Saturday, August 2, 2014

Matinee Fight Demo and Live Stream

Over the course of about 4 to 6 months I had the privilege of helping Michael Clausen and a few other folks at Epic with some demo content built in the Reflections demo level built by Rick Kohler and Josh Marlow.

For the demo we wanted to create a demonstration of how we might go about creating a cinematic here at Epic, using our Matinee toolset.  This was a great experience as I actually had  a chance to go down to the mocap stage and watch the whole process.

Right out of the gate I knew there were going to be several sections where I needed to do some destruction VFX.  In the past for cinematic sequeces destruction VFX were handled by pre-simming and baking the simulation down to a skeletal mesh, to ensure proper playback etc. etc.  For this demo I wanted to make use of our integrated physics system and avoid pre-simming all together.

This was a new workflow for me and presented a few interesting challenges.  I discuss this more in depth during the live stream which you can see below.

You can learn quite a bit more about the contents of the demo by visiting our UE4 documentation specific to the project here.

If you are interested in learning about creating Particle FX in UE4 in general there is a wealth of documentation on our website.  Zak Parrish has been doing an exhaustive video series which starts with chapter 1 which you can see below.

Also I have been creating written tutorials which overview some of the basics of my personal workflow, these can all be found on our Wiki page here. Look for the Visual Effects links on that page.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Apple WWDC Zen Garden Stage Demo

I am posting this about two weeks late.  I happened to be on a much needed beach vacation the day of WWDC, and there was nothing more exciting than sitting by the ocean and watching Josh Adams demo the Zen Garden App I had the privilege of working on with about 5 other content people at Epic.

In the video below you can hear Josh Adams and Ryan Brucks, two of the people who also helped on the demo talk more specifically about the demo. Scrub to about 16:46 to see more.

This is the third time I have helped out and done VFX work for an Apple stage demo, and while each one has been a unique experience this one was pretty rewarding, on par with the original Infinity Blade Dungeons demo we did.  The people on the team are no bones about it, super talented folks who are all incredibly collaborative, and I think we all riffed off of each others skills in a very organic manner which felt really great.

The team made extensive use of UE4's Blueprint system, in fact everything you see in the demo, all of the content and interaction elements was handled by a content person. Wed had no gameplay programmers, though we did have the support of the platform and rendering teams.  Every single one of us contributed Blueprints, Meshes, Materials, Textures, the whole gambit.

I really love it when a team just gels, and from the outset as soon as we decided Zen Garden everyone went and added their own piece and it just worked.  Don't get me wrong, we planned things out, but it was more exciting because all of the ideas just flowed and the work poured out of that.

I am working on a bit of a blog post to hopefully submit to the Unreal Engine blog on our UE4 site, going into some more details about the demo content I personally worked on, including the tree petals and interaction Blueprints. Water splashes and trails when you touch the surface of the pool.  Some additional FX work for Ryan's awesome sand raking Blueprint, and then of course all of the Blueprint work and VFX work for the fountain spill and massive swarm of Butterflies.

In other old news I have moved to the Fortnite team and was able to contribute a bunch of work for the Game Informer article as well as a bunch of stuff on the website etc. etc.  You can see more of that work here.

I helped out mostly with some of the hex map VFX and a big push on the Constructor class doing all the VFX for his abilities.

He was a blast to work on as he has some cool abilities that allowed me to jump in and do some non-photoreal plasma bursts etc. etc.  In general it's been a treat to make stylized VFX after so many years of chasing photo-realism and film VFX.

See more of Fortnite, and signup for the Alpha here

Monday, April 14, 2014

UE4 Cave Environment

Soon after wrapping up the Infiltrator demo early last summer I had the opportunity to work with Paul Svoboda and create a project of our liking.  The only restriction was to showcase engine features.  I was really excited about all of the possibilities of GPU particles in UE4, and wanted to work on a showcase of sorts to help show licensees what they can do with GPU particles, and create some cool atmosphere.

I just happened to be fortunate enough to get to place those particles in a level as gorgeous as the one Paul crafted for us.  Partially inspired by moments from Dear Esther, and Skyrim we hoped to capture the contrasting moods of a warm cave interior, against a raging snowy blizzard exterior.

Paul put up some great screenshots over on Polycount, here are a few thumbnails.

I really enjoyed working on this map with Paul, his mesh and materials work is inspiring.  Mark Morgan also pitched in with the horned beast statue, which inspired me to make some magical fire FX.

You can find more information at Unreal and download the content for free with your subscription to UE4 in the Marketplace.

I hope you enjoy it.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Unreal Community

I know I have posted quite a bit about UE4 in the last 24 hours, but the image above represents the type of new thinking going around at Epic that impresses the hell out of me.

UnrealEngine 4.1 release notes

Epic is giving credit, where credit is due. This is anyone's chance, through Epic, to step up in this invigorated community and contribute something which can benefit a massive amount of users.

For several years I worked for Raven software on the licensee end of the UE3 relationship.  There were a few things about that experience that I found challenging.  When I came to Epic I wanted to learn from that experience and do my best within the studio to help improve that situation.  Now I can only take credit for a small shred of any of what is happening at Epic these days, but it is all about mind share.  Taking time to help document features, communicating with teams getting all that content we have been working on into the Marketplace.  Just generally thinking beyond my day to day  in-house FX tasks.

It's about having a new attitude and a new approach to development, developers, and our audience.  Each day at Epic I work in Cascade and make VFX.  I experience the same workflow and interface issues everyone using Cascade faces on a daily basis, and we are working on it.  Every bug that gets entered into the database and prioritized takes our licensees and our projects into account.

Interview on Gamasutra with Paul Meegan.  I think this interview sums up the changes that have been happening around our studio pretty well.

I ask myself, will this new feature I am requesting really provide a major life improvement for our team at Epic, our teams around the world, and all of our licensees/subscribers?  We are considering all of that, each and every day.
Another example of this is UE4 mobile improvements.

I had the opportunity to help out with our Soul demo, all of the water, waterfalls, and atmosphere FX in the Caves section of the video.

The UE4 mobile tools are looking really solid so far.  There is still work being done, but I can tell you I am VERY excited for the future of mobile in UE4.  Having worked extensively on Infinity Blade Dungeons, and Infinity Blade III, I have an exhaustive understanding of the limitations of the mobile content development environment.  As an FX artist it can be a bit limiting at times, but all of the hardware is improving at such a fast pace those limits are falling away quickly.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Unreal Engine 4 Tutorials and Some "Deep Thoughts"

To celebrate the launch of Unreal Engine 4, I got so excited I set aside some of my spare time and wrote up several tutorials.  I tried my best to think back to the first time I launched Cascade, and remember "what elements of the workflow tripped me up?"

Then I asked myself "what elements of Cascade were opened up to me by joining Epic?"  What are the little tricks we use everyday that might make all the difference for a new FX artist getting started in UE4?

Armed with this experience I put together a bullet-ed list and began writing up tutorials.  I have about 5 of them in the hopper now, and there is a long list which I am still working on.

If you are a seasoned developer with tons of Cascade experience, then these might not be for you...but if you are new to UE4, or you are interested in seeing how I work then these write-ups will be of interest.

I am starting with the basics, using particle color/alpha to modify the look of your sprites.  Editing a curve in the timeline view...using the new tabs to quickly navigate back and forth between materials and Cascade.

It's pretty straight fwd stuff I know, but this is the info I would died for when I first got started in Cascade at Raven, all those years ago.  My plan is for this to all build to giving anyone who has interest, the ability to break a Material, a Blueprint, and an Effect down into the essential elements so it's easier to take an FX problem and break it out into the elements that make up your solution.


In other areas of my thoughts...

GDC has come and gone again.  Once again I sat in the amazing studio space at Epic and watched all of the info pouring out of the conference asking myself "why I am not there?"

I think I have a few reasons...I am going to take this next year to get that sorted, and go to GDC next year.
I am making solid efforts to share more of my knowledge with the real-time FX community so that this discipline can grow and expand.  I work hard within Epic to share everything I know with my peers, and I hope this type of mentality can expand within the real-time FX community.

"Job Security" technique hoarders benefit no one in our industry.

This discipline can only get better with more and more folks sharing knowledge and information.  In the spirit of the UE4 launch, and the work that people like Bill Kladis, and Fred Hooper have been doing over at Imbue FX I am hoping to use these new lessons, and GDC to make a solid effort to get more of that info out as frequently as my schedule will allow.

A lot of this work started with the UE3 performance and optimization documentation I put together after Gears 3, and it's clear to me now I wish to put effort into sharing more of that knowledge.

I hope that other people learning new tricks in UE4 are interested in sharing their techniques as well in the UE4 Wikis.

Unreal Engine 4 Launch

I am a bit late posting the news, as you can imagine I have been a bit busy as of late.  Unreal Engine 4 is now available to anyone who wishes to give it a try for $19 per month.  This is very exciting news for everyone at Epic as we are all excited to see what other people do with our tech, and we are looking forward to more users having access to our tools.

On top of this a UE4 subscription grants you access to the full source code, which has me especially excited to see what kinds of plugins, features, and tools coders outside of Epic come up with.

There have been many people within the studio hard at work for several years now working to make the UE4 experience as smooth as possible.  Check out the Unreal Engine Website for more information and learning resources to sink your teeth into.

I am personally excited because I have had the opportunity over the last 12 or so months to work on several sample projects in my spare time.  Some of them are slated to be released, and you can see them in the marketplace, while others are already available.

There are a few screenshots Josh Marlow posted from the Reflections demo over on Polycount.  I had the opportunity to help Josh and Rick Kohler with some atmosphere FX, as well as several animated puddle decals.  Environment work also just happens to be some of my favorite FX work.

 UE4 Reflections Demo

On top of this news, I was crazy excited to see that Nvidia showcased their newest GPU with this now familiar level modified for a cinematic demo several of us over at Epic worked on.  Cinematics artist Michael Clausen was kind enough to lead up a team of artists and animators, and our studio wide Art Director Chris Perna hopped in to give us a new cinematic lighting setup.  I had the chance to do quite a few more effects for this, some of them being very subtle water splashes, foot steps, impacts, and all of the wet masks/roughness settings on the characters to get them looking wet.  There are also some physics sims when the characters interact with tiles. The video below seems to have already simulated the sequence once, so the tiles are already broken.

There is so much more demo content coming, if you were at GDC you may have seen this running in the Epic booth, we had just put in a bunch of extra hours to get the finishing touches on several elements prior to GDC and I was very happy to hear this got some face time on the show floor.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Infinity Blade III

This past summer I had the opportunity to work in the Infinity Blade Universe again.  I find working in the mobile arena to be really rewarding, couple this with a fantasy setting and I am a pretty happy guy.  
There are a multitude of restrictions one may not encounter when working on FX for PC or Console, but I think at times those restrictions offer a unique set a parameters to work within.  I liken it to painting with a limited palette, sometimes having those restrictions creates a more unified result.

The puzzles and problems are a bit trickier to work around, but I often times find solving some of those problems can be really rewarding when you see the final result in the palm of your hand.

One of the toughest tasks was helping out with the Dragon Sequence.  Tasked with helping create a wall of flame and smoke, on a mobile device...pretty tricky.  In this video, around 1:28 there's quite a big chunk of FX work going on.  I was able to help RnD and provided fireball materials, meshes, and particle systems. Fire meshes for the terrain, burning bushes, and falling flame bursts etc.  All of this along with initial setups was handed off to Chair for final implementation, and tweaking via art direction there.

For the rest of the game there were a ton of FX I had the opportunity to help with, quite a bit of water related work, plenty of fire, torches, lens flares, and atmosphere FX.  You might see butterflies, fireflies, dragonflies etc. etc. buzzing around the world, or some misc god rays, dust, blowing smoke...In general I love doing atmosphere work and Chair let me go crazy with it.

I was also able to help contribute to many of the cinematic sequences in the game, including leveraging the incredible Mobile MIC system in UE3 to animate all of the screens etc. etc. the Worker of Secrets interacts with during the first encounters of IB3, a tree rune which grows out of the earth...this one was especially tricky involving a ton of different MIC parameter tracks and 2 separate UV sets to control the whole thing...

Another fun addition centered on the ending cinematics for IB3.  Again for the rocket launching sequence I assisted Chair and provided a wide range of assets for use in the Cinematic.  Rocket booster FX, fireball materials, meshes, particle systems, fires, a full range of assets and FX for the "Ascension Event" when Siris and Isa are caught in the boosters of the launching rocket.  In addition I managed all of the water and environment/fire FX for the second half of the ending sequence on the beach.

What's the point of this entry?

Prior to my time at Epic, I always took time at the end of a project to put together a quick reel of the work involved in that project.  I honestly have been so busy helping on a multitude of efforts that I just plain never got a chance to do something for Gears of War 3, Gears DLC, Gears Judgment, Infiltrator, or any of the efforts from Infinity Blade Dungeons.

I thought I might at least try and summarize here, for my own documentation at least, the work that went into IB3 while it's still fairly fresh.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Infiltrator VFX: Inside Unreal Part 2

The second part of the two part Inside Unreal video is available on YouTube.

Inside Unreal Visual Effects - Part 2

There is a bit more information in this video.  We get into specifics with the Depth Buffer Module in Cascade, a quick high level look into an ambient water effect, and then show the multiple layers of translucency involved in getting our world ambience all tied together.

I am really excited about all of the new features in Cascade, and Epic is working hard to make the experience of making Visual Effects in UE4 as polished as possible.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Infiltrator VFX: Inside Unreal

Sorry it's been so long since my last update.  The blog got 43k hits in 1 day after my Quake entry, and it honestly freaked me out a bit.  I couldn't help but ask myself, was I too open and honest on the internets?

We made a video where Zak and I talk about VFX in the Infiltrator demo from last year's GDC.

I talked a bit...contrary to popular belief no raging elephants were injured.

We have another one coming, I'll update again when it hits. I'm trying to get more comfortable with talking about this stuff to a wider audience...

I also did a quick interview for FXGuide to time up with the video release, it goes into a bit more detail.

There were a bunch of sites that posted news about the video, on a personal level I got really jazzed about Wired UK making a mention.  Wired is one of my favorite print publications, so getting mentioned, even just on a web page, got me pretty excited.

Keep an eye out for part 2 coming very soon.

I'll try and be less paranoid, and maybe update this thing a bit more often.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

How Quake changed my life forever.

Recently I saw this article on Rock Paper Shotgun and realized, wow I am not the only person in the world who has had his life changed by one video game. Even more interesting, this person had a bit of a life altering experience thanks to the same game.

I realize how ridiculous it sounds to say "Quake changed my life," but it honestly did.

So let's go back to 1996, I am 24 years old and living with two really great friends, one is a software engineer just out of Case Western Reserve University, and the other is a successful entrepreneur/electronics buff/all around PC geek who rebuilds terminals, resells them, and makes a good living doing it.

What am I doing? Oh I am a guy who barely graduated high school, matter of fact I don't think I legitimately earned my high school diploma...I think someone at the school decided I should just be let out into the world. I am a glorified painter, who calls himself an artist, with no formal art education who gets to work on murals from time to time.

I can recall being in high school and sitting with my guidance counselor after a particularly lack luster semester's performance. I am sure she had good intentions, and was trying the best she could to motivate me. She told me, if I did not get better grades and buckle down I might wind up homeless on the streets. I of course found this to be a bit shocking, and being so close to graduation I pretty much assumed I was going to be relegated to a job no one would like and doing my drawings when I had the spare time.

I always loved to draw, listen to hard rock/metal, read too many violent Dark Horse/Lobo Comics, and had an insane/nerdy fascination with Star Trek, Star Wars, Aliens, Predator, Terminator, Lord of the Rings, and just about any dark Sci-Fi/Fantasy style movie or book you could imagine. The kind of stuff that most people think is really cool now, but would immediately relegate you to punching bag status, and honestly not very cool with the chicks back then.

Following graduation I was an obnoxious guy, loud and just trying to have a good time all the while working as a tradesman in residential painting. Most of my days included at least 8 hours with some of the most right wing conservative Christian people you could possibly imagine. Using the word shit could get a "you need to spend more time with Jesus." reaction. It was an odd experience sometimes, but a few of these guys were very generous and provided me, a kid who had very little direction, with patience, a steady paycheck, solid work ethic, an understanding of quality craftsmanship, and the ability to live on my own and help my then fiance, now wife of 13 years through her undergrad. I don't know that I helped her so much as I bought the beer and food, she is incredibly motivated and far more intelligent than I am, she really didn't need any helping.

So I am living with my two buddies Nick and Pete, they both have PCs and I am saving up my cash for a PC so I can play Doom and Dune II guilt free, but I never seem to be able to put the coins together in a timely enough manner to purchase one. I feel guilty because I am always logging hours on their machines, and feel like I am annoying...but the pull of video games is so strong.

Sometimes the painting work dries up and I have to sit home for a few days, or a week in some cases and eat into my savings to pay the bills. Another time the car dies and I manage to convince myself to take on a payment for a pickup truck I could barely other words, the PC is not getting bought and spare cash is not readily available.

On a Friday night Nick comes home and says to Pete, hey I have QTest and they immediately go down the basement and magically "install" QTest on Pete's 486DX2, the fastest of their 2 machines at that time. I was hooked, from the very first moment I was given the keyboard and played Quake I was completely hooked. I say "magically installed" because at this point Windows 95 is just out, and everything has to be run through Dos commands which baffles me because I understand nothing about file structure, paths, or how a PC even works. I learn enough to launch Quake and change my yawspeed (this is before I knew about +mlook.)

What I did know was that Quake was so atmospheric, moody, and scary that I quickly forgot about Doom. I would turn off the lights in the basement and play QTest for hours after my roommates had gone off to bed and my wife was upstairs diligently studying towards her Bachelors.

A few months went by and Quake finally arrived on store shelves. I still did not have my own PC, and to my shock and dismay a 486DX2 would not run Quake fullscreen MP very well. If I wanted to get the full Quake experience I was going to have to shell out more money than I could imagine to get a new Pentium class PC.

Thankfully my roommate was kind enough to allow me to play Quake on his new Pentium machine from time to time, and the 486DX2 was just fast enough to run Quake MP in a window about the size of a postage stamp...which is what I did.

I played Quake on that 486 with the window the size of a stamp for hours, I played SP and I played MP. It did not matter that the game world was tiny on that 15 inch monitor, I just needed that window into the world of Quake. My imagination filled in all the gaps, I was so engaged with the setting I came up with my own stories in my head of what might be going on in that world. id had left the story incredibly vague, so the world of Quake was this creepy place that I imagined my own stories around and layered ideas on top of.

After about a year or two the lease on our house was up, and one of my friends built himself a new house, while the other moved into an apartment. I decided to move back in with my parents to save some cash for my upcoming wedding, and eventually I was able to get myself a PC, but only by caving in and putting the cost on a credit card I should not have put the charge on. This of course only led me deeper down the rabbit hole of Quake and Ben Morris' Worldcraft level editor. (Some of you might know it as Hammer these days as Valve purchased the rights to it from Ben ages ago.)

I still recall the day I sat in my room with my younger brother and fired up a Quake level editor for the first time. I think it was either Qed, or Qoole... I sat there and stared at what looked like the most complicated user interface I had ever seen. Now you have to remember, this is the guy who barely made it through high school. I don't know that I ever took a math course more advanced than Algebra, and I forgot anything I learned the moment I left the room each day.

Suddenly I am sitting here staring at 4 windows, X, Y, Z, and something that looks like the player view in Quake. The only thing I could think at the time was, WTF is X, Y, Z?

Thank god my younger brother Josh, who shares my addiction to video games to this day, happened to be sitting there with me. Thank god Josh actually paid attention in school, took a geometry course, and thank god he had no fear of experimenting with the software at all. If he had not been there that day, I might have closed the editor and never opened it again, just figuring I wasn't smart enough for this computer games stuff, so I'll just go back to Deathmatch.

Instead the two of us sat there for hours, figuring out what a brush was, how to put a texture on it, how to place lights in the scene, how to get a monster in the game (a wireframe box in the editor) I still recall the first time we compiled a box room and saw a big error message that said "Leaked." We thought for sure our box wouldn't work, but it we ignored that "Leaked Crap" for now. At the start of it all, we did it together.

At some point late into the night, I got tired and had to work the next day; I was forced to go to sleep. I woke up at 7am the next morning to see my younger brother still sitting at the PC looking weary, tired, and incredibly addicted. He never went to bed, and had built what looked like a crazy spiral stair case to hell...with jumping Shamblers in a lava pit at the bottom.

We were both hooked...I was pissed I had to go to work and he was probably going to sit at my computer all day and build maps. I was pissed of course at my situation, not him.

For the next year or two I spent every moment of my free time in Worldcraft making Quake maps. My younger brother went off to school and his interest in Quake Mappery died off with his responsibility to classes and lack of a PC to work on. Some members of my family seemed to get annoyed with me, with the exception of my wife, over my new addiction. My wife was incredibly supportive and allowed me the time other women would demand of their partner to edit Quake Maps.

I found myself sketching levels, drawing out floor plans, coming up with ways to create new traps and trying to figure out how to properly trigger events and get solid gameplay going. Around the same time I got married, moved into an apartment with my new wife, and was getting very tired of the kinds of silliness going on at my painting job.

It seemed the more time I spent on the PC, interacting with people online, soaking up all of the Quake/PC knowledge I could find, the more lame my regular job that consumed 8 hours of my day felt. Each day was a struggle to get out of bed and pull myself away from what I was loving, only to go into work to do something that began to feel less and less valuable. I was also working for some incredibly wealthy people and it quickly became apparent to me that there were socio-economic/class issues I did not like about being a decorative artist/painter.

It took about two years for me to get the nerve to post one of my levels online. By this point Quake 2 was out, dial-up was in, and I was knee deep in the Quake 2 engine and assets. All the while feeling like the heart and soul of Quake 2 was missing and lacked something visceral and intense. I released my first Quake 2 level titled Retaliatory Strike, and expected harsh criticism. I was scared to death people would not like it, and feared the negative feedback I would receive.

My fears proved to be unfounded and I was pretty happy with of all the kind words being said about my work. I found the positive reviews and emails people sent telling me how much they liked my maps to be incredibly rewarding. In fact it was far more rewarding than any paycheck after a week of filling nail holes and caulking cracks could be. This eventually led me to lose my fear entirely and polish up some of my Quake maps/ideas and put them out there for people to play. All the while slowly realizing that if I could, I would spend all day and all night working on my maps. I had to tear myself away in order to make sure to give my wife, friends and family the attention they deserved.

I still recall the day my wife came home and said, we have saved up a good chunk of money, maybe we should start looking at houses. I thought this could be cool, lots of our friends have houses and they seem happy with them. I of course had no idea how much a house actually costs. We decided to make an appointment with the bank and get an idea if we were even able to get a home loan. Up until this point the only loan I had was for my Pickup Truck, and I think I had some unrealistic expectations of how long it takes to pay for a house.

The day we went to the bank was an especially nasty afternoon at work. When the bank representative started talking about 30 year mortgage rates I had the realization then and there; I could not possibly spend the rest of my life doing something I woke up and dreaded going to do each and every day.

It still had not occurred to me I could actually do games for a living...I barely graduated high school. Even my guidance counselor had assured me, if I didn't get good grades I wouldn't be able to do anything with myself. I was destined to the trades, or a fast food restaurant. I just was not smart enough.

Thankfully my wife did not share my sentiments. She encouraged me to look into schools, people make video games for a living and why on earth couldn't I do the same thing? Thousands of people were downloading my Quake levels and a few of them were sending me emails to say how much they liked them. Looking back it's a good thing she did not see the limitations I saw for myself, my wife picked me up and pushed me to try something I did not think I was capable of. Months later I was enrolled part time in a local community college, and began a long 6 year journey to my eventual 5 year BFA from the Cleveland Institute of Art, which eventually led me to a Cleveland area post production facility, EA Chicago, Raven, and finally Epic Games.

