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MSc Progress Blog

Welcome to the blog I kept during the last few months of my Masters degree project. Here you'll get an insight into my process of learning the 3D animation pipeline from scratch!


The main thing I am going to be making textures for in the environments is the boxes. A lot of the rest will be blocked out with colour in the toon shader. I was tempted for a while to leave the environment textures as this toon shaded single blocked out colour, but to have a variety of them. However I was worries the character, with his more detailed texture, would stand out in an odd way. So I thought I'd try out texturing a box in Substance Painter to try and get that painterly style I was interested in, and see how it looked. I ended up really liking this and so decided to mix a few different textured boxes amongst amongst the blocked colour boxes.

I created UV maps for 3 different boxes, these were easy to map in the UV editor as most created a classic box net if you cut the seams right.

For the box mountain scene I didn't think it would work as well to have the different textures mixed in the boxes, there would be to many to go in and individually individually reassign the various textures to each of the visible boxes. There were also complications in doing this within MASH as the instances will copy the exact textures and make it too obviously a repeating pattern.

I also experimented here by trying to supplement the texture with some effects with an Ambient Occlusion tone map mask. This is what s creating the dark grain in the image below.

I didn't go with this in the end as it created too much of a busy, muddy look and with the toon shader lines also applied, this was a bit too much black. Whilst the toon shade lines could be adjusted for this the grain could not. If there was a clear way of doing so I would have possibly kept the effect.

Thoughts on Environment Texturing

This step and seeing some of the final look of the environment come together like this is definitely a step I find very fulfilling. Whilst I was able to texture a few boxes however, due to the style and subject matter I am working with in my project there wasn't much else to design and texture. The plan from the beginning was to try and keep the 3D modelling to a minimum so that I could focus on learning what I needed to complete the film. so I elected to make any other details of the scene to be 2D matte paintings, which I was already familiar with. Although I still believe there wouldn't have been time for this, I do think I would have enjoyed texturing more items. Definitely something I will try again in the future!

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After the character texturing was complete and the environments coming together I was excited to start testing some render settings, particularly with Toon Shaders.

A worry I had when I first started to test this was about how the shader would work with the texture applied. The first few tutorials I went through didn't explain how this could be done if a toon shader was already applied, so I began to worry I had misunderstood how this would be possible. Then I discovered that it must be done using the node editor, something I hadn't had much experience with. It was very straightforward and worked efficiently once I understood the nodes which didn't take long as the idea of node lays everything out quite nice and clearly,

The Nodes for both the Character and the Environment Boxes:

Here is one of the first toon shader tests that I tried with the blocked-out environment. It was interesting seeing how many edges would be picked up upon adjusting the Edge threshold settings.

The Character

Here is the render after correcting the colours and getting the painted texture onto the model. There is still some adjusting to be done beyond this, for example, I don't think the black colour for the outlines works very well. I will adjust this and a few of the other options available with the aitoon shader attribute options

Below is another render test, this time experimenting more with the toon shader settings. There are specific settings for 'Stylised Lighting' and 'Rim Lighting', here I was particularly focusing on rim lighting as I knew that would be something that would be present in my shots. However, with the settings all adjusted for it and the Directional Light from the open door behind the character selected, for some reason, the rim light was being highlighted on the wrong edges. As seen here on the mouth:

I will have another look at this when I get more into the lighting stage, for one leaving the rim light settings off and just using the natural lighting from the other lights.

After I had my blend shape expressions completed I tested the Edge Threshold options on the face again to see how far I could push this style. This would adjust how much of the model will be outlined, the smaller the number the more details would be picked up, and the higher the number the fewer detail outlines. The first image is with the threshold at 18 and the second is at 30. Whilst I like out 18 brings out the eyelids, I think it is a little too much around other areas like the nose and mouth.

The Environments

Something I experiment with when testing the toon shading on my environments was Ambient Occlusion, this is when shading is calculated from how much light is reaching the object. Below is a test I did with this having the slider turned to its absolute lowest, the effect of the ambient occlusion is the black grain texture visible on the boxes. It's quite an interesting texture and style, I thought it went well with my plans to eventually add more textures, like dust. But it also looks very dramatic and there didn't seem to be any ways to change the colour or control the texture more.

Deciding against Ambient Occlusion, taking it off the shader I noticed there was still a weird shading happening on the boxes created with MASH. This is also outside the render only appearing on the MASH instances. Looking on some forums I discovered this fixable by going through Mash Display and then Harden Edges.

Line edge colour

I did some experimenting with a lighter colour for the edge, I think particularly in the darker shots this works well. However it only seemed to be a more desaturated colour that worked with this. Adding something that was a slightly different hue was too distracting so I have found keeping these boxes monotoned to be the best approach.

Closing thoughts on Toon Shader

I mainly wanted to use this shader as an attempt to give my film a more 2D like style. I think it definitely gave a more satisfying style but not as flat as I was expecting. This was good however as there is so much dramatic lighting that would have not looked at good on a flat 2D image.

I think if I had a bit more time to experiment with the specific lighting settings I think I could have excelled the style even more.

It was interesting to learn how this works as it taught me a lot from node editor layouts to general texturing and rendering settings.

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When I started blocking out the animatic this term it all started to become very real in both exciting and scary ways! Seeing the shots from the animatic come together a lot easier than I imagined was very satisfying, this is a big jump in the production where things are starting to come to life. However, I knew getting to this point meant I'd have to start tackling how to get this final style working and animated well when I still had so much to learn.

Like with everything so far, there's only so much I could research and actually doing it was the only way to fully understand how to get it working, so I have focused on enjoying seeing these scenes come to life and taking things on as I go.

As there is only one primary environment in my film, the rest being more abstract and lose in design, I was able to just focus on this room and plan out the shots from there. From my first term of this course, I completed a tower of boxes as an experiment in getting to grips with Maya, I had also used this tower to play with the controls in MASH in the previous term. This tower was a perfectly good asset to base my box room around. Duplicating the tower I suddenly had two sides of the room complete. I added the walls and door, then started filling in a few more boxes and objects to match shots from the animatic.

Because my animatic is so lighting-based, I also began to experiment with lighting here. I ran through a few options of what could be used in this first shot with the door opening. I tried a spotlight, area light and just using the skydome but I settled with using a mixture of area light, skydome and directional light.

The whole environment:

Apart from a few well-placed cylinders, I tried to keep modelling any other objects n the scene to a minimum as I know it would take a while with my lack of experience, and I may add more 2D objects later in production. But I would be needed a 3D model of an open box for the character to be looking through. This took a while to perfect but I am happy with the final thing! I even duplicated it to use in other places within the scene.

Blocking with the Character

As I was still struggling to get the rig sorted for a while the first character blocking I did was with a non-movable T-Posing version of the character. Luckily this was after I got the textures onto the model so that really helped as I continued to do render tests and see how the model's colours worked in conjunction with the box's colours.


I went through a journey with MASH this term.

As I had been using the blocked-out towers for my previous experiments with MASH the last term, I continued to use them as my main way of building environments. However, after building the box mountains I realised this was detrimental when I got to adding physics to the scenes. When adding the dynamic node, the node that controls the physics, the separate boxes didn't move as they should do in gravity, but rather they moved together as a unit bouncing off tower from tower. This is because they are going from the MASH network created from that mesh.

So this box mountain below, unfortunately, had to be scraped so I could get something working that actually looked like it had fallen down.

So I started from scratch with MASH and, as reluctant as I was to abandon my box towers, I am glad this gave me the chance to learn it more thoroughly. By creating a scene that based the mash network on only one box, I was able to free up a lot more abilities than I had before.

From this, I particularly made use of the Random node which helps you randomise your instances into different sizes, angles, and heights so that you don't have any recognisable patterns. The patterns were a definite problem when using the towers as there were so many distinguishable parts and the random node only moved around the same distinguishable parts.

The issue with the tower patterns is visible here:

Finally using the Dynamics node on these new towers was so much more effective and really reinstated my faith in MASH. I was able to create small box mountains with the result of gravity and use the camera angle to make them seem larger or smaller.

Here is a Playblast of the MASH Dynamics in action:

Thoughts on Blocking out in the Pipeline

I think this is the step that is most important to do as soon as possible within the 3D pipeline. It really helped kick me forward into producing the rest of the 3D. By having the blocked-out environment, without really thinking I was already working on lighting and camera angles before I even planned to! It was a great motivator to continue on with texturing and getting it to go from 'blocked out' to final.

A big help with this process was learning the brilliance of MASH, it is certainly a tool I would like to come back to as it feels like I only scratched the surface of what is possible with it. It really demystified so many questions I had about how things were done in 3D and revealed ways that I could realise my 2D vision. Kelly Clayton was a great help here, showing me how to make my first MASH network. Learning to ask for help from my coursemates has been something I've gotten better at over the course of the year.

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