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This blog is dedicated to advanced Web and media technology.
Choices, choices, choices.
In the previous posting, we considered the difference between surface and solid modeling, and the two main ways of building surface models – by using straight line geometry or by using curved line geometry.
We focused on what is arguably the gold standard for 3D modeling and animation: Autodesk Maya.
As it turns out, these high level modeling alternatives give just a hint of the almost astonishing breadth of 3D modeling choices that must be made by the Maya animator.
Why are things so complicated?
It’s the typical dilemma that novices in particular must confront when learning a mega media application: whether it’s a raster image app like Adobe Photoshop, a video editing app like Apple Final Cut, or a 3D modeling and animation app like Autodesk Maya, the way the vendors keep selling new releases is by continually adding more capabilities.
These updates tend to take the following form: rather than providing intrinsically new functions, they provide shortcuts, alternatives, and variations.
Maya: the Photoshop of the 3D world.
In fact, the Maya modeling toolbox is so big that it’s hard to know what tool to reach for. This can intimidate a novice. It can be hard to move forward and get your modeling feet wet when it seems like you know so little.
In truth, Maya takes years to learn. So beginners have to balance two conflicting demands:1) the need to starting flexing their creative mental muscles, and 2) the importance of developing a mature, intuitive understanding of the highly varying ways of doing any given job.
Only with experience do novices develop their true artistic voice – but you can’t wait years to start talking. Today, we’ll look at a small example of this dilemma.
A simple example: glass.
Here’s a quick example:
What do you do if you want to make glass? There are many ways to do it with Maya, and here are three of the simpler alternatives.
Click here to download glass example 1, or click below to view online.
1. Choose a standard, shiny material like a Blinn and then starting tweaking the way the material and the renderer interact as they reflect and refract light:2. Use a canned glass material, such as one provided by the Mental Ray renderer that comes packaged with Maya. (By the way, tuning the appearance of prefab materials can take as much time as doing it from scratch):
Click here to download glass example 2, or click below to view online.
3. Make two identical objects, one slightly smaller than the other, and lay them on top of each other, to give the glass a sense of thickness. Then you work with the way light interacts with the two layers:
Click here to download glass example 3, or click below to view online.
But these are only three of the very simple ways of attacking glass. There are a number of more complicated (and often more effective) ways of getting the job done.
More on 3D modeling and animation to come.
This blog is dedicated to emerging Web and media technology. In this posting, we’re going to look at two critical distinctions between two kinds of 3D modeling.
(By the way, I teach 3D animation at the University of Colorado – feel free to download my class videos at: wordsbybuzz.com.)
3D modeling: it’s pervasive.
Powerful 3D modeling tools are becoming ubiquitous. They are used by artists, product designers, engineers, and scientists. In fact, a wide and growing spectrum of professions demand some knowledge of 3D modeling.
The first distinction: two kinds of 3D modeling geometry.
3D modeling applications use straight and/or curved line geometry. In other words, if you look at the outside of a 3D object, like a human or a boat or a caterpillar, it’s made out of things that are not at all 3 dimensional.
There are two basic ways this is done. The first is with straight line geometry, whereby the surface of an object is made up of flat, 2D polygons. If you make the polygons small enough, in other words, if you increase the number of polygons that make up the surface of an object, it looks smooth.
The other approach is to use curved line geometry, whereby the surface of an object is defined by taking curved lines and sweeping them through 3-space to make up curved surfaces. Polygon modeling calls for less computations by the 3D application, but isn’t as smooth. Surfaces made by curved lines create a more complex computational job for the 3D modeling application, but they are smoother.
Here are examples of both, using Autodesk Maya, an application very popular among artists who create animated movies:
The second important distinction: surface vs. solid modeling.
(Interestingly, all 3D objects, whether they are polygon based or curved line based -or both – have to be displayed, not as lines or polygons or surfaces, but as pixels on a flat 2D screen. Think about it. We’ll get back to this in a future blog posting.)