So Quake really did change my life. Quake was an approachable piece of technology, and the tools were simple enough for an artist with enough persistence to struggle through and learn the ropes. The fact that the engine and resources were open gave me the ability to see assets created by the original creators, as well as all of the additional content being churned out online. I could experiment and bring my own ideas to life and there was an entire sub-culture and community online line which supported and surrounded this pursuit.

Quake really did help change my life. It taught me if I wanted something bad enough I had to get out there and do it myself. It taught me how to type so I could communicate online, it taught me how to seek out information and familiarized me with the inner workings of a PC. Most of all I learned not to give up, to push myself to learn more and more each day, and that I was smart enough to do something other than paint or work at a hardware store.

Most important of all, my wife taught me that I was smart enough, and that the limits I saw for myself based on what I had been told when I was younger simply was not truthful. My time in the trades as a painter taught me that hard work, a strong work ethic, and persistence are sometimes worth more than any 101 course at an early age, when I may not have known exactly what it was I wanted to be doing after college.

My counselor had been mistaken, a few years later I would be paying for an apartment in Chicago, and a Mortgage in Cleveland. I was not homeless after all, at that time I had two homes and was flying back and forth between them on weekends.

My path to being an Effects Artist at Epic Games is by no means a straight one. I originally wanted to be a level designer or environment artist. There were plenty of challenges along the way, but I think it is obvious to me now. If I can make it from being a directionless, lost, obnoxious, nerdy artist in high school who barely graduated to working for Epic Games, anyone with enough talent, effort, and motivation can achieve their goals and dreams.

At the end of all this, it wasn't just Quake that really changed my life, my wife did. Quake gave me a direction to point in, and my wife picked me up and pushed me forward when I thought the road was closed to me.

In other words, to anyone wishing to work in the game industry, if I can do this, with enough effort and persistence so can you.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Gears of War 3 released last week and so far the reviews coming in are very positive. I am pleased to have had the opportunity to work on such an incredible title with such a talented group of people.

There are a multitude of review sites, many of which gave Gears high scores, but I was incredibly happy to get a 5/5 stars from Giant Bomb.

I really dig the guys running the Giant Bomb site and getting such a positive review from them really puts a smile on my face. It's comparable to having an artist you really respect give a compliment.

I have not forgotten my promise to discuss some of the effects work in Gears 3, and I am working on a few items currently. Thiings slow down at Epic, but we always stay busy so it will still be a little while before I get some fresh content up here, but I promise it is coming.

Until then, go play some Gears!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Gears of War 3: Crescendo

This is by far my favorite GOW3 video to date.

You can really see how we make use of the non-directional lighting in GOW3 with many of our effects. So much to look at, and the whole game is dripping with effects work in general. I am very proud of this work and the team I am now a part of.

Epic has been amazing so far.

Speaking of the non-directional lighting, I intend to take some time and do a quick blog entry on this. I realized quickly once I started writing about effects optimization that the topic was too big for a single blog entry, and honestly UDN is the best place for me to be sharing that info, especially for the benefit of our licensees.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

VFX Optimization in UE3

UDN has been updated with a bunch of information relating to effects performance issues.

You can find links to the main VFX Optimization page here...

The documents branch out from the main VFX Optimization page, and I made concerted efforts to link back and forth between topics.

There is a bunch of information there, as well as two new pages for Particle Parameters/Instance Parameters, and the new Collision Actor module which let's you specify per Actor collisions (kismet/matinee spawned effects where you know the actors locations in the scene)

To get into the nitty gritty of diagnosing game thread, render thread, and gpu issues dig into the Core Concepts page. For solutions to issues relating to those threads follow the I am having trouble links.

Core Concepts - diagnose issues

Getting Results - how to fix the issue once it is diagnosed

This information essentially overviews the processes we go through here at Epic when troubleshooting and getting frame rate in line.

Saturday, July 16, 2011


As promised in my previous post I have finally completed documentation of how Epic goes about performance analysis and optimization for effects. These documents outline multiple systems and tools within UE3 some of which are newer to UE3.

The docs are currently in the hands of the UDN/UDK editors and I hope to have them back and reviewed in the coming week. The documents are fairly long and cover core effects creation concepts, in addition to optimizations for the Game Thread, Render Thread, and GPU. I have made best attempts to cover topics and use language/descriptions which are artist friendly, while maintaining the level of technical accuracy effects work requires.

I also wrote up 2 quick tutorials outlining ParticleParameter/InstanceParameter setups, and setting up a new CollisionActor Module with an InstanceParameter on the EmitterActor placed in the scene, which allows us to reduce collision calculation costs.

Sorry for the long wait on this information, I have been busy working on Gears 3. Watch UDN, UDK, or this blog for an update very soon.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Gears of War 3

Time is flying by since my last update. Much has changed in my personal and professional life, all for the better. I am currently hard at work on Gears 3 polishing up some of the most beautiful levels I have ever laid eyes on.

Once Gears 3 ships I plan to do a few posts relating specifically to performance in UE3. I have learned a ton about getting the most out of CPU based particle systems, and I have a few tricks to share once I get enough time to put it all together in a proper format.

Until then, check out the Gears 3 Beta if you haven't already. There are some pretty cool things going on FX wise, try firing your weapon into a smoke grenade...that ones for you FHoop!

Speaking of FHoop, check out his blog over here for some tips on creating flipbooks and using them in Cascade! Fred and I worked together on Singularity while at Raven, and he taught me more than he knows.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Atmospherics in Games

Singularity Atmospherics from Tim Elek on Vimeo.

I have already written a developer diary entry for Raven on this topic, but in case that diary disappears in the future I thought I might put more thoughts on the matter here.

Link to the Dev Diary

During the development of Singularity (Sing) there were a ton of opportunities to really bring the environment alive through the use of VFX. I am a big fan of story driven games and I always felt like really moody atmospheres help to give the player that elusive suspension of disbelief.

