Tuesday 29 September 2009

Moviestorm 1.1.7 - Wooosh! It's damn fast!

One of the first things I do each morning, after I've set a pot of thick black coffee brewing in the Short Fuze kitchen, is to check the Moviestorm forums to see what's been said while I was asleep. Recently, I've been able to get daily feedback from the members of our Pioneers Club, who've been given early access to Moviestorm 1.1.7.

I've been delighted by the amount of feedback we've received, but not as delighted as the members of Moviestorm's QA department, who spend each day eagerly aggregating the responses from our Pioneers, and diligently recording them in our issues database.

The guys in QA are very, very good, but we know we won't be able to catch every single bug: there's only a few of us, and Moviestorm is huge. So, the abundant feedback from the Pioneers has been incredibly useful to us. The comments and bug reports have come in all shapes and sizes. Overman kicked things off with a short movie demonstrating some of the new features of 1.1.7. He sneakily hid a bug report at the end of the movie - not the first time he's done that, the little scamp.

Other pieces of feedback ranged from the mundane to the bizarre. In general, the Pioneers seem to be very pleased with 1.1.7, and excited by the new features. forgeuk made a post with a title which simply read "Whooosh! It's damn fast!"

There's no denying that it was a beta release, though. Some of the errors have been very strange. czechboysonic found a bug with a custom addon that didn't seem to load in 1.1.7.

Ben eventually tracked it down to a case-sensitivity error - just the sort of thing we might never have spotted without help from the Pioneers.

A release as big as this one inevitably contains new code and fixes which we haven't explicitly talked about. Sometimes, though, things get fixed that even we didn't know about. act3scene24 has never been able to quit Moviestorm properly on his Mac, and always has to force-quit the application in order to exit. Not any more:

We'd look terribly unprofessional if we admitted that we have absolutely no blasted clue how we fixed that bug (since we have no blasted clue what was causing it in the first place) so in order to save our blushes I'm happy to lie and say that I fixed it. Yup, that was all me. Thousands of lines of late-night coding have paid off.


Monday 28 September 2009

Fun with post-processing

I've been spending time making a music video for glam metal punk goth rockers SPiT LiKE THiS, and a few weeks ago I published a few screenshots of work in progress. It's proving to be quite an enjoyable challenge, for all sorts of reasons, and I'll post a few more things as I go. One of the things we decided we wanted was to have a studio sequence as well as on stage sequence. I wanted to get quite a different visual look for the two parts, so we could really emphasise the pyros and stage lights when we bring them in. Normally I just go for raw Moviestorm, but in the circumstances, I figured that some post-processing in Premiere was allowed.

This is what comes out of Moviestorm. Not a bad image of Lord Zion (even though he's missing his tattoos in this shot), but it looks pretty ordinary.

First things first, let's turn it into black and white. We could just leave it at that, and it would look more "artistic", but that's a lazy and boring approach. I don't care who else is doing it, it's just lame.

So now let's posterize it. Hmm. Still not very interesting using the default settings of 8 levels, is it?

So now we knock it down to just two colours. Pure black and white. That's better. Light and dark. That's starting to look better.

Now we can start messing about properly. We overlay this version of the footage on top of the original, and we feather the edges, so the colour bleeds through around the edge of the image. You can't really see it on the black sections, but it works well on the white sections.

And we finish by setting the upper image to 68% opacity. This allows a small amount of the colour to bleed through all the white sections, but heavily faded and desaturated, so what we end up with is an image that is both coloured and black and white. Effectively, we're drawing on 1890s hand-tinted animation styling as well 1960s poster art and modern computer techniques. It also has some elements of cel shading and rotoscoping, but doesn't use the Moviestorm cel shader.

And yes, that'll do nicely... and here's a short (silent) clip showing how Lord Zion looks in motion.

One of the techniques I had to learn was how to shoot footage for this. When everything's reduced to black and not-black, it's critical to be conscious of what's in the background, or else it'll create weird splotches, where a piece of furniture is turned into an odd-shaped object. Lighting and shadows are also crucial - what looks great in the original footage often looks dreadful when it's been post-processed, and I've had to go back and reshoot each take many times until it looks the way I want it.

