Interview with Michael Scaramozzino, DreamLight Incorporated
April, 2007 – As originally published on NewTek.com
Since founding the award-winning DreamLight® Incorporated twenty years ago in April of 1987, Michael Scaramozzino has been pushing the limits of digital media in a wide range of computer graphics fields. With awards for digital design, 2D PostScript Illustration, Interactive Multimedia, 3D Illustration and 3D Animation, his work has been published in magazines from HOW to Art Direction, books from the FreeHand Bible to The Best of 3D Graphics, and exhibits from Siggraph to Imagine – Tokyo. His first 3D animated short film – BlastOff!™ is currently making the rounds at animation film festivals with over a dozen screenings nation wide and awards including a Merit Award from its initial festival screening at the inaugural 2D OR NOT 2D animation festival with keynote speaker Roy E. Disney. BlastOff! was also recently awarded an Official Honoree distinction from the Webby Awards, hailed as the “Oscars of the Internet” by the New York Times. We recently had the opportunity to speak with Michael about his studio, DreamLight Incorporated, and to find out more about this talented artist.
Can you tell us a little about yourself and your history with 3D?
I’ve been fascinated with computer graphics from the first time I ever touched a personal computer, a Radio Shack TRS-80, back in 1981. It was in my first computer programming class in high school. I found the class work rather easy, so the teacher relieved me of the normal class assignments and allowed me to pursue my own programming projects instead. I wrote a computer graphics program in Basic called ArtSketch that worked like an Etch-A-Sketch using the arrow keys. I used my ArtSketch program to create my very first computer graphics.
Inspired by Disney’s Tron and the ground breaking 3D graphics of the initial CGI pioneers – MAGI, Robert Abel and Associates, Triple-I, and Digital Effects – I went on to study computer science at the University of California San Diego (UCSD). With a couple years of software development under my belt, I transferred to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) where I earned a BFA in traditional illustration/animation a year early through a special portfolio review to receive advanced standing.
Upon graduating, I became the acting director of RISD’s newly established creative computer center outfitted with the original Apple Macintosh 128K computers, a SKOK CAD system and a few Tech Graphics-II color paint systems. I created my first 3D computer illustration by designing 3D models of a chess set with the SKOK CAD system, plotting out a wire frame image of the scene and then scanning it into the Tech Graphics-II color paint system where I applied the color shading. That first 3D image and a few of my early digital paintings were later published in the Verbum Book of Bitmapped Painting and exhibited in the computer graphics shows Imagine in Tokyo and Siggraph in Atlanta.
After leaving RISD I spent a year as a computer software consultant designing software in C for Unix before founding the digital studio DreamLight Interactive in 1987, where I could pursue my dual interests in computer science and artistic expression in the brand new fields of digital design, 2D/3D illustration, interactive multimedia and 3D animation.
How were you first introduced to LightWave 3D?
Over the years at DreamLight I had worked through a progression of various 3D applications on the Macintosh including Easy 3D, Swivel 3D, Mac Render Man, Infini-D, MacroModel, Macromedia Three-D, Extreme 3D, Bryce, Strata Studio Pro, Form-Z and Electric Image. I had recently completed production on KeyQuest – a 3D interactive CD-ROM for McGraw-Hill where I used Form-Z for modeling, Strata Studio Pro for most rendering and Electric Image for some limited character animation.
I was beginning work on Quipples™, The Internet Game Show of Satirical Riddles™ – my proof of concept research project to develop a new technology for DreamLight Autitons™, Intelligent Interactive 3D Characters. I planned to use Form-Z and Electric Image for the 3D portion of Quipples when NewTek extended a special cross-grade offer to Electric Image users. LightWave included modeling, ray traced rendering and animation in one package. I was always trying to streamline my production pipeline and Electric Image lacked modeling and ray tracing at the time, so I grabbed a copy of LightWave 5.6 to try. I used LightWave to render all the images I needed for the ioSCOPE communicator, the interactive 3D interface for Quipples.com.
I was extremely impressed with the high quality of the texturing and rendering available in LightWave 3D 5.6. As a dedicated Macintosh user however, I found the user interface was rather un-Mac like and far too modal at the time though. So I continued to produce DreamLight’s 3D projects in Form-Z and Electric Image for a while longer.
A few years later, DreamLight started production on a large 3D rendering / animation project for Hearts On Fire where I needed to animate and render hundreds of pieces of diamond jewelry. I needed ray tracing and caustics which Electric Image didn’t do at the time, so I started the project in Strata Studio Pro instead. It quickly became clear however that I needed a higher level of production capabilities to produce the hundreds of multi-pass animations that would be required. So I gave LightWave another try. I upgraded LightWave to version 7.5 and continued the project in LightWave 3D. The user interface in LightWave 7.5 had become much less modal and more user friendly than it was in version 5.6. The switch to LightWave enabled me to set up a very robust production pipeline including an in-house network render farm of Power Macintosh computers that could handle the enormous workload. LightWave also made it easier to incorporate external model files facilitating the workflow with one of our talented off-site DreamLight associates, Eric Streeter, who built the vast number of 3D jewelry models for the project. Using LightWave I was able to take Eric’s models and place them in my LightWave 3D scenes where I could texture, light, animate and render them in a production line manner. Due to LightWave’s robust production capabilities, I’ve been using LightWave 3D as the backbone of our 3D production pipeline for all DreamLight’s 3D projects ever since. [I even wrote a Mac GUI front-end for LightWave’s network render engine – DLI_SNUB-Launcher, in Apple’s XCode]
What feature of LightWave do you like most?
