AVENUE ultimate style magazine October 2012 - exclusive
Writer Cajsa Lilliehook Photographer Thalia Heckroth and William Weaver
eptember 4th was a landmark day for the Firestorm team. They received notice from Linden Lab that their viewer was outperforming the official viewer and ranked as both the most stable and most used viewer in Second Life速. While stability played a primary role in that achievement, the arrival of Phototools for Firestorm certainly added a significant advantage to Firestorm in winning the hearts, minds and hard drives of SL速 residents.
Phototools, for those unfamiliar, is a set of skins for Firestorm that change the user interface in ways that make it much more userfriendly and efficient for in-world photography. It unpacks many of the finer graphic controls from the dusty basement of the Debug Settings Menu and lays them out on the counter where anyone can start cooking up amazing photo effects in-world with ease. Phototools gives you direct access to the Debug Settings while freeing you from the obscure and opaque names and the awkward mile-long drop-down menu. It replaces them with sliders and toggles that are intuitive and easy to use. With Phototools you can go from merely opting to turn on certain graphic rendering features to being able to configure them with great precision. With Phototools, you will soon be tinkering with Depth of Field, Ambient Occlusion and other mysteries of photographic artistry. Residents who use Phototools will discover when the first menu opens that it has an extraordinarily organic interface â€” one that makes perfect sense with the natural workflow of SL photography. This may be because William Weaver, the creator of Phototools, is not primarily a computer codedeveloper. In fact, he had to learn XML in order to make Phototools and that has perhaps made all the difference. Weaver originally joined SL in order to explore its use in
education. He soon realized SL also offered remarkable latitude for creative writing. Using role play to explore, he was able to incorporate the situations that developed while role playing in SL in his writing. He soon wrote a small book and took the next logical step of taking snapshots to accompany the text. Soon after, Weaver saw some video shot with deferred rendering (lighting and shadows) enabled, and realized that SL could be used to produce high quality 3D computer generated imagery (CGI) that approached broadcast/ motion-picture standards and do it in real time. At the same time, Autumn Teardrop introduced him to the Visual Artists Alliance weekly Photohunt event. This was the impetus to his development of Phototools. As the photohunts are limited to sixty minutes, he was frustrated with trying to navigate the complex and somewhat disorganized system of preference menus and debug settings in the allotted time, even with a high end computer specifically configured for optimum SL rendering. This pushed him to develop his own personal menu system to bring those controls to the forefront where they could be easily deployed. For now, only Firestorm users have access to Phototools. Weaver chose the Firestorm platform because of its stability, support and trust and has no personal plan to convert Phototools to other viewers. However, those using standard viewers need
not despair. Hitomi Tiponi, who helped Weaver understand menu coding, is now working on a version of her Starlight menu system that will include Phototools for the standard viewer. Weaver has also expressed his willingness to work with LL if they desire to incorporate Phototools into the standard viewer. Weaver also included detailed and useful explanations of the settings and how they affect images and performance. The tooltips allow users to quickly and easily develop deeper understanding of the image making process in SL directly from the menu. In addition, as a safety measure, a “reset to default” button was incorporated for every setting. Whatever changes users might make to their settings can be quickly reversed if they exceed a particular computer’s hardware limits. Asked if he has further plans to enhance SL photography, Weaver suggested that helping people to understand and use all the capabilities of SL graphics is itself an enhancement to SL photography. He thinks we are reaching a wall in technological terms. SL is a real-time 3D graphics rendering engine, and while it is often thought to be behind the times in terms of its speed and graphics quality, Weaver suggests that the opposite is actually the case; he says that SL’s rendering engine is incredibly robust in terms of the amount of fine control over the rendering process. It is
basically, Blender/Maya in real time with scaled back graphics capabilities. If you allowed for all of the possible 3D rendering that Blender and Maya afford you would also get the same frame rates. A single Blender/Maya frame can take hours to draw. SL, being a real-time rendering engine, must work in fractions of a second. To give one of the more striking examples of how Phototools gives us greater control and deeper understanding of SL’s rendering power, we can take a look at Ambient Occlusion. In the standard viewer, you can access Ambient Occlusion through the graphics preferences, turning it on or off. If you have shadows enabled and turn it on, you will note that your shadows are smoother. That’s where most users stop - not realizing that deep in the debug settings the real power of Ambient Occlusion is waiting to be revealed. Phototools pulls that control out of the Debug basement and puts it in your hand. In real life, when light enters a scene and hits an object it will illuminate it unevenly allowing for depth to be observed. Ambient Occlusion is the technological approximation of natural environmental lighting. It can soften shadows and highlight surface details. The 3D render engine is determining where the light would fall and how much/ little of it would hit the various parts of the object. If ambient occlusion is turned off completely
the object would look dramatically flat with virtually no depth. Weaver shot three photos to illustrate the magic of Ambient Occlusion. You can go to the sim ‘Bug Island 2” and find that object and test it yourself. In the first image, Ambient Occlusion is turned on and left at the default setting x = 0..8 , where most users stop. In the second, using the Phototools menu, x is reduced to x = 0.4 and in the third, x is reduced to 0.0. The change is depth and precision is stark. You can see immediately how just this one element can have a profound effect on your photographs. It is important to note that Ambient Occlusion only works with light from the Sun/Moon. It must be turned on in order for Shadow Softening to work as well. It will reduce frame rate, so turn it off when you do not need it. It can cause grainy shadows and object shading. This is because in order to render in real time, sacrifices must be made in terms of render accuracy and quality. It makes sense to balance the effect of lowering x with appropriate shadow softening to achieve good results. Weaver prefers to use the Phototools menu to build his own Windlight settings for each scene. He often turns off all light from Windlight and lights the scene using point and projection lights. He also enjoys creating monochrome environment settings. In building a Windlight setting, it is helpful
to know what one is looking for visually. If uncertain or looking for ideas, one can cycle through the stock environment presets that come with Firestorm and then modify them to achieve a finely-tuned setting. As with all of the Phototools menus, the tooltips will be an invaluable resource. A few hours of dedicated experimentation and practice will go a long way in helping gain mastery and competence. Weaver thinks not using all of SL’s capabilities is one of the most common flaws in SL photography. It is why he produced Phototools. He wants people to get to all of these rich and robust features simply and completely. Shadows, Ambient Occlusion, Depth of Field, Glow, Water Reflections and Specular Highlighting all have multiple settings that can provide for highly controllable and visually powerful image making. He loves to see SL images that explore these capabilities because some of them are simply not possible in Photoshop®. For example, you cannot create shadows in Photoshop with anywhere near the qualityof those that SL itself can render, nor ambient occlusion nor depth of field nor glow nor reflections. That is because working in the viewer, the images are made using calculated light that is extremely accurate. When talking about machinima, it’s even more critical. It would be incredibly challenging to create any of these graphics features for video and in some cases impossible.
One of the biggest steps people can take to improve their photos is one of the most basic and easily forgotten. Changing the Field of View (FoV) of the camera is one of the most essential tools and Weaver uses it in every single shot. To change the FoV, press control-8 for a wider FoV, control-0 for a zoom FoV and control-9 for the default FoV. Weaver is most emphatic about urging people to use Depth of Field (DoV) more deeply. This would also by extension require the changing of FoV as they are intrinsically linked. He believes new users to Phototools will get the most dramatic changes using the Windlight, Depth of Field and Glow menus, recommending them as a good place to start. In his own work, Weaver rarely adjusts the General Render Settings and Water reflections and never uses the viewer camera controls. He sometimes uses the Interface Aids and adjusts the specular settings when needed. However, DoF, Shadows, Glow, Ambient Occlusion and 3D mouse settings are used and adjusted constantly when shooting. Especially DoF and Glow. He designed the menus to follow his workflow. First he sets the Windlight (even if that means turning it off) then he sets the shadows and specular, the DoF and Glow. Asked if he had given any thought to his applying his menubuilding skills to the rest of the user interface, Weaver confessed he had thought about it and would be interested in learning more about
how other users would like to see the UI improved. For himself, he rarely uses anything other than Phototools, the build menu and chat. He thinks the build menu could use an overhaul and began working on that before putting it aside to focus on Phototools. While Weaver is entranced by SLâ€™s rendering power, there are some enhancements he would like to see. 1. Allow all the menus to be simply, easily and completely customizable by the user. 2. Allow for the mapping of all settings to keyboard shortcuts. 3. Allow users to have focus control similar to what is found in real life lenses. 4. Allow users to save and trade graphics and Windlight settings in-world. 5. Allow for prim based lights that can cast further and with greater intensity. Weaver is uncertain at the moment if we can reasonably expect any dramatic improvement to rendering ability that would still allow SL to be useable in real time. In short, the biggest improvement to SL photography now is helping more people see just what SL can do. Of course, he recommends people take into consideration SLâ€™s heavy graphic demands when purchasing or upgrading their computer system, He also
recommends photographers invest in a 3D mouse. After a good video card, it is the most useful tool for him in terms of image creation. It allows for extremely dynamic camera control and angles, including tilt. In addition to Phototools, Weaver has gifted SL residents with two other enhancements to their photography. Paperwork Shows is a web site with a comprehensive guide to using Phototools augmented with several other tutorials and resources that will strengthen user’s photography skills. It will be reinforced with more tutorials in the future as Weaver has the time to work on them; in the interim, there are extensive instructions on using the Phototools menus. On the SL Marketplace, under his avatar name paperwork, Weaver offers four free builds that utilize projectors and shadows to highlight the rendering power and complexity of SL’s viewer. Available for free, these builds are unique. Viewed at low graphics, the surface textures seem rough and bumpy while with deferred rendering enabled, they take on a life of their own. Questioned about the striking difference in the build textures, Weaver noted that most builders work without Lights and Shadows enabled. They continue to bake in the lighting effects and do not let the lighting work naturally for them. Weaver’s builds are often only for photography and video and are always built
with Light and Shadows enabled. Weaver said that he hopes that more builders will learn to use SLâ€™s built-in lighting. As Phototools is downloaded and put in the hands of more and more users, we can expect more exciting photos with rich lighting, deep shadows and beautiful perspectives full of depth. These are the amazing gifts from a very gifted man.
