Sunday, November 29, 2009

Convincing Congress

"An investigation is pending" is the sort of thing heard in news reports of things like the Hudson River midair crash of August, 2009. Well believe it or not, sometimes those investigations actually do occur!

Proof lies in these images.

I was asked to illustrate two examples of Class B (bravo) airspace. One was to be a standard Class B airspace, like that above Cleveland (above), while the other was to be the maze of Class B airspace that blankets the New York City area (below).

The purpose of the images was to present members of the U.S. Congress with a visual representation of what pilots must "see" and navigate in those areas. The issue at hand was whether further restrictions proposed for the New York area might possibly further aggravate an already confusing and difficult situation.

Upon getting the assignment, I wrestled with different ways to present the airspace. Airspace being a "3D" sort of thing, you'd think 3D graphics would be the perfect way to represent it. But in fact, showing an airspace in 3D does little more than reaffirm what pilots-in-training know well: Airspace navigation can be complex! If you think it looks confusing in these images, imagine trying to navigate it when it's entirely invisible in the sky around you, and represented on navigational charts only in two dimensions.

The green arrows in the images depict paths that are free for general aviation (GA) pilots to use at any altitude without permission. Orange arrows show areas that are free at certain altitudes only. Red indicates where GA pilots may not go without ATC clearance. (For the record, GA pilots can (and do) reverse Class B airspace (the "blue" areas) all the time--we just need ATC clearance to do so.)

Sunday, April 12, 2009

This is what Eric does at Pixar!

Eric works as a shading artist for Pixar. I've been around him numerous times when others have asked him to explain what "shading artist" actually means. Poor Eric struggles to describe what shading is, to onlookers who typically smile for politeness' sake, but really have no idea what he means.

How do you describe the shading on Wall*e when the way Wall*e looks shaded is the only way most people have ever seen him? It's sort of like trying to describe someone's beauty by "undescribing" that person's appearance.

Eric sometimes turns to me for support, asking me to step in with an explanation of my own. I try, but shading is really something much easier explained and understood from pictures, so I thought I'd take a crack at it from that angle.

No more talking about shading, dancing about architecture, "undescribing" beauty, etc.

On the left is a 3D model of a Cessna 172 wheel. (Airplane tires don't have treads like car tires, in case anyone wonders where the tread went.) In 3D-speak, we'd call this a model or mesh, or even just geometry. It's the structure of an object, with no other characteristics applied. (A single light was thrown in, because without a light, the "scene" would be all black.)

Even in this "clay" like state, one can easily tell the model is a wheel, because it's (more or less) geometrically correct.

But it still doesn't "feel" like a wheel.

What I mean by "feel" is this: When you look at most things, your brain enables you to imagine the way those things would feel to the touch, based on your previous experiences with the physical world. You see a piece of satin, and you can imagine how it feels. Or, you see a piece of solid steel, and you imagine it's cold and heavy. You can also avoid losing a finger, because you can mentally "feel" sharpness without having to bleed from it.

In 3D production, we add visual hints to geometry in order to help the viewer "feel" the objects with their eyes. If you can properly feel a 3D object, that object becomes more believable.

We call these hints shading.

On the right, is the same 3D object after shading. If the black portion seems like a dusty old rubber tire, and the white portion seems like dirty, oily metal, with just a touch of rust, I've done my job. If you can imagine what it would feel like to run your finger around the indented sections that form the border of the hub, all the better.

So, now, when you see a Pixar animated feature (or even one from a lesser studio), you'll know that underneath all the color, reflection, gloss, texture and grit, is a gray, featureless blob. And this is exactly how Remi, Wall*e, Nemo or any other character, car, room or cottage appears when it lands on the desk of a shading artist for the very first time.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Aircraft Lighting

Aircraft lighting was a tough subject to tackle. On the one hand, you want the lights to stand out; but, on the other hand, lights stand out best in total darkness, which makes for a pretty dull image. Making things tougher, unless there's visible moisture in the air, there will be no rays of light, and no glow. I did my best to mix all those considerations for this image. I tried to "force" just enough atmosphere into the scene to show a little light glow, but not enough so that clouds were needed to make it seem more real. And I tried to put it all at a nice dusk time of day so we can still see some of the airplane.