But right now, let’s look at a critical, high level distinction. With Maya, which is used largely by artists, objects have no “guts”. They are hollow. In fact, they aren’t really 3D at all, because their surfaces have no thickness. They are made up of shells that are infinitely thin. That’s just fine for the artist trying to create an animated character or an entire animated world.
Here are the same two spheres, but with infinitely thin surfaces put on them:
But other 3D users, like engineers, product designers, and scientists, need to model objects with guts. Their objects have to have insides. This is so that things like the overall weight of a product being built can be calculated. It also allows the modeler to estimate the distribution of weight, flexibility, cost of production, strength of materials, and many other factors. Medical researchers will use solid modelers, as well, to represent tissue and blood flow and the like.
We tend to associate surface modeling with entertainment, and we associate solid modeling with engineering and science.
Popular surface modeling and animation applications are Autodesk Maya, Newtek Lightwave, and the free Blender. Popular solid modelers are AutoCAD, SolidWorks, and AutoDesSys Bonzai. By the way, solid modelers tend to also support surfaces modeling.
We’ll look more closely at other issues relating to 3D modeling and animation next…
I teach an introductory 3D animation class at the University of Colorado in Boulder. I’ve been asked from time to time what applications I would suggest for people who want to learn 3D animation, but don’t have lots of cash. As it turns out, even a minimal workflow demands a handful of sophisticated applications. Here are my suggestions for free applications. (I am not really a Windows person, so I had to augment my list with a suggestion or two from a friend.)
You might want to dive right into an animation application, but if you prefer to first sketch your characters, indoor and/or outdoor environments, and the layout of potential scenes, you might want to try Google Sketchup, which you can run on both Macs and Windows machines. The fact that this is a sophisticated application has a downside and an upside. First, it takes a while to get going with it. But second, you can create precise 2D and 3D models with it, so it’s a good way of incrementally turning a fuzzy idea into a fleshed-out model. Sketchup is free, which is amazing, given its capabilities. (There is also a professional version, which is not at all free.) GIMP is another great, free choice.
Creating and animating 3D scenes.
I teach Autodesk Maya, which is extremely popular among professional animators. The problem is that it costs thousands of dollars – unless you are a student, in which case there is a completely free version! It’s at the Autodesk site. This is an incredible deal. Note: when it comes time to export a video from Maya, you will find (or at least I did) that the student version has one limitation: it cannot render an actual movie, only a series of still images. But simply drag your rendered images to Maya’s companion application, Fcheck, and in a poke of a mouse button, you can produce a full video. Fcheck installs with Maya.
But if you are not a student, there is a free 3D modeling and animation application called Blender. Be sure to download version 2.5x or newer, because it has been radically improved since version 2.49. (At the point of this writing, 2.5 is in beta, so beware that it’s going to be imperfect.) This is no open source toy. It is a full blown 3D animation application that rivals expensive ones in its complexity and power.
Editing rendered videos.
Once you have built your 3D scenes and models, animated them, and rendered them to video, you’ll want to edit your video renderings together into a single video. If you are on a Mac, while it is a bit simplistic in its capabilities, iMovie will do the job, and it ships with every Mac. If for some reason, you don’t have it, it comes with the iLife applications, available at the Apple online store. (If you have to download it, iLife is not free.)
For Windows applications, a friend of mine suggests Avidemux. Another one she suggests is Windows Movie Maker, which shipped with Windows machines until Windows 7. Now, you have to download it, but it is still free. Like iMove, it is not very sophisticated, but it gets the job done.
In the process of editing your rendered videos into a complete, single video, you will have to add a sound track. A very powerful app that is free and runs on both Macs and Windows machines is Audacity.
Note: You will have to import your sound track into your video editor, then edit it in as a layer with your video, and then export from your video editor a complete video, with sound. You’ll also have to work with your animation application to time the sound track to the movements in your animation. I tell my introductory students to use something simple, like music or a few special effects sound (guns firing, feet falling, etc.), and to let the sound drive the pacing of your animation, not vice versa. This way, you can focus on learning to animate, and not on mastering complex sound track editing.
