Thursday, 3 May 2012

Digital module- Infographics project creation

It's been a long time since my last post! Apologies to those waiting eagerly to see my priest stop motion puppet. The last few weeks have been a highly unpleasant mix of Maya and After Effects (with a fair amount of computer problems too). Nevertheless, my infographics animation is now complete! I shall post the video separately soon. As promised, here is the walkthrough on how I made it.

Earlier during this project, I decided that to keep the motorway sections lively and interesting, I would create the animations in 3D using Autodesk Maya. This serves multiple purposes with relation to my Digital animation module, and my digital animation skill set.

My approach to Maya so far has been one of breaking the program down into small, manageable chunks. Maya is a vast program and certainly took me a while to get used to, and to try everything at once would be overwhelming to say the least. Instead, with each of my 3D animations to far, I have made a conscious choice to try something new and push my skills further. With my first animation, this was the modelling basics, with my second I had an emphasis on creating better geometry and lighting, and now, with my third attempt, I have focused on the UV texture editor.

From my experiences so far using Maya, I had an admittedly cynical view from the onset, where I believed without a doubt that the UV texture editor would be tricky and problematic. Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I realised it is actually a very easy part of Maya!

My decision to keep the vehicles for my animation low-poly was made for two main reasons; firstly, since the vehicles will only be seen from a distance, any fine details will be unnoticeable. Secondly, because low-poly models are easier to texture, thus providing me with a great beginner’s introduction to texturing custom UVs. I can definitely say now, without a doubt, that having successfully created a range of textures for my low-poly cars, I would feel comfortable trying something a bit more ambitious in the near future!

To prevent my animation from looking bland, I needed a range of different cars. Of course, I have not had the time to make a myriad of different makes and models! As a compromise, I chose to model the cars directly from the original infographic source image, giving me five different models in total. These have then been given different colour textures, so that duplicates do look different.

Of the five vehicles, there is a good range of types on show; a lorry, a pickup truck, a station wagon, a Ford Mondeo, and a Volkswagen Beetle. Before making the models, I gathered appropriate references, such as side and front views, that would aid me in the creation of the models.


The first car I made was the pickup truck, for it (of all the desired vehicles) had the most angular, square shape. This was a nice lead in to the more difficult shapes such as the very curvaceous Beetle.


You will notice from my screenshots that I have a lot more ‘in-process’ pictures of the first car. This is because the process has been largely the same for each vehicle, to the point where there is simply no point in me repeating myself!

As you can see above, I began with a cube, before inserting edge loops and manipulating vertices to create the basic body shape. I tried my best to match the lines of the vehicle, taking into consideration the parts which needed to taper, for example the top of the cab.


Cars are always symmetrical, and so it was crucial that my models were so too. I created a centre line by performing a ‘mirror cut’ to the body. This way, I could add detail to one half, before finally mirroring the shape and merging the two halves together.


For the pickup truck, the trailer part at the back needed to be extruded downwards. Whilst easy to model, this would prove tricky when creating the UVs because I would need to texture around the inside faces too.


For the wheel arches, I created a cylinder, rotated it to its side, split it in half, and used the Boolean ‘difference’ to cut this arch shape from the car body. Whilst again this was easy, the resulting need to neaten up the topology created a lot of work with the interactive split tool.

Once the polygons had been neatened, the pickup truck half looked as follows:


Following this, I had a strong foundation to build upon to create the smaller (yet necessary) details. I added wheels, steps, wing mirrors and some shapely detail to the wheel arches. Then, the whole model was mirrored and merged.



My low-poly pickup truck model was complete! Initially, it was my intention to create all the models first, followed by all the textures. I soon found that the process was getting a bit too monotonous however, and so after making the station wagon model (as follows) decided to shake things up a little by alternating between tasks.

The station wagon began the same as before, with the adding of reference planes to work from. A cube was added, edge loops inserted, and the basic body shape built to match the pictures.


To avoid having to switch between wireframe and smooth-shaded views constantly, I created a clear ‘lambert’ material and assigned this to the model. This way I could see the reference picture through the model, which was incredibly useful when moving vertices.


Once again, I mirrored the halves and added details such as the mirrors and bumpers.

After what had been a lengthy modelling session, I decided to try texturing! I felt confident as aforementioned thanks to a great tutorial from my tutor which explained everything I needed to know.


Firstly, I selected the part that I needed to texture (the body, for the smaller details could just be assigned solid-colour materials). This was given a default checkerboard texture, enabling me to see when the UVs were the correct size and ratio.


Because the sides or my car were largely flat, I needed to select all of the faces on a side and use ‘planar mapping’ to project the texture onto that side correctly. This process needed to be repeated for each side of the car (the top, front, rear etc.)


In the UV texture editor, you can see the layout of your arranged UVs. When you begin, this is a terrible mess! After applying planar mapping to each side and adjusting the size of the UVs however, you can see exactly what part corresponds to where on the model.

In the image above, I have laid out each side such that you can see which is which. Bear in mind however that the UVs (for some reason unknown to me) must be arranged within the checkerboard area of the editor. This is a case of shrinking down the UVs as little as possible, and arranging them to fit as neatly as possible within a square.

