When Jay Dubin
first began dabbling in three dimensions, fewer than a handful of high-end commercial 3D software products graced a market still in its infancy, and these pricey offerings only were affordable for sizeable corporations. Adobe’s Photoshop was a few months from its first release, and creative desktop computing barely had broken ground.
In 1989, Dubin had logged nearly a decade of television music-video and live-concert directing, and the former engineering student of Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute, and an Emmy nominee, was deeply ingrained enough in directorial pursuits to prohibit thoughts of any other undertaking. He was inundated with the particulars of orchestrating the TV productions of such pop stars as Billy Joel, John Lennon, Hall & Oates, John Cougar, Kenny Rogers and several others.
But a seed of experimental curiosity had been planted, and Dubin’s interest in 3D graphics spawned.
“Well, I’ve been doing [computer art] since 1989,” says Dubin, now a freelance TV director and computer graphics specialist. “And it was mostly Photoshop, when Photoshop came out. Because I remember, my first 3D program was a thing called Swivel 3D.”
Nevertheless, the still-inhibited evolution of desktop computing limited the practicality of 3D graphics, so the three-dimensional world temporarily proved to be little more than an intriguing distraction.
“And I would do the tiniest little thing, not even ray-tracing, and it would take, like, 25 minutes to render a tiny little airplane at, like, 320x240 pixels,” Dubin says. “So, I kind of put [3D] on the side for a while, because it was, really, too slow.”
With Dubin’s directorial career still bustling, he continued on this path, undistracted until the late 1990s. It was then that his 3D curiosity manifested itself once again—but this time in a practical capacity. He helped spearhead a new TV concept for Columbia Tri-Star Pictures, a science-based kids show called Beakmans World, “sort of Pee Wee Herman meets with Wizard,” as Dubin describes it.
|"I got involved with Cinema 4D when I was finishing up Beakmans World," Dubin recalls. "This was when I really got involved with 3D again-in 1996. I was directing the show, and we had a lot-tons and tons-of special effects. And I wasn't so happy with some of the effects I was seeing, so I started to play around with doing some of my own effects-with Adobe After Effects and, at the time, with Strata [StudioPro] and Infini-D. And I started to do a lot of the effects on the show by myself, just on weekends, sort of as a hobby, to the point at which I was doing about 15 to 17 percent of the effects on the show. … And that made okay money, too. I was making a nice little bonus, on top of the directing check, for turning in the CG."|
Dubin's subsequent experimentation with Cinema 4D eventually led to his adoption of the popular software as he began garnering 3D jobs for pay.
“I just picked the damned thing up (Cinema 4D), never even read the manual, and just started playing with the thing,” Dubin says, lauding the program’s ease of use. “And, every now and then, you know, I couldn’t figure something out, and I’d go hit the little button up there that says “Help,” that would open up the manual, and I’d look that thing up, and I’d read it, and I’d do it. I think I used a tutorial for Thinking Particles, because you needed to read that a little bit. … [Cinema 4D] was so straightforward.”
Then, last summer, after a few years of becoming intimate with C4D’s wares, an interesting opportunity arose for him. By chance, he became acquainted with a coffee-making company in Europe called “FrancisFrancis!” The job called for him to model three of the company’s expresso machines, then to animate the coffee-making process.
“The genesis of the project was also quite amazing,” Dubin says. “I had seen the X1 in stores; it was a very pricey machine. I liked the design of it, but a little too pricey for me to buy. So, I went home, after I saw it in the store. And from memory—I didn’t even know they had a Website—I made a model of it. And it was cool; it felt good. And the next day, a friend of mine comes over, and he looks at it on my screen, and the first thing he says is, ‘Is that a photograph or did you make that?’ And I go, ‘I made that.’ And he goes, ‘That’s really good. You should call the company up; maybe you could trade them the picture for a coffee machine.’ And I said to my friend, ‘What? Are you crazy?’ If I say, ‘I’m gonna give you a picture, and I want a $600 coffee machine,’ they’re gonna hang up on me. So, he said, “No, you should try it.’ So, you know, he leaves; I don’t think anything of it.
Then, a surprise meeting cancellation leaves him with some available time.
|"So, I'm sitting there with nothing to do. So, I say, 'Hey, what the hell? Let me try that.' So, I call the company up; I leave a brief message. An hour later, I get a call from [company owner] Jan Anderson, and she says, 'You know, your message fascinated me. What do you mean, exactly, 'a 3D model of our machine?' I had a conversation with her; I sent her an email of the picture. She calls me back, and she says, 'Now, you have a 3D model. Does that mean that you can animate it?' I go, 'Yeah.' She goes, 'That's amazing because I was just sitting here with my associates, and we were just talking that we wanted to do an animation of our products. Would you be able to do that?' And, you know, it lead to a four-and-a-half-month job-that quirky little phone call."|
Thus began Dubin's expresso-animation project, which spanned July through mid-November of 2003. He fired up one of his Mac G4 PCs and began the modeling portion of the project, using Cinema 4D's subdivision-surface features to sculpt the three coffee-making units.
“It was a fairly easy model to build,” says Dubin, who freely admits that he has no conventional artistic leanings. “The difficultly was not in building the model; the difficulty was in measuring it and in doing it accurately to the product, because there was a real product to compare it to.”
The project involved not only modeling the base expresso units, themselves, but also various gauges, buttons and switches, as well as applying approximately 30 texture maps in various locations, for product packaging, gauges and labels. He also used some HDRI maps of an Italian kitchen, applied to a “sky” object, for additional reflections in the scene. Then the machines’ operational process had to be visually articulated, showing buyers precisely how the units work. Eventually, the resulting animations would be output to QuickTime, at 728x586 PAL, 25 frames per second, then compressed and burned onto DVD media.
|The PAL output would be converted to NTSC, at 720x486 and 29.97 frames per second, for use in North America, via a proprietary algorithm. The resulting instructional product DVD media were to accompany the expresso machines in the retail product packaging.|
"Well, you know, believe it or not, 28 minutes [of animation]," Dubin says, describing the total final output, spanning three separate sequences-one per machine. "I started it with one [Mac] G4, a dual-500-megahertz. And I have a second dual-500 machine, and I thought I would end up using the two of them. I just really figured out a pretty good workflow between building the models, rendering and getting approval. So, I pretty much worked during the day, and I would quit at about six or seven o'clock and set the stuff to render 'til 10 in the morning. And I found that I was getting all that I needed. That was enough to keep me busy without down time, and enough, you know, to keep going, not really being hindered by the render time."
In mid-job, Dubin switched to a dual-processor, two gigahertz G5 equipped with four gigabytes of RAM, two internal hard disks (160-GB) and two external hard drives (200-GB). The workstation also boasts a 24-inch Sony FW900 monitor sporting an ATA 9800 Pro graphics accelerator.
“And let me tell you, the speed was unbelievable,” Dubin emphasizes. “It used to be that I’d have three hours, and I’d go out, and meet some friends and have some coffee. [But now] I’d come back and it would be done in 11 minutes. So, if anything, it screwed my workflow up, because I had all these holes, suddenly, in the workflow. It was rendering too fast. I would be able to render things during the day instead of having to render them at night. And I would barely have enough time to go and get a cup of coffee, and come back, and the scene would be done.”
But with the goal of producing absolute photorealism while implementing four different chrome shaders and using high anti-aliasing settings, Dubin needed more than fast hardware performance. He needed scintillating output and lightning-fast feedback and overall performance.
“One reason I like Cinema 4D over Maya and all these other [programs] is the renderer is so fast,” Dubin says. “It’s amazing. Because, if you don’t have a render farm, if you only have a couple of machines, boy, the render speed is terrific.”
Dubin’s praise for his beloved 3D software overfloweth.
“So, I find [Cinema 4D] extraordinarily user-friendly. And the results are terrific. I mean, you can see for yourself on this thing: I have been told from my friend, who first saw the original image, right up to some partners in Italy, who had said, ‘Are you sure he didn’t photograph it?’
“What I really think made the huge difference [in this project] was Cinema 4D’s ability to do HDRI (high dynamic range imaging),” Dubin explains. “I started this project just about the time that [MAXON] came out with that. And I think that’s probably why [FrancisFrancis!] went ahead with the job. Because when I showed it to them, in an HDRI rendering, I immediately got an email back saying, “This looks better than the real machine I’m looking at on my desk.”
As for project challenges, the foam and steam appearing in each of the approximately nine-minute sequences ranked high in difficulty. The particle engine shipping with the Cinema 4D Studio Bundle fit the bill, as did the Dynamics module.
“First of all, the particle generation: I did steam, and that looked unbelievable, with shadow and the whole thing, with Thinking Particles. And I also used Dynamics, ‘cause in the opening of the video, there’s a coin that comes in, which is their logo. It comes in, and it spins around, and does one of those classic kind of nickel things, where it hits the ground and goes whirl, whirl, whirl, whirl, whirl, whirl, and stops. So I did that with Dynamics. I just took a coin to see it drop and spin, and the whole thing. And then, of course, I adjusted the texture so that when it stopped, the texture is straight.”
But for a project of this nature, Dubin found that some scripting was helpful, if not necessary.
“I also used Xpresso functions, in a couple of areas. Where I used Xpresso is foam in the cup, and milk in the little steamer cup, when it comes in. I used the Xpresso functions there to make sure it always stayed parallel to the surface, no matter how you would move the cup. So the liquid would stay not only parallel to the surface, but that the top surface, representing foam, wouldn’t extend outside of the cup.”
|Dubin did find that some portions of the project were a bit tricky. Some functional variations among the machines led to confusion and some touch-up work.|
"It was very idiosyncratic. One machine had regular switches that, when you pressed the button in, the machine goes on. And when you press the button and it goes out, the machine goes off. For some reason, the designer didn't like that on the machine called the X5. He didn't like the way it looked when it was off. So, in that particular machine, when the buttons were pressed in, the machine was off, and when the buttons were out, the machine was on. Of course, I made that mistake, thinking the buttons [on the X5] were normal buttons. And I had to redo all the buttons on that machine."
The creator's resolution to this problem involved a clever use of bluescreening and the implementation of some compositing software.
“Because a lot of times, you make a mistake,” Dubin admits. “You know, a dial is at the wrong setting; a panel light should be on when it’s not on. A switch should be up when it’s down. … So, what I would do was, I developed a little technique where I would do a bluescreen, where I would just put a blue mask up front, where the camera is, to cover everything else in the scene. So, if I had to re-render some motion, I would only be rendering that little 10 percent of the image where the switch is flipping. … Then, I would just take it into After Effects and do a key, and pull out the blue, and drop that little thing in, which is a lot quicker than re-animating the entire scene. … So, I use that technique a lot.”
This project also marked a first for the digital artist.
“This was the only time that I used Cinema 4D to completely build a CG environment,” Dubin says. “There was nothing on the screen that wasn’t Cinema 4D. It wasn’t composited with anything; it wasn’t mixed in with live action. It was just photorealistic animation from beginning to end. … Generally, in the past, when I’ve used [3D], it’s been combined with live action.”
|When C4D had finished all its rendering tasks and the hard disks stopped whirling, the result was three mammoth QuickTime files, each measuring 16-17 gigabytes. Dubin then began using his bluescreen technique in After Effects 5.5. After these measures, the revised output was imported into Final Cut Pro 4.2 for editing. Dubin used Live Type and Soundtrack-both shipping with the program-to add titling, and to add audio tracks and sound effects. Soundtrack, a loop-based editor, was used to create audio tracks from a stock library, and the sound effects were produced by recording the machines' actual operation. All audio was exported from the two standalone programs, then mixed in Final Cut Pro.|
The three final QuickTime files were imported into DVD Studio Pro 2 for MPEG-2 compression, and interactivity was added, followed by encoding into DVD format. Each QuickTime animation originally measuring 16-17 MB was compressed down to less than two MB. Dubin burned a master DVD in his home office, then carted the media from his residence in Santa Monica, CA, to a mastering house in Irvine, All4DVD, located about an hour away. There, the first run of 20,000 DVDs was produced for North America and another one of 20,000 for Europe.
The DVD content includes each of the three machines animated and accompanied by four different languages. Interactivity was implemented to allow users to choose which product to preview and whether to play any sequence from the beginning or to jump to a specific chapter.
As for the project-approval process at various stages, Dubin used a secure Website to post compressed half-resolution versions of the animations. There was an abundance of material to preview and approve, with each expresso machine involving 90 files ranging from 80 to 500 MB apiece.
|Concerning Dubin's other 3D work, he also uses Cinema 4D-currently version 8.2-for promotional purposes. He finds the software very useful in this process.|
"Case in point: We had one particular proposal I had to do, and I needed a little DV mini-cam, but I needed it a certain way with a certain logo," Dubin explains. "So, I just took a couple hours out at night, and I made a photorealistic model of a Sony-style mini-DV, so I could put exactly what I wanted in the viewfinder and exactly what logo I wanted, and exactly what colors I wanted. And I used that for the cover of the sales brochure, for the project."
What about future Dubin work using Cinema 4D?
"I've got two pilots [done] wholly with Cinema 4D, also. One, most recently, is a kids show called 'Headz,' which is floating heads and spheres. And the faces are shot on bluescreen, but everything else is all CG. And I know, from doing TV pilots … that that would have cost several hundred thousand dollars (to produce the pilot with conventional means). Here, that took me two-and-half, three weeks of work in the evenings, to build.
"… At the end of the day, I can do most of what I need to do with Cinema 4D. And why get into more tools and more expense on another platform?
“These guys (MAXON Computer) have been moving real fast with upgrades,” Dubin continues. “They’ve been going like lightning. Here’s a company that, when I started using [Cinema 4D], nobody had heard of them. I started using it when everyone knew what Strata was. … But after I started using Cinema 4D with Version 5, I put Strata down immediately. I said, ‘Forget this.’ I saw the handwriting on the wall. [Cinema 4D] is much easier to work with. And much faster to render.”Ed Scott is a freelance writer and computer graphics specialist residing in Central Missouri.
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