As you may have read by now, I have been doing a lot of courses through the Adobe Education Exchange. I absolutely LOVE working with the Adobe applications and consider these free courses to be a form of both relaxation and potential source of lessons for my classes. This week, Adobe held it's annual MAX conference. This is an event where thousands of digital creatives get together each year to learn about the latest and greatest changes coming to the Adobe products. The other night, I was listening to the live stream when I got prompted to update my software. I like to stay abreast of the latest changes and therefore did so without hesitation. Well...that may have at least partially been a mistake this time around!
This evening, I decided to complete my second 360 degree video for the VR in the Classroom course I am taking. I opened Premiere and opted to import some footage I captured last weekend while hiking Pilot Mountain here in NC. To my surprise, the only thing to come into Premiere was the audio!
Panic mode set in immediately. So, I took to the Adobe Generation Professional Facebook group of which I am a member and through out an all call for assistance. Not being one to wait too long, and seeing another Adobe friend online, I asked what he knew about importing 360 footage and described my situation to him. As I pointed out, I had done this before and now none of my footage, even footage that didn't give me any problems, was experiencing this issue. His response: reinstall the older version of Premiere! His suggestion was quickly echoed by another expert from Adobe. Personally, I hadn't realized one could run multiple versions of the software simultaneously. Jim also shared a Spark Page he created explaining the process of doing so.
After a few minutes spent downloading and installing the previous version of Premiere, I was off and running again without any more glitches. Although I knew where the problem originated, it was good to learn that one can run multiple versions of the software without any conflicts. My finished video is below if you want to check it out.
Even though the Game Art & Design class focuses mainly of the creation of 2D games and their assets, there are also a number of 3D modeling techniques included in the curriculum. One of them involves rigging a character for animation. You can ask any student who has previously taken this course to list what they consider to be the most frustrating activities they completed in that course and my bet is that 9 out of 10 of them will say rigging a 3D model. And, it is with good reason that I would expect this response.
Rigging involves adding bones to your model, connecting them to one another and then making sure the falloff for what they affect works as expected. It can get highly detailed and is definitely not a task for the casual modeler. Most students enjoy modeling but rigging, that's a whole different ball of wax. However, this year, I think I might have found a solution even though it is far from perfect.
Enter Adobe Fuse and Mixamo. Fuse is Adobe's answer to the 3D modeling. It allows the students to create a bipedal character using various body parts that are already modeled, then using slider controls, one can make adjustments to the character. It also has several outfits one can choose from to skin their model. In short, it makes creating a human character exceptionally easy.
Once created, you can save the model to your Adobe libraries for additional manipulation. From there, you can pull the model into Photoshop and by using the 2D Essentials workspace, you can gain easy access to the materials on it for quick and easy personalization of the model's skins.
Now for the best part: rigging! One can pull the model into Mixamo from their Adobe library or if that was problematic, simply export the model from Photoshop into a standard 3D format such as and OBJ file, then import it into Mixamo and utilize their automatic rigging system! You simply define where specific key points are located on the model (chin, wrists, elbow, knee and groin) and the program does the rest! It even has several predefined animations that you can apply to your newly rigged model, then export it as FBX for use in other applications such as the Unity game engine. It couldn't be simpler. The only downside - it only works with humanoid bipedal models. So, if you want to rig anything else, a monster, vehicles, etc., you still have to rig it from inside a program like Autodesk 3ds Max. But, for getting down the basics, this process should work.
Now for the real test of this change in how I teach rigging and skinning: letting the kids try it out. The modeling part went well and several got into skinning it in Photoshop quickly. Next up when we return to school: getting it rigged. I hope it goes as well as I predict, but more on that later.
Winter break has come and gone and just like my students in the new year...I'm back! Currently, I sit here looking out the window at blue skies and cold temperatures due to our first winter weather event of the season. I suspect it will lead to an extended weekend, but for that we will have to wait and see what happens. Regardless, we have recently experienced a lot of free time out of school which has allowed me to reflect on how I will alter the direction my students will be taking the remainder of the school year in order to keep my instruction relevant and up-to-date with industry skills and knowledge.