In my mind VFX can strongly aid in the suspension of disbelief and aid in setting up a subconscious sense of the space for the player. I am talking about subtle effects the player may not necessarily take note of, but feel as a part of the whole experience. For instance, a thick layer of fog set low to the ground gives an almost magical feel to the environment. These effects can also give the audio team visual cues to build on which help bring the world to life. Dripping water, steam rising from a humming machine, vents blowing as heat and smoke are belched forth, wind rustling leaves through the air, kicking dust and debris off of the ground...the possibilities are endless.

In the case of Sing there was the entire "Raise the Freighter" level which gave us so many great reasons to use particle and material effects to give the player the impression that the boat was coming apart around you and ready to sink at any moment.

One consistent comparison Singularity received was to Bioshock, and I don't suspect that it is only because of game mechanics or the use of the Unreal Engine. There are many folks at Raven who were inspired by that game. As an effects artist I too felt like the level of ambiance bestowed upon Rapture by the VFX team was unique for the time, and I found it to be highly inspirational. It is no coincidence that we worked as hard as we could to make Singularity as ambient as possible.

On a more personal level Singularity was a cumulative effort based on the experience I had working on Wolfenstein. At first glance it may not be immediately obvious but there is a ton of atmospheric effects work in Wolfenstein as well. This is a video I created following the shipment of Wolf to showcase some of those location based effects.

Of course there are a ton of games starting to really sell the environments through more use of VFX and the Call of Duty series seems to be leading the way. I had the opportunity to work with the COD tools during the short stint I did on Black Ops prior to my departure from Raven.

I found the systems put in place for the COD titles to be directly geared towards getting as many effects as possible on the screen at any given time, and was impressed with the level of granularity a VFX artist had the ability to go to in order to control/limit/manipulate overdraw and CPU cost on any given effect. The only "bottleneck" in the system had to do with effects placement, it was painfully slow and counter-intuitive compared to the systems developed for previous titles I had worked on, specifically Wolfenstein and Singularity (Unreal3.)

The above videos are just a snippet of some of the atmospherics used in Sing and Wolf, but I feel strongly that VFX really are one of the keys to the future development of game environments. Once we can properly light effects and better integrate them into the world we will really start to see environments begin to come alive.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Making Changes

This past August I decided to make a significant career change. Raven Software is undergoing some changes which the management of the studio feels are exciting and a good direction for the future of Raven. I wish them only the best of luck.

Ultimately I felt this new direction for Raven did not quite align with my own career goals and after much deliberation I decided it was time to move on from Raven. The reasons are numerous and mostly covered by NDA so I cannot disclose specifics.

I am however incredibly happy that my wife and I will be packing up our lives again and moving to the Raleigh, NC area so I can begin work for Epic Games.

I am incredibly excited about this opportunity and completely intimidated and nervous. I have met the entire VFX team and was impressed by each and every one of them. Looking forward there are many opportunities to learn from every person on the team and I welcome the chance to see new methodologies. Most of all I am excited to be a part of a team of artists pushing the boundaries of the technology, and it appears Epic fosters a creative environment where artists share techniques and play off of the strengths of each other.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Being an FX artist

Very recently my wife was going through some of the videos on her iPhone when she came across this particular movie. After 12 years of marriage she did not need to ask me, what is this for? She just asked if I still need it.

For most of my life I have been categorized by many people outside the game industry as "weird," especially those of the female persuasion. But tonight while going through some of my emails I came across this reference and realized this sort of observational curiosity is really what separates VFX artists, and in many cases most artists from "normal people."

Now, this is by no means a new thought for me, nor is it a criticism of "normal people." I only use the term "normal" because so often I have been called "weird" for pointing out that purple color in the sky while attending a baseball game... I have realized for quite some time that I tend to notice subtleties that others might not pick up on, and in some cases with folks who are not artistic they cannot seem to get why I spend the time looking. At one point in my life I just plain stopped sharing those thoughts with anyone besides my wife, until I entered the game industry.

Some of the most talented people I have met during my time in this industry also happen to be the most observational, pointing out the "weird" things like the amount of color and saturation in a shadow, the behavior of a drop of water, or even that one strange cloud in a vast blue sky that would never "make it" in our game world where it would just look wrong. I still recall the realization one late night that every moment in film and in gaming is crafted to simulate those "special moments" in real life where the world around you just feels unique, that magic hour lasts all day and all night in our game worlds.

Why am I writing this? Because I feel strongly that it is important to take the time when that opportunity presents itself to capture the moment, to sit in the chair and look at how the edges of wine become more diffuse depending on the viewing angle to the fluid, how the color becomes more saturated as the angle changes...these are the small differences which can set great VFX apart from the crowd. I catch myself far too often jumping into an effect and getting started without proper reference because of time limitations and I feel this is when VFX tend to suffer the most.

Typically there will be something just off, timing of a flash will be too long, or too short...not enough color, the wrong color, too few components or too many. This is not rocket science, and by no means a new idea, but for me it is more of a reminder to slow down and really explore and enjoy what it is you are doing.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Random Drawings

When I am not tied up creating explosions and muzzle flashes I also like to sketch and draw. I have quite a few ideas knocking around inside my head for characters, locations, stories, and entire game worlds.

Sometimes when I am waiting on a render, or data to compile I put those ideas down in a sketch book or on a sheet of printer paper. It doesn't really matter as long as I get a little bit of time to draw here and there.

Some of these are older, some are newer and different scales...some are figure drawings from observation and some are just out of my skull...

Figures from Observation

"Figurative Fireworks"

This is a character I keep coming back to...mohawk and goggles...he reminds me of Mel Gibson's sidekick in The Road Warrior.

Monday, August 30, 2010

More UDK

Here is the final video of my test fireball effect. There are quite a few layers involved in the effect, many of them firing off at different times to help sell the concept of expanding energy affecting the area around the main point of impact.

This sort of secondary behavior is something I am very interested in and often times feel is lacking in lots of effects in games. We have a tendency to be so constrained by budgets it is tough to think beyond the primary effect.

fireball_test_05 from Tim Elek on Vimeo.

Just for sake of illustration here is an image of the source texture I created for the test. This version is a very compressed jpeg, the targa is much higher quality.

