Tuesday, 21 October 2014

"King of the Dead" - 3rd year Group Project

My first week back at Uni involved exploring Unreal 4 and how to construct a Physically Based material – next gen materials that render in the same way that the physical properties of a real-life material would react in real-life lighting conditions. After I had spent some time familiarising myself with the engine, we were given a project brief to last just 2 weeks in randomly selected groups. The title of this brief was ‘King of the Dead’.

We needed to assume the role of a small art team trying to win a project with a games studio. We therefore needed to prove that we can produce original ideas, quality work and in an efficient time frame. ‘King of the Dead’ could be interpreted in any way, but our end result needed to be a character seated on a throne with a backdrop wall and floor within UE4.

“Any style is acceptable. This could be realistic, gothic, stylized or cartoon. Any mood is acceptable. This could be light hearted or frightening. The games studio does not want to limit possibilities. They are open to any ideas. They do want to be surprised and impressed with originality though. The subject is clichéd, your work must bring something original to succeed with this client and brief.”

We began this project by first doing as much research as we could gather around the various keywords that ‘King of the Dead’ sparked in our minds and drew on a whiteboard everything we considered. We also used websites that generated random sentences to help us think outside the box – we wanted to make sure that we didn’t go straight for the first thing that pops into our heads so to help us get out of that mindset we thought about random and opposite ideas to challenge our more cliché thoughts.

We set up big moodboards on Pinterest which focused on the visual element of our idea generation. We could then further narrow our ideas down once we had selected the images that stood out to us the most. During this process, I stumbled upon the word ‘freezing’ and this got me thinking about cryogenic freezing, the idea that a person can be put into a ‘cryosleep’ by freezing themselves, with the hope that once they thaw out they will return to life without any ill effects on health or appearance.

From this idea, I started to explore what ‘King of the Dead’ could mean if the King was cryogenically frozen. I discussed this idea with my group and everyone seemed enthusiastic about this new spin on the title, and quickly we had delved into how we could apply this to our brief. The throne would be a cryogenic chamber with the King frozen inside. Using other keywords from our whiteboard for inspiration, I suggested that for a bit of backstory, our scene could be set be far in the future where in a sci-fi society, people cannot die anymore because tech is so good; so our King is the leader of a cult of people who wish to die and look to ancient cultures for guidance on how to achieve this. We set the thought aside so that we could continue to come up with new ideas.
A moodboard I put together that reads left-right in order of complexity/extremity

Lucy in our group mentioned how her research had led to finding out about a type of parasite that lives in the mouth of a fish and feeds of its tongue, eventually replacing it. We were all extremely grossed out by this so we made sure to keep it in mind! Thinking of a backstory had helped me to come up with an interesting idea, so I tried it again and played with the idea that the parasite is the King, and his throne and palace is the tongue and mouth of a dying creature.
The rest of the group seemed equally inspired by this idea, so we tried to focus our thoughts on these two main concepts; parasites and cryogenic freezing

Ultimately, we combined the two, and my tasks for the rest of the group project included contributing idea generation and iteration through thumbnails, concepts, whiteboxes and moodboards. I also set up timescales and deadlines for the group to work to help us meet our goals and shared out the workload between all members of the group using a whiteboard to announce our tasks for the day.

I also took on the task of modelling, rigging and texturing the character’s body whilst Lucy worked on the head (so we could then combine the two together later, which worked out as being very time efficient). I used Unreal 4 a lot during the project, and was able to quickly set up the camera angle and whitebox in Unreal 4, adding in the post-processing effects (such as film grain, vignette, fringing, dust particle effects and fog) and lighting in the scene, which was an important factor in deciding colour scheme.

I also created a facebook group upon which group members could upload their work for instant feedback. Regularly posting on the facebook group meant that we could ask each other for feedback at any and all times.

Rebecca worked on the throne concept, model and textures, Hal worked on the background hieroglyphics and wall texture and Tom created the cryogenic pod and the material that would appear to fill the pod.

