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    Using mental images' mental mill to bring life to shader creations.

    CGSociety :: Software Feature
    10th February 2009, by Laura Scholl

    Up until now shader writing has been left to those with computer science degrees and extensive programming experience. Expert shader writers spend countless hours developing software that describes complex and life-like appearances that other artists incorporate into video games, film, and CAD visualizations. When multiple platforms are needed, from the software rendering of animation sequences to real-time hardware rendering of games, the shader creation process is repeated, often completely from scratch. For many special effects houses and animation teams, this means days if not weeks added to their production schedules. Let’s face it, more hours equal more money spent.

    This development hurdle is changing. Visual effects teams and game developers are discovering mental mill, the recently developed application by mental images that allows CG artists to create shaders without having to have a programming background. Equipped with an intuitive user interface, mental mill lets artists at every level of expertise create some very high quality shaders. Designed to bring flexibility and efficiency to the creative process, shaders built in to mental mill are platform- and environment-independent and can be exported to many DCC applications and GPU shading languages.

    Artists can create an unlimited variety of original shaders in mental mill and they can quickly develop and prototype new looks. Once a shader is complete, it can be used across projects, from games to movies, to adverts.
    mental mill shader tree with parameters; Example 1.
    Blue Castle Games designed character showing mental mill materials and shaders: skin, cloth and metal. All the shaders required to render this character were generated in mental mill including: skin shader, cloth shader and metalic shader. Model created by Jun Huang of Blue Castle.
    Reflective effect created with mental mill. Model created by Jun Huang of Blue Castle.
    mental mill and Gaming
    Blue Castle Games, based in Vancouver, Canada, is an early adopter of mental mill and has been using the software for game development. By integrating mental mill into their pipeline they have found a more efficient and versatile workflow.

    According to Izmeth Siddeek of Blue Castle, “mental mill has provided a powerful solution for prototyping and testing a variety of shading solutions on multiple projects. It has also enabled our artists to cooperate more closely with software engineers to establish superior visual goals, define tools and graphics pipelines, and save time.”

    In mental mill, artists build shaders from a library of MetaSL MetaNodes packaged with mental mill or they can write their own MetaNodes using MetaSL, a high level shading language developed by mental images. These shaders can be used across multiple hardware and software platforms, because shaders created in MetaSL compile to specific runtime and offline rendering targets.

    "The shaders themselves were initially developed to provide programmable control to achieve character variety", shares Siddeek. “As such, we were able to use fewer textures and yet create the illusion of a greater visual variety of characters.”

    Once the shaders were created they were exported in the CGFX format and loaded into Maya. As you can see in the images, the shaders' attribute editors are exposed providing more information. These shaders are relatively complex since they were meant to fulfill two objectives; high visual quality and a variety of looks. Once the shaders have been tweaked to achieve the desired look within Maya, the attributes are then exported to the game. This level of artist interaction with shaders is crucial with the introduction of procedural rendering techniques.

    As Siddeek points out, “The final rendering that you see here is rendered in Maya. During the shader prototyping phase, we also created an HLSL version to test the character within FX composer. The benefit to the approach of deploying CGFX shaders within an art package such as Maya is that it is possible to use all the shaders' attributes in conjunction with all other systems available within the art package.”
    mental mill exported CGFX shader attributes in Maya. Model created by Jun Huang of Blue Castle.
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  • A closer look at mental mill
    mental mill is an Integrated Visual Development Environment (IVDE) for creating platform-independent shaders used in a rendering pipeline. This means the user has complete creative control to write and debug MetaSL shaders, build shader graphs and Phenomena, preview renders in mental ray and export to 3D design and animation software as well as GPU shading languages.

    Simplified Shader Creation
    Using an intuitive user interface, artists without programming skills can create an unlimited number of unique shaders by building shader graphs. These complex shader graphs can easily be packaged into Phenomena to simplify larger graphs and make them usable as new unique shaders. A Phenomenon, an encapsulated shader graph, allows you to expose only the important parameters for tweaking the shader while keeping all the constant parameters hidden. This makes it easy to share your shaders with other artists and maintain the look of your 3D object.
    mental mill shader tree with parameters; Example 2.
    mental mill wood phenomenon.
    Crackles texture created in mental mill; Example 1.
    Crackles texture created in mental mill; Example 2.

    Related links:
    mental images
    Blue Castle Games
    Laura Scholl
    Alexander Preuss

    Discuss this article on CGTalk

    Export market
    Shaders can be exported to CGFX, HLSL, and GLSL and render natively in mental ray. The shader only needs to be created once and then it can be exported to other platforms for hardware and software rendering.

    Real-time Node Preview
    The dynamic hardware-rendered preview allows the nodes to be fully interactive. The user can see the shader result at all points in the shader graph.

    Graphical Debugging

    For advanced shader developers, the debugging interface graphical debugger allows you step through the shader code to visualize the surface normal, color or other parameters. This allows for very quick and easy development of shaders.
    Brushed metal created in mental mill.
    Marmor Torus created in mental mill.
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