Sunday, February 5, 2012

Over-acheiving: Rigging and Skinning Link from the Zelda Series

Yesterday, I decided that I wanted to learn how to rig and skin a character in Blender. I have several books on Blender, as I've described in other posts, but none of them were very helpful. I decided to look to my best friend for solving Blender problems: YouTube. I found a video by a guy who was a bit of a spaz, but who did a sufficient job of explaining how to skin a character. (The video can be found here.)

After watching that video a few times, I was able to skin an elongated box. Being satisfied with this small achievement, I decided to read the description of the video I had found. I followed a link in the description, then found myself in a crappy-sculpter's paradise. On the site, there were enough models from the Zelda: Twilight Princess game to kill a small elephant with.  (The site can be found here.)

After recovering consciousness, I downloaded the Link model and set to work. Since the model was small, I had to scale it up so that the Weight Paint tool in Blender would be more effective. I then set about to rigging Link's hat, which looked like the easy part to start with. After a few hours, I had finished with hat and had animated it like it was flapping in a breeze. I have posted the end result of animating his hat here.

After I started rendering the animation for Link's hat, I discovered something else about the model I had downloaded: it was all ready textured and shaded. I didn't notice this, at first, because I had just opened the file in the 'Solid' view.

This afternoon, I decided that I was going to finish rigging Link and skin him. I wanted to do a complicated rig so that I could work with it for a while, even after I advanced past the beginner stage. So my rig includes bones for the head, hat, back, arms, hands, fingers, legs, and strands of hair. Even though there are a lot of bones in my rig, it wasn't too hard to set up. The hard part was using the 'Weight Paint' tool to skin Link. It seems like, no matter how I angle the tool, there are certain parts of the meshes that I cannot highlight. Corners have been especially problematic for me. The face has been the hardest part, so far, even though I just wanted to attach it to the head bone so that it would rotate with the rest of the head. After beating myself against that wall for a while, I just moved on to the arms and shoulders.

Now, about four hours later, I have a rigged and partially skinned Link. I will probably finish skinning him in one of my free evenings. I am eager to start animating Link, and I'm sure my sculpture (my little sister) is looking forward to using it, too.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Fried Rice: Chinese Equivalent of Hash

I have always loved fried rice. When I was little, the two things I would pile my plate high with would be fried rice and sweet and sour pork. There was some wonderful and addictive about that salty rice filled with vegetables and meat. I was always so jealous of our old family friends, first and second generation Chinese immigrants. The mother of that family would cook fried rice for us when we'd come over to visit. She'd usually supplement the fried rice with a range of other foods, as well, but I only really remember the fried rice. Now, as recipes go, fried rice is not very structured. Each time I cook it, I go by the seat of my pants and my memory. What I do generally follows this rough outline:

2 cups uncooked rice
1/2 lb of meat (meat can be deli sliced or chunks of raw meat cut into 1/4" cubes)
3-4 cups vegetables, such as:
    Frozen Peas
    Green Shallots
    Bamboo Shoots
  I generally decide what vegetables I'm going to use based on what we have in the fridge.
3 eggs, scrambled
1 cup Soy Sauce
1 TBSP Hoison Sauce (Opt.)
1/4 cup Peanut Butter (Opt.)
Vegetable oil

Cook the rice in your preferred method. I usually use a steamer. While the rice is cooking, fry the meat until it is a golden brown. Wash and cut up your vegetables. To defrost the peas, I usually fill a bowl with frozen peas, then put hot water on them from the facet, dumping out the water and refilling the bowl until the peas are no longer held together. If you are planning on using carrots, fry them until they are soft, then set them aside for later.

To cook the eggs, pour a small amount into a pre-heated, no-stick frying pan. There should be enough eggs to cover the bottom of the pan, but should be no more than a 1/4" thick. Cook until eggs can be flipped over without falling apart. Cook other side, then put on a plate for later, and repeat process for the rest of the eggs. After eggs have been cooked, cut into little squares. Cut the meat in a like manner to the eggs if it is deli sliced meat.

Once rice is cooked, put into a pre-heated, no-stick frying pan with small amount of vegetable oil at the bottom. (Either electric or stove top will work. Electric is just neater.) Cook rice for about 15-30 minutes or until rice gets chewy. Add meat and vegetables. Cook until vegetables are soft. Add soy sauce, hoison sauce, and peanut butter. Stir until all ingredients are mixed in, then serve.