Our group were able to bounce ideas off each other from the outset, which helped us to form interesting ideas which we could later develop. We each understood the general pipeline that would lead us along the production process. 

Having a shorter deadline meant that the group had a clear objective and expectations, however I think the overall pace of the group could have been a little bit quicker, as we often missed deadlines that we set for ourselves – for example we were still texturing our assets on Thursday when we had originally planned to have everything in engine at that point so we could compose the scene together and polish it on Friday. Furthermore, we unfortunately did not reach any of our stretch goals; we were all really keen on getting an animated panning shot of the scene but we could not reach this goal.

Final render of our scene
I think if we were to improve upon this project we could get the blue, frosty material on the cryogenic pod to be much more translucent so that the character could be much more visible, perhaps also adding in particle effects like steam to heighten atmosphere and narrative. We could also create some decals to ensure that the bottom of the throne blended in with the ground more seamlessly.

I think the most important thing I learnt from the group project was that leadership, communication and organisation takes up a lot of time and effort and it is difficult to lead a group whilst still being a source of motivation and efficient myself. Industry experience has enabled me to become a faster artist and I will now often spare myself work when it is not needed – for example the textures on the character are not very detailed, but this is because the character can barely be seen so it would not be time efficient for me to go into detail, my time was better spent in engine with the scene lighting and camera angle.

Despite this, I feel that in future projects I should take time out to talk to each member of the group personally so that I can help them with any issues or take in any feedback for the group that people may not want to say when all of the group is present – because sometimes this can cause anxiety. Although working in a group should mean that everyone is treated equally and ideas are a representation of our collective vision, this doesn’t mean that the individual should be ignored.
I think that having or being a mediator in the group would be extremely valuable in maintaining group unity and motivation.
I also think that as we were using a new engine, we could have put aside sessions where we each take turns with the engine experimenting with what we could do in it together, this may have created a nice environment for each of us to raise concerns or ask for help.

To conclude, I think the final render communicates the themes and mood of the idea very well, without touching on too many clichés. I hope our final render is an example of our capability to produce unique ideas, designs and interesting visuals. I am also very happy that I was able to inspire other people with my ideas, it was a very rewarding experience to come up with many different concepts with the help of others.

Monday, 22 September 2014

My first demo reel!

I have also been working hard on my own personal projects at Uni during second year. I put together a short show reel in March to be able to present my progress to others:
Katie Hallaron 3D Modelling Showreel 2014 from Katie Hallaron on Vimeo.

M.E.D.U.S.A is an energy beam weapon inspired by the book ‘Mortal Engines’ by Philip Reeve and a past self-portrait University assignment that I did in 2013. I created this character as a personal project, using 3ds Max to model a high poly robotic torso and Keyshot to render a photorealistic turntable.
This project involved a working process that I had not yet tried as my previous projects had all been low-mid poly assets.
I felt it was very important to get the form blocked out in simple shapes first, and then develop upon these shapes to construct a model that looks complex. It was also important for me to study human anatomy to give the robot a realistic appearance, as it has metal parts where humans would have tissue, tendon or muscle. For example I needed the robot to look as though her head could be supported by her neck to maintain believability, so I replaced the sternomastoid muscle with telescopic pistons.
I made my basemesh mid poly and applied subdivisions and smoothing to ensure the lighting worked properly on her high-poly form. I used path deform splines to get her snakes – which had been modelled straight along the y axis - to bend around and twist, and I gave her eyes an emissive texture to get a glowing effect.
I think the hardest part of this project was to keep my design unique in the sea of androids and robotic humans that are in popular culture. I feel that borrowing from the Ancient Greek mythological Medusa design helped to give it that extra interest.


