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Ghost Band


University - Final Masters Project
All Aspects

3D - Houdini/Mantra; 2D - Nuke, Photoshop; Tracking - PFTrack



This is my final Masters project at University, which I'm quite proud of, looking back. This worked out so well primarily because I had the idea almost a year before (I was going to do it as a personal project if uni didn't work out), so by the time it came to pitch the idea to the tutors it was pretty much all worked out and honed. This gave me a great head start, and although it was a huge project (11 shots, compared to 2 or 3 which is normal), I got to the "polishing stage" with a few weeks to go, enabling me to do a few extra things, add smoke elements, a few extra matte paintings, that type of thing. Which is good, because I'd never be able to forgive myself if I left it all shoddy.

The idea came from when I visited a derelict theatre as part of my previous job (asbestos analyst - long story), it seemed very sad and forgotten, and I thought an evocative scene would be to imagine the ghosts of a previously joyful scene returning to play again, but they're shells of their previous selves. Imagine a scene from Bioshock where characters are remembering the good old times from peak Rapture. Also, I'm continually interested in splicing music with CG, and although there's nothing ground breaking in the techniques, I wanted to create something entirely mine, with the music and the visuals made from the ground up and feeding into each other.

Firstly (I say firstly, that's more an indication of where it exists in this paragraph, a lot of stuff was going on at the same time depending on schedule), I had to make the music, as this had to be locked down before filming any backplates, or anything animated. Although the music itself was quite simple (it had to sound like just 4 instruments, although there were a couple of ghostly synth layers too), it was actually structurally quite tricky, and had to be planned alongside advanced storyboarding. Because it was all based on and driven by the music, all shots had to happen on cue, and none could be left out if I ran out of time (which happens in most projects). I wanted a structure of establishment of scene (a walk around the prone instruments), introduction to each instrument as they come alive, and finally all playing together before they finish and collapse. This is reflected in the music, where each instrument comes in while the focus is on them visually.


I decided to play the drum section live on electronic drums and film it, putting markers on the drumsticks so I could object track them and give a realistic movement in the animation.   





Second, I went out and filmed the backplate, in Portsmouth Theatre Royal (after a failed attempt at another theatre, which was way too dark - it's not like we could take enough lights to fill up a theatre, and even though there are plenty of lights in theatres, they tend to be pointed at, y'know, the stage), where I filmed stills, moving handheld shots, and locked-off shots of a real guitar (my own, dragged through the street a few times) being played in time with a metronome, and also waved about by my friend Andy, who I later painted out. This was to combine the CG with a real element, to mix it up a bit, which brings it all together a little more.

The objective was to base the backplate on projected stills, but to have a couple of tracked moving shots as centrepieces. This sort of happened with the establishing shot, but as the light was, again, very poor and subject to flaring, I ended up re-projecting the entire thing onto geometry. Ah well, the camera move is still real. 


In the meantime, there was a huge amount of modelling and texturing to do, mainly to the main 3 instruments (a cg replacement guitar was modelled later on for the shots where the footage wasn't working). I really wanted an old gnarled look, with dust hanging over every surface. There was a bit of a battle with my tutors here, as they wanted to see much cleaner versions, and I wanted to go even further, showing splintered edges, cracks, dust everywhere etc. In the end it was split down the middle. All modelling was done in Houdini, texturing in Photoshop, usual UV method. 

The animation methods were a little more interesting. Aside from the aforementioned tracked drumsticks and filmed guitar, I made simple procedural animation systems in Houdini for the piano and bass. The piano system took the MIDI information from the already-done music, and read it into CHOPS, where it was assigned to transform of the corresponding key in a modelled keyboard. The bass was similar, but it used the .wav files as input, as I had played that part on the guitar. This took away a lot of faffing around with keyframe animation and syncing to music, even though you only see snippets of it. Technically, I guess you could put any music into it and it would animate appropriately, but the atmosphere would have diminished if I broke out the "heads, shoulders knees and toes".   

Finally, there was a large amount of comp, matte painting and element integration to do, to just dirty up the whole place. We filmed most of the dust falling sequences in the studio, although there is the occasional smoke sim in there, and the odd RBD sim to have a few pieces of falling plaster. 

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