Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Chi-Chi the Chinchilla and the Three Worlds

A quick marketing announcement, not usually the kind of thing I would post here, but I've been asked about this over the last year from several colleagues.
Katia Gaidouk, the author of "The Adventures of Chi Chi the Chinchilla", has started a Kickstarter Campaign to fund the 2nd book in her series. Book 2 is entitled: "The Adventures of Chi Chi the Chinchilla and the Three Worlds".

We have been in touch to produce a new, short video based on this book. Having read the draft last year, I'm excited about all the new characters and the potential of a lot of challenging animation from her new story. You can read more about the kickstarter campaign and even contemplate a donation (much of her proceeds go to the non-profit "Child Fund") here: Chi Chi on Kickstarter

Monday, March 16, 2015

Unreal Engine Launcher Self Update

It's possible to stop the Unreal Engine Launcher from doing its automatic update whenever you start it. It's not really a software setting or configuration as you might expect but according to Epic, it's merely a matter of adding a flag to the launcher executable shortcut (typically on your desktop). If you R-Click the shortcut and choose "Properties" from the menu, then choose the "Shortcut" tab you'll see the "Target" path location. Simply add:
 "-noselfupdate" (without quotes)
at the end of the path, after the quotation mark.

So it would read something like this in the "Target" field:
"C:\Program Files\Epic Games\Launcher\Engine\Binaries\Win64\EpicGamesLauncher.exe" -noselfupdate

Of course, to ever get any of the updates, and they are frequent as you know, you will have to remove the added flag before starting the launcher.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Bake "Populate" Characters to Mesh and Bones With Skin

I first heard about this feature during a 3ds max demo last year by Gary Davis, 3ds max guru and Autodesk M&E Senior Technical Specialist. It is possible to "Bake" the "Populate" character crowd simulation in Max to simple meshes with bone systems (not Character Studio) and Skin Modifiers.
After creating your "Populate" crowd simulation use the "Simulate" feature to create the animation. Then simply select the characters in the crowd that you want to bake and enter "pop.bakeselpeople()" (without quotes) into the MaxScript Listener. All the characters will now be individual meshes with bones system animations and a Skin Modifier. Of course these can now be exported as FBX and then imported into any other software or game engine that supports fbx.

HOWEVER, be aware of several caveats:
1. You will lose ALL Materials assigned to these characters unless you have them available in the Materials editor BEFORE you bake. So make sure and save a library or at least populate (no, NOT THAT "Populate") some material slots or the Slate Editor with all the materials for your selected characters so they can be re-assigned after baking.
2. There can be some residual "Characters" left over in the scene. These "characters" are figures that were waiting to enter the simulation at the appropriate time but were not actually showing during the full length of the simulation time range. They will have a Visibility animation track and you will have to scrub the timeline to see them if they are there. If you select one of these "characters" they will show as "Populate Skin" in the Modifier Panel and you cannot Delete them except through the use of the Populate toolbar (see below)

A baked "Populate" character (foreground with bones showing through the skinned mesh)and residual "Populate Skin" figure (male in the background)
that does not show up until late in the animation.

Use the "Delete" option in the Populate toolbar
to remove the residual character after baking with MaxScript

Of course the higher resolution character library is available for download (about 600 MB). If not installed and you try to switch to it on the toolbar, you'll be taken to the web site to download it.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Unreal Engine 4.7 New "Two-Sided Foliage" Shader

Along with some other great updates, UE 4.7 now has a  "Two-Sided Foliage" shader. This is a great enhancement to the traditional Two-Sided option for "Default Lit" shaded materials. This shader enables sub-surface coloring on the back sides of thin planar geometry such as leaf planes and grasses adding much more realism. Below are 2 examples of the effect. The first is a screen capture of a mid-poly tree using "Branchlets" (as I call them) or "Fronds" (as with SpeedTree) made up of planar mapped branches, twigs and leaves on a single surface rendered in UE 4.4 without the Foliage shader option. A little "Emissive" self illumination has been added to help show both sides of the surfaces. Not an ideal solution but you get the idea. Also, this first render did NOT use a skylight. Just an omission on my part, not to demonstrate any particular effect.
A standard "Default Lit" 2-sided shader in UE 4.4

This 2nd image is the same tree using the new Foliage shader with the Sub-Surface effect. Notice how nicely lit the backs of the leaves are. This scene does also contain a skylight so there is a little indirect illumination as well, but it is not responsible for the sub-surface effect.
"Two-Sided Foliage" shader from UE 4.7

Here's a screen shot of the material setup. The Diffuse texture is also used to dictate the sub-surface illumination. Wiring it through a multiply parameter allows for some fine tuning. Epic recommends that you use perhaps a separate texture for this that has more contrast to dictate how the sub-surface effect varies within the texture map (twigs, veins, etc.). Cranking up the Multiply effect on the Sub-Surface Color can eventually wash out the effect much above 3 or 4. The Multiply parameter is not required on the Diffuse property itself but I like the added control to adjust the look.
A material using the new "Two-Sided Foliage" shader in UE 4.7

Below are also 2 screen shots "in game" of the tree in UE 4.4 and then in 4.7 Again, there was no skylight used in the UE 4.4 sample and perhaps a little too much "Emissive Color". In addition, a simplified Normal map was used, just the diffuse shader run through the nVidia filter in Photoshop. In the 4.7 sample a proper Normal map was used to specify and enhance the random orientation of the leaf normals, producing a far superior looking tree without any additional enhancement.

Tree in Unreal Engine 4.4 with standard "Default Lit" shader

Tree in Unreal Engine 4.7 using "Two-Sided Foliage" shader 
with enhanced Normal map and Skylight for indirect illumination.

Displacement Changes Do Not Update - Quick Tip

Have you ever been tweaking your Displacement render settings in max but don't see the results updating in your renders?

A quick tip when this happens is to make sure you have "Geometry Caching" disabled in the "Processing" tab of the mental ray renderer.

I've made this mistake several times and only seem to remember after several dramatic changes to settings seem to have no effect on my renders.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Unreal Engine is Now Free

Today (3/2/15) Epic Games announced that Unreal Engine is now available for free.
Click here for the official announcement.
The license restrictions still apply but there is no longer a monthly subscription fee, which frankly, was already a pretty good deal. We'll see if Unity follows next. It seems like the 2 companies are caught in an "Epic" battle to win over the gaming community.