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Metaprogramming with the type function


In my book, Practical Maya Programming with Python, I use Python’s type function for dynamically creating custom Maya nodes based on specifications, such as input and output attributes. I really love the type function*, so I thought I’d post another cool use of it.

I recently wrote this gem as a way to dynamically create exception types from error codes (it was for a now-defunct REST client):

def get_errtype(code):
    errtype = _errtype_cache.get(code)
    if errtype is None:
        errtype = type('Error%s' % code, (FrameworkError,), {})
        _errtype_cache[code] = errtype
    return errtype

Next is an uncommon form of Python's except statement. Its argument can be any expression that evaluates to a single exception type or sequence of exception types. You can actually call a function in the argument to except!

    return framework.do_something()
except framework.catch(404):
    return None

The framework.catch function is below. It looks up (and potentially creates) error types based on the error codes being caught:

def catch(*codes):
    return [get_errtype(c) for c in codes]

This sort of utility is why I wrote the type of book I did. Learning how to program in Python instead of MEL is all well and good. But you need to really see what Python is capable of to make big strides. I hope that with a more advanced understanding of Python, 3D developers can start creating frameworks and libraries, just like PyMEL, that other developers will work with and on for many years to come.

* I love the type function for a vain reason. It's more obscure than decorators, but not as difficult to understand as metaclasses.

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GeoCities and the Qt Designer


In a review of my book, Practical Maya Programming with Python, reviewer W Boudville suggests my advice of avoiding the Qt Designer is backwards-looking and obsolete, such as writing assembler instead of C for better performance, or using a text file to design a circuit instead of a WYSIWYG editor. I am quite sure he (assuming it is a he) isn’t the only person with such reservations.

Unfortunately, the comparison is not at all fair. Here’s a more relevant allegory:

Hey, did you hear about this awesome thing called geocities? You can build a website by just dragging and dropping stuff, no programming required!

We’ve had WYSIWYG editors for the web for about two decades (or longer?), yet I’ve never run into a professional who works that way. I think WYSIWYG editors are great for people new to GUI programming or a GUI framework, or for mock-ups, but it’s much more effective to do production GUI work through code. Likewise, we’ve had visual programming systems for even longer, but we’ve not seen one that produces a result anyone would consider maintainable. Sure, we’ve had some luck creating state machine tools, but we are nowhere close for the more general purpose logic required in a UI. And even these state machine tools are only really useful when they have custom nodes written in code.

Finally, WYSIWYG editors can be useful in extremely verbose frameworks or languages. I wouldn’t want to use WinForms in C# without the Visual Studio Designer. Fortunately for Pythonistas, PySide and PyQt are not WinForms!

I have no doubt that at some point WYSIWYG editors will become useful for GUI programming. Perhaps it will require 3D displays or massively better libraries. I don’t know. But for today and the foreseeable future, I absolutely discourage the use of the Qt Designer for creating production GUIs with Python.


A short letter to a unit testing newcomer


One of my friends asked how to get started with unit testing and Test Driven Development and figured I could write a short post. I also mention TDD a few times in my book so I think it could use some more attention.

I got started with unit testing when I wrote a smallish Python project, and realized I couldn’t maintain large Python projects without tests*. So I wrote unit tests for my code. I then quickly got into TDD. I don’t remember what resources I used, but there are plenty.

I’d encourage you to start unit testing by writing your code first, then the tests. As soon as this becomes easy and is paying off, start writing the tests first (TDD). You will come to appreciate that this is a powerful way of thinking and working. Even if you don’t ultimately stick with this approach, it is worth becoming skilled with it. You will uncover many suboptimal areas in your coding process that are otherwise extremely difficult to find and fix.

Keep in mind that learning TDD isn’t like already knowing Mercurial, then reading a book about Git**, and then being skilled with Git because you are skilled with Mercurial. You are embarking on a long journey, and will need to refer to many tutorials, blogs, and books. You will do some TDD, and look back on that code and process in a year and be horrified, just like you were when you started programming. Do not think of unit testing and TDD like learning a new framework or library. Think of it like learning how to program all over again.

So I don’t know exactly where to get started, only that you must, and keep going once you do start.

* I’d soon realize that no project was really maintainable without tests.

** Pro Git is my favorite Git book, by the way.

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Practical Maya Programming with Python is Published


My book, Practical Maya Programming with Python has been finally published! Please check it out and tell me what you think. I hope you will find it sufficiently-but-not-overly opinionated :) It is about as personal as a technical book can get, being distilled from years of mentoring many technical artists and programmers, which is a very intimate experience. It also grows from my belief and observation that becoming a better programmer will, due to all sorts of indirect benefits, help make you a better person.

If you are using Python as a scripting language in a larger application- a game engine, productivity software, 3D software, even a monolithic codebase that no longer feels like Python- there’s a lot of relevant material here about turning those environments into more standard and traditional Python development environments, which give you better tools and velocity. The Maya knowledge required is minimal for much of the book. Wrapping a procedural undo system with context managers or decorators is universal. A short quote from the Preface:

This book is not a reference. It is not a cookbook, and it is not a comprehensive guide to Maya’s Python API. It is a book that will teach you how to write better Python code for use inside of Maya. It will unearth interesting ways of using Maya and Python to create amazing things that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. While there is plenty of code in this book that I encourage you to copy and adapt, this book is not about providing recipes. It is a book to teach skills and enable.

Finally, to those who pre-ordered, I’m truly sorry for all the delays. They’re unacceptable. I hope you’ll buy and enjoy the book anyway. At least I now have a real-world education on the perils of working with the wrong publisher, and won’t be making that same mistake again.

Thanks and happy reading!
Rob Galanakis


Maya Python Binaries for Windows


I’ve put together a page to link and host all the various Python C extensions compiled for various flavors of Autodesk Maya on Windows:

This is due to Maya using newer VS compilers than Python 2.6/2.7, which uses VS2008. Much more info on the page.

I’ll try and keep this up to date. If you have anything to contribute, please post it somewhere and send me the link (or send the files to me, whatever).

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Global Glob


I am cleaning out my drafts and found this two year old post titled “Globals Glob” with no content. The story is worth telling so here we go.

There was a class the EVE client used to control how missiles behaved. We needed to start using it in our tools for authoring missiles with their effects and audio. The class and module was definitely only designed (I used the term loosely) to run with a full client, and not inside of our tools, which are vanilla Python with a handful of modules available.

My solution was the GlobalsGlob base class, which was just a bag of every singleton or piece of data used by the client that was unavailable to our tools. So instead of:


it’d be:


The ClientGlobalsGlob called the service, but FakeGlobalsGlob did nothing. The GlobalsGlob allowed us to use the missile code without having to rewrite it. A rewrite was out of the question, as it had just been rewritten, except using the same code. (sigh)

Unsurprisingly, GlobalsGlob was super-fragile. So we added a test to make sure the interface between the client and fake globs were the same, using the inspect module. This helped, but of course things kept breaking.

This all continued until the inevitable and total breakdown of the code. Trying to use the missile code in tools was abandoned (I think it was, I have no idea what state it’s in). This was okay though, as we weren’t using the missile tools much after those few months. GlobalsGlob served its purpose, but I will never be able to decide if it was a success or failure.


Python Enrichment and PitP


When I was starting my job at CCP, I posted about some things I wanted to do as a lead. I’ve been through two releases with the Tech Art Group in Iceland (and for the past 6 months or so been the Tech Art Director here) and figured I’d measure my performance against my expectations.

Training sessions: I’m proud to say this is a definite success. I was the initial Coordinator for our Reykjavik Python Community of Practice (studio-wide volunteer group that discusses python in general and its use at CCP), where I started two initiatives I’m very proud of. One is the weekly ‘enrichment session’ where we watch a PyCon video, go through a demonstration or tutorial, etc. These have gone over great, the trick is to do them even if only 4 people show up :) The other is Python in the Pisser, a python version of Google’s Testing in the Toilet. I hope we can open source the newsletters and maybe share content with the outside world. More information on that coming in the future.

Collective vision/tasking: We run an XP-style team on tech art so I like to think my TAs feel ownership of what they are working on. In reality, that ownership and vision increases with seniority. We are actively improving this by doing more pairing and having more code reviews- the team is at a level now where they can review each other’s work and it isn’t all up to me to mentor/train them.

Evolving standards and practices: We started in Hansoft, moved to Outlook Tasks, and settled on Trello. We’ve discovered our own comfortable conventions and can discuss and evolve them without getting into arguments or ‘pulling rank’.

Community engagement: The CoP and mentoring has definitely done some work here. I try and give everyone 10%/10% time, where 10% is for ‘mandatory’ training or non-sprint tasks, and 10% is for their personal enrichment.

Move people around: We haven’t had much of an opportunity for this but we did change desk positions recently :) The art team is too small to have many opportunities and all graphics development is on one scrum team.

Code katas: We had one and it was mildly successful. We plan to do more but scheduling has been difficult- we do two releases a year, and DUST introduces complications in the middle of those releases, but we’ll be doing more things like it for sure.

I’ve also been doing very regular 1-on-1′s and, I hope, been getting honest feedback. Overall I am happy with my performance but can improve in all areas, even if that means doing more of the same (and becoming a better XP team).

Anyone want to share what successful cultural practices they have on their team/at their studio?


Maya and PyCharm


Recently at work I had the opportunity of spending a day to get Maya and PyCharm working nicely. It took some tweaking but we’re at a point now where we’re totally happy with our Maya/Python integration.

Remote Debugger: Just follow the instructions here: We ended up making a Maya menu item that will add the PyCharm helpers to the syspath and start the pydev debugger client (basically, the only in-Maya instructions in that link).

Autocomplete: To get autocomplete working, we just copied the stubs from “C:\Program Files\Autodesk\Maya2013\devkit\other\pymel\extras\completion\py” and put them into all of the subfolders under: “C:\Users\rgalanakis\.PyCharm20\system\python_stubs” (obviously, change your paths to what you need). We don’t use the mayapy.exe because we do mostly pure-python development (more on that below), and we can’t add the stubs folder to the syspath (see below), so this works well enough, even if it’s a little hacky.

Remote Commands: We didn’t set up the ability to control Maya from PyCharm, we prefer not to develop that way. Setting that up (commandPort stuff, PMIP PyCharm plugin, etc.)  was not worth it for us.

Copy/Paste: To get copy/paste from PyCharm into Maya working, we followed the advice here: Note, we made a minor change to the code in the last post, because we found screenshots weren’t working at all when Maya was running. We early-out the function if “oldMimeData.hasImage()”.

And that was it. We’re very, very happy with the result, and now we’re running PyCharm only (some of us were using WingIDE or Eclipse or other stuff to remote-debug Maya or work with autocomplete).


A note about the way we work- we try to make as much code as possible work standalone (pure python), which means very little of our codebase is in Maya. Furthermore we do TDD, and we extend that to Maya, by having a base TestCase class that sends commands to Maya under the hood (so the tests run in Maya and report their results back to the pure-python host process). So we can do TDD in PyCharm while writing Maya code. It is confusing to describe but trivial to use (inherit from MayaTestCase, write code that executes in Maya, otherwise treat it exactly like regular python). One day I’ll write up how it works in more depth.


Decisions, decisions


Some people can find me a bit over-earnest in my quest for automation. I’ve finally figured out how to know whether something is worthwhile to automate.

Are you making any decisions when you do this?

And if someone is making decisions that may be unnecessary:

Can we get from A to B without making any decisions?

I value the people I work with and I want them to be more effective. Sometimes people are afraid I’ll automate them out of a job, or they like a manual part of their workflow. More often they take pride in being the manual bottleneck behind a tricky or brittle process.

Humans are valuable because we can make complex decisions very quickly. When I automate an area someone isn’t immediately comfortable with, it’s not because I don’t value what he or she does. On the contrary: because I value their skills and time, I want to see them doing something that requires their unique abilities.


Never build upon closed-source frameworks


A poster on who is using Autodesk’s CAT asks:

 The problem I´m having: I can control the ears now manually, after setting up the reactions, but apparently the CAT system isn´t respecting any keyframes I set on the facial controls, neither in setup nor animation mode.

He already hinted at the answer in the same post:

Even though I´ve heard a couple of times not to rely on CAT in production…

So there’s your answer.

Never depend upon closed-source frameworks that aren’t ubiquitous and proven.

It’s true of CAT, it’s true of everything. And in fact it is one reason I’ll never go back to developing with .NET on Windows (the 3rd party ecosystem, not the framework itself). If you don’t have the source for something, you 1) will never fully understand it, and 2) never be able to sustain your use of it. When I was at BioWare Austin, and the Edmonton guys decided to switch to CAT, I was up in arms for exactly this reason. We had an aging framework- PuppetShop- but it worked well enough, we had the source, and acceptable levels of support (Kees, the author, is/was readily available). Instead, they switched to a closed-source product (CAT) from a vendor that has repeatedly showcased its awful support (Autodesk), and headache ensued. Fortunately I never had to deal with it and left some months after that. Without the source, you’re dependent upon someone whose job it is to provide support just good enough so you don’t leave their product (which is difficult since they own everything), and bad enough that you have to hire them to fix problems (they pride themselves on this level of support, which I call extortion).

As for the ubiquitous and proven part: unless this closed source solution is incredibly widespread (think Max, Maya, etc.), and has a lot of involved power users (ie, Biped is widespread but difficult to get good community support for because it attracts so many novices), it means you have to figure out every single workaround because you can’t actually fix the problem because you don’t have source. Imagine working with no Google- that’s what you give up when you use a closed-source framework that isn’t an industry standard.

So don’t do it. Don’t let others do it. If you’re currently doing it, think about getting the source and if you can’t do that, start making a backup plan.