Something you want to add to this briefing, Captain?

Diaspora is a space combat simulation game set in the universe of the remade Battlestar Galactica, and based on the Freespace 2 engine. It’s super-fun and polished, and if you ever wanted to fly a Viper, you should probably download it now. A while ago, the call came out once again for volunteers, specifically mentioning visual effects animators. I leapt at the chance.

When you ask to join the Diaspora team, there’s an audition process where you’re given a minor assignment in whatever your area is. The original concept for mine was deceptively simple: In several episodes, the Galatica’s “war room” was seen, which had as its centerpiece a large light-table where the crew pushed around little models with sticks to plan attacks, or keep track of battles that were in-progress. The concept was to have a 3D-rendered version of the table and these models, and to show them being pushed around in a cutscene, to replace one of the in-engine briefings for “Shattered Armistice,” the first episodic release of Diaspora.





After some modeling and some R&D figuring out what the best conceit was for how to present it, we settled on the idea that a war room strategy session with the CAG, CO, XO, and other important initials which was recorded by a ceiling-mounted camera, and was being played back for the pilots on the briefing room overhead projector.


After animating the models being pushed around in time to the existing voiceover, I saw there were a lot of holds and dead air, and there were some concepts I was worried weren’t being communicated, such as the location of the missile batteries to be targeted on the enemy ships, so I experimented with cutting in some “gun-cam photos” of the Cylon basestars, and an engineering status screen. These were a hit with the team, so I continued in that vein, using the tabletop models in a supporting role as one visual aid among many.

M2 Gun Cam Vid 2 Missiles

Once I had a completed cut of the briefing, I was officially inducted, which consisted mostly of me getting a little icon on the Diaspora forums implying I know what I’m talking about. Lacking anything else to do, and realizing that it’d be kind of weird to have just one cutscene briefing, I started replacing all the single-player mission briefings for “Shattered Armistice.” Since there was only one mission with a degree of planning or strategic complexity that justifies the use of the war room, I created DRADIS readouts, starcharts, comm-screens, countdown clocks, and whatever else I could think of that the CAG might slap together into a futuristic PowerPoint show for her briefings. I even redid the engineering readout for the first briefing I did, after I’d built up a library of BSG-style computer graphics. And let me give a shoutout to Matt Haley, who recreated the DRADIS screen in Adobe Illustrator and graciously allowed me to use it and build on it in these cutscenes.

FTL System Report Screen Animatable

System Plot M4

Basestar Orbit

The most ambitious section was easily the recording of a pilot being shot down for the third mission’s briefing. I animated a BSG-style space-battle, shot from a Viper gun-camera, with no cuts. The most challenging part was working out the timing and animation of the camera, so I could show everything I needed to show, without a lot of dead air, while still feeling like something the player would recognize from the show and, more importantly, from their experiences with the game, where they would’ve been playing the mission this recording was depicting moments earlier.

Battle 1

Battle 2

Battle 3

Battle 4

As a bonus, I created desktop-sized renders of all the tabletop models I created for this project, including several that weren’t used. At least, not in this release.

A version of this post appeared on the Diaspora Developer Blog.

Hey, I Can Do Motion Graphics, Too!

I was pleased to see that these videos I animated at Ninjaneer have been publicly released.

The project was very straightforward, so there’s not much to sink my teeth into with one of my trademark write-ups. Assets, storyboards, and voiceovers were all provided for us. Heather Knott was lead on the project, and we coordinated and cross-checked to ensure all our flourishes and tweening were consistent, so the videos would have a unified style. The videos were animated in Adobe After Effects from assets provided as Adobe Illustrator files, and compression for delivery was done with Handbrake.

Step From the Road to the Sea to the Sky

A quick animation using Foundation 3D’s favorite new spaceship. There wasn’t much excitement to this. A bit of noise added to the camera to give it some wobble (which YouTube insists on trying to “correct”), and the Jupiter map was recolored in the comp to be an alien planet. The cloud plate was a photo I shot with my phone and then enlarged with this on-line tool, though I still had to do some noise reduction in Photoshop.

The most interesting thing was a new idea I tried to do the heat haze coming from the engines, which I made using After Effects’ “Displacement Map” filter. I created a couple of blimp-shaped dummy objects in Lightwave which I placed inside and behind the engines of the ship. I colored the environment and the ship 50% grey for the render, and gave the gave the haze objects an animated black-and-white procedural noise texture. I had the transparency fade towards the rear and edges of the object with gradients.


The Displacement Map filter can actually drive horizontal and vertical seperately displacement based on separate color channels. I experimented with using colored noise when I rendered the still frames, but it would only make a real difference in an animation.


Prometheus: Russell Tawn
Planet: James Hastings-Trew
Moons: Fridger Schrempp and Björn Jónsson
Rings: Yuri A. Parovin

I also have a trio of 4k stills for your viewing pleasure.




We Do Not Have Time For Your Damned Hobby, Sir!

The Red Silk Thread is an opera by composer Stella Sung with libretto by Ernest Hilbert. It tells the story of Marco Polo’s return to Europe at the end of his famous voyages through Asia. This past April, a workshop performance took place at the University of Michigan, in advance of a full premiere at the University of Florida in April, 2014.

Ninjaneer Studios provided virtual sets for the Opera, projected behind the actors and used in place of physical scenery. There are six principle settings in the drama: the Court of Kublai Khan, the Gardens of Kublai Khan, a Chinese treasure ship at sail, the Court of the Persian King, a Genoese prison cell, and a desert dream-scape.

Thanks to my love of all things nautical, I immediately volunteered to take over the ship scene. The opera’s creative team had already put together some research on the types of boat they had in mind.


I used this as a jumping-off point, and found additional materials. My primary reference ended up being a high-resolution photo of an exquisitely detailed model of a Ming Dynasty treasure ship. While this exact design is of dubious historicity, especially for an ocean voyage, and dates from at least a hundred years after Marco Polo died, information on the ships of his time was sketchy at best, and what I did find didn’t look nearly as impressive.

I began by roughing out the general shape of the hull in Lightwave Modeler. Even though the concept only called for the deck to be seen, I wanted to have at least a foundation for the exterior in case it was needed later. It also made it easier to ensure the deck was proportionate. I matched the camera angle as best I could to my reference photo in Lightwave Layout, and switched back and forth while adjusting the hull. I’ve found that while it isn’t a perfectly accurate technique compared to working off a set of orthographic schematics, it’s much better than eyeballing it.


After completing the majority of the modeling, I began texturing the model, ending with populating the deck with various scenery objects


I then presented Dr. Sung with a set of potential camera angles.

After getting the go-ahead for a 3/4 view towards aft, I began setting up the scene and lighting. The motion of the horizon was based on stock footage from a locked-off camera on the deck of a boat. A long-exposure photo of the night sky was used as a placeholder. I started with my standard ocean model, but had the usual problem with flickering as it got closer to the horizon. A combination of making the waves larger and rendering a limited region of the frame at a much higher resolution blunted the problem enough that it was no longer visible after post-processing.

The frame was split into several passes for rendering. This was primarily for efficiency, so only passes which required lengthy render processes like extreme antialiasing or multi-bounce radiosity would be put through them, and simpler elements could be rendered at reduced quality or, occasionally, as single frames.


I prepared a test composite in Photoshop, which I passed along to Christopher Brown, who handled the compositing for all scenes in the opera. He built on my design, unifying it stylistically with the other scenes, and altering it to fit with the limited staging available for the workshop performance.

Initial Photoshop Test Composite

Initial Photoshop Test Composite

Final After Effects Composite

Final After Effects Composite

Over the next several months, all of us at Ninjaneer will be revising and expanding our virtual sets for the premiere at the University of Florida next year. I don’t want to ruin the surprises we’re planning, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see a few more ships in the Great Khan’s fleet.

A version of this post appeared on the official Ninjaneer Studios blog.

Babylon 5 2×01 Effects Update Part 004- Steamed, Not Boiled

Today’s update is a fairly straightforward sequence. We’ve now reached Act 2 of the episode, which begins with one of the common season 1 establishing shots of the station.

The stock shots of the station were something I wondered about earlier in this project. On the one hand, part of the philosophical basis for doing this is to give the show a more unified appearance, rather than the variations from shifting styles and evolving technology during the original run. On the other hand, I would like it if each chapter of the show had it’s own style (more than just how many and what kind of spaceships are loitering around Babylon 5). This didn’t quite occur in the original run, with very early stock footage being used in later episodes where the look of the show had evolved into something totally different, so what I’m shooting for can be described as stylistic evolution over the five seasons, but technical consistency for the run of the show. Another concern was the ever-present question of when I want to make a direct recreation of the original shot, and when I think I have my own idea for how to set it up. It’s hard to think of a “better” way to do any given generic, interchangeable establishing shot, as opposed to something with a more specific context.