I've flown at this time of the day quite a bit. For me, and I hope for other pilots too, this image invokes memories of how smooth the air can be as the sun sets, and how gorgeous the views can be. This image also reminds me, however, of how I always forget to take off my sunglasses after sunset, which gives the early evening a disturbingly dark flavor. If it was me flying this place, I would definitely still have those sunglasses on at this point.

Oh yeah, the tail number is a special little shout out to a Canadian pilot buddy of mine. He likes to tease me about how long it took me to get my license, and I like to tease him about being Canadian. He'll be visiting this Summer, and it will be the first time we get to fly together. I fully expect to fluster the hell out of him as I catapult him into the complex airspace known as the San Francisco Bay Area. I can't wait to see his maple leaf ass sweat as he tries to negotiate the skies I've called home since I was that loser student pilot who took too long to get his license. ;)

Friday, February 27, 2009


The concept for this image, published in the March, 2009 edition of AOPA PILOT magazine, sort of popped into my head the moment I got the assignment. The idea was to highlight t-routes, which are special airways instrument rated pilots can fly when they have GPS on board.

The final composition was done in 3D, but very little of it is actually 3D. In fact, the "parts list" for the shot is:
  • 1 huge sphere for the main chart (big white map),
  • 6 blue tubes,
  • 3 green boxes, and
  • 2 VOR symbols (the black objects).
I added the sky after the render was complete. I was going for the effect of evening on the left, and space on the right, with a gradually evaporating atmosphere inbetween. The satellites were from a previous project I did for AOPA.

As typically as 3D projects tend to go, what should have been easy work, became quite time consuming. The problem was getting the composition of the shot just right, given the requirements of the shot. In other words, the placement of the tubes and green boxes isn't random. The chart, which is a real aviation navigation chart, defines those positions. So, the trick was getting an angle that looked nice, and still showed everything.

In the end, only one part of the chart become fiction. But I'll leave that for the instrument-rated pilots from the San Francisco Bay Area to figure out!

Friday, February 13, 2009

I was on Flight 3407 too

I have no photo for this post, because no photo would do this justice.

Yesterday, I took my biennial flight review--something required of all pilots in the US. It's less a test, and more a discussion of safety, coupled a demonstration of the pilot's most rudimentary skills. On the ground, you discuss airspace, weather minimums, legally required equipment--that sort of thing. In the air, you demonstrate radio communications, navigation; practice maneuvers, like stalls and steep turns; and go through the motions of an emergency landing.

The emergency landing test happens when the examiner pulls the power on your engine at a time most inconvenient. To ensure you resist the temptation to put it back in, she holds her hand on the throttle. The pilot must establish himself in a configuration that will ensure he remains aloft for as long as possible, while at the same time, he must determine where to land the airplane.

We were over an area just north of the San Pablo Bay (San Francisco), which was pretty sparsely populated. There were wide open fields all around me, so choosing a landing spot was more about choice than it was desperation. But each time I run an emergency procedures scenario, I think about the real thing. I wonder if a suitable landing spot will be so easy to find when the engine really does quit, and I wonder if my training will be enough to get me there.

One time, I did have an engine emergency; but it occurred right smack dab in the center of Oakland International, just after take off. So, again, my decision was an easy one: "Uh, I think I'll land on the big, massive runway still below me." I told the tower my intentions, and the controller asked, "Do you think you'll require services?" which was his G-rated way of asking if I planned on crashing.

"No," I said. If I couldn't make this landing, I didn't deserve emergency services.

All pilots go through this stuff. We train and train and, for the vast majority of us, emergency procedures are never more than exercises.

Soon after I got home from my flight review, I heard about Flight 3407. It stopped me dead in my tracks.

In air crash news reports, you hear about the airplane model's safety record, you hear about weather conditions, you hear about fatalities, and you hear all sorts of speculation about what might have happened. You even hear the life profiles of the deceased passengers for whom the news media can conjure up the most emotional stories--this one was a mother of newborn twins; that one was on his way to feed the hungry somewhere; the other was connected to some celebrity somehow.

But you never hear someone talk about what was going through the minds of the flight crew. What were Captain Marvin Renslow and First Officer Rebecca Shaw thinking moments before their flight and lives ended? Did they hear their CFI's voices in their heads reminding them to keep the wings level, or to watch their airspeed? Did they have flashbacks to their earliest pilot training and remember when emergency procedures were always conducted over big, flat green fields with a flight instructor by your side?

No matter what kind of airplane a pilot flies, the personal experience is largely the same: You feel a sense of responsibility, not only for the airplane and for yourself, but for those flying with you, and those below you on the ground.