Serving size starts out at about 1.5 cups, but slowly increases as your guests discover how wonderful the fried rice is.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Movie Making

This last Saturaday, I decided that I wanted to record a film. In this film, I decided that I would use what I had learned about Blender to create 3-dimensional graphics to add to the film. It would also be an opportunity for me to stretch my writing and music brain and get it some needed exercise. The concept of the movie wasn't hard to come up with: it was an idea that I had had since my Physics class, last semester. Creating the script and music wont be too hard: I just have to sit down and do it. Creating the special effects and computer graphics will be a bit challenging, but very rewarding. I like a bit of a challenge. Directing and filming would be the hard parts. Getting a group of people to do exactly what you want is impossible; there are too many variables, such as how long your throat will hold out and how engaged the crowd is. This last Saturday, I went around Sac Anime, handing out flyers declaring that there would be a movie filming happening at 1:30pm. Of the 40 flyers that I handed out, I'm not so sure that anyone that got one showed up. I, unfortunately, chose the fountain to be the meeting place for the filming. As it turned out, there were two fountains. I waited patiently by the fountain I had meant for about ten minutes before I sent my sister off to investigate the other fountain. There was a large group of people at the other fountain, so we moved over there. I stood around with a camera on a tripod for a while, feeling nervous and self-conscious, desperately hoping that someone would wander up and say, "Are you that movie girl?" No one did. Fortunately, there was an annoying Sasuke cosplayer that my sister and I chased around. He kept saying that he was really gonna hurt us. Anytime now. Especially if we hit him again. ... Let's just say that a tall, strong man with a claimed, recent knowledge of martial arts ran away from two small women in pretty dresses with a decayed knowledge of martial arts. After burning off my nervous energy and winning a fight, I felt much more confident. I started hollering to random passers-by that I would be recording a movie and that anyone was welcome to join. Who could pass that offer up? I soon had a small, but growing crowd of people. As I explained the concept of the movie and what we'd be doing, I engaged their interest. When we all moved over to the grass, the anticipation started to rise. When I told them that the first scene we'd be recording would involve them running away and screaming, everyone was excited. I gave as minimalistic directions as I could to allow for some creative ad-libbing, and our first scene was recorded. Everyone who had been standing nearby watching got invited to join the filming process. At the end of the filming, I off-loaded the partially stale cookies that I had brought with me to the crowd of people that had stuck with me. I passed around a signup sheet, handed out business cards, and then packed up my stuff. I was satisfied that I had a good starting base of scenes to work off of. So now, all I have left to record is the rest of the movie. Which, unfortunately, happens to be the better part of the movie, at this point. So, with four days left until college starts, I'm left in a bit of a pickle. I have no one cast for the main roles of the movie, I have no footage for first few scenes, and I still have to prepare for my college classes. I have decided that I will turn over the filming to whomever feels themselves capable and judge the results by using the wonderful medium of YouTube. If you think that you have what it takes to be a filmer or an actor/actress, check out my YouTube Channel. A Casting Call video is posted there. Also, the second scene that I filmed at Sac Anime is up on YouTube now, too.

Script for Movie

This is a script for a movie that will be called 'Why You Should Share.' It has been posted here for the convenience of all who have watch this video and are interested in participating.

Script to Be Filmed

Note: 'He,' 'his,' and 'him' are used in here only as a matter of convenience. The actors can be male or female.

Scene 1 - Set in a fairly urban environment
<A kid is bouncing a ball up and down. (The ball will be computer generated.) Another kid enters the scene.>
Kid with Ball: Hey.
Other Kid: Hey.
<Brief silence.>
Other Kid: Can I play with your ball?
Kid with Ball: Pcchh. No.
<Kid with Ball continues to bounce ball. Other Kid gets frustrated and exists scene.>

Scene 2 - House setting
<Other Kid enters scene, stomping around and generally acting grouchy.>
Other Kid:<muttering> Stupid… Won't let me play… just wanted…
<Other Kid continues to act upset and sits down.>
Other Kid:<muttering> I'll show him. Won't share, will he? Need a plan. Good plan…
<Other Kid sits and thinks or a while, then moves to a desk and begins working on something.>

