Star Wars VII – The Characters without the Magic

GiantCowFilms posted this on Friday, December 18th 2015 at roughly 4 o'clock in the afternoon

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, is probably the most anticipated movie of all time. Following a set of three heart breaking failures at the hands of the once revered master creator, George Lucas, this film has to succeed. Hopes are high, and the trailers were well received; however, there are some good tip offs that this film still won’t capture the magic of the original trilogy. It won’t be a outright failure like the prequel films, loaded with bad action – probably it will be the best movie of 2014-2016 – but it won’t compare up to three of the most iconic films ever made, due to some poor stylistic choices.

The original Star Wars films were perfect films. prefect – not as in without a mistake (looking at you, storm troopers), but perfect in the sense that they had the magic. There was something right about those movies. They were dreams made real. The important word here is real. Previous science fiction & fantasy films were made to feel incredibly artificial. These B-movie style films, were extremely campy, designed for cheap entertainment. Featuring characters that appeared to be strait out of a comic book, sci-fi films of the sixties and seventies were made with little thought or artistic enterprise. This all changed when a small film with little hope for success came onto screens, Star Wars.

The concept behind Star Wars was to take classic story features, mostly sourced from mythology and folk tales, and then put a new action-adventure spin on them by setting it in space. This on its own is not entirely revolutionary. The revolution came from how Lucas chose to shoot Star Wars.

Rather then creating a surreal abstract slightly bizarre future like the science fiction films before Star Wars, Lucas wanted his film to feel more like a fantasy film set in the past, hence the iconic opening text “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”. He choose to make a universe that is real, alive. This was manifested in every single production choice, production design, sound, cinematography – everything.

The idea was to make a very lived in world, What Kurosawa would call a maculate reality – you know I was very conscious of that when I made the movie I wanted to make a world that absolutely looked like it had been lived … it’s a real ship that has been lived in for a long time… I wanted to create a world that was lived in and had a sense of realism about it
 – George Lucas, DVD commentary

“George wanted what he called an organic sound track – that is he wanted the sounds in the film to sound natural. He wasn’t interested in what was the tradition with previous science fiction films which was to generate electronic sounds and synthesize sounds that would have an other-wordly quality. He wanted the sounds to have a worldly quality – that they would sound like real objects, real motors actual places – the doors would be rusty on the spaceships.” “The engines would sound like they were mistuned or backfire once in a while.” “He wanted a used universe”
 – Ben Burt – DVD commentary

It wasn’t that Star Wars was ahead of its time, which it was, so much is that it was done fundamentally right. Through accident as well as understanding (though considering the prequels, I’m thinking accident), George Lucas made the “perfect film” not only did it have strong characters and deep philosophical roots, but it was also unique on the surface level. It was believable and real. That is its secret sauce, as a fox executive noted in a telegram after watching a half completed rough cut of the film:

“They claim the picture has a look never see on the screen before and that is is so believable you never feel it is other than the present even though the location and equipment are space in the year 2000 plus”
“It is so realistic … that you really do become involved with and care about all of the characters.”
– Peter S. Meyrs. Tellegram

The new film, will have those same plot underpinnings, and will probably be, as a result, one of the best films made this year. However, a strong plot is not enough to make a film great. The prequels had a surprisingly strong plot, The issue was it was buried under other filmmaking disasters – bad acting, over focus on action, and a couple of unnecessary characters. This new film won’t suffer from the same mistakes, since the filmmakers fear for their lives, but it will have roughly the same general affliction. That is lack of the magic.

This time the mistake will be in the design and film style. Realism is one of the key pieces to the Star Wars magic, and the new film is showing a startling lack of it. The trailers which can actually be a very good judge of the film style, since every shot follows that style and extrapolating backwards is quite simple. All that is needed is a variety of shots from different scenes of the film. The biggest flaw is not use of CGI, which isn’t inherently bad, but from the mis-use of CGI and other simple things like shot composition, lighting and colors.

J.J. Abrams is largely to blame for these mistakes. He has this unbreakable need to place his film style, which is defined by doing everything bizarre and unconventional. At one point this style was cool and unique, but it wears old. Bringing to much attention to the camera, this style acts as a spoil to that all important realism. Dramatic angles have a home in the language of cinema, but Episode VII is not included. These “creative” stylizations distance the audience from the characters and stories in a subliminal way.

Here are several examples of these stylized shots

Telephoto-Disaster Color-Disaster-1 

They are in no way or respect believable or real. It doesn’t feel like you could be standing there in the same way the original film does. Instead Episode 7 is a landscape of digitally created colors shot in a bizarre perspective.

