Welcome to the sIBL family, Blender!

Raise your glasses, brothers! Blender just joined the exquisite ranks of sIBL-supported programs.

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New Blender extension builds a bridge to sIBL_GUI for quick lighting and environment setups.
Screenshot by Jed Frechette.

Thanks to the development efforts of Jed Frechette, Blender users can now enjoy the one-click environment lighting setup that the Smart IBL system is famous for. Integration is done thoroughly, by using sIBL_GUI as browser and central library management hub. If you already use sIBL_GUI in conjunction with 3dsMAX or Maya, the workflow with Blender will be familiar:
  • Pick an environment preset
  • Pick Blender as setup template
  • Click the Send to Software button
Photorealistic lighting (and background integration) couldn't be easier.


Download and installation instructions on wiki.blender.org.
Say thanks or report bugs in our dev forum thread.

To celebrate this historic event, please enjoy this free sIBL-set of an iron bridge in full 16K glory.

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KaleidoCam: the ultimate DSLR upgrade gadget

Highlight of this year's SIGGRAPH was the KaleidoCam, which introduces an entirely new idea to the world of photography. It's an add-on that goes between the lens and the camera, and it upgrades the camera's capabilities in ways never thought possible. Suddenly you have true single-shot multi-exposure HDR capture, multi-spectral imaging, variable polarization, you can even capture a light field with a pixel resolution that far exceeds what you can get out of a Lytro camera - and all that with your own DSLR and lenses!

The working principle is ingenious in its simplicity: The gadget contains a diffuse screen, that intercepts the light rays coming from the lens at the very same spot where the sensor would be. So instead of a sensor, there is now a rear-projection screen. A kaleidoscopic mirror arrangement then sends multiple copies of the image to the sensor (9 images in total, arranged in a 3x3 grid). The trick is now to insert different filters into the optical path of each of these images. For HDR, you would have varying ND filters - and voila, each snap of the shutter gives you 9 different exposures. Awesome!

I really hope to see this come to market soon, if the research group would go on Kickstarter they would already have my money! Read the detailed technical paper here, and make sure to scroll down and check out the data sets (original images captured with the prototype).

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Get the HDRI-Handbook 2.0 in a bundle!

My friends at Unified Color have just released version 3.0 of their professional HDR software line. That includes the stand-alone HDR Expose 3 and the Photoshop plugin 32Float v3 (which is what I use). As cherry on top, you get my HDRI-Handbook 2.0 bundled (the e-book version, that is).

This is an excellent updates, both programs run much faster, and the tonemapping algorithm is much improved. It now uses an adaptive tone curve to tune the overall contrast, similar to Picturenaut's Adaptive Logarithmic method.

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HDR Expose 3 also has a completely revamped HDR merge mode with a nice ghost removal tool (where you can manually pick the hero image for marked areas) and a rock-solid image alignment (where you can manually set down control points and let the frames warp into place accordingly). And of course, there are the trademark features of this product line that I love most: full 32-bit color editing, white balance, veiling glare removal, all while keeping the overbright areas of the HDR image intact and fully valid for further post processing. So, even if this won't become your primary HDR tool, it is a mighty powerful addition to your bag of tricks.

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So there you go - grab a pro HDR software and get my book for free!
www.unifiedcolor.com/hdri-handbook-giveaway (limited to 500, first come first served)

My publisher actually compiled a special eBook edition for this; it's a PDF with the correct layout and decent photo resolution. However, keep in mind that the bonus DVD content (which is needed to follow the tutorials) is not included in the eBook. For the full HDRI-Handbook 2.0 experience I still recommend getting the paperback edition (currently only $35 on Amazon).

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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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