Job titles in VFX and CG: Illustrators

A friend of mine recently asked for some guidance on getting into CG, and I wrote up everything I currently know on job titles and career paths. It seems like a waste to leave it in a private message to him, so I'm putting it up here in the hopes that others will come along and expand on and/or correct what I know, and maybe it can be a resource to other people thinking about getting into CG. So without further ado:Continue reading →

After Effects defaults and using AE sequences in Maya

If, like me, you get annoyed at always fiddling with the export settings in After Effects, you should take the time to set up some templates and change the defaults.

In the Render Queue window, set up your Output Module with your desired default settings. I typically use a TIFF sequence with alpha channel. Once it's set up, click the drop-down arrow next to Output Module and choose the last option: "Make Template…" You'll get a window with two boxes in it labeled "Defaults" and "Settings."

Give your template a name in the Settings Name window, then in the Defaults box, choose the template as your Movie Default. After Effects will now use those settings as the default whenever you export a Comp.

Now, if you've ever tried to use a TIFF sequence from After Effects as an image plane in Maya, you may have had some difficulty getting it to work. AE's default naming convention is fileName_####.tiff. Maya doesn't like that underscore; it only understands an image sequence if the frame numbers are delineated with a period, like so: fileName.####.tiff.

Click the drop-down arrow next to Output To: in the Render Queue, and choose "Custom…" You'll get a window called File Name Templates. Set up the Template like this: [compName].[#####].[fileExtension] and check the "Default" box.

Now, whenever you set up a TIFF sequence, you'll get file names that Maya can use.

edit: I've been doing some research on file formats (post on that topic coming soon), and I've decided to stop working in tiff. I've had problems with it in the past where I couldn't open an image I created with a PC on a Mac, or I couldn't read tiff sequences created by Nuke in Premiere (don't use DEFLATE compression—Premiere can't read it). Tiff certainly has some useful features, but there are so many different flavors that compatibility becomes an issue. Instead, I intend to switch to Targa for wider compatibility or OpenEXR if I need high bit depth and/or more than four channels. The only gotcha to that is that if you need transparency with Targa, you need to tell AE to render 32-bit files (four 8-bit channels). I don't know why the Targa export specifies bits per pixel when everything else is in bits per channel, but there you go.

The Maya Project Directory Structure

Update: Additional information on the Data folder.

When you create a new Maya project and hit the "use defaults" button, several folders are created. Each of these folders has a specific purpose, but they aren't detailed in the help files, nor could I find much about them in the usual online fora. So here they are, with my evaluations of what they're for:

  • 3dPaintTextures:  If you use the 3d Paint tool in your texturing process, this folder will contain subfolders for each scene in which you have used 3d Paint. Within those folders are the texture files created by the tool.
  • assets: I'm not sure how it works, but I assume it has something to do with the Assets system. It is associated with "Templates."
  • clips: No idea.
  • DAE_FBX: Maya will store exported dae_fbx files for exchanging data with other software here. I think this is a Collada format in a fbx wrapper.
  • data: Fluid and nParticle caches will show up here, with a folder for each scene with a cache.
  • DXF_FBX: Maya will store exported dxf_fbx files for exchanging data with other software here. I am almost certain that this is for exchanging with AutoCAD.
  • fbx: Standard fbx import and export files will go into this folder. These are the files you could open with, for instance, Nuke, so long as they are formatted correctly. Autodesk publishes an fbx converter to assure that your fbx files are of a standard format.
  • image: I honestly don't know about this one. I haven't yet seen anything go into it, nor has Maya ever defaulted to asking for something from it.
  • images: Most raster images exported from Maya will go into this directory. This includes UV layouts and renders. If you render in layers, each layer will get its own subdirectory. Likewise, each render pass will get its own subdirectory under the appropriate layer unless you direct Maya to do otherwise.
  • mel: This is where Maya will look for imported MEL scripts.
  • mentalRay: I'm not really sure what this folder is for. A good deal of MR data goes elsewhere, so I have no idea what this one is for.
  • particles: Particle disk caches, but not nParticle caches, will go into this directory. I'm sure there are other particle-related files that will go in here, as well, but I haven't yet encountered them.
  • renderData: This is a very important folder, with four subdirectories, two of which I have never used. Depth and iprImages are a mystery to me. I have my suspicions about them, but I haven't tested them yet. The Shaders folder is for any shader networks that you import or export from the Hypershade. Mentalray has four additional subfolders: FinalgMap contains frozen final gather maps, which serve to speed up renders using Final Gather. LightMap contains baked light information, including Ambient Occlusion, which can be very useful both for texturing and for speeding final renders if you choose to bake your AO. ShadowMap stores shadow depth maps.
  • renderScenes: Another folder whose purpose I do not know.
  • scene: This is one of three folders most people should be familiar with. All of your scene files will be stored here.
  • sound: I have never attempted to add sound inside Maya, but I assume that this is where you'd store your audio clips.
  • sourceimages: The third of the most well used folders in your project directory, the sourceimages folder is where Maya will look for texture maps of all kinds, including image planes.
  • textures: I am not sure what this folder is for, since your texture maps are all in the sourceimages directory, and procedural textures that are baked out to files go into the images folder.

So that's everything I know about the project folder structure at this time. All clarifications and additions are welcome, and I'll be sure to add a credit to anyone who helps to fill out the rest of this information. Just leave a comment!

After Effects and Windows Vista

After Effects CS4 and Windows Vista 64-bit do not get along well. Although my newish computer renders my projects over 60 times faster than my old one did, the interface has always been somewhat sluggish. My most recent project made significant use of the Vector Paint effect, which served to highlight the problem. The paint tool was very hesitant, and it crashed frequently. Quite a bit of hunting around on various support forums revealed a solution: Run After Effects in XP compatibility mode. My interface is now very responsive, and Vector Paint works flawlessly.

So there you go. I haven't yet encountered any drawbacks, but I'll post an update if I do.

Tutorials at The Cartographers' Guild

I am a frequent contributor to the forums at The Cartographers' Guild. In the course of my time there, I have written several tutorials and guides. Here is a complete list:

Creating a local-scale tree texture in Photoshop
This tutorial was adapted from a technique at the Cartotalk forums, but the original was very difficult to understand. I clarified it and provided illustrations.

An Introduction to Image Export Formats
Many beginning artists have never learned the differences between the various image formats available to them and sometimes pick a final filetype that is suboptimal in terms of compression ratio or visual quality. Here, I have attempted to provide information about all of the common formats and when to use each one.

Using Channels to Separate an Object from its Background in Photoshop
I see a lot of inexperienced artists try to cut an object off of its background by painting a mask, using the pen tool, or even the eraser! This is a much easier method that aims to preserve the detail of the subject's edges. Also, since it does not rely on hand-painting, it can be used on video footage. It is, in fact, the basis behind the process of chroma keying.

Using Photoshop's Clone Stamp tool for better brush work
Many cartographers use brushes to put down mountains and trees, but anywhere the brush strokes overlap, the "white" parts are revealed to be transparent. The Clone Stamp tool, while not as elegant as the Brush tool, can be used to counteract this behavior.

Essential River Guidelines for Mapping
The Cartographers' Guild has a small cadre of self-styled "River Police" who examine maps for unrealistic water behavior. This guide collects their wisdom into a single place and cross-indexes other river-related discussions.

Create an isometric medieval tower icon in Illustrator
A simple Illustrator exercise that demonstrates how to make small icons for fantasy maps.