This blog describes my journey exploring storytelling - words, images and the sensations they generate. The lot, basically.

Friday, October 11, 2013

MARI: A walk on the wild side - stylized texture painting

I think the one tool, that made Mari what it is to texture painters today, is the Paint Through tool. Secondly, you could mention the ability to handle hitherto impossibly large amounts of image data with ease. Seldomly does the basic Paint tool get to be front and centre to what we do as texture artists. I call myself a Texture Painter. I paint in my spare time. Oh yes. Brushes, canvas and paint in tubes. No school, like the old school. But that has little to do with 98% of the work you can find today as a texture artist. Sadly.

Recently I was approached to paint textures on an animated short celebrating KFC's 40 year anniversary on Trinidad & Tobago. Yes, paint textures. Not project photos. Being a huge fan of stylized cartoon animation, I leapt at the chance. For this particular project Producer Nicholas Maxwell and Director Adrian Nurse wanted something stylized and painterly with visible brush strokes. A point of reference was the excellent Meet Buck by the Steak Kollective.

Analyzing the look of Meet Buck a few things stood out. Comparing the two projects, we were not going to have exactly the same lighting setup, but in terms of textures there were a couple of things we could run with; I deduced the following basic rules, which served as a guide to unify the look of the textures in our short:

  • First pick a base colour - the local colour of the object
  • Take that base colour and change it into two variations: One slightly lighter and one slightly darker - both with a slight change in hue as well. These two will serve to break up the base colour, add visual interest and take it towards that painterly look. To that end, it is important that these two colours are so different (both in terms of hue and value) that the brush strokes can be seen, but not so different that the brush strokes will appear noisy or jarring.
  • Use a brush on reduced opacity, in order to build up your brush strokes as you go. This allows you to get a lot of mileage out of the relatively few colours you work with. (My go-to brush was basically feltTip from the basic brushes tab set on 0.350 opacity.) By mileage I mean that instead of adding the necessary variations in colour and value to your textures, which is needed to add richness to that organic painterly look, by picking umpteen different colours to paint with, adding brush strokes on top of brush strokes for different combinations of opacity, will give you those levels of variation you need.
  • We needed to paint a fair bit of light and shade into the textures. Working again from the base colour you pick a colour of a slightly different hue and a good bit lighter or darker. These are used to paint in light and shade, as well as in places help shape the model by suggesting details in the geometry.
  • In addition to this, on the face of hero characters you want to add the classic golden (from forehead down to eyebrows), red (from eyebrows to tip of the nose) and blue (from bottom of the nose to the chin) zones of the face.  
  • Finally, as this animation would include the actual likeness of the KFC founder Colonel Harland Sanders, we couldn't quite push the style as far as Meet Buck. 
Repeating these five steps created a tight recipe, where assets could be turned around fast and with a uniform look.

This little story consists of a young boy and his father over the course of the 40 years KFC has existed on Trinidad & Tobago. They grow and age together, with local historic events from the past 40 years in Trinidad & Tobago as backdrop. The animated short was split into a 15 seconds teaser and a 45 seconds full short.

Before we dive into how the individual textures were made, I have to give credit to all the rest of the team, from the brilliant backgrounds from Victor Georgiev, and the animators breathing life into the characters, to the lighting and shading by Vanessa Thieffry and the compositing by Adrian Nurse.

Since this is a story about fried chicken, let's start with a drumstick prop. Sharing my work in progress with another long-time texture artist we marvelled at the opportunity to paint a piece of fried chicken; Doesn't happen every day. Or ever, to most texture artists.

So you start by blocking out the colour of the drumstick. This colour was sampled from a photo reference of a fried piece of chicken. Simple.

Then you bring in a darker variation of your base colour and add some variations to the base. At first you literally just lay down random brush strokes to break up the base. Once the first few brush strokes have been put down, you can do more conscious ones. It may not look like much so far, but keep the faith and follow the recipe and we'll get there.
Then you add a colour lighter than the base, again for variation, and again your first strokes will be randomly placed. There are no blend modes or opacity changes involved. Just each colour on a separate layer and lower opacity (between 0.2 and 0.3) on your brush.
Now we have a nicely varied base. Time to help shape the drumstick a bit. For clarity, this is the mesh with full lighting:
First you pick a lighter colour and paint in the peaks of the geometry:
Then all that is needed to finish up is a darker colour to paint in the recesses of the drumstick.
Finished... One piece of crispy fried stylized chicken. Enjoy!