From here, you can export the texture map as a Photoshop document. Now for the lengthy part! Opening the file and drawing the textures (for I desired a simplistic cartoon appearance) took far longer than expected. Naturally I had to duplicate and mirror the sides such that the car remained symmetrical, but the difficult part was making sure that any lines that wrapped around the car (trims, etc.) were consistent and even on all sides.


Here, you can see my station wagon texture open in the texture editor. Assigning the texture is a simple process of opening the file under a new material’s ‘colour’ attribute, as you would any other texture. For the cars, I used a ‘blinn’ material which is shiny. With the coloured details, my final car looked as follows:






The same texturing process was repeated for the pickup truck model made before:





The Ford Mondeo model was slightly different in that its shape is far less square than the two cars detailed above. It required more polygons to look decent.


This was challenging- I needed to strike a balance between keeping the model low-poly, and making sure the form was round enough to resemble the car.



You can see a grey square in the middle of the black underside texture in the previous image. This is actually a face on the top of the Mondeo! When selecting the faces, I did experience quite a lot of problems where I selected a face on one side, and the command somehow passed through the model and selected faces on the other side too. In this case, I must have missed it! Instead of altering the UVs in the texture editor and re-doing the drawings, I just coloured this rectangle the correct colour as a quick fix. Yes, the underside of the Mondeo has a coloured box on it, but you will not see this in the animation anyway! Lesson learned- be more careful selecting faces in the future, as things can be difficult to correct later on!




For the VW Beetle, I realised early on that the shape would be very awkward to model, let alone texture, as one piece. For this reason, I decided to make the Beetle in two halves- top and bottom. Each would be textured independently. Fortunately, there are no lines that pass through both ‘parts’, and so the fact that the model is in two pieces is unnoticeable.



Getting the basic shapes made was relatively stress-free. Rounding them off on the other hand, was a nightmare. After a great deal of tweaking (during which I was concentrating so much I forgot to take interim screengrabs), the shape was finalised. This was a very difficult task trying, akin to the Mondeo, to strike a balance between low-poly and smooth. I feel the final model does a good job!


With fewer overall lines and details, the Beetle was not too bad to texture, despite its horrendous modelling process! 






Taking a cue from the complicated Beetle, I chose to make the lorry in multiple parts. The trailer was created with basic shapes, and coloured with solid colour materials. The cab and container were textured individually.








As mentioned previously, I created multiple variant colour textures for each vehicle. Here are some images of these variants:






Lastly, here are some renders of each of the main vehicles together:

(Maya Software- lit with area lights)


(Mental Ray- physical sun and sky)


(Mental Ray- physical sun and sky- with quick colour correction)


As you can see, the physical sun and sky lighting does give a very washed-out look. It will be easy to do some minor colour correction in After Effects to bring out the brighter tones by increasing the saturation and contrast. This can be applied to the video once all the frames have been rendered.

Before I began animating, I needed to prepare the models. This meant deleting the history, combining the cars and parenting red ‘point lights’ to be animated as brake lights when the cars slow down.



(Above: brake lights on)

The brake lights were animated by setting key frames for their intensity values. The lights were set to cubic decay which localises the glow to the correct area of the texture maps (i.e. where the lights are drawn on). In addition, they were set to use depth map shadows, preventing the light from passing through the models and illuminating the wheels beneath the main body.

In addition to the cars, I needed to texture the roads in my animation. This was relatively simple- though due to the length of the road, and the inability to create textures larger than 2048 x 2048 pixels from Maya (there is probably a way around this but I did not have the time to find out!) the markings had to be drawn a pixel or two wide. Nevertheless, the results were good.



Planning ahead to use After Effects for the question mark section, I was able to use the same road for the first two 3D sections of my animation, which saved me a lot of time. The first part was ‘filmed’ before the slip road, whereas the second was filmed further down the road so the slip road came into view.

The third section required a crossroads, which you can see above.


For the most part, animating was straight forward, keying the X translation value of the cars. This was very time consuming however, in part due to the sheer volume of traffic necessary to give the correct sense of scope to the traffic jams, and also due to the need to revisit each car and key the lights to shine at the correct times.

Once I had imported the car model files, the scene slowed down tremendously. I discovered that the majority of this was due to the textures and lighting, and so did most of my animating in wireframe view.


Rendering was tricky. At first, everything was ridiculously bright, and it took a while to realise that importing the car models had also imported the SunDirection objects from those files. By deleting the extras, I returned the scene’s brightness to normal.

Throughout, I experienced a great deal of annoying problems that as far as I can tell were no fault of my own- nor, it seems, were there any reasons for them. On one occasion, despite having deleted the extra Sun objects from my file and saved, the scene was still too bright. With nothing to delete and all settings correct, what was wrong? Close and re-open Maya, and it’s back to normal. On another occasion, my left mouse button stopped working- only in Maya. Restart and that too was back to normal. Whilst they may not sound like too great issues, they cost me valuable time as I tried to figure out what was wrong, which was incredibly frustrating. 

All in all, working with Maya again was just as unpleasant as it always has been for me- if not more so! Nevertheless, I have an extra 3D animation for my portfolio that I am very pleased with, which was my aim from the onset of this project. Even though I do not particularly like working with 3D, I recognise the benefits of being able to show I can make 3D animations.

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