Saturday, 17 September 2011

Guest Article: Darren Goldsmith "A Map of the Floating City"

Darren is one of those awesome people I have managed to connect with via Twitter. He is always chatty and positive, and has asked for my help with beta reading his writing - ever an honour. When I asked for blog contributors during my two week's away, Darren offered something that I found extremely intriguing - I hope you do too!

A Map of the Floating City

Hello! Guest blogger Darren here. While Amanda is sunning herself on a beach or by the pool, with a glass of something suitably alcoholic and a decent book (jealous, moi?), I thought I’d write about my involvement with Thomas Dolby’s ‘A Map of the Floating City’ online game, specifically the creation of some game art.

If you’re not familiar with Thomas’s work… er, why the hell not? Seriously, go on, search for ‘The Golden Age of Wireless’ and ‘The Flat Earth’ and give them both a spin. Or if those aren’t to your taste (you’d be mad, but OK), try ‘Aliens Ate My Buick’ or ‘Astronauts and Heretics’ instead. If none of this moves you in any way, you are dead on the inside.

Thomas was a late ‘70s/early ‘80s synth-pop pioneer, probably most famous for his singles ‘She Blinded me with Science’ and ‘Hyperactive’ (very popular but not the best examples of his work), who later went on to produce music for the likes of Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell and Prefab Sprout, to name but a few. During his time in California in the late ‘90s, he started a company, out of Silicon Valley, that developed the software which drives the ringtones in 3 billion+ mobiles. And for the last 10 years or so, he’s been the musical director of TED Global. One hell of a bio. You can find out more about the man and his work here.

And now he’s back, with a new album, using the game as a vehicle to promote it.

A Map of the Floating City is set against a dystopian vision of the 1940s that might have existed had WWII turned out a lot differently. Survivors explore a fictional Google map, forming tribes and trading relics amidst a bizarre sea-going barter society.

The game itself has just finished but ran for about three months (good job we didn’t have a summer to speak of), was completely free (worked in a browser - no ads/pop-ups or irritating email/spam) and offered players the chance to win music downloads and the ultimate prize of a private gig for the winning tribe.

I’ve known Thomas for a few years now and have had the pleasure of playing bass and bass synth in his band. He was aware of my work as an artist and writer and asked me if I’d like to be involved in The Floating City. Needless to say, I jumped at the chance.

Below, I’ve provided an insight into the creation of one of the game images: Dr. Argleton’s blimp. I’ve kept it brief… hopefully the explanation won’t induce too many comas.

I typically work with a combination of 3D and 2D applications, blending the processes to achieve the final result. My main 3D weapon of choice is Modo but I also use Vue and occasionally Lightwave. And then I’ll always throw final renders into Photoshop and/or After Effects for tweaking and colourisation/grading.

Step one is the 3D modelling. We wanted a steampunk look and feel for the blimp, in keeping with the game. Thomas had a photo of a 19th century submersible (on display at the Barcelona Maritime Museum) that fit the bill nicely so I used that as a reference to build the elements in Modo.

The modelling took around 25 hours, all told. I tried to keep as close to the real thing as possible but there are always going to be discrepancies when you only have one reference image. I couldn’t see the rudder and prop that well, for example, so had to give it my best guess. The real sub is actually a squashed cylinder, a bit like a fish, but I wanted a fuller shape. And for the final image we wanted the sub to be a blimp, so it needed balloons!

Here’s a clay render (sans textures/maps) of the finished model.

Step two is texturing/mapping. Essentially the addition of images that dress the model. As you can see, the clay render shows the main blimp body to be smooth, like an eggshell. A weird eggshell, sure, but… oh, you get the idea. Textures or images maps can be photos and/or graphics… often composed in Photoshop or a similar editor. These maps are then applied to the model objects. There’s a whole bunch of mapping methods and most, if not all, 3D applications use a standard set… but the most useful, especially for complex shapes, is UV mapping. I could explain it but I’d be a lot less coherent than this.

Working in layers is a good idea because it’s easier to make changes… I create a base texture map (in this case the wood) and then I’ll add other layers on top, such as weathering and so on. I didn’t want the final model to look as beaten-up as the real thing but it did need to look a little used, as if it was a working blimp. It’s worth bearing in mind how the proposed image and final render will look since that will dictate the resolution and level of detail you need for the maps. There’s usually a lot of tweaking at this point, to ensure the maps not only fit but look the part.

Voila! Here’s our finished, textured model.

OK, with that bit done, the next step is to create some scenery, to sit the blimp in. The Floating City game is set almost directly after a world-changing event. A cataclysm called the Penumbra has devastated the lands. Poisonous clouds and boiling heat have forced survivors to take to the oceans, in the rusting wrecks of ships and other vessels, and head north to cooler zones.

In the game there was a maiden voyage of the blimp (owned and built by a character called Dr. Argleton) for all players who could afford to buy a ticket. I wanted to illustrate that journey.

We thought it’d be cool if everyone could see an image or two (or three), the plan being to offer the pics as free wallpapers once the game was finished.

Although it’s possible to model landscapes and the like in Modo, I used Vue to do this instead. Vue is essentially a world-building application… although it’s much more than that. Once you can get around the mad interface, it’s an excellent bit of kit, allowing for the creation of clouds and sunsets and water and terrains, with almost infinite control over how these elements appear.

After much experimentation and tweaking (I wanted a painterly feel), this was the result.

At step four, we go back into Modo, to composite the blimp model and background scene together. You can do this by adding the scene image to a camera set to ‘front’, which fixes it in place as a background plate, and then adjusting the angle, scale and rotation (and lighting) of the blimp model, to suit. Lots of test renders here!

The resulting render from this part of the process looks good… but it needs that little extra zing, so I fire up Photoshop (I can choose to save the final comp as layers/alpha channels from Modo) for colour correction and grading. With this image I also needed to add a reflection of the blimp in the water.

Colour correction normally involves getting a closer match between all elements. There are a variety of techniques, tricks and options but a good place to start, in Photoshop at least, is with Levels, by tweaking the individual RGB channels. From there you can play with Selective Colour settings and Hue/Saturation or Colour Balance.

Here’s the final image:

And here are a couple of others, created using the same techniques.

Right, that’s me done!

Enjoy! I have higher res version if anyone wants them… or if you have any questions, just email or Tweet.

darren AT cosmicmail DOT co DOT uk



No - thank YOU, Darren!

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic piece of writing, even though I am not a fan of video games had me mesmerized until the last word...great read, more please :-)