Archive for the 'Professional Work' Category

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

Observational Humor

Recently, my friends Brandon and Dave (as well as their co-host Clay, who I haven’t met but seems like a fine person) began a podcast, Observational, where they discuss documentaries “that are fun, crazy, or mind blowing.” During the development process late last year, they asked me if I would create the album art for the show.

First, we brainstormed a few concepts which I sketched out on pen-and-paper (you can see how I sketch in earlier posts, so I don’t feel like I need to subject you to that again). I then created three mock-ups in Photoshop, using the show’s working title, “Cinéma Vérité,” so we could get a sense of how the real thing might look.


Projector 1

One used a simple film-camera icon with a light-beam coming out of it (which I realized while drawing it really made it more of a projector icon).


Shadow 1

Another, my personal favorite, had a movie screen, with the word “Cinéma” floating in front of it, casting a shadow which formed the word “Vérité.” I appreciated how the concept had levels, pointing out the illusion of cinema in the “This is Not a Pipe” sense, as well as more specifically how there is an inherent tension in the form of the documentary by using dramaturgical and storytelling devices (to different extent than written reporting) while presenting what may be taken to be an objective, factual account. The dichotomy between communicating truth through a medium consisting wholly of illusion is what I’m getting at, here.

If this concept went ahead, it was my intention to create it in 3D, so the lines of perspective and depth effects would match up more effectively than they do in this sketch.


I had another concept that drew on this idea, where a realistic silhouette of a bird in flight would be a shadow cast by a hand-puppet, but I couldn’t think of a way to arrange this in a square still frame that could be seen in forms as small as a postage stamp. It’d be easy enough to communicate the concept in an animated form, so I guess I’ve come up with my production logo, assuming no one else uses the idea in the meantime. Or has used it already, for that matter.


Flim Strip 1

The other alternative I offered was the title of the podcast on a film-strip background.


Just before presenting these, I was told the title of the podcast had been changed to “Observational,” so my shadow-casting idea was out, as it required two words. Of the remaining choices, the film-strip concept was the winner, and we went through the normal process of revisions.



As you can see, after the rough size of the various elements was settled on, I moved to a more realistic design for the film strip for the production version, with properly-spaced sprockets and even a stereo soundtrack.


One thing I hadn’t anticipated was that the icon might be shown tiled on top of itself in a podcast client. When I downloaded the multiple consecutive episodes in Overcast, I realized that was a greater oversight than I had thought.

Overcast Old Icon

I went back to my laughably-named “Final” Photoshop file (one day, I’ll learn to stop using that word) and began adjusting it with tiling in mind. I made the sprockets along the sides take up an even amount of the frame, and adjusted the “film cells” in the center so the preceding and succeeding frames would be cut off in their center. I also added an additional gradient layer to the top and bottom frames to darken them evenly along the edge.

Overcast New Icon



And here, at long last, is the fina— that is to say, most current version.


You can download Observational via iTunes, or wherever fine podcasts are available.

• March 3, 2015 • Comments Off on Observational Humor

Hey, I Can Do Motion Graphics, Too!

I was pleased to see that these videos I animated at Ninjaneer have been publicly released.

The project was very straightforward, so there’s not much to sink my teeth into with one of my trademark write-ups. Assets, storyboards, and voiceovers were all provided for us. Heather Knott was lead on the project, and we coordinated and cross-checked to ensure all our flourishes and tweening were consistent, so the videos would have a unified style. The videos were animated in Adobe After Effects from assets provided as Adobe Illustrator files, and compression for delivery was done with Handbrake.

• July 23, 2013 • Comments Off on Hey, I Can Do Motion Graphics, Too!

Now I am an Architect

One day at Ninjaneer Studios, Joe Rosa called in to the office while off-site with a question. “Do you think we can do some architectural visualization?”

The response? “And how!”

We were given a floor plan and an example of a 3/4 aerial cutaway view of a home. I was assigned to the task.


The first step was to trace out the walls and extrude them into place. Once that was done, I filled in the lintels above the hallways and split out the different rooms and surfaces, assigning them loud, contrasting colors  so that I’d be able to differentiate them at a glance and would be less likely to forget to assign one a real texture later on than I would be if I left it at default grey.

Next, I began filling in furniture and other objects from our stock model library. A handful had to be tweaked to more closely resemble the illustrations on the floor plan, but I was able to match the original spec fairly closely. I then popped in some temporary lighting (just a single point source in each room on the ceiling).


Having roughed in the furniture, it was the work of moments to adjust the model to be used for the final cutaway view. The walls were clipped down to around 3/4 of their full height, and the camera moved outside of the structure. Once in the birds-eye view, I began applying rough texturing to the apartment. A turnaround was rendered, and this was the result.