This is pretty unforgivable, but the final straw is this shot:

CGI-Falcon

It is plagued with something that has become prevalent recently in holly wood movies: I call it rubber action. This style was epitomized in the Hobbit films. It is when directors use CGI to create action scenes that defy physics especially regarding motion and durability. In this instance the falcon should not be surviving that impact with the snow or trees it should totally be smashed. One could argue it ought to explode true Star Wars style – on impact (seems unrealistic but it also feels natural, and considering what kind of generators and such are needed for hyperspace, probably isn’t totally implausable). The point is it definitely shouldn’t be bouncing like a rubber ball.

In the end the film should have been shot in the style of the original, without creative angles, shaky camera or other subliminally unrealistic creative choices.

J.J. Abrams has said in interviews again and again that he is avoiding CGI when possible and trying to build real sets. In the end though, “when possible” is meaning less, since its those impossible cases that are the real issue. CGI set extensions are harmless, invisible and have little impact. Nothing compared to the overkill coloration and cinematography of the final film. J.J. failed to get the realism that motivated him to avoid CGI.

All this being said, how much will it impact the film? This will depend largely on the viewer. Not everyone experiences movies in the same way. To some, a film is all about the characters, who they are, what they look like and what they say. They won’t notice the effects and action as much. Personally, the appearance and sound of a film is most important. Its what the shots look like defines how I perceive the scene. This is why J.J. style ruins the film for me. It has a fake and stylized look, which makes the film appear fake and stylized. Whether the film is enjoyable depends on how you will watch this film. I feel one thing is fairly certain though. The film could have been much better if the filmmakers had stuck with the look and feel of the originals – a tried and tested look, that was loved (subconsciously at least) by audiences all over the world.

The new Star Wars film will still be one the best of its style with a strong plot an engaging characters. But it wont be timeless in the same way as the first ones. It will still fall short of the magic.  However, there are still two other Star Wars films, and there is still new hope for the magic of the saga. Everyone wants a different experience from a film, and this film may be considered by some the best Star Wars film yet, but for me and others who expect the same as before, it won’t hold the magic.

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How to increase readability on a website

GiantCowFilms posted this on Monday, December 7th 2015 at roughly 2 o'clock in the afternoon

Fonts are generally the key; however, changing fonts isn’t always so easy, and often it seems like it doesn’t help. This is where one simple trick comes in: Increasing the line-height.

This can be done using the css property

{
    line-height: 20px;
}

which will set the line height of some text. The line height is the amount of vertical space text consumes. Here are two examples with different line heights, the first set to 15px, and the second set to 35px.

Towering hundreds of feet into the sky, Giant Cows have giant needs. Infact, a Giant Cow can eat up to 20 tonnes of small vegetation and trees in a day. Furthermore they often will graze over a hundred square miles in a day!Commonly inhabiting areas lush with vegetation, Giant Cows can be found on nearly every continent. Scientists have often had trouble explaining this phenomenon, since it is unlikely they could have swam.

Towering hundreds of feet into the sky, Giant Cows have giant needs. Infact, a Giant Cow can eat up to 20 tonnes of small vegetation and trees in a day. Furthermore they often will graze over a hundred square miles in a day! Commonly inhabiting areas lush with vegetation, Giant Cows can be found on nearly every continent. Scientists have often had trouble explaining this phenomenon, since it is unlikely they could have swam.

Getting the right value depends on the font height, but generally +5-6px produces the best results. If making these changes still doesn’t help, it is probably worth looking into changing the fonts.

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HDR: Evening Sun

GiantCowFilms posted this on Tuesday, December 1st 2015 at roughly 3 o'clock in the afternoon

preview-tone

This image was tone mapped for previewing. view the non-tone mapped preview here

Download The HDR Now – 19.1 MB

For more information on how to use this HDR, read the instructions and FAQ

Specifications:
  • Licence: Creative Commons 0/Public Domain
  • Dynamic Range: 20.46 Stops
  • Original Size: 29184 x 14592 – Uploaded at 12.5% original resolution
  • Camera: Canon EOS 70D
  • Lens: Canon 18-135 STM
  • Set EV: +13.988 @ 100 ISO – You can adjust the exposure after the fact if you need
  • Coverage: 360 x 180
  • Date Taken: 11/29/2015 2:43 – 2:59 PM
  • Location: Northern United States

This sun-capturing HDR has a full 360×180 range, and stores the light found in the early evening. In this one the color of the sun was tuned for best results.

Test Render @ 8,192 samples

 preview

Lessons Learnt

The sun in this one was a little desaturated, and I think it was due to lack of sufficient ND filters. I need to go down about 2-3 stops. The problem is, at around this point, IR light starts to flood the sensor, and ND IR filters are quite pricey, so for now I will tweak the color of the sun in post. It may seem “inaccurate” but as long as the desired light, colors and reflections are achieved, no harm has been done.

