Two Killer Tips for Mastering Any Software

RTFM and Ctrl-Alt-RESET
RTFM. Please.

At different stages in the career I've been paid for working in Houdini, Nuke, 3DSMax, XSI, Fusion, Maya, Shake, Blender and After Effects among the other applications. I've been using Lightwave, 3D-Coat, Combustion, Rayz and so many other things. Not even mentioning programs like Photoshop, Corel Draw or Inkscape here. Of course I'm not the master in most of them, but I think I'm OK with learning new software, and here are the two tricks I know.

Animusic - Part 2

After sharing few introductory words in Part 1 at - here are the wireframes we all love so much.

It was incredible ten years ago, it is incredible now. Procedural animation - the concept that keeps fascinating my bent mind, and the concept that wouldn't be possible in any previous era. The idea that instead of telling a computer what to draw, you rather teach it how to draw things changes the whole landscape to me.

The Animusic project was started by two artists Wayne Lytle and Dave Crognale. Their proprietary software uses MIDI input to drive the animation in a commercial programs like 3DSMax or XSI, producing the result of often mind-bending complexity. They get into more details at their website. I would also recommend watching behind the scenes stuff at their YouTube channel.


Understanding Images

Form-color correspondence  according to Bauhaus
Form-color correspondence
according to Bauhaus
I once heard they study Totoro at the aesthetics classes in Japanese schools. Aesthetics classes… Wouldn’t this freaking world be better if we had some?

At least we can be learning things on our own. And one thing I stumbled upon only few months ago, but which I believe must be obligatory for anyone dealing with images in one way or another is Language of Design course by Charlotte Jirousek of Cornell University. Abstract, objective, well-rounded, on the topic so vital and so overlooked.

Wish I knew of it years back - would’ve saved certain amount of time. But even now I find it an incredibly useful read. And the practice of authors/universities keeping such courses in public access admirable at least.


Something abstract and procedural next time.

Typography Basics for Artists. Part 1 - Broad Classification

major font styles
Major type styles.
Typography is a separate world in its own. It lives according to the myriad of rules - aesthetic, conventional, optical and technical. Few professions include understanding of this world in a job description, and they mostly contain a word “designer” in the name - like graphic designers or (suddenly) typeface designers. Among the artists however it is not uncommon to be way less familiar with the principles involved in creating, manipulating and judging fonts. Still it’s a valuable knowledge for anyone dealing with images, which I’d like to address here. By no means I claim myself as an expert in the field - I’m rather trying to draw some directions for further research, which from my own experience might take some time to establish. As in most of the cases, a great place to start is Wikipedia’s articles on Typography and Typeface. The trick is to keep digging further exploring the related links.

Couple of old works revived

While the article announced last week continues cooking itself, as an intermission here goes a couple of images which I found in the attic of a hard drive and tried to shake some dust off this week.

Masquerade - image by Denis Kozlov
Grande Pellicano - image by Denis Kozlov
Grande Pellicano

Three great books on color for artists.

In the beginning of the career I've often heard a comment “You've got the colors wrong” or just “Bad colors”. The problem was that more often than not my interest for “What exactly is wrong?” couldn't be satisfied by a distinct answer. Sometimes though, depending on a person, I would receive an explanation about the particular image and a related problem, but what I was hungry for was a more complete picture of how colors work and how to work with colors in images.

Books on color are many. And sadly enough, a lot of them barely scratch the surface or rather suggest a catalog of pre-cooked solutions printed on the very expensive paper. Thus I would like to share today those few which really made it for me – the books I keep recommending whenever someone asks what to read on color.

CG/VFX showreel 2013

Here goes my new demo reel showing some projects I had a pleasure to work on in the span of the last few years. I shifted focus from compositing to more 3D/VFX work compared to the last reel from 2008. There are also more of the interesting shots left behind this time, but I do believe in brevity when it comes to presentations.

3D/VFX show reel 2013 from Denis Kozlov on Vimeo.

A breakdown following:

Showreels retrospective - part 3

Today I'm finishing my little restrospective of showreels. This one from 2008 differs from the older ones in a way that it shows for the first time what I've learned about putting a demoreel together by then. I believe it was even included with one of a Computer Arts magazine's issues.

Demoreel retrospective part 3 of 3 - 2008 from Denis Kozlov on Vimeo.

Compared to the previous one, it is shorter, better structured and unified, with contact data (not valid by now except for email) clearly stated at both ends. Sure thing it helped a lot to have a couple of feature films I had worked on premiered, so I could eventually include those shots. But interestingly enough, those shots already existed when working on 2007 reel – overall, skillwise I was a lot the same person. Still it is hard not to spot the difference (a big one being that I am still not ashamed of this video).

If curious, you can find details about the particular shots in the breakdown.

Music: Jeff Beck - Grease Monkey

That's it – next week the plan is to finally release a new 2013 demoreel – the current one.

Showreels retrospective - parts 1 & 2

So in order to illustrate some concepts from the previous post on showreel tips (and maybe to feel some nostalgic embarrassment either) I am starting a demonstration of my old demoreels here. The first one dates back to 2004 and represents mostly the television work:

Demoreel retrospective part 1 of 3 - 2004 from Denis Kozlov on Vimeo.

Not that much to discuss probably except for it's old and very funny. But even though I didn't have that many cool shots to pick from, there are things which could have been improved here. And they all come down to “killing the babies” as was stressed in a previous post.

The biggest flaw is in the beginning – the first part showing shots from the intro for Rust – the game I've been working on for a couple of years at the time with my friend and a genius programmer Vadim Zabrodin. Rust really felt like a baby to me, and despite the fact that the whole intro was a quickie, assembled in only a week from a budget game-level assets, I did put it in the very beginning and failed to cut it down enough – a rookie mistake:)

And then I should have cut down the rest... Guess it could've turned into almost twice better looking 30sec.

Interesting thing here is character animation. True, I didn't completely realize back then how funny those shots look, still even if I would have, chances are I would have kept them. And it’s something I saw even studios are doing – putting character animation shots in, no matter the quality, just to have it there. This is something my whole essence is screaming against, BUT...

But recalling the job interview I had had showing this 2004 “masterpiece”, the art director of my future employer specifically asked if I did the animation myself and she seemed to be satisfied with the positive answer... So on the other hand, there might be something about throwing some character animation in no matter what – I don't know; still by default I’d avoid any dubious work even if it represents a certain niche. It’s not an easy job for an author to abstract from his work and take a look from the side. Whenever possible, group reviewing sessions are of the greatest value for the matter.

No breakdown for this video, but I held credit for most of the visual material (usually including direction). And of course contacts should have been at both ends and more pronounced. Both were less of an issue in this particular case since I was usually presenting the reel personally, but it wouldn’t have hurt.

One thing cool about this piece, however, was the music. A piece of traditional Altai guttural singing lent by my producer Oleg Zakharov, who used to be working on the album at that time.

So let’s use this positive note to switch to the next item in our little Kunstkamera:

Demoreel retrospective part 2 of 3 - 2007 from Denis Kozlov on Vimeo.

Hard to deny the progress here, still as a reel it quite sucks.

The years between these two guys were the time of extensive learning due to relocation and indulging into the new working environment, so I felt I’d eventually had the material to show and did exactly the same mistake - didn’t manage to cut it down. Even worse - made a suicidal attempt to put everything together: game art, drawings - even the logotypes. All for the same old reason - a misconception of “short showreels are bad”.

At least I should have grouped the material into logical chunks like modelling and compositing for instance. Plus I tied myself down by the choice of music. Song 2 by Blur is exactly two minutes long and after planning for some parts of it, I had to fill the rest... Something close to the mistake of trying to tell a story with your demoreel. Just don’t. For stories there are films.

And here we have another “However” - the plan was to sort the mess out by introducing a smart navigation. Yes - those weird little squares in the top bottom corner actually mean something. The key is in the first shot - the intro contact plate. Moreover - the few frames of blinking text in the end is a breakdown! The plan was to avoid a separate breakdown file which can easily get detached from the video, while at the same time not overloading viewer with excessive data. In my imagination, people would notice those little marks of weirdness around the spot and find the answer through little inspection and frame-by-frame watching - that was the plan. Well, clearly it failed. Even myself after few years hardly managed to notice those magic breadcrumbs and recall their sacred meanings. The bottom line - no one is going to watch your reel over and over again, so make sure every statement is loud and clear.

Good thing here was that after compiling this 2007 demo reel, I did start asking people their opinions and impressions, which resulted in the following 2008 compilation notably improved upon its predecessors.

Thus next time we’re going to finish the retrospective and hopefully start seeing a little difference :)

Hope this will save someone an error or two. Let me know.