Scene 3 - Outdoor setting (Avoid long grass and similar obstacles. Be sure to shoot at an angle where the ground is visible.)
<Show Other Kid testing various ideas ranging from a remote control Barbie car (or like) to a teddy bear. Note: All ideas he tests must involve a remote control device of some sort. Feel free to ad-lib on this. It should be silly, but not annoyingly so. Remember that Other Kid is still rather angry.>

Scene 4 - Outdoor setting (Same restraints as previous scene.)
<Zoomed in shot of Other Kid. His back is to the camera.>
Other Kid: Finally!
<Other Kid turns around. A remote control can be seen in his hands.>
Other Kid: A plan that's sure to work!
<Cut to zoomed out scene of Other Kid standing next to a large patch of open ground. The gravity sphere will be composited into this scene. Do not attempt to touch the gravity sphere.>
<Other Kid bends over his remote control. Gravity Sphere will take off, at which point, Other Kid should laugh maniacally.>

Scene 5 - Urban setting
<Kid with Ball is standing, continuing to bounce the computer generated ball. The Gravity Sphere will fly over head, stealing the ball he was playing with. At this point, Kid with Ball will stare down at where the ball was, then look off to where the gravity sphere went. Note: The gravity sphere will fly over head, moving from one side of the camera view to the other, then off screen.>
Kid with Ball: Hey! That's mine!
<Kid with Ball chases after the Gravity Sphere.>

Scene 7 - Same as Scene 4
Other Kid: What? No! Of all the times for you to act up on me!
<Other Kid fumbles with remote control to try to get it to work.>

Scene 9 - Same as Scene 7
<Other Kid is fussing with the remote control a little more frantically.>

Scene 11 - Same as Scene 9
<Other Kid drops the remote and screams.>

Scene 13 - Set in front of a computer
Other Kid: Whadd'ya mean, I gotta 'update the OS?!'

Scene 15 - Same as Scene 13
<Other Kid squints at computer screen.>
Other Kid: 'Update is complete. You must now restart the system.'
Other Kid: Fine. (Voice should sound resigned.)
<Punches key on keyboard.>

Scene X - Same as Scene 15
<Other Kid squints at computer screen.>
Other Kid: 'Congradulations. Your update is complete. Which star system would you like to visit?'
<Other Kid sits back and looks befuddled.>
Other Kid: Huh?

Monday, January 16, 2012

Blender Compositing

I have now had my first bit of success with Blender compositing. I read through the tutorial in my copy of 'The Essential Blender,' and was able to devise a plan of attack to create a short video where I mixed 3D animation with some real footage. My video idea was simple: I would be tap dancing far off to one side while Hank, the rigged mesh provided with my book, would stomp his feet on the other side and look grouchy. The animation of Hank was simple enough, since I've been working with the rig for a while now. Animating Hank only took about 30 to 45 minutes. Rendering the animation took longer, of course. After the animation was rendered, I went into my node editor to try and composite the real footage over the animated footage. I was not able to figure out how to do this in the node editor, so I instead went to the video sequence editor where I had had a small amount of luck, before. After much trial and error, I found the the 'Alpha Under' property was the one that worked. My video can be found here. Now, an interesting thing about Blender is that the video compositing works a bit like the old blue and green screening. As long as the video that you want to overlay over the other video has a completely black background, it will composite the videos nicely. So, after this success, I had an idea that is probably grander than my skills: I would create a movie that mixed live footage with 3D animation. In order to keep this project simple, I decided that most of what I would be animating would be spheres. The main evil monster of my film would be a great gravity sphere. The gravity sphere would buzz around, picking up odd items, and eventually terrorize a crowd of people. Now, the crowd of people I recorded were none other than the wonderful and good humor folks of Sac Anime. These guys were great. I told them about my movie concept and what I needed them to do. They were all more than happy to comply. They all did a great job for the filming, some of them even added to the humor of the scenes by ad-libbing. To see the first of the clips that they participated in, click here. These clips are only the animation-ready clips. And, once again, a great big 'Thank you' to all the hardy souls that participated in this filming.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Why Apple is Getting On My Dark Side

I like Apple. Or, at least, I like the old Apple. I liked the pre-Leopard Apple. If you had asked me in highschool if I was for Mac or Windows, I would have said Mac immediately. Recently, however, I find it hard to say that I'm a Mac user without sighing.

