Life after BVIS: a new chapter

I created this blog early in my studies at UIC to track my progress through BVIS. I have now graduated and cheerfully entered a new phase of my life. Now I must ask myself what should this blog become. Perhaps it will be a medium to share interesting and insightful art and science as well as a place to showcase my own work. More on that later.

Now on to what my life has become as a BVIS graduate. I have had the extremely good fortune of being offered the position of Scientific Illustrator for Dr. Zhe-Xi Luo’s lab at the University of Chicago. I became familiar with Luo’s work while working on my research project about multituberculate forelimb movement. Luo’s work focuses on mesozoic mammals. You can see the lab’s mission statement here. The work I will be doing for him includes illustrations (mostly digital) and using programs such as Mimics to extract CT scanned specimens. I would like to note, however, that I am still open for commissioned work, as this position is only considered part-time. Please do contact me with inquiries for commissioned work.

As awesome and fulfilling as the work is, it may be some time before I can share any of my work from the Luo lab here. I will not be posting illustrations before they are officially published, but when I do, I plan to talk a bit about the science and decisions behind the illustrations too. In the meantime, I hope to continue doing art for personal growth, and that I will be able to share here.

In conclusion, life is good. I have emerged from BVIS with a fantastic job filled with potential.

Until next time…

Final Animations from Spring 2012

So, spring semester of 2012 is over, summer is on its way, and I have several animations to post to bring this blog up to date. I took two animation classes this past semester, a Maya class that focused on dynamics, and general animation class that focused on adding to and cleaning up my portfolio and creating a demo reel.

I’ve mentioned my flower animation before. It’s filled with nCloth, even though it’s subtle in some places. It opens with a realistic scene, where I used mostly architectural textures and environmental lighting from an hdri map. The rest of the animation I wanted to be more stylized and look a bit like an illustration. I got the flower textures from dissecting a sorbonne lily and scanning the parts. Fun fact, flower cross-sections look really cool:

… And here is the finished project:


And lastly, here is my final demo reel. I don’t have too much to say about it, since I’ve mentioned most of the pieces before here on my blog.


The question I’ve been most confronted with lately is, “What are your plans for summer?” I delayed graduating this month to give myself the summer to complete my research project, which I hope to be finished with by mid July. This will be taking up the bulk of my time, but I certainly have a bunch of other projects I want to touch on. Some of the other projects I have set for myself is to create a mobile friendly version of my website, learn ZBrush, and play some more with dynamics and MEL scripting in Maya. And then there are the piping competitions (yes, I have been playing bagpipes since I was about 11) that also take up quite a bit of time. So, in conclusion, I have a busy summer set for myself, but at least it’s filled with a bunch of fun things! Oh, and I forgot to mention job hunting. That’s important too.

Anatomy of a Retrovirus

My most recently finished animation is a basic introduction to the anatomy of a retrovirus. The animation is meant to be appropriate for an intro-level biology course. The capsid and reverse transcriptase models were imported from the Protein Data Bank and it was animated using 3ds Max and edited in After Effects. Enjoy!

Research Photo Journal

Over the last couple of weeks I have accumulated a bunch of pictures from my research at the field museum, so I thought I’d share some.

articulated skeleton of Hemicentetes nigriceps (aka Highland Streaked Tenrec)

Skins for Hemicentetes nigriceps

A drawer full of solenodons

Echinops telfairi (Lesser Hedgehog Tenrec) seems to be a close match

Playing with clavicle articulation of Tolypeutes matacus (Southern Three-banded Armadillo)

I was quite surprised to come across this Priodontes maximus (Giant Armadillo), which was about the size of a toddler!

Research Update: completing the models

I am very excited to announce that I have completed another phase of my research! The last several months I have been digitally extracting, reconstructing, and performing retopology on the models of the forelimb bones.  It took a bit longer than I thought, in part because it was difficult to differentiate the bone from the matrix in places, and in part because I was testing out a new method of retopology using the shrink-wrap tool. The biggest lesson I learned after this process was how important it is to be able to study the original model during the extraction process.

