Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Entertainment Design Studio: Progress Pt. 2!

As part of my elective this semester, during which I am learning Houdini 12, I recently finished my bowl-breaking simulation. Watch the video of my progress and the final version below:
I'm quite proud of how it turned out, especially considering what it looked like to start with and the number of iterations it went through. One of the main things I changed between the previous iteration and this one is the way the bowl is broken. I initially used the "Make Breakable" shelf tool, which breaks the object immediately on impact. For the final version, I instead went with the "Break" shelf tool for the model itself, followed by the "RBD Glue" shelf tool to ensure that the break occurred gradually.

There are a few things I think could use some work, if I had more time to fix this up. I would definitely like to do something about the leakage from the bowl. My initial idea was to use a proxy volume, but the problem was that the bowl needed to be a rigid body in order to be able to be broken by the falling rock. When I tried to use the proxy volume, it collided with the bowl and popped out on top of it, defeating the purpose of the proxy volume entirely. Finally, I came up with a sort of makeshift fix for the leakage: I compensated for it by starting the simulation with the bowl already tilted and slightly cracked. This made the splashing and movement of the leaking fluid plausible, as the whole bowl was moving and cracking further. The other issue I'd like to fix, given more time, is that the fluid that leaks out of the bowl becomes thinner and eventually disappears, as is evidenced in the video. I think the leakage would be more convincing if I could add some fluid emitters beneath the bowl which emit fluid as the fluid leaks from the bowl, keeping the amount of fluid present in the scene constant at all times (rather than slowly decreasing).

I also had some technical constraints to work with. I would have loved to have used a glass material for the bowl, to give it that extra bit of realism. However, I discovered that the machine I have to work with is not powerful enough to render scenes with complex lighting or simulation. While this put a damper on my creative juices, I think it also poses an interesting and definitely useful challenge for me: learning to construct an effect such that it is as easy to render as possible, while still looking realistic.

All adjustments aside, I'm pretty pleased with the final outcome. I've added the bowl breaking video to my film demo reel, which can be found here.

I've started my final Houdini project for the semester this week, so expect a progress update on that soon!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Entertainment Design Studio: Progress!

As I mentioned in a previous post, I'm using my elective for the semester, Entertainment Design Studio, to learn the basics of Houdini and to start to create my own VFX demo reel. Thus far, I've gotten solid introductions to lighting, rendering, shaders, particles, rigid body dynamics, fluids, and pyro. I've also gotten the chance to create custom tools using nodes (the one I use most frequently is a Light/Shade/Render tool which sets up a basic camera, ground plane, key light, and fill light for rendering purposes). The new topic I've been learning for this week and last week is how to integrate Python scripts and expressions into my simulation. It's proving pretty useful for my current simulation!

Ever since I finished the particles and fluids section, I've been working on a small simulation with which I've tried to combine all of the physical simulation techniques I've learned. It's a work in progress which has gone through several different iterations, but I think it's going well. This "mini-project" started out as a geyser shooting up out of some terrain, but it was pointed out to me that, since I am a beginner at using Houdini, it would be better for me to start out with something on a smaller scale. So, I set out to create a simulation of a bowl of water, into which a rock is dropped. The rock breaks the bowl, and the water spills out. Video of the work in progress is below.

