Sunday, February 10, 2013

CG and Photoshop fantasy: Murder in the Thieves' Market

(click to see all images at large size)

Murder in the Thieves’ Market ... the idea was simple. The warrior (and it could be Conan!) has received a message from Subotai (and yes, I do know Subotai was a character created for the John Milius movie, starring Big Arnie; but I'll be honest, I really liked what Gerry Lopez brought to the project, being the absolute opposite of everything Conan was). The message says: Meet me an hour after midnight at the market ... but when the warrior gets there, all there is to show of his friend is a smear of blood on the ground, a bloody spear, and a strange cornucopia that’s ... smoking with the residue of dark magic.

So far, so good. The scene was pretty easy to set up (Michael 4, the DAZ Millennium Horse with textures by CWRW. Elements of Powerage’s Supreme Armor; Dragon Lord Horse Armor for the horse; a lamp (it might be from the Pirates of Tortuga prop set — I forget), plus odds and ends ... a lamp, barrel, wagon wheel, incense burners, from various prop sets, wall, ground, spear, cornucopia.

So I had it posed in an hour, then spent an hour switching out all the textures for my own. But ... damn’n’blast, between the deep shadow map and the raytrace, there was no “agreement” about what would render properly and what was going to jack around. And I was out of time...

In the end, I went with the raytrace and then painted virtually every single this in the frame. The jerkin, the skin tones, the shield, the hair ... You name it, it was painted, which was waaay easier than trying to get it to render properly. Heaven only knows what was going on at the software level, but it was Photoshop to the rescue. I’m very happy with the result.

The character is one of mine -- you might recall this: 

...see the whole post here...

That was the Mitchell hair and skinmap by SAV, but I have to admit, the original face/body morphs don't do anything for me, so I designed a character around the skimap -- which is usually the opposite of what you do. You design a character and go looking for a skinmap! (And this is what's landed me in some strife with Neil Travers, from the Hellgate series of books. The face is right, but I can't find a skinmap to fit to everyone's satisfaction! It's been years, and I'm still looking for a perfect match on the skinmap. This is the reason you don't see Neil Travers depicted a whole lot more often. Note to self: try the Mitchell skinmap on Neil. Now, that's not a bad idea...)

So Murder in the Thieves Market was more about painting than rendering:

...and to really illustrate this point, see the warrior, "raw" and painted, side by side here:

And obviously, you'll need to see the above at large size to see the results of painting! I've been asked why I bother putting a caption on an image, and then including the caption, or a close version of it, in the body of the blog post. Method in my madness: Google can't read text that's buried in images. Like everyone else on the tipple-dub-ya, I'm still trying to reach people who would appreciate this blog and follow it, so I want Ma Google to be able to read the whole text, and fish out the keywords, like Phoshop, raytracing, fantasy. CG art, and what have you. At the same time, when a Google Image Search pops up the picture only, the caption is there to catch the attention and interest of the potential visitor and make him or her click through to the site.

And I'm still interested in fiddling around with framing and bordering on images, so as a parting shot I did this:

I guess this would be the prologue to the story -- the scene that drags Conan into the plot. And speaking of the plot --

Of course, Subotai isn't dead. The blood on the ground belongs to the assassin whom he dispatched when rescuing a gorgeous woman from being murdered ... she bade him accompany her to a passing caravan, where she enchanted him, and not in a good way. Turns out, she's a dark sorceress, which Suobtai only discovers when he's brought out of his trance (read: hit on the head with a waterjug) by the story's heroine, a young lady who's avenging  her father, who was killed at the hands of the gorgeous sorceress. This young lady hired the assassin to do the job for her -- but Subotai was too good, too quick. About this time, Conan -- who has been hacking his way through the sorceress' outriders and shape-shifting man-bear guards -- catches up with the caravan and meets Subotai and Triana, the young lady bent on revenge. Triana offers Conan the same deal: dispatch the sorceress for me, and I'll pay you the assassin's fee. Turns out, Conan recognizes the sorceress from an earlier altercation: it's none other than the evil Ursula, who manipulates the spirits of bears, and were-bears, and who has a blood-soaked history. He also knows Triana, though he hasn't seen her since she was knee-high to the waterjug with which she bashed Subotai over the head, to bring him out of the trance ... Triana's father was Conan's great friend. Conan did not even know the man was dead, and now the barbarian is PO'd enough to be out on the vengeance trails.