Over the years as a game design teacher, I have had the good fortune to be involved in numerous conversations and interactions with professional game designers. This has allowed me to consider the relevance in the content I teach, particularly in terms of the groundwork being laid in Scientific Visualization. As a result, I often change the lessons and instructions used in connection with this curriculum. This is one of the main reasons for my willingness to volunteer with this particular curriculum's pending revision. And, while I am thrilled that this course was able to open the door for classes like Game Art & Design and Advanced Game Design, a lot of the information included in Sci Vis is simply irrelevant to careers in the game industry.
Besides the name of the course, one of my concerns has always been the amount of science my artistic students receive in Sci Vis, which takes up the better part of the first semester. I have heard other teachers openly state that they completely skip this material. But I find that behavior irresponsible of anyone who claims to be an educator. There is some useful knowledge and skills in this part of the material and students need to understand it for their exams at the end of the year. This material also speaks to CTE's inclusion in STEM. However, such material often demotivates my artistic students from wanting to continue with me into game design as they fear such material will be droped into future courses as well. They take my classes because they want art, not science! But, we are past all that now and can fully focus on digital artistic skills for the remainder of the year. The areas of focus is the use of industry standard 2D and 3D digital tools, such as Photoshop, Illustrator and 3ds Max.
One of the first things I learned about the artistic portion of Sci Vis is the minor amount of focus it places on 2D digital tools. Photoshop and Illustrator are both very powerful tools and used widely throughout digital studios by professionals. They are the industry standards for all 2D artwork and there is a lot of it in game design. But, when I originally examined the curriculum, I came to realize several serious problems relating to the expected instruction of these tools when compared with how they are used in the game industry.
For starters, more attention is given to vector than to raster graphics. While this may seem logical due to constraints imposed on rescaling raster graphics along with differences in file size, the game industry rarely uses vector images outside of creating high quality components that are brought into raster images. Such items include graphics company/game logos, game icons, menu items, etc. In other words: most games tend to entirely use raster graphics and vector graphics only supplement the quality of the artwork.
The next problem I noticed is that the majority of the raster tools discussed in the curriculum focus more on skills used by photographers than those used by digital artists. Yes, it is important to know how to mask, crop, use filters and so forth, but there is little-to-no instruction on the use of drawing/painting tools in Photoshop. And that is where and how most 2D artwork is done by game production teams!
So, what am I changing this year? I am dropping much of the focus on vector graphics. Don't get me wrong, students will still be introduced to Illustrator and how they can use it create clean, scalable graphics. But our focus throughout the year has been and will continue to be on raster graphics and the use of Photoshop techniques to create digital artwork and paintings. That is, at least until we get to 3D modeling.
Another important change involves the use of drawing tablets. In the past, select students have used a drawing tablet in my classroom but I have never instructed them in doing so or how to customize the Photoshop interface for painting, instead of using the default workspace and settings which are more geared towards graphic design and photography. This year, that all changes.
A lot of the information that I am using with my students comes from a very useful and informative website: Ctrl+Paint. The site author, Matt Kohr, is a video game concept artist who is highly skilled in the use of Photoshop. His website provides an excellent resource for beginning digital artists by covering both traditional and digital drawing techniques. And, he explains everything in detailed and easy to understand video tutorial format...for FREE! In terms of painting with Photoshop, this is the absolute best resource I have ever found online.
So far, I have used Kohr's tutorials to help teach my students about the different principles of design through the use of orcs. I was also able to use the same techniques to teach them a lot of Photoshop skills and tools in a short period of time. Being a first-go at this method of teaching the material, I found out fast that I tried to cram too much instruction and skill practice into too little time. While I think this was a good exercise, I need to make several changes to it for future use. Now, we are gearing up to focus on digital painting techniques and I need to account for this being a new skillset for both my students and myself.