You are quite likely to want to augment the texturing capabilities of your animation application by turning various 2D images into textures for the characters and objects in your scenes. GIMP, which is available for both Macs and Windows machines, has been around a long time, is quite sophisticated. It’s another example of an amazing application that it is completely free.
Playing your videos.
Depending on the format produced by your video editing application, you can use Quicktime, which comes with Macs and can be installed on Windows machines for free. Or you might want VLC for Macs or VLC for Windows, or DIVX (which runs on Macs and Windows machines.) All of these are free.
In later postings on this blog, we will look more carefully at the issue of formatting and compressing various forms of media. This is a complex issue that all animators must confront.
This blog is dedicated to advanced Web and media technology. This week, I’d like to offer up a free website I have put together.
I teach an introductory 3D animation course at the University of Colorado in Boulder. I am in the computer science department, and it is not a fine arts class. It’s meant as a 3D animation literacy course and demands no programming, artistic, graphics, or animation background. The goal of the course is to give students a solid, intuitive understanding of what it means to build 3D models, put materials on them, introduce lights, and then animate and render a scene. We also cover the basics of particle dynamics.
In order to make the course tangible, and to give students the satisfaction of building models and animating them, Autodesk Maya is used heavily throughout the course. It is arguably the most popular professional 3D modeling and animation application. During most lectures, I present basic concepts and techniques, and step students through the process of executing them with Maya.
Maya is an incredibly complex application and the interface is deeply layered, with many windows, menus, pallets, and tools. Professionals spend many years mastering it. I give students a single assignment, and that is to produce a basic 3D animated video from start to finish. This means learning the overall workflow of Maya. Also, because Maya does not have facilities for editing sound, images, or video, students learn how to use Maya in a larger workflow which includes other media management applications.
The twice a week lessons are posted at wordsbybuzz.com.
The videos on the website.
The website has a blog where I post my twice a week lessons. They consist of desktop and audio capture videos. You can follow along as I present simple demonstrations with Maya.
If you look at the videos, please understand that these are raw, unedited 1.25 hour long videos. If you have any background at all in 3D animation, these are probably not the right things for you.
I also have to say that I make mistakes, have to futz around while trying to remember how to do things, and periodically run across idiosyncrasies of Maya, a mega-application that has been incrementally built over the course of a number of years. So don’t expect a lot of polish. The focus is on concepts, not on how to be a professional Maya animator.
Each of the posted videos comes with a brief overview of what they cover.
Other things on the website.
I have also posted several other things on the website, including a library of existing videos, Amazon references to a number of very good professional Maya books, an overview of what I expect students to provide for their course project, and links to videos made by previous students in the class. I also post links to this blog (on techtarget.com), and links to my other university courses. Sometimes I post links to my fiction writings.
I am in the process of creating a tab on the wordsbybuzz.com site that leads to a research website that a couple of very talented graduate students have helped me build. It is a media management system, and although it is completely built, there isn’t any media in it yet. My goal is to get students from my animation classes to upload models, animated scenes, textures, video clips, and audio clips, along with references to the applications they have used to build their pieces of media. The site will also include documents that provide explanations of how specific pieces of media were created and brief explanations of specific modeling and animation techniques.
I hope to grow the website into a place where my students (and anyone else who wants to) can collaborate on the process of developing basic 3D modeling and animation skills.
Again, please keep in mind that these videos are for folks with no background in modeling and animation, and are directed at a broad class of students who have a wide variety of reasons to want to learn about 3D animation. It is a skill that many professionals in a broad and rapidly growing array of disciplines need to learn.
Last week, we looked at WordPress and how easily it can be used to build websites that are more than just blogs. Today, we look at Freeway, a full blown website development application for Macs.
It’s from Softpress at softpress.com.
There are indeed a number of competitors.