When emergencies end in "miracles," as did the now famous Hudson River landing, we get to hear what the pilot was thinking. We get to hear, in his or her own words, what went wrong and what went right. When we contrast that with the outcome of an emergency like that of Flight 3407, it's easy to wonder if those pilots just weren't as good. Perhaps "Sully" could have landed this airplane; perhaps Continental's pilots aren't as good as those of USAir; perhaps Congress needs to look into something--I'm not sure what, but something.

But you know? Each airborne emergency is a battle between the pilot, the circumstances and fate. Sometimes things turn out, and sometimes not.

Yesterday, when my power was pulled, I was confident. I thought fast, and I had my airplane set up for what I'm certain would have been a "Sully" landing in a luscious grass field.

And why don't aviation examiners pull stunts like that over congested areas?

If a simulated emergency turns real, CFIs want to make sure the pilot's fight against circumstances and fate is stacked in his favor; because airplanes don't land well on houses, no matter who is flying.

Every time I hear of an airplane crash, I feel partially to blame, because... I don't know why. But I start wondering what "I" could have done differently. And I think that's what links all pilots--we never stop second guessing how we could have made a bad experience better, or salvaged a disaster--even if it's not our own.

Hats off to Sully. And hats off to Renslow and Shaw--for jobs equally well done.

Friday, February 6, 2009

What's All The Squawking About (Clipart)?

Once upon a time, I worked with a group of designers who made fun of me for using clipart. Not that I always used clipart, mind you, but I've always believed it has its place. At the time, I was illustrating news stories, so why not? Plus, I had long before purchased one of those "15 Trillion Clipart Images!" collections, or something along those lines, and I vowed to use every image it contained before I died--or killed my career trying.

Anyway, this image took up the full left page of the spread, with the story starting on the right. It looked really nice in the magazine, and when I saw it on the printed page for the first time, I thought about how my old pals would be rolling their eyes at the parrot and the airplane silhouette--both, of course, clipart.

At least the other images and the composition design were all mine. Right?

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Skycatcher Over Ice

Here's another render of the Skycatcher model. I used this in a larger composition I did for AOPA, but this image was only a small portion of the overall comp, so it was tough to see.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Cirrus Over Water

Originally, this image was going be the cover of my book, but my publisher figured it would be better to use an assortment of images that better suggested what the book was actually about. And, though I do like the cover they came up with (see it in the right margin of this page), I still really like this shot.

So, what is the Cirrus doing flying so low over the water without US Air insignia? I know, because I was there when it was rendered, but I won't tell. ;)

Friday, January 16, 2009


I tried to get just about every navigation concern I could into this image for AOPA. Pilots will probably recognize the various little VFR waypoints and such that we use when making flight plans. The more natural things are in there too, like weather, terrain, lakes and coastline. Did I miss anything? ;)

This image was more scenic than most of my work, which made it fun to do. It was also a full spread (two facing pages) in the magazine, which is always great, because it gives me a nice wide-angle aspect to work in--lots of real estate! Unlike most situations, here, the high-wing of the Cessna 172 actually worked better than the low wings of the DA40 and the Cirrus. When looking at the airplane from below at this angle, the low-wing airplanes were all "bottom." In other words, the wing obscured too much of the fuselage.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Landing Gear Load at Touchdown

This was for a a piece in AOPA Flight Training or Pilot magazine (I can't recall) on landing gear. I think the focus of the article was the load strain that's put on the gear the moment of touchdown. I used the Cirrus for this because the low wing worked very nicely for the composition, leaving the sky nice and clear. I could have used the DA40, but the nose wheel on the DA40 is mounted slightly off center, which didn't work too well here because it looked like the pilot missed the runway centerline. Plus, the Cirrus' landing gear fairings are a bit more stylized, which I really liked. I think this image is as close to a Pink Floyd album cover as I've ever gotten!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Inversion Layers

This was for an AOPA piece on "inversion layer" weather patterns. The idea was to show the same scene in daylight and darkness, in order to show how the fog appears. (Or something like that!) I figured I'd use a graph line that depicts an actual inversion layer as the separator between the two scenes. (In case you were wondering what was up with the odd line.) This image differs slightly from the version AOPA published, in that the fog is less exaggerated. They wanted me to turn up the volume on the fog effect to drive home the point, but I preferred it this way. :)

There was also an animation for this that shows the fog accumlate as the sun sets, and shows windsock reflect the changes in wind. I'll post it as soon as I get some sort of a production line in place to turn my anim stuff into blog-ready stuff that still looks acceptable.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

GPS Failures

This image was for an AOPA article on the various things that can go wrong when using GPS for navigation. Among the problems illustrated are loss of satellite signal; drained batteries in a handheld unit; and confusion over the spelling of a way point. If you look carefully, you can see the GPS satellites on the horizon.