And before you ask, no, we won't be able to do all this in Moviestorm, at least, not any time soon.

Friday 25 September 2009

Alex's first fortnight

As is traditional now, we asked Alex to write a few paragraphs about his first weeks working with us here at Moviestorm Towers. We told him to be honest, so the bits where he says we're all great are not made under duress and are therefore admissible in court.

So I’ve been at Short Fuze for two weeks now and I’m glad to say that I’m surviving. Now I’ve got over those first week jitters, I’m feeling a lot more settled as part of the group. That's mostly due to the great hospitality of the Moviestorm team, who have welcomed me with open arms (and an open dev build). I began to feel at home right away, and fell straight into the work - despite having to make an hour and a half commute morning and night. Thankfully, today's Friday so I get a well earned lie-in tomorrow.
For the second week in a row, I’ve been placed firmly in the QA department. I’ve been giving new user experience input for the latest version of Moviestorm, finding bugs, submitting feature requests and generally trying to break the software. I have to say the work can be repetitive and sometimes frustrating, but if anyone knew my circumstances beforehand they’d know how much I’m enjoying it. As this version is close to being released I found myself somewhat thrown in at the deep end, but as we all know, beggars can’t be choosers and I love a challenge. Andrew has requested that I help him design some of his sweet-looking movie gifts so I’ve definitely not run out of things to look forward to. That’s much better than writing DVDs that each take an hour and a quarter to burn, yawn.
As my placement with Short Fuze is open-ended I have no idea how long I will be working here. I would very happily work here forever, so fingers crossed that investment starts flooding in and Moviestorm becomes bigger than The Sims! I guess as long as I’m making myself useful here there'll be a place for me, so its eyes down, tea in hand and tappity tap tap on the keyboard.
For me the significance of this placement is huge. Moviestorm isn't a game, of course, but I still consider this to be my first experience working in the games industry. It's built my confidence and taught me that I can work in one of the most competitive sectors of the media and make a name for myself. On a more constructive note it's inspiring me to start kicking down game company doors (metaphorically) to get my voice heard and my face out there for all to see (no matter how unpleasant).
In conclusion, this has been an amazing experience for me so far. Despite sitting in an office all day staring at a monitor screen, I’m relishing every moment of it. Perhaps it's because I’ve began working in the industry in which I want a career, or maybe it's because I’m working with a great bunch of guys (and one gal). Either way, I’m definitely richer for the experience.
That's got to be better than playing Counter Strike: Source all day. Hmm actually...

Thursday 24 September 2009

Drawing on the walls

We here at Moviestorm are responsible citizens. We would like to make it clear that in no way do we condone the defacing of public property. We believe that Banksy is nothing more than a common hoodlum, not an artist, and should be locked up for his crimes. However, we do understand that it may be necessary from time to time to depict anti-social or illegal activity in films, purely for educational and moral purposes, of course. Like this.

Work in progress: art by Chris Ollis, images by Andrew Kennedy. 100% Moviestorm.

You know the answer. When it's ready.

Wednesday 23 September 2009

Encoding phase 1: complete

We've now completed the first phase of fixing the encoding problems that have been dogging us for a while and moved over to using encoding.com on our Web site. This means that when you upload a movie, it first goes through the default local encoding and a holding flv is put in place. Meanwhile, your original file is sent on to encoding.com for conversion to flv using their on2V6 encoding (a higher quality encoding algorithm that should eliminate the sound synch issues you've been seeing as well as providing better quality images and support more codecs).

You'll also find that clicking the "download" link under the player lets you download the original file, rather than the flv. So it's worth uploading those high quality movies again - and don't forget to note in the description when it's worth downloading rather than streaming.

And finally, you can now go to My Movies->Edit Movie and replace the current uploaded file without losing your views, comments or ratings.

After much blood, sweat and tears, some hacking, some cunning, and a few false starts, we're pretty sure it's all working as it should, but this is where we need your help - again. If you could give the new system a go - particularly anyone who previously had sound synch issues - we'd appreciate it. Let us know if you have any problems and if it actually does improve the quality! And please tell us which codecs and file formats you used, so we can start to compile a list of known good and bad ones. Put them in comments here, or post them to this thread in the forum. It really helps, not just us, but everyone.

We haven't yet done everything we're planning to do. Here's some of what's still outstanding, and will be coming in phase 2.

1. Error reporting. Hopefully you won't get any, but when this is implemented, you will get an email saying exactly what went wrong with the conversion.

2. Notification when movies are finished with their high quality conversion.

3. Progress bar when uploading isn't working.

4. High quality encoding of uploads from within the Moviestorm client isn't working (we don't think!). We're not sure why! It does go through local encoding fine, however...

Once again, thanks for your help.

Tuesday 22 September 2009

Anime Alex joins Short Fuze

Please say hi to the newest member of the Moviestorm crew, intern Alex Gowland. (No, not Alex Garland, who wrote The Beach and Sunshine. We can't afford him.) Our Alex is a self-confessed anime freak from Hartlepool with a degree in media production. He's also an artist and designer, and has ambitions to direct a video game that will, in his own words, "dwarf Final Fantasy".

Clearly the boy has talent and ambition, which is why we put him to work in QA. That'll learn him. He'll also be helping Andrew with a super-secret Short Fuze project currently in development, but he's got to take his licks as the QA whipping boy for a while before we let him loose on the fun stuff.

Apparently Alex enjoys cooking as well. That's good. We know who to turn to when we need someone to make late-night Pot Noodles for the dev team.

Thank you, Pioneers!

We're very close to releasing the long-awaited version 1.1.7 of Moviestorm. As part of our development process, for the first time we've let the members of our exclusive Pioneer group get early access to the new Moviestorm. We've asked for honest feedback, bugs, and criticism of both the positive and negative kind. The feedback thus far has been extensive and enthusiastic.

We're busily logging every one of your comments and issues in our database. It's been really useful to get reports on some of the more obscure aspects of Moviestorm, particularly where it relates to user-created content packs or your existing movies, as those are areas where we really can't test very much at all.

We may not have time to reply to every one of your comments, but they're all much appreciated. Please keep 'em coming!

Thursday 17 September 2009

Squish/unsquish: the black art of codecs

Video files. Honestly, who invented them?  They really are evil little critters.

Once upon a time we used to watch movies by shining a light through pictures moving very fast. Then we had this bright idea to start shooting electron beams at a magic tube and moving that back and forth very very fast.  Then we decided to convert everything into 1's and 0's, turn that into beams of light, fire them around the planet, under the sea, up into space, and into your home, and read them very very very very fast indeed.  This required us to invent a bunch of file formats, and then perform strange black magic rituals over them called compression and decompression so that we can squirt even more 1's and 0's around and read them even faster.

Which is where we get to codecs. (Compression and Decompression, you see.  Clever, huh?) Codecs are one of the Great Mysteries of Life when you're a video editor.  You use a codec to make your video file smaller (or maybe two, one for the video and one for the audio), and then the person at the other end uses the same one to read it. You can usually tweak your codec settings to give you different results: you can opt for bigger files and better quality, or smaller files and lower quality, or if you're really clever, dedicated, and willing to persevere, you can mess with keyframes and all sorts of settings to get the perfect balance.

So, why are we going on about this today?  Well, we're not happy with the video uploading to Moviestorm.  We support lots of video formats, but we don't support as many codecs as we'd like, and the end results aren't good enough. Low-quality video, sound sync problems, some videos simply not encoding... yeah, we know. 

So we messed around, tried various things to make it better, and gave up. Then we brought in a bunch of specialists, encoding.com, and we'll be using them to encode videos uploaded to Moviestorm.  This should enable us to support more videos and give us better quality streaming.  It'll also enable us to move to a two-stage encoding process, the same as you get on the big video sites like YouTube.  You'll get a low-quality version of your video pretty rapidly, and then that'll be replaced a higher-quality version a short while later.

It's worth taking a look at the video formats they support - and the ones they don't.  (Seriously, take a look, and see how many obscure or archaic video formats you don't even recognise.)  And, significantly, even though this is their area of expertise, they don't promise to support all codecs for any given video format. 

We're not sure when this will be up: we're still testing and ironing out a few bugs.  Last word we had from the team is "if it goes really well, maybe this week, if it doesn't, then maybe next week, if it goes really badly, then it won't be next week."  We're also working on assembling a list of known good (and bad) codecs and settings. However, this is a mammoth, time-consuming, mind-numbingly tedious task, and there's no way we'll get through all known codecs.  So far, we've tested the following, and are working our way through a bunch of others that we can get out of Premiere and Pinnacle (and Vegas if we have the time):

  • X-Vid video codec
  • MPEG-2 codec
  • MP4 codec
  • MP4 AVI Wrapped
  • 3gp codec
  • HD WMV
  • MP4 AVI Wrapped with space in title
  • Indeo 5.1 Codec
  • Quicktime sample
  • Cinepak codec
  • WMV with WMV9 & WMA10

When we get the new encoding up, we'll post the list on the forums and/or wiki - if you want to add your own codec experiences, successful or unsuccessful, that would be hugely, massively, mightily appreciated, by other Moviestormers as well as our QA team!

Wednesday 16 September 2009

Where's my stuff?

One of the things we've been looking at for 1.1.7 is how to find your way around the immense selection of props you can put on your set. With just the free base and core packs, there are around 250 individual items, most of which are customisable, tintable and/or scalable in some way. Add to that all the current content packs, and you're somewhere nearer 1900 items, ranging from plants, cars, and lights to buildings, space ships, smoke machines, road markings, gravestones, curtains and beds. (And that's before you start adding in third party mods.)

In the current version, all of your props are shown as little icons in the narrow strip at the bottom of the set workshop view. Depending on the size of your screen, you may be able to see anywhere between 20 and 60 at a time. That can take a long time to scroll through, and it's really annoying when you're just trying to browse around and see what you've got. The filters and tags help a lot, but they're not so good when you just want to see what you've got.

1.1.7 has a completely new catalog interface, which has a whole bunch of new features in addition to better browsing.

  1. The catalog now takes up the whole of the screen so you can see more objects at the same time. This makes browsing quicker and easier.
  2. The lower ribbon now shows you which objects you've already got on your set, so if you want to clone something, it's much faster now.
  3. When you hover over an object, it tells you what content pack it's from. Certainly I've had the experience of building a set, and then someone says "where'd you get that doodad", and for the life of me I can't remember what pack it came from. Now it's simple to say "it's from the Bedroom Blog pack" or whatever. OK, that in itself may not be terribly exciting, but it means we can also do this...
  4. All those greyed out, crossed out icons? They're from packs in our store that you don't yet have. So you want a piano in this scene, but you don't have one? Well, would ya look at that? There's one right here in the Music pack that'll do just perfect. Phew!
So you're probably about to ask, can I buy packs straight from the application without going to the Web site? Sorry, no, not yet. We've been hinting for a while about changes to the marketplace, though, and these are the kind of features we're thinking of for further down the line. You're also maybe wondering whether we're going to go all iTunes and let you buy individual assets on demand. Again, the answer is sorry, no, not yet. We're still a bit locked into the existing AddOn structure. But we do have plans for different ways you can buy Moviestorm content. More on this in a month or two.

However - and this is the bit that will be of most interest to modders - the idea is that you'll be able to see everything in our marketplace from right inside Moviestorm. Not just our own content packs, but packs made by third parties as well. So, if you submit your mods to us, all Moviestorm users will get to see them. This may not make it into the very first version of the modders' marketplace, but the main parts of the infrastructure are now in place to enable us to do this. That's a real opportunity to showcase your work and to put it in front of a lot more people than you'd find through just a Web site. And, in due course, we'll extend this to cover costumes, animations, and so on.

