Tron: Disk Battle was homage piece created for CGTalk's VFX Competition: Tron Tribute. The short was created over the span of eight weeks by a team of seven artists, working on and off, using Maya as the primary 3d package. Upon reading the details on the competition, one of the options really stood out:
Disk Arena Combat:
In the game, the program uses his or her Identity Disk as a weapon by throwing it at opponents and to block attacks. Show us your interpretation of this FX.
Disk Combat was chosen for a few reasons, the main one being that characters could be involved. The team had specific character artists and animators, combined with a solid track record of producing character heavy pieces. From there ideas where tossed around on how to make the most appealing visuals while incorporating the strengths of the individual team members.
Team Intros / Working Remote:
To make this idea a reality, a team of artists, specializing in their given fields, where assembled. The team consisted of:
All of the above artists were working full time during the production of this short, so most of the work was created during nights and heavily on weekends. To achieve the desired quality, the use of Specialists were used instead of Generalists. Once the specific role was completed, such as the character modeling or matte painting, those artists signed off from the project.
Since all the artists were working remote from various parts of the country (Los Angeles, San Diego, Detroit, Orlando), it was vital that everyone kept in constant contact with one another. This allowed for the next person in line to know when assets where ready or updated, or if the direction had changed. The team stayed in contact with email and instant messengers, while sharing files either over their own sites FTP's or with a file transfer program called DropBox ( www.dropbox.com ). Dropbox was used heavily for transferring the render sequences from Blake and Wayne over to Ed and Jon to be composited.
An essential aspect of keeping a team of individuals, working remote, heading towards a common goal was sending out daily updates. If one of the artists worked on their element, at the end of the day, they'd host up a video, render or screen grab of their latest work and send it out to the rest of the group. From there, critique could be given in a timely manner, the team knew when assets where ready, and any thoughts, ideas or concerns could be addressed before final assets where completed. However, one key element beyond the technical benefit of dailies, was the motivation they provided. Eight weeks is a long time to stay motivated on a remote project, so seeing that all the other team members where actively working, producing assets and making everyone's work look better played a huge part in people hitting the deadlines they'd set and putting in the hours after their day jobs.
No single concept was provided for the character designs, but rather a collage of various elements and ideas of what would be 'cool' to take the existing Tron Legacy visual and push it in a different direction. Early on it was decided that there would be two different characters, a male and a female. To aid with the short timeline and avoid having to model, setup and animate faces and hair, both characters were created with helmets in mind. The idea of Bellatrix having cords/dreadlocks coming out the back of helmet was briefly explored but later cut due to time restraints.
Breakdown Detail sheet
The male character, named Contego, which in latin stands for "Shield, Protect", took the form of a single, heavy disk Combatant. The main inspiration around his character was Captain America: heroic and a heavier build. Contego maintained the idea of a single disk from Tron, but with larger, stronger attacks. Contego also had several uses for his shield. He could have its entirety used as a standard shield and that could be thrown like a discus. He could split the shield in half to use as dual forearm guards, or slam these halves together to form a hexagon orb that protected him and those in close proximity around him.
Breakdown Detail sheet
The female character, named Bellatrix, latin for "Female Warrior", went the opposite direction: smaller, multiple disks to allow for increased agility and speed. Not only did Bellatrix have a primary disk on her back, she had four other slots on her forearms and calves that could create temporary disks that could be thrown. The key design of this disk layout was to give her the ability to be her own light cycle. By creating a disk from all of her slots, she could ride very low to the ground in a Superman-esque pose. Beyond the disks, her primary ability was that of Mitosis. As shown at the end of the short, when she's sliced in half, she has the ability to duplicate herself. This premise became the highlight of the entire piece. Originally, Bellatrix was to be the Heroine, but as the short progressed and seeing her split ability, she turned into the villain, since that felt move felt so much more sinister.
For creating the character assets for this short, Reed used a combination of Maya, ZBrush and Photoshop. In additional, the ZBrush plugin 'Decimation Master' was used. A few challenges that arouse where finding a balance of the High Res mesh to be used for animation.
Reed mentioned, "The retopology tool in Zbrush was a very useful way to make a final 8k poly character model for final rendering. Unfortunately, having never used the retopology tool before; I had already poly painted my ztool before retopology and I couldn't transfer the polypaint onto the new 8k model.
The solution I found was to use Decimation Master to export a Highpoly / polypainted mesh into maya with adaptive UVs. Then I used the Maya "Transfer Maps" tool to Bake color, normal and ambient occlusion maps onto my 8k model instead of using Zmapper or Converting polypaint to Texture inside Zbrush. Between Maya and Zbrush there seems to always be a work around to most pipeline issues. I was skeptical about the Retopolgy tool before this project, but now I consider it indispensable."
Below are time lapse creation videos on how Reed went about crafting the Contengo hero character.
Contego and Bellatrix wireframes.
Contego various texture maps.
Character Setup / Technical Aspects:
Both characters where humaniod bipeds, so their rigs where fairly straight forward. Both were created with a custom autoRig. The character rigs had the ability for squash and stretch on the limbs, spine, and fingers, but to maintain the preferred style of animation, these options were not used. Other rigging standards where present such as IKFK on the limbs, world / local pinning for the head, shoulders and hips.
Character Rig Overlay.
Deformations where handled with default skinning and twist joints for additional volume control ( www.3dfiggins.com/writeups/forearmTwist ). These twists where hand animated at the most extreme poses to help retain the volume and texture integrity. The use of corrective blend shapes to help sculpt back the elbow and knee creases would have been useful, however due to time restraints, they where not implemented.
Comparing Bicep Twist Volumes.
For the initial previs, a single proxy character was used to animate both characters. Once the previs animation had been approved and character modeling set in motion, the proxy character was handed off to be used as a pose and scale ref for the character to base his own models off. Once the character modeler created a base mesh with approved proportions, but far from finished, the mesh was handed back and re rigged. Since the rig was being referenced in the animation, using Maya File Referencing, any updates to the rig or model from here out would automatically be seen in the animation file.
To speed up production and allow multiple artists to be working simultaneously, Maya's File Referencing ( www.3dfiggins.com/writeups/mayaReference ) was used heavily throughout this project. While the character modeler continued working on the character mesh, the rig and weighting was being finessed and animation improved. However, this wasn't the only layer of referencing taking place, later the animation file was being referenced by the VFX and Environment/Lighting artists. By working this way, the team was able to provided far more overlap in the production of assets instead of 'waterfalling' them. Test renders and vfx passes where already being done before the animation, rig or character mesh was finalized.
The primary style for the animation for this short was "exaggerated realism". This meant that the actions would have to be feasible enough that a person could actually perform them, but still be pushed to a super human level. To help achieve this look, a few guide lines where established.
The rig options for squash and stretch would not be used. This prevented forced scaling or collapsing of the human form past what it was capable.
Anatomy and range of motion was conformed to the human body, such as the elbows and knees only bending in one axis without hyper-extension. The goal being to animate as if the character was an actor on set.
Characters would traverse distance in the scene. Often distance can be cheated by having the character static and the environment move. This option was not chosen, since the distance wasn't too great that the Lighting Artist would have a problem rendering.
Animation would be done with all views in mind, not only adhering to what the camera saw. Working this way also helped with lighting, texture integrity and keeping the various reflecting surfaces from giving away any tricks or hacks.
All actions would have some real world counter part, such as Bellatrix riding on her disks is similar to a workout ab roller. Though very difficult to perform in real life, but still bordering in the believable realm.
The camerea would be as close to a real world move as possible, meaning not extreme arcs or 360 degree turns.
Though many of the actions performed on screen would be difficult for the average person to act out, individual pieces could be. In those instances, video reference was shot and then later stitched together. This footage was later supplemented by various internet resources for moves too far out to perform.
Below is an Inspiration Breakdown of some key elements from the short. Many sources where pulled from, such as video games, nature and pop culture. The use of these pieces helped with keeping the team members on the same page visually while the actions where being roughed out, as well as giving a heads up on potential difficulties in their own areas. Difficulties such as cutting someone in half and having them form two new entities, all while staying in the established Tron visuals.
Animation Breakdown pose Ref.
Comic book and pop culture Pose reference.
The animation was created in phases. The initial storyboards laid out in 3d with proxy characters, environment and camera. Stepped poses were used to block in primary actions and further refine the overall timing and camera angles. Additional poses continued to be added to clarify actions and continue to develop the story. Additional story elements kept being added as more team members signed on. Upon seeing a rough matte painting, it was clear that more time would be needed at the beginning to really show off the world. Also, the original Bellatrix mitosis moment was a quick action that later developed into a much more violent sequence, so more time and effort was given to the end.
Once the story poses, in block form, was established, the rough animation file was sent out to the environment and vfx artists. They were able to start constructing their assets, also in proxy form, using the animation and rig files as a guide for scale, distance traveled and camera angles. Since the animation file was being referenced, as the animation improved, these artists would already have the most updated scene. Though the use of motion capture or roto-animation was not used, video reference was utilized. Having a real world guide to see how feet plant, shoulders shrug and weight shifts provided a strong starting off point and helped speed up production. Once the desired elements from the footage were applied in the animation, certain actions and curves where pushed and exaggerated. Typically, these included the distance the characters traveled, how high they went in the air, and the twists / bends their spines curled. Timing was also adjusted to enhance the holds or reduced for more impact on the hits.
Look Development / Lighting / Environment:
The environment layout was completely driven off the two published trailers. Including The "bridge" in the beginning of the sequence and also the "mound" towards the end. As for the Neon Squares, which she is driving on, all were modeled in 3d. The importance of the squares is t help break up the ground, add parallax, stay with the Legacy style, and most important help convey depth and scale. Choosing to texture instead of modeling would be have led to problems with the camera distance. Most ground was seen with a camera very close with a focal length of 18 meaning that texture would need to be enormous to avoid seeing pixels. Also, this could cause serious render time issues later on. The squares geometry added only 15,000 faces and 31,000 triangles it didn't add much to render times and scene size. Plus they didn't have any reflective properties the reflections were based on a ground plane slightly nudged above the top squares. This is what the characters were planting on.
Various Environment Wireframe stills.
The arena lights, done in 3d, could have been done in post with a camera null or UV pass, but the geometry and applied shaders needed to actually light the characters and add reflections in the area. Along with 4 animated area lights to help fill areas where the geometry wouldn't effect and be to dark.
The Lighting was mainly based off Zach Chrisitan's Matte painting. Using Specific lighting such as the 4 area lights in the arena and a few points to help give some volume to the bridge and mound(utilizing light linking) there wasn't to much need for anything more, except 2 direction lights one used to shoot from the city as a Key Rim light and a the other as a Kicker to help brighten everything up. In turn, Final Gather was used in conjunction with light geometry and Zach's matte painting to get that dark sleek omnious feel of Tron. All that was left were the iconic neon hints in the character jump suits which were done in a seperate render pass.
Most of the light tweaking was handled in 3d, but additional render passes were also created to give all the tools and support to ed if needed. The render passes included; Beauty, neon, motion vector, streaks, depth, fresnel, UV, split, matte painting, rgb mattes, and glow.
Combining those basic light set ups, Zach's Matte Painting, Render passes, and Maya's Mental ray. Blake achieved the desired look of Tron, A disc Battle.
For the creation of the matte painting, Zach used Maya and Photoshop. The Matte Painting Process with just simple sketches in black and white to find composition. By loosly brushing in simple shapes and light color in photoshop he slowly worked his way up to a more conceptual piece. As soon as he felt the composition felt right and the concept was taken to a solid spot he quickly began to compile and block in photo reference to the concept Which let to the final Matte Painting.
Matte Painting Wip.
To Complete the Matte Painting in 3D Space, Zach projected the final Broken down Matte Painting (Foreground City, Midground City and Backround including Sky) onto simple Geometry in Maya. Since the background was so distant from the main attraction there was not much Paralax needed in this perticular cityscape.
For the final composite Ed used Nuke. Any additional 2d animation/particles effects were done in After Effects. After rendering out plates of any elements created in After Effects, they were then matted in Nuke. Collecting renders from four different sources (Blake's primary renders, Jon's AE effects, Wayne's 3d VFX and Zach's Mattes) along with camera data from Kiel's animation, it was a bit difficult, but everyone was very organized and properly named each file. Though it was slow at times setting up a Dropbox was key and helped us transfer files in a more organized manner.
What Didn't Make It:
When this project started out, as well as throughout the production, several ideas we're considered or even prevised that did not end up making the final edit. These ideas included:
Corrective Blend Shapes - Corrective shapes on the character to help maintain the volume and integrity of the mesh. This idea was removed for time limitations.
Visible Character Faces - Clear visors that showed the characters faces where considered. However, due to the camera framing throughout the shot, this idea was removed because the amount of time put into the faces would not be justified for their on screen time.
Hair / Braids on Bellatrix - An artist had offered up their services to hook up a hair system to allow Bellatrix's helmet to have electrical cables coming out the back. At the time this became available, a fully rendered pass of all existing elements had not been seen yet, so Blake made wise decision to wait until a once over had been created. The lesson learned was not to get too excited with offers of assistance.
More Editorial / Cuts / Longer Animation - Ideas and boards were created that increased the length of the animation as well as expanding the story, such as a shot of contego throwing the shields she dodges at the beginning. With a rapidly approaching deadline and the desire to avoid the added complexity of creating file structures for multiple shots, the team trimmed back those ideas to focus their attentions on efforts on a single clip that would allow the highest possible quality.
Variations on the final Split VFX for Bellatrix - Being the final moment in the piece, the VFX went back and forth on how to accomplish the desired look withen the time restraints. Ideas that ended up being excluded were: Lightning similiar to a transitor exploding, a clearly split body with 2 clean halves, and an electrical bubble that surronded her.