A friend of mine hadn’t ever seen Neon Genesis Evangelion. I knew that Khara Studios and Hideaki Anno were redoing the 26-episode TV series as a tetralogy of movies. The first movie came out in 2007 and honestly, I just didn’t really care. Evangelion might be the landmark anime that no other anime’s ever even approached in terms of depth and scope, but it was old-hat. I was done with it nearly a decade ago when I decided Shinji was just a whiny little bitch and the anti-hero shtick was boring. Still, there’s things I love about Eva — some of the individual episodes had interesting takes on the monster-of-the-week with Angels coming at Nerv in the form of viruses, angry whales, three dimensional shadows, mirror-moving identical twins, and ambiguously gay classmates who leave the ambiguous part at the door before descending Terminal Dogma to meet Lilith.
We decided to watch the new movies hoping that would serve as a good digest for Evangelion. Suddenly, I found myself getting excited for Eva again. When I was a teenager I was inspired by the Christian-laden mythology and the psychobabble. After watching Evangelion 1.11 I’m more impressed with how they rebuilt the movie’s imagery. After watching so much anime it hadn’t really hit me just how far toon-shaded rendering had come. I could easily tell that vehicles, buildings were redone as full-on 3D models but they were well integrated with the hand-drawn characters. What solidified that mind-blowing-away-ness was watching The Rebuild of Evangelion featurette. It went through how they reconstructed Tokyo-3′s buildings as 3D models and the layers of effects they put over it to achieve the images in the film.
And I thought, “I’m an engineer. I’m an artist. I can do that.”
Just to give you an idea of what’s inspiring me, here’s some screencaps from Evangelion. First up is Tokyo-3. Those skyscrapers are 3D and the houses in front are painted:
Below is one of Tokyo-3′s buildings as it’s rising out of the Geofront. The staircase for the overhead walkway, the rail guard, and trees are painted. The building is created in 3D and toon-shaded. You can see this scene in Rebuild of Evangelion as they go through the different processes of making this scene. It starts out with some crude drawings of a tree with the 3D elements behind it and then gets refined and various filters and effects are used to create the sunset scene.
I’m not sure how much CG is in this shot (I think the Angel in the upper right is CG but most of this shot looks painted), but it is quite an epic view of Tokyo-3:
As an artist, I’ve shied away from doing 3D and mixing it with my hand drawn work. I have this mental block that says, “It’s cool, but it’s cheating.” I’ve seen plenty of brilliant artists on DeviantArt who have the skills to create amazing art without having to resort to it. I vowed to myself unconsciously that I would never cheat, but now that I’ve seen the Rebuild of Evangelion it’s removed that block from my mind. It’s not cheating to me anymore. I decided I wanted to make cinematic, cel-shaded looking artwork and with that I started exploring my old friend, Blender.
Blender has gone through a great deal of changes since I last used it back in January of 2008. For instance the entire UI has changed. I had long forgotten everything I knew about modeling and rendering with Blender so it wasn’t an issue. I downloaded the latest stable build and got to work learning the ins-and-outs of this new beast.
Without further ado, this is the final rendering at 1920×1080:
I did this as a request for a Deviant Art member. It wasn’t enough for me to just draw his character. I didn’t want another free floating character without a backdrop. I wanted a cinematic look. I wanted a detailed background, toon-rendered, and bigger than life. I drew his character from the position of a camera looking down at her and to reinforce that perspective I decided to create a city to match. I deliberated on how I would approach this for a few days and then decided to go into Blender and just start modeling rudimentary block buildings and came out with this:
I superimposed my finished version of the girl, her name is Superhawke, over top of the first rendering and it served as a crude prototype. From there I built a better city and pulled the camera back to make it appear that she was higher up and floating in the sky above 50 story skyscrapers. The buildings are still fairly low-poly. I used some of Evangelion’s rebuild of Tokyo-3 as a benchmark for various details. I put simple air-conditioning units and water towers on the rooftops to give them more life. I placed some crude trees which were there to show scale and color so I could paint over them in Photoshop later.