 

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HDR: Direct Sun

GiantCowFilms posted this on Friday, November 27th 2015 at roughly 4 o'clock in the afternoon

thumbnail

Download The HDR Now

For more information on how to use this HDR, read the instructions and FAQ

Specifications:
  • Licence: Creative Commons 0/Public Domain
  • Dynamic Range: 21.07 Stops
  • Camera: Canon EOS 70D
  • Lens: Canon 18-135 STM
  • Set EV: +13.99 @ 100 ISO – You can adjust the exposure after the fact if you need
  • Coverage: 360 x 180
  • Date Taken: 11/26/2015 11:26 – 11:41 AM
  • Location: Northern United States

This HDR has a full 360×180 range, and captures the light near mid day (the sun is still angled since it is winter, and the location is fairly far north).

Test Render @ 2,048 samples

 preview

Lessons Learnt

Trying a new bracket merge algorithm, seems to work better, but still room for improvement, especially regarding ghosting. Again this image suffers from ICE image stitch errors, which seem to be particularly bad across brackets, as if ICE changes the stitch for different brackets, even though it shouldn’t be.

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HDR: Breaking Dawn – Frosty Morning

GiantCowFilms posted this on Tuesday, November 24th 2015 at roughly 2 o'clock in the afternoon

preview

Download The HDR Now

For more information on how to use this HDR, read the instructions and FAQ

Specifications:
  • Licence: Creative Commons 0/Public Domain
  • Dynamic Range: 6.06 Stops
  • Camera: Canon EOS 70D
  • Lens: Canon 18-135 STM
  • Set EV: +10.32 @ 100 ISO – You can adjust the exposure after the fact if you need
  • Coverage: 360 x 180
  • Date Taken: 11/22/2015 7:58 – 8:06 AM
  • Location: Northern United States

This HDR has a full 360×180 range, and captures the beautiful light visible in the early morning, creating stunning renders. This HDR was taken while waiting for the sun to rise above th trees for my Winter Sun – Morning HDR.

Test Render @ 8,192 samples

demo

Lessons Learnt

I’m investigating ICE, which I use to stitch the panos, as it seems to be causing ghosting, I thought my tripod head was loose the first few times, but this time I made a POINT of keeping it solidly locked into position, and I am still seeing strange inconsistencies between the stitched brackets. I think I might give the Hugin pano-stitcher another shot as I have quite a few complaints with ICE.

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HDR Instructions

GiantCowFilms posted this on Monday, November 23rd 2015 at roughly 3 o'clock in the afternoon

I post free HDRs on this site. This is a quick usage guide demonstrating the techniques required to get optimal results.

Adding an HDR

HDR images work best using the cycles render, as the Internal Render Engine doesn’t render these correctly. To add an HDR in cycles, first head into the node editor, and use material mode, and select the world texture. Second check use nodes:

1

Third add an Environment Texture (ShiftA>Environment Texture) and connect it to the input of the background node (a background and output node should appear when Use Nodes is checked. If not, add them using the ShiftA menu.

2

Fourth the HDR is added to the scene, by clicking the open button on the environment texture node, and selecting the correct downloaded .HDR file.

Finally, to massively improve render performance, check multiple importance sample in the world properties, under settings. The map resolution may need to be increased for higher resolution HDRs.

3

The HDR should now be working, give it a test render.

Setting Exposure

I make an effort to choose a good exposure for every HDR that I post; despite this effort, the exposure won’t always look right, depending on the scene. Adjusting the exposure of an HDR is easy, It is even possible to closely match the exposure of a camera.

To set a new EV for an HDR, it is first necessary to determine the difference in EV between the current HDR’s brightness, and the target EV. The EV of every HDR on this site is posted under Specifications, under “Set EV”The next step is to subtract the target EV from the current EV, and then apply that EV to the image.

Here is the node setup for applying EV:

6

The image is the incoming input on the top, and the EV is the bottom.

An EV can be derived from camera settings, using the formula

$$EV = \log_2(\frac{N^2}{t})$$

Here is a blend file containing a cycles node implementation of the formula in addition to some other EV tools:

 

It is not necessary to set an EV, the exposure/brightness of a scene can be set simply by adjusting by eye, using the add or subtract node. There is no correct brightness, it is entirely a subjective thing, exactly like setting the exposure on a camera. The big difference here is we are changing the brightness of the lights and not the camera, 3D is slightly backwards like that, from a cinematography standpoint.