When I got my first computer, it was a Unix based system. Nothing too complicated, but I didn't need anything complicated. When I got my first Apple computer, it was a Blue ad White G3. It came pre-installed with Mac OS 9. I didn't like Os 9 very much for anything but playing Warcraft 2, so I installed Mac OS X Tiger on it, too. Mac OS X Tiger was great. It gave me a lot of creative freedom. I could run all of the programs that came with Tiger, from iMovie to Garageband. I was also able to use Appleworks, a no-nonsense document, spreadsheet, drawing, and painting editor. Of all the programs I used, I used Appleworks the most.

Besides using Appleworks, I also used iTunes. I originally used it for playing the music off of the CDs I ripped while I was doing homework, but, after getting a refurb iPod Mini, I discovered podcasts. I was soon using iTunes to get Japanese language podcasts, animation podcasts, and a variety of others. iTunes was nice. I wasn't just limited to my own music, either. I could easily connect to my dad's computer and easily pull over the songs I liked. But then, I updated iTunes. For some reason I couldn't fathom, I couldn't drag songs over from my dad's library to my own. I could drag songs off of my iPod that I's lost in my computer. Eventually, I couldn't connect to my dad's library at all and, shortly after, I could no longer use the iTunes store, not even to download the new podcast episodes for the podcasts I was all ready subscribed to. Now this only started happening around three or so years ago.

Appleworks, the creative program that came with every Mac, was discontinued. Instead of getting a free, serviceable program for basic word processing and picture editing tasks, you had to pay for iWork, a program that is difficult to use, finicky in its controls, and confusing with all it's menus. For a program that's supposed to be better than the old, free version with all its features, it doesn't have the features in an easily accessible format.

iMovie, a program I regularly use for compiling together my animations, has been discontinued in favor of an expensive program that has the same sorts of faults as iWork as the replacement for Appleworks. Even though iMovie has only recently been discontinued, it is not supported by Apple. In fact, they released a version of it that is broken, forcing you to either buy the expensive program or forget the idea entirely. Personally, I'm in favor of giving up Apple entirely and migrating to Linux. Linux has a variety of free programs available to the users. The programs are generally free, are updated and fixed by their users, and have the technical and moral support of a community of users behind it.

Now, I'll admit, I've been using Tiger exclusively ever since I got my G3 and later my mini. I anticipated a bit of deprecation of loss of support for the old programs. But, I also anticipated better, faster, stronger Mac OSs, programs, and technical support. I've been terrified to use Leopard because I'd have to give up all the programs and versions that I use. If I thought I'd be moving on to something better, I mightn't have minded. I've only recently upgraded to Snow Leopard because of the newer programs I use. Because I'm into computer animation, I like using some of the tools that are more recent than, say, Sculpt 3D. Miku Miku Dance is a program I've recent;ly become interested in. I wanted to use Wine as a Windows emulator so that I could run it. There are a range of other programs I want to take advantage of, as well, web browsing being among them.

So, this Monday, I decided to bite the bullet and install Snow Leopard. Nothing bad has happened to me yet, but I'm still holding my breath. I wouldn't trust Apple with my lunch box, let alone my work computer.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Character Animation: Getting My Feet Wet

After making three or so simple animations involving lighting tests, basic geometric forms, and camera angles, I decided I would take my next baby step: humanoid mesh animation. I figured, 'Gosh, a humanoid is nothing but a bunch of cubes and spheres, right?' So I sat down with my sister and learned about armatures.

My sister has a real knack for armatures. The first time I tried to use them, I got stuck on the theory in a tutorial I was reading. They way the tutorial explained it seemed simple enough, but I just couldn't figure it out. So, it took sitting down with my little sister at her computer, watching her and asking questions, to get an idea of how armatures worked. With this basic knowledge, I jumped immediately into animating an armature.

Now, I use a book called 'The Essential Blender' as my main resource for learning how to use Blender. In the book, the provide a CD with some nice example files that you can experiment with if you want to skip over sections. On this CD is a humanoid mesh they call 'Hank.' Hank is silly looking, but good enough to get started with. The first bit of animation I tried with Mr. Hank was making him play a 'guitar' (a distorted cube). That was simple enough. Hank's arms were very easy to animate. After about five minutes or so of experimentation, I had a smooth, natural looking animation. It looked really slick.

My next task was to animate a second Hank. I wanted to have him walk towards the first Hank. This is were my challenges began to arise. You see, they way that Hank's armature rig was built, there were constraints applied to his legs so that you couldn't move them as easily as the arms. To move his legs, I had to select his feet, drag them around to about where I wanted them, and pray to the gods of Blender that his leg wouldn't do anything crazy. Sadly, his legs started behaving more like ostrich legs than human legs.

Having experienced this complication with the provided rig, I've decided that all future rigs will have armatures created by me. And I won't put constraints where they don't belong.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Creating Music with Garageband

When I first got my Mac G3, I was ecstatic. Here was the computer dreams were made of. It had a slick interface with the newly installed Mac OS X Tiger, it was a pretty teal and white color, and it had programs. Oh, did it have programs. There was a drawing program, a music program, a video editing program, as well as a web browsing program. For a young child of twelve who had been using an old HP 9000 Model 710 from the time she was seven, the Blue and White G3 was an amazing computer. Around the time when high school started, my parents upgraded me to a Mac Mini. It was a dream come true. The Mini had far better graphics capabilities than the G3, allowing me to start programming video games. I started using Blender, a 3D graphics generation program.

About three to four years later, I took a basic music composition class in college. After the class, I sat down with GarageBand. I'd had some experience with GarageBand from a video game project in high school, and so was fairly familiar with the interface. After about two days of work in the program, with much experimentation and research, I was able to create this song.

This song that I created was based mostly on my knowledge of triads and the key of C Major. After being successful with this song and having my dad say that he wanted to write a video game to go with the song, I decided that this music composition thing was pretty cool. Now, at this point in time, I've written one album and am nearing the end of my second.

If you're curious to hear my other compositions, they can be found at:

Friday, January 6, 2012

Setting Up an Antenna to Speak with the World

This last week, my dad got an amateur radio rig, a Kenwood TS450S. This was a rig that my dad had been drooling over in QST back when he got his first amateur radio license, back in 1992. He came home with it and could hardly wait to use it. Unfortunately, the antenna that he had set up on the roof was not good enough to get a signal in the little ditch we call home. My dad had reverted to his boy scout training to make a ground plane antenna, then a Yagi. Both antennas were made out of odd pieces and chunks of wire and metal, duct tape, and cable ties attached to an old extendable pruning saw. We could barely get a standing wave ratio less than 2 with these antennas.

This, clearly, would not work. We needed a better antenna. So, my dad and I disappeared into the garage to devise a suitable plan. After sifting through several boxes of wire and cable, we found about 80 feet of tin-copper shielding. This would do nicely. Soon, the rest of the plan was coalescing around that, two slightly rotting boards, and an oak tree. The eventual result was an antenna that let us listen to people as distant as China. Below are pictures of the resulting antenna.

First, the shielding was threaded through and around a board. The board was then attached to an oak tree.

The shielding was then stretched across our property to the top of out house, where it was attached to another board which was, in turn, attached to the roof.

The end of the shielding was then threaded through our living room window. After a few complaints of the window letting a draft in, my dad stuck some old towels around the cable, closing the gap in the window.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Pencil: Hand-drawn Animation

Hand-drawn animation: the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear that is probably not 'relaxing,' but 'time-consuming' and possibly even 'frustrating.' My first experience in animation was hand-drawn animation, as you can see in this video. Inspite of the fact that this little short took me a whole day to create, it was not only fun, but relaxing to create. There's much that I love more than drawing a character, then bringing him to life.

Because I do like animating so much, and because it was taking so long to draw out each individual frame, scan it into my computer, edit with Apple Works, then make a movie out of it with iMovie, my dad recommended the animation program 'Pencil.' Not only is Pencil easy to figure and use, but it's very responsive. I didn't have to worry about drawing rough, jagged lines when I was trying to draw a smooth curve.

Another problem that I'd run across when I had used Apple Works to create this second short was that I couldn't see what the last frame had been. Pencil has an onion skin option so that you can see either what the layer behind is, what the next layer is, or what both layers are. This makes it significantly easier for me to draw the next frame, or in-between frames.

Another nice feature of Pencil is that it doesn't just create a series of isolated images. After the animation file is created, you can export it to one of several file formats, including QuickTime. This saves me the half an hour or longer that it takes me to scan each individual frame.

Overall, Pencil is a wonderful program. It leaves the fun in hand-drawn animation and it takes out the hassle from the traditional way to make hand-drawn animations. Because it is so nice to use, I'm hoping to use it to make an title sequence for a series of story ideas I have. With any luck, you'll see the video on YouTube before the month is out.