Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Hairs were sacrificed

It's official - I'm going grey.

Evidence? One 15cm hair, grey from stem to stern.

Using average hair growth rates, I calculate I've been greying for somewhere between 12 to 15 months. I wanted to measure the grey hair which is the only reason I pulled it out. I certainly won't be pulling out any more as 4 good brown hairs were sacrificed in the process.

Deep meaningful and profound thoughts on the occasion of this momentous discovery
escape me, which I'm sure is a sign of incipient... now then... what's the word... oh yes... I've got it.... senility.

Now then. What was I talking about?

Monday, 7 January 2013

Get out quick

Last night's episode of the Antiques Roadshow (Series 35, Episode 13, Stowe House) featured an autograph album containing signatures collected at a garden party held at Windsor Castle for Victoria Cross winners. One of the signatures that militaria expert Graham Lay picks out is that of William Boynton Butler.

Transcript: "We've got one here for W. B. Butler, West Yorkshire Regiment. Now he was in charge of a mortar, in the trenches, during the first world war, and accidentally the lever of one flew off, and it was in danger of exploding. So quickly he took the mortar, put it in front of him, turned away from all the other troops that were behind him, and said "Get out quick" and they all rushed to safety. And when they'd gone to safety he threw it over the top of the trench and it exploded instantly. So he saved all those lives, and again for that he was awarded the Victoria Cross."

Thursday, 3 January 2013


I've been using XtraNormal to produce animations for the last nine months. Their slogan is "If you can type, you can make movies." This was my first effort using the Create facility on their website:

After that I switched to the XtraNormal Desktop product, and have since published 28 animations which collectively have had over 18,000 views to date. This is one of my recent efforts:

I start with the basics - dialog and camera angles. Then iteratively I add expressions, gestures, character movement, noises and so on. I'll play the animation frequently as I go along, in order to tweak the dialog and timings. Once you press the play button you have to wait for the program to render the animation. Every time you make a change and press play that rendering process takes a bit longer than it did before, until you find yourself waiting several minutes before the animation starts playing. The only cure is to close and re-run the application (which itself takes a couple of minutes.)

You can choose whether to preview the whole animation or start from a particular line of dialog. When your animation is three minutes long and the line of dialog you want to tweak is near the end it makes sense to play it from that line rather than watch all three minutes of the animation. Rather frustratingly you have to wait for rendering to finish before it starts playing from the line you're interested in, and this takes just as long as it would to play the entire animation in real-time.

I tend to spot several things during playback that need tweaking - a word that doesn't get pronounced properly, an expression that needs to be held longer, a camera movement that should be slower, a gesture that happens too late. I'm forced to make hasty scribbled notes or rely on my memory, as the rendered animation can't be paused (unless you want to re-render) and you can't edit the script during playback either.

Because the application's memory leaks affect rendering time, producing an animation that is longer than 2 minutes becomes disproportionately time consuming.

The software doesn't encapsulate any laws of physics, which is a shame as it means characters cannot interact with the sets beyond standing or sitting on horizontal surfaces. Characters can walk through other objects, and can't touch one another because there is no collision detection. It would be great if characters could shake hands, or slap one another on the back. It would be superb if props could be included that the characters could interact with.

Amazingly despite these interactions not being possible, the marketing images XtraNormal uses would have you believe they are. Take this image for The Peepz collection, which clearly suggests that the characters can hug, kiss, hold a book, throw a paper ball, and put their feet up on the desk. If only!

I can't help thinking the XtraNormal programmers should have a major rethink. Rather than building all these elements into XtraNormal, perhaps it would be better to buy in and adapt a gaming engine. There are plenty of games on the market which include real world physics, where the characters can interact with objects, and where one can "replay" the action and control camera angles. I imagine it would be less of a job to add scripting and text-to-speech to a game engine, than it would be to add physics to the existing product.

I like XtraNormal, I've invested a lot of time getting know the software, and have produced animations I'm very proud of. However I'm beginning to feel I've out grown it, yet I don't have the artistic talents to graduate to full blown animation platform. I feel like a tweenie: I'm too old for children's games, but not old enough to participate in more grown up activities.