This was also a personal project that I had developed from a previous assignment. I was tasked with redesigning the famous tripod design from H.G. Well’s book ‘The War of the Worlds’. I wanted to make my tripod insect-like whilst still keeping the features that H.G. Wells describes: three legs, tentacles, ‘oily brown skin’ etc.
Designing a creature with three legs is difficult as there are no known animals with this biological feature, so I thought about how the creature would walk and designed the aesthetics around this.
I also wanted the alien to have an aggressive design so I used triangular shapes to emphasise sharpness, stability and the ‘tripod’ theme. This is also echoed in its 3 eyes and front tentacles.
For my personal development on this I wanted the alien to be crashing through a city. I took the model I had made in Maya into 3ds Max and used Mental Ray to render out an animation of the alien causing explosions in a city made from primitive cubes.
I had never used Mental Ray before so it was a big learning curve for me to work out how the lighting and special effects work. I used Arch & Design materials to give the buildings reflectivity, and the tripod a glossy effect. I then used an Architectural material with high illuminance to make the tripod’s eyes and the explosion glow.
I then took the animation into After Effects and added in more bloom and lens flare to give my scene a cinematic feel.

"Off The Map" Competition

During second year I had been working in a group on a submission for the Off the Map Competition held by the British Library, Game City and Crytek. Our team, 'The Flying Buttress' consists of five other of my fellow Game Art students from DeMontfort University; Kit Grande, Ben Mowson, Findara McAvinchey, Ewan Couper and Elliott Pacel. You can find our blog which goes into detail about our processes and how we made the level here: http://www.theflyingbuttress.co.uk/
Our brief was to create a game level based around a choice of 3 pieces of gothic literature and architecture; Whitby (Bram Stoker's Dracula), Fonthill Abbey and The Masque of the Red Death (Edgar Allen Poe).

We chose to focus our game environment on Whitby. We wanted to really capture a haunting atmosphere to showcase the grandeur and beauty of Whitby Abbey from Bram Stoker's perspective when writing his famous gothic novel 'Dracula'. By uniting the maps and illustrations provided by the British Library with our own artist research and photographic reference of Ely Cathedral, we hoped to capture both Gothic literature and architecture into a single visual experience.

Here's our final submission flythrough:

We used Cryengine to build our game level, it was challenging to learn a new piece of software under pressure, but the engine's powerful colour grading, terrain editing and light system tools helped us to push our vision, and we were eventually able to create a fully realised game environment, complete with triggered events.

We were invited to talk about our project at the Game City 9 opening event in Nottingham. It was great to meet up with my team again, (especially as I was a little nervous about presenting to a crowd!) and our presentation went really well. I loved being able to talk to other applicants and the event organisers, it was very interesting to see what everyone else was working on, and the British Library's hopes for the future of combining game technology like the Oculus Rift with libraries and museums - to make these places virtually accessible from home, was very inspiring.
(When I was younger and I'd go on days out with my mum, she would ask me where I wanted to go (i.e. cinema, shopping, theme parks?) and I'd nearly always say "The Museum!" so that might give you an indication into my character!!)

We successfully became one of three teams shortlisted for the Off the Map Jury 2014 Award which will be announced in October at GameCity9. I'm really excited to go the the event and find out how we did, but moreso to get back into that lovely community of creativity, sharing and ambition.

Summer 2014

It has been a long time since I updated: this summer has been incredibly busy and fast paced. Now, with a week to go until my final year of university begins, I have some time to reflect on all the madness.
When I finished second year, I felt quite sad that an eye-opening but fun chapter of my academic life had come to a close. I knew I had a lot to look forward to, but I was unprepared for how quickly this would all pass me by!
I took part in the Off the Map competition, I went to Walt Disney World Florida, I started working in Lucid Games again, and I attended Industry Workshops in London - all whilst trying to juggle my own personal projects, move house and get ready for my last year of University!
I discovered a lot of things about myself and the industry, and about other artists too. It's been another summer where I feel I have bridged a gap in my learning and stepped up another level. I'll go into more detail in the following blog posts :)


Friday, 16 May 2014

End of Second Year Review

It’s now the end of my second year of Game Art Design at DMU. I’m feeling nervous about what will come next but at the same time I feel that I have accomplished a lot this year, and I have developed both academically and personally in a short space of time. I feel more comfortable and confident in expressing myself and my ideas because I have the tools and technical/artistic skills to do so more articulately.