There are many features of LightWave that I like a lot, particularly some of the new LightWave 9.2 features such as photo real motion blur and nodal textures, but I’d have to say that the one feature that I like the most is still the unlimited network render nodes that enable DreamLight to run a very robust in-house render farm at a fraction of the cost of competing solutions. I can even configure the network render farm to utilize remote render nodes across the Internet, which is very useful when I need to harness additional render nodes for a burst of speed on any particular project.
Are there any plug-ins you use on a regular basis?
Yes, there are a few plug-ins and third-party programs that I use with LightWave every day. I find Worley’s FPrime indispensable. I primarily use it as an interactive previewer for lighting and texturing. Now with FPrime 3 and LightWave 9.2 I can also use it to interactively preview the new node based texturing. This makes working with nodal textures in LightWave much more productive and powerful than in any other software.
Other indispensable components of DreamLight’s LightWave production pipeline are two screamernet controllers that I use to run our in-house render farm. I use Jonathan Baker’s robust ScreamerNet Controller for OS X and Bruce Rayne’s excellent RenderFarm Commander, depending upon which features I need on any particular project. In addition to many other features, ScreamerNet Controller for OS X has powerful scene queue management, including queue recovery in the event of a power failure or crash. Render Farm Commander can split a still frame across the render farm and also assemble it when done, as well as many other features. I find them both valuable additions to our pipeline.
I’ve also started to use LWCAD quite a bit when using LightWave Modeler. I really enjoy how it makes LightWave’s modeling tools much more interactive by adding features like heads up displays and dynamic snapping.
What is your position at DreamLight, what does it entail?
I founded DreamLight in 1987 to enable me to pursue my interests in computer graphics and computer programming. Ever since DreamLight’s inception I had intended to ride the wave of digital media based upon what the Mac was capable of at any particular time, starting with digital design, through 2D PostScript illustration, interactive multimedia design & programming to 3D illustration and finally 3D animation. I’ve always strived to push the leading edge of whatever area of computer graphics I was currently focusing on throughout DreamLight’s extensive history. Over the past twenty years I’ve been having a blast riding that digital wave. With my keen interests in the field and my hands-on approach, I either work directly on most of the projects at DreamLight Interactive or I closely direct the work being done.
What are some projects you’ve worked on recently?
BlastOff! – My First 3D Animated Short Film
To maintain a healthy balance between cash flow and creativity, I typically work on a few select paying client projects and then focus on my own DreamLight creative R&D projects, like my first 3D animated short film – BlastOff! which is currently making the rounds at animation film festivals across the country. BlastOff! is currently playing on Telebites.com
BlastOff! was primarily intended as a simple dry-run test project where I could exercise and refine the skills necessary to produce a 3D animated short film, from concept to completion including web publishing and festival submissions. I especially wanted to focus on many aspects of 3D character animation and build a viable LightWave 3D animation pipeline with our in-house render farm at DreamLight in preparation of beginning production on our upcoming 3D animated web series, the Autiton Archives. I also apply many aspects of what I learn on these R&D projects to our paying client projects.
3D Architectural Visualization Illustration
When the largest premium roofing manufacturer in the country, Elk Corporation, approached DreamLight to show what their line of premium roofing products would look like on actual homes, I used LightWave to texture and render a 3D virtual house with various color combinations of roofing and siding products. I then composited the photo realistic 3D rendering of each home into a photograph of the site with Photoshop.
3D Architectural Visualization Animation
I’ve recently completed a 3D architectural visualization animation project for a hospital development in LightWave 3D. The project consisted of various 3D fly-by animations of the complex as well as a number of still renderings from various angles including an aerial view where I composited the LightWave 3D rendered site into an aerial photo of the surrounding area. In this particular DreamLight project the building models were supplied by the architects as Sketchup files which I merged into my LightWave 3D scenes. This worked remarkably well, considering that the architect’s building designs were in constant flux and we needed to incorporate their changes into the renders very quickly.
3D Product Animation & Illustration
For clients such as Tyco/AFC Cable Systems and Kidde Fenwal, I’ve used LightWave 3D to create photo realistic illustrations and animations for products as simple as cables to more complicated products like fire/explosion suppression systems. LightWave enables DreamLight to create extremely realistic looking product illustrations and animation.
3D Scientific Animation
Cubist Pharmaceuticals wanted to show the suspected mode of action (MOA) of their new super drug. Using LightWave 3D’s particle system and DreamLight’s in-house render farm, I was able to animate hundreds of individual molecules and control their motions with inter-object collisions. This enabled me to create a 3D animation that effectively simulates the drug’s expected mