Mastering digital humans

The saying goes: it’s not what you know but who you know. For three-year-old London-based Analog Studio, having both under its belt has been no bad thing. When co-founders Mike Merron, Matt Chandler and Arvid Niklasson joined forces to establish a VFX studio on the back of their combined industry experience, boasting heaps of talent on top would only help strengthen the trio in getting off to a flying start. As they now look towards a presence in New York, the future is looking excitingly bright for these deserving high-fliers.


Perfectly sized and deeply skilled, Analog Studio enthusiastically puts its talented hands to all manner of film production work, from direction and VFX supervision, to animation, CGI, and post-production. For no job is too big or too small when you’re able to scale up or down depending on your client’s needs. Whether it’s for Honda, Nike, or Film4, this small studio consistently thinks big, and acts with an unquestionable passion, no matter what the gig. We talk to Matt Chandler, Co-Founder at Analog Studio, about the team’s impressive and somewhat controversial work for Duologue’s music video, MEMEX, created in collaboration with Marshmallow Laser Feast (MLF) Director, Barney Steele.





The evolution of a concept


Duologue is a hauntingly beautiful four-minute video that is technically impressive and, sometimes, unintentionally upsetting. The sequence opens with a series of skillfully abstract shots, simple yet powerful enough to grip you and leave you curious to see more. Analog artfully couples these with a set of brilliantly clever close-ups, telling a story primarily through the intelligent use of lighting and camera angles, while focusing on just one hero character: Beryl.





After a few watches of this entrancing music video, you realize that Beryl is in fact a static model throughout the entire piece. So how did Analog make her so captivating for four whole minutes? The key is in the lighting concept, as Matt Chandler, Analog Co-Founder explains: “From the very beginning of the project, we discussed very simple light sources, and using light and shadow to hide and reveal surfaces. Very early on, the light source throughout was a single, hanging filament light bulb swinging back and forth . . . Because everything was going to be so highly detailed and textural, we decided that we could just place cameras drifting through the scene and enjoy the play of light across the surfaces.”


Originally, Beryl was intended for a real-time Oculus Rift experience. The idea was that Rift users could approach the actress in a virtual world, inside a black void, where they could examine her and stare her right in the eye. “[You could] float throughout the frozen scene and feel like you are being surrounded by the cloth, particles, and a number of other assets, including a pet dog and another character [as well],” Chandler reveals. The idea of objects remaining static was residual from this original concept of exploring a frozen moment within the Oculus Rift. Unfortunately, the idea was a little too complex for the tight production schedule given, and required more R&D creating high-end content for the Rift to make a truly successful experience. “Re-imagining the project as a full-length music video allowed us to exercise the VFX toolkit and aim high,” Chandler confirms.





3D scanning for digital doubles


The actress, Beryl, was photo-scanned by FBFX at Shepperton Studios in London. This technique fed perfectly into the idea of things being static. “Photo-scanning has certainly become a powerful and reliable method to capture pretty much anything,” Chandler offers. “We often use it for digi-double work, set capture, and asset builds. There are even Smartphone app versions out now so you can create a quick model of that amazing tree you walk past every day!”


The dedicated team on location at FBFX handled the scan data, processing, and mesh cleanup work, allowing Analog as much valuable R&D time as possible. “Jack and his ZBrush artists, Phil and Nejad, provided us with expertly cleaned-up topology and production-ready assets within days of the shoot,” Chandler adds. “The raw scan data was so wonderfully detailed that we would all just spin it around in the viewport for hours in ZBrush.” It wasn’t all just ZBrush-twirling, though; while reveling in the details FBFX had captured, the Analog team also proficiently added even more surface detail while working in the digital-sculpting software.


The model was captured in a number of expressions and contortions by FBFX, including moments of joyous laughter, genuine smiles, and deep sadness. Steele picked out an almost neutral expression for the MEMEX video, though. “[It] had a natural sadness and beauty to it – and we knew that we wanted the eyes to be visible. The eyes were closed or very squinted in many of the other options that were generated.”

