Archive for February 6th, 2019

Virtual Sets and Educational Animations for UC Scout

For the past couple of years, I’ve been working at the University of California, Santa Cruz, as part of a team producing video lectures for on-line classes in the Scout and University Extension programs. As my time there comes to a close, I wanted to post a retrospective summary of what I’ve been doing. Day to day, the majority of my time was spent assembling and editing individual lessons, though at one time or another I at least touched on all aspects of production, including filming, quality assurance, and asset creation.

As far as 3D work goes, while I did have the chance to produce short explanatory animations for various lessons, something I volunteered for in the first few days on the job was creating virtual sets for our courses. Our presenters were shot on greenscreen, and I though it would add a level of visual interest to place them in a realistic environment, rather than up against some sort of plain color or gradient backdrop. 

(Unless otherwise specified, all 3D work was done in Lightwave, painting and retouching was done in Photoshop, compositing in After Effects, and editing in Premiere.)

The first virtual set I did was for the Scout Oceanography class. The main instruction from the class’s director, Brian Broome, was a single room set with screens of various sizes. The centerpiece was a large panoramic screen, though there was also a space in the environment for a smaller, TV-sized screen used for over-the-shoulder graphics. I designed a set of backgrounds and Premiere presets to be used as a graphics package, so the editors would have a range of options.

After putting this into practice, I learned a number of practical lessons. The large screens in the background of all angles were a drawback; frequently, there was nothing obvious that needed to be seen, but the screens still demanded some kind of content. I had also created an excessive amount of angles and zoom-levels, and an overcomplicated set up for realistic screen reflections; only a few were actually necessary while editing.

My next set took those lessons into account. For Scout’s EMT course, I designed an emergency-services command center. This was my first animated set, with various blinking lights and screens giving the environment a more lively appearance. Originally, the big map on screen left also had some stock footage of traffic cameras on it, but when I saw how it was shaping up in the edits, I found it took up too much space, too close to the presenter, and was distracting. Luckily, I’d rendered in layers, so it was a simple matter to revise that screen.

I also baked in depth-of-field effects into the background, using Frishluft’s Lenscare plug in for After Effects. It was standard procedure to use a gaussian blur on the background in close-ups to suggest a shallower depth of field, but I wanted a more realistic effect. Additionally, having the depth effect built-in helped simplify things in the edit, where you could easily end up with multiple layers of gaussian blur as you applied different presets while working on your edits.

My next “set” was actually more of a hybrid background for our AP German class. The base layer was a photograph my regular team director, Steve Manke, had taken while in Germany. The intention was to add animated elements to it to keep it from looking like, well, a photograph. In Photoshop, I painted out various pedestrians, trees, reflections, and wires, and then cut out elements like the chains and bollards surrounding the street so I could layer in new elements behind them. The scene was then populated with a mixture of 2D and 3D elements, both created by our team and from stock footage. In Lightwave, I created a group of flags on a line blowing in the wind, water running down the edges of a fountain (actually a section of a statue with a videoed fountain element composited in), a tree swaying in the breeze, and a series of cars traveling down the street. For the cars, I used Google Streetview and VisualSFM to create a low-res proxy environment for realistic lighting and reflections.

Most of the animated elements would loop continuously, but the cars, along with several 2D elements, were set up as “gags” which the editors could deploy at their discretion to break things up in the lesson. We set up a shared spreadsheet to help ensure we would get a varied distribution of which ones were used in which lessons.

This course was also the first time I did something which would become standard, which is designing the set to be wider than our 16×9 frame, so the view could pan left or right to make room for sidebar graphics.

AP English Language and Composition is my favorite set of the ones I created. The intent was a “bullpen” for a newspaper or magazine, in a deco-era skyscraper. I modeled interesting detailing and fixtures, populated the background with a number of small objects, both new and reused from earlier courses, and created a basic cityscape to be seen out the window, with animated traffic, water, and clouds. It’s also notable for being the first set where I used models of the same chairs we had in the office, giving us an opportunity we’d later pay off to show an instructor sitting down in one of our sets.

For United States History, I wanted to add a different kind of life to the set. The design was loosely based on the President’s Oval Office, with the initial intent being to alter the decor and set dressing as we moved through different periods of American history. We quickly realized this was overly ambitious, and pared it down to swapping out different versions of the flag as time went on, along with various period-appropriate maps. 

This was the last set I created in Lightwave 2015. All future work would be done in Lightwave 2018, using its new physically-based surfacing system and renderer.

A less majestic set than usual was called for with a special project, a series of on-boarding videos to introduce new UCSC employees to the university. In this case, an office was built with a window overlooking the city of Santa Cruz from the university grounds (though, technically, far from any actual building on the campus). The window frame was based on an actual location within the university. The office was decorated appropriately, with objects including a campus map and a plush toy of the university’s mascot, Sammy the Banana Slug.

The set was modified for a pair of University Extension classes, where the school spirit was dialed back and the room was decorated with more generic items.

For AP US History, we used the same Oval Office backgrounds as before, but the class contained considerably more material prior to the American Revolution, requiring two new environments. I constructed a new, squared-off room, and textured and dressed it in two forms; an earthen cabin modeled after the sorts of dwellings in Colonial Jamestown, and a more polished building based off architecture seen after the European powers had become more established, such as in Colonial Williamsburg.

For Economics, I constructed a large room, inspired by the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Many elements were recycled from earlier sets, such as the columns and elevators, taken from English language, and the ground-floor consoles, adapted from the EMT class, though with some minor remodeling and retexturing.

The class also included student exercises, in addition to regular lectures. To mix things up a bit, we “filmed” these on the ground floor, with the presenter sitting in one of our office chairs, and miming turning away from one of the computers to give the assignment.

One of the exercises I edited involved a discussion of utility companies, and opened with a riff on what it’s like when the power goes out. To mix things up a bit and have some fun, I staged a blackout in the video, with the set gradually regaining power in time with the presenter’s narration.

The final set I did during my time at Scout was for a forthcoming update of the program’s Chemistry classes. The unique aspect of this environment is that, in order to match other recent science classes our team produced, I pre-rendered an animated push-in to be used at the beginning of each lesson. This can be seen at the end of the video at the opening of this post (albeit played in reverse).

As I mentioned above, I also created specific graphics for various lessons, so I’ll close with a selection of those.

Finally, I’d like to say that working at UCSC on Scout has been the highlight of my career. The entire team was a pleasure to work with, and their talent and dedication has created an educational tool that changes lives. It was an extraordinary opportunity and experience, and I hope we may find our paths crossing again.

• February 6, 2019 • Comments Off on Virtual Sets and Educational Animations for UC Scout