I mostly use a combination of painting in photoshop, photo-mashup and Maya's fluid dynamics systems to generate my art. Even if it is not an animated page there are tons of good frames in a well executed sim. Often times I even use Maya's other dynamic systems to create regular textures like noise, lens flares, halos, water surface normals, fluttering paper and fabric, the list goes on. The great part about using something like Maya to generate your texture has to do with creation of similar effects in the future, or offshoots of a particular effects look. Instead of searching for stock footage or finding images, you have a scene file that has settings you know already work. Just go in the file, tweak some values and tune the visual to what you need and re-render. Want it higher resolution? Re-render...want the lighting to be different? Re-render...want more detail in the flames? Re-render...

This process takes longer than rotoscoping some stock footage, however when were you able to take your stock footage from 300 frames to 600 frames without loosing quality? Or could you speed up the swirling in your smoke without speeding up the footage?

Maya is also not the only bag of tricks out there either, many people swear by FumeFX for Max, Houdini has an entire system, and XSI even has their new dynamics system that looks interesting.

The other upshot, if some of these systems ever make it into games (Little Big Planet uses 2d fluid sims for smoke and fire) at least you have a leg up on the technology as well.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Personal Studies in the UDK

I am currently working on a new explosion effect and slowly but surely making some good progress. I have been taking videos of each sessions changes and making notes of the challenges.

Main goals
1> Better fluid renders
2> Better dissipation on main explosion fireball
3> More detail in the smoke and flame
4> Tight timing and execution on all aspects
5> A good level of depth to the particles with as little overdraw as possible
6> Do it all with less than 8 texture calls and 4 DXT 5 textures

fireball_test_04 from Tim Elek on Vimeo.

Getting a good fluid is very challenging to do from scratch. At each job I have had I began crafting explosion textures all over again because the previous employer owned the rights to the fluid containers. So in my spare time I am going to begin creating my own personal library of containers to save time in the future, and to have knowledge (each containers settings have loads of good info in them) of how I achieved specific results available to me at any time.

This is proving to be very fun, and having access to Unreal at home via the UDK is crazy helpful.

Some Concepts

Being an effects artist I don't often get a good chunk of time to work on concepts. Sometimes however I have an idea I really want to illustrate, or I need to work up comps for myself so I can retain all of the ideas I want to convey in the project.

In the case of effects muzzle flashes and explosions can be so easy to just hop in the editor and start working on with no concept of relative scale. To avoid this mistake I spent some time mocking up muzzle flashes in Photoshop. I also wanted each flash to have some distinguishing characteristic that made it unique to that weapon.

All weapons of course need cause and effect visuals in order to communicate messages to the player. These are normally weapon impacts or squibs...I like to generate a visual scale reference for these items as well so I can just check my work against a concept.

Often times I need a particular look, or a visual that I cannot achieve on my own. Since I am a visual being and rely on lots of art speak with a little technical mubo-jumbo mixed in I often times paint up what I need in photoshop and then show it to more tech savvy folks like engineers or technical artists. In the case of our explosion post process (PP) for Singularity I painted up this concept to show the engineers how I wanted increased saturation, contrast, and color tinting to the scene in very specific locations, based scene depth and the impact location. You can also see the radial blur PP in this concept here.

Other times I whip up a quick painting just for fun. I cannot attest to being the greatest painter in the world, but it is usually enough for me to hand off to an Art Director who can give it to a proper concept artist if it is deemed worthy. Some of these paintings made it into games at Raven, while others weren't quite what we needed for the game.

Sometimes I have ideas that don't really relate to my discipline, but perhaps would benefit the game in some manner. This concept was an idea I had for Singularity's menu system. The idea was to use the menus to better communicate the story progression to the player. As the player progresses through the game, nodes would appear on the two timelines showing the user which timeline certain events took place. These nodes could also be used as checkpoints to allow players to go back and play sections of the game. Our story was a bit difficult to follow at times with the multiple time periods, time waves, and portals between timelines, so I thought we could utilize the menus to better inform the player experience.

This is the menu without any nodes selected.

When you highlight a menu, the player is given a list of options available at the node, and some post effects would help sell the selection.

The idea was abandoned, but this is an example of how I think about the entire project and not just the one piece of the puzzle I am tasked with doing. I like to play the game as much as possible and see how things are coming together and give feedback.

In short I enjoy doing effects immensely, but I also like to take some time away from velocity, scale, and acceleration to do some straight up artsy stuff from time to time.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

2010 Show Reel

Currently I am in the midst of compiling my work together from the 9-10 months I spent working on Singularity. I like to try and keep a record of the work and break it out like I did for Wolfenstein, but it takes some serious time to do this.

Visual Effects Artist Tim Elek Show Reel 2010 from Tim Elek on Vimeo.

I enjoy editing, and sometimes I wonder if I worry too much about the edit vs. what I am supposed to be showcasing. Either way I think a good VFX artist needs to have a sense of timing and a sensibility to context...I guess timing the shots to the music, and trying to contextualize the visual to what the music is doing is my justification for this reel.

Plus I try to put all of my energy into my work, and this song just happens to fit my current disposition.

As with any reel there are some effects in here that are the culmination of one or two peoples work, but each effect in this reel constitutes my work in the final form.

For example, some of the time wave effects were originally executed by another talented VFX artist who left Raven. Unfortunately the original version of this time wave was entirely too expensive bogging down the PS3 to 15-20 fps. We really liked the original intent the artist had, and it was my job to bring the particle FX into a reasonable budget while maintaining as much of the original vision as possible.

Being a lead VFX artist I do not believe that getting performance in line is the job of an intern or of a more junior person. I have heard many other technical/FX people talk like this, but I am of the opinion each member of the team is responsible for bringing their work in-line with technical limitations regardless of team hierarchy.

No one under my personal leadership/on our VFX team on Singularity had the luxury of making it shit-hot while leaving it up to someone else to get it to run.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

General VFX info

I thought I would throw up a quick post relating to process and just do a brain dump now that Singularity is out for the public to see. It was an interesting 9+ months and I am very proud of the work my team accomplished in such a short period of time. We were behind the 8 ball in many ways, performance in general being the biggest hurdle, but we managed to get it all finished.

The following work represents items that might have made it to production, were part of the process along the way, are tests representing my most current push to improve my work, or just never made it past the chopping block.

Often times as I am working I make efforts to take a snapshot of a moment in time during the life of an effect or scene I am working on. In this particular case I was working with Derrick Hammond on the environment side of things blocking out the path through a burning building. Derrick and I worked closely with the designer to ensure the main player path was long enough to make the player feel the space was accurate to reality, while maintaing a solid base for performance tuning.

We knew from the get go this particular area was going to be a performance challenge so we worked hard to expand the perception of space via side rooms which were unaccesible yet visible, and blown out sections of roof etc. which looked through to other areas on fire.

The fire itself was primarily rendered using a Maya Fluid sim flipbook I created for use on geo. Using geo eliminated the extra overdraw cost involved in constantly spawning a series of sprites and had zero CPU/GPU evaluation cost. I worked closely with my Tech Artist Mike Gilardi to get the right look. Mike created a material and we put our heads together to get it looking good, Mike doing the heavy lifting on the shader side with input from me.

The movie below represents one of our early tests of the scene where we were pushing to see just how many fires we could get in the scene prior to post processing.

I like this particular movie because even at this very early BSP block-out stage you can see the potential in the process we were employing, and it was at this point we knew we could accomplish our goals.

This next movie showcases some VFX rendered in a newer version of Unreal using Lightmass and finely tuned gamma settings with some additional post processing turned on.

I really enjoy working in this particular scene because the post process bloom is finely tuned and allows me to visualize a full color range in my textures. Bloom and intensity were also handled via a custom shader which allowed me to control which luminance values would receive bloom and which would not. This particular movie in my mind represents the direction I would like to see more of my work moving in the future. Finer control over the color/saturation/luminance/bloom over each sprite, over the life of the system.

Finally I am posting a quick video that I think represents any good VFX artist. I often find myself just standing at the stove staring at the steam coming from the tea kettle, or the way the water flows out of the watering can breaking up as gravity takes its effect. Lately I have been trying to capture these moments with my iPhone when I see them. My wife often times asks me if I can turn work off and I of course accommodate by putting away the phone, but I cannot seem to go through a day without noticing the most menial of environmental effects...for instance the raindrops on the window of my car, outside the grocery store...

I don't often get time to update this blog, but I think it might be fun to do some more posts relating to VFX. I have a ton of ideas relating to the industry and my particular place in it. Also working on my 2010 show-reel and getting some more Singularity work out there.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Singularity Developers Diary Entry

Singularity is coming out on June 29th 2010. As part of our run-up to release I worked with many of the developers here at Raven and organized a Singularity Developer Diary site.

Prior to this effort we really did not have a good way to showcase the work going on behind the scenes here at Raven. Simply put I just ran around the studio one day, asked a bunch of folks who would be interested in doing content, asked a few of our developers with web development backgrounds if they would help design and implement the site, and organized data and people.

The link I am providing represents my contributions to the Diaries, and you can click on the page title at any time to see the rest of the entries on the site.

Singularity Developer Diary

Hope you enjoy reading about Singularity.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Raven Wolfenstein Samples 2008-2009

The collection of quick movies below represents the work completed for Wolfenstein within a 1.5 year period of time. After leaving Chicago with the closure of EA, I made the move to Raven in Madison, WI. Wolfenstein presented unique challenges since it was a game that had been in production for some time, and in many ways had grown old during the development cycle. When I started on Wolfenstein the decision had to be made to abandon 3 years worth of VFX assets because the old particle system was so slow on the CPU. We simply did not have the processing power on any of the consoles to manage the overhead associated with running the old Doom FX sims.

The movies below are broken down into the main areas of FX work, in no particular order.

Several of the Effects you will see in this first reel are the combined efforts of myself and VFX artist Jeremy Mitchell. Primarily the bullet impacts and the Particle Cannon effects.

The Veil in Wolf is an alternate dimension floating on top of our world. The player can enter this dimension at the press of a button and post FX combined with particle FX help sell the experience.

Creating atmosphere and movement through the use of VFX just happens to be one of my favorite things to do. Considering my background in level design it is not surprising I enjoy working closely with designers and set dressers to help create a unique experience and mood.

Again, I enjoy working with Design, so I often times try to involve myself to help push major gameplay events with the use of particle effects.

Wolf had quite a big story, and much of it was told through the use of Bink movies. This was an opportunity for a game effects artist like myself to throw caution to the wind and go crazy with particle overdraw. Framerate doesn't matter as long as the scene will run, Bink will convert it to a video that automatically plays at 30 fps.

EA Chicago/Def Jam ICON Reel

From February 2006 until November 2007 I had the priveledge to call Chicago home, and EA Chicago was my base of operations. While I am not particularly fond of Hip Hop music and the materialistic culture of Hip Hop I was drawn to this project because of the need for solid VFX. EA Chicago had just completed Fight Night Round 3 and was coming on strong when I accepted the offer to join the studio.

My time there was great, working with an entire studio filled with creative people who also knew how to have a really good time. We worked hard and we played hard. It was a sad cold day in November when the studio was closed. This reel represents the work done during my tenure with EA Chicago.

Monday, April 23, 2007


I took some time on Saturday and rode around on my bike a bit...took lots of photos, then brought them back to my apartment. Pulled them into Photoshop, comped 4 photos together into one, then yanked the whole thing into Illustrator and did some outlining work.

Here is the result...

Chicago: Wells and Lake, Loop

Click Image For Larger Size

I think I will do some more of these...takes considerably longer than the Nazkar images that I also intend to continue, but the process was pretty fun, even with some technical glitches where Illustrator choked on the image...The Illustrator source file resolution comes in at 7020X2620, about 97 inches long and 36 inches tall. It would be cool to print this thing out at half that size.

Saturday, April 21, 2007



The train rolls on. Several people have told me I should get these printed on t-shirts and sell them. The reality is, I nab photos off the internet that speak to me in some way. Usually it has something to do with the persons face, or it wouldn't be a good idea. Besides, if I just keep it for fun, it should stay fresh. I hope...