There's times in a content creator's life when they reflect on decisions they made and wonder if they made the right ones.
I decided a couple of years ago to write an entire set of scripts for the Ascorbius story which would take him out to Colonia as part of the Dove Enigma expedition and would test his friendship with his best friend Jayne to the breaking point, Not to mention put himself in tremendous danger and have to take care of himself; something he's not had worry about before as Jayne always protects him.
Scorb has never really thought too much about it, why Jayne still hangs around even when Scorb irritates him as much as he does, even though they never seem to make any money - Jayne is always there. Scorb never asked, but thinks it's something to do with his family connections - If only he knew the half of it... but that's for another video.
With script 3 complete - but taking 4 months to make, and with 2 more videos to make in the series.. You can bet I'm questioning the sanity of the decision.
People are enjoying them though, so it's totally worth it. After all, the only thing that matters is whether they make people a little happier even if it's only for a moment.
4 months is a long time though for any project. Naturally, this isn't a full time endeavour. I have a full time job too. I'm under no delusions that YouTube is going to pay for me to do this full time. Thankfully I have some really generous Patreon supporters who help to fund the tools I use and the models I purchase. Without them, this series would not be able to be made with anything like the quality - and to my Patreon supporters I offer my immense gratitude.
I could of course take short-cuts to get them made faster, probably a lot cheaper too; make a more old-skool videos along the lines of the El Scorbius series (which are becoming more complex in themselves) but use a lot more in-game footage with simple re-timed cockpit shots showing El Scorbius in a dark black visor; but then it wouldn't be an Ascorbius video.
I've always tried to make the Ascorbius series make as like a TV show as possible with real characters who can talk and emote - something like Red Dwarf, (of course Red Dwarf has a budget and dedicated crew). I have some really excellent people helping with filming and voice work, but when it comes to the animating and editing, I'm on my own and learning and improving as I go.
So why does a video take 4 months to make?
There are a few reasons.
First of all, the script is 6 pages long.. but then the previous video Pain in the Colonia was 6 pages. That took 2 and half months, So it wasn't that..
There were quite a few more spoken parts in this video... but then quite a few of the parts were recorded ages ago.. Dangit, not doing well here.
One reason was the complexity of some of the animated scenes. While the previous video had a lot of complex animations, for instance the scene in Scorb's apartment, Rog emerging from a pile of Braben Burger boxes. The new video has a lot more - an entire animated bar scene.. Animating drunk people is pretty tricky.
A real reason is that real life proved to be quite stressful last year and this year isn't looking to be much better either. Still, we must all soldier on.
One technical reason is I'm using an entirely new technique for filming the insides of ship cockpits. Whereas before I'd record cockpit footage in VR and superimpose rendered heads on top of the headless bodies, matching the lighting and camera angle as well as I could. Now I'm rendering the entire cockpit with characters in place thanks to being able to assemble the geometry and textures from data sent to the video card. Jayne has written some very clever code to do this.
This gives me an unprecedented amount of freedom and realism when planning shots.
It's worth pointing out to anyone worried, we are not digging into the game folders and extracting models from the game - that would be a breach of the ToS, instead we use a program called RenderDoc which intercepts geometry and texture data on its way to the video card from the game. This technique is used in many other YouTube channels - We've just taken it a small step further and worked out how to apply the textures to the mesh data. So as far as we're concerned, it's a 3D screenshot and we treat it as such. Also, I'll add for anyone concerned, we have no intention of using these meshes for any other purpose other than film making.
We also have no plans to make the models or our scripts available externally.
Having a model for the cockpit does come with its own set of unique challenges. When I was just putting heads on top of the bodies in the footage, (and tracking the neck to stop it from floating around) I could rely on the body having some sense of life.. the hands move around accurately.. the animation for the hands moving is really quite good... there are some very talented animators at Frontier and they did a very good job with the animations.
Not having the footage means I have to animate the entire commander model myself.. this includes the little movements. It means keeping the hands on the joysticks and stopping them from clipping through when they move away. I have to be very careful to keep it looking as realistic as I can.
It does mean though that I can have full body animations doing pretty much what I want, like when Jayne stretches and says "This feels good Rog!". These entire scene would have been impossible before. Also note, Rog's feet in the background.
