Artist Spolight: Louis du Mont

Visiting We Are Formation in London

Posted: Thu 17 Dec 2015

By Claudia Kienzle

LONDON: Co-founded in 2012 by Creative Partner Louis du Mont and Managing Partner Jon Reidy, We Are Formation produces 3D animated characters, visual effects, virtual reality and other digital media experiences for a broad range of agency and corporate clients.

With their close knit creative team—consisting of 3D/Interactive Designer Javier Martin and Junior Producer Emma Clark—this London boutique collaborates with agencies, such as VCCP, Work Club, MRM and Adam&EveDDB, on high-profile brand campaigns for international accounts like Nike, O2, Intel, Kia, Vauxhall, Red Bull and GSK.

Louis du Mont shared with us a collection of 10 Lightwave 3D tips

While LightWave 2015—their primary 3D animation system—empowers them to handle fairly complex projects in-house, they are flexible enough to ramp up with outside help whenever larger projects require it.

After a 5-year stint working at a large digital production agency, Reidy and du Mont decided to break away from that in-house work to launch We Are Formation. “Our aim was to leverage the skills we had developed to market a new service custom tailored to the needs of digital agencies that do not have their own internal production resources.”

“We Are Formation is the realization of a lifelong goal of mine to become a 3D animator and to make animated characters come alive,” he added. “For various campaigns and brands, we mainly produce live action integrated visuals, character animations and photorealistic products. More recently, we’ve been producing 3D content for real-time applications, mobile apps and even virtual reality.”

One such project is a 3D basketball game for FaceBook called Take on Blake that We Are Formation created for Kia Motors (US) through Unit9, David&Goliath (US). The FaceBook game—which was released concurrently with a TV commercial campaign in the U.S.—needed to be created in Unity3D and then exported to Flash so that it could be used within the FaceBook environment.

“The premise of the game is an online dunk contest against Los Angeles Clippers (NBA) star Blake Griffin. For this game, we used LightWave extensively,” du Mont said.

“Our task was to create the animated characters and environmental elements for the game,” he added. “We were also asked to recreate CG versions of Blake at ages 8, 12, 17 and 23. Motion capture was used for all of the character animations. To capture all of the different dunks, we employed the skills of Tayo Ogedengbe, a professional basketball player with the London Lions.”

The motion capture data was brought into LightWave and baked into Rhiggit's V1 FBX-IK rig for both cleanup and to add a more extreme feel to the dunks. LightWave's Motion Mixer was used to arrange and blend multiple animations for the final export to the Unity3D game engine.

The environment and Blake Griffin's likeness was modeled and UV unwrapped in LightWave's modeler from reference imagery. Extra details were sculpted in Autodesk's Mudbox and baked out to normal maps. Then to streamline the workflow, we tested the assets within Unity before delivering them to Unit9’s developer team.

At We Are Formation, LightWave 2015.2 software runs on custom-built quad or hex-core Intel i7 PC workstations with Nvidia graphics, solid state drives (SSDs) and 32GB of RAM. They also have 10x 2u custom-built render nodes featuring quad-core Intel i7’s and 16 to 32 GB of RAM. And the toolbox aslo includes an assortment of plug-ins, including DP Kit, Rhiggit v2, 3rd Powers, UV PLG tools, as well as Amleto Render Commander for rendering.

“LightWave conveniently fits our budget. It allows us to buy two licenses yet fully utilize a bank of dedicated render computers,” said du Mont, who was first introduced to LightWave in 2002 while working towards a BA in Animation at Westminster University.

“We’ve continually upgraded our LightWave seats from version 9.0 to the current 2015.3 version,” du Mont said. “Updating the software has been a breeze, particularly after moving away from requiring a hardware dongle. Since most of our for-hire work must be completed in very tight timeframes, ease of use and streamlined productivity are paramount concerns for us.”

In fact, he added, “We’ve often put together proposals and treatments in a matter of hours to be considered for upcoming work. And we’re able to take a generalist approach since LightWave works well within all the different disciplines we tackle, such as character animation, product visualizations, content for real-time games and VR experiences. As a small studio, LightWave allows us to get up and running prior to any big-budget work.”    

A 3D-animated Flu Awareness campaign for GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) is an example of a very large corporate project that We Are Formation recently executed. Working closely with GSK and their medical agency, Big Pink, the Formation creative team brought four colorful, squishy 3D animated virus characters to life. LightWave was used exclusively for everything from the modeling through animation and rendering. Each virus character has a shiny, rubbery surface that resembles inflatable, plastic toys.

In the 2:57 minute video, a voice-over announcer explains everything you need to know about influenza (or the flu), including what it is, how to avoid becoming infected and what to do if you fall prey to it.

Each of the characters represents a different type of flu bug, and together their silly antics make learning about the flu fun. When the announcer assures us that we can prevent the flu through vaccinations, a giant anvil falls onto the four virus characters reducing them to colorful, messy splatter.

One virus—a purple striped character with expressive, spherical eyes on top of antenna-like shoots extending up from his body—dramatizes flu symptoms, including falling over and lying motionless to demonstrate extreme fatigue. All of the characters have these distinctive, moist cartoon eyes that go from bulging eyeballs with tiny pupils to heavy-lidded slits and pronounced blinks.

“This project posed some interesting technical challenges to overcome, such as setting up a nodal motion eye rig. This rig used multiple morph maps to allow the character’s eyelids to close via a simple controller over a spherical eye,” du Mont said.