It was missing a certain je ne sais quoi, and, not knowing what that could be, I FBX’d the model out of Lightwave and sent it over to Heather Knott, a professionally trained interior designer. She unclipped the walls and raised the camera, as the lowered wall height made the rooms look deceptively large, and replaced my haphazardly placed furniture with sets that actually looked of a piece, proving the importance of both teamwork and expertise


A version of this post appeared on the official Ninjaneer Studios blog.

• May 22, 2013 • Comments Off on Now I am an Architect

We Do Not Have Time For Your Damned Hobby, Sir!

The Red Silk Thread is an opera by composer Stella Sung with libretto by Ernest Hilbert. It tells the story of Marco Polo’s return to Europe at the end of his famous voyages through Asia. This past April, a workshop performance took place at the University of Michigan, in advance of a full premiere at the University of Florida in April, 2014.

Ninjaneer Studios provided virtual sets for the Opera, projected behind the actors and used in place of physical scenery. There are six principle settings in the drama: the Court of Kublai Khan, the Gardens of Kublai Khan, a Chinese treasure ship at sail, the Court of the Persian King, a Genoese prison cell, and a desert dream-scape.

Thanks to my love of all things nautical, I immediately volunteered to take over the ship scene. The opera’s creative team had already put together some research on the types of boat they had in mind.


I used this as a jumping-off point, and found additional materials. My primary reference ended up being a high-resolution photo of an exquisitely detailed model of a Ming Dynasty treasure ship. While this exact design is of dubious historicity, especially for an ocean voyage, and dates from at least a hundred years after Marco Polo died, information on the ships of his time was sketchy at best, and what I did find didn’t look nearly as impressive.

I began by roughing out the general shape of the hull in Lightwave Modeler. Even though the concept only called for the deck to be seen, I wanted to have at least a foundation for the exterior in case it was needed later. It also made it easier to ensure the deck was proportionate. I matched the camera angle as best I could to my reference photo in Lightwave Layout, and switched back and forth while adjusting the hull. I’ve found that while it isn’t a perfectly accurate technique compared to working off a set of orthographic schematics, it’s much better than eyeballing it.


After completing the majority of the modeling, I began texturing the model, ending with populating the deck with various scenery objects


I then presented Dr. Sung with a set of potential camera angles.

After getting the go-ahead for a 3/4 view towards aft, I began setting up the scene and lighting. The motion of the horizon was based on stock footage from a locked-off camera on the deck of a boat. A long-exposure photo of the night sky was used as a placeholder. I started with my standard ocean model, but had the usual problem with flickering as it got closer to the horizon. A combination of making the waves larger and rendering a limited region of the frame at a much higher resolution blunted the problem enough that it was no longer visible after post-processing.

The frame was split into several passes for rendering. This was primarily for efficiency, so only passes which required lengthy render processes like extreme antialiasing or multi-bounce radiosity would be put through them, and simpler elements could be rendered at reduced quality or, occasionally, as single frames.


I prepared a test composite in Photoshop, which I passed along to Christopher Brown, who handled the compositing for all scenes in the opera. He built on my design, unifying it stylistically with the other scenes, and altering it to fit with the limited staging available for the workshop performance.

Initial Photoshop Test Composite

Initial Photoshop Test Composite

Final After Effects Composite

Final After Effects Composite

Over the next several months, all of us at Ninjaneer will be revising and expanding our virtual sets for the premiere at the University of Florida next year. I don’t want to ruin the surprises we’re planning, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see a few more ships in the Great Khan’s fleet.

A version of this post appeared on the official Ninjaneer Studios blog.

• May 15, 2013 • Comments Off on We Do Not Have Time For Your Damned Hobby, Sir!

Wetter is Better

While working on a landscape for a forthcoming project at Ninjaneer Studios, I found that the animated reflections in some open water took prohibitively long to render thanks to a combination of the reflections and the diffused lighting of the scene. There had to be a quicker process that gave similar results, so I began investigating alternatives.

Render With Full Lighting and Raytraced Reflections

I found that Adobe After Effects has a filter called Displacement Map, allowing me to distort one layer based on another. One big drawback to this filter is the way it displaces, resulting in artifacts at the edge of the screen and other transparent areas where it attempts to sample data that is out-of-frame. This was easy enough to solve, but required some creative shot breakout.

Displacement Map (Note the ragged edges along the bottom and left sides)

Returning to Lightwave, I rendered out a reflection pass of the foreground elements. I changed the surfacing of the water so it was mirrored, deleted everything except the foreground elements, and set the foreground element to be unseen by the camera. This gave a pass consisting only of the reflection of the foreground, accounting for the perspective distortion in the reflection.

Thanks to the distance, there wasn’t enough perspective difference between the background and sky and their reflections to require a true reflection pass to be rendered, so I just reused those, flipped vertically. The clouds were a single panoramic plate, slowly receding, so those were likewise flipped vertically and layered into the basic reflection composite.

With the reflected version of the scene now created, all that remained was to make it look like water. I returned to Lightwave and rendered out basic diffusion and specularity passes from the original water object. To get the input for the distortion map, I created a duplicate of the water object and took surfacing in the bump channel and reapplied to to the color channel. After zeroing out the other channels and setting luminosity to 100%, I rendered it out, creating a shifting cloud pattern which corresponded perfectly to the diffusion and specularity passes I rendered earlier.

Diffusion, Specularity, and Bump Passes

Back in After Effects, I brought these passes in and layered them over the reflection composite I had created. I hid the bump layer and added an adjustment layer between the reflection elements and the diffuse and specularity layers. I applied a displacement map to it and set the bump layer as the input. All that remained was to tweak the horizontal and vertical displacement to make the reflection appropriately wavy.

The Final Post-Production Reflection

A version of this post appeared on the official Ninjaneer Studios blog.

• November 27, 2012 • Comments Off on Wetter is Better

Ninjaneer Studios Projection Mapping Display at Otronicon

Recently, my company, Ninjaneer Studios, was invited to exhibit at the Otronicon event. We decided to set up a small-scale 3D projection mapping show. My specific contribution was the cityscape at the end of the show.

While Ninjaneer generally uses Maya for 3D work, I use LightWave occasionally, especially in projects where I’m working solo. This was my first big test of a cross-platform workflow, since the template for the stage and projector set-up was a Maya file, I wanted to model the city buildings in Lightwave so I could work with the greatest speed, and my scene would have to go back to Maya for rendering by my colleague Christopher Brown, who was in charge implementing the show. It was much easier than I expected, though it helped that thanks to time constraints and the nature of the final output, I elected not to give the buildings more than the simplest of surfaces.

Design doodles

The first step was to do research. I had five-and-a-half rectangular silhouettes, and needed to make each building as distinct and interesting as possible. The first building from the left was inspired by a computer-animated video showing the construction of the replacement World Trade Center tower in New York. I took advantage of the transparent design to incorporate an elevator at each corner, adding some life to the building.

Building two was primarily based on the Flatiron Building, also in New York. It was the last or second-to-last I did, and I felt I was being a bit too modernist with the others, and that “Otron City” (as no one else called it) needed some older architecture. I also wanted to make a small reference to the apartment building which was the setting of my University class’s graduation project, the animated short “Squeaky Business.”

Building three was a lucky break during research, coming from a Google image search. I eventually learned it was a (new? Proposed? I never found a detailed description) building in Miami. I actually decided building four would just be a concrete cube with some fans in it before  I found out how the practical boxes would be arranged, since it was the only thing I could think of for something so small. It ended up fitting perfectly on top of number three as if it were a machine room. The inclusion of the fans added some more animation to buildings.

Building five was loosely based on the Swiss Re building in London (which I had never actually noticed before the most recent season finale of “Doctor Who,” where I briefly thought it was a special effect because it was so aggressively modern).

Building six is my personal favorite, and is based on the HSBC Building in Hong Kong. I became aware of it during the research process, while I was looking through a coffee table book I got on clearance some years ago in case something like this happened, Masterpieces of Modern Architecture.

Our template 3D set

I exported the Maya template scene for the show’s setup as a Collada file, and brought it into LightWave Modeler. I modeled the six buildings and sent them back to Maya using LightWave’s FBX exporter, since I wanted to try all the interoperability. Due to time constraints and the way the fact that fine detail wouldn’t be very apparent in the final output, the Maya versions had just simple values set for the shading. I set up a basic scene with duplicate buildings filling out the background and a skydome rotating around the scene to give the illusion that the time of day was changing and really sell the simulated depth of the projection, as well as animating the fans on building four and the elevators on building one in a cycle so the whole thing could be looped.

The Maya version of the cityscape being projected

During the course of Otronicon, there were periods of downtime where I returned to the LightWave version of the city. I  added texture maps to the window boxes of the buildings, gave the rest of the buildings more complicated procedural textures, and added basic lighting setups. Once I was done, I rendered the “sweetened” version of the city as a still in day and night versions, to be used on our idle screen in between shows.

The LightWave daytime version of the city being projected


The LightWave night version of the city being projected


A version of this post appeared on the official Ninjaneer Studios blog.

• January 30, 2012 • Comments Off on Ninjaneer Studios Projection Mapping Display at Otronicon