One concern I have involves some technological problems I have encountered with using the website's tutorials. I often like to provide students with direct access to video tutorials for use as a resource in my classroom. It helps them when they get stuck and I am busy assisting other students with problems they are encountering. Having access to such resources allows students to solve their own problems without relying on others, such as the teacher. However, we have a pesky Internet filter installed that blocks all kinds of useful tools erroneously and these videos are no exception. There are two commonly used websites for hosting video content: YouTube and Vimeo. Kohr hosts his videos on the latter. The problem comes in with the ability of the school system's IT department to control access to individual videos using the filter. They can control direct access to YouTube videos but not Vimeo and refuse to unblock the entire site due to some materials posted there not being school appropriate. I truly get it, but it is also very frustrating that students are limited in their lack of ability access a great resource because IT cannot effectively use the filter to block inappropriate material posted on the site..
The other problem that I have run into involves our drawing tablets. My classroom is outfited with several Genius MousePen tablets that were generously donated by a former student's dad. They are great for drawing solid lines but we have always had a difficult time with using pressure sensitivity to paint in a more natural manner. Even after updating the drivers and replacing pen batteries, some will not apply pressure sensitivity while a few simply refuse to work altogether or on specific computers. One solution I found involves moving the cable from one USB port to another in the computer or rebooting the computer. Generally, this helps when a tablet stops working. But, it is still hard to paint effectively without pressure sensitivity. We can simulate this by changing the flow and/or opacity settings on the brush tool, but it is not the same either in terms of natural painting techniques or overall quality. Perhaps it is time to request new tablets and move to a more industry standard item like a Wacom?
I hope it is clear from the discussion above that I put a lot of thought into keeping my students up-to-date both in terms of skills and content. I know I will be doing a lot of reflection on the importance and techniques used to teach digital painting skills to my students. So, look for more on this topic in the coming weeks!
One of the most important things that professionals always need to do is keep abreast of current tools and trends in the industry where they are employed. One of the most common ways to do this is by attending professional conferences. This is equally true of the game industry as it is with any other professional field. I introduce my students to this fact by taking them to the East Coast Game Conference. This annual event takes place in Raleigh during the springtime and boasts the largest gathering of professional game designers on the east coast. It is often an eye-opening experience for my students when they interact with the creators of some of the biggest titles being produced both currently and in past years.
However, this post is not about ECGC. This past week, I had the opportunity to attend and present at the NC Technology Engineering and Design Educators Association (NCTEDEA) Spring Conference held in Kill Devil Hills, NC. While there, myself and three other Kenan Fellows shared information on our experience in the program along with our resulting lesson plans. Although the conference was very small, there was a lot of interest in what we had to say. Attendees got to see how four individuals from different backgrounds (an engineering teacher, a business and marketing teacher, an honors chemistry teacher, and myself - a game art & design teacher) were put together to build a wearable device and how we brought this shared experience back to our classrooms in unique and differing ways. While this was useful for the other teachers in attendance and presenting to one's peers is good for all to experience as a professional, I really wanted to bring something useful back for myself and my students.
Not only does attending conferences allow one to gain valuable information by attending formal presentations, but it allows you to network and converse/collaborate informally with one's peers, many of whom you may or may not see in other environments. This is where the real power of conferences comes into play in my mind. In attending, I managed to catch up with a former fellow game art & design teacher, Jonathan Peedin, who has since left the world of education and returned to his former career of designing video games, this time for Boss Key Productions as a senior UI/UX designer. However, he has kept one foot in the world of teaching as he is working on re-vamping the GAD curriculum and requirements to more closely align with the game industry. We had a number of conversations about where these changes may lead and I came back from the conference refreshed and excited about the updates to come. During the formal sessions, Jonathan gave a talk on free design tools and tablet use in the classroom, where he introduced two applications that teachers and students can use. And, I want to encourage my students to look into these tools as they can gain a lot out of both. Plus, being free, the price is perfect.
