CGSociety :: Production Focus
14 October 2013, by Paul Hellard
The Octopus and The Geisha and the coder take us on an adventure in rigging.
Edward Dawson-Taylor is a digital artist with a penchant for code and rigging in 3D. 'Edd' wanted to make a new personal film with high visual quality and found some downtime at Golden Square, a company in Soho London he'd worked at for a while. After working at coding, CG creation and a video performance troupe for a couple of years, he wanted to bring together something of his own, with the skills he'd improved over the years. In the meantime, the visuals Golden Square created in a quick project went on to win this year's SIGGRAPH Dailies competition. Edd takes up his story.
"One slow day at the office in London I was playing around with a pet project of mine," he begins. "I was making a short film about weird underwater creatures, specifically that day I was rigging and modeling tentacles, when director Richie Burridge walked in the door and asked if there was anyone who knew how to make an octopus." Edd watched as if in a dream as every person in the room turned and pointed straight at him. "I felt at that point I had no choice but to sheepishly raise my hand and point to my computer screen. After showing some tests my company was appointed the job over some quite stiff competition from very large and respected Soho post houses, and I was told merely that it was going to be for a music video. The cinematography was unbelievably beautiful, with video of a geisha girl underwater and caustic lighting flowing gently over her skin." The job would be to add the CG octopus tangling with her. The CG would be a one man job, which ended up winning the prize at SIGGRAPH Dailies this year.
Edd came out of left field. He came from a mixed background of making graphics and programming. He says he fell more into the code as he thought with coding, there was more likelihood of getting a proper career like his Dad wanted him to. "I loved the image processing and had played in 3D with Maya making visuals to project on walls in dance music clubs," he says. "At last my rudimentary CG talent had an outlet."
THE SANCHO PLAN
There were a couple of years in the 2000s where a cross-over occurred. Escape Studios took him in when he decided to 'up' his game to get a job in production. "This was great because I was still coding, I was working in production, and I was Video DJing still as well," Edd explains. "I was doing visuals in the UK and I met up with the guys at The Sancho Plan, which brought me into the area of producing visual content. Stringing on from that, I got a job in a studio in London doing visual effects."
Ed was asked across to do a display installation of The Sancho Plan at SIGGRAPH 2008 in Los Angeles in the Art Gallery room off to the left at the entrance where people could come and play the installation itself. Straight afterwards, he and The Sancho Plan started touring. "The craziest place was across in Madrid where they closed off the centre of the city and we had this huge stage in front of what we were told was 100,000 people" says Edward. "The organisers pointed to this huge stage, which we were told we had all night to play on. The guys went off and bought plumber's pipes (seen in the photos below) so instead of a solo drum kit on stage triggering the visuals, the audience could join in too. "We played the entire night!"
The Sancho Plan is an amazing stage act, including members creating music and visuals at the same time. A lot of triggered live digital characters on screen with their instruments. "They'd been going for a while, and I joined them in a design capacity, animating and creating visuals, traveling around doing shows. There are so many people involved in the project. The gig and installation in Madrid included motion detector periscopes, being driven by the audience. The Black Page and Spacequatica were names of pieces we did, and a short film I made called 'Lavamano' showed at the London Animation festival a number of years ago now. This was the precursor to me working with underwater creatures," explains Edd.
Working together to make underwater creatures whose tentacles would be triggered by a series of actions, was a fascinating process for Edd and his co-workers. "We would design a sound first, then we'd design something that we thought might make that sound," he says. "We'd create the visual representation of two things that existed already, or trying to create something completely out of the imagination."
Edd spent three months modeling, rigging, texturing, and animating the octopus so that every element down to every sucker was independent and could have its own life. The project presented some great aesthetic and technical challenges. "I had the plates showing the beautiful underwater shots of the geisha being dragged by divers, and some octopus footage shot in a separate tank. Now, it was my task to take these elements and concoct a way to place CG tentacles into the scene that were actively wrestling with the geisha, and others that were coming towards her and wriggling menacingly. I completed the project in Maya using mostly MEL, the embedded scripting language and mental ray as a renderer." Ed also created a procedural tentacle builder for the best flexibility in modeling and animation, as due to the complexity of the project, changes to any aspect would be a nightmare."
RIGGING the SQUID
He created scripts that would model any length of tentacle and rig it automatically. He started with a tentacle geometry section one sucker in length, that can be manipulated and copied, to build a tentacle of any length, introducing variations along the way so it didn’t look too CG. He wrote more scripts that would create controls in the system to be able to animate the tentacles by hand or key framing. "I could have the tentacle react to proxy geometry representing the geisha, and further to that more scripts to add in any amount of any kind of procedural animation I wanted such as curl or wave to achieve realistic motion," he said.
"I wanted the suckers to move and react in a nice fluid way as I had seen a lot of footage showing this," he explained. "This was a huge challenge as there were at least 250 suckers in each tentacle, requiring some 1250 bones alongside them to achieve the result I wanted. Once set up, the animation was simple due to the intuitive control system I had created using a system of curves with locators attached on motion paths that drive joint rotations, all node based so its interactive and fast. I could isolate areas of suckers to move independently, or send ripples going along all the suckers, localize movement procedurally to one area of the tentacle, or along the whole tentacle."
Texturing came from real octopus reference from the exact species, using subsurface shaders. Late one night he ordered some random sushi and when it arrived, he couldn’t believe what he saw. "Half the toppings were octopus tentacles,. I felt like it was a sign!" he says. "I did actually get my camera out and start taking reference shots before I caved in and my hunger overtook. The lighting used an animated underwater caustic gobo, and I watched a lot of octopus videos for animation reference. Once they tore the CG from my hands it went to comp and colorists and only then did I find out what the music video would be for. It turns out that Plaid, one of my favorite electronic bands I have loved since I was 18, commissioned this video! I was so excited I could hardly contain myself."
About six months later, Edd was invited by the director to see Plaid play at the Koko Theater in Camden, a massive venue holding several thousand people. It was packed to the gills but he had a good spot, close to the front and right of the stage. "Plaid opened their set for the evening, and it suddenly dawned on me that they opened their set with the octopus video," Ed says. "My work was on the big screen in front of thousands of people, and I got to dance like crazy to it! I would have to say it was one of the best nights of my life getting to see so many people enjoy the work that I put so much passion into and a rare opportunity to appreciate my work in such a visceral way. Also I took my now wife to the show, and I think I scored some serious cool points."
"Why not worth a go!"