By Duncan Evans
Fundraising websites like Kickstarter are a great way of getting projects off the ground that would otherwise never see the light of day. One such idea was Slice, a media player powered by a Raspberry Pi core. The problem was getting people to back a hardware device that hadn’t been completed, yet, especially when the look of it was going to be a key selling point. That’s when the team behind Slice, Five Ninjas, turned to Toby Pitman to create a 30-second animation in HD resolution that showcased the features as well as the physical form it would take.
For Toby, that meant building an animated visualization of a media player that, at the time, only existed on paper. The product had been designed but was in the process of being prototyped. Toby had to show prospective backers on Kickstarter how the unit was put together and explain the basic feature set in a compelling way to get them to fund it.
Toby explained the main objectives: "Getting everything to scale was probably the most important goal. There were many separate pieces like the hard drive, ports and Pi Compute Module that were all modeled individually and had to fit together on the main circuit board. As the product was did actually exist, all the pieces were modeled to their correct real-world measurements so they all fit together properly."
In practice, that means a combination of methods to get the measurements for the various parts. Tobyx received a CAD file of the casing that underwent re-topology so the dimensions of the real-life version were brought in as a guide. To back this up, he was also sent a real circuit board, which was bare at the time, so it could be accurately measured. The same process was repeated for the Pi Compute Module.
Toby explained how he got the rest of the measurements: "Pretty much everything else was extracted from manufacturer’s data sheets. I was sent part numbers they intended to use and simply looked them up and got the measurements. Many parts have a technical blueprint that you can use as a guide for modeling."
Then it was over to the Cinema 4D modeling tools themselves. Toby photographed the circuit board and traced over it in Adobe Illustrator to create the layout. The result was imported into Cinema 4D as splines and then extruded. He revealed that the hardest part of the process was, "probably the hard drive, which, ironically enough, you don't really see. Most of the parts are really simple in nature but some of them, like the ports, look complex as they have a lot of extra detail bolted on. It's mostly so small that you can't see just how basic it is. The most time-consuming part was manually positioning the resistors and chips on the main circuit board. I'm glad I wasn't the guy who actually had to weld them for real on the prototype."
The real challenge was deciding which tool was going to give the best result in the shortest time and this is where a good working knowledge of hard surface modeling paid dividends. Toby explained, "Sometimes you can just use basic primitives for parts, like the chips and resistors, and sometimes you just have to get stuck in with the Knife tool and build up the detail. Learning about edge flow and topology are probably the best tools in your arsenal. Just a simple thing like modeling with symmetry will save you a bunch of time."
Once the circuit board was UV unwrapped, Toby then built the Color, Bump and Specular texture maps in Photoshop by lifting the details off the hi-res photos he’d taken. The circuit board alone was made up of nearly 300 separate components.
The other feature that really saved time was MoGraph, which was mainly used for the duplication of parts like the LEDs. Toby built just one then used Object mode to clone it onto some simple polygon strips. The lighting effects themselves, a key part of the selling pitch for the project, were done using Adobe After Effects. The polygons at the center of the LED were split off and assigned to an Object Buffer. This Buffer pass was then masked using a simple animated matte layer to reveal it fading on and off around the strip in After Effects. Toby then used the VC Optical Flares set to react to the Luminance value on the Object Buffer animation to produce the simple light effect.
In the animation, the camera pans through the scene as the various elements are revealed to show off what’s inside the Slice box. Toby admitted that camera work isn’t his strongest skill but here Cinema 4D made the job relatively easy as he explained: "I used a Camera Morph in conjunction with Target tags to move between the various angles I wanted to catch. That's a great tool, especially for me. The focus distance was set for each camera and then rendered out as a Depth Pass. This was used with Lenscare in After Effects to create the blurred depth-of-field effect."
The project also gave Toby the chance to try out a feature he wasn’t familiar with. He cobbled together an assortment of different Macs to go with his main iMac 3.4GHz i7 unit and used Team Render to network-render the animation. It saved a huge amount of time and worked flawlessly. Even so, after spending 35 hours rendering he noticed that he’d overlooked an intersection in the geometry. Fortunately, he didn’t have to do it all again, explaining, "Luckily I render to PNG sequences so I could just tweak the offending frames and re-render them while still working in After Effects on the final comp."
Toby concluded, "The more I use Cinema 4D the more I realize what a killer bit of software it is."
Duncan Evans is the author of Digital Mayhem: 3D Machines, published by Focal Press. All images courtesy of Toby Pitman.