With the video revealing some almost excruciating close-ups of aged and decaying skin, the devil was certainly in the details. “The texture data from the scan session with FBFX was amazingly detailed but I often had to paint additional texture maps [in MARI] and re-sculpt areas in ZBrush to increase detail for the close-ups,” Chandler explains. “Working at a physically accurate scale is extremely important when working with SSS materials. Skin often ends up looking too flat and lifeless, or much too waxy, and it can be very tempting to overdo the sub-surface shader effect because it’s just such a beautiful material behavior. The VRayFastSS2 shader is very reliable and robust.”





Getting real with shaders and light


It can be very challenging to get skin shading to perform as expected from a variety of angles – especially when your light source is moving around and you have countless texture maps controlling the different shader components. “A particularly challenging shot was when the camera drifts all the way from the chest to the face. I decided to purposefully under-sample the SSS . . . and then apply/combine de-flickering filters in NUKE to that particular render pass, and smooth it all out.”


Expert lighting techniques in the MEMEX video add an incredible realism to Beryl’s CG skin. Starting the lighting setup with two VRayLights, and playing with test renders using a variety of camera angles and light placement, Chandler’s team could work out how the SSS was behaving before committing. “The render elements are an invaluable way to analyze just what’s happening in the scene, and a fast way to isolate problems like graininess and flickering.” Chandler counsels. “Being able to inspect how each individual light contributes to the scene, and see the SSS isolated from all of the other elements, allows for a lot of accuracy and fine-tuning.”


All objects in the video are lit with a single HDRI, plus an animated, rotated VRay Dome Light. Using V-Ray 2.4 at the time of production, to get around any historical Global Illumination sampling problems, Chandler developed the shader setup a little more with extra textures and falloffs that “ramped subtle color variations throughout shadowed areas”. Chandler adds: “I also softened the red channel of the skin at the compositing stage using V-Ray’s ExtraTex pass to have maps mask this softening/bleeding to specific areas of the face.”


As well as picture-perfect skin, the model’s eyes also had to be convincing for the video to succeed in its goal. “One of the first things I ever created in CG 15 years ago were eyeballs, so I had a lot of reference and ideas on how to create them – as well as a lot of failed attempts!” Chandler shares. “There is so much incredible detail and depth in each and every iris that I prefer to zoom right in there and create layers of dense geometry.” The iris detail was therefore sculpted in ZBrush from high-resolution textures, with additional meshes made from these models using the 3ds Max plug-in Frost, which was used to create the thin, delicately layered cavities. “The same HDRI was used for lighting and some extra lights were added to affect the eye reflections only – creating the classic white, reflection hotspot,” Chandler adds.







Growing with V-Ray


Analog has been using V-Ray as its primary rendering solution across all software packages since start-up in 2011. “Before that, I was a big fan of the now-discontinued Brazil R/S . . . I found it very easy to transition to V-Ray as they were both very similar in terms of UI and methodology,” Chandler offers. “[Also] there is of course a huge V-Ray user community that helps Vlado [Vladimir Koylazov] and the development team continue to develop the tools we need to make amazing imagery.”


It was V-Ray’s extensive controls for image sampling, refining the render, coupled with its extensive render pass utilities that made the tool so powerful for a project like MEMEX. “The SSS shader was critical to how convincing the skin would look, and V-Ray handled the extremely dense, high-poly models without any problems,” Chandler says, reflecting back on the project. In terms of V-Ray 3.0 for 3ds Max, Chandler looks forward to “overall speed boosts are always readily embraced by end users, and the new, dedicated Skin Material is a great addition to the toolset”. He continues: “I’m very excited to start using the new shaders on our next undertakings, and the improved render pass support within V-Ray RT is also a great development that has got us all thinking about all-new ways to approach projects.”


Discover more work by Analog Studio at the official site, and follow the studio on Facebook.