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How to create CG Feathers using XGen

Inspiration

The idea came up whilst I was skiing in Whistler, BC before attending Vancouver Film School. I was playing some new music and Jacob Banks’ song “Monster” came on as I was skiing through the trees, and I imagined a raven flying with me. It was a very magical experience and it stuck.andrew-mohr04Before entering the school I had hoped to graduate with the confidence to become a generalist. I would then start working in a boutique studio and eventually start my own business doing generalist work. In order to achieve that goal, I needed to discipline myself to work at my highest level. I believed that the raven would push me to show industry professionals what I’m capable of. When pitching the idea to the teachers, they advised I go with a simpler concept as “feathers are f**king hard”.

I learned to have patience in a stressful environment and that every problem has a solution, as long as one gives themselves time to think.

I kept hearing people’s opinions as to why the project shouldn’t be started. Needless to say, it took a few conversations with the teachers to really cement the idea that the raven was going to be the final project.

Obtaining the Live Footage

I first wanted to get live footage to put the bird in. I posted an ad on a Whistler Facebook page asking if anyone with a drone wanted to help make a short movie. Quite a few responses came through and Flow Motion Aerials ended up being the prime company to go with. Their portfolio was incredible, and the price was very fair for the half day we shot. The owner of the company, Raphaël Boudreault-Simard, had contacted me a few days prior to shooting and offered to connect with Canadian Wilderness Adventures. That way, we could take some sleds up into the Callaghan Valley for the footage. After getting some superb shots near the peak, the challenge then came to build the character into the scene.

Planning and Research

There were hundreds of iterations in the process of modeling, rigging, and surfacing the non-feather aspects of the bird. Whether it issues in proportion, functionality or aesthetics, the teachers were always there to give notes to improve on what we had. While in this process of addressing notes and daily tasks, research began for the feathers.

Since it’s not traditionally taught at the school, it was necessary to find as many online resources as possible. I went through each video and documented what I could find. I put together a game plan on how to efficiently finish the bird in 4 months, leaving 2 to animate and incorporate into the live plates.

A valuable lesson learned was the importance of balance between planning and executing plans. It’s impossible to climb a mountain simply staring at the top. But if one spends too much time staring at their feet a lot of dead ends will be met.

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Ultimately it was decided that XGen would be the best solution because for one; it’s free, and two; it worked (mostly). Starting with some tutorials on youtube and Pluralsight, then browsing forums and reading posts online, I began the perilous journey of working with XGen and feathers.

Building the Feathers

At the beginning, I had planned to have the feathers completed in two months. Luckily I had my teacher’s encouragement to start as early as possible because it ended up taking nearly 5 months to get them to the state in which you see in the video.

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It began with me building a library of 42 unique feathers from the large primaries to the small feathers on the head of the bird. Next came placing the feathers onto proxy geometry and ensuring the feathers moved fluidly with the flesh of the bird. This was a massive feat for me. Not only were challenges brought up from an aesthetic point of view, but also from the technical side of the rig. Many issues came up and XGen began to haunt me. One morning, in particular, comes to mind; my girlfriend telling me I was explaining how to solve a problem with feather alignment while asleep.

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Throughout the year I have several memories of coming to school, opening up my project and swearing under my breath because XGen had decided it didn’t like what I did the previous day and wanted me to start over. It could crash at any moment, corrupt scene files and forget to save randomly. As one forum user said “you can try all these solutions but sometimes no matter what you try, it just doesn’t want to work.” After a solid manly cry, I’d get back to it, organizing the jumbled mess so the teachers could see progress. I learned to have patience in a stressful environment and that every problem has a solution, as long as one gives themselves time to think.

Animation

After wrestling XGen to work the animation process began which was a real treat after the technical part was nearly finished. The animation teachers and mentors gave me great advice, resources and notes. This gave the bird the life it deserved after all the time spent on the foundation of the rig. After animation was polished the bird was rendered and sent into Nuke for compositing. The integration was straightforward, as tracking wasn’t necessary and the colour scheme was fairly simple.

Final Words

All in all, it was a fantastic year getting to learn from the incredible teachers and mentors at VFS. Their skill sets and ability to give precise criticism enabled the project to be pushed past simple hard work and talent. It became something I never dreamed was possible because of their guidance.

A valuable lesson learned was the importance of balance between planning and executing plans. It’s impossible to climb a mountain simply staring at the top. But if one spends too much time staring at their feet a lot of dead ends will be met.

Author: Andrew Mohr

I Recently graduated from the 3D animation & vfx program at Vancouver Film School and looking for experience in the Vancouver area. I worked in construction for years before attending VFS and I have no plans of going back. I have found a true passion in this creative medium and will continue to strive for beauty and pride in my work. Thanks for stopping by!


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