AMA Unclassified: Some Stuff I've Done at Work

 I haven't been able to blog that much lately about creative 3D stuff because since I started work at AMA, I have been working on 'sensitive but unclassified' material.  Essentially, it's stuff that if I told you what I did, I'd have to kill you... or at least hit you with a wiffle bat.

Anyway, since most of my time at work is taken up with 3D, I haven't done that much at home.  However, there are a few things that I've worked on either as personal learning projects or developing something that might come in handy in the future.  A lot of what I now do would fall under the category of 'generalist' in the 3D world's terms.  That means I do a lot of 3D modeling, texturing, rigging, lighting, animating, rendering, and compositing... which is the whole kit and kaboodle, basically!  (I even do the music and sound effects now...)

One of my learning projects, I actually did this afternoon in After Effects.  My coworker told me about a great tutorial site called Video Copilot, which sells some great plugins for After Effects, but also has plenty of free lessons on how to do certain things in the program.  One of their tutorials inspired me to try something out to get some more practice in After Effects.  I never used it much before, except to composite my 3D frames together.  Anyway, this is what I came up with:

Now, you're probably wondering why I am proud about creating the above footage.  Well, let me first off explain that nothing of what you see in the video was actually captured as video footage.  I started off with two still images:

The Ares rocket on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral

A NASA T-38 chase plane

Pretty odd, huh?  I watched a tutorial where the guys at Video Copilot took a still image of a volcano and turned it into something that looks like it was video footage shot from a helicopter.  Essentially, it involves taking the still image and slowly distorting it from start to finish in the following fashion:

This gives the illusion of parallax and tricks your brain into thinking that the image is actually moving.  There is a lot of cleanup work, however.  For example, because the towers look goofy in the above twisted image, I had to separate them from the background and then clean up the area behind them so that it looks like nothing is there.  (I actually learned a lot about the tools in AE from this little exercise.)

After that, I added the small chase plane with a particle emitter coming out the back to give the sense of exhaust coming out.  I also added subtle things that help you think that it is real like the shaky camera movement, film grain, the spotty lens artifact, lens flares, and even some subtle chromatic aberration.  All in all, I spent some good time making it look pretty, which I probably wouldn't really get to do in a real production.  Most of all, I've learned how easy it is to fake things in 2D rather than creating them totally in 3D.

Another project I like showing off is the Earth-Moon rig I created using Modo:

My desktop background at work

I found some very nice, detailed texture maps on the internet and used them to create a 1/10,000th scale model of the Earth (Modo wouldn't handle the real scale).  The whole purpose of the rig is to be able to quickly adjust the controls so that you can get realistic lighting conditions and scale for whatever Earth-Moon image you might want to create.

There are controls that let you switch out the cloud texture, change the backdrop, change the season, change the time of day (and the dark side of the Earth will automatically light up... pretty cool stuff, if you ask me).  You can even scale up the moon and the sun if you want to go for some artistic license.  It has been a little side project of mine, but it has actually come in handy when someone came in and asked for a to-scale image of the Earth, the Moon and Mars for a presentation.  I just had to whip out that file and I was done within a half hour.

Bottom line: I'm really liking my work.


Letter to Santa - 2012

Dear Santa,

I'm sure, since you're the ultimate authority on naughty and niceness that your tech-elves have devised various data-mining algorithms to detect key phrases via the internet.  For example I'm sure that should I include the words coal, stocking, and reindeer manure in a blog page, I would automatically be put on the naughty watch list... well, hopefully that didn't put me on your watch list right now.  Anyway, since we're encouraged to be greenwashed environmentally conscious, like the previous years I decided just to post my Christmas letter to you this year on my blog in hopes that one of your vast cyber-elflings would stumble across it and pass the message along.

First things first, I have to tell you that when you stop by our chimney this year, you probably won't need to wear that fur coat of yours.  Honestly, it's going to be 80° outside this week, I think.  Maybe wear a breathable, yet modest, outfit and you'll be good.  You might want to bring a pancho, though, just in case we have rain on Christmas Eve.   The forecast doesn't seem to be calling for any, but I only trust it to within the next twelve hours.  Meteorology, in my eyes, falls in the same category as astrology and bone-reading.

Next I should point out that we actually do have a chimney this year.  For the past few years, every place I have lived has been sans-chimney, except for this year when we moved to a place that is hotter than the fires of hades during the summer.  I can't figure out what in the world someone would use a chimney for in Texas, except as maybe a launch tube for fireworks?  Anyway, when you come down our chimney, please try and shut the damper on your way in and out.  I've had enough standoffs with palmetto cockroaches in the past three months that I'd prefer not to invite any more of them in.

My little girl is looking forward to seeing what you bring her this year, although to be honest, I don't think she has a clue what is going on.  She seems to be confused that we're encouraging her to rip up paper only two days out of the year when the rest of the year she is forbidden from doing so.  Sorry that we didn't take her to see one of your helpers in the mall this year.  We really didn't want to pay $25 for a picture of her screaming.  If we wanted that, there are plenty of ways to achieve that within the comfort of our own home.

I don't know if you've got anything in your bag for me this year, but if you can manage a bit of employment stability this year, that would be great.  I was very fortunate to land a very fulfilling job at a NASA contractor doing what I love doing and receiving all the perks that make it worthwhile.  Honestly, I hope to be at it for a while, but with the looming fiscal cliff, I have a feeling of dread in my stomach.  (As a side note, for the longest time my attitude has been to let the government fail at all the problems that it has caused itself... but now that my paycheck in large is determined by the decisions of the federal government, I find myself whistling a different tune.  It's gut-wrenching at times.)  However, that's the only thing on my list, if you think you can make that happen.  After that, I'll worry about things myself.

In case you haven't heard, we have another little baby on the way in March, a boy.  If you have a little bit of R&R in your sack for the missus, I'm sure she'd love that.

I think you've spread out the Christmas gifts for us all year long this past year. It's been a relatively good year.  I got frustrated looking for jobs, but now that I'm settled in, I can't really complain.  The rent is paid, the car is running, and everyone is healthy.  For that, we are grateful.

Well, my daughter is whining downstairs, so I'd better go dig up some R&R from my own sack to give to my wife.  Have a merry Christmas, Santa, and don't use Apple Maps to get to our house.

-Brad Reynolds