I have tried using a number of not-as-overwhelming-as-Dreamweaver website development applications, on both Macs and Windows machines. They tend to share a common problem: unintuitive interfaces that take you down a path where suddenly, your developing website blows up, leaving you with either trying to patch up a mess or starting over.
With Freeway, your workflow is smooth, lacking in nasty surprises. You can focus on the artistic side of building a site and not on mastering the website development app itself.
What’s good in Freeway.
This is not true with Freeway and I am surprised it isn’t more broadly known. It has several great features.
First, you can use the thing without reading the User Guide until you’re trying to do fairly detailed work. It is very intuitive.
Second, you can very quickly build an elegant static website. It doesn’t have one of those maze-like interfaces that makes it hard to ignore the fancy stuff meant for building dynamic, database-driven websites when you are just trying to cobble something simple. And, you can use this even if you know zero about programming or mega media apps.
I have built a simple static site in just minutes, using one of their templates. It is at buzzlheureux.com.
Third, it is packed with useful tools for working with graphics, tables, calendars, RSS sites, etc., and Google Analytics, Maps, and AdSense. There are also capabilities for developing iPhone and iPad web applications, but I have not checked them out myself.
Four, you can indeed build full-blown dynamic websites with Freeway.
Five, it’s relatively cheap. 70 dollars for the “express” version and 230 dollars for the “pro” version.
Freeway does have two limitations that I hope the folks at softpress.com attack.
First, it is hard to include a blog as a tab in your otherwise page-oriented (as opposed to posting-oriented) website. I should say that they do have what appears to be a nice facility for building and using templates for Google’s blogging software.
Second, there are only a small number of available website templates. But the ones that are there are elegant, clean, and easy to tailor. And Freeway does indeed have some nice Blogger templates.
All in all, Freeway is a fantastic tool and I am planning on using it in my teaching.
This blog is devoted (mostly) to cutting edge Web and media technology. Today and in the next posting, we will look at two website development tools that I have found surprisingly powerful, given their simplicity and elegance.
One of them is WordPress, which can be run on Macs, WIndows machines, and Linux machines, and the other is Freeway (a Mac-only application). We’ll look at Freeway next time.
This is the famous blog server software, and in fact the ITKE blogs, of which this is one, uses it. What many people don’t realize is that it can be used to build more diverse websites.
First of all, it is extremely easy to install. Anyone, and you certainly don’t need to be a programmer, can build their own WordPress server. That means you have total control. There is no need to have WordPress host your site.
Here is what you need:
A domain and someone to host your site. I might suggest GoDaddy.com for both. You need your hosting service to provide access to the MySQL database management system as well. For the most part, you need to pay for your domain and hosting.
You also need an FTP program, of which there are very good free ones. FTP predates the web, and has long be used to move data from one machine to another one on the Internet.
Finally, you need the WorldPress software, which is also free.
If anyone needs pointers to any of these applications, just contact me.
I won’t go into the details here, but all you need is to download the WordPress software and make a couple of very simple changes to its configuration files. Then it is ready to go.
You must also create an empty database with MySQL. This is very simple.
Then you copy the WordPress software onto your hosted server by using your FTP program.
Again, if anyone wants more detailed help, just send me email. My address is posted in my bio on this blog.
Now, you just use your browser to build your site. You first choose a template and tailer it a bit. (I use the default WordPress 3.0 template.)
You then create blog entries and other webpages. You don’t have to use your FTP program again, as WorldPress will now do all your uploading for you.
You can do a few different things with WordPress. You can of course create a blog. But you can also build what WordPress calls “pages” (as oppose to blog “postings”) and they make up fixed tabs on your home page. In other words, you don’t need to make your site primarily a blog.
You can also create “widgets” to post links to other sites, point to RSS feeds, etc., etc.
WordPress will, as it turns out, use MySQL to store your data, but you don’t even have to know it’s doing it. WordPress takes care of all of this for you.
The definition of a “dynamic” website is that your site will build tailored webpages for your users. They tell your site what they want to see and the page is built on the spot.
