Of Blueprints and Beauty Passes. A look back at Factory Floor.

A few years ago I got to work on an episodic TV project called Factory Floor. You may have already seen my other posts about it earlier on in my blog. Yeah, I know, I’m milking it. It was not a particularly successful series (it only lasted one season) but looking back it was really a great experience overall, and I learned a lot about what its like to be involved in a TV series production. There were ups and downs, funny stories, sleepless nights, stress, and ultimately, a feeling of relieved satisfaction bordering on triumph when we delivered the last approved graphic call after a roughly nine-month period of working. I still marvel at how I and my then business partner R. Scott Purcell, our producer Bob Larkin, (and the occasional 1 or 2 extra freelancers) were able to turn around 100 graphics calls while jumping through all the usual hoops of a production schedule.

The image above is the beauty pass render for a piece of machinery called a pencil extruder. It squeezes out bits of lead that will be inserted into the pencil. Below is what the final call looked like after compositing (and thats CAULK GUN by the way. Get your head out of the gutter.;)

One of the things I really liked about this project was that it required me to QUICKLY build and rig dozens of mechanical objects, mostly factory machinery, but sometimes the odd item like cheese curds, toilet paper or potato chips. I’d get a script, and usually a rough cut of a given episode, and from the low res quicktime footage, as well as google picture reference, I’d need to knock out various models in a short amount of time. I’d usually spend no more than 5 or 6 hours a night researching, building a model, then get started on roughing out the animation timed to the corresponding piece of the rough cut. Each night I’d shoot to have a shot ready to go. After a few weeks, (and then months), the process was like second nature. Research, build, animate.

The style of the graphics was to resemble a sort of moving 3D blueprint. We developed a workflow right from the beginning in which we had a master Cinema 4D file which included all the shaders and lighting we would need in every scene.

The rendering and compositing workflow would go like this:

1. Beauty Pass. We would apply realistic shaders and textures to our models with a decent lighting setup and render this pass usually with ambient occlusion if rendering time allowed. We had a set of metallic shaders we would reuse again and again for the various pieces of machinery.

2. X-RAY PASS. We also developed a set of x-ray shaders using a variety of colored fresnel (angle of incidence) gradients loaded into the alpha channel of the shader. We would take our master project of the given scene and then apply these shaders and render that pass.

(below , the X-ray pass for the lead extruder call, a fire extinguisher, and a taser X-ray  right below that)

3. LINE ART PASS. We heavily utilized the Cinema 4D module Sketch and Toon to generate a bluish line-art pass on white. Although the S&T render method can give a big hit to your render times, we found that setting S&T quality to low and turning off AA sped up rendering times considerably and still looked great. Sometimes we would create custom overshoot and perspective lines and render these in yet another line art pass.

4. BUFFERS. Each animation would require us to hold and highlight a specific part of the object or machinery. When this occurred we would need to glow each part. To help with this we rendered object buffers for each part of the model. If a piece of the model was obscured in some way, like for instance, a battery or valve inside the main object we would render those pieces out separately in their own scene file.

Scott developed a a template in After Effects from which we would create each and every shot from. It included a blueprint overlay, background textures, labels and leader lines as well as a layered workflow to style the renders into that blueprint look which would need to mix with the textured background. Scott used the linear light layer pass which yielded the perfect look. We would also use feathered masks to accentuate certain areas, and bring out more of the beauty pass, line pass or X-ray pass as needed.

1. We would typically drop the beauty pass in first then apply the layer effects to mix it with the background texture.
2. Then we would bring in the x-ray pass, then mask out areas as needed, and fade it back considerably.
3. We would drop the line pass in and mix it a bit, set to multiply.

Below is an example of a typical AE Comp.

In the end the final look was nice, and completely in line with what was appropriate for the show, as well as being exactly what the producers wanted. I’ve recently gone back through the files, remembering how much time went into building them all. I thought Id share some of the pre-processed beauty passes and showcase them a bit, as much of the detail gets lost in those original blueprint renders. These are by no means examples of rendering excellence. No global illumination or linear workflow, just some simple down and dirty 3-point lighting and metallic shaders with a touch of AO.

I may continue to add more images to this post, so check back. I have tons of them.
Thanks for looking!