Visions by William Weaver
Photo by Melusina Parkin
Writer Quan Lavender
Photo by Buffy Holfe
illiam Weaver (paperwork) has undoubtedly made an impression in the Second Life® photography scene, and his work has inspired SL® gallery owner Anita Witt (aniwitt Resident) to run her current exhibition, The Weaver Project. She contacted photographers who’d taken photos in Weaver’s builds via Flickr®. Witt says: “Initially I invited about 15 people whose Weaver pics I found on Flickr. I also contacted some of my own favourite SL photographers, and I began mentioning the project through my own Flickr account. The response has been overwhelming, not least thanks to the enthusiastic help and support from Lo Haze. We already have contributions from over 25 photographers and there are more coming in every day, but there is still room for many, many more. Each of the frames will hold up to 5 pictures, and there is still room to add another 20+ frames. So this could potentially become an exhibition containing over 250 pictures. This is not a heavily curated exhibition; all photographers are welcome to contribute. It is meant to be a tribute to William’s impact, and a celebration of the creativity of SL photography.” Witt also provides Weaver’s builds (also available free from the SL Marketplace) for the use of photographers who lack the space to rez them. The results can be passed to her to become part of the exhibit. And photographers are taking advantage of the
opportunity. Witt says: “There is a growing number of photographers coming by and staying, sometimes for hours on end, and returning again and again. It gives me a good feeling to see this happening. I have spoken with a few of them, though most of the time I try to stay out of their hair, knowing how much focus and concentration is needed to get all the details right for the perfect picture.” Witt is aware that behind the breathtaking quality of Weaver’s photos is a huge amount of work. She became aware of him in August 2011; she started to follow him on Flickr and saw him uploading day by day tremendous numbers of images: “It must have been hundreds almost daily. In retrospect it is plain to see that he was doing meticulous photographic research, and laying down the foundation for what he has accomplished so far.” Witt is a user of Phototools for the Firestorm viewer, and says that Weaver’s builds fit with the menu system like hand in glove, providing the perfect training ground a photographer needs to practise using all the options. It’s interesting to see how differently the locations are being used by each photographer, and the preference for some builds over others. Witt says: “When reviewing the exhibition so far it seems that builds 2 + 4 and the Hopper build are the most used locations. But many of the first pictures are made by photographers who had rezzed the builds themselves, and these are the least prim intensive.
Photo by Marlen Slazar
Photo by Maloe Vansant
Photo by Lily Laufer
I expect the prim intensive build 8 in particular to be represented in abundance when more pictures made on the sim starts coming in.” The volume of submissions is an indication of how William Weaver’s work is influencing SL photographers. “I believe William’s research of the inner secrets of SL lighting and graphics has already had great impact on SL photography. His work makes the tools of the trade accessible to everyone... there are many secrets hidden in the endless debug settings of SL viewers. For me this is SL photography growing up”, says Witt. The William Weaver project runs until the end of November; there’s still time to both see and, if one is inclined, to contribute. Contributing photographers share their thoughts on Weaver’s works: Clem Velinov: “William’s work is going to leave your mind floating into a dream world you probably didn’t even know existed in your head.” Cajsa Lilliehook: “William Weaver’s phototools and his builds have inspired me to try new things and explore more of what I can do in my photos. I love having Ground Offset a click away. Thalia Heckroth: “Skillful, Talented, Visionary, Remarkable. There is a before and an after in SL thanks to his Photo Tools.
Hillany Scofield: “What I see when I look at his work is that William has influenced and inspired artist, photographers and fashion related ppl in sl in a very unique way and brought those fields together. He is an amazing artist, a builder, a minimalist, also a helpful, friendly and humble person who has all my admiration.” Eupalinos Ugajin: “Weaver introduces in SL the playing with light - as an element you can touch - that you find in the work of James Turrell.” Whiskey Monday: “William Weaver has enabled Second Life photographers to achieve a new level of artistry. Through generous sharing of his knowledge, builds and photo tools William has had a wide influence on artists of all kinds in SL. The variety of images produced using his techniques and builds is hugely impressive. His contributions are a treasure.” Visit the William Weaver Project at Anita’s Artspace in Mado [199.97.1226].
Photo by Emaline