Some challenges I have run into thus far:
  • Realistic breaking - I haven't yet experimented with the Voronoi fracture node, and have instead been using the "Make Breakable" shelf tool. While this is physically accurate and easy to use, it doesn't provide a realistic-looking or interesting fracture. It would be cool if the fracture appeared gradually (small cracks at first, then bigger ones), but instead it fractures into large pieces almost immediately.
  • Rendering limitations - As I am not using Houdini as part of a project, I don't have access to the ETC's render farm. Because of this, I have to be careful of which materials and shaders I use, and how complex they are. As I found out when I tried to render a bowl made of glass, rendering time can really add up if I'm not careful of how complex the lighting and simulation is in a scene.
  • Feedback: Learning curve vs. realism - One of the biggest challenges I've found is the feedback I've gotten on my work so far from my classmates. Not the quality of the feedback, but rather what they are commenting about. I am the only one in my class (and, maybe, the only one in my graduate program) who has any Houdini experience, and, as I am a beginner, there is a bit of a learning curve when I work on projects. When they see my projects, my classmates can at most give me feedback on the realism of my work, but not on the technique, the latter of which I think would be more useful to me. 
I originally intended this project to only last about two weeks, but I think I can learn a lot more from continuing to experiment with different effects and techniques for this simulation. I'll be working on this project for about another week. Check back for the final version!

Sunday, October 7, 2012


This past August, I had the privilege of being selected to be a Student Volunteer at the SIGGRAPH 2012 conference, a conference and exhibition focusing on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques convened by ACM SIGGRAPH. There was no photography allowed at the conference, so the only two photos I have are of the lobby and outside area; however, rest assured that any photo I could take could not possibly convey how amazing this experience was for me. I have wanted to attend this conference for a few years, as it is such an incredible learning opportunity for computer scientists interested in computer graphics, as well as a great way to network. Unfortunately, I (until now) was never able to procure the funds to attend. I was ecstatic to be selected as a student volunteer this year and to have access to the ETC’s conference stipend as well, in order to make this trip possible! 

While at the conference, I attended many talks and presentations, including (but not limited to) “Studio Views of Demo Reels,” SIGGRAPH Dailies, Real-Time Live!, “Grooving” (a Studio Talk), “Effects Omelet” (several VFX studios’ presentations on how they achieved complex effects), and some presentations exclusively for student volunteers. One such presentation, “Getting Your Foot in The Door at a Major VFX Studio,” I found extremely useful. It was presented by Andrea Pace of the Production Services & Resources department at Sony Imageworks; she described an entry level position at the company (with equivalent positions at other studios) where I would be able to gain experience working on a major film production while also learning skills to carry on to another position. This talk definitely opened a new door for me in terms of career paths and skills I can work on in order to get a job in the film industry. Along the same lines, “Studio Views of Demo Reels” was also quite useful, as representatives from various studios showed reels and reel clips of skills they look for in potential hires.

Real-Time Live!, another favorite presentation of mine. showcased the latest trends and techniques in interactive visuals. The part of the presentation that I found most intriguing was “Beauty: Real-Time Visuals,” a presentation of BeautyPi. This is a project that takes advantage of high-quality, advanced, real-time rendering to create an engaging and interactive experience. BeautyPi is the perfect example of something I would love to do as a career: merging great VFX with music and audience interactivity to really captivate and immerse the audience.

Aside from attending talks and presentations, I also explored the different areas of the conference, such as the Art Gallery, the Exhibition Hall (of course), and the Emerging Technologies area. The Emerging Technologies area was neat, for obvious reasons, and I liked the Art Gallery as well! My two favorite works there were "The Galloping Horse" and "The HeartBeats Watch" (the latter of which I was tasked with guarding as part of my student volunteer duties).

My biggest takeaway from this conference was first and foremost that it really inspired me to stay creative, to keep looking for ways to integrate the various things I’ve learned, and to continue to work across disciplines (a la BeautyPi).  A secondary (but not less important) takeaway was all of the amazing people I met. Not only did I get to network with industry professionals and learn about all of the innovations in the graphics industry, but I also came away with many new friends! (Not to mention, I got to catch up with Greg Turk and Chris Wojtan from Georgia Tech, both of whom advised me on an NSF-funded CG research project I worked on back in Summer of 2010.) Attending this conference made me realize that Computer Graphics is not purely a technical field, and that there is a lot to be learned in this area from artists as well! I learned so much from this year’s conference, and I can’t wait to go back next year!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

A New Semester!

I'm back in Pittsburgh (by the way, I know my SIGGRAPH post is a month overdue, so I'll get to work on that, next), well into the first few weeks of a new school year! This semester, I'm on project team Up+ (website currently under construction), working on a retail display for the upcoming Windows Phone 8. While we are based here in Pittsburgh, our client contact, Arnold Blinn, is up in Seattle. We've been NDA'd, so details will be scarce, but suffice it to say that we are only three weeks in, and I'm already super excited for this project!

Outside of school, I've been working on brushing up my UNIX skills and getting back into shell and Python scripting to automate the more time-consuming processes on my computer that I usually do by hand. In an effort to commit to this, I've given up mouse clicks in favor of full keyboard navigation while on my Mac partition at home. I've been doing this for about two weeks, and I'm slowly getting better at cmd+tabbing and cd-ing my way around my computer. Progress!

What I'm most excited about right now is my elective for the semester: Entertainment Design Studio. This class is an independent study, but better. Within the first week, the students choose a goal for the semester, come up with a plan to achieve it, and how it will be evaluated. From then on, it's all about following said plan and getting feedback. We have allotted class time where we can work on our independent studies in an actual classroom, present to the instructor, and get criticism from our classmates and instructor. For my EDS project, I've decided to learn Houdini, and I plan to create a Houdini reel by the end of the semester. I have to say that, so far, Houdini is really fun! I've used Autodesk Maya quite a bit (and 3DS Max a little bit), and while they are both useful and easy to navigate, I've found Houdini's procedural approach much friendlier to my math-oriented mind. The hours I've spent going through tutorials have flown by, and I'm looking forward to learning more! I've already gotten a good overview of the UI and contexts, lighting, rendering, and shading, and I just finished the section on fluids and rigid body dynamics. This week, I'll be diving into my first "assignment." Stay tuned for updates on my progress!

Tuesday, July 3, 2012


The Nintendo area of the show floor

I’ve been gaming since the tender age of seven, and since I was old enough to use the Internet, I have waited impatiently each year to hear and see what was announced at the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3). This year, I had the privilege of going to E3, as they opened up their industry passes to students in game design programs! I was super stoked for a number of reasons: because it was free, because I am an avid gamer and didn’t want to pass up the chance to play unreleased games all day, everyday, for three days straight, and for the bragging rights (all my friends were
so jealous!)

During my three days at E3, I played many, many games, some of which I had seen the trailers for before arriving at the show. One such game was Lollipop Chainsaw (, a hack-and-slash game developed by Grasshopper Manufacture for Playstation 3 and XBox 360. The plot of this game is reasonably odd: a high school cheerleader (booth babe version pictured here) who moonlights as a zombie hunter must battle hordes of zombies in what was once her high school, aided by the severed-but-still-living head of her boyfriend (she decapitated him so he would retain his humanity after he suffered a zombie bite). Surprisingly, the quirky plot fits the game quite well, as the game has a unique art style to match. Though I usually avoid zombie games like the plague, I found Lollipop Chainsaw to be thoroughly enjoyable, and much more approachable than the usual horror-genre zombie game.

Juliet, the main character of Lollipop Chainsaw

Injustice: Gods Among Us (, another game I'm looking forward to, is a superhero fighting game set in the DC Universe. This game divided its playable characters into “Power” characters, such as Superman or Solomon Grundy, and “Gadget” characters, such as Batman. Each character can interact with the environment in different ways, depending on his or her character class. Players can also throw their opponents into different areas in the environment, each with its own unique interactive elements, providing many ways to use each environment to the player’s advantage. I am a sucker for great visual effects, and the visual effects (dust, explosions, water, etc.) are drool-worthy. They really take the game that extra mile to make the game world look real and to ensure the player is thoroughly immersed. When it is released in 2013, Injustice: Gods Among Us will definitely be one of the few fighting games I will actually buy.

