Orchard Orb Weaver – just for fun

I’ve always been fascinated with our eight-legged friends. I even remember as a young kid sculpting a red back spider out of Fimo and carefully gluing the legs on just to see it perched ominously on my bookshelf. After finding this colourful critter photographed by Jim Stevens I thought I would try to model it in 3D.

First I generated the base mesh using ZSpheres using a trial version of Zbrush. After sculpting some fine detail and poly painting the model I then exported a low poly mesh into Maya and applied normal and displacement maps. For the abdomen, I decided instead project the texture from the original photograph (it was too detailed for my liking!).

Maya Fur was used to add the small hairs and the depth, specularity and diffuse renders were composited into a scene in post. Some minor tweaks, including the addition of a simple web, were added for the final composite.  Overall, pretty happy with the result!



A site for sore eyes: modelling and animating the eye made easy

Eyes are, without doubt, one of my favorite body parts (while keeping this post PG of course). The delicate patterns and shimmering colours of the iris lend such a mystical complexity to these vision organs that it’s no wonder they are referred to as the ‘window to the soul’. I’ve often found myself awkwardly mesmerized by the glistening eyeballs of others during conversation; they generally feel slightly less creeped-out when I tell them that I am designing eyeballs for a visualization project and their peepers are good reference material.

In any case, I was pretty happy when I was asked to help develop some digital learning material for undergraduates at the University of Melbourne on the autonomic nervous system. That’s the one you have no voluntary control over (e.g. systems controlling blood pressure, gut motility, pupil size…). In addition to 2D interactive material, I was to develop a short animation that highlighted the types of muscles in the iris and how their orientation and activation allowed for tight control of the pupil size. It was the first human-based animation I had attempted and while a little daunting, I learned a few little tips along the way that I thought I’d share with you in case it’s helpful.

  1. Firstly the eyeball. The very first 3D model I ever stumbled through making was an eyeball from a tutorial by the Gnomon School of VFX founder Alex Alvarez, which you can find here. Hands down, he is one of the best CG teachers there is. I used a Blend Shape process to control the vertices of the iris which controlled the pupil size.
  2. Then came the head base mesh. For this I used the handy open source program MakeHuman and imported the model into Maya. I deleted all the unnecessary polygons such that I was left with just the upper left quadrant of the face. It’s important to do this first, as I’ll point out next.
  3. I used a duplicate of the mesh and modified the topology with soft select to close the eyelids into a rough blink shape. I used Blend Shapes to animate the blink, which only work on meshes of the same topology (see 2).
  4. For the eyelashes, I found a great video by Peter Anderson, who uses the script Duplicate Along Path to easily create polygonal eyelashes. Instead of drawing a new curve, I used a polygon edge from the top and bottom lids and converted them to curves. As long as you don’t delete history of the curves, their position will stay linked to the parent mesh, and as the eyelashes are linked to the curve they will move with the lid. Sure, it may not be perfect, but it worked well enough for my purposes.
  5. For easy control of eye direction, blinking and pupil size, I linked the parameters to controllers using either parent constraints or set driven keys, which made life so much easier when it came time to animate!

Here is the final video. Thanks for watching!


From the microscope to the monitor: visualising science

Last year I was lucky enough to be invited to write an article for the online magazine Overcoat on my recent venture into biomedical animation. While it seems an unlikely match to some, art and science share an ethereal bond that often floats by unnoticed.

The natural world is innately beautiful and altogether mesmerizing. I recently watched a documentary on ants (one of those ‘not sure how I ended up here but I’m glad I did’ YouTube journeys) with the final story providing evidence that ants have influenced space travel. Don’t believe it? See for yourself (well, only after you’re done here). There is so much happening around us in the modern world – business meetings, mortgages, social media photos of Sally’s brunch – that we fail to notice the special little things that happen every day, especially within our own bodies. Injury, infection, disease or just the humble maintenance of the 37 trillion cells that make us uniquely… us.

Most extraordinary biological process occur at such a small scale they are essentially invisible to all but the most sophisticated laboratory technologies. Visualisation of science enables us to experience the beautiful chaos that otherwise passes us by, modest in its role of keeping life as we know it in order. Here is the story of how I came to be hooked on biomedical animation.

Muscarinic receptor and ligand

Muscarinic receptor and ligand

Character design: Blip the blood vessel microbot

I thought I’d share a few behind the scenes ideas for the design of my very first character. This project was made as part of the short course in 3D animation run by the Academy of Interactive Entertainment (AIE), Melbourne.

As part of the course, we were to generate a short animated film involving a robotic character, presumably as robots could be as simple or complex as the individual skill level allowed. As I wanted to get experience working with scientific designs and potentially make something folio-worthy, I developed a fleshy hybrid of organic and plastic components and suddenly ‘Blip’ was born. Blip is a microbot who rolls around inside the blood vessels of a human host, removing fatty plaques that have accumulated as a result of poor diet.

To engage the audience, Blip had to be likeable, cheeky and a little clumsy. While character development is not a major aspect of science visualisation, this type of approach could be a very useful way to communicate important educational concepts to young children, who instantly connect with these fictional figures.

Here’s a few initial sketches and renders of Blip.