Category Archives: Fax’s Shopping Choices

Blender Foundations, One Year Later

Remember how this all started? I followed the Blender Foundations book from start to finish, actually doing everything step by step, to get myself familiarized with Blender. I was done mid-May last year, just a little over one year ago.

Back then I exchanged a few e-mails with the author, Roland Hess, both when I needed help and to point out a few issues for the errata, and a couple of days ago Roland sent me a follow-up e-mail. He wanted to know, one year later and after having completed a few projects of my own, if I felt that the book had indeed achieved his goal of “laying a great baseline for people to develop from”. The answer, while straightforward, is long enough to warrant a blog post :)

Simply put, it is a fact that this book got me through the learning curve as painlessly as possible. “Yeah, but how do you know if you never tried just learning from all the tutorials out there?” Well, I didn’t… not until Cycles came up. And I’m telling you: having to learn this new engine by grabbing bits and pieces from different tutorials out there (after filtering out the bad information) is a very inefficient way to do it. Which is probably the reason why I haven’t given Cycles a proper go yet, and that says a lot about what could have happened if I had tried to learn “the whole Blender” that way. That’s why I still recommend Blender Foundations to people who are looking for a structured approach to learning the app.

The education resources out there, namely the video tutorial sites like BlenderCookie and BlenderGuru, have been growing in an awesome way, but to me the true value in them comes when you already know your way around and are just looking for solutions to problems you encounter, or want to learn the advanced stuff. That’s where I think tutorials are the most efficient – when you have the foundations set and are just looking to build your knowledge, which is pretty much all I’ve been doing since finishing the book. Also by giving you a look at the complete pipeline within a project it gives you a pretty good idea of how to segment areas of knowledge you may want to dig deeper into, and how this or that tutorial may fit into that program.

I’ll also take the opportunity to assess how well the book has stood the test of time. Quite an accelerated time too, since in a year Blender has grown like crazy! Well here’s what: the omission of Cycles is the only noticeable thing. Big features like camera tracking and dynamic paint would probably only deserve a quick mention in a beginner-level book anyway, and the addition of B-Mesh goes mostly behind the scenes – surely the new tools that it brought, like vertex slide, the improved knife and of course the ability to use n-gons are things very much worth learning, but if you pick up the book today to learn basic modeling you will be able to follow the instructions in just the same way as you could last year without B-Mesh. Same goes for the rest of the book. Aside from the very slight differences in the UI here and there, you’ll be able to follow everything and while you’ll maybe miss a few tricks that have been added meanwhile, you’ll learn the basics just fine. And the book was published two years ago..! I said it then and I’m saying it again now: that’s a great future-proofing job.

Ah by the way, here’s a funny twist: the Blender 2.6 glitch on the cover is actually more deceiving now that we are indeed on 2.6x. Before, it was harmless. “Hey, there is no Blender 2.6 yet!” But now people may pick it up thinking it covers Cycles… They should be researching these things though! :)

If I had that Fax Seal of Approval I’ve always talked about, this would still get it!

 

Humane Rigging – the new Blender Open Movie Training DVD

Fax’s Shopping Choices are back, this time with a small twist!

If you checked my previous post or if you’re someone who likes to stay up-to-date with things you already know that the Blender Foundation is launching a new training DVD, this time on the subject of rigging. Nathan Vegdahl, of Mammoth Rigging Tutorial fame (and of course Big Buck Bunny and Sintel and Project London fame), is the author and he asked me to write a pre-review of the thing. So there’s the twist!

Before I start, here are a couple of links:
– first to the product page, which has a full description of the contents, together with a trailer that you have to watch and an example chapter that will probably make you pre-order this without needing to read this post;
– and then to Nathan’s thread on BlenderArtists where he answers a few questions about the product.

Be Humane. Rig.

“So what’s up with a new rigging product by the same guy?” you might be asking. Well as Nathan himself puts it in that BA thread, that Mammoth was a (fantastic) tutorial – this is training. The previous product showed you a complete rigging workflow, from thinking about it to actually doing it, on an example character. This new one is designed to teach you how to rationally tackle rigging problems. If you suddenly have to rig something else, say a centipede, you could go back to the mammoth tutorial and adapt something you’ve learned there to the centipede and hope it actually makes sense to do so in the first place. Oooor you could stop and think about the movement requirements of the critter and how to solve them. Humane Rigging aims to equip you with that capability and long story short, in my opinion, it delivers.

The DVD is divided in 5 main chapters each tackling a different character (there is also an Introduction and a last chapter on linking and using proxies). The “internal structure” is the same used in the Mammoth tutorial: divide and conquer basically. The individual rigging problems are tackled thoroughly one at the time and then everything is put together in the final rig. This was one of my favorite things in the other video so it’s great to see it again, it really helps keeping things as simple as possible instead of jumping right into the full rig and having every other bone get in the way of explaining the current task at hand.

The concepts are presented throughout the chapters in a great pedagogic way – Nathan uses simple characters to explain simple rigs, and as we progress to more involved requirements he expands and sometimes improves on previous concepts to face the new challenges. So basically the learning curve on this pretty heavy topic is smoothed very well. It still is a truckload of information but it’s not just dumped on you at once. When you get to the heavy stuff (like the torso rig, the apex, a far-from-immediate thing to solve) you’ve already been trained on the building blocks.

Another plus from the way it is organized is that it really communicates how important it is to think about the actual requirements of the character and what the animator will find useful to have. Not all of your characters will be realistic human characters, for example, and if you use the same concepts you would use on that for a simple character you’ll not only end up with overkill rigs but also likely making the animator’s job harder. So by presenting simple rigging concepts first it’s not only easing the way into more complex stuff, but also giving you simple tools that will be useful in simple cases.

Mr. Squeegee's requirements and non-requirements (screen-grab from the DVD)

The best part for me is that Nathan is able to “get it wrong” for us. What I mean by this is that even though he knows exactly what he’s looking for, he goes through a few missteps – even though they seem to fulfill the task they are actually less than ideal for one reason or another. So he’s not just showing why some stuff works, he also shows why other approaches don’t. That process of progressing towards a suitable rig is a mine of knowledge in my opinion. (If you had a déjà-vu reading this don’t wonder why, I took it from my pre-pre-review in the BA thread and just fixed it up a bit :P It holds true throughout the DVD so no need to find new ways to write the same thing!)

To wrap up the review in terms of content let me just go back to the subject of how much information this packs inside: this packs a LOT of information inside. Seriously though, it is not only generally packed with information on everything you need to know to put together control rigs (even things you weren’t really expecting but are very important – you will be fully versed on rotation modes, for example, how they work and when to use which), it is also full of little nuggets of info that will make you feel special for knowing about them, with reason. It’s like having someone teach you how to play a game very well and mastering all you need to win, and then he teaches you a bunch of kick-ass c-c-c-c-c-combos on top of that. I’m serious. Maybe it was just me, but did you know about Action Constraints for example? I’ve never seen that treated anywhere else and they are so incredibly useful. My gyrocopter rigging tutorial would be much shorter and much less hacky if I’d used them! Or how about those characters that get to you with straight arms or legs, how do you prevent the IK solver from going nuts trying to figure out which way to bend? Or how about a nice alternative to using pole targets? And the torso rig I’ve already talked about is in itself a case-study on very clever use of bones in ways that you very probably never thought of. Lotsa nice tricks in here.

The presentation and production are also very nice. Nathan’s humor and laid-back…ness helps maintaining your attention, and the addition of captions really helps explaining concepts more clearly. If you’re like me you will laugh out loud when a certain something kicks in for the first time, but I won’t spoil it for you ;). As expected, audio and video quality are great.

So that’s a bunch of pros and no cons so far. There have to be cons though, right? Especially since I was asked to write this review by the author, I must find something to complain about to show that I’m not being influenced by that fact and that this is an honest review, right? Well… even if I did feel that pressure… which I don’t, since honestly saying that something is awesome is still being honest… I couldn’t really find anything about this that could be improved. Within the scope that was defined (control rigs, no treatment of deformations (they may become the subject of a following DVD though)) this product delivers, without a doubt. I won’t nitpick and I’m not even sure I’d find something to complain about if I did. Nathan made a couple of mistakes throughout the video but he caught himself and mentioned them in post-production captions, so we can’t even go there! :) I can’t even say that the light style is a problem – I’m sure some people would prefer something more professional (there’s a con for you if you do!), but others will love it this way and I’m one of them. Just imagining my dry uni teachers teaching me this subject… argh.

Conclusion: when we thought there were already fantastic resources out there about rigging in Blender, this comes out and shows that there was nothing like it. Not that the others are any less fantastic now – they just don’t have the same goals. If you want to learn how to rig whatever in Blender this is the first thing to get. You will be directly supporting the Blender Foundation too, so if you can put aside the 25€ to get this (less than half of what the Mammoth cost! I just noticed this. Seriously, where are the cons?!), I totally recommend it!

