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Pitch & Produce | Raise Ravens: Reanimating loved ones in virtual reality with Character Creator

Raqi Sayed – Senior Lecturer | School of Design Innovation – Programme Director, ICT Graduate School | Victoria University of Wellington

Raqi Syed

Raqi Syed is an artist, visual effects designer, researcher, and lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington. She is the co-director of MINIMUM MASS.

Her practice and teaching focus on the materiality of light, hybrid forms of documentary and fiction storytelling, and using media archeology and software studies methodologies to better understand contemporary practices in visual effects.

Raqi has worked as a visual effects artist on a bunch of feature films. In 2020, her VR work was exhibited at the Tribeca, Cannes, Annecy, and Venice International Film Festivals. She is a 2018 Sundance and Turner Fellow, and a 2020 Ucross Fellow. In 2017, The Los Angeles Times pegged Raqi for a list of 100 people who can help solve Hollywood’s diversity problem. She holds an MFA from the USC School of Cinematic Arts and an MA from the VUW Institute of Modern Letters.

Raqi Sayed created an animated docu-memoir (Raise Ravens) where she digitally resurrected her deceased father in virtual reality with the help of Character Creator in order to lay his ghost, and generations of family hauntings to rest.

” I’ve been using Reallusion software for 5 years. I find the tools flexible and responsive to the different needs of storytelling in both my own work and teaching students the principles of character-centric visual effects.”

Raqi Sayed – Artist, Visual Effects Designer, Researcher, Lecturer

Q: Hello Raqi, and congratulations for being part of the Reallusion Pitch & Produce program. Kindly introduce yourself, and your work with Raise Ravens.

Thank you, I’m so pleased to be part of this program! I’m a visual effects designer, writer, and researcher. I’m also the Director of RAISE RAVENS, which is an animated docu-memoir told in virtual reality.

Raise Ravens is a digital resurrection of my dead father. I use Reallusion’s Character Creator and iClone pipeline for creating highly realistic digital humans to bring my father back to life so that I can speak to him and finally lay his ghost to rest. On an emotional level, the experience is about the feeling of being haunted by our pasts, and the archetypical relationship between fathers and children.

Q: Digitally reanimating loved ones is always a sensitive topic with many people. Could you guide us through the thought and desire to do such a project? Did you have any doubts or resistance along the way?

Documentary films make use of materials and artifacts in order to access and shape narratives of the past. These materials often take the form of videos, audio, or objects that can bring us closer to specific moments or historic truths. When I began thinking about telling a story about my father I realized our family has no video or moving image record of his life. I knew that if I wanted to construct a narrative about him I would have to craft it digitally and through my family’s collective memories.

I’m fortunate that my family is really supportive of this project. For example, my mother, aunts, and each of my siblings have shared their unique memories about my father with me. And my eldest brother has agreed to serve as the model for the digital human of my father. My family have essentially become co-creators on this project.

Q: Raise Ravens was able to take advantage of Character Creator and its Headshot plug-in for generating digital humans. This allowed you to be the director, performer and tech artist. Can you share with us your creative workflow?

One of the things I’m really interested in is how the digital human can function as a self-portrait. The artist can build a digital human of themselves to interrogate how reality is constructed—this includes lighting, materials, composition, and most importantly performance and the role of the artist. Combined with the form of the docu-memoir I find the experimental natura of this process works really well when I can direct myself as I figure out pipeline and revise the story to reflect what’s technically possible.

The thing that makes immersive storytelling different than linear narratives is that technical pipeline, writing, design, and user experience are all happening in parallel. So being able to quickly revise and iterate my own digital human is really important in the development and prototyping phase. I’m lucky to have a great team of people who are working on Raise Ravens. Jeremy Cameron, Areito Echevarria, Tristan Keillor, and Sandip Kalsy have been essential in the design and pipelining on this project.

” In my work I am interested in how the digital human can serve as a form of self-expression and respectful design. Character Creator is the best tool I have found for building characters that represent the true likeness of real people.”

Raqi Sayed – Artist, Visual Effects Designer, Researcher, Lecturer

Q: Once your characters were ready, you then proceeded to dress them with Clo3D, prior to sending everything to Unreal Engine. What would you say was the most difficult part of this pipeline, and what would you recommend to others?

For me, the costume creation and skinning introduced a lot of complexity into the animated character pipeline. The tools for creating costume elements within Character Creator are really streamlined. But for story purposes we decided to design our own costume using Clo3d. This meant the costume had to be skinned to the rigged character and simulated before animation and motion. We chose to do this in Houdini which gets an excellent result but it does introduce additional steps in the pipeline. It’s worth thinking through ahead of time how much of the costume can be wrapped (rigid) versus simulated and if multiple layers are really necessary.

Raqi Syed digital double and rigged character animated with iClone 8 and send to Unreal Engine with LIVE LINK plugin

Q: You mentioned that through this digital human pipeline you were able to create skin and hair shading models that accurately depict brown skin. How important is this in today’s world of inclusivity? And what advantages does the software provide for easily editing and revising a digital human?

Addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion is an essential part of animated character design. The technology and tools need to reflect this. One of the challenges people of color face is that most of the rendering technologies and documentation still center Caucasian skin models.

In my classes I see students struggle with this. The quality of tutorials in this space is starting to change. I have found Sefki Ibrahim’s tutorials to be great, especially the workflow for integrating XYZ skin textures into a Character Creator pipeline.

More broadly, Character Creator’s SkinGen plugins and PBR shaders enable a lot more customisation and detail for creating skin, which is an important step towards creating more inclusive tools.

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