6th Apr 2021 | Open Movie | Sprite Fright
Sprite Fright is Blender's new Open Movie, now in development. You can follow progress and updates on the Cloud. This week, Shading Artist Simon Thommes explains what the production has taught him so far, from shading to scripting, and much more.
From a physics degree to digital painting, Simon’s skills cover both science and art. Given such a flexible brain it’s unlikely that Simon would pick just “one thing.”
And that’s indeed the case.
“I’ve learned so many things working on Sprite Fright already,” he says. “It's hard to pin it down. I came into the project having no production background, so that’s all new to me.”
Aside from experiencing a production environment for the first time, Simon has picked up “hundreds of small technical things about shading, and also other aspects of 3D filmmaking.” For him, this broad education is a big benefit of a small crew.
“But if I had to pick one thing it would be that making a 3D short means a lot of problem-solving. For that, you have to get creative. You have to both use and misuse all the tools at your disposal. In Blender’s case, you even make new tools as needed.”
That’s especially true on Sprite Fright, an ambitious project on a budget. “We need creative solutions to achieve what we want with the restrictions we have. For shading specifically, I am always trying to keep my workflow as procedural as possible. That usually doesn’t get me all the way. However, it does give me the power to change parameters on the fly. It’s a very dynamic workflow in which I can constantly reuse and modify assets.”
That being said, a procedural workflow brings its own challenges. “Every shader needs some specific feature, which means we have to develop a unique solution. One that's supposed to work within the context of a fully animated character.”
Of course, these solutions trickle down to users: part of the reason for making Open Movies is to push Blender's capacities, translating to practical, artist-focused improvements in future releases.
“Beyond shading, the part of a procedural workflow I’ve also learned a lot about is automating steps with Python scripts. That’s something I’ve dabbled in before, but working on Sprite Fright I’m really seeing the potential of Blender's Python API. I am growing pretty accustomed to writing a quick Python script. Automation can be a huge time-saver and scripting with Python is fun.”
Simon says, “As an example of new tools created directly within Blender, there’s the Geometry Nodes project that I’m also involved with.”
Geometry Nodes is the first stage in a wide-ranging initiative called Everything Nodes. As the name suggests, Everything Nodes seeks to make everything in Blender nodes based, giving you the choice of making art using traditional 3D approaches, or opting for a procedural workflow. While nodes take a minute to master, their added flexibility means they soon become invaluable, particularly if you're constantly updating work in response to feedback.
That's an enormous plus in film production. Simon explains, “Geometry Nodes focused very much on supporting our work on Sprite Fright.” While still taking baby steps, Geometry Nodes has already proven super-helpful for everything from set-dressing to foliage distribution to picking the perfect pattern for moss.
For an introduction to Simon’s unique approach to creative problem-solving, have a look at this pocket-sized PhD: Procedural Shading: Fundamentals and Beyond.
And if your curiosity is piqued by Python, have a look at this series on scripting addons.