How I helped the space shuttle Atlantis on its final mission

Here is the full scoop on the NASA project that kept me so busy for the last few months.
It's about the space shuttle Atlantis.

While NASA donated the other remaining space shuttles to various cities across the US (see my pics of the Endeavor flying over LA here), the Atlantis is kept at Cape Canaveral, Florida. It is now displayed at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) Visitor Complex, in a grand new exhibition that opened to the public this weekend.
I had the honor to work as CG Supervisor / Lead Artist on this exhibit. I've always been a huge space nerd (previously worked on all 4 seasons of Star Trek Enterprise), so this was really a dream project for me.

The final mission of Atlantis is to amaze and inspire the next generation of space explorers. That's why the exhibit is not just the shuttle in a room with a little plaque. No, it's an immersive experience that pays tribute to the achievements and the rich history of this incredible vehicle. It's a friggin' real-life space ship! And you get to see it in flight!

Before you get to the shuttle you see is a 10-minute show in a dedicated 8K dome projection theatre. This is a bit of a foreplay, meant to create excitement and awe. That's where visual effects come in and let you experience weightlessness inside the cockpit, take you up-close to a docking maneuver with the ISS, let you fly inside a Hubble nebula, and take you on a ride with the Atlantis during atmospheric reentry.
I can't show you pictures of this spectacle, you have to go and see it in person. NBC News calls it "fantasy becomes reality and the experience is nothing short of magical."

Orbiting the Earth at 6-times speed

Big part of the experience is the 120-foot LED screen behind the shuttle. The clip playing there is now officially the longest CG shot of my career: it's 15.200 frames of CG animation (just over 11 minutes), describing a full earth orbit. Since the theme of the exhibit is laid out to show the shuttle in flight, this shot provides the backdrop to make this illusion perfect. I don't really expect anyone to stand there and watch the whole orbit; especially when there is a real space ship in the room. Yet, here is some background info for all the space geeks:

What you see is an orbit with a 55 degree inclination, which is the highest orbit that was ever flown on a shuttle mission. All my NASA advisors agreed that this is the most scenic route, covering the maximum amount of picturesque sights.
We start with a sunrise over the Pacific, fly over the Baya California and then cross US mainland in a north-east direction. We come across the Great Lakes, Canada, and then head across the Atlantic, and enter Europe over Great Britain (on very much the same path as transatlantic airliners travel). For dramatic purpose Europe is shown at night, so you get to see a dense network of sparkling city lights. The orbit continues in south-east direction over the Mediterranean, the Sahara desert, and the Middle East (at which point I switched back to daylight to showcase the fascinating desert colors). Then it gets dark again as we head towards the Antarctic Circle, where we fly through the shimmering green lights of the aurora australis. As we swing around we pass over the tip of Australia, cross the entire length of New Zealand, and head out into the Pacific. This is where the loop starts over at the beginning (foreshortening the Pacific crossing because this would really be a long and boring stretch).
In real life a shuttle orbit took 90 minutes, without the Pacific this may be 60 minutes. So my 11-minute animation is in fact showing the orbit at circa 6 times the original speed.

Numbers for geeks

Here are some statistics that show the astronomical scope of this project:
  • 4.1 Terabytes - total project data (after extensive cleanups).
  • 3.5 Gigapixel - texture for the earth surface alone (86K Blue Marble NextGen).
  • 9.2 Gigabytes - accumulated textures for the earth (incl. clouds, citylights, ect).
  • 6.2 TeraHertz - total processing power of our render farm (extended for all this).
  • 37,472 frames - cumulative frame count of all shots (over 26 minutes).
  • 10.5 Million - polygon count of our ISS model.

Software used

  • Modeling in modo, 3dsMAX, Lightwave 3D.
  • Animation and rendering in Lightwave 3D (Huge thanks to the fine folks at Newtek for compiling a special version for us overnight, which sped up render times in our custom dome camera by a factor of 4).
  • Shading with infinimap (which made it possible to render with such gigapixel textures at all, even in record render time!).
  • Composited and tested for dome projection in Fusion.


CG Visual Effects by Eden FX

  • Christian Bloch - CG Supervisor / Lead Artist / Compositing
  • Mark Hennessy-Barret - CG Artist (Spaceman sequence)
  • Anthony Vu - Modeling & Shading (ISS, Flight Deck)
  • Eric Hance - CG Artist (Swamp opening sequence)
  • Emmanuel Yatsuzuka - Modeling (Atlantis)
  • Dan DeEntremont, Keith Matz, Sean Jackson - Additional Modeling
  • Rebecca West - Project Manager
  • Carrie Stula - Coordinator

Mousetrappe, a Burbank, CA based design & production studio, has worked with Delaware North Companies Parks & Resorts, operators of Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex for NASA, as well as PGAV Destinations and Nassal, to create an undeniably breathtaking media experience. Mousetrappe once again guides audience members through an all-new architectural projection adventure – a world where the intersection of rich storytelling and cutting edge technology creates a breathtakingly powerful experience.

Media Coverage

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The free HDRIs you might have missed

I'm still alive!

The reason why this blog was suspiciously silent lately is that my day job as VFX artist kept me super-busy. During the last three months I made five virtual sets for two TV shows, and I'm also working on a dream project of massive proportion for NASA (more to that later when I'm allowed to reveal details).

Nevertheless I silently published a new HDR set every month, some of which you might have missed if you did not check in regularly.

