I’ve been working on a new 3D model of the stargate. For the moment, I’ve been working in parallel on the variations seen in the original movie and the SG-1 television series, since they share nearly all of the same parts.1The Atlantis stargate, while superficially similar, actually has enough unique aspects that it makes more sense for me to build a separate model based on the parts I’ve made for the movie/SG-1 version. One of the elements I’d like to recreate is that in the original movie, the stargate on the alien planet Abydos had different symbols on its inner ring than the one on Earth. I’ve never seen any listing of these alternate symbols, so I investigated the film to see what I could figure out.
NO MATTER WHERE YOU GO, THERE YOU ARE
First, let’s talk about the point of origin symbol. For the TV series Stargate SG-1, the concept of the stargate was simplified, so that rather than each stargate having a unique set of symbols on it based on the stars as seen from its particular location in the universe, every stargate used the same symbols, based on the constellations as seen from Earth, aside from one unique symbol, which represented that particular stargate itself. Finding the symbol that represented the “point of origin” was a major plot-point in the film, though it was only occasionally touched on in the series; unique point of origin symbols were designed for other stargates just twice during the entire run of the show,2The stargate in Antarctica in “Solitudes,” and the stargate on the planet where the population was living a VR simulation in “The Gamekeeper” with other planets normally having one of the regular 38 “address” symbols substituted in their place (another reason I wanted to recreate the Abydos stargate was to have a supply of plausible stargate symbols to use as point of origin symbols for alien stargates on my SG-1 gate model).
In SG-1, the origin symbol for the stargate used by Earth during most of the show was carried over from the film, a triangle pointing upward at a circle, representing a pyramid with the sun directly above it.3The pyramid symbol, and all the other stargate symbols, were remade from scratch for the series stargate setpieces, and don’t precisely match the symbols used in the movie in size, orientation, or proportion. The symbol for Abydos in the series was three equilateral lines extending out from a center point, with two triangles flanking the vertical line.
That is similar to the way the symbol was described in the film (a pyramid with the three moons of Abydos above it), but it doesn’t quite look like the drawing of the symbol we saw in the film, which consisted of two wide, stacked triangles. And, in fact, there is a symbol of two wide, stacked triangles on the Abydos stargate in the movie. So where’d the symbol used in the TV show come from?
The Atlantis stargate, while superficially similar, actually has enough unique aspects that it makes more sense for me to build a separate model based on the parts I’ve made for the movie/SG-1 version.
The pyramid symbol, and all the other stargate symbols, were remade from scratch for the series stargate setpieces, and don’t precisely match the symbols used in the movie in size, orientation, or proportion.
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.
Back in the 1960s, Doctor Who introduced the Cybermen as coming from a “counter-Earth” called Mondas, a twin planet of our own that had escaped detection as it orbited the sun exactly opposite the Earth. Mondas was flung into deep space when the arrival of Earth’s moon disrupted the balance between the planets, and the inhabitants gradually surgically altered themselves to survive the increasingly harsh environment, until they were cold, cybernetic monstrosities who strapped enormous engines to their world, intent on returning to their home star and draining Earth of its precious energy reserves. Mondas itself was depicted as being exactly identical to Earth (except upside-down1While upside-down, it is still rotating in the conventional way, suggesting that the Mondasians also consider “north” to be “up” on their maps. I’m not sure whether that means that, spatially, the planet was upside down relative to Earth and rotating in the same direction, or the surface was aligned the same way but was rotating backwards, like Venus . I doubt anyone gave it that much thought.), complete with humans identical to those on Earth.
There is no prize for finding the most scientific inaccuracies in that paragraph. “World Enough and Time” and “The Doctor Falls,” the two-part season 10 finale of Doctor Who, revisited the Cybermen’s origin. While set on a ship either constructed by or commissioned for the people of Mondas rather than the planet itself, we do see a computer screen showing a display of the planet. At a casual glance, Mondas still appears to be identical to Earth (though right-side up this time2And still rotating in the conventional direction. Maybe they reversed the planet’s rotation when they attached the engines, like that episode of Futurama.), but the Doctor Who art department took the time to subtly modify the layout of the continents as a freeze-frame bonus. I’d hoped that the BBC’s Production Art gallery for the episode might contain a complete map, but, alas, it is not to be, and it seems unlikely the show will be revisiting Mondas anytime soon, leaving reverse-engineering the planet to fans like me.
First, I had to correct for the prespective distortion of the computer screen, so here’s the straight-on view of Mondas, in both Quicktime and GIF formats.Continue reading →
While upside-down, it is still rotating in the conventional way, suggesting that the Mondasians also consider “north” to be “up” on their maps. I’m not sure whether that means that, spatially, the planet was upside down relative to Earth and rotating in the same direction, or the surface was aligned the same way but was rotating backwards, like Venus . I doubt anyone gave it that much thought.
The score over the climactic sequence of “Rogue One” always reminded me of something. I tried laying over “The Life and Death of Amy Pond,” from the end of the Doctor Who episode “The Pandorica Opens,” and the pacing and tone matched pretty well. I suspect it may have been the temp score for the sequence.
You can see the waveforms for both tracks here; the film track, “Your Father Would Be Proud” is on top, with “The Life and Death of Amy Pond” is on the bottom. Also, I did slightly adjust the speed (about 1% faster or slower, I can’t remember) of the music so it would hit a couple beats slightly more precisely.