The original motion picture "Hollywood Girl: The Peg Entwistle Story" was released in early 2017, and I courageously (and part naively) volunteered as a co-collaborator with the film's director, James Pomichter, on the film's special f/x. It was an adventure into humility, cross-platform wizardry, and a massive amount of patience. This is our documented path from the hills of Ohio to the top of the Hollywood-Land sign during the 1930's.
First we had to do our research.
Akin to many other cinematic period pieces, we wanted to make sure the film had the feel of Hollywood post-depression era in the 1930's, when the national anxiety was quite high. This reflected in the condition of the clothes, cars, and even the Hollywood Sign degredation during that time period. We found plenty of archived footage from the era.....
Starting with the Basics.
To create the Hollywood-Land sign and Ohio backdrops in the movie, Mr. Pomichter and I decided to dive into the world of Blender. As independent artists, we realized that Blender is the cheaper way to learn CG animation (free), the Cycles Engine of Blender is extremely powerful, and there were plenty of online tutorials from a myriad of teenage whiz kids to choose from. I realized that over the summer months, my greatest teacher of Blender was an Australian twenties-something who went by the name of "Blender Guru." Quick note: never underestimate who your greatest educators may be no matter the location or the age. This guy saved our sanity time and time again.
Of course, our understanding of the terrain builder was quite rudimentary at this point. Little did we know the path we were about to embark upon.
Taking off the Training Wheels.
Of course, with any production platform, the world quickly becomes complex once you duck below the surface. This was the Blender Cycles NODE creation for us. As a Linux open platform, Blender is constantly going through improvements to increase its realistic texture rendering, sub-surface light diffusion capabilities, and resolution limits. Actually, the resolution limit was ONLY limited by the RAM of our computers and our understanding of 'asset instancing.' It was a temporally expensive mistake that was paid in massive frustration and long renders.
The Light Bulb.
A complex part of any graphics rendering engine is its relationship towards light and how it is diffused, reflected, and shadowed within each scene (along with all the other assets and textures that affect the light). Since the Hollywood-Land sign in the 1930's was outlined by 1000's of incandescent lightbulbs, this was a huge undertaking. It was the bane of my 'summer project.' Because we were rendering the scenes in 4k, the algorithms related to the light ray-casting very quickly were taking up massive amounts of RAM. Thankfully, the Blender Guru showed me the way towards sanity, and out of the dark. I eventually had my own, um, Edison moment, and our perfect light bulb came to life.
Fleshing out the Scene
Another important aspect of computer graphics engines like Blender is the attention to texturing. In general, each scene asset (object) will have on average 4 different layers: diffuse, normal, albedo, and subsurface. All of the layers add to the 3-dimensionality of any scene object, and it's the standard process of building texture (and ultimately realistic-looking objects) in any CG scene. Our Hollywood-Land was complete. Furthermore, landscape sculpting became a great asset when creating realistic backgrounds, and we must of course once again thank Blender Guru for showing us the light.
Putting it all together.
After months of troubleshooting, rendering farm creation, Blender updates, tears, and many bottles of Advil, we finally created the 10-second glory shot of our other, silent character in the film: The Hollywood-Land Sign Animation.