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How the Video Was Made

Content courtesy Dan Maas / Maas Digital LLC

1. Reference Material — I begin the production process by collecting photos, diagrams, and blueprints of the hardware and environments to be depicted. These references guide me as I build digital models of the robotic probes and their surroundings. By constantly comparing my results to real-world images, I ensure that my designs are accurate and realistic.

2. Modeling — Using a CAD system, I assemble primitive 3D shapes (planes, boxes, spheres, and cylinders) into three-dimensional replicas of the probes and their instruments. During this process, which typically takes two to three weeks, I also assign material types to the surfaces of the model: metal surfaces will later take on a metallic look, plastic surfaces will appear plastic, and so on.

3. Setup — When modeling is complete, I assemble the separately-created chassis, instruments, solar panels, and antennae into a complete digital space probe, designating their relative positions and axes of motion. I also insert "handles" to control each major moving part, much like rods on a puppet. using these I can quickly and easily manipulate the model into any desired position.

4. Animation — For each scene of the video, I position the digital models and simulated camera within the 3D environment, just like a director arranges a film set. To create motion, I indicate where the models should appear at various key moments; the animation software then interpolates their positions throughout the whole shot.

At this stage I work with a low-quality preview of the final image, as shown in the illustration. These rough renderings give a good sense of composition and timing, and can be generated quickly enough for interactive use.

5. Rendering — After the final animation sequences are approved, it's time to generate high-quality renderings of the digital models and environments. To achieve a realistic appearance, I coat the 3D surfaces with detailed painted images or photos. The rendering software automatically adds shadows and reflections using ray-tracing. These computations are quite time-consuming; a single frame such as the one at the left can take minutes or even hours to generate.

The entire Mars Rover animation was rendered on a network of eight PCs. Each frame took anywhere from one minute to two hours to compute (there are 24 frames per second of footage).

6. Compositing — I often decide to render a scene in several different layers or passes — the illustration shows a single frame consisting of three separately-rendered elements. Each layer is color-corrected, blurred, and moved individually, then combined into the final frame. This technique also saves time if one element needs to be generated again.

Finally, to add an authentic touch to the computer-generated images, I simulate several defects of real-world cameras, such as film grain (random noise) and soft glows around bright highlights. These deliberate degradations help to remove the unrealistically sterile appearance of raw computer renderings.

Click here to watch the video.