View Full Version : Outpost - VFX Challenge - [lostpencil]

03 March 2003, 02:06 AM
This looked like too much fun to pass up. Plus I can use some practice with visual effects. I'm not sure how much time I can put into it, but here is the original:

[EDIT: Please note, our server is experiencing denial of service attacks. If the image does not show up please try again later.]

and here is my concept art:

03 March 2003, 02:07 AM
Very nice - I like it so far.....

And that concept stuff is pretty good already (I just went for sketches.....)

Looking forward to seeing more (that waterfall could look really good when animated!

A MacVey
03 March 2003, 04:13 AM
woah that almost looks final!

03 March 2003, 05:44 AM
wow...if u make that waterfall really good, i know for which i'm voting for..:applause:

03 March 2003, 06:09 AM
Great to see you here Paul! I'm liking the look so far. I'll be definitely keeping an eye on this one ;)


03 March 2003, 06:46 AM
Hey Folks! Thanks for having me and thanks for all the kind words. I haven't done much compositing/live plate work so this is definitely a good learning experience. Happy rendering!

03 March 2003, 09:53 AM
Great background plate to work on. Very good choice.
Iím still looking for something similar (with water and strong sunlight). No luck so far.
Great job so far.

03 March 2003, 12:44 PM
one question...when u do u use the image in the viewport background as well as in the output file or do u use a box on which u apply the canyons...Im new to everything in 3d...i only know basic i'm trying to see and get some ideas...hopefully improve so i can do something myself in the future:p

03 March 2003, 03:19 PM
Hi Mo_pic, thanks! This image was taken from one of the Corel image CDs - the Grand Canyon.

Hey Buggy166, the way I'm going to work it is to use the image as a backdrop so I can position my 3d object appropriately. You have to line up the camera as if it were really taking the shot. Then I'll build some geometry which will be used to occlude any parts that are hidden behind things (like the main building nestled in the rock) and that are used for reflections. Then what I'll do is render out the objects separately and then composite them onto the original image. I haven't done any of these stages yet, but I'll post some images as I go along. Check out some of the other works in progress and notice the wireframes of the objects they use for occluding their buildings etc. Hope that helps a bit.

03 March 2003, 03:35 PM
Hope to see this finished!

Mangled Poly
03 March 2003, 08:53 AM
Paul you beter do this perfect or i will have to stop calling you LW god :) no pressure!:beer:

03 March 2003, 09:33 PM
:thumbsup: I'll give it a good shot! By the way, this one is going to be a combination of different 3d packages, not just Lightwave.

03 March 2003, 09:49 PM
Very good image with a nice sunlight and shadow areas, the concept and 2d work is really good.

I hope you manage the time to finnish this.

03 March 2003, 04:52 PM
I think I'm done as far as I can go with the time that I have. I have two versions, one with a HUD and one without. Here are some images of the progression and you will find some links at the bottom for the animation. Our server is having a bit of a problem (i.e. it's getting pummelled...) so if you can't see it or download the links, please try again later.

Here is the image with just the geometry:

Here it is textured without the HUD:

Here is is with the HUD:

Here are the animations, pick your flavor:

HUD animated (2.06mb) (

HUD animated (3.36mb) (

[edit: I think the HUD version will be the final entry. I removed the links to the versions without the HUD]

03 March 2003, 05:08 PM
This is really nice and perfect .. Well Done..
Tutorial would be nice..
The animation is :drool:

We got a winner :applause:


03 March 2003, 06:14 PM
Hey Nando!

Thanks! There are a bunch of things that I would tweak and change, but I figured it was time to move onto other things... like paying bills.

I used a number of different packages. I used:

Maya 4.5 (modeling, rendering, texturing, animating)
Lightwave 7.5b (modeling)
After Effects 5.5 (compositing, special effects)
Particle Illusion 2.0 (particles for waterfall and splash)
PhotoShop 6 (tweaking images)
Painter 7.1 (concept painting)
Flash 5.0 (heads up display implementation)
Premiere 6.0 (adding sound)

Of course you don't have to use all these packages, but I find that I use packages where I feel comfortable or where I feel that they have a particular strength.

