First VFM02 Environ Production Modeling


The VFM02 virtual set has officially passed from pre-production to production, as tonight I’ve made my first piece of complex geometry (ever) from a simple cube to begin replacing the graybox blocking. The previous tutorials really helped. When I hot-keyed the Extrude command, oh boy did that change my world.

To take it any further at this point, now… well… now it’s time to unwrap UV texture coordinates. Yay. Yayyyyyyy.

I tried the ‘Automatic UV Mapping’ command and it created a total mess. Some vertices went off into infinity, apparently. The command might as well have been called ‘LOL JK FU’. But then I deleted all of the UVs and did it again– with a fresh slate, it worked out really nicely. Surprised. Broke everything up by six sides and unwrapped those nicely. And I stumbled on that totally by accident– I could’ve spent hours trying to do Planar Mapping and pulling verts manually. Ugh. Next, I re-arranged the shells and changed their proportions based on what would be most visible and important, tested this with checkers, etc…

Later tonight, I’m going to burn through this tutorial from Digital Tutors, UV Mapping Workflows in Maya, and hope UV Unwrapping and Mapping can finally not feel like such a dreaded process.


I had gone through the sections about UV mapping on for Maya. While valuable for a fresh beginner like me, they ultimately weren’t nearly thorough enough on this. They never got into unwrapping complex geometry. Instead, there’s an example of using planar mapping to throw a flat texture onto the flat side of a flat mesh– a fish! C’mon… They do not adequately prepare you for, say, unwrapping a triple-A quality human character mesh, let alone this simple tech box. There were some better clues in Lynda’s Game Environment Modeling tutorial though. I’ll check out the 2015 Maya Essential Training sometime, even though I’m running 2012.

So I’ll give the UV tutorial a go later tonight. I just finished the Gnomon Game Environment Modeling tutorial, where Nate from Sony Santa Monica talks about how he’s modeling to prepare for texturing and how the modeling process is never really done until you finish texturing and even then it’s not really done… but the tutorial ends right when it should go on to the texturing part. And Gnomon doesn’t offer a part II texturing tutorial, but they do have several on the subject. It just would’ve been nice to have the continuity of process and see it through. I’ve yet to find a single or multi-part grouped tutorial that truly goes from start to finish at a fully professional level.

EDIT: Looks like Nate did do a counterpart actually, but unfortunately it’s all in ZBrush instead of Mudbox: Environment Modeling and Sculpting for Games. Still, would have liked to see the first tutorial followed through to the end, but this helps! Also just signed up for a Gnomon subscription!


Anyway, so I’ve got the UVs sorted and now I might bring it into Mudbox to make sure the polygons and UVs all play nice. If so, then I’ll do a quick texture pass between Mudbox / Photoshop / and experimenting with making a techy elements normals-baked kit in Maya. And just refine from there. Before I do this, I may also go back and refine the model as well. I’ll update this article if I make any further significant progress tonight.

02/26 — 3:30AM UPDATE: Refined the model, deleted unnecessary faces we never see, redid the UVs. Then brought it into Photoshop and sketched over it as a design pass. Will do the photographic texturing build in Photoshop tomorrow, and I think I can probably get away with doing a bump map in Photoshop manually instead of doing normals in Mudbox– but I’ll try both!


02/26 — 20:12 UPDATE:
Current Photoshop texturing and design progress:


02/28 — 21:15 UPDATE:
Had some time today to work on texture. Experimenting with bump maps– first tried simply turning off all the graphics from the base textures and creating a quick desaturated and levels-tweaked bump map. Not too sure about it really, so this probably isn’t going to be as easy. Might have to do a whole new bump map texture from scratch for it to really make sense. Want to also bring this into Mudbox next and see what can be done with normal mapping there. Also, this was rendered in Maya with Mentalray and getting VRay is on my list… This material is a standard Maya Blinn so I’ll look into experimenting with other materials later as well.


