NPR: Demand, Business and Blender
In the East, non-photorealistic rendering or NPR is massive. It is not a long tail niche that most people believed. One of the reasons for NPR being the standard in those studios is the huge amount of content that is being produced in a short amount of time. It is culture and business. To stay afloat, studios must produce more.
NPR provides easier and faster ways to do more with less. Plus, most artists have been trained with NPR as a foundation, resulting on an abundance of human capital.
Blender, being the catalyst in new animation start-ups, has been amiss in over-emphasizing photo-realistic rendering (PR). There is little interest in perfecting NPR, with more focus being shone on PR. It is really clear and apparent on its own website. As of writing, everything on blender.org is pointing to how well Blender can do PR.
Talking to studio owners, most said that their studio hardware is working at the limit with photo-realistic rendering. Electricity bills at max, longer productions span with attention to details due to the nature of PR. If there are chances to develop their own intellectual properties, many studio owners will venture the NPR route. It is easier for them to create signature styles that will identify and differentiate their products from everything else in the market.
One (prefers to be anonymous) studio owner said:
Client works have that same style, my artists kept complaining, they were bored. We are starting new series pilot episode and developing new techniques for the show. I have never seen my artists so motivated like this for years. Finally they [can] work on a show they can call theirs.
The loud spoken forty plus year old studio owner also added that he is truncating software upgrade budget, saying “these [software] upgrades are traps, one studio starts using new version then everyone involved with [the] production has to upgrade, cutting our profit margin. [We had] enough. Starting this year (2013), no more upgrades. We’ll stay with this version and hack if we must. No more new client with new 3D app specs. We make [our] own show now.”
At BNPR, we heard such voices repeatedly. Often they are chances for us to introduce them Blender. Initial reactions are usually skeptical of the software, who wouldn’t be. Blender has FREE price tag on its website. At the end of 2013, when we spoke to them again, many have reversed perspective of Blender as a whole–after experiencing first hand on how much and how fast Blender has evolved. Yet one thing has been persistently unsolved, NPR dwells in the realm of hack jobs just to produce correctly and efficiently.
Around April 2013, an initiative has been started to revive and enhance Blender Internal Renderer (BI). The project was later named Blender Extended Expressive Rendering or BEER as a token to the world’s favorite beverage. The initial steps are to identify where and what are Blender’s limitations. Questions were asked, resulting with overwhelming responds from the community. Some of the findings are
- Shader primitives are too crude to be called flexible
- Node workflow not ideal for speedy production
- Most shaders need to be well lit to look nice
- Viewport doesn’t communicate final render result
The second stage is to solve those problems. An extensive NPR related research paper search was started. On top of that it involved simplifying workflows, and looking to areas where the mutually agreed foundation can be expended to not only ironing out old issues, but to cover fringe usages of NPR. Basically rekindle the love of abstraction.
In brief BEER is:
- Layered shader system:
Most shader equations are layer-able;
Presented as layers, folders and groups, with generic styles as preset.
– Object shaders.
– Screen space shaders: realtime post effects.
– World space shader: shaders which interact with all object shaders.
- Realtime viewport preview:
Shaders are animatable most of the time; machinima workflow; skipping pre-viz altogether.
- No nodes but code layer:
Either in shaderFX, cgFX or others, to be confirmed.
- Pre-composite workflow:
No need to wait for render to see shaders composited, only heavy composite effects will be done in compositor.
- Fix old BI limitations.
- Provide framework for future NPR advancement.
With stakeholders demanding progress, BNPR has been on the hunt for developers to hire. Their first coding task is to identify where in BI’s code BEER can reside and what to revise with the inclusion. In order to lubricate the process, a new mailing list has been started to everything NPR. With the development of 2.7x series of Blender, developers now have the permission to break BI to make it better.
NPR will be a significant portion of the up coming Blender open feature film, code named Project Gooseberry. Insider information confirmed that there will be 10 to 12 minutes of NPR with FreeStyle. To put that into perspective, 10 minutes is a Sintel or a Big Buck Bunny size project. Something not to be taken lightly.
Update May 2014: Project Gooseberry will not be a full length feature animation film. But Blender Foundation has hired Tamito Kajiyama to develop freestyle line rendering further. BNPR team also has secured a developer to code BEER.