Another thing that Frontier does really well is the lighting inside of the cockpit. Just having the textured geometry - even with bump maps, glow maps and metallic maps isn't enough. There's an amount of lighting which is applied to the cockpit to make it really stand out, this is something I have to try to emulate with point lights within the model as well as distance lights for the local light source in space. I also apply Global Illumination so that light reflections are more accurately applied and Ambient Occlusion to give decent shadows between close objects.
Ambient Occlusion creates dark areas where geometry is close and simulates where shadows might appear.
It allows for scenes to feel deeper and reduces the number of shadows from actual light sources.
When the Ambient Occlusion is applied to the scene, you can see how it makes objects feel more connected to the scene, with more realistic lighting.
With the lighting in place and everything animated I export out 2 movies.
The first being the actual footage.
Note the grey areas where the glass would be.
The second being an Alpha movie.
Note the glass is now black and everything else is white.
The reason for the need for 2 movies is that movie files do not contain a transparency layer.
BMP, JPG or TIFF images don't include transparency but PNG do, They contain an alpha channel to make backgrounds fully or partialy invisible so you can composite them onto some other image.
GIF images can have a transparency, but that's achieved by picking a single colour in the palette and setting that to be the transparent colour.
Commonly used movie formats don't currently support an alpha channel so we have to compromise - as with all things in film making.. Smoke & Mirrors.
The 2 movies are imported into a video compositing program like After Effects or HitFilm and one of the images is set as the transparency for the other.
To do this in After Effects, place the alpha movie in the layer above the footage movie.. in the footage movie set the TrkMat to Luma Matte and the background should show through.
(Luma matte because the alpha movie is black and white where white is opaque and black is fully transparent, shades of grey would be partly transparent )
So now we have a cobra sitting in a field of cows.
This technique was used throughout the video.
The Jaques bar scene had a lot of layers. Including (but probably missing some)
The rotating star field
Jaques bar footage
Jaques bar alpha
Jaques bar character alpha
Suspended light glow
A copy of the bar footage with the alpha channel from the close up characters and then blurred to give a depth of field effect.
A light wrap to blend everything together.
What's a light wrap?
It's not a healthy lunch..
It's a technique where you make light from the background spill onto the composited foreground or subject. It can help the composited image feel more part of the background. I'll do a tutorial on this for people at some point.
Without a light wrap - Note hard edges contrasting the star and the ship
With the light wrap, the strong light from the star illuminates part of the ship
That's probably enough on the visuals and animation for now, another key part of any video is the music.
For my El Scorbius videos I pull music from the YouTube royalty free library. There's an excellent selection of music in a wide variety of styles.
The Ascorbius series doesn't use those though (apart from one tune in Jaques bar) the music score is hand crafted by S1 Studios to fit the mood of the scene at a particular time. He's done a fantastic job on this video, just as he has done on previous videos in the series. Often with very little time to work, this time he wanted to take a bit more time and care with the soundtrack and I'm glad he did as it's phenomenal and really sets the tone well.
There's also work in the video by the now legendary Tom Cook. He did a fantastic cover of "La Mer" originally by Charles Trenet. He was able to put it together very quickly - as is his talent. I asked him to cover that song in particular as I felt it really suited a montage about flying around in Colonia and he really came through for me. He also made the outro music. I asked him if he had anything punchy in his body of work which I might be able to use as the ending for the video. I told him the basic mood I was going for and within a day, he'd recorded an amazing rock track which blew me away.
I am very lucky to be working with such talented people.
I'll end this post with a thank you to everyone who liked and shared the video around, it's had a wonderful reception and I'm really happy that so many people found some joy in my little story.
I'd like to thank everyone who's assisted me in making the video, from those who lended their voices to those who assisted with filming and performed stunts, as well as purchasing their own cosmetics to make the ships looks amazing - Previously I'd buy the kits and paint for them, but with the advent of the Arx system, I'm unable to gift things to people.
And thanks once again to my wonderful Patreons who keep me above water.
If you'd like to become a patreon, there are links on the site. You'll be helping out a lot, you'll get early access to the videos and you'll get access to the Mostly Aimless discord where we all hang out and discuss video making, among other things.
So take care, and fly aimless