Monday, October 31, 2011

Dartboard Scene Part 3

Here is an update to the Dartboard Scene I've been working on. It's supposed to be the whole front and back cover for an upcoming book about epub. The image I show here is not a real Cycles render, but rather, three renders, composited in Photoshop. I don't think that Cycles can do motion (or vector) blur yet, so I added that in Photoshop—with the Motion Blur filter applied several times, offset and masked with a layer mask. Here is the result.

This is the (almost) final version, minus the copyright.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Reusing Cycles Materials the Smart Way

Lately I've been working with Cycles quite a bit. I'm creating a new illustration for a book cover, and I decided I would do the render in Cycles. Tweaking the lights and the materials in Cycles is really fun, because you can see the results in pretty much real time, which takes away much of the guesswork associated with materials and final appearance.

One of the objects I'm modeling is supposed to be made of red plastic. Cycles comes with a quick and dirty, default “shiny plastic” shader—it's called Glossy. However, I feel that the Glossy material does not yield a very convincing plastic. I decided to try something niftier. I'm talking about a Mix Shader. A Mix Shader is a material that is the result of mixing the properties of two other materials.

In a Mix shader. you can specify which areas receive material A, and which areas receive material B through a grayscale image input, which you can customize on the Fac input in the material panel. Among other fun facts, Fac can be controlled by what's called a Fresnel. In 3D applications, fresnel defines the transparent versus reflective mix in a material. You notice the effect when looking at a small body of water from a shallow angle and the water becomes reflective instead of transparent. In Cycles, using the Fresnel to control the mix of two materials, where one of them is shiny, can produce, in my opinion, a very convincing plastic material.

The interesting bit of this is that you can create a material, itself a Mix Shader material, and plug it into slot A or B of another Mix Shader material. To do this, you need to go to the Node editor, group the nodes that make up that material, and group them. Cycles will save that group as another material option in the pull down menu that show up when creating new materials. Basically, you can save very complex material setups and reuse them by just selecting them from a menu! Sweet stuff! Here is an overview of this workflow.

First, we create a red plastic material. This is the setup used for the Red Plastic material, shown here both in the Material panel and in the Node editor. Every option in the Material panel gets reflected in the Node editor.
Note: at this time, some nodes (or options) can only be accessed from the Node editor at the moment.

Next, we create a node group, which we'll use later as part of another Mix shader.

Very quick render showing the red plastic material so far.
The next step would be to create a new Mix Shader material.
Then, we'd choose the Red Plastic node group we just created on the shader slot A.

Here's the rest of the setup. We use a simple, plain white Diffuse
shader on slot B. For the control texture, I'm going to use a striped
texture. I'll choose Generated for the mapping of this texture, and we're done!

Final render, at 100 samples. Red plastic stripes with white diffuse material.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Hello Mac mini

As I think I promised, I am giving an update on the dead MacBook saga. A new Mac mini (2011 version) arrived yesterday via UPS. I loaded it with 8Gb of RAM, an i5 processor (I did not have the patience to wait two weeks for an i7,) and an AMD GPU with 1/4Gb dedicated memory. It's not the fastest computer on the face of the Earth, that's for sure, but it's perhaps ten times faster than the one I had before. So far, it has performed flawlessly, out-rendering any renders I had from before.

The only thing I'm a bit afraid of is to have Cycles run on it. My last computer died from a Cycles indigestion, and I've been wondering whether there's anything wrong in Cycles' memory management that pushes things to an unhealthy extreme. One thing I noticed is that GPU rendering does not work with the GPU in the Mac mini. Too bad :( Another thing I noticed is that Cycles gets the Mac mini cranking big time. Although normally it is a pretty silent machine, as soon as I get Cycles going, it begins to spin, get warm and sputter. I don't think I dare leave it all alone during a render! Anyway, I'm sure I'll get used to it.

One more thing I wanted to talk about is the migration process from a Time Machine backup into a newer Mac. In my experience, it worked OK. However, there's this very annoying thing that happened. Instead of porting my original user from my older Mac and making that the root admin user, with all the settings intact and whatnot, the Migration Wizard created an entirely new user, luckily an admin too, and plonked everything in there. Like in the old times, I've had to move everything over manually. I refuse to have two admin users in one computer that will be used by just one person! I spoke to Apple, and the guy basically said "Sorry, that's as good as it gets." Suddenly, it does not feel like the 21st century anymore.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Mac mini. Seriously?