Now, given that WordPress uses MySQL to store information that it plugs into pages that then get immediately downloaded, it technically is a tool for building dynamic websites. And there is a lot more that can be done with WordPress beyond what we have discussed here.
Still, I think its big plus is that it is almost trivial to install, very easy to use, and produces very elegant websites.
You can look at one of mine, if you want, which I set up for my 3D animation students: http://wordsbybuzz.com. It is part blog, part general purpose website, and you can download my animation lessons if you want. The are built with desktop capture and audio capture software.
Next time, Freeway.
This blog is dedicated (most of the time) to advanced web, semantic web, Web 2.0/3.0, and web media technology.
In the last posting we took a look at the wide spectrum of media and communications technology that more and more of us are expected to use to facilitate our professional interactions. Today, we take a closer look at a tool that I use. It’s not a web development tool, but it’s key to my main teaching website, wordsbybuzz.
Desktop and audio capture.
It’s called Camtasia, and it’s used to create screen capture videos. They’ve had a Windows product for quite a while, but a couple of years ago, they released a Mac product. I jumped on it.
As I teach my introduction to 3D animation class, I use Camtasia to capture everything I do on my Macbook Pro, including running Autodesk Maya, the animation package I use as a teaching tool. At the same time, Camtasia records my voice.
You can do basic editing with Camtasia as well, and add transition effects. You can insert text, as well as icons that direct the viewer to various objects in the screen capture.
Camtasia produces beautiful video. Even the small fonts on Maya’s (extremely) complex interface come out crisp. Camtasia offers a wide variety of format and compression choices for the video and audio. I render Quicktime movies with Camtasia, and then post them on my website.
Essential to teaching software technology.
A tool like this is essential to the teaching of complex software tools, whether they are programming tools or media applications. It allows me to make a permanent record of my lectures. Students can look at them at their leisure, as they struggle to build their projects for my animation course.
The best part is that this all-in-one application is very cheap, between $100 and $150, depending on the current deal they are offering.
A rapidly growing prosumer marketplace.
Camtasia is part of an exploding market of “prosumer” video, audio, vector and raster image, and animation applications, as well as affordable, high quality cameras, microphones, and other equipment.
One nice thing about Camtasia is that it is actually very simple to use – unlike a lot of prosumer apps, which are often versions of highly complex professional level products that, quite frankly, haven’t had enough of their capabilities removed to make them easily usable.
Camtasia was clearly built from the ground up with regular folks in mind.
Other vendors of media applications are beginning to provide powerful applications that are not intimidating and can be learned in a reasonable amount of time. This is particularly true of audio editing apps.
If you have any interest in diving into media applications of any sort, I would be more than happy to point you toward the applications I use. I work mostly of Macs, but I have a number of Windows apps as well.
This blog is dedicated (most of the time) to advanced web, semantic web, Web 2.0/3.0, and web media technology.
Today, we look at the wide spectrum of personal web communications infrastructure that more and more of us are supposed to be using to facilitate our professional interactions with others. This includes applications and hardware.
So, to what communications applications do the people we work with expect us to have instant access? (And it better work with no futzing around.) Here are some.
Basic document editing and presentation editing software. I use Apple Pages and Keynote. I use a note application called Evernote. It is both a web app and a desktop app.
Conferencing, desktop sharing, and whiteboard software. I use Skype. If I could rationalize the cost, I would use WebEx. Does anyone know of a cheaper or free application that provides all the functionality of WebEx? Let me know…
Blogging and website posting software. I have WordPress running on my blog server. I use it for teaching purposes. Try my animation site.
Screen and audio capture software, and video/sound editing software to render video and perhaps clean it up a bit. I use Camtasia’s mac product, along with Apple Motion, and Soundsoap. It is no longer sufficient to throw together a few slides and walk into meetings. We prepare complex multimedia presentations and they are accessed online.
And an FTP or WebDAV client for posting content. I use Transmit. It does both.