I think university was the best decision for me, I understand that Universities aren’t for everyone though. Uni is not like a career or a job which you depend on – even when I try and think of uni as my job, that doesn’t really sink in properly because in reality, it is a much freer environment where you are in control of your own learning. Education comes from many more sources than just tutors – in fact, solely depending on tutors for your education at Uni would be limiting yourself.

I feel that I have really stepped out of my comfort zone this year, more than I ever have in my education I think – and in ways that lean far more towards practical technical ability and logic than for example in my previous exploration where I have been more emotionally driven and abstract.

I’ve been working in a group during second year too, which has surprisingly been massively different from working in a game company team like when I worked at Lucid Games. I feel that groupwork is incredibly important in an artist’s development to become a better artist – we need to be able to give and take critique fairly, and learn to compromise and unite ideas – artists who don’t experience group work may be missing out on learning a way of working and interacting with others, especially commercial artists who will inevitably have to work with clients. I’m not sure I would have had the same opportunity to be involved in a group working on exciting projects if I was not at University, I think it would have been a lot harder for me to make it this far on my own.

I have really enjoyed getting stuck in to personal projects this year too, having my own work to do in my spare time when I’m not working on things I’ve been asked or briefed to do has kept me eager to learn new software, techniques, industry practices – and it’s also helped keep me sane when tension and stress has been high.
I hope to continue working this way for as long as I can, (somewhat sadistically) I really enjoy pushing my limits and finding out how much work and progress I can make in short intervals.
The downside to this is that I can sometimes be a workaholic and become too stressed and on edge too often. Work is important to me, but when I’m losing sleep just because “I work better during the night”, I have to reconsider if it’s entirely worth it. I’m hoping to get into a better, healthier routine over summer.

This year has also been really important for me in making friends and chilling out. I had a lot to deal with last year and kept mostly to myself, just getting my work done and keeping fairly quiet. This year, a lot of weight has been lifted from my back, and I’ve felt more confident in myself than I have felt for quite a while – I’m very happy where I am right now, with my Game Art friends, and I’ll be sad to leave second year because it’s been amazing!

Sunday, 27 April 2014

University : Life Changing or Career Building?

In the game industry, many people have come from varying education backgrounds. Some may not have gone to university, whilst others may have done a degree that is or isn’t relevant to the field of work that their career is in. Game-centered educators face the issue of whether or not there is a choice between teaching specific technical skills or developing learning attributes and ‘soft skills’.
Teaching requires mentoring people who are generally less experienced and look to you for guidance. The hard skills that a game artist tutor can teach their students involves technical skills, such as how to use 3D Modelling software, Photoshop, game engines etc. However, there is a limit to how much of this someone can teach - because there is so much information about these hard skills that it is impossible to teach all of it.
So tutors rely and depend on a student’s ability to take initiative and go study more in their own time. Hopefully, students will learn new things, spread and share the information, and in a way become teachers themselves. Education should be a community, in my opinion. 


But what do companies want? I think that you can have degrees, you can be educated in programming or art or marketing or anything else, but what matters to the company is; can you do what you say you can do?
Ultimately degrees are grades which are of course highly important for credentials and solid evidence of competence, but they aren’t really accurate evidence of the style of work you produce, or who the person behind that grade is; that’s who the companies want to hire (hopefully!).
From my experience of assisting in interviews for next year’s first years on my Game Art Design course, I think the best way of finding out who that person is, is through their portfolio.

I’d hope that as a tutor, you would want your students to produce a portfolio of work that expresses all of their strengths. Giving students tasks that will make them learn technical skills is the first step to encourage them to go out and learn more. And if they are enjoying what they are doing and learning, then they might make work for themselves - perhaps for the fun of it, or to prove themselves and to show who they really are, especially when creating their professional profile.

