Enhancing the Image

Work is nearly complete on the next Bald Explorer episode, Taking the Waters; a documentary about the discovery of the spring water at Tunbridge Wells, in Kent. However, there are still a few things to make it complete and hopefully assist the telling of the story.

When filming, particularly on a limited budget, it isn’t always possible to match the same production values as the big boys. The BBC love to take their presenters into museum archives and have them presenting pieces to camera while at the same time handling original texts, books and scrolls. It is as if they need to demonstrate visually that what they are telling the audience is factually true. To be honest, I do wonder how many people would know whether the so-called 17th century manuscript written on vellum and scrawled in ink by a quill pen is genuine, or that it is the book in question or even if it proclaims the things we are being told. We have to take all this on face value – but they do love to show you this type of thing, so you can ‘believe’ it is authentic.

I am afraid, I do have to cheat a little here. Whilst I try to give an as honest account as possible, I cannot pretend to be a leading authority on any subject, nor do I have the money to access the genuine original materials – but I am not really sure that I need to in order to tell the same story convincingly.pantiles-1650

However, cheating is really only there to help the message be understood. For example, in the first picture, (above) you will see me sitting in my kitchen with a few samples of what looks like chalybeate water. Chalybeate is actually crystal clear if taken from source, but it does contain quite a large amount of iron, which leaves an orange tinge in the glass. I filmed watered down Ironbru to colour the water slightly. I wanted to distinguish it from tap water and I am hopeful that using this commercial product it would even contain an element of iron!

Secondly, my kitchen is old fashioned, and no science lab – so to give it the feel of authenticity and help paint the picture of an old Victorian chemist’s lab, I added in post production a couple of period medical posters. Yes, they were not there when we filmed, but adding them afterwards gives the impression of a laboratory without me actually saying I am in one. Dramatic licence at work here, I think.

I also used a little computer graphics to create imagery of the original Pantiles and source of the spring water. We know from historical text it was surrounded by a shed and small fence and we are told a number of timber framed properties were built in close proximity before the current constructions were erected. I haven’t found any reference material for these early buildings so I have made an educated guess and the short animation is merely there to illustrate the descriptions.

The main aim of all this deceit, if one wants to call it that, is really to engage with the viewer, encourage people to either read further about the subject or visit the spring waters for themselves and make up their own minds.

The programme will be broadcast in the new year on the Community Channel. I make these programmes for free and as yet I do not gain an income from them. If you would like to help get these episodes produced and get to view the finished documentary before its first transmission, then please visit the website and make a small donation. You can find the Payal button on the right hand side. Thank you very much.

Episode Five: A Rural Town

Richard Vobes is the Bald Explorer, dashing about Britain discovering the history of its towns and villages. In this episode he is off to Petworth in the heart of West Sussex, close to Chichester and not too far from London. It is a very rural town renown for the beautiful mansion-house, upon land that once belonged to the Roger de Montgomery and later the de Percy family.

It was the third Earl of Egremont who had a vested interested in the town of Petworth. He supplied the money to build the boys school, which was later destroyed by a stray German bomber during the second World War. It was the Earl who brought water from the near by Rover Rother into the town centre and whose land it was the grim House of Correction was built on for convicted offenders from all over Sussex.

One of the prettiest streets in Sussex can be found in Petworth, complete with old shop fronts and cobbles on the ground and the Bald Explorer reveals that he once lived there.

Back in the 19th century, many of the poor were assisted out of poverty and given the chance of a new life in Canada thanks to the local rector. Also, many do not realise that a special kind of stone, Petworth Marble was mined from this area and made into all sorts of wonderful objects.

Of course, most visitors , if not travelling to see Petworth House, go to hunt around the abundance of antique shops that flank the roads or take refreshment inside the independent tea rooms. And lets not forget the beautifully restored old railway station that is now a fabulous bed and breakfast establishment with genuine Pullman Carriages to stay the night in.

Computer Animation

canalbasin-test10One of the things that makes the Bald Explorer programmes different to many of the videos you find on the internet is the computer Graphic images that are created for each episode. These help to illustrate perhaps, as an artists impression, what buildings and places might have been like in the period of the story being explored. They are the most time consuming part I would say of the post production process. Each graphic has to be researched from resource material, either from libraries, books or via the internet and then brought into a 3D computer animation package. Once the basic models are constructed, they under go the texture process, or if you like, skinning to make them look fairly realistic. I do not try to make them photo real, however, due to the limitations of my experience and the amount of rending time each individual frame would take to complete. I add a basic lighting rig to the CG models and give the 3D camera filming the sequence a little movement to make the video clip more interest.

Ditherington Flax Mill in Shrewsbury.
Ditherington Flax Mill in Shrewsbury.

In the forthcoming episode about the abandoned Shrewsbury Canal, I have built some of the major elements of the old navigation and the landmarks along the way, including the Ditherington Flax Mill. This was the grand daddy of the Skyscraper, because it was the first building in the world to make use of an iron frame internally. It is currently undergoing renovation and is inaccessible to film adequately and this where a CG model comes in handy. The canal can be added to show how it would have approached the site.