03/01 — 21:15 UPDATE:
Manual bump mapping. Much better, more like modeling by grayscale graphic design. Not as pronounced as I would’ve liked. Maybe I can get some more texture into it on a separate layer next. I tried bringing this into Mudbox, but upon upscaling its polys so I could sculpt it and bake a normal map, the UVs didn’t perfectly upscale as I had hoped and distorted the base texture. I have a few ideas for some things I can try to fix this next.


03/02 — 21:15 UPDATE:
Successfully upscaled the geo of the model in Mudbox without distorting UVs and did a bit of sculpting on the mesh. Then figured out how to export this to a normal map for the low-poly mesh target, and applied this in Maya. It appears I had to choose between using the Bump Map and the Normal Map. I couldn’t apply both? There’s probably a method to do that in the Hypershade.


When I tested this in Maya, the results didn’t quite transfer as effectively as they appeared in the Mudbox sculpt. So I’ll have to experiment with this more. Currently, I’m fairly happy with using the Bump Map instead, as I was able to get very precise cuts (plating seams and vents, etc…) and extrusions (bolts, etc…) in a very straightforward manner directly over the 2D texture map in my PSD. That method was also very fast. I’d probably entirely rely on Mudbox for more organic sculpting needs instead of hard surface stuff. The bump map just didn’t deform negative values as much as I’d like, and increasing the bump value in Maya introduced distortions.

Lots to keep experimenting with as I learn this stuff. For environment art, I’m starting to see how you can go a little more high-poly than I was expecting (especially these days) and not have to do all of the detail in bump maps or normal maps, especially if the goal is to make a movie and not a game with these assets. I’d like to figure out the game method, though, as it’s most optimal and seems like a best practice for getting an asset done efficiently and effectively in both arenas. Plus, I’m looking into actually using a game engine like Unreal Engine 4 to render scenes in realtime to save enormous amounts of time and bypass the need to buy and build a renderfarm– will have to test if this will hold up in 4K.

I’ll keep digging and continue messing around with it. But as far as a pipeline, I’ve never gone this far, so that’s cool.


I think at this point I can probably move on and build out the rest of the set with low poly objects and bump maps. Especially for a movie, where I know the camera never gets in too close on any of this and details are lost, even at 4K. It’s important that they’re there, but I think they don’t have to be as in-depth as a model you could walk right up to if this were a game.

Alright– moving on!
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WIPs: VFM02 Environ: Concept 2


Had about two hours available tonight to quickly photobash together a totally different concept for VFM02’s test environment. This is a great test project to get on with learning how to make production environment art in Maya / Mudbox or ZBrush (which I have but am hoping I can stick with Mudbox as the UI seems a lot more logical to me right now), so I wanted to move fast with the concept stage at this point.

As mentioned in the last post, this Virtual Filmmaking 02 test scene is set in an aerostation in the upper atmosphere of Earth instead of the typical space station. So to try something totally different than the last environ concept (which was very dark), I thought I’d open the space up with windows and go bright. Strong colors. Blues, oranges, yellows. I wanted to see the atmosphere and the exterior of the station.

I ended up selecting, morphing, and combining elements from about a dozen or so different references (also giving me ideas for who to reach out to for future collaborations). I’ll let this settle and come back to it– If I’m still happy with it and decide to go with it, then it will be onto the more intricate process of designing out this stuff as the direct original assets.

I like this so much better. It reminds me a lot of how refreshing Mirror’s Edge’s art direction was over the usual drab cyberpunk fair– here bright, airy, and also nicely striking.

Alright, timeboxed and out. Later!
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WIPs: VFM02 Environ: Concept 1

For this snowy Saturday, I’m gonna do a bit of VFM02 Environ concept art.

To kick this off, here’s a recap of the conceptual WIPs (works-in-progress) I’ve done so far. I’m not really satisfied with it yet, so today I’m going to start over and try some new things. But here’s what I had:

After Effects build of First Styleframe from 2015.01.31:


Here it was rebuilt in After Effects from the photobashed styleframe concept below. This is still just a styleframe (though from a full video version at this point), as the actual shot would have everything modeled out as original assets.

For years, I have been studying my favorite cinematographers the Cronenweths (father / son who did: Blade Runner / Fight Club, etc…). I have this inverse method, where I love shadow and prefer to ‘work with shadow’ more than light (even though technically they’re two halves of the same whole), which is very apt for a future noir look. But it clearly needs refined here. For this scene, the characters are in what I call an ‘aerostation’ floating amongst the clouds, instead of the usual space-station, and it’s sunset with a possible storm brewing and maybe some light rain going outside (the reverse shot on Hale shows this through a window).

So, I was also referencing Blade Runner frames, particularly when Rachael and Deckard meet in Tyrell’s office to get that color noir sunset look– but the cinematography on film in the 80’s is a lot less sharp than, say, that in Elysium, where a lot of detail is packed into every frame. I think I’m going to pop in the Elysium Blu-ray and do some reference capture next. I had also reframed this shot after matching the Maya virtual camera’s film back to a standard 35mm film camera.

At this point, I want to start over on it, and play around fresh with concepting the scene. That’s what I’ll start on today.

First styleframe concept from 2015.01.31:


This is the first photobashed styleframe concept done in Photoshop. After letting this rest for awhile, I can now really see how this first pass was pretty fast and loose– it’s kind of a mess, isn’t it. Less future noir and just kind of muddy. You can compare it with the After Effects build above and see how I really tried to clean it up though.

Overall, I don’t think the giant brains in vats really work here, especially out of focus– you can’t really even tell what they are. I really love that idea and find I keep coming back to it, but it’s not really working here (or I haven’t made it work).

Base Plate: Graybox Composite from 2015.01.27:


The base plate I started with to concept over.

Any feedback is appreciated. Hit me up at @XanderDavisLive.
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Tutorials: Maya Sci-Fi Environs


After client work, this evening I dove into tutorials.

The first one I found at Digital Tutors: Creating a Game-Ready Sci-Fi Environment in Maya (2.5 hours) so I can make progress on VFM02 — my blocker on that project now is my limit on modeling ability for the environment art. I’m currently good enough just to get the basic graybox in. But of course, I always go for projects a bit beyond my experience, so I intentionally hit blockers as opportunities to push myself. It’s time to finally get beyond this– once I do, so many possibilities will open up.

This tutorial was very helpful, because I could finally see the full pipeline of doing environment art in an optimized way (streamlined models, high-poly baked into low-poly, etc…). Maya is so convoluted from a UI standpoint, and watching this guy work was at times overwhelming for how odd the process seemed. However, as with any software, the more you do this, the more second-nature it gets. I just have to push through and do this stuff, over and over, before I can even get good. I have Mudbox as well, so I’m also trying to dive in and learn that.


I bought a Gnomon tutorial for this in 2012 (Environment Modeling for Games), and will revisit it now that I have more time next. That just stops at modeling, however. I wanted to see the full path from modeling to texture and normal maps and Mudbox painting to final assets, so the Digital Tutors tutorial above is better for that. I figured I might as well look closely at game environment art tutorials to kill two birds with one stone: might as well make my default practice optimal modeling and materials so my work can be usable both for video and for game engines. And the more efficient I make my film CG environments, the better. As we’re into the eighth console gen, the gap on this stuff is probably closing anyway.

My goal right now is to learn hard-surface high-detail yet efficient modeling in Maya and virtual detail painting in Mudbox so I can get good and fast at doing environments. This will be critical for a virtual filmmaking pipeline. For VFM02, I’ve pulled some Sci-Fi Interiors Research for general inspiration, reference, and quality targets (quite a challenge ahead).

I’ve had Maya since 2011 and Mudbox since 2013, but have used them off-and-on. In that time, I’ve been primarily earning my living still doing UI for games, so it’s not something I work in every day. I usually just haven’t had the time or haven’t made the time. Since life has gotten a lot more stable since I went global freelance (I’m not moving every year for a studio gig), it’s a lot easier to focus and ramp up on these kinds of goals now, if only I make them a priority.


My daily timesheets I keep for myself have new routines set for expanding my skills with online training like this, working on existing internal projects, doing existing external client work, finding new business, and spending time with the girlfriend, all in a single day. Focused intense drive was always there, but it’s not enough: you have to turn that into a machine. This book has great advice for how to start doing that: Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind. It still involves a lot of caffeine.