What I think I’ll end up doing is to try to preserve the “feel” of the original establishing shots, while recreating them in my own idiom. For instance, a lot of the establishing shots in the first season of B5, including this one, either started from came to a complete stop, with a very spline-y acceleration or deceleration that screams “early computer graphics.” Eliminating that, along with framing it from the start in 16×9, makes the shot feel a lot more comfortable and cinematic than the version on the DVD.

Assuming this project continues on, I’ll probably make adjusted versions of early shots when they pop up in later seasons to fit in better with those episodes. A good example of this is one of my favorite touches from the new Battlestar Galactica. There was one particular establishing shot of the ship which was used throughout the series, and in later appearances, as the Galactica became more beat-up, new versions of the exact same shot appeared with the additional weathering. It was a fun twist on the concept of stock footage, and something I’d like to do myself.

The other segment in this update is from (the first half of) Sheridan’s good-luck speech in the Observation Dome. There are two shots out the window, one of which had a pivot and a zoom, and the other which was locked off. I found that the first shot was more difficult for After Effects to track than I had anticipated, so I’m going to mark that as another one to revisit down the line. The locked-off shot looks gorgeous, though. I only wish it lasted more than a second or two so I could appreciate the spinning stars while the observation drones pretend to be amused by anecdotes about the Dali Lama.

I’ve also been having a lot of trouble with the Premiere file I’d been using, so there’s an odd editing issue with the first Observation Dome window shot, and there are no crossfades or subtitles in this batch. I’ll probably just recreate the project file within the next couple of updates. Hopefully it’s just the Premiere file that’s gone bad, and the program itself isn’t reacting to something in the source videos.

Next up is another establishing shot of the station (which I’ll probably swap out for continuity reasons I’ll go into when I post it), then the Battle of the Line flashback, which will be preceded by what I’m sure will be an epic dissertation on just what happened during the Battle of the Line.


Model Credits:

Babylon 5: Ed Giddings
“Epsilon 3”: Nick Stevens
Epsilon Nebula: Amras
Starfury: Mark Kane
Starfury Wingart: Chris Guinn
Shuttle: Alexander Shareef


Babylon 5 2×01 Effects Update Supplemental- It’s Your Standard Warcruiser

It’s been a while since I updated this project, but a few weeks ago, it came back up in conversation. I realized at the time that I was now spending a lot of time sitting by a high-power desktop that wasn’t usually doing anything, and decided to take advantage of it.

I did end up trying Autodesk MatchMover. It handled the shot of Ivanova and Corwin from the last update with aplomb, but choked on the closing shot of the episode, which I expected to be the sharp, pointy crown jewel of difficulty on this project, containing both a lengthy camera move and a focal-length change.

I used the spare computer to re-render the second shot of the Agamemnon from the episode’s teaser, removing the odd tweening error I’d hoped no one would notice but which someone did. I then re-rendered it again when I got frustrated with the jump point opening effect. Yuri Parovin’s “A Call to Arms” jump point used a pre-made animated image map to accomplish the sparking that occurs before the point opens. Unfortunately, it was set for 30 frames per second, and I’m rendering the shots for this episode at 24 FPS. Lightwave appears to make an odd choice when it comes to splitting the difference in this case, keeping the timing correct by holding on the nearest frame, rather than making the transition within frames. The upshot was that the texture would hold for two frames, then skip a frame, then proceed normally for a time, giving the effect a noticeable stutter.

I asked around at the office, and figured out a plan of attack to recreate the effect procedurally. In Lightwave, it’s using “Previous Layer” as the input to a gradient shader, and in Maya, it’s called a Ramp Shader. Whatever it’s named, the way it works is to take a source image and redefine what its colors output as. In this case, grey becomes white, and both black and white become black.

I’d seen this technique described before, in a presentation by Bungie Studios (“Blowing S#!t Up the Bungie Way”) describing how they were able to get everything from flaming explosions to electrical arcing from one or two grayscale textures, and recognized it as how that jump point texture had to have been done, but I hadn’t realized until speaking with bottomless font of wisdom Chris Brown (my coworker, not the one you’re thinking of) how to translate that technique into the programs I use.