This is the final version of that city as it was rendered:
While I was constructing this city I had begun doing various rendering tests to get down the toon shading. The first test I did was just to use Blender’s edge rendering with the toon shaded materials. What happens is that some of the lines don’t show up and if you render it to small the lines are thick. I’d have to go into Photoshop and up the levels until the lines were dark enough and I didn’t want to do that since the color would be ruined. The thick lines, bleck. Do not want. I wanted the right colors and sharp, thin lines where I expected them to be. To get thin lines what you need to do is to render out at least 200% larger than your final resolution (which is 1920×1080 for me). In Photoshop I could then resize the image and get my crisp lines. Still, some of the thinner lines don’t show up. I decided the best way would be if I could separate out the line rendering and shading so I could manipulate the lines to darken them and composite everything together.
Well, Blender has a means of doing that when it finishes the rendering, it’s called (wait for it) the compositor. You can basically add nodes and string them together to manipulate the rendered images and layer them together. You can try and combine nodes to create all sorts of effects. To do this you need different render layers. So, one layer had my AC Units with the shadeless materials so I could get the the black lines on a white background. The only rendering options I set on this layer was to do edges. The edge rendering was set to 100. The second layer was my toon shaded version and it had all of the default rendering options checked. To get darker lines I used the RGB curve on the line render layer and increased the levels until the lines showed up and then Blender composites the toon-shaded layer to it using an Overlay mix node.
Here is a line shading test with shadows:
Here’s the blender compositor node setup I used:
click to enlarge
This is the final rendering with both the toon render layer and the lines:
So far so good. I figured out a decent way of doing the rendering. Here’s the problem: with my city scene doing the compositing in Blender is going to be a pain in the ass. Basically it means duplicating the geometry and there’s already a lot of geometry for the city. This is what my blender file looks like from the camera’s POV:
Doubling that geo to do both layers would tax my machine. I attempted it anyway and it only caused Blender to up and crash during the rendering phase after all that trouble. So it was back to the alternative way: render out the individual scenes for line rendering and the toon shading and composite them in Photoshop. Here’s a grayscale version of the buildings with the lines as composited in Photoshop:
Once I had all of this going there were a few other tests I wanted to try. I wanted to see if I could reflect the sky in some of the buildings but building a skybox, while that was easy, didn’t provide good results. It’s something I still need to explore. I thought of environment maps, but I’m still shaky on how they work in Blender. I even played with ambient occlusion and got this rendering:
I thought of compositing that with my final image, but the AO just doesn’t fit. I wanted cel-shaded coloring and it would make it look too shaded.
One more note, I also tried a version of Blender 2.5 with Freestyle integrated. Freestyle is a Google Summer of Code project to do toon rendering. I thought it would be a boon and solve all my problems. Certainly there are scripts in there that do an amazing job. I found one with the right line thickness and decent enough shading, but alas, it didn’t work out. Everytime I tried to render my city at 200% the resolution it would crash Blender. I tried the parametric line rendering but it didn’t work either. Of course this version of Blender 2.5 is an experimental one, so it’ll be a bit before it’s working well. I thought of going back to an older version of Blender with Freestyle as well, but honestly, it’s a different UI, and I’m not interested in learning it. So this approach was the best way and something I intend to explore further.
As for my friend…we watched Evangelion 1.11 and 2.22 and it left him brimming with questions and no resolution so I picked up the Evangelion TV series and we rewatched that. All I can say is, he’s seen it all now except for End of Evangelion which we’ll watch sooner or later. Those last two episodes of the TV show…painful, utterly painful to watch for me nowadays. Of course, Eva’s probably not best marathoned straight through. Back when I was in high school we did that to a friend. When he watched the last episode he turned to us and said, “I’m never watching anime again.”