For du Mont and his creative team, technical challenges are not only part-and-parcel of their for-hire work, it’s something they welcome and relish. In their spare time, they’ve been developing a series of episodic short films called Visiting, created and produced by Louis du Mont

Visiting is a passion project that showcases We Are Formation’s live action/visual effects compositing capabilities.

The tiny spacecraft and the alien, known as the Visitor, are LightWave 3D animated elements that are composited into a filmed background plate of a busy London district. While only the first episode has been completed, the company plans to produce additional episodes as time permits.

In Visiting Episode 1, we’re introduced to the plight of the visitor, whose spaceship malfunctions, stranding him in this alien world. The space capsule gently lowers itself to the ground in an alley near some crowded London streets.

This unfortunate turn of events leaves the visitor with no choice but to explore his foreign surroundings in the hopes of finding the spare parts he needs to repair his disabled spaceship and return home safely.

Clad in his soft, doughy white spacesuit, the visitor looks around from his spaceship door and proceeds down the steps and to the corner. There, he stands and stares at all the gigantic passers-by through his helmet’s reflective visor.

We soon see the legs of a workman who happens to come along and scoop up one of two cardboard boxes sitting on the curb. Luckily, it’s not the one in which the spaceship has tucked itself away. Compared to the tiny alien, the man is a giant. While he’s carrying the box away, he narrowly misses stepping on the visitor, who swiftly drops to the ground and rolls out of harm’s way. He then jumps back to his feet and fires off a flare in the man’s direction, while hiding behind his blue Plexiglas shield. The flare lamely flies through the air missing the man because he got away so fast. Dejected, the little alien resumes his quest, exploring his new surroundings.

“This project merges two passions of mine, a love for digital photography and cinematography of cityscapes and the creation of 3D animation,” du Mont explained. “Visiting began in 2009 as a test bed that would allow us to experiment with various production techniques, such as CG match-moving, motion capture and compositing, but soon grew in scope. By 2014, I storyboarded the first episode, created an animatic and began shooting the background plates."

Visiting uses a variety of techniques made possible by the new, budget friendly technology. The London cityscapes were shot in 4K using the Panasonic Lumix GH4, equipped with a set of micro four-third lenses. The 4K-footage was captured at 100Mb/s onto two 64GB memory cards. After the shoot, a Microsoft Kinect was used with Ipi Soft to capture the general motions to be retargeted onto the visitor’s rig.
The 3D visitor and spaceship were modeled, surfaced, animated and rendered from start to finish in LightWave. They were then composited with the live action cityscape backgrounds using After Effects, and Premiere Pro was used for editing and finishing. The sound effects and the song, Like You, by Tincup Music were mixed in Audition.

In terms of distribution, du Mont said, “I’ve had interest from some film festivals that might be a good fit. I also wanted to release it as a mini-series via Vimeo and YouTube. While we’ve been working on it between our paid projects, I want to look into crowd funding that might possibly enable me to devote more time and attention to it to get the full series done more quickly.”

Among his many Go-To LightWave tools, du Mont relies heavily on the nodal workflow for surfacing because it enables him to create complex materials and set-up displacements that look very natural. He also uses LightWave’s interchange tools, such as exporting FBX files to Unity3D, and importing OBJ formatted files with geometry cache from Maya for rendering in LightWave.

And he adds, “Without a doubt, the VPR has proven to be a huge timesaver because it enables real-time feedback for surfaces and lighting.” LightWave’s VPR, or Viewport Preview Rendering, allows professional 3D artists and animators to make changes to their 3D art, model or maps and immediately see how their objects and models react to such changes as dynamic lighting, radiosity and nodal shading. With the VPR’s interactive, real-time capabilities, artists do not have to wait for rendering to be completed to see how their scene looks so desired outcomes can be realized much more quickly.

Du Mont also relies on LightWave tools like Bullet, Fracture and Instancing. When used together, Bullet Dynamics and the Fracture tool in Modeler create physics-based animated effects, such as explosions, collapsing buildings and other chaos. LightWave’s Instancing tool allows a detailed object in a scene to be duplicated much more quickly than creating each one individually and with very little processing overhead. While the duplicates can be clones of the original object, they can also be randomly scaled, rotated, positioned and even surfaced differently for a varied appearance as well.

Instancing is evident in a brief Vortek QuadCopter Test Flight video that We Are Formation produced. It animates the choreographed flight of 56 remote controlled drones outside a corporate office park. In terms of helpful tips and techniques that can benefit other LightWave animators, du Mont said he finds the “Make Joint Chain” script for setting up quick IK (Inverse Kinematics) very useful. “Playing around with nodes to see what each one does has been both fun and very useful. Weight maps and occlusion nodes are really handy for mixing procedurals and bitmaps to add variation.”

Also, “to quickly create studio environments, I like to tuck a plane behind an area light to cast a nice studio soft box feel using diffuse lighting and reflections. And Equations in numerical fields is super handy.”

“Using Node Pixel Filter has changed the way I use LightWave buffers for compositing. Being able to design your own buffers is amazing. Frequently, I’ll use RGB gradients driven by Surface or Object ID’s allowing for 3-channel alpha mattes,” du Mont said.  “On hard surface materials, my most frequently used texture would have to be Micro Scratches. After opening up PhotoShop, I draw little scratch lines and apply them cubically to the surface mask via a weight map or similar surfaces,” he added.

“As a lean animation and effects house, we’re able to confidently pursue very demanding, high-end projects with confidence,” du Mont said. “Whatever the production requires, whatever the client envisions, we know LightWave can help us deliver the uncompromised quality clients expect while adhering to their tight budgets and deadlines.”