Monday, February 9, 2015

Looking Back - Childhood Trip to Hamner Springs + Its Links to Blender...

This post was originally going to be a side note tacked on to the end of the previous post. But then it grew and grew until it got big enough to be it's own thing. So, here it is: The story of my 1997 trip to Hamner Springs, and its important links to Blender history...

EDIT: While looking up the maps, I found that I had been mispelling the name of the place. It should really be "Hanmer" not "Hamner". Still, truth be told, I like my spelling more... it sounds more... "tasty" ;)

The original ballpoint pen I got the first spring from (a fat white thing with some black details - like the grip and clip, was activated using a rounded button at the end, and had a purple-blue ink that I did quite a bit of doodling with back in the day) was from a conference Dad took us to up in Hamner Springs back in 1997. We lived in a holiday home halfway up the hill to the Copthorne (?) hotel (which was located at the top of said hill - the tree-covered slope is the hill) for the 3 (or was it 4) nights we were there.

The conference venue was another hotel down in the middle of the town (a year or two ago, I learned that it probably the Heritage Hotel).  At the time, it was a white building, divided into 2 halves - on one half, there were the function rooms where the talks were, awhile on the other side, there was a dining hall or maybe it was the accomodation wing; in the middle, there was a foyer with some of those patterned square glass panes. Across the road, there was a pub/restaurant where we had dinner the first night. It was like a very "wooden" lodge structure, with a barn/loft-like high triangular ceiling, big heavy wooden doors, and heaps of late afternoon sunlight streaming in. They had some of those wooden chairs (close to this) made out of those round (~2.5cm thick) wooden poles that are bent into a series of loops. These were covered in a slightly sticky but shiny layer of some sort of polishing oil (which also had a bit of a smell), and were lined with soggy bush-green cushions. Like all chairs of similar construction though, they were quite creaky to sit on (they sway a bit, as they are only held together with a few nails), so it feels like you're only just meekly perching in a little feather nest.

The weather was fine for the first 2 days (it was warm and sunny), and packed in on the last (i.e. it was cold and raining). To make things worse, I was sick on that last day, having caught a cold the previous morning IIRC, as it was freezing in the house following an overnight power cut. We couldn't leave that day yet though, since Dad had to still give his talk at the conference that morning. So, I remember trudging down the hill with Mum to go peep into the venue from the corridor outside the conference rooms. Since we hadn't expected any rain (and didn't have any raincoats/umbrellas), I ended up heading down there holding one of those black trash bags that we used to use here in NZ over my head on the way down to the venue. After that, we headed off to the Hamner Springs pools/hotsprings for an hour or so, where Dad's students had gone for some RnR; we only watched from an an upstairs viewing room or something since I was still feeling quite sick. Fortunately, we did eventually cut the rest of the trip short, with one of Dad's students (a Korean guy driving a gray Hyundai or something like that - unless I'm mixing it up with the weird car we once test drove, which had a funky/unusable back boot) driving us back down to Christchurch. The rain that afternoon during the drive back down was something unlike anything I've seen since; there was just a thick layer of water on the windscreen sloshing around despite the wipers back and forth madly. Considering too that this was one of NZ's "highways" (aka twisted single-carriage mountain passes) and that I was feeling increasingly sick and sleepy/dizzy, you can imagine that this was not a very comfortable dash back home!

However, my most vivid memory of that trip was the night of the power cut. Like most small towns in NZ, Hamner Springs basically had a single main road, with everything built either side of it. Apart from the main town centre (if you can call it that), there were quite a few grassy fields on either side of the road on the road leading back to the place we were staying at (which was clustered with a few other holiday homes - looking at the map, I'm guessing it was probably the brown one on the right here). At the time, there were only street lights on one side of the road - those ones with white fluro-tubes mounted on top of fat wooden poles (and, since the was a semi-rural area, there were power lines on those poles too, along with some great hunking gray transformers on some of those poles too). But, since the power was out, it was just pitch dark. There was just silence as we trudged along that road - long yellow unmowed summer grass in the fields on either side of the road, beside the rough gravel-type rural road, under the dark sky filled with heaps of stars... the stillness of the night, and being in the dark in the countryside like that was quite something to behold.

This experience must have made quite an impression, as I ended up using several parts of this setting when dreaming up one of my first big Blender projects. I haven't really previously mentioned this, but my second big project in Blender (after my first one, which was really the result of converting some old models over from OpenFX - I should really do a post on my early 3D days some time, if only I actually had most of the files/images from that era, which are currently trapped on a crappy box with its crappy integrated graphics and limited ram which now won't boot as something display-related is fried internally) was about a hitchhiking hedgehog who is walking along a rural stretch of road, in the dark, with grassy fields on either side. You may already be starting to see the coincidences - it really was modelled after my impression of what I saw all those years ago that night!

Unfortunately, I never actually managed to make that short though. Remember that this is with Blender 2.33a on a machine with like 224mb of RAM, with swap kicking in over 128 mb usage, and an absolutely pathetic integrated graphics card that will vomit all over the screen if you minimise/switch away from Blender while its running + was slow as molasses with anything else. I probably realised how far away I was from completing it when even making the environment just about brought down the machine (i.e. I was using RipSting's Fiber Generator to make the grassy fields - other old timers will probably have a clue what I'm talking about, while everyone else should be thankful they don't have to resort to things like that. I managed to get a render of that with the moon in the background, but that was with a nearly completely unresponsive Blender!). And that's not considering the fact that the main character was a hedgehog (!) - I used particles for the prickles (but since we had no strand renderer, this was with halos with some special procedural textures I learned from many of the other artists of the day), and resorted to trying to fake the furry look using normal/bump mapped "stucci" textures (since, not knowing better, I thought that that would be enough to approximate a basically smooth surface with some patterned detail going on to look like it was covered in hair).