Below is a visual example of the digital reconstruction process. First the models were extracted from the CT data. The result was a model with a great deal of geometry. Next, I repaired breaks in the bone and smoothed the model where there were artifacts from the extraction process. To finish the models, I needed to create an identical model with a more manageable amount of geometry. This processes is called retopology. It took several tries to figure out the best way to go about the process, but it ended up being fairly quick.  Basically, I started with a very low poly model around the original, shrink-wrapped it, increased and adjusted the geometry as needed, then shrink-wrapped again.

As exciting as it was to actually finish these models, it was way more exciting to get them rapid prototyped! They were printed out at a 5x scale so that I can physically manipulate them later during the animation phase.


Work In Progress: Pollination Video

I thought I’d share some of the work in progress for one of the animations I’m currently working on about pollination.

Here’s the basic story board. The animation will open with a pretty realistic establishing shot, but from there on out I’d like to make the animation look stylistically like it could have come off the page of some illustrated text.

Story Board for Pollination Video

And here is a short animated dynamics test. I was focusing on making the nParticles behave like pollen and and petals (which are nCloth) properly release from the flower. The pollen still isn’t behaving as I’d like it, but I still have plenty of time to sort it out.


Lastly, I’d like to share some test renders for the initial scene of the animation. The HDRI images (that would be the high dynamic range images used in the background and for doing most of the lighting) are from which has some really wonderful HDRI images for free download.

Fun at the Field Museum

As part of my research project, I’ve been comparing skeletal anatomy of modern small mammals in the Field Museum archives. This is pretty much a dream come true for me. I have always loved museums with a passion and now I get behind-the-scenes access! So far I’ve only explored the marsupial section for my research, but there are four floors of specimens! Here are some pictures because I can’t fathom that there is a person out there who doesn’t want to see behind the scenes at a museum.

A drawer of Monodelphis specimens

Comparing a replica of Kryptobaatar's humerus (at 10x scale) with that of Dasyurus maculatus (spotted-tail quoll). Turns out they aren't really as similar as I had hoped.

The monotreme drawers.


I have saved the best for last. While looking through the Australian marsupials, I stumbled across this amazing specimen. A thylacine! That’s right, I came across a Tasmanian Tiger pelt and skull! For anyone who doesn’t know, the thylacine was hunted to extinction because they were thought to be a nuisance to sheep and cattle. The last wild thylacine was killed in 1930.

I stumbled upon a thylacine skull and skin!

A Long-past-due Introduction to my Research

In about August I began working on my research project for graduation and I realized that I haven’t been sharing the excitement and frustration. A lot has happened since August on my project, but obviously it would be best to introduce the project first.

Three of the students in the graduating class a year ahead of mine did their research projects with the help of University of Chicago Paleontologist Paul Sereno. Now, I’ve been a dinosaur nut ever since I was a kid, so of course I couldn’t let an opportunity to work with a paleontologist pass me by. I’m not working on a dinosaur though. Even though I am still a dinosaur nut, I have somewhat more recently become interested in mammals, thanks to a mammalogy class I took at UVM, so instead I am working on an ancient mammal called a multituberculate.

Multituberculates have no extant (surviving) relatives, so most people don’t know much about them, but they first appeared in the late Jurassic and lasted until the early Oligocene. That makes them the longest surviving group of mammals (even though they aren’t around today)! They were very rodent-like, but had somewhat unusual shoulder girdles that were transitional between “modern” therian mammals and more primitive mammals like monotremes (echinda and platypus). This has, of course, led to a wide range of speculation about how these little guys moved around. The two more popular theories are 1) they had near-parasagittal movement like extant therians (like an opossum) or 2) they moved more sprawl-legged similar to an echidna. It is possible, however, that they could have bounded or been climbers too.