To finish off, let me just point out one small, but hugely important change. The old thumbnails were, let's be honest, a bit of a mess. So we recruited Rhys to spend his summer holidays, for day after tedious day, making new thumbnails of all the props, using a constant angle and lighting, and making it much more obvious what they actually are. Gone are the days of squinting at something and trying to work out if it's meant to be a test tube, a glass giraffe, or an orchid.

So, no devastating new functionality in this bit. It won't enable you to make any movie you couldn't make before. But it should be a lot quicker and easier to do the same things, and you've got a lot more information than you had before.

Tuesday 15 September 2009

Moviestorm 1.1.7

We're currently getting ready for the release of Moviestorm version 1.1.7. This is quite a major upgrade, with a lot of stuff going on under the hood. In many ways, it's a preparation for an even bigger upgrade to be shipped in the fall, Moviestorm 1.2.

The most obvious thing you'll see is the new user interface, designed by no less than our multi-talented CEO, Jeff "Babyface" Zie. Out with the old icons, and in with a whole bunch of stylish black and white ones. Moviestorm feels like a completely new app, more professional, and more finished.

You'll also notice much better performance. As we've been promising for a while, we've massively speeded up the load times, and Moviestorm also runs at a considerably better framerate on some hardware.

More subtly, we've made huge changes to the underlying animation system. This should eliminate the ugly "popping" that you get when blending animations, and result in much smoother character motion. We've also got new walk code in there, which gives much more natural and controllable movement around the set. We'll tell you more about that later in the week, as it's a huge, huge change.

We'll also post some more about some of the other new features over the next few days, including the new catalog and asset structure.

1.1.7 will be shipped in two stages. In a week or so, maybe less if all goes well, we'll let the pioneers get their hands on it and give us early feedback. We've been testing the bejesus out of it for a while, but there are still only a few of us, and it's a surefire bet that you lot will find a whole mess of stuff we missed. This may not contain absolutely everything in the final release, but it'll be close, and it'll include the most important things. Then, when we've fixed whatever howlers you find (or taken out the bits we can't fix fast enough), we'll put it out to everyone else, probably at the very end of September or the beginning of October.

Monday 14 September 2009

Miami, here we come!

No, this isn't the next stage of my odyssey around Florida (though I do hope to make the journey down to South Florida and hang out with Phil Overman Rice shortly). It's a preview of a couple of new buildings from an upcoming Moviestorm pack that Paul Kelley's working on, inspired by Miami beachfront locations. These are only quick Max renders, and the perspective's a bit odd, but you get the idea.

And, of course, you can tint them in all sorts of ways, like our other buildings.

No release date yet - but we'll have some announcements about what's in the pipeline later this week.

Tuesday 8 September 2009

Congratulations Matt!

You may have noticed the suspicious absence recently of Short Fuze's esteemed co-founder, Matt Kelland. That's because he's just got married. So, congratulations Matt, from the whole Moviestorm team, and best of luck for the future to you and Anna.

Monday 7 September 2009

Moviestorm 1.1.7 leaked

Among the many interesting people that Dave and I spoke to at the HCI2009 Conference was machinima stalwart Michael Nitsche (seen here milking an invisible cow).

Michael had already seen Moviestorm 1.1.6 (which was the version we were showing off at the conference) so I booted up the development environment on my laptop and gave him a quick tour of version 1.1.7 - well, I did promise, after all. He seemed impressed. Sufficiently impressed, in fact, that he took some sneaky snapshots of my screen and posted them on his blog.

So that just proves it: if you want the scoop on what's coming soon for Moviestorm, bump into me in a corridor somewhere and have your camera at the ready.

The FreePixel blog, incidentally (to which Michael posts, along with Erik Champion and Friedrich Kirschner) is a great read. If you're interested in studying machinima as an artform and as an emergent movement, add it to your reading list.