So beings a story that twists and turns through 140 more pages before the legendary words 'The End' are seen (never to be confused with the dreaded 'To Be Continued'). And if I had enough time, I might even write this one -- it's a fun story!

Alas, there's no time, but what I might do is model the characters and stage some of the scenes, and maybe give you the rest of the tale in a skeleton form ... now, that would be doable!


I also want to talk about another subject entirely, nothing to do with the art and story above. I guess it's about the "politics" of the 3D marketplace -- and DAZ specifically. You might or might not know that a lot of people have knocked DAZ all along, for claiming to be "free software," when in fact only the core engine and base characters were free to download. Everything else -- all the models, textures, the works -- you had to pay for, and without them, in fact, there's not a whole lot you can do with DAZ (or any 3D posing program). But at least a person starting out in DAZ was able to get a feel for it, find out if they like it, before they start putting down wads of money, because not only the core engine but also the base models -- Michael, Victoria, and their over-muscled cousins, the Freak and the She-freak, were FREE. No strings. No hidden costs. Just download, play, enjoy, figure out if you like this kind of art before you start paying heaps.

Over several years, the DAZ base models were given away -- possibly (probably!) more than a million times. Think about this: a million freebies, while the parent company made fortunes in all the add-ons that make up the scenes. After paying zip for the software and base models, I must have spent anything up to about two or three thousand bucks on props, costumes, textures, poses ... and I'm a fairly average artist. 

To me, that was the fair way to go: let people start to love the art, then hit them for the big bucks; and this was the way for years and, as I said, millions of free downloads. 

But not anymore. With the advent of DAZ Studio 4 and the Genesis figure, all the previous base models are said -- by DAZ itself -- to be obsolete. So why is there now a pricetag on each of them? And why is the price so high? I could understand charging $5 or $10 for an obsolete item that's been free for years and given away more times than you can imagine. But Michael, Victoria and company are $29.95! (As I type this, there's a sale on -- save 40%, so that $17.97 looks like a good deal. It ain't.)

Is it just me, or is this not kosher? These base models are obsolete, for goshsakes. They ought to be cheaper than before, but how can something that used to be free get any cheaper? I'm just not seeing the sense of this, and I do know that artists now entering the field are being seriously inconvenienced. They're paying an arm and a leg for what none of us paid for, when I got into 3D art, back in August 2009. 

I guess I just want to lodge a protest. 

Consider it lodged. 

Perhaps DAZ will come around and rethink its position in future -- I would hope so. Are the Generation 4 base models obsolete? Well ... yes and no. Genesis is more malleable, more poseable, with fewer flaws and a greater degree of reality in the model itself. But remember that the base model is where an artist starts, not finishes. Nobody who's serious about this uses Michael 4 right "out of the box." The face and body are molded, sculpted; a skinmap is added, and a toupee. The degree of realism that's achieved is entirely up to the artist, and his or her skill level. Don't judge Michael 4 too harshly: he's raw material, like putty, or clay, ready to be molded into ... well, anyone. 

Here they are, (top) Michael 5 and Victoria 5, for Genesis, and also (below) the old Michael 4: 

The combo bundle of the new figures is (wait for it) $124.95. And they only work with DAZ Studio 4. They don't work with Poser, or any prior version of DS. And if you don't lay down the bucks for these figures, you have little to work with in Studio 4. Genesis is like a plastic doll: genderless, ageless, close to featureless. You slap the figure morphs onto it all of a piece, and the doll morphs into the realistic form ... but at what cost?! (And I won't even go into the issue of the Workspace From Hell which is the Studio 4 desktop. I've taken a look. Not for me.) 

So if your pockets are not that deep, you're right back to Studio 3, of which there are gajillions of free copies floating around, just as there are an equal number of free copies of Michael, Victoria and the gang. The program was packed on disks in the ImagineFX magazine, for a start, and copies of are changing hands on eBay, legally, all the time. Studio 3 was also included on the DVD-Rom in the Figures, Characters and Avatars book, which you can still get, and will be able to get, for a long time to come; and that disk, plus many (not all, apparently) of the ImagineFX disks, included the base figures. (I don't have all the IFX issues -- only a half dozen or so. Turns out that I got lucky with the figure inclusions; so if you're looking for the base figures on the IFX disks via eBay and so forth -- make sure you know what's on the disk before buying.)

So getting Studio 3 free isn't the problem. Getting the base figures, so you can do anything with Studio 3, is the challenge. It's almost as if DAZ wants Studio 3 to just go away, vanish, and let the dreaded Studio 4 thrive because there isn't any competition. Charge enough for the obsolete models, and this might happen, in a process of atrophy.

I'm more sorry than I can say that this is happening, because beginning artists are being shut out of what was once a free party. If I'd had to pay $125 up front for base figures, back in '09, I wouldn't have bothered, because the risk factor is too high -- 

Suppose you just can't figure out the interface? Suppose you discover you hate it? Or have no knack, no talent? Or the work gives you a splitting headache? It was fantastic being able to take it for a spin at no cost, and DAZ was rewarded to the tune of a couple of thousand of my dollars, for models, props, costumes, so forth. 

And the part I really have a problem with is that what used to be absolutely free is now $29.95, after millions of beginners (self included!) benefited. Not fair. 

You know me -- I've worked for more than a decade in the world of ebooks; and like any publisher, I can tell you, DAZ has got the pricing mechanism backwards. The product is charged for at full price when it's new. As it gets older, it goes on bigger and bigger discounts. When it's ancient, it costs a peppercorn, or else it's given away free, as part of a bundle to get readers to spend in an era when, in fact, very few people have the bucks to afford luxury goods ... and both ebooks and hobbyist 3D art are pure luxuries.

DAZ, what are you doing???

Is it any surprise that there are loads of "torrent" sites at which you can download the base models? Normally, I abhor torrent sites because they rip off authors, artists, musicians, programmers, filmmakers; and as a rule I say that anyone who downloads off such a site deserves everything s/he gets when they contract a deadly computer virus along with the pirated goods. Torrent sites are said to be loaded with malware and what have you -- what else would you expect from illegal sites? But in the case of the base models, one can only say that his time around there's rather good reason for people to be breaking laws and sharing. My guess is, the torrent sites don't even scratch the surface. My intuition is that Michael and Co. are being shared back and forth between friends, as often as they used to be downloaded free, so in the end, who's winning?

In the meantime, if you're wondering how one makes the connection between Studio 3 and Studio 4 without laying down gobs of money ... well, so long as you're already "in the game," and you have the base models, it's easy. Studio 4 had complete retro-compatibility. You build your scene in 3, save it, open it in 4 and then go on and do whatever it was that Studio 4 offered you, to make you want to go there in the first place. How much of my work is rendered in 4? None. Nada. I sometimes use it as the bridge to get my work over into Reality/LuxRender, but then the rendering is done in Lux, not in DS. 

I really am sad at what's happening, on behalf of artists. And I'm still gobsmacked that DAZ would do this. I just hope/pray this isn't a desperate attempt to rake in some last-ditch revenues, because the company is losing a ton of money since Studio 4 and Genesis came along, and is about to go belly-up. That would be bad. That would be very, very bad indeed...

Rant concluded.

Back soon with a Neil Travers skinmap experiment, and, I think, the warrior's mate who took on the assassin in the Thieves' Market!

Jade, February 11
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