This is where my research project comes in. The purpose of my study is “to illustrate the standing (neutral) posture and create a step cycle animation using 3D animation tools of the extinct mammal, Kryptobaatar dashzevegi, based on bone morphology and comparisons with small extant mammals.” Basically, the objective here is to create an animation of the most likely step (walk) cycle that I can come up with for a mammal that has a shoulder girdle unlike any animal alive today. I should also mention that this will be for the forelimbs only, since the posterior half of the specimen I’m using is gone.

How am I going to go about doing this? There’s actually quite a lot involved, but I’m still planning on having it all done in July (a tall order). First I got CAT scans of the fossil, which is still embedded in matrix, and I had to go though slide by slide trying to figure out what was bone or not to extract 3D models. This part is done. Now I need to go through and clean up the models that were extracted, such as repairing breaks and missing pieces. When I have that done I can start to position the bones in a “neutral” position. This is where the research comes in. I’ve been spending time at the Field Museum’s specimens collection trying to identify small marsupials that have the most similar bone anatomy. Once I identify some good contenders (extant analogs) I start looking into literature about their posture and locomotion. Movies, x-rays, and cineradiographies (x-ray movies) will come in quite handy if I can find them. Then using this research, possibly a Virgina Opossum dissection, and the anatomy of the bones themselves, I’ll create an animation… which will then have to be rendered and edited in post-production.

In short, I have a lot of work cut out for myself and sometimes I’ve wondered if I haven’t bit off more than I can chew, but no matter how stressed out I get, I am doing something that I REALLY enjoy. This is the sort of thing I have always wanted to do with my life! I’ve also discovered some pretty cool things. For example early mammal-like-reptiles or reptile-like-mammals, or whatever the popular term is now, are so completely awesome! Look up cynodonts if you don’t believe me. I think I’ll be doing a cynodont sculpture for myself someday when I have the time (aka, not until after graduation). I’ve also had some pretty cool experiences exploring the specimens collections, but I’ll save all that for another post. There is so much more to talk about, but I’ll leave it at this. Perhaps eventually I’ll post my research proposal for anyone who might be interested in reading  it.

Producing “How the Cicada Sings”

Most of my time for this animation (shown in my previous post) was focused on creating and animating the cicada model.

My cicada model started out life very simple boxy. This model went through one refining pass in Maya and was then imported into Mudbox. Once in Mudbox, more anatomy was added by increasing the amount of subdivision layers. Because the final model in Mudbox needed had a lot of geometry in order to sculpt the details, it couldn’t directly be sent over to Maya for animation. Instead, I exported a lower level model with less subdivisions from to Maya for animation. I then used Mudbox to create a normal and a displacement map. It took a while to get the maps to export properly and then to hook up in Maya effectively, but I learned a lot about the workflow between these two programs in the process. Thus, in the end, I had a one model with a manageable amount of geometry to animate, but could still make it look like the more detail model I sculpted in Mudbox.

Progression of my cicada model.

Mudbox was also used to paint the texture maps and transparency maps. Because of the amount of detail I wanted in my texture maps, I decided to split my UVs into two sets maps, one for the wings and legs, another for the rest of the body. This presented some more challenges later on, especially when trying to hook up transparency maps. As you can see, I ended up with quite a shader network, or at least the biggest one I’ve made thus far.

The shader network used to texture my cicada

After modeling and texturing, I rigged the model. I found the rigging process to be particularly fun. It felt great when I finally had my little cicada puppet!

That’s all for now. Hopefully I’ll be doing a some posts about my research project soon.

The Semester of Cicadas

How the Cicada Sings

Most of my time this past semester went towards this animation about the sound-making mechanism in cicadas. I hope to do a post soon about the process I went through to produce this animation, but for the moment, I’ll just let you enjoy the animation.

Animation done in Maya, sculpting in Mudbox, and post-production in After Effects.

Here is another fly-around of the model I used for the animation.