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Animator Helps World See Mars Rovers

Viewers around the world watching the animated simulations of the Mars rovers mission are watching the work of a young, lone animator, using LightWave, to make the mission come to life when communications and cameras arent cooperating. He is Dan Maas, operating out of his own studio, Mass Digital in Ithaca, New York, far from NASA in Texas, JPL in Pasadena and Mars, where the two rover explorers are now carrying out their missions.

He started working on Mars mission visualization in 1998, after teaching himself 3D animation and spending some time as an intern at Hollywood animation studios.

I took a class from Prof. Steve Squyres when I was a sophomore at Cornell, Mass told AWN. I wanted to see if I could do some animation for his NASA projects, so I showed him my demo reel. He liked the realistic style. Squyres wrote Mass into Cornell University's contract for public outreach and education to create an animation for the entire Mars Lander 2001 mission (which later became Mars Exploration Rovers). Another Cornell professor, Joe Veverka, was working on the CONTOUR mission, and he also wanted a video for his mission. More projects grew from there.

Maas says everything in the video is as accurate as possible to the real mission. I created an excruciatingly-detailed digital model of the Mars rovers based on blueprints from NASA/JPL, he said. The model includes virtually everything on the real rovers down to every last nut, bolt and wire. I created similar models of the Boeing Delta II rocket that sends the rovers to Mars.

He animated to storyboards done with Squyres. The motions are somewhat faster than in real life, and long boring parts are omitted for pacing. Its pretty realistic with a few indulgences for space sound effects.

Most 3D elements in the video were modeled, animated and rendered with LightWave 3D. Maas wrote some custom software (developed on Linux) for special-purpose effects such as physics simulations (e.g. bouncing airbags), rover tracks, star rendering, and translation from LightWave to Pixar's Photorealistic RenderMan for high-quality rendering.

He processed each shot using a custom floating-point compositing system similar to Apple's Shake. Most of the rendering was 8-bit RGB even though post-processing was done in floating-point. I edited low-resolution proxy video clips using Adobe Premiere and Apple's Final Cut Pro, then conformed the original uncompressed RGB frames using custom software, Maas continued. I added the sound effects and music in Premiere and Final Cut Pro.

The interactive work was done on Intel/AMD PCs running Windows and an Apple G4. All of the rendering was done on a small, home-built network of 5-10 Linux PCs via a custom distributed rendering controller that Maas wrote. Typical render times were 5-10 minutes per frame for space shots and 20-30 minutes per frame for Mars surface shots.

The entire video was rendered and edited at 24 frames per second to mimic film. I also added cinematic touches like camera shake, lens flares and fake film grain, add Maas. Look for a brief loss of focus in one of the fast-moving launch shots!

The launch is NTSC resolution (720x480), but the Mars sequences were rendered for 1080-line HDTV (1920x1080).

The Mars Rover animation has been shown in the SIGGRAPH Electronic Theater program, and broadcast on television in most countries around the world. It is also featured in many science museums.

Maas, now 22, formed his company to pursue more animation and software development projects. I expect to continue visualizing aerospace projects, as well as developing better software solutions for 3D artists, said the 3D visionary6 for space exploration. Maas has a continuing relationship with the visualization group at JPL. He is working with them on more up-to-date animation based on the actual rover operations.

His nine-minute MER animation can be seen at: