Wednesday, 30 June 2021

EbSynth Test #2

You may remember a while ago I made this hand-painted rotoscope piece:

…And shortly after that, I started working on another. In between then and now, I got a full time gig animating on a super amazing project, I bought some shoes which don’t have holes in and I learnt how to use EbSynth. I also painted all of the 103 frames for this second hand-painted piece, along with having drawn all the outlines frame by frame in TVPaint.

The hand painted frames (some of)

So, the title of this post is called ‘EbSynth Test #2’ and you’re probably thinking, ‘right, so she’s pretty much done all the leg work for this, why is she even talking about her new obsession in this blog post’?

The outlines

Ok, so I basically didn’t want the outlines or the paint work to have gone to waste, but at the moment, realistically I would never have found the time to produce a piece in the same way I did the first painted one. So I thought this would be a great opportunity to practise colouring with EbSynth. Using it ‘just’ to colour a clip still saves a load of time (it literally took hours to scan and clean up all the individual painted frames in the previous one).

Side note: I am currently working on a piece to get smooth outlines using EbSynth- once I’ve managed that, then there’ll be a post here, so keep an eye out in the next few weeks!

Having the outlines down already put me in an advantage, because it meant I could give EbSynth something more workable to urm, well, work with. Also, another side note: I coloured in her facial features in TVPaint such as eyes, brows, lips etc as I was working quite small when painting this piece and knew painting all that detail would have added on a lot more hours. If I were to do the keyframes again, I would have painted everything as I would only be needing to paint it a couple of times, as opposed to 103.

As you can see above, I exported the PNG sequence of both the video file and some of the outlines for EbSynth. Having a solid outline for it to follow, I’m assuming made it easier for EbSynth to give a cleaner output. I also brightened the video slightly, along with adding a little contrast, to make it stand out more.

Once I knew what PNG sequence I’d be putting into EbSynth, I needed to create the keyframes. Like I said at the start of this post, I had already painted all the frames, so it was a case of picking out a couple and scanning those, rather than all of them. As this shot has a head movement and an arm movement, I wanted to make two keys which would give EbSynth enough information of each.

I made keys of the first frame and the last frame:

Frame 1 (with outlines)

Frame 103, no outlines (what I fed to EbSynth)

I scanned in the painted frames at 1200dpi and then exported the outlines from TVP of the relevant frames to Photoshop (this would act as a guide so I could resize the painted versions to match the outlines). Here, I cleaned up some blemishes on the paint work and also erased the white paper surrounds. EbSynth works well with an alpha channel and I didn’t want to sit there afterwards and remove the background of 103 frames or it totally would have defeated the object of using EbSynth. If I removed the background for the keyframes, EbSynth would use that information and keep those sections as an alpha channel too. Cowabunga, dude!

Once I had nice clean versions of the keys, I ran them through EbSynth and waited patiently for it to work it’s magic and 10 or 20 mins later (my computer is crazy slow) I had the frames ready to import back into TVP. Also, with the keys, I switched off the outline layers before inputting them to EbSynth. This was so there wouldn’t be an outline on those layers, as it wasn’t needed and would have made it look messy.

I had no idea how it would turn out, but wow I was happy with the result. It was a lot cleaner than I was expecting. Though it definitely still needed touching up in places:

Ignore the pink background- that’s just a placement background as a neutral colour to allow me to see the bits I needed to clean up better. Most of it was a case of just erasing the parts which came out of frame, though there were some bits (mainly on her hand) where EbSynth completely missed the mark. To fill these in, I used the cut brush and made a custom brush from it, allowing me to use the right colour and texture from the painted frames without the new bits standing out or looking weird. Think of it like the clone tool in Photoshop basically.

Where it missed on her hand

I also added the shading using EbSynth which I did on a separate layer. I used 3 keyframes for this and then blended them together. I don’t really add shading to my work mainly due to time constraints, though of course EbSynth allows me to add shading without much extra effort. And I must admit it looks a lot better than the stuff I’ve done previously without shading. So shading is going on everything from now on!

An improvement for this would be that perhaps I could have added the shading as I painted it or digitally added it in a more painterly way. Or even used a blend mode to make it feel more ingrained. Anyway...

So what does this mean for an independent animator like myself?

The big one: it saves so much time! I can get more done in a shorter amount of time, allowing me to spend more time focussing on style, look and story, as opposed to that energy going into drawing each frame. It literally is a game changer! To make an independent short or feature, it will really help speed the process up, meaning I could make something in a fraction of the time it would normally take. How cool is that?! 

I also don’t think a program like this will be something which takes jobs away from animators. As I have just outlined here, a lot of human work is still needed to create an effective piece. Yes, it speeds up the work, but just think of how a program like this can help the independent feature and short film industry. Less time to produce work = less cost to make work = more independent work produced without having to rely on funding = more diverse, cool, interesting animations. Win.

Ps. I know this post was kind of long- I hope I was able to explain everything in a fairly concise or at least clear manner. If you’ve any questions after reading this on EbSynth or my process, then just drop them below and I’ll try and answer as best as I can.

Saturday, 12 June 2021

Rugeley Power Station Cooling Towers Demolition

As a person obsessed with power station cooling towers and non-league football, what could be better than watching a match with a cooling tower demolition taking place with a game in progress?

Answer: nothing.

And this was exactly what myself, my partner Ben and several other football ground enthusiasts had the pleasure of witnessing last weekend. What a spectacular and unique sight!

I had watched a game previously at Ravenhill Park early 2020, which you may or may not remember from this blog post and I already thought that was a fantastic experience, especially with a rainbow popping up over the towers towards the end of the match. Having done a little research into the towers since, I discovered that they were to be demolished. Sadly, this is happening to most cooling towers up and down the country once the power station is decommissioned, often to make way for houses. I say 'sadly' here, because personally I adore the architecture of the things and find them really iconic.

I kept a close watch on when this date might be by Googling it every month or so (totally normal behaviour) as I had been keen to watch a demolition for a while (more normal behaviour), as I was slightly frustrated that I missed the Iron Bridge cooling tower demolition a few years ago.

The date and time were finally confirmed as 11am on Sunday 6th June 2021. This also coincided with a home game for Sunday league side Brereton Lion. I honestly didn't think the game would go ahead at this location as it might have been in the exclusion zone, but as the date drew closer, it became apparent that the fixture would go ahead at said venue.

As a Brereton Lion home game was off the week before due to the away team not being able to raise a team (these things happen all the time in Sunday league), driving the 88 mile journey down felt a little risky. Neither of the teams have a social media presence, so the match being on was never confirmed, other than that what was stated on fixture website Full Time FA. We decided to persist, because either way we would get to see a demolition, the football match being a bonus.

We were delighted when arriving at the ground to see that the game was on. Then we just had to wait. And wait some more. And then wait again. It was slightly delayed, tension and nerves mounting (I did not want to mess up these photographs)!

And then:

Within around 10 seconds they were gone. The game momentarily paused as the towers crumbled, then carried on like nothing happened. The game finished 1-3 (Dormans being the away side).

I doubt I'll ever witness anything like this again and for so many things to align to get these photographs, it really was spectacular and something I will never forget.

Monday, 7 June 2021

EbSynth Test #1

With the prospect arising of potentially learning EbSynth in my job, I decided to familiarise myself with the software and grasp the basics/ have a bit of a play around. I’ve been wanting to learn it ever since I became aware of it last year when the beta version was released and it’s even been sat in the downloads file on my computer since then. I did watch a few tutorials way back when, but it looked super complex and unfamiliar, so I decided against it until now.

I wished I had opened it sooner!

Spoiler alert: the results aren’t great, but for the short time I’ve spent using the program so far combined with what I have seen on YouTube and Instagram, I can tell that I’m going to have a lot of fun using it and it has massive potential. It’s also open source, meaning it’s absolutely free and you can download it for yourself HERE. This is not a sponsored post by the way(!) I genuinely am loving it so far.

So basically, EbSynth is a program (or software- do they mean the same thing?!) which allows you to create altered videos from essentially one keyframe via a texture synthesis algorithm. Pretty cool. I’m not here to really explain the ins and outs or terminology of what it can do (check out their website) for that as they can totes do it better than me, but I will explain my process and my thoughts about it etc. Also there’s loads of tutorials on YouTube about how to work it, so check those out as well!

To get EbSynth to work, you need a piece of footage you want to manipulate and then at least one altered keyframe, such as something painted or hand drawn, or whatever style or medium you want the finished video to look. It’s kind of like a Snapchat filter, but more hi-tech!

Frame from the footage

For EbSynth to be able to do its thing well, you need to pick a frame with as much readable information in, meaning you don’t want any objects to be hidden, mouth to be closed, eyes to be shut, something overlapping the character etc. My clip had a fair bit of movement in it and a head turn, so I actually decided to make 5 keyframes.

One of the keyframes

I did this because I wanted to give EbSynth as much information as possible for it to work as well as it can. As there was a head turn, it was important that I keyed both the profile view and the back of his head, or EbSynth wouldn’t have the information of what the back might look like, therefore the animation wouldn’t look as smooth. Or maybe even super glitchy and weird. I didn’t stay to find out! Perhaps I could have got away with less keys, but for someone who is so used to drawing every frame all the time, five out of 57 felt like pretty much nothing.

I sketched them out real quick in TVPaint with a bold line. I just wanted to see the parameters of the program in this first venture and then later I’ll do more experimentation with styles, colour etc etc.

Anyway, once you have the keys and the image sequence (note: sequence, not a moving image file) of your footage, then that’s where the fun can begin.

As said, totally new here, so it took a little trial and error to get a clip I was happy with. The interface of the program is pretty basic, but don’t let that fool you! The settings take a bit of getting used to. Anyway, for this final version, I found that it was better to output each keyframe sequence into separate folders and blend them myself in Premiere after, rather than let EbSynth blend it for you by locating them all to the same folder, which I did in the first go.

I mean just look at this frame it created:


Also, apparently EbSynth doesn’t like bits going out of frame/ edge of frame or it doesn’t really know how to handle it. If I’d have known this prior to using this clip, I would have chosen a different piece of footage which didn’t touch the edge.

For a first test, I am happy with what I’ve achieved, though I definitely want to push it further and get more creative with styles and techniques. As said, this was a super quick test to see what I can do with it (or if I could even work it for that matter!), hence the clip not being the most exciting thing to have ever graced the internet!

I think I can implement it not only in an experimental way, but also in a practical way, once I get the hang of the software. This would mean (in my case) colouring and/ or shading my rotoscoped line work (as those are the things which seem to add on the most time). As always, keep an eye out on here for more developments in my rotoscopy stuff!

Here’s the final version:

And here’s a side by side, so you can see the comparison: