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Making of: The Villainous

There are stories whispered in hushed tones, The traders' bane which lurks behind every star. Waiting out of sight, coiled, ready to pounce on any vessel who crosses their path; but among the villainous, these are the worst, These are the worst of all..

The Villainous was an absolute blast to make. But I'll be lying if I said it was an easy video to produce. Running at 2 mins and 47 seconds, it's by far at the time of writing, the most challenging video we've made. This is partly down to the fact that it included more than 20 effects shots ranging from internal camera angles to superimposing a poem.

From the outset I wanted to make something no-one had seen before in an Elite: Dangerous video, I wanted you to see the characters and for them to feel as part of the scene as any other aspect of the video.

Proper in-game characters wouldn't be included until Patch 2.3 went live, but at the time we made The Villainous, Frontier were preparing to launch the Beta period for 2.3. However I was keen to make the video in 2.2, partly because I'm a sucker for punishment and partly to show it could be done, but mostly because the Beta would drop while I was on holiday - so the race to complete the video in 2.2 was on.

This video isn't the first time we've superimposed a head onto the pilot's headless body, in the video "Don't Drink and Fly" you can see Ascorbius flying his Eagle while under the influence and the disaster which follows. We also superimposed a drunk Ascorbius staggering back from the ship into an awaiting Taxi cab. The techniques we used for that would be used for the Villainous - only we'd have a lot more work ahead of us.

Just like any problem, it can be made into something more achievable if it's broken down into manageable steps.

1. Write the script. This was by far the easiest part of the process. I wrote the script mostly in an evening and after a few edits, it felt about ready.

2. Get voice actors. Originally I wanted a gruff Londonesque voice for the main pirate - so I asked fellow YouTuber Turjan Starstone if he'd mind helping out - Amazingly he agreed shortly afterwards, he sent the audio. Not a london accent though, but a proper northerner - Champion! I'd still have to find someone to act as the bumbling youngster but that would come later. I tried various voices, Matt Stone tried several voices - ranging from stroppy teenager to disinterested youth... but nothing seemed to fit. Enter Laura Wiles who put in a great turn with a Noel Fielding style character - the perfect opposite to the blunt northern pirate.

3. Record the footage. I'd always had a particular view in mind for the episode. I wanted a Red Dwarf style scene where the banter between the characters is captured and represented in a more natural way. This would mean our pirates got a lot of screen time and would involve a lot of animating (more on that later) but I'd also need some interesting "crew facing" footage inside the Cobra Mkiii. Prior to 2.3, there's no supported camera modes which can show the insides of the ship. The only "actual" camera being used to film external shots. But thankfully, I have a HTC Vive and the great thing about the Vive is the RoomScale VR. Basically it means you can walk about inside your ship without it being supported by the actual game. Combined with the ability to Fool the Vive into ReCentering the view, This meant I could get the camera angles I wanted quite easily just by moving around in my office.

4. Create a rough cut in after effects. This involves scrubbing through footage and assembling the clips I want to make the movie. I generally do this with the audio in the background and assemble the video clips to match. The end result is a basic movie which plays to the audio but has no digital actors. But each scene change is in place ready for the next step. For some of my earlier movies, this was the end of the process... done... ship it!

5. Making the characters. Prior to 2.3, the only part of any in-game character visible is the body of the commander and he/she has no head. So there's basically a single headless body sitting in the ship - and I needed 2... with heads. Enter Daz Studio. Daz Studio is great for one thing, making lifelike people, other tools are available but the Wardrobe offerings for Daz Studio are astounding... they're also fairly costly - although Daz Studio itself is free, the assets are not, but that aside. I needed a young pirate and an older pirate. So with a couple of plugins, I was able to apply some quite detailed face morphs and change the physical appearance of both pirates and get the look I wanted. Then it was a matter of adding realistic hair for the scene and a suitably sci-fi flight suit for the young pirate.