This image was particularly fun because I don't typically get to do evening scenes. Having flown solo at night many times, I recalled what can be a very lonely feeling. There's not much to see at night from an airplane, and the hum of the engine can be all you hear for long periods of time. I wanted the massive horizon and featureless ground to convey that sense of loneliness. I exaggerated the transition from dusk to dark, because I wanted the blackness to hang over the scene, as if it was the pending GPS failure.

What do you think? Did I over think this one? ;)

Originally, I did the image using the Diamond DA42, which looked really nice! But AOPA didn't think the space-aged little twin appropriately represented the airplanes flown by most of their readers. Oh well! I'll get the DA42 into a published illustration one day!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Engine Parts: Starter and Alternator

This models were produced for my book. I'm not sure what possessed me to think that 3D models of aircraft engine parts were a necessary addition to a book about flight training, but there you have it!

For those familiar with 3D development, I built these with a NURBs modeler, which made all those Boolean cuts and the welding and rounding of all those edges quite easy. Building these models (especially the alternator) using polygons wouldn't have been much fun! The program I used is no longer available, so when a job calls for NURBs modeling today, I'd use Moi 3d, which I think is a great NURBs modeler. It's easy to use, and it produces models that work nicely in Softimage XSI, which is my main 3D app. I wrote up a review of Moi for the CG Channel website.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Magnetic Compass

This model and render, created back in early 2001, were breakthroughs for me as a 3D designer. I had never before tried to achieve much photo realism in my work, because I figured neither I nor the program I was using at the time were up to the task. But when the pieces of this puzzle came together, it really changed the way in which I approached 3D.

The difference was that I started paying considerable attention to the shading process of models, as I had first done with this one. (Shading is the process by which an object that otherwise looks like a gray cylinder can end up looking like a tree, or even a magnetic compass, when rendered.) And while shading has mostly to do with the appearance of an object, to me the trick is to shade the object so that the viewer can "feel" it just by looking at it. In this image, I wanted to make viewers aware that the compass casing was metal, and I wanted them to be able to imagine how that metal feels to the touch. I wanted them to be able to feel the edge of the compass card holder, and I wanted them to be able to imagine what I would feel like to pick at the compass card paper, further damaging it.

Of course, now that I think about it, perhaps magnetic compasses aren't encased in metal after all. ;)

E6B Flight Computer

When I first heard about a "flight computer" early in my flight training, I was excited to think that basic flight planning would involve a computer. I am a child of technology, after all. When I first saw an E6B, however, I was a bit confused. This was a computer? Where was the mouse?

I did this model for my book (see sidebar). What I like best about it is that you can actually use it for flight planning! I made sure the markings were spot-on accurate, and the geek inside of me was thrilled to be able to animate the entire process of using the E6B. No, in case anyone asks, I don't use this 3D model for flight planning. ;)

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Take-Off Rotation Speed

This is one of my favorite scenes that I've done. The images is meant to illustrate that moment when the airplane becomes airborne. (I first tried using the Cessna 172 for the image, but it was just too boxy looking. I tried the Cirrus next and, while it looked nicer than the 172, it still looked too "fat" to fly. There's something about the graceful bird-like lines of the DA40 that just made it appear to be leaping off the ground, which was just perfect for this composition.

During a conversation with (fantastic) aviation photographer Mike Fizer, I learned that when composing a shot, he also deals with issues such as the "boxiness" of a 172, or the massive wingspans of these Diamond aircraft. I thought it was kind of interesting that as different as our mediums are, we deal with similar issues with regard to the subjects and how to make them look nice on paper.

Cessna 162 "Skycatcher"

Here's a render of my Cessna Skycatcher model in the colors we see on the actual prototypes f the airplane. As mentioned in another post, I created this airplane for use in some King Schools programs. They wanted to use this familiar "paint scheme," but when I use the model now, I use the blue color scheme, which I like much better!