For me, the best take away from this conference was a renewed appreciation for all genres of games. Over the years, I had slowly started playing fewer innovative games and prior to arrival at E3, I had been playing solely adventure and RPG games. During my time at E3, I tried to play as many games on as many platforms as possible and found myself enjoying quite a few outside of my favorite genres and usual platforms. I definitely recommend that others attend this conference. I had a blast!
Piloting a giant robot!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Lake District Trip!

My room - 4 beds all to myself!
A few days before I left Manchester to return to the US, I had the privilege to go on a 3-day trip with some of the students in the Creative Technology Masters program, basically the equivalent of the ETC at the University of Salford. We spent a few days exploring the flora, fauna, and notable sites in an area of the UK known as the Lake District. Specifically, we were in Grasmere, staying in a hostel called Thorney How. The Lake District was so beautiful!

Also on this trip, I got to know the Creative Tech students and some of the things they were working on. Their projects were quite innovative, just like at the ETC! For example, one of the students is working on a game where the protagonist is an actual person in the world, being controlled remotely by another player. He's even created his own headset, complete with webcam for remote viewing of the world the "avatar" is traversing, for that purpose. I also learned about the use of the Microsoft Kinect for real-time 3D modeling. I think this in particular is quite exciting. There are so many useful applications for being able to extract this data that the Kinect comes up, especially for 3D modelers! So, not only did I get to relax and see some absolutely gorgeous scenery, but I also returned from my trip inspired and excited to delve into some new topics--I've brought quite a few ideas back with me, both for independent projects and perhaps for a future ETC pitch!
One of many stunning views!

Four months later...

After an extremely busy semester, I finally have time for more blog posts. So, my semester in Manchester, UK (Spring 2012) has ended, and over all, I would say it was a success. While our project was initially supposed to supplement a live performance, we ended up creating more of an art installation. You can check out the details of the project and my role on my website. Despite some rough patches, our team finished successfully, and learned a lot not only technology-wise (I did all of the networking for our project, with no networking knowledge to my name - quite an accomplishment, if I do say so myself!), but in terms of the do's and don't's of teamwork as well. I'm excited to move forward with different projects in the future and to apply all my new knowledge!

Project stuff aside, I have absolutely loved every minute of my time here in the UK. I love the people here, the environment, the food, the accents, the countryside, and especially the shopping! This is a city and country that I could see myself living and working in permanently.

One of the things I love the most about Manchester is the food. Not just the fact that it is delicious (and not too greasy), but also the ease at which I am able to find vegetarian food. There are always vegetarian items marked on restaurant menus, and the food is in general much healthier and better quality than in the US. The shopping here is awesome too (albeit expensive) - no wonder everyone here is so fashionable!

The weather... leaves something to be desired. Eighty percent of my time in the UK, it was cold, rainy, and/or windy. The weather is my only complaint; it can make the commute to school/work downright depressing, and enduring it every day during an already stressful semester did fray the nerves a bit.

Travel in the UK was amazing - there is so much natural beauty and sprawling countryside that we just don’t see often in the US, and there are many cheap flights to other countries out of Manchester. It was nice to take a few days or a weekend off to just travel and see things.

Finally, the people. Without exception, every single person I met while in Manchester was wonderful! Everyone I met, even random people on the street, was so nice, friendly, and helpful. It was great to find the "Southern hospitality" I'm used to back in my home state, in another country! I do need to mention Ben Shirley, our advisor, specifically. He was beyond amazing, as were the other Salford faculty (eg. Fiona Broadbent, Marianne Patera). They went above and beyond to make sure we had everything we needed for our project, and were really awesome and friendly to boot! I was so sad to leave, but I know I will definitely be back, if not to work, then at least to visit!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

My First Project Semester!

I love the design of the building we work in!
This semester I've embarked on a journey of a different kind - my first project semester at the ETC. To make it even more exciting, I'm part of the first ETC project group to work at the Manchester campus. We are here at MediaCityUK in University of Salford, working on a project with the university in conjunction with the Psappha ensemble. Our project team, Madhouse, has been given the task of creating an interactive visualization of Psappha's performance of the musical piece, "Eight Songs For a Mad King," with the input of the composer, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies.