And I guess there is no need to mention that none of the contacts from these old show reels are active anymore, except for maybe the email in the second one...

Tips for a better showreel

ocean wireframe preview from my CG/VFX reel 2013
3D/VFX Showreel 2013 is coming
I have recently finished my fourth demoreel  and it crossed my mind to share what I’ve learned about compiling showreels for computer graphics artists (and often even postproduction studios). It is nothing new of course - just my summary, tried out and struggled through. My older reels are intended to serve as illustrations for both some concepts and mistakes, as I’m going to share them in the following posts.

I noticed different people have preference for either a word “demoreel” or “showreel”. In general, those seem to be interchangeable with more flavor of a finished work being showcased as implied by “showreel”, and “demoreel” stressing rather a demonstration of certain skills or techniques as discussed here. But if you’re struggling to pick a particular word - don’t struggle, do pick - any.

And follow the main rule:

Keep it short. Really. Looking at the big houses' reels I used to feel bad showing less than 3 (at the very least 2) minutes of material. Well, these days I'd say 2 minutes is the absolute maximum for a demoreel. I remember reading that it's the worst shot in the reel you're going to be judged for, and I believe it to be true. So the longer the video – the lower you'll have to put this worst shot threshold. And when it's even the greatest and coolest stuff you're watching for too long you're starting to get tired of it, and great shots do not look so great compared to too many other great shots – pieces of work start competing with each other. The idea of a 3D or VFX showreel as I see it – is to tease, to intrigue, to make an impression. It's not even the first date – it's asking out. Let those people interested ask you for additional examples if they'd need it, but to make it happen – impress first.

In 90% of the cases I saw (way more often than I would've guessed) there was a need for the reel to sell more than there actually is (like when your skills are higher than the shots on your hands), so I tend to consider it a normal situation unless you're an ILM or something. But the cool and funny part of it is that it’s perfectly doable usually. Through edit, music and ...keeping it short. The professional slang expression I've heard for this is “killing your babies” - cutting out the material which you really love for the sake of improving the final result as a whole. It is hard, but it is a skill to acquire and it works. And one way to get there is to keep showing your demoreel to other people and LISTENING to their feedback. If more than one person had the same remark independently – chances are it's more correct than what you think.

Best work first! Good if it's your latest work as well, if not – ignore the latest rule – go with the best. I'm trying to stress the last shot as well, but without sacrificing this rule. What's the sense in postponing the cool stuff, if the viewer will never see it only because she'd turn off your reel since the beginning was not exciting enough?

For the music, I believe in fast, dynamic tracks rather than slow, lyrical and artsy. It helps to involve the audience imho. Fast rhythm also gives more flexibility for cutting. The main thing is not to irritate the viewer though, thus instrumental tracks should be preferred and genre extremes with clich├ęs avoided. Editing the reel is a perfect time to ignore your musical preferences and rather think of what works best with the visual. I found it helpful choosing the music first, otherwise trying to cut at the modular lengths helps picking the sound later. It's also interesting how often it is stated that music is irrelevant for a CG artist's reel since everyone is watching it mute anyway, and at the same time when I tried showing a mute reel to people, the most frequent comment was: “But where is the music?”

Don’t try to tell the story - it usually doesn’t work. If it does - great, but do not let this false goal to limit you and put good work aside. Rather focus on smoother flow between the cuts - visual unity of some sort for neighbouring shots like grouping by technique or color.

And of course the contact data – both at the beginning and the end. Personally, I also like making the reel loopable, although perfectly aware that no one is going to play it on and on except for myself:)

Hope that helps someone and please share any thoughts or useful links you have on the subject.

Here are few from my older researches:

UPDATE: looks rather hacked than functioning at the moment, so I adjusted 2 URLs below to preserve them in case it will resurrect, but to make them inactive at least - use at your own risk.

Some forum threads on the matter:


And a couple of galleries to start


Next week I plan to start the aforementioned retrospective of demoreels which served me in the past.

Introduction to the Visual Effects industry

VES Hanbook of Visual Effects cover
Of course, first I should have written about the way I see the world – meaning the parts a contemporary artist in general or a computer graphics artist in particular can take for the career or living (not necessarily the same thing:). However, since mess is just so much more fun, I'd rather share few things I've learned about a particular industry – the almighty Visual Effects.