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Engine-Out After Take-Off

I have to admit that I didn't like this image too much when I first did it for an AOPA article. I think it was the combination of the red sign and the blue of the attitude indicator that sort of clashed in my brain. But AOPA asked for rights to reuse it so much, that I guess those colors aren't so bad to others! (I also can't stand the light blue/brown color combination so unfortunately popular these days!) The topic was what to do when you lose your engine just after take-off. The answer is, of course, to push the yoke forward, so you don't lose airspeed and stall.


The topic here was stalls. I wanted to convey the way the airplane feels during a stall, so I tried to go for a vibrating/shuttering sort of illusion. The airflow lines depict how the airplane stalls first at the root of the wing, which enables the ailerons to maintain some authority. Then, after all that work, the story the illustration was intended for was canceled. So, this image remains unpublished.

Holding Pattern Entry

It's not often I get to do a scene that doesn't involve an airplane, but this was one of those times. The client wanted something that would illustrate the concept of all that should go through an IFR pilot's head prior to entering a holding pattern. The first thing that came to mind for me was the concept of street signs. This was great for me, because street signs are relatively easy to make in 3D!

Engine-Out Procedures

This was a full spread (two pages) that I did for AOPA Flight Training magazine. (Imagine the title and text in he upper right "sky" area. I really liked this image because it's so "in your face," which is how I imagine a full engine-out experience to be! (Note the "upgrade" to the three-blade prop in this image, as compared to the "Propeller Torque Effect" image. The two-blade prop just didn't work as well in this composition, so my DA40 officially became the "XL" model!)

Propeller Torque Effect

If I remember correctly, this was my DA40's illustration debut. It's also a good example of how my mind leaves "pilot mode" when I do this stuff. I had finished the image and sent it to the client, who responded: "It looks great, but the propeller is going the wrong way." So much for my pilot experience! This is the fixed version.

Where it all started for me...

This was the first illustration I ever got published. It was commissioned by AOPA, now a longtime client of mine. I can't describe how exciting it was for me when I opened the magazine and saw it! Nowadays, I just open magazines and bitch about color reproduction.

I did the image in a 3D program I used to use, which partially explains the difference between this and my more current work. (Of course, I'm to blame for it looking cheesy too.) I'll post some other stuff from that era, but not too much, for obvious reasons. ;)

Friday, January 2, 2009

Cirrus SR20

This airplane came on the market and really shook things up for a while. I think it's fair to say had it not been for the success of Cirrus, we wouldn't have seen Cessna get into the composite-body aircraft business like they did when they bought out Columbia Aircraft. I got to fly one of these a few times, and they sure are nice...and expensive!

Diamond DA40 "DiamondStar"

The question I get a lot about this airplane is "any relation?" Sorry to say, no. I have some time logged in the DA40's little brother, the DA20, but I've yet to sit behind the stick in one of these. It's a gorgeous design, but it's often hard to fit that massive wingspan into a single image!

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Rockwell 690B "Twin Commander"

This airplane made its debut in the January '09 edition of AOPA Pilot. It was lots of fun to build, because I usually work only with much smaller aircraft. I was lucky that there was another Commander sitting (lifeless) at the airport I fly from (OAK), so I was able to get the reference photos I needed for the landing gear and the other miscellaneous parts that aren't very common in "beauty" shots of aircraft.

Diamond DA42 "TwinStar"

The folks at Diamond Aircraft were kind enough to get me the three-view drawings I needed to build this model before the DA42 was actually released. It's fun to build a model before I ever see the real thing. That way, when I do see the actual airplane, it seems like someone manufactured an airplane based on my 3D work! :)

Cessna 172 "Skyhawk"

My Cessna 172 model is the most popular 3D model I have. I've used it in illustrations for just about all my clients. Most of my flight training took place in a 172, so I've spent a lot of time in them. But it's funny that when building a 3D model, I find myself having no recollection whatsoever of what certain parts of the airplane look like, even though I've seen them thousands of times!

Cessna 162 "Skycatcher"

My Skycatcher 3D model was originally created for a King Schools training course, but I've since used it in at least one AOPA article that comes to mind. I'm sure once the airplane is actually put into production, I'll get more requests to use it in illustrations. My contract with King grants them usage rights for the 3D model, so you might see it in many of their future projects too.

John King, Martha King, and all the rest of the King gang were wonderful to work with! I learned a lot from their videos during my flight training, so it was a honor to help them out on this project.