Monday, January 19, 2009

You can't grab my shirt!

It's easy to blow up a city in 3D, but it's hard for a character to grab another character's shirt.
Brad Bird, director of The Incredibles and Ratatouille
In the January version of Imagine magazine, there's a great article by Saint John Walker of FDMX which touches on one of the biggest issues facing machinima. There are some things that you just can't do well using low-end real-time animation and a home computer, no matter how hard you try. And, frustratingly, some of these are the sort of things that are trivial with a camera and actors.

Going right back to the dawn of film, one of the first Lumiere shorts, L'Arroseur Arrose (Lumiere number 99, often regarded as the first comedy, made way back in 1895), features a gardener watering the garden. A boy enters the shot, steps on the hose and the water stops. As the bemused gardener looks into the hose to see what's wrong, the boy takes his foot off, and the gardener gets a jet of water in his face as the boy sniggers. (Ho, ho ho!) Then the gardener, now annoyed, grabs the young scamp and pulls him around, then squirts the water at him. All very simple, and it was made with the most rudimentary equipment.

Now try doing that in machinima. Getting the facial expressions is hard enough, but we're just about cracking that now. Getting the water to look right is just about do-able in modern game engines, but getting the splashing isn't there yet. But pulling the shirt is just not possible in machinima yet. It's right on the edge of what top-end 3D animation can do. More from Brad Bird:
One character touching another character's hair? "Aaah! No! Isn't there anything else you could do?" I mean, I had to budget shirt-grabs.
And if it's hard for Pixar to do shirt grabs, then, realistically, can you expect machinima to do it well? Nope. You can get a hand pretty near a shirt, but don't expect to see cloth being pulled about. And when you run your hand through someone's hair, expect to see hair poking through the hand and not moving right. Taking clothes on and off is a 3D animator's nightmare. You just don't do it, not unless you have Pixar's budget and a lot of patience.

There are, of course, the three usual film-maker's solutions:
  1. Write a story that doesn't need shirt grabs, hair ruffles, or the like.
  2. Shoot it off-screen and edit the sequence so that the audience thinks they've seen something they haven't.
  3. Shoot something close enough, don't worry about the visual glitches, and assume your audience will forgive you because it's machinima.
This isn't to say that machinima is crap because it can't do something that simple. Machinima is still a very powerful tool which enables to you to make all sorts of movies. And, as it says in the opening quote, some things are unbelievably easy in comparison to any other method of making films. What's important is that you have to accept the limitations of the medium, and learn to work within them. Machinima just can't do some of the things that other media can do, so live with it. If shirt-grabbing and hair-pulling are central to your film, and you absolutely need to show them on screen, looking realistic, then don't expect machinima to work for you. Use a real camera, or learn to animate and do it all by hand in 2D.

The original Lumiere cine camera can still create images that 21st century computers find difficult.

But, as Mike Joyce is so fond of pointing out every time we speak, limitations are what provide artistic challenges.

Actually - there's a challenge. How close can you get to that movie in machinima?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Dawn, Cambridge

Dawn, Cambridge
Originally uploaded by Matt Kelland
I often wonder why the hell I stay in this country. Then I see sights like this in my own back yard, and remember how damn beautiful England can be.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Sunset off St Martins Scilly Isles

That does it. I'm going back to St Martin's. I went there a few years ago with a group of friends, and we had a great time. I always said I wanted to visit it again. Looking at this picture has made my mind up. Time to start putting those 5p pieces into the piggy bank...

Friday, January 9, 2009

Armageddon Begins at Home

Another in the "lyrics from the archives" selection.

Armageddon Begins at Home

The clown puts on his painted smile and drops his baggy pants
The dancers stamp their calloused feet
The swaying fireglow makes their faces gods
The lion twists in firecracker lines, and the dragon runs in fear
I peel back the corner of the world and look inside

A human can, but you may not escape this crushing kiss
Hell on earth, the politicians tell us this is bliss
There is no simple answer when you don't know what to ask
And I lie like a frightened child screaming in the dark

Even-handed sadists passing judgment on us all
You grasp the coal, you feel the pain, and like the rest, you fall
Not worthy, says the judge, and sentence is pronounced
Your cries for mercy go unheard, your torment is ignored
The winnowing goes on.

Is all of life to be reduced to a simple yes or no?
All the good things wiped away with a single misplaced thought?
There is no room for "tried my best" or "Johnny could go far"
Just saved or damned with nothing in between.

The clown puts on his painted smile and sobs into his bottle
The dancers grunt in locked embrace,
The children watch their antics unconcerned
The lion lies in dusty cupboards, and the dragon in his box
I peel back the corner of the world and look inside

Autumn Equinox 1991

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Armageddon Begins at Home by Matt Kelland is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License. Feel free to make something of them. Just be courteous and let me know.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

It's too simple

This is probably the funniest thing I've seen from The Onion in ages. If you haven't seen it, watch it before reading the rest of this post.

Apple Introduces Revolutionary New Laptop With No Keyboard

There is, however, a serious point here about user interface design. This is something that's on my mind every day, as we grapple with the complexities of making it easy to create movies. What everybody's after is "add more features, and make it simpler". Which sounds logical and sensible, but it ain't.

A simple user interface sounds like an obvious solution, but as the video demonstrates (by reductio ad absurdum, admittedly) it doesn't work that way. Some things are sufficiently complex that you need a certain complexity of user interface to make them work. By reducing the number of controls in the user interface, you make it appear simple, but at the cost of burying functions too deeply.

It's just maths. Let's say you have 27 functions you want to perform. At one extreme, you could have 27 buttons, each of which performs the desired function. The end result is an aircraft cockpit, which looks scary and intimidating.

At the other, you could have 3 buttons. You could get to each of those 27 functions with just 3 clicks. Which is obviously better, right? Wrong. It's fine once you learn the menu sequence (press 1 to get menu 1, then press 2 to get submenu 1-2, then press 2 again to get function 5). But the only way to get familiar with the device is to go through all three main menus and all nine sub-menus, and remember what's on each and how to get there.

You could do the same with a single button, but you could activate it in three ways. Short press, long press, and double-tap. Now to get function 5 you'd press, hold, press. One button has to be even easier, right? You get where I'm going. Yes, it would be a beautifully clean interface, but completely unusable. You laugh. But isn't that what we so often do with icons on our interfaces? Left-click, right-click, double-click, middle-click, hover over, drag, CTRL-drag, SHIFT-drag, CTRL-ALT-SHIFT-right-click...? (And yes, I'm guilty of that particular UI design sin too.)

The fact is, some tasks are fundamentally complex, and you need an interface with sufficient complexity to do what you need to do. You simplify the interface by simplifying the task, either by removing features or automating them. I mean, it's great that we no longer have manual advance/retard levers or manual chokes on cars. We've automated those functions pretty well perfectly, and so that's two controls we don't need. And let's face it, who really needs a rev counter on an automatic? All well and good. My mum's Nissan is a triumph of simplicity.

But, of course, this may not be what the user wants, or needs. Take this blog, for example. It has basic word-processing functions, but I can't put a table in it. (Yeah, I could probably write one in raw HTML, but I can't do what I can do in Word or OpenOffice.) It won't let me select the icon I want for a bulleted list. It's restricted the functionality in favour of ease of use.

To be fair, 99% of the time, it's perfectly adequate, so I have no real complaints. All I really want to do on my blog is write words, and intersperse them with pictures and videos, and add in the occasional link. I can express myself quite adequately. But when it comes to a task as complex as making a movie, the basic functionality required to create something close to what I want is enormous. The medium is so rich that it requires a lot of user input, and that requires a rich user interface. And that, I suggest, means a relatively complex user interface.

Fundamentally, the user needs to learn the task. On something as simple as an iPod, the task can more or less be broken down to "select some music" and "play it". On a mobile phone, there may be many tasks, but they're all mostly simple, atomic tasks, and the main design challenge is to make it easy for the user to find how to get to them. But making a movie is a huge mess of complex, interrelated tasks, and no matter how simple you make the user interface, unless you understand what those tasks are, and what's involved in them, and how to get the results you want, you'll never understand what you're supposed to do.

It's what they call "necessary complexity". One of the things that killed Google Lively was that it was so simple it didn't work. Even though they did what all the design gurus said was sensible, they ended up with something that was harder to control than WoW and less fun. As it says in that article (do read it, it's good):
So, ideally the interaction interface needs to be of an order of complexity that is coupled to the order of complexity of the number and type of possible tasks. If it rises above that or falls below that, performing tasks becomes harder. Performing tasks with an oversimplified interaction-interface is like trying to make coffee with one hand tied behind your back.
Getting the balance right is hard. Damn hard. With Moviestorm, we find that some people find it trivially easy, while others find it really hard. Some find it so feature-rich it's bewildering, others complain it doesn't do what they want. The middle ground risks satisfying nobody. Powerful, complex tools risk being usable only by the few. But simple isn't always the right answer either. As the Macbook Wheel shows, "simple" can easily end up meaning "hard to use", "unsatisfying", and "inadequate". "Simple" is not the Holy Grail. It's really not.

"Clear and well structured" - now that's a whole different paradigm.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Loving the ghost

I wrote these lyrics nearly 20 years ago, and found them today while going through old stuff. Here they are exactly as written. I wouldn't write them that way now. I think I had a sort of Yes-ish, Wakeman-ish feel in mind, with just a soupcon of Marillion and Lamb Lies Down era Genesis.

Loving the Ghost

Drawn into a secret world of only two lost souls
There they live among the forests and the stars.
Eternal once upon a time, they have a past that lasts for ever
Still life in an amber frozen moment.

Loving the ghost of a life that never dies
Loving the ghost of a life that never dies
Loving the ghost

He looks at her as if to say, I need to know
Is that a tear of happiness or pain upon your cheek?
She starts to reply, but the answer needs no words.
A touch from her hand says so much more.

Loving the ghost...

"The invisible abyss that hides you from me
Grows stronger as the time creeps ever onward.
Will you cross and be with me, for I dare not,
Though we both can see what lies beyond our sight?"

Loving the ghost...

Every line of their faces reaches out into the past,
As if to rediscover their final tender kiss.
But suddenly they return to their separate cold words
Where all is as it is, not as it could be.

Summer Solstice 1991

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Loving the Ghost by Matt Kelland is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License. Feel free to make something of them. Just be courteous and let me know.