Next, I’m going to run through this other Digital Tutor tutorial: Rendering Low Resolution Environments in Maya (3hrs).

If you know of any tutorials that really rock for Maya and detailed environment art, let me know via @XanderDavisLive. Happy Friday!
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XD&A Greenscreen Stage and VFM02



In December, after the Cinecomic Experiment unexpectedly proved virtual filmmaking was viable for me, I had this spare unfinished room in my house built-up enough to put a greenscreen stage in it, featuring the new Panasonic GH4 4K DLSM camera, a professional light-absorbing greenscreen backdrop, photography lights, and a 40″ HDTV monitor. At first, I got a small 25″ inch monitor (in the above pic), but we actually missed that a take was out of focus during a wardrobe test, so I upgraded that (below) to be sure.

The implications of this were profound for me. I wanted to see if I could shoot a professional-grade short film virtually from within my studio space on a micro-budget, or even no budget at all, while being unlimited in where the film could take place. Environments could potentially be done all virtually, with only actors captured in principle photography. Essentially, what was only possible through ILM pushing the envelope with millions of dollars in 1997 (despite that film’s script being not so hot) was now within reach in my home with prosumer gear and software (a big thank-you to George Lucas and ILM for figuring out how to make this more affordable and accessible for future filmmakers now almost two-decades later). My mind was reeling with the possibilities.

So, the December Cinecomic Experiment culminating in the test shot of me on the bridge of the Prometheus was retroactively deemed Virtual Filmmaking Test 01 (VFM01). From there, a new two-page script and storyboards were made, and in mid-January (after a texture-hunt vacation around Chicago), principle photography on Virtual Filmmaking Test 02 (VFM02) began. This would eventually be known as simply ‘Prototype 2’.


For VFM02, I essentially used a scene from Prometheus (where David poisons Holloway) as a model and an emulation target, directorially. The idea being if I could re-create virtually an actual dramatic scene by Ridley Scott (in a new context with a new original environment and characters), this would be a proof-of-concept that a virtually-composed film production could be doable for me. I was also tracking my time put into this to begin developing metrics for how long it would take to create a minute and a half dramatic scene with about twelve angles over many cuts. That could then be extrapolated to estimate how long it might take to produce a short film or even a feature through these virtual filmmaking techniques.


For this I would play two characters, an older scientist and a ‘fresher’ experimental clone. I knew I’d need to really differentiate my looks for each to create such a contrast that you might forget the two characters are played by the same person when watching. We would need makeup, another new territory for me. But I wanted to learn everything involved in this process as much as possible. After some research on old age makeup and prosthetics, the wonderful Liz Irish was put to work as my makeup artist for me and both characters. Cortni Fleagle was the hair stylist– the scientist unkempt and the clone tightly-trimmed.


Between the various wardrobe and makeup tests, I first shot all of Hale’s angles, then got my hair cut and could shave (finally). Then I did the Clone’s shots. Both characters over twelve angles or less each took a five hour shooting session– I think that was largely due to the fact that I was ‘acting in the blind’, since I was both the actor and director. After I’d do a ten-minute run through take, I’d stop, sit at the monitor, watch playback, make mental notes to direct myself, and do it again. Plus, this was my first time in front of a camera acting in a long while. Logistically, the shoot was over a span of two weeks in spare time, but when it’s all cut together, it’s magically a single moment. I love stuff like that, the filmmaking magic that creates impossible results in a single frame.

I went the Fincher-50 route and did about fifty takes for each individual line. I believe in this a lot, especially with digital not costing you anything to do that. Since we’ve gone to all the trouble to get to these moments of shooting, might as well be absolutely sure we ‘get it’ and try many different things. This becomes a joy then in editing, because you can custom-tailor a seamless performance between each cut, line-by-line at times even, to get the perfect total performance. This is even more critical when your actors are acting to focus targets on a stand– you need the flexibility to gel the performances together for cohesion. With that many takes, it’s almost impossible to have a bad cut– that is, if your actors can give you those choices.