The steps, roughly were as follows:

1. Image Selection

First, find the background image... I have about 600 CDs worth of images from the Corel Stock Photo Libraries. So the difficulty wasn't in finding an image, it was picking which one! I liked this image because of the contrast, layout, framing and potential for a nice scene. I liked that I didn't have to do anything to the image (combine it with other images) and I liked that it was a real place and the waterfall would fit in nicely - the waterfall was in my mind from pretty much the very beginning...

2. Concept Sketch

I took the background image and cropped it to fit the aspect ratio for the contest. I then printed out a draft version (very light print, with no color) and just looked at it for possibilities as I walked on the treadmill.

I liked how there was a little niche in the rocks for a larger building and the stratigraphy of the cliff face lent itself nicely to some kind of structure that followed those lines. I wanted also to keep the image 'realistic' in regards to the alien outpost buildings. I wanted them quite recognizable (something we earthlings would easily have constructed), and yet add just a little something to make it less earthy. The towers and strip building were supposed to lend themselves toward that (I'm not sure if I succeeded). It was supposed to be a 'tip of the iceberg' kind of thing. If you consider the building strip on the edge of the rock face as just the tip of a more elaborate underground structure, that's where I was hoping to get more of an alien feel to it... in other words let your imagination fill in the blanks.

So then I brought the background image into Painter and started to sketch out where things would go. I added more detail in successive steps so that I could conceptualize the final without touching the 3d tool set. It's something I want to try to do more of... get the idea down first and so practice my 2d skills at the same time.

3. Models

The next step was to create the models. My models are fairly simple with not too many nurnies. I figured that at this distance a lot of the detail would be lost, so I didn't waste a lot of time modeling. I modeled everything in Maya, with the exception of the scaffolding and the bird. There is a really great little script called 'Truss' for Lightwave that creates trusses very quickly. So I took advantage of this fact.

I didn't do any texturing at this point, just making sure that my setup had a light to match the lighting of the image, a back plane containing the image background, and a good camera position. The trick with the camera is to guess at the focal length (I picked 24mm) and vertical position (i.e. where is the horizon). I think I came fairly close. So I created each of the model groups in a separate file.

4. Compositing

Since I knew I wasn't going to animate the camera I didn't have to really create any ground geometry. All the hiding of the 3d objects has been done through masking in After Effects. I would create the model (say the big cylinder building), position it in front of my camera in Maya (with a plane containing the background image on it) so that it looks like it fits in the niche in the rocks. Then I rendered that and brought it into After Effects. There I created a layer with the background on it and placed the image of the building on top. Then I added a mask to mask out the edge where the building fits into the rocks. This is probably where I would have liked to have spent more time... cleaning up that mask and making it hug the contours a bit better.

The trickiest parts were getting the shadows right. I often had separate renders for the beauty and shadow passes. Then I combined those to make it look convincing. I probably spent more time in After Effects than any 3d tool.

5. Texturing

When I had all the elements in place (see the 'just the geometry' image above) I started on the texturing. For the textures I kept it to a metallic looking surface and added a bit of color from the surrounding environment.

6. Waterfall

I really liked my original painting of the waterfall in the concept sketch and so I was thinking about how I would get this to work and look right. I had a number of options (hardware or software particles in Maya, hypervoxels in Lightwave)... I finally opted for something I haven't used a whole lot, but is an amazing little tool: Particle Illusion. I took a couple of already existing particle library emitters, modified them a bit and used those. There are essentially two particle emitters for the main waterfall and one for the spray at the bottom.

I brought those renders into After Effects and composited those with the background image. The tricky part here was that there was a shadow boundary right through the waterfall. Using masking and a copy of the waterfall layer (with a different blend mode) I created the shadow both on top of the water and behind it. That really added a lot more depth.

8. Bird flight

If you noticed, there is a bird flying in from the canyon and over the waterfall. That was pretty much the quickest animation I've ever done in my life, I think. In Lightwave I quickly created a bird shape. I knew it didn't need any detail since it would be quite small. I then brought that into Maya and quickly built a skeleton for it and smooth bound it - I tweaked the weightmaps for about 20 minutes and then I animated it flying from one end of the screen to the other. I then composited this layer into After Effects. I originally had the bird flying in from the left, but a simple negative scale of the layer turned the flight around. It sure beat reanimating or moving the camera or what have you. I'm finding with this exercise that a lot of things can be done in post.