Friday 4 September 2009

The Machinima Reader

About four years ago, I was asked by Henry Lowood (Curator for History of Science & Technology Collections, Film & Media Collections at Stanford University) and Michael Nitsche (Professor at the Digital World and Image Group & member of the Experimental Game Lab at Georgia Tech) to contribute a piece for the first academic textbook about machinima, The Machinima Reader. Henry & Michael described it this way:

The Machinima Reader will assemble the first collection of essays to critically review the phenomenon of Machinima from a wide variety of perspectives.

Machinima is on the verge of stepping beyond its chaotic mix of artistic, ludic and technical conceptions into established traditions and vocabularies of contemporary media. As machinima invents itself, the flexibility of its form poses an interesting challenge to academics as well as artists and critics. We want to offer an inaugural reader for the further development and critical discussion of Machinima, one that charts its growth from several angles and also provides a foundation for critical studies in the future.

I duly wrote something about the difference between game-based and non-game-based machinima (still a highly topical subject, if the recent discussion over on chat noir's blog is anything to go by), sent it off a week later, and then forgot all about it. Well, the wheels of academia grind slowly. Very slowly. But they do move onwards, bit by agonizing bit.

Turns out the book is due to be published by The MIT Press in a few months, and they're now calling for final submissions. I just re-read what I wrote, and it could stand a little revision. Not, surprisingly, nearly as much as I'd expected. Still, it's another little task to be squeezed in amidst all the Moviestorm work before I go on honeymoon next week.

P.S. That'll make two books for me. Well, one and a bit. Dave, I'm ahead of you now!

Thursday 3 September 2009

Moviestorm is Number 1 at HCI2009 conference

Alright, it's a bit of a cheeky strapline, but it's technically true. Look:

When Dave and I arrived at the HCI2009 Festival Of Interactive Technology yesterday, we were delighted to find that we'd been allocated table #1 on which to run our demo. Arbitrary? Perhaps, but we'll take the kudos anyway. Altogether now: "We're number one! We're number one!"

Wednesday 2 September 2009

Moviestorm at the HCI2009 Festival of Interactive Technology

At the moment, we've got almost two hundred active issues in our bug-tracking database which are relevant to version 1.1.7. I don't want you to panic, though - that total is not insurmountable. The entire team is working on turning the nasty red Open bugs into lovely calming green Closed bugs.

Dave #1 and I are leading the charge. What that basically means is that we stand behind the front-line troops, shouting encouragement and not doing any real work. We like to feel that we contribute, though, so it's sometimes frustrating when we have to occasionally leave the office to do other things. Today's procrastination excuse - erm, I mean, important business strategy occasion - is the HCI2009 Festival Of Interactive Technology Open House. Dave and I will be in attendance, demonstrating Moviestorm in all its glory. We've spruced ourselves up as best we can. Dave has even had a haircut.

We're in prestigious company at the HCI conference. Some of the best research labs and startup companies in our local area will be showing off their latest shinies. When you bear in mind that "our local area" is Cambridge, UK, one of the tech innovation capitals of the world, you'll understand what I mean.

So, if you happen to be going along to the conference, give us a wave, a hug, or even a big sloppy kiss. We'll be showing Moviestorm version, but if you ask me nicely I might even give you a personal tour of the in-development 1.1.7. We'll be in the William Gates building. Demonstrating a piece of Java software. On two Apple Macs. With a Linux-powered netbook for note-taking, and Open Rights Group stickers on our laptop bags. 'Cos we're rebels. Booyah.

Tuesday 1 September 2009

Farewell, Ben Garrett

We're sad to see the unexpected and imminent departure of our long-serving sysadmin, Ben Garrett.* Ben's been with us more or less since we started Moviestorm, but has now decided to move on to pastures new.

Ben's been responsible for creating and running many of the bits of Moviestorm you don't see - the user registration system, the content licensing, the online store, the back end of the Web site, and all the underlying databases and servers.

We're hoping to have a new sysadmin really soon - we are, after all, based in Cambridge, which is home to a large concentration of first-rate IT staff - but in the meantime, bear with us through any Web-related hiccups.

We wish Ben well.

*No, not "Beardy" Ben Sanders. He's still with us.