I actually don’t really want to be in my films, but it’s sort of hard to not utilize myself– I’m here, I’m always available, I’d like to think I look alright, I have acting experience, I can exhaust myself with fifty takes per angle no problem, and I’m free for the production. I’d much rather be behind the camera focusing purely on directing, but at least until I can prove out my filmmaking abilities to attract solid actors for these productions, I’m gonna have to be the lab monkey. I guess it’s good anyway, because it will force me to get warmed up with acting again (it’s been awhile), study the craft, and know what it’s like to be on that side of the camera– all good experience to make me a better director and even screenwriter. For example, I bought all of the Stanislavski books, and am learning that side of it. It’s actually my goal to know everyone’s job on set better than they do if I’m going to direct; I believe that’s required. So begins that journey…

After I did the storyboards and before I did the principle photography, I constructed the virtual set at a ‘graybox’ fidelity. This is common practice in game development as well. Once all the acting was shot, with every take cut up and selects made, I then was able to finally comp them into After Effects together. Once all of that was done per angle, I was able to export out a ‘graybox cut’, so you could -finally- watch the whole thing cohesively in one go. It took about three or four weeks to get there in spare time.


That’s basically where I am now. I’m building up the environment art more fully, first in concept art. This is definitely something I would normally do before shooting anything, but I was satisfied with having just the graybox environment and a solid idea for what it will ultimately look like to begin shooting for the sake of a test. I’m going through training right now at (Get 10 days of free unlimited access to on Maya, Mudbox, and After Effects courses (two playlists totaling in 250 courses of stuff to get through to really up my game). So it’ll be awhile before these shots are completed.

But the idea is once I get VFM02 done and under my belt, the next go at this will be way faster. The skills will be there, I will have done this before, it will even hopefully get mundane. Then it’ll all be less about how to do it, and more about what to do. And what to do better. I am just starting out on this stuff. But for my first go at 4K digital filmmaking, a virtual cinematic pipeline, and learning film VFX, it’s very encouraging so far.

And then, suddenly, VFM02 got a bit derailed, because I got the camera ‘out of the lab’ to do straight-up practical cinematography tests. And the results of what became ‘Prototype 3’ would again surprise me. Can’t wait to share that with you too…

Until then, back to client work! (I don’t sleep much!)
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Podcast Film Review: Interstellar


With Interstellar releasing next month to own, what better way to kick off posting podcasts I’ve been on than the Oops All Movies episode (with Joe Woody and Neal Lewis) for the new Christopher Nolan space epic? This episode originally released on November 16th, 2014 and featured my song Stereo Sight Seekers for my previous Oculus Rift VR project Powergrid.

Incidentally, I bought that jacket in the above photo that night prior to seeing the movie mainly because it felt very spacey and reminded me a lot of the apparel in Alien, which I was in the middle of playing at the time. Later, I ended up using that in the December Cinecomic Experiment as well.

“I am space man.”

“WTFTL” – Did you think 2001: A Space Odyssey was too confusing? We think you’ll like this, because this harvest, the farmers are going to space. Sex, lies, and space travel.

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Podcast Film Review: Gravity

I joined the gang at Oops All Movies to review Gravity. Original episode date: On October 12th, 2013.

Episode 135 — “Ed Harris” — A movie as big as Gravity calls for a show equally as big. Hence, we have not one special guest, but two this episode, as Xander Davis joins us in-studio and Mike Colangelo calls in from Canada for a wide-ranging discussion on Alfonso Cuarón’s much-buzzed about movie. Question of the week: What scene from another sci-fi movie would you place into Gravity?

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Podcast Film Review: Ender’s Game

I joined the gang at Oops All Movies to review Ender’s Game. Original episode date: On November 8th, 2013.

Episode 139 — “Game Over Man” — Special guests Xander Davis and Kristin Jones join us in-studio for a wide-ranging discussion of Ender’s Game, the long-awaited film adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s renowned science fiction novel. Does writer/director Gavin Hood do the book justice? Question of the week: What game would Ender NOT be very good at?

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