As a visual effects firm, we often experience duality not only in the effects we produce, but also when piecing together the creative vision we pitch to our clients. Case in point: I jumped for joy recently when our clever concept had been approved by a client; at the same time, I frantically started searching for the pipeline, the technology, and the means to achieve the visual. Our clients always deserve to be as wowed by the results as they were by the proposal, but this project seemed to carry more weight, the cause a heavy one: National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s campaign to get people talking about sexual assault in rural communities, a place where that conversation rarely happens.
We titled the project The Weed, symbolic of how sexual violence in rural United States grows wild like weeds, quietly creeping into destructive infestations. No surprise, we needed a weed, and we incorporated Xfrog 5 for Maya into our workflow to generate growing vegetation. Despite a steep and sometimes frustrating learning curve, Xfrog has since blossomed into a new land of creativity with its infinite array of high-quality, custom vegetation.
Because Maya doesn’t provide vegetation generation or plant growth plug-ins natively, Xfrog is advertised as a program that quickly and efficiently allows the Maya user to create high-quality trees and plants with precise control over every aspect of form and appearance. More importantly to us was Xfrog’s ability to manipulate and animate growth.
At first, staff CGI artist Riley Hearn found Xfrog’s interface difficult, with a lack of clear tutorials and instruction that often failed to explain the ins and outs of each tool and how to apply them. The parenting systems for branching levels were confusing, requiring a lot of “guess and check” work with each branch’s manipulation tools. Creating a vine with multiple branching levels and an array of unique leaves proved laborious because the system in place to do so required copying and pasting many layers.
Hearn also experienced inconsistencies with various aspects of Maya and other 3D programs. Maya’s material system seems to have slight trouble with Xfrog’s growth items, such as vines or tree branches. Because of the lack of UV mapping abilities, the only way to texture these growth items is by using procedural or seamless textures. There are also selection difficulties when working between the Maya and Xfrog interfaces. For example, objects made using XFrog can only be selected using the Xfrog interface. When ready to comp the scene for rendering, selecting items can become frustrating when forced to find each item in Xfrog menus rather than a direct mouse click.
Fortunately, enough basic instruction was available to start creating a rudimentary vine and using the very simple growth mechanic to make our vine creep along a spline, or predefined path. As we spent more time with the plug-in, its components’ sensibility became apparent, and Xfrog’s true functionality surfaced — our ability to manipulate the plug-in literally grew along side our vine. We were able to clearly view complex curves and layering with the Xfrog’s outliner interface. We developed the ability to efficiently create leaves and branching levels for the vine while controlling their angle and adding effects such as gravity and tropism, which refers to a plant’s growth orientation in the direction the sun.
After a photo shoot with weed leaves plucked from the local countryside, we added custom leaf objects with bump maps produced in Photoshop. These assets provided much needed curvature and depth to previously flat leaf sprites, which was important given the proximity between the camera and vine for some shots. After motion tracking the footage and achieving placement, creating growth paths for our vine was simple with key framed control over the vine’s progress. Once we completed compositing using After Effects CS5.5 with 4k footage from our associate’s Red One camera, we had a very convincing result.
On a broad level, Xfrog is an extremely useful plug-in despite the somewhat frustrating learning curve we experienced. Like most things, however, the CGI artist really needs to sit down with Xfrog and start exploring the tools to understand how to achieve what he needs to create. As a result of our experience with The Weed and Xfrog, Postage has opened an entirely new business unit creating content for gaming and mobile/PC/Mac applications. We’ve found many uses for Xfrog in creating vegetation for a number of custom engines and many mobile/gaming platforms, such as Unity.
Building custom pipelines before beginning a project is necessary for many jobs. Every multimedia product is so unique. Some require very specific plug-ins or workflows. We create a new script or purchase a new plug-in to make the project work within time and budget. In many cases it would be inefficient to rewrite or re-invent. Of course efficiency is good for the client and for the post production artist. With The Weed project, we found Xfrog perfect for the job, saving the artist the need for custom pipelines while offering the client an affordable source of animation to create an attention-getting, custom message.
It’s easy to recommend this plug-in to other artists as an affordable (only $399!) package that can yield high-quality, custom vegetation for numerous applications. Moving forward, we anticipate our use with this product in our visual effects and gaming units will only continue to grow.
Allen Clements is executive producer and owner at Postage, Inc., a boutique visual effects, animation, and post studio on the East Coast, USA. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.