I am lead programmer on this team, and I will be working with Unity3d to design and implement interactions using the Microsoft Kinect as well as several Microsoft surface tables. I am so excited to be programming again! The area here and the facilities are all really nice; I'll definitely post more photos soon!

In addition to working here, we are each taking an elective class as well as some shorter classes. I'll be taking a virtual environment design class (basically BVW, except that I will be filling all of the roles on my own) as well as a short NUKE class.

The view from my bedroom window - beautiful!
Aside from school stuff, we have gotten settled in at our apartments and have done a bit of sightseeing around Manchester as well. Carlos, the ETC's liaison with Manchester, was amazingly generous with his time. He gave us a great tour of the city and went above and beyond in getting us settled in, introducing us to the right people, and, most importantly, feeding us! We love you, Carlos! Some of the places he took us to include the Manchester Cathedral, John Ryland's Library, and Chetham's Library (the oldest public library in the English-speaking world!) More photos to come soon on this front as well, once I get around to uploading things from my camera.


The "Manchester Eye" - a ferris wheel in downtown Manchester.
It's much smaller than the London Eye, though!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Boot Camp: Mission Accomplished!

Wow, it's been a while... An entire semester, in fact. I survived! My first semester at the ETC--the Immersion semester, also known as "Boot Camp"--ended about a month ago, and I enjoyed every minute of it. During this semester, I got to know and work with nearly everyone in the class of Fall 2011--a class chock-full of amazingly-talented, wonderful people, I might add. I have made some great friends this semester, bonding through the work we've done in our classes (we semi-jokingly refer to this bond as "a bond forged in blood").

One of the most time-consuming (but also one of the most fun) classes we took was BVW (described in my previous post). We made some really awesome virtual worlds in that class, with many different platforms. It was a great experience! I also tried my hand at being a sound designer and a producer (we had way too many programmers in our class, so a lot of us ended up as sound designers or in other roles). I thoroughly enjoyed both being a producer and being a sound designer, but I think they're maybe not something I'd want to do for the long haul. I'd miss programming way too much! However, I am pretty proud of the work I did for the class. You can check it out on my website (!

Also check my website for the work my group (Mad Scientist Productions) did in Visual Story, our film class. I had taken a film class before during my undergrad, but this is the first time I've gotten the chance to actually apply the concepts I've learned in making short films. I did some compositing in AfterEffects in some of our videos, and actually tried some acting as well! Overall, it was a great class!

Another class I thoroughly enjoyed (but didn't expect to) was Improvisational Acting. Before I started the class, I would never have considered going up in front of a class and improvising a scene, but by the end of the semester, I was improvising like a pro (well, almost). One of the things I loved most about this class was that every week, when it came time for Improv, I never wanted to go to class, because I had so much work to do, but I left every class feeling relaxed, stress-free, and giddy from all the fun I'd had that day. In addition to being a great way to unwind during a stressful week, Improv taught us how to be "fun to play with," i.e. how to work well with others. It also taught us important concepts when designing a game or narrative (see CROW - Character, Relationship, Objective, and Where - things a player or audience must know at all times).

My final class, Fundamentals of Entertainment Technology, was key in that it taught us valuable skills and concepts applicable in the Entertainment Technology space, in addition to aiding us in professional development - from mock interviews, to career counseling, to resume reviews.

Something else I tried for the first time - a kind of side project with a friend - was modeling. My good friend and fellow ETC-er Heidi Hastings is an amazing makeup artist and photographer, and she suggested we do a photoshoot together! It was a lot of fun, and some great photos came out of it.

Overall, my first semester at the ETC, while being a crazy amount of work, was amazing. I learned so much, met so many wonderful students and faculty, and had so much fun! I look forward to future semesters, and I hope that they'll be at least as awesome! :)