Soft skills are undeniably always going to be needed. Technology may change drastically, but having those soft skills of conscientiousness, the will to share and learn and teach others, ensures that you can adapt to new circumstances. The hard skills are a way of getting yourself up to scratch to understand the underlying basics behind the work you are producing.
Hard skills need to be used like a science. There are formulas and equations that make things the way they are. If you want to use Physically Based Rendering in your work, then you will need to understand how PBR actually works. The hard skills will be using PBR itself, but the soft skills will be your own drive to understand the workings of it. In science, we discover new things through experimentation and testing – take the truths of something, play with it and see what results you can find.


I feel the most important soft skill is teamwork and social skills. Using your own initiative to help further your own success is commendable, however using your initiative to help further other people’s success is even better. I believe that encouraging others, knowing how to properly critique others, communicate well and treat people with the utmost respect and care is far more important than any hard skill you can learn.
This is generally what tutors are doing in their day to day job, and so if we follow their example then we are indirectly learning soft skills – theoretically. I think that does take a certain amount of self-awareness however, which is a soft skill in itself!


Creativity: Myth or Talent?

Creativity is an aspect of humanity that is left mostly unexplained. There are lots of theories on what it could be; perhaps it is something that we are all born with, or it is a product of our upbringing and we acquire it. Some theories suggest that creativity exists as an entity separate from our mind and body. Is creativity is a real thing, or just an abstract concept?
In Ken Robinson’s famous TED talk about how education kills creativity; he discusses a statement by Picasso; we are all born creative, the trick is to remain creative through the rest of our lives. Robinson argues that education pushes out creativity. In schools around the world, English and maths skills are given high priority, whilst dance and art is given the lowest priority – however human beings are capable of both maths and dance and young children have an extraordinary capacity for imagination and creativity, yet certain subjects are still given more importance than others. 

 Amy Tan makes an interesting point in her TED talk about where her creativity hides; that creativity could in fact be a type of neurosis or psychosis that we are all born with. Perhaps some people are more affected by it than others. Research suggests that Vah Gogh suffered from frontal lobe epilepsy, and this is could be attributed to his enigmatic decisions as an artist.

Conversely, psychosis is something that a person can acquire through nurture, and so if creativity can be explained this way, then maybe it is not something we are born with. Perhaps creativity is how we express what we have learnt through experiences and things that have influenced us both consciously or subconsciously.

John Cleese explains in his talk on creativity that being creative is a way of operating, and it is not a talent or an ability that someone is or isn’t able to do. He explains that people work in two different modes, a ‘closed mode’ – where we are rushed for time, have many small things that we need to get done, feel slightly tense, impatient, purposeful and possibly stressed or manic.
In this mode people may thrive and enjoy working in this atmosphere; however Cleese argues that a person cannot be creative in this mode. They must be in the ‘open mode’ instead, where they are relaxed, expansive, contemplative, humorous, playful, curious and childlike.In this way he agrees with Robinson, that a child’s ability to be imaginative and unafraid of being wrong is where originality comes from. However it is unclear whether being childlike in this way is something that we are born with and struggle to retain, or is a learnt behaviour.

Counter to this, some believe that our creativity comes to us from external entities that are out of our control. Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love spoke on her TED talk about the ancient Greek and Roman belief of the Genius – a type of daemon who would visit painters, poets, writers or any other person and inflict their creativity upon that person at any given time. This concept ultimately means that the person cannot take full credit when the results of their creativity is a success for a failure – in other words it would lift the pressure of being a genius off the people themselves.

Amy Tan proposes that creativity could be an abstract concept that exists just as much as serendipity, chance, fate and luck does. Or it could in fact be a product of quantum mechanics and is random coincidence. She even questions if purposeful creativity is given to us from past lives or the guidance of the universe itself.

To conclude, creativity is something that is diverse, dynamic and distinct. Humans all experience it, perhaps not equally, but usually at least during childhood when it is in its strongest form. I think we need to have some belief that creativity is something that we innately possess, but must use our experiences and influences to unlock it effectively. I’d argue that believing creativity comes from external sources is irrelevant to the process of being in an ‘open mode’, but is a helpful attitude when thinking about the struggles that a creative person goes through.
It also brings to attention the amount of stress and expectations society presses onto creative people when they are not having creativity pushed out of them by schooling or other means.