What I did manage to do though was create a short animated lipsync animation for a round of the "10 Second Club" (i.e. this was basically the predecessor of the current 11 Second Club, which was founded by some of the earliest Animation Mentor graduates a few months after the original site died a mysterious death - probably from hackers). Unfortunately, this video is very much currently lost to the annuals of time, as not only is the 10 Second Club version lost when the site went down, but the only other copy in the world is stuck on that currently non-functional machine. Looking at it another way, it's probably not such a bad thing that it doesn't exist any more, since it was really really crude stuff (i.e. IK limbs floating around in random/unnatural ways, and some rather ugly/rough character design) ;)  I mention this lipsync animation for several reasons though:
  1) It's relevance to this story
  2) It's importance in shaping Blender's animation tools

The clip that month featured 2 characters, who seemed to be chatting about seeing something passing by (or something like that). My interpretation at the time was that these characters happened to be drunks - to be specific, a pair of hedgehogs that had gotten drunk from some beer cans/bottles lying around outside a bar. (I'm not sure now how I came to that idea, but in the audio, they sure sounded a bit drunk... But for animating it, I had probably just picked something that was, and still very much is way out of my league in terms of animation chops. Plus, remember that we're doing this in 2.33a Blender, with 2 characters covered in particles and with props in hand... yeah, it was an interesting combo). The location of said bar/pub was actually inspired at, you guessed it, the pub in central Hamner that we visited (though the look of the place, and also the state of the environment outside it were all fictional!), which in my mind was on the opposite side of the road, and with a pedestrian crossing nearby.

Now, I had this all mapped out so that it fit into the storyline by being something like:
Our protagonist hedgehog, Russ Prickles, is trying to get back to his young family (i.e. his wife has recently or is about to give birth, and Russ has been off on a business trip - carrying his "Mr Prickles Inc." briefcase as a saleshog to earn a little more before to support the family). He tries to hitchhike as he's getting tired, but, facing no luck (the original gag was that the cars pass by so fast that they cause his outstretched thumb to droop), he decides to just try soldering on before finally crossing the road at the crossing point. However, as he's crossing the road, a truck driver is roaring down the darkened road. The truckie is slightly distracted and tired (and has probably been a bit naughty by having a bit too much drink before getting behind the wheel). Cue "hedgehog caught in lights of oncoming traffic" shot. At this point, we cut to the two drunk hedgehogs giving commentary of the goings on at the crossing, when bam!

And that's about as far as the story plotting got... there were other scenes I wanted to have in the project, such as where he's somehow ended up lost in central Christchurch (e.g. Hagley Park in on an autumn morning) and then in a suburban garden, where his hiding spot in a bundle of leaf litter is "attacked" by a lawnmower, injuring him, and leading to a trip to the vet, followed by "recuperation" inside a box in the home of the family - 2 kids + a cat - that he was injured at. Eventually, he ends up making his way back home safely to his family. How all of those bits fit together though is something I never managed to figure out.

One other thing to note about the opening sequence is that it was intended to be set to Roger Whittaker's cover of "Good Morning Sunshine". The sequence starts with the darkened sky filled with stars and a big round moon, which then pans down onto a moonlit field of tall rural grass, and then we see Russ, around the time the lyrics begin. We also see shots of Russ dancing along to this music (like he's humming the tune to himself), then cuts to the "hedgehog village", where various hedgehogs are starting to wake up and start their daily activities. During this montage, one of the hedgehogs we see is a young female hedgehog called "Holly", who's a bit like one of those Luna Lovegrove type of characters (i.e. the  "in touch with nature" types; she's characterised by having bits of "pretty" leaves stuck in her prickles for instance) dancing a bit during some of the nonsense-lyrics (i.e. from 0:33) who is one of the side characters. Around that point, we also see that they have a bit of a campfire/bonfire that they gather/dance around. The truck driver is also listening to this track from his stereo (and having a jolly good time belting it out, which is partly why he's distracted); the audio stops abruptly just before the crash... so this is around 2:07 of the song.

(c) 2004-2015 Joshua Leung
Getting back to original story. With these links between the 10 Sec Club inspired shot and the rest of my project, I got to work animating those drunk hedgehogs. Blender's animation system was a completely different beast at the time - truth be told, hardly anyone used it... but, that's not to say that great work can't be done using it. One particularly inspiring example (which I cannot seem to find anymore only anywhere - if someone has a copy, please let me know, or upload it, or donate it to the BF archives so that this important piece can live on) was Lyubomir's  "Camel on a Payphone" 10 Second Club winning entry was a beacon of motivation for many like myself back in the day.

Unlike many other people at the time (and even within industry), I was using a bone-based rig for facial lipsync (I eventually settled on a setup involving 8 bones for getting the desired shapes). But, this became problematic for keeping track of where each pose was in the action editor, especially for the mouth movements (NOTE: remember, there were no markers then... Those wouldn't get introduced for another 2-3 releases still). This problem, and the insight that if we showed some kinds of "links" between pairs of keyframes where poses were getting held, lead to me developing and introducing the "long keyframes" feature for the DopeSheet Editor. Blender is still the only tool (AFAIK) to implement something like this... all other dopesheets do not do anything like this; instead they have a weird "time as frames-image-blocks" or something like that presentation where a keyframe stretches across one frame-unit, but there are no indications on which poses are held.

So, all of this dev happened because I was animating a lipsync shot with 2 characters and was struggling to stay on top of everything that was going on! And that lipsync shot wouldn't have happened if I wasn't working on a project to make an animated film, placing my hedgehog characters into an environment that left an impression on me many years earlier.

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