to experiment and stretch my boundaries. This shot taught me that challenges can be turned into opportunities to learn and excel, ultimately resulting in a memorable and impactful visual.
Following my favourite shot, there's one that I must admit is my least favourite. This shot led me into uncharted territory – fluid simulations. A world I had never ventured into before, and let's just say, the experience was far from smooth sailing. It left me with a sense of trauma that I'll need some time to recover from.
The process was riddled with frustration. Adjusting viscosity by tiny increments, then waiting 15 minutes for a cache, only to realise it was completely broken. Rinse and repeat – I must have done this about 50 times with various settings. Time dwindled, and I found myself attempting this shot just a day before submission.
Blender offers the option to press "bake simulation" (cache) and move on to batch rendering. So, I made one final adjustment, hit "bake and then render," and left for school. I had my fingers crossed, hoping that whatever rendered on my PC that evening would be usable in the final video. When I returned home later that day, relief washed over me as I saw that it had indeed rendered something, albeit not perfect.
I'm candid about my dissatisfaction with the liquid simulation. However, considering the numerous challenges and my limited experience, I'm grateful it turned out as well as it did. Given the complex nature of fluid simulations, I took a calculated risk on this shot and managed to escape with a close call.
The camera shake and black screens in the shot were intended to mask the shortcomings of the liquid simulation. Many didn't warm up to these elements, but it was a strategic attempt on my part to camouflage the less-than-ideal fluid simulation.
This experience served as a crash course in both the potential and the perils of working with fluid simulations. Liquid on a stationary object can be finicky, but liquid on a skinned, animated object is a whole different ball game – one I wasn't prepared for. This shot taught me that diving into the unknown can yield mixed results, and that learning from the experience is just as valuable as a perfect outcome.
For the sculpting process, I turned to the reliable tool that is ZBrush. There isn't much to elaborate on here – it simply is the best program for the job. Its capabilities and features make it an indispensable asset for sculpting work.
I opted to use Blender for the rendering phase. The decision stemmed from the 6-day time constraint I was working under. Although I'm learning Arnold at school and find it appealing, its lack of support for GPU rendering led me to explore Blender's Cycles renderer.
Fortunately, many of the skills I had acquired while working with Arnold proved transferrable to Cycles. This transition allowed me to utilize my existing knowledge effectively while ensuring that I could make the most of the limited time available.
For texturing the character, I turned to Mari, a software I'm relatively new to. With only a few classes under my belt, I initially found it a bit daunting. Transitioning from Substance 3D Painter, it took time to adjust to Mari's workflow. At first, I wasn't too keen on it, but with persistence, I started to see its strengths and why it's an industry standard in filmmaking.
Interestingly, as I delved deeper into my end-term project, I began to develop a newfound appreciation for Mari. It grew on me, and I discovered that it's an ideal choice for character texturing. I found its capabilities aligning seamlessly with my needs, particularly for characters. This experience reiterated the power of adaptation and perseverance, showcasing how an initially unfamiliar tool can become a preferred go-to resource with time and practice.
For the retopology phase, I turned to Autodesk Maya. This tool proved to be the ideal choice for refining the topology of my models. Its capabilities enabled me to create clean and efficient meshes, laying the foundation for a seamless and polished final result.
For creating background assets like the breeding case and the sculpture, I relied on Substance. This software remains my preferred choice for crafting assets that require less complexity and high fidelity. Its efficiency and user-friendly interface make it my go-to tool for quickly generating assets that blend seamlessly into the scene.
I turned to Marvelous Designer to create the robe, and the choice was quite obvious. Just as ZBrush excels in sculpting, Marvelous Designer is the go-to tool for creating clothing. Its specialized features and capabilities make it the ideal solution for crafting realistic and dynamic cloth simulations, ensuring that the robe drapes and behaves realistically within the scene.
In wrapping up my VFX project, I'm reminded of the incredible journey it has been. From the initial spark of inspiration to the final rendering, each step was a lesson in creativity, problem-solving, and adaptability. The project encapsulated the essence of VFX education – a journey filled with learning, experimentation, and growth.
Through the challenges and triumphs, I discovered the power of time management, making strategic choices to balance efficiency and quality. Each shot became a canvas for learning, whether it was employing new techniques, navigating uncharted territory, or adapting to limitations.
I'm grateful for the platform my school, Pixl Visn, provided for pushing my boundaries during these project weeks. These condensed bursts of creativity transformed into my most valuable learning experiences. Each shot was an opportunity to refine skills, experiment with new tools, and embrace the unexpected.
While not every aspect of the project may have met my expectations, it's a reminder that every endeavour holds lessons. Some shots might stand as favourites, while others highlight valuable lessons in patience and perseverance. This project is a testament to the multidimensional nature of VFX – a convergence of artistry, technical prowess, and storytelling.
As I move forward, I carry with me the knowledge, experiences, and insights gained from this project. It's a stepping stone towards a future where each challenge becomes an opportunity and each creation reflects the growth and dedication poured into it. With every shot, every render, and every moment, this project adds another layer to the vibrant tapestry of my journey in the world of VFX.
Check out more of Ilias' work in his Rookies portfolio here.