6. Positions People. There are 21 camera changes in the video, this meant 21 different camera objects were needed in Daz Studio to render the pirates correctly. This meant setting them all up perfectly against the footage. So each starting frame for each camera change had to be rendered as a still from After Effects and used as a reference in Daz Studio. That wouldn't be enough though.. I had to use a tool to export the Cobra cockpit geometry from the game and into Blender so I could export it as a OBJ file and import it into Daz studio so I could position my cameras properly according to the actual cockpit geometry and the reference image for each shot... sound time consuming? It was. Once all 21 cameras were set up, it was time to position the digital actors, again lining them up in the correct place based on the cockpit geometry and posing them so that they sat in their chairs in a realistic way. Then there was the lighting. Thankfully, the ship is not moving in the movie, so a single spotlight coloured to match the sun was used and blasted at the actors... that and a couple of incidental lights to cover things like the console and scanner.

7. Lip Syncing. Having our digital actors just sitting there wouldn't be much fun, so we had to make them act. They had to look like they were physically speaking the lines. Daz Studio has a plugin called Mimic Live, which is a quick and dirty lip sync tool designed to listen to a microphone and apply the animations to a character.. it's not perfect but it did a moderately good job, although it wasn't as easy to use as it could have been. Once the speech animations were applied to each actor, it was time to emote.

8. Emotions. One of the best things about Daz Studio is it's ability to set and animate complex expressions. There are a vast array sliders to show amounts of happiness, disgust or even the slightest amount of flirting and these can be animated over time. It also has some useful tools to animate the pose, which comes in handy when I want one pirate to look at the other or up at the ceiling. Eyes can be animated separately too, looking to the left or to the right at the right moment can really sell the scene, you'd be amazed by how much we emote with just our eyes. By playing the audio and animating controllers using the mouse, I was able to get the reactions I wanted without too much fuss.

9. Rendering. This took the longest time of all. Daz Studio had to render out series of transparent PNG images for each of the cameras. Even using the basic OpenGL renderer, each frame took up to 3 seconds. So that's around 165 seconds of footage, at 30 frames per second is 4950 images... for 21 camera angles... that's 103,950 images... now I didn't exactly render all of the movie for all of the camera angles, so we can probably reduce to a quarter of that. But it's around the 25,000 image mark. So for a single machine, it was around 3 days of rendering, each camera angle had to be started manually too... there's no queuing of renders in Daz Studio. So as soon as one set of renders had completed for one camera, I had to start rendering the next.. and so on until all of the camera angles had been completed. If there was some way to automate this, the time required could have been cut dramatically.

The rendering process all in all took about a week of evenings and lunchtimes. Next time, I'll employ other machines to share the load.

10. Superimpose the footage. Each camera angle's footage had to be imported from the series of images and then applied on top of the game footage. There are a couple of issues here. First of all, the game footage was captured in VR so there's an amount of unavoidable camera shake and secondly some parts of the ship needed to obscure the actors. To solve the first problem, I used After Effects' amazing camera matching tools. They analysed the footage and created a virtual camera. The footage can then be treated like a 3D object and it magically follows the shake. The second issue was a bit more tricky, it meant creating masks on the pirate's footage to mask out areas like the chairs and the main pirate's entire body and where his suit would hide his neck. Then there was the matter of adding shadows. Thankfully, After Effects has some nice radial shadow tools too.. which can be animated.

There were other 3D elements to add to the scenes too, things like the Asp Explorer and Hauler holograms - these were captures of the loading screen and were applied as movies playing in 3D space in the scene. Then there was the poem itself, which was a composition containing text and an effect to simulate a word processor.

Finally, the intro segment. For this I wanted a dark and foreboding tone. I wrote a poem, recorded some footage and spliced it together to make a short clip to introduce these fearsome pirates. My Brother put together a really nice, creepy orchestral piece to match. The cherry on the cake was getting Josh Hawkins to voice the narration.

I'm really happy with how it all turned out. Is it perfect? No. Did I learn a bunch of stuff? Oh yes.

I hope you enjoy it.

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