The Longdon on Tern Aquaduct
The Longdon on Tern Aqueduct

The Longdon-on-Tern Aqueduct is another structure that we visit in the programme.. Thomas Telford was involved in its creation. It is the oldest surviving iron aqueduct in the world and is what inspired Telford to go on and create on of the canal wonders of the world, the famous Pontcysyllte aqueduct, in Wales. It is no longer in water and lies almost forlorn in a farmers field. With computer animation we can put the water back in and have a narrowboat cross it again, as they once did a couple of hundred years ago.

The Community Channel will be showing the Bald Explorer programmes in February 2013. You can find out more about them here. http://communitychannel.org

A Canal in 3D

Early test picture of a computer model of the Longdon Aqueduct – no textures.

It is far too early to show anything terribly exciting in the world of 3D graphics for the up coming episode of the Bald Explorer as he explores an abandoned canal in Shropshire, but I thought I would share with you some of the progress. While the weather has turned rather unpleasant and not in the least conducive to filming lovely narrow boats up and down the navigations of England, I and immersing myself in the job of creating all the graphical elements for the programme. This is more time consuming that you might imagine. Because I do not use the graphic software everyday, I often forget certain procedures and find myself having to look up the various ‘how to’ videos on Youtube or blog posts on the Internet.

The Longdon Aqueduct, waiting for a CG narrowboat and landscape, as well as textures, lighting and animation. Its early days yet…

There are a number of reasons why I use 3D graphics within my programmes. The first and most important reason is to demonstrate how something works. It is not always easy to show a real life object in operation while on location, especially if it is a historic relic. Very often there is nothing left to show and my graphical displays are purely an interpretation, but they help to tell the story.   The second use I put graphics to within my films is that of style. Most TV shows have a series of visual stings that help to break up sections of a programme. In order to help the viewer feel he is watching a TV programme and not just a random quickly edited video on the Internet, I like to emulate this where it is appropriate. I try not to add things just for the sake of it, however. I do get annoyed by video producers who seems to put in every little bit of flashy gimmick effects they can, believing, wrongly I think, that it makes the production have more value.

The post production takes a fair chunk of time to achieve and shouldn’t be hurried. This is where all strands of the story come together. The graphics and live footage are only part of the story. There is the voice overs, photographs, music and sound effects to find, organise and get cleared for television broadcast.

 

Building a Virtual Prison

Building a prison in computer graphics..
It is early days, but work has started on a computer graphics version of the House of Correction which is to be featured in one of the next Bald Explorer episodes. If you have been reading recent posts you will have seen mention of this grim place and the fact that there is little left to see now. I aim to recreate it, albeit virtually, so that we can see the grim building for what it was and appreciate how dominant it must have looked on the top of its hill bearing down on the inhabitants of Petworth towards the end of the 18th Century.

Where possible I always like to gather as much information about the subject I am making in computer graphics. One of the first pieces of luck was noticing that the prison is clearly marked in precise terms on the planning maps for Petworth in 1875. Not only was the building’s shell accurately drawn up, but also the cells and ancillary buildings, such as the treadmill block and handcrank shed.

From there I can extrude upwards the walls and produce a skeleton of the old prison. What one does still require are the real measurements of widths of walls, heights of buildings and detail of roofs, etc. Luckily, there was an inspection of prisons made in the 1840’s and it included the Petworth one, giving not just a written description, but accurate measurements and dimensions in feet and inches. What is lacking, however, are drawings or photographs of the House of Correction. That said, I do have an old sketch of the place and one scratchy early photo which gives us the rear detail and roof.

I do not intend to make an all singing and dancing model, that would take too long, but fair representation of the austere nature of the place will do. Besides my cg skills are very sparse, so I will do what I can. I am not sure if anyone has done any work in this area before, so it could be a valuable contribution to the knowledge we have on the Georgian/Victorian building, who knows? There are plans to rebuild on the site, so all that is there is likely to be lost for ever, so I must work quickly before all my references are gone.

Working on the CG for BE 3

For the past week I have been working on the graphics and CGI for the third Bald Explorer episode entitled ‘Smugglers on the South Coast of England’. This is not really my speciality and I struggle with the various programmes I use to create reasonable animations. It is always a learning curve, but thank goodness for the good old Internet and tutorials. Someone has usually done more or less what I have wanted before and even better put together either a written or better still video version of what I want to do.

I try to keep them small and to the point so they simply enhance and explain information that is difficult to describe any other way. I don’t like to use computer graphics just for the sake of it or to show and say ‘Hey, look what I can do!’ But when you have a limited budget some parts of the story cannot be easily shot and a clever piece of CGI is perfect to get you out of a hole.

The good thing is that although it is a tricky job I am learning all the time and each time I try to push myself to do better effects.

There is not much more to shoot for the production. One scene I have to do is where I have a conversation with myself. That should be relatively easy for me as I am continually chatting to myself when at home. I aim to have two versions of me face to face. Its nothing new in video of course and those with just a smattering of experience will already be guessing ‘Split screen’ and you would be right.

So when is the release of Ep 3? Probably around the first week of February, allowing for time out to go and work and actually earn some money to pay the mortgage! I will keep you posted of course!