By the way, the texture on the bird is flat white. It is so far away that any detail in texture would be lost.

9. HUD (heads up display)

I created the HUD pretty much entirely in Flash 5. I just loaded a black background and then I worked from a sketch that I had made. The main gizmo would fall into the shadow area on the bottom right and I wanted some other high techy kinds of things happening too.

I built the elements and layered them to make them look somewhat cool and animated the elements. The first pass that I did there was way too much action in the HUD and it distracted from the actual image. So I toned it all down and removed some animation completely.

I was a bit worried that the HUD would look flat when I added it to the layers in After Effects, but by adding glow and using different blend modes I think it works. I also added a grid of fine lines over the entire image to make it look like you were looking through some sort of instrument.

I also added a noise pixelation thingy at the beginning of the HUD animation so that it would look like you were turning on a piece of equipment to look through in order to start recording/scanning.

The cloaking of the buildings was done really quickly and probably could use some more work. But essentially I created a layer with just the waterfall and the background and then I faded the outpost into the one without the outpost - at the same time adding a ripple effect (showing that some kind of energy pulse was the instigator).

10. Sound

So when all that was done I figured that I would round it off by adding some sound to the animation. I checked my sound library and didn't find anything that really fit. So I went to my favorite sound archive on the net ( and purchased a couple of clips that I think worked in the scene. I added the sound in Premiere.

Well, that's about all I can think of. If you have any questions, please feel free to drop me a line. I hope this long diatribe helps a bit.

03 March 2003, 06:43 PM
You rock :buttrock:

The HUD adds so much! , My onlly suggestion is , it would be better if you type some alien letters instead of english when it says "cloaking" since these are aliens.

And I love the bird , i think it'll be awesome if the bird(s) react to the cloaking of the buildings , maybe fly faster because they get scared or something.


03 March 2003, 07:31 PM
A "Prost" :beer: from me on that.

I think, I have a lot to do on my entry.
Yours is kicking some serious ass.

03 March 2003, 07:51 PM
You officially kick a$$ Paul, this is a true masterpiece. I'm in awe!


03 March 2003, 08:52 PM
Hey Tito!

Aww shucks... now my ears are all red. Thanks Tito!

Regarding the text on the HUD. I had a chuckle about that. I thought the same thing. At one point I had even created the alien text - I took some Hebrew letters and modified them. I just never got around to putting them in - it was way faster and easier to put in just text in Flash so I sort of chickened out. The way I rationalize it is the viewer is a human and the detector is observing the cloaking. :)

I really like the idea of having the birds react. That would be cool. I'll have to see if there is any time between now and end of April to sneak that in.

Hi ya Mastermind!

Thanks for the kudos! Keep at it. Yours is lookin' fine! You took a bit of a different approach, but I like it - it's coming together nicely.

03 March 2003, 10:50 PM
one small detaill..u have a big pipe coming out of the side of the rocks...wouldn't it look better if it had water coming out of it..then down in the cascade? that way we get the idea where all the water comes from...its still good tho..i love it:buttrock:

03 March 2003, 10:54 PM
Hey Buggy166, thanks for the feedback and the kind words. The way it worked in my mind was that the pipe is a big sewer pipe that empties into an existing river that cascades over the rocks. I actually thought of adding a bit of steam or some fluid coming out, but decided to keep it simple. Anyway, thanks again!

03 March 2003, 04:41 AM
It looks amazing, my favorite one so far.

My only suggestion would be to add some simple geometry inside the main building which you would get a quick glance at as it cloaks. Either that, or change the cloaking animation. Right now, the fact that it is just the transparency being animated to make it cloak looks odd to me.

But that's just me. Incredible work!