I think that buying a Mac is hard. Especially when you don't wanna break the piggy bank by getting a full-fledged, loaded-up Mac Pro. Apple is still missing what I call a mid-range, power-user-wannabe Mac. This would be a decent-sized box with a little bit of room for expansion, and no monitor or keyboard included. I imagine it as something like two or three times the size of a Mac mini, and with just a few expansion slots. Nowadays, if you want to even dream that you might be able to expand your Mac, you either think really really big (Pro) or don't think at all (the rest of them all).

Given the configuration of the top line of the most recent Mac minis, I think they are not a bad deal. Perhaps they're even a great deal. I'm gonna try one and see. I have a feeling that I won't be disappointed. For one thing, it comes with a nice CPU (2.5 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5) and a dedicated GPU (AMD Radeon HD 6630M with 256MB of GDDR5 memory).

This guy at the Apple Store started eating my head (see if you can figure out what that means!) about dedicated vs. integrated GPUs. He then pointed out that Apple already has a mid-sized Mac with dedicated GPUs: the iMac. To me, it all sounds like a complicated marketing scam: an iMac looks to me just like another monitor in the house, and I've seen plenty of those at the dump lately. However it may be, two days ago I had no idea there was such a thing as a dedicated GPU, but now, here I am, blogging about it, pretending I'm an expert. To the point: a dedicated (or discrete) graphics card comes with its own memory, so it does not have to steal any RAM from the main memory.

Additionally, I like the idea of using a low-consumption machine, and the Mac mini seems to be precisely that. I hope that it won't get as hot as the last unfortunate render-engine fodder I was using before.

So what else is good about this Mac mini? Hmm... Oh yes, it'll be the second Mac I've ever bought. Actually, the first one, since my first one was a Power Computing machine. Remember those? Up until now I've survived on hand-me-downs. Here's a render to celebrate the occasion.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Goodbye MacBook

Today, while trying to render the final Dartboard scene using Blender's new render engine Cycles, my old computer died. Apparently, the logic board got too hot. I took it to the Apple store near me and they confirmed that the logic board was fried. I was lucky to have a recent backup, but even so, it's a bit of an annoyance. So, now I'm shopping for a new Mac. I've been really thinking that I'll get a Mac Mini. Why on earth did Apple call it Mac Mini? What a horrible name. Anything would have been better than Mac Mini—how about Mac Pancake? Anyway, I'll try to forget the male-challenging name and buy one. I can definitely not afford or justify a Mac Pro, which is what I really would like to have. On the other hand, I've been toying with the idea of building my own PC, but the idea of not using a Mac anymore is not a pleasant one. I'll keep everyone posted.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Dartboard Scene Part 2

Here is an update of the Dartboard Scene, this time rendered at full size (but not full resolution), and with Cycles. Cycles is the upcoming new render engine for Blender. It's a bit like Luxrender in that it is a physically-correct, unbiased render engine. Unbiased means that you can have the render go on for as long as you want. Although Cycles is still a bit of a work in progress, I think it's ready for production time, especially for still images.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Dartboard Scene Part I

Here is a render of a scene I'm working on in Blender. It's not complete yet, this is a preliminary render, done in Blender Internal. I'm not sure whether I'll do the final render with Cycles or with BI, but using some Freestyle module to stylize the look a bit. Realism is not my goal here. We'll see where it goes.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Internship at Bit Films for the Tube Project

Today I started an internship at Bit Films working for the Tube project, which is a short animated film created with open source tools like Blender. Bassam Kurdali, whom I met today, is the director of the Tube project. He was also the director for the first ever open movie—Elephants Dream. He is a bit of a celebrity among us blenderheads :)

I feel really excited about working on this project. Although right now it feels a bit overwhelming, I think it will be a great chance for me to learn a lot more about Blender, and about animation and movie-making. Also, it will be great real-world experience in the production of an animated short.

I think I am mostly going to be focusing on modeling and asset management. The project uses SVN (Subversion) for version tracking, but there seems to be some need for extra organization, which happens to be one of my strong points. I hope to be learning a lot about the different aspects of the program, from data management to modeling and animation. I am sure that working with a team of talented people will be very exciting.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Book Cover Art for Read Aloud EPUB, by Elizabeth Castro

I recently created an illustration for a book cover by Elizabeth Castro. The book is titled Read Aloud EPUB for iBooks Miniguide. I created the pencil in Blender, where I feel more comfortable modeling. Rendering was done in Cheetah3D, although I think Blender would have been more than capable of producing decent results, especially with the Cycles render engine. I did all the post processing in Photoshop, although, again, Blender would have probably been fine as well.