CUDA Error

A common issue with using HDRs is running out of GPU memory when running in GPU mode. When this happens the render will quit and this error will be given:

CUDA error: Out of memory in cuArrayCreate($handle, &desc)

This error occurs when the HDR is to big to fit into the memory of a particular graphics card. There are two solutions:

  • Buy a better graphics card
  • Make the HDR smaller

Making an HDR smaller is not as easy as it seems. A lot of software that “claims” to handle HDR files may actually have difficult with the extremely high values found in some HDRs that include the sun. The best option for scaling the image is blender.

In blender, switch into composting mode in the node editor and check Use Nodes

4

Delete all the default nodes, and add four nodes, using the Shiftmenu:

  • Image Texture
  • Scale
  • Crop
  • File Output

The reason I choose File Output over Composite is to avoid having to set the dimensions of the render. After linking the images up, select the HDR that is going to be edited using the open option on the image node.

5

After linking the nodes, set the values of the scale and crop nodes to match those in the image. They are currently set to scae the image to 50% size. In a large number of cases, 25% scale may work better.

The first scale node cuts the size in half and then the crop node cuts of the black borders the scale node leaves behind (25% off each side). Be sure to set both nodes to relative, and check Crop Image Size on the crop node. The output node saves the image, be sure to set it up accordingly, so that it saves the correct file type: Radiance HDR (You can also convert to .exr if you like).

To scale to 25% size, the values for the nodes should be, left to right top to bottom:

  • Scale:
    • X: 0.25
    • Y: 0.25
  • Crop:
    • Left: 0.375
    • Right: 0.625
    • Up: 0.625
    • Down: 0.375

For calculating the node values for other scale factors, the formulas are

Left and down:

(1 – [Scale Factor])/2

Right and up:

(1 – [Scale Factor])/2 + [Scale Factor].

 

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HDR: Winter Sun – Morning

GiantCowFilms posted this on at roughly 1 o'clock in the afternoon

HDR

Download The HDR Now

For more information on how to use this HDR, read the instructions and FAQ

Specifications:
  • Licence: Creative Commons 0/Public Domain
  • Dynamic Range: 22.38 Stops
  • Camera: Canon EOS 70D
  • Lens: Canon 18-135 STM
  • Set EV: +12.14 @ 100 ISO – You can adjust the exposure after the fact if you need
  • Coverage: 360 x 168.1
  • Date Taken: 11/22/2015 7:58 – 8:06 AM
  • Location: Northern United States

This HDR captures the full dynamic range of the sun. It has a few weak points in the stitching and merging; however, it is still quite useful for most purposes.

I was inspired to create this HDR by Greg Zaal’s Mpumalanga Veld HDR which also captures the full brightness of the sun. Most of my workflow is based on the one Greg Zaal shared.

Test Render @ 128 samples

 

preview1

Lessons Learnt

Keep a checklist of camera settings, I accidentally left auto white balance on, and had to correct it (Hurrah! for raw files)

Here is a quick checklist:

  • Card In Camera
  • No Lens Cap
  • White Balance
  • Media Format (turn raw on)
  • Manual Exposure
  • Brackets Correct
  • shutter and f-stop
  • Any Filters?
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HDR and Textures FAQ

GiantCowFilms posted this on at roughly 1 o'clock in the afternoon

Q: Why are you doing this?

I’m doing this for fun and in the hope that someone might find these useful. I often get things done thanks to free resources, and I would like to do my part.

Q: Can I share these on my website?

Yes, you can, but please link here – its not required, but It would mean a lot. You can even bundles these with commercial products.

Q: Why don’t you charge money?

I got 50 times my money back by using other people’s free assets.

Q: Are your HDRs as good as commercial HDRs?

These are better and worse then some. HDRs that capture the full dynamic range are quite rare, and therefore in that light these are exceptional, however they do also have their flaws. I could and would have spent more money on gear for shooting a commercial product, and they would have been better; however, these are by no means low quality.

Q: These were exactly what I needed for my project, is there anything I can do to support you?

You can make and share quality assets under CC0/Public Domain licenses. If you send me the link, I may, if they are good, post a back link.

Q: Can I get a higher resolution copy of one of your HDRs

Please contact me, specifying the output dimensions you want (if they are too big I will send you the fullsize) I will send you a temporary download link. Sadly due to space limitations I cannot keep large file copies on the server indefinitely.

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Commence Blog!

GiantCowFilms posted this on Thursday, November 19th 2015 at roughly 5 o'clock in the afternoon

I have decided to start writing down and sharing what I think and know about technology, computers, blender, business, marketing, cameras, film-making, and art. I will also use this site to give away useful digital stuff I create, since I know how much freebies can help with a particularly strenuous project.

This is my personal blog and it will be focused around my personal thoughts and experiences, and it will be written in an informal first person style. That being said, I still intend to maintain a formal set of post topics, focused on useful and relevant things.

With that set, I shall commence blogging. I hope you enjoy.