03 March 2003, 05:53 AM
Hey Mathes,

Thank ye kindly! Interesting thoughts! When I did the cloaking thingy I was thinking more of a kind of Star Trek gizmo which created a force field around the building which refracts and reflects the environment and thus conceals everything by showing the viewer the surroundings. In that case one wouldn't see the inside of the building as it cloaks, just a simple fading out of the thing being cloaked. Does that make sense? Your idea is more applicable, I think, if the outpost were being teleported somewhere else... and perhaps a 'stripping' away of the material would cause that kind of xray effect.

Having said that, I do believe you are right in that the cloaking could use some work. I took the quick route and rippled the entire environment as if a dome of cloaking was engaged over the outpost. A more interesting visual cloak would have been if each individual element rippled out of view indicating that each outpost element had its own cloaking device.

Eeeek... I think you brought the Trekkie out in me!

Thanks again!!

03 March 2003, 07:59 AM
Hey Paul,

this is really great.:thumbsup:
Just one thing about the sound. This is the sound of a very small and not very high waterfall and it does not fit very well to the picture. Also the recorded sound is very near to the sound source. You need something thats sounds more like the Niagara Falls from far away.

Best regards, Robert
(Sound Engineer);)

Mangled Poly
03 March 2003, 08:18 AM
shucks guess you get to keep that god title :)

03 March 2003, 09:01 AM
Thanks for the tutorial, now i just need few ££££ to go and buy all the software you listed.....
Simple question, I want to buy a book about Digital Composition and how to create Special effect, Which book would you recommend ??



03 March 2003, 04:39 PM
Hey Folks,

Just a note. You probably can't see the images/animations - our server needs a reboot. We're working on it.

Hi Robsi!

Thanks a bunch for the sound critique. That's great! I was actually not using the running water as the sound for the waterfall, but rather the river that we are standing next to - you can sort of almost see the river at the bottom left. I figured we were so far away that we wouldn't hear the waterfall very much anyway - considering the hum of the equipment. If I have some time I may tweak it and see if I can add an extra sound of the waterfall in the distance.

Mangled Poly... he deity here, but thanks! I'm just like you guys. Learning as I go... and having a blast.

Nando3d, you are welcome! By the way, you don't *need* all that stuff! I just use it because I have it and it fits into my workflow. You could probably get away with doing it all in Maya, or Lightwave or what have you. It would just take longer and parts would be a bit trickier...

03 March 2003, 06:21 PM
Here are some quick screen grabs of things that may or may not be of interest:

Here is an opengl capture from Lightwave of one of the trusses that you can create using the Truss script. Notice that at the distance that we see these trusses that we don't even have to worry about whether or not they are built properly. They just sort of act 'trusslike' and that's enough for our brain to fill in the blanks:


This is a capture from Maya. notice the simplicity of the bird. I modeled him originally in Lightwave and he was extremely low poly which I then smoothed. The texture is essentially nonexistent(i.e. just white) and even with the rig we don't have to worry about proper anatomy or even if the deformations are working perfectly. It is so far away that just the wing motion and general shape is sufficient. Any bad deformations are totally invisible at that distance:


This next opengl capture from Maya shows the antenna structure and platform. Notice that there isn't a lot of detail here. Build only what you have to build and let textures, distance and the mind do the rest. The green lines are projections that I used to project the environment onto the objects (either in color or reflection):


The following is a screen capture of Particle Illusion. The left hand side contains the current emitters in the scene. The Preview window shows the particles in action (it's pretty responsive and depending on the complexity of the particles can be real time). Notice the waterfall is cascading in front of the rocks. Below you will see the mask I created to make it look like the waterfall is behind the rocks. The particle emitter is a line of points (two points) at an angle to match the rock face. You can tweak (and key) just about any parameter on the emitter. On the right is the current library of emitters. It comes with a bunch of them - all very cool to play with. You can click on the dark area above the Library to see the current emitter in action. You can also do some layering of particles (the layers are found just above the current emitters on the left). The timeline is on the bottom and you can pretty much key anything and everything. As I said, you could have done this in Maya, for example using Sprite particles, it would just take longer:


This next screen shot, if you've never seen it, is After Effects. Think of After Effects as a keyable Photoshop (i.e Photoshop on steroids). Just about anything you can do in Photoshop, you can animate in After Effects. There are essentially three areas. The Assets is a library of elements you want to use (like image sequences of the waterfall, the beauty passes of the buildings, the background image, etc.). The Preview is where your composition is viewed. When it gets complicated you often view only a few layers at a time. I have 1GB on my dual AMD 2.2Ghz machine and with all the layers on it takes about 15 to 25 seconds to just display one frame. The Layers area is where all the work gets done. In this shot I used 26 layers for just the outpost scene and an additional 6 layers to add the hud. Each layer can have special effects, a different blend mode (how it interacts with the layers below), masks, and so on. You can then key any property, effect, well... just about anything! Notice in this screen grab that I'm only viewing 3 layers - the main buidling:


This last shot is from After Effects. It is a closeup of the waterfall and the mask that I created to make it look like the water is going behind the rocks:


03 March 2003, 09:00 PM
Hey Nando,

I forgot to answer your question regarding Digital Composition and Special Effects books. I have one book called "After Effects in Production" which is great for sample tutorials on different kinds of things you can do with After Effects. I have another way more technical book I haven't looked at a whole lot called "Digital Composition for Film and Video". It looks really good, but it's a non-newbie kind of resource. I don't have any recommendations for books on special effects in general as this is all new to me and haven't really done a search for any.

I just got my "Concept Design" book by Scott Robertson et al, and it is a beautiful book, but it is only a showcase book (I was hoping it was more a techniques book - I guess I have to wait for his second book for that). It has some interesting narrative, but its definitely not a how-to-book.

03 March 2003, 05:27 PM
Hi Folks,

Please bear with us if the images/animations are not showing up. We are currently experiencing denial of service attacks. If the images do not appear, please try again later.

Sigh... don't these people have lives?

04 April 2003, 11:12 PM
All is well again. Images/Animation should be viewable.

04 April 2003, 09:31 PM
Hey Paul, Great Stuff,

I have a little suggestion, when the buildings are cloaking, rather than ripple the entire image, you could have the buildings loose visibility, like the way the animation goes from pixelated to focused.

Its kinda hard to explain, but think of the noise/video interference effect on the car in 'Die Another Day'.

Also it might be nice to add a plume from the waterfall, just some large slow moving sprites, I think would really sell the waterfall!!

It's a very cool effect, and would look great in your already fantastic work!

(I have two cds on order from you!! :thumbsup:)

04 April 2003, 02:05 AM
Hey Dark Lotus!

Thanks for the great feedback. I tweaked the HUD according to Lildragon's advice: added alien characters instead of the regular human characters. And, as you suggested, I also added a bit more spray to the waterfall and tweaked the cloaking technique. It's more subtle now.

04 April 2003, 02:06 AM
Oops... gotta rerender that water spray again. Looks like I missed a layer. I'll let you know when it's tweaked.

04 April 2003, 03:15 AM
Okey dokey... the updated HUD version is online. Just click on the link at the beginning of this thread.

04 April 2003, 04:20 AM
Hey Robert, I also just updated it again, and this time I tweaked the sound a bit. I added a sound for the waterfall (an ambient sort of roar) - this in addition to the water flowing where the observer stands. Anyhoo... I think that's it for this entry. Hope you guys like it.

04 April 2003, 09:37 AM
The waterfall looks awesome, however I didn't describe what I meant clearly enough for the fading out tecnique, so I thought I'd just throw a quick render together for you to help show what I mean.

Its kinda self explainatory, and I think if you keep the transition time the same in your animation, cause my transistion is ~4 seconds.

Entry looks fantastic through!!

04 April 2003, 08:56 PM
wow :drool:

04 April 2003, 10:14 PM
Looking better everytime! I love the waterfall and I like the fade better now. Also wanted to mention I think its great that you explained everything you did so well.

04 April 2003, 03:58 PM
Thanks guys! Dark_lotus, I see what you were getting at - thanks for the quick video. For now I think the entry will stay as it stands. My workstation is too busy to re-composite for the moment! :surprised Anyway, happy animating and special/fxing!

04 April 2003, 12:04 AM
Thats Ok, and Good Luck!

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