Fax’s Shopping Choices – Rigging Resources

It seems many people found my pre-buying comparison between Compositing resources useful (I compared Sebastian König’s Compositing Training to Andrew Price’s Wow Factor, in case you missed it). Since I like to inform myself as much as possible before buying a product, and since I know many of you can’t be bothered to do that kind of homework :p I’ll start sharing my decision process whenever I’m trying to pick between related products. These will be based merely on the information available out there without actually looking into the product itself, so they are not reviews – again, it’s just me summing up the features in each and picking between the two. Sort of like pros and cons.

So this time I was looking to improve my rigging skills, and checked out the products out there: CMIVFX’s Massive Mammoth Rigging Masterclass by Nathan Vegdahl, and CGMasters’ Character Creation Volume 2 – Rigging, by Lee Salvemini. Both products are video tutorials and seem to be designed to take you from basic to pretty advanced rigging skills, so the differences between the two are really in the details. So what are those differences?

Let’s talk about the format. First of all I’m going to cheat a little bit on that “without looking into the product” thing and tell you that the format of Nathan’s video is what you are probably used to – he’s explaining things to you as he’s working through them in real time. Lee’s, on the other hand (and based on a video preview of the previous Volume of the series and production progress reports), was recorded as he worked on the rig and afterwards narrated to explain what is going on. Alright I’m going to cheat again to tell you that Nathan sometimes pauses the recording when he’s doing repetitive things, so the 6 hours of video are entirely productive. I can’t give you that inside knowledge on Lee’s yet, but the estimated duration on the product page is 8 hours and “every single second of the creation process recorded”, but since Lee is narrating I’m sure he’ll have useful insights to offer while repetitive tasks are being performed on the video, and also probably uses timelapses to speed things up. Another slight difference in the format between the two videos are the “various visual cues” in Lee’s, “such as: Zooming to smaller menus on the screen, hot-key pop ups, buttons and areas of interest highlighted, efficient mix of timelapse and real-time video”.

Now the subjects. On Nathan’s video we’re working on a quadruped character (a kick-ass Mammoth), while in Lee’s we’re talking about a biped character (a kick-ass Ninja). No rigging tutorial will be complete without explaining FK and IK and switching between the two, so you’ll be happy to realize by checking both product pages that these are thoroughly explained in both despite the differences in the characters. So no problem there. But you may think that you’ll find yourself rigging quadrupeds more often, or bipeds more often, so that may drive your decision.

Because of the different characters though, there are a few subjects that are touched on one of the products and not on the other. For example, the Mammoth features a large trunk (as they do), which Nathan uses to explain Spline IK. This does not seem to be covered in Lee’s video. On the other hand, Lee touches on rigging the accessories on the Ninja (so non-organic rigs) and also on rigging with cloth simulation, both of which are not presented on Nathan’s video.

Another interesting difference is this: along with the video (and the project files that both products obviously provide), Nathan provides an add-on of his that compiles a set of useful tools for the weighting process, and of course explains how to use it. I have no idea whether this add-on is available in the wild or not. On the other hand, Lee has a chapter devoted to Rigify, the automatic rigging add-on that is provided with Blender and that surely helps in the process of quickly rigging secondary characters.

Important feature: both products explain drivers, and both explain setting up custom shapes for the bones, however Lee also touches Python scripting.

Regarding everything else (and there is quite a bit of “else”), and to the best of my knowledge, the products seem to be identically chock-full of information. Accordingly, the prices are almost exactly the same, ha! $59,95 for Nathan’s bundle (if you get the two volumes separately it gets more expensive), $60 for Lee’s video.

Hopefully, if you’re interested in these products, this sum-up will help you make a more informed decision. So which one did I pick? Well as you probably guessed from my cheating above, I got Nathan’s video, with the help of a promotion at the CMIVFX store (I told you already, it’s a good idea to follow those guys on twitter!). What you may not have guessed though, is that I also took advantage of the current discount at CGMasters (get both Volumes, on Modeling and Rigging, for $90 – hurry though, because it only lasts while volume 2 isn’t shipping, and it may be shipping very soon). I had a hard time picking between the two, and since I figured I could use some organic modeling skills to complement the hard-surface ones… or at least that’s how I justify it to my wallet :p

So very soon (like tomorrow or the day after) I’ll be posting a review of Nathan’s video. If you can’t wait, I can tell you it rocks. As soon as Lee’s arrives in the mail I’ll let you know too!

Oh wait, one final thought! This shopping has been made a while ago, and meanwhile another good-looking resource has popped out: Blender 2.5 Character Animation Cookbook, a book by Virgílio Vasconcelos. In a way I’m happy it only came out after I’d made the decision (it either saved me more decision time or more money), but it does look like an awesome resource in book format to study both rigging and animation. But you’ll need to do your own homework on that ;)

So You Want to Learn Compositing?

Compositing is a very interesting subject that doesn’t get explored a lot. You can find a lot of solid tutorials on modeling, lighting, animating, some on texturing, but not many about compositing! The ones there are out there though are really good.

The most prominent has got to be Andrew Price from BlenderGuru.com – I’ve linked to tutorials of his before and he’s very well known for them, but if for some odd reason you don’t know him yet go check the site out. If you need an example to be convinced of how well he dances with the compositor, there’s no need to look any further than his last tutorial (at the time of writing of course):

That's the render before compositing. Already good looking.

Now that's after compositing. How about that?

And that is a pretty simple setup for him. Impressive, huh?

If you follow his tutorials there’s usually a bit of compositing in the end that can teach you some tricks, so if you watch them all you can probably put together a nice body of knowledge about the compositor (and the rest of the stuff of course). But what if you want a resource that compiles it all in one place?

That I know of, there are two places to go to:

  • Andrew Price’s Wow Factor. If he hadn’t done it yet he would have to do it – he compiled his knowledge into an e-book that will teach you how, when and why to achieve compositing effects in an (apparently, more on that later) well structured fashion. Together with the main e-book comes a Node Encyclopedia that explains each node in detail (if you’re thinking “that’s what the official wiki manual is for”, here’s the word from the site: “Every definition is explained in plain english without any of the jargon. Unlike the wiki, this book is written for artists, not programmers.”). Also included are a few other bonuses like interviews with VFX artists and video tutorials.
  • Sebastian König’s Blender 3D Compositing. This is a 5-hour-long video covering the nuts and bolts of the compositor. It is broken into chapters for easy access to what you need when you need it. In the end it teaches you how to composite your CG with real footage, so that’s a pretty cool bonus.
I got Sebastian’s video recently and I’m still going through it. What made me pick that and not the other? What are the pros and cons? Well that’s for you to decide, but I’ll tell you what I think the main differences are:
  • Andrew seems to have taken a “effect-driven” approach, while Sebastian seems to cover the core concepts. Notice that I’ve used the words “seems to” in both cases – I haven’t read Andrew’s book and I have only started Sebastian’s video, so this is my impression from the information I have so far and I could be totally wrong. But what I’m trying to say is maybe with Andrew’s you’ll learn how to achieve those effects and then you’ll have to investigate to come up with other things, while with Sebastian you’ll probably get a solid compositing knowledge and then have to investigate to put the pieces together to achieve certain effects. Kind of top-to-bottom vs bottom-up approaches.
  • Andrew’s is an e-book, while Sebastian’s is a video with voice over. This goes down to personal preference and I’m fine with both. It’s on you. Word of caution though: Sebastian’s video is only accessible on the website’s video player. You won’t be able to download it (not without any maddskillz anyway). I’m fine with that, assuming I won’t need it somewhere without an internet connection and of course assuming the company won’t go out of business before releasing the materials its clients paid for.
  • I can tell you from what I’ve seen of the video so far that Sebastian explains things very well. From all the stuff I’ve seen from Andrew I can tell you that he also explains things very well, so even though I haven’t read the book I’m sure it’s top quality.
  • The price tag is pretty much the same for both, close to $50, so no difference there.

Well that was inconclusive! I still haven’t told you why I picked Sebastian’s video! Here’s why. To be honest, I had a problem with the price tag. This may not make sense to you, but I tend to value things in relation to others, so when most of the solid books that have been published are available for half that price I find it hard to give $50 for these materials, especially in times like these. I’m not bashing the valuation, I understand it and know where it’s coming from, like I know you can’t compare things like that. But I guess it’s a personal thing I can’t help. It turns out though that the website providing Sebastian’s video has discount offers every now and then (make sure you follow @s_koenig and @cmivfx on twitter to hear about these discounts). Without signs of a promotion on Andrew’s side,  I took advantage of a 50% discount to get the video.

If money is not an issue to you, good luck! You’ll have a hard time picking between these two. Just pick both ;)