A domain and hosting service (perhaps through our employer). I use GoDaddy.
And, what about hardware to go along with all this software?
We are finding that entry level hardware is often not good enough. What do we need?
A microphone better than the one embedded in our display.
A camera better than the one embedded in our display, perhaps one with hardware built into it for instant lighting correction and focus, so that the camera software doesn’t drag down our machine.
A multi-core machine that won’t choke under the weight of big applications, and at least one large theatre display, maybe two.
A headset would be nice, too.
And online storage for the big hunks of media we find ourselves generating (again, perhaps through our employer).
And then there are two problems.
Learning to use all this stuff.
Paying for it.
More on this in the next posting.
This entry is just a quick note. Since this blog is largely dedicated to advanced Web and media applications, I thought folks might be interested in this.
I teach database systems and 3D animation at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Twice a week, I post the videos of my introductory animation class on a website. The videos are screen and audio capture. I try to introduce the basics of 3D animation, with a focus on Autodesk Maya, arguably the most popular 3D application. The semester is just getting started and so I have only posted two videos so far.
Please keep in mind that I am teaching students from a very broad range of academic majors, with many of them being computer science and engineering students – and so the slant is on learning 3D animation as a basic skill. It is not a fine arts class.
The website is wordsbybuzz.com
From boxes of IBM cards to animation on websites.
It’s easy, if you’re my age, to be very excited about the speed of the new generation of multi-core processors and about ever-increasing Internet bandwidth. Hey, I started out writing programs on punch machines that spat out boxes of “IBM cards”. A medium sized program might need a wheelbarrow move it around. We ran our programs on computers that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and if we were lucky, we could squeeze in a half dozen compile-and-executions a day. There was, of course, no Internet, and dialup technology was brand new.
I’m maybe the zillionth guy to brag about his experience with walking-to-school-in-ten-feet-of-snow computing technology. But here’s the subtlety. Faster and faster processing and data movement is more than a convenience. It does more than gradually increasing the ease of getting computing jobs done.
There’s always another hurdle.
That’s because every now and then things get fast enough that something that was totally intractable in the past is now quite doable. Managing multimedia on the Web is one such thing. It seems like we’re almost there. Soon, we’ll be able to stream large videos over home Internet connections. We’ll have “real” animation on websites, not just choppy Flash stuff. We can already edit video on modest desktop machines. We can install large scale server-based database management systems – and have them run just fine. Soon, many folks believe, we’ll be able to edit huge pieces of media online and search large server-based media databases effectively.
But just as we pass one horizon, we see a new, higher one out ahead. It’s tantalizing, thinking about the things we can’t do yet, things that we’re not completely sure we’ll ever be able to do.
Here’s one. Rendering.
I teach 3D animation. I like to experiment with new applications and introduce them to my students. Lately, I’ve been looking at a rapidly growing class of photorealistic renderers that can turn vector-based 3D Google SketchUp models into images that look like photographs, and in fact, beautiful photographs. These renderers simulate the complex movement of light as it reflects off of and refracts through objects like glass and car paint and swimming pools.
In past entries of this blog, I’ve written about the explosion of animation tools and the the teaching of animation. Desktop animation applications do tend to demand multi-core processors, several gigabytes of memory, and reasonably high end video cards. But machines with such components are now cranked out routinely by Apple. PCs intended for game playing make excellent home and small office animation engines.
Except for rendering. It’s that process that takes twenty or thirty frames per second of animation and cranks out video that looks super-real. That’s the bottleneck. I teach Maya. My students often find that their two minute videos can take hours or days to render. Two things in particular can cause render times to explode. Particle dynamics, used to simulate things like fire, is one. The other is rendering. Simulating light and its movements is computationally intense.
I use a product called Maxwell as a plugin to Sketchup and Maya. One beautiful frame – and remember, that covers maybe a twentieth of a second of video – can take an hour on my several-core Apple iMac.
Imagine the day when it takes fractions of a second.