I tried a purely procedural solution, but it didn’t quite look right. The “energy ring” was too even, and it didn’t crinkle up at the center of the cone object the way the image map did. I eventually created a map in Photoshop to use as a baseline, and animated the “Previous layer” gradient instead. I threw in a semi-transparent layer of fractal turbulence in Lightwave which was gradually animated just so the energy effect wouldn’t repeat precisely every time. This was also the most contact I’ve had with Lightwave’s node-based surfacing, and I finally used some of the features that set it apart from the traditional surfacing options. The ability to directly feed one texture into multiple channels was a revelation, compared to the old way of having to copy-and-paste texture layers from color to specularity to glow to transparency and so on.

The upshot is, the new jump point now looks smooth opening up even at 24 FPS. Here’s the updated version of the shot.

I took another pass at the lighting rig for Rhys Salcombe‘s Minbari Warcruiser, brightening it considerably and switching the lights between the bottom ribs to single points rather than pairs of spots. I experimented with doing the effect with a luminance map, but it didn’t quite achieve the goal, so I stuck with doing it with lights. I also created a beaten-up version of the ship to represent the Trigati, to give some visual credence to the idea that the ship had been square in the middle of the biggest battle of the Earth-Minbari War when it deserted and hadn’t been able to make port for repairs in the twelve years since, and to differentiate it from the second Warcruiser that shows up at the end. It’s the first time I’ve done modeled damage on a spaceship, so that was fun.

The top fin has a blast mark on both sides, inspired by one of the shots of the Battle of the Line in “In the Beginning,” where a Starfury crashes into that section of a Minbari ship and blows out through the other side. I chewed away the lower left fin, and added a fairly large hole on the right side of the main hull, as if the right forward gun on the ship had misfired. I put a layer of procedural dirt over the whole ship, as well. I’m sure some people will think I’m overdoing it, given how much the Minbari outmatched Earth during the war, but there were a fair few shots of damaged Minbari ships in ITB, and I figured a Warrior Caste ship would be more likely than most to wade into the middle of the fight where they might take a few blows.



Babylon 5 2×01 Effects Update Part 003- A Miscommunication About the Time

And here comes the really ambitious part. I’ve decided to fill in an appropriately spinning starscape into the Observation Dome window. The first scene in the C’n’C was next up in the episode. One of the shots was locked off and at an angle, so there were no reflections, characters, or preexisting felt-and-rindstone star-fields to worry about. The other had all of those, as well as a relatively sweeping camera move that I had to match in Lightwave, rather than just rendering the view outside from the angle where you could see the most out the window and match-moving it in After Effects. In fact, it’s probably tied for the most difficult such shot in the episode. In light of that, I just temped it in here, superimposing the exterior render on top of the episode footage. I’ll come back later after I’ve done more of the simpler ones and gotten a better handle on how things work. Not to mention that I didn’t do the best job eyeballing the match move in Lightwave, and missed rendering one frame. Whoops.

Actually, I just remembered that my student copy of Maya is good for a while longer, and it included the unimaginatively named MatchMover. So, that should at least solve my “shots with big camera moves” problem. That only leaves the “thundering pain in the butt rotoscoping” problem. Why couldn’t the Earthforce uniforms have been, like, powder blue instead of navy? Why couldn’t Ivanova be blonde?

Anyway, here’s the scene in question, in glorious 720p. Even though that slightly uprezzes my 3D stuff, and drastically uprezzes the footage from the DVDs, it’s the only thing that I can think of that’ll stop YouTube from compressing it to death when I upload something at anything less. There’s also a photoshopped mockup for what the difficult shot might look like once it’s properly masked, and a modeler screenshot of the low-detail C’n’C I built so I could match the shots to exactly the right position and angle on B5.

I built it by matching camera angles to DVD screencaps in layout then shifting points in modeler until everything lined up. It’s a bit weird, probably since I had to guess about the original camera FoVs, but as long as the window was close, it was good enough. I’ll come back to it later and try to adjust the whole thing to be in proportion, especially the right side. The captain’s station is so screwed up, I don’t even know how it’s all supposed to fit together in the same space as the left side.

I was also really surprised when I figured out that the left wall wasn’t perpendicular to anything, not to mention how much bigger the room is in scale to the station than the corresponding part of the show model was.

Babylon 5: The Complete Second Season is available on DVD.