Almost every time I answer “Visual Effects” to a “What do you do for living?” kind of question, I rush to add: “It's much less cool than it sounds”. Indeed, there is a strong halo of magical appeal around it paired by a lack of understanding the techniques and processes involved. People think of what is commonly shortened to VFX as some kind of a black box, so myths like secret tools, one-button solutions and sensational incomes are born even among artists working in the neighboring fields (like I used to be myself).

At the same time most of the techniques, procedures and mysteries are already unveiled and publicly available. The only thing required is to find a proper reading, which I am daring to suggest here. In two flavors:

First one would be the closest thing there is to a Bible for VFX – The VES Handbook of Visual Effects, published by the Visual Effects Society just a few years back. Contributed to by a plethora of renowned practitioners, it covers all stages, processes and techniques from preproduction to fur rendering in a systematized manner. It is a kind of VFX version of American Cinematographer Manual, if that helps. Of course, the Handbook is not application-specific and does not get down in details to particular buttons and software tutorials (it's only nine hundred pages after all). Still it tells you pretty much everything there is in the field. Amazing. A long time needed must-have for everyone dealing with creating or manipulating moving images. Get it.

This was about how things are done. As for the second flavor of information, I suggest reading White Paper - July 2013 - The State of the Global VFX Industry 2013. This document, issued by the same society, is a follow-up on the VFX Town Hall on Pi Day. It addresses the problems (not technical or artistic, but rather business and careers) the visual effects industry is facing right now. Things are quite opposite to the glamour idealistic pictures a lot of us would have in mind when picking a career path. I know it's a bit of a “yesterday's news”, still believe this information should be spread as wide as possible.

And my last (but surely not least) suggested reading would be the Effects Corner – a blog by visual effects veteran Scott Squires, where he is covering both topics listed above (he actually contributed to both aforementioned publications as well). A great place to start, especially if you don't have access to the Handbook right now (for this particular purpose it’s worth reading the Effects Corner chronologically).

Have a nice reading and good luck to all of us.

The Working Man

There is a part of me which I like to call an artist. For now it mostly exhibits itself through a bunch of projects which are choosing to stay under development for an uncertain period of time and some older (quite a bit) imagery which I used to believe in, like this

I made these and some other past works available as prints while still working on shaping my current stuff, yet to be presented.

And all at the same time there is another part of mine, which actively produces imagery on a daily basis and even provides its physical envelope some food and other goods through it. It goes to work, creates stock footage, permanently researches and practices in a pursuit of perfecting the craft. It is this part which accumulated enough knowledge or experience to dare to speak out and expect to be of a certain use. This is its blog. I call it The Working Man.

P.S.: And yes, among other things in music, I do like Rush.

Hello World...

When I started doing computer graphics in 1998 I was all fascinated by the idea of a CG artist being a type of a renaissance person – having and requiring interest in extremely diverse areas of both science and art, art and science – just both. I was avidly looking for any source of skill, knowledge or understanding – being a human, a text or an image. Having lived and worked in Novosibirsk (nice city, but not the world's center in CGI) with Internet not as almighty as it seems to be these days I couldn't get much, but somehow already had a vision of how this knowledge should look – all-round and systematic.

And when I say “CG artist” I mean “Generalist”, and when I say “Generalist” I mean a person passionate about creating images – by all means available.

Now, having become a modestly decent visual effects artist and occasional supervisor at a cozy European studio, I still like thinking of myself as a CG generalist and still stay captivated by the idea of learning the surrounding Universum through digital graphics. It amazes me how easy it is these days to have access to all possible knowledge in such different fields as physics, biology, literature, typography, film-making to name a few. And to be improving as an artist through it. If one would just care.

One thing I convinced myself about is that I’ve already gathered enough data to help someone taken the same path – being a digital artist these days. It is a bunch of links, notes, observations and book references. That stuff should seem awkward from time to time, so I’d be trying to explain its value along the way, hoping it will be useful to you, Dear Reader, in one way or another. And quite a lot of the stuff is by no means restricted to a digital world – it’s just that CG seems to be a quintessence of the aforementioned renaissance feeling. I also do hope to be organizing those shreds with some progressively growing system of labels/catalogs – but before there is something to organize – let it be mess.

I'm lazy as a full pig, so do not expect too regular posts – let's just see what happens. Although chances are there will be an attempt for a weekly rhythm, like with my other project

I'm also intended to be posting some occasional works of mine here – sorry:)