Here is a run-down of the recent HDR panoramas, including download links:

RedRock HighUp (February) - super high res: 16K

When my friend Greg Downing invited me on a weekend trip, I had no idea what I have gotten myself into. He brought his entire VFX class from the Gnomon School, and his XRez partner Eric Hanson brought along his USC animation class as well. It turned out to be a combined field trip, all together maybe 50 people. Students of both classes thought I was enrolled in the other one (Note to self: grow a beard if you ever get into teaching, just to look more respectable).

Highlight of the trip was when Mr. HDRI himself, Paul Debevec, showed up. He brought a FARO scanner along - a remarkable laser scanning device that is small enough to fit in a backpack. And since us two were the only ones without any teaching/learning responsibilities, we sort of naturally started wandering around, exploring, and shooting/scanning the landscape.

Streets of San Francisco (March)

This is a gem I dug out from my archive, it's been sitting there unstitched since 2009. It was shot on a spontaneous road trip with my friend Kirt Witte, on our way back from an HDR symposium at Stanford (reported on it here).

I felt a bit experimental with this image, and so I applied some sunny color grading and dreamy effects with Magic Bullet PhotoLooks. This gives the environment the look of that 70's TV show with the same name, which I found to be a perfect fit for this pano.

Factory Pumps (April)

This was taken in an old power plant near Long Beach. It's not actually operative anymore, but instead it's frequently used as filming location. For example, the showdown in Terminator 1 was shot here (where everybody ends up diving into molten steel), as was Britney Spear's music video for Crazy. I was there for an episode of Ghost Whisperer and this panorama was one of my bonus captures I shot on the side.

That's it for now.
Stay tuned for the brand-new monthly HDR of May. I'm still working on it, but I can already tell you that it is another unique location that will blow you away!

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Animation Mentor now offers VFX classes

When it comes to online schools for aspiring CG artists, Animation Mentor is right at the top.

They have this incredible way of enlisting seasoned professionals from PIXAR, DreamWorks, ILM, ect., who share their knowledge and practical experience in live web seminars. It's all very personal and direct; the next best thing to actually attending a class in person. And that really works. It's such a tremendous push for your skill set, that even many production studios periodically send their artists to Animation Mentor to brush up their skills.

Just check out some of the student's animation work:

And this summer, for the first time ever, Animation Mentor offers not only Animation courses, but also on VFX courses. That includes lighting, look development, and compositing–the complete studio pipeline as it is common in the entertainment industry. I'm especially proud that my HDRI Handbook 2.0 was chosen as text book for these new classes.

Download the official press release, read more about the new Studio School system, or sign up right here:

PS: The HDRI Handbook 2.0 is also used as course material at the Ferris State University and the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). Hooray! What better proof could there be that you can actually learn something from my book?

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Recreating a room from HDR panos in MARI

Scott Metzger sure knows how to impress. In this video he's recreating an entire room in 3D, by projecting HDR panoramas on geometry that was derived from a FARO (3D laser) scanner.

Head on over to to watch the presentation. This is not only a must-see for VFX artists, but also very fascinating for photographers. It will blow your mind how much can be done with HDR panoramas and how much of the 3D scene is in fact coming directly from photographs.
Watch fxguideTV #163: Scott Metzger on Mari and HDR

If that tickles your creative thumb, and you have my new book, then you should take a look at the workflow tutorial in section 7.4.3: Reconstruct a Set in 3D (pages 602 to 616). It's not as sophisticated as Scott Metzger's method (only photos used, because I have no FARO scanner, sadly). So, my tutorial is more along the lines of "what you can do at home on the cheap", but the result is still pretty okay.

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The real HDRI Handbook 2.0 now in stock on Amazon

Highslide JS

Yes! The real HDRI Handbook 2.0 (that is, the paper edition) has been spotted in the wild. Amazon has it in stock and the first pre-orders have already arrived on people's doorsteps.

Happy reading, everybody!

I really hope you enjoy my book and find something nice to say about it in your Amazon review. But take your time. This book is meant to be worked with, and my hope is that after 3 weeks it should have inspired you to try something completely new or tackle a project that you didn't know you can do. It's not just another pretty photo book. I personally measure the success of this book on the effect it has on your skill set. Let it sink in. Allow the book to take you on a ride. See where it can take you.

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New High Line HDR pano and an unexpected find

The free sIBL set of January was taken at New York's fabulous High Line park. It's one of these elevated subway lines you probably remember from BeatStreet, but converted into a public park. It's really cool. On your next New York visit you should definitely put the High Line in the Meatpacking district on your sightseeing list!

This pano was shot back in 2010 when this section of the High Line was still under construction. What attracted me was this unique mix of outdoor/indoor lighting, and I imagined all these fluorescent tubes would look great in reflections. And sure enough, they do! Here is a CG car model placed in this environment:

Rendered in modo and post-processed in Magic Bullet PhotoLooks. Mind you, setting up this scene took 10 seconds. With sIBL it's all automatic, including the ground shadow. Here is a screenshot.

Aside from the easy lighting setup, the sIBL system also provides a much better way of organizing and cataloging HDR environments. Searchable keywords, metadata and the GPS map make it a real joy to browse for the right environment for a CG model. Here is what that looks like it sIBL-GUI.

Of course, the browser can only be as good as the metadata entered in each sIBL set. So for creating these sets I habitually pinpoint the location by revisiting it in Google Earth. That often sends me on a nice trip down the memory lane. When I was looking for the High Line I noticed how well defined Google's 3D model of New York nowadays is.

The big surprise came when I zoomed in further. Suddenly I found myself in Google Street View, witnessing this strange scene:

Hmm. A couple, a photographer, two cops, and a man on the ground. What is going on here? Does anybody have a good caption for this image? Because I'm at a loss…

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