To recap, please note that I have changed the hue of the colours I work with on each layer. That as well as the lower opacity brush, I think are the key parts to building that variety which is needed to sell a painterly look.

Let's try this on for size on a character. Here is the mesh of the (youngest version of the) father character:

So you start by blocking in the colours (please excuse the intersecting mesh in the eyebrows):
Then we add lighter brush strokes to break up the base. Notice again their fairly random placement.
Similarly with darker brush strokes. Here I have in places used the darker brush strokes to shape the model a bit.
Adding in stripes to the shirt (a basic HSV adjustment layer with a mask, shifting both hue, value and saturation to fit) and stitches to the jeans (simple paintable layer with no blend mode nor opacity changes).
Next I am adding blue colour variation to the "blue" portion of the face (see above). This layer is set to 0.100 opacity, but still normal blend mode.
Similarly adding red colour variation. This layer is set to 0.150 opacity and Overlay blend mode.
Finally the golden colour variation on a layer with Overlay blend mode and 0.300 opacity.
Before I continued with my formula, I needed to add a bit of detailing to the lips:
Then we start shaping the model with the painted light.
And similarly with painted darkness.
At this point I wanted to bring the lips out a bit more. So an HSV adjustment layer with a layer mask did the trick.
Finally a touch of Ambient Occlusion to help further bring out the shape of the model.
At this point the client asked for changes in the value of the father's skin tone, so the final textures ended up like this:
And here is the father in all his lit, rendered and composited glory:

By far the hardest asset to get right, was also the most important: Colonel Harland Sanders from KFC. It was daunting to get his likeness right, but at the same time keeping him true to the art style of the rest of the film. Regardless, I set out determined to see how far my "recipe" could take me with the Colonel.

I was helped greatly by the model (please excuse the intersecting polygons in various places). Already a good likeness was there:
So I blocked in the colours. How do you paint a white shirt inside a white suit? Pure white is of course anathema to texture artists. I decided on playing with very light pinks, blue and crèmes to create the illusion of the white suit.
For this model, I thought I would need some additional colour variation in his skin. Please again note the seemingly random brush strokes. Yes, there is such a thing as 'happy mistakes'!

Then comes the light brush strokes for variation of the base colour.

And the dark ones...
Then I begin to shape the colours of his face. First I add blue from beneath the tip of his nose down to his chin. This layer is Overlay blend mode with 0.150 opacity. Easy does it; we only need a hint of blue.
Next is a bit red across his cheeks, nose and ears where you have a lot of blood vessels close to the skin. I am using Soft Light and 0.250 opacity on this layer.
And finally a touch of gold across his forehead. Overlay with 0.200 opacity.
In my reference photos of the Colonel, I noticed that he had a fair bit of pink across his cheeks and nose, as older white people often do. To wit, I added a layer with some extra pink goodness for the Colonel. This sits on a normal paintable layer with no changes to blend mode nor opacity.
Now it is time to separate the men from the boys. Painting light into the textures will very much determine whether the final textures will look like the Colonel or just some overworked mess.
Similarly the painting in shade very much brings out the features of the Colonel. It was a fine line to not overdo the dark lines - on one hand he needed to look like the aging Colonel, on the other hand he could quickly start looking like a bad rubber Halloween mask.
Finally a touch (0.200 opacity with Multiply blend mode) of Ambient Occlusion to round him off and tie everything nicely together.
Here is the Colonel with the concept art and reference photos I used.

And in all his rendered glory...
All told, I am pretty happy with the outcome. Any texture painting geeks who want to inspect the flats? Okay then. Here is the Colonel's face:
and his trousers, shoes and hair:
You can view the 15 second teaser here.

When we started on this project, I had some doubts whether Mari would be the best suited tool for a job like this. I knew that the Steak Kollective guys had used Photoshop for the textures for Meet Buck. I have always admired the very painterly output you can get from Painter, with its excellent ability to mimic real world art materials and surfaces. However Mari was more than up for the task. Mari was clearly created for VFX use, but in my opinion its toolset goes much further than that.

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