The first tool Jonathan shared with attendees is Sculptris by Pixelogic. Sculptris is a free 3D modeling application made by the same company that sells ZBrush, the industry standard 3D modeling software. Both products work like modeling in clay, allowing the artist to pull, pinch, push and prod their character or object into shape. Currently, the curriculum calls for teaching 3D modeling using 3ds Max, which has its roots in the world of computer aided drafting. Just considering this information and how we would use 3D models in video games, it is clear that using an artistic approach makes more sense than the technical design approach. We are often working with organic shapes and technical drawing is not really designed for such work. This doesn't mean that one should ignore technical modeling programs such as 3ds Max or Maya. While you can easily model your objects in Sculptris, you cannot rig or animate them and these are important tasks in creating video games. Applying texturing is also handled better outside of Sculptris. Based on all of this knowledge, I was very pleased to learn this powerful and lightweight application is being added to the list of required software for the game design classes.
The second tool I learned about was Krita, which is a free paint program. While Photoshop continues to dominate as the industry standard piece of software for 2D digital artwork, some companies are also looking at what is available to use for free these days. And, I often have students ask me what they can get for cheap, or better yet free, to learn how to create artwork on the computer. And, it may come as no surprise that GIMP is often the answer I provide. Like Krita, GIMP is free. However, it has a steep learning curve and I have often hear students (and myself) complain about getting very frustrated with it. GIMP is not intuitive and if you are used to working in Photoshop, rather hard to understand. At least it is for me. So, when Jonathan told me his coworkers at Boss Key pointed him towards using Krita, it made me even more curious about using it. So, as soon as I returned from the conference, I downloaded the software and started exploring its capabilities. After just a few minutes, I found it to be very intuitive and easy to use, which gave it a major boost over GIMP. And to my amazement, in terms of drawing on the computer, I preferred it over Photoshop! So, while I currently have minimal experience with this software, it has become my new go-to response when students want/need access to a paint program.
The final piece of knowledge that Jonathan touched on was the use of graphics tablets for doing one's artwork on the computer. I have tablets in my classroom but tend not to use them too often. I know...shame on me! But, with everything else I have to do and learn for my classes, I have simply put learning the graphics tablet on the back-burner to more pressing concerns that are constantly presenting themselves to me. But, I do see the value in using them and have always allowed students to do so at their request. I found Jonathan's response to a comment by another teacher useful in re-framing my mind on using them. This teacher asked if it is difficult to get used to drawing on the tablet and looking at the screen as opposed to a pen and paper on a desk. His response, and I paraphrase: you already do this with a mouse...it's just a matter of training yourself to do it with a different tool. So, when I installed Krita, I also grabbed one of the tablets. My first problem was that I could not get different shades like I can with a pencil despite the maker's claim of 1024 different levels of pressure being available. This bothered me. However, after updating the driver, it worked like a champ. All that is left for me to do is learn how to program the hot spot locations on the tablet and I am really ready to use it even more productively. However, even without them, I have started working on my skills and am quickly falling in love with using a graphics tablet. It's really not very difficult to become accustomed to, as Jonathan mentioned, and simply takes a little practice. I believe this will be the focus of my personal learning this coming summer.
So, while attending the conference, I was out of my classroom and at the beach for two days. The question I ask myself is does this benefit my students? I think it does based on everything I discussed above. I learned some new tools and gained a little insight into the direction the game design classes will be taking in the future. I hope you agree with my assessment and if you do not currently attend whatever professional conferences your industry offers, you change your perspective on them and start doing so.
I am a high school Career & Technical Education (CTE) teacher located in Durham, NC with a focus on game art and design. This blog provides a place for reflection on relevant classroom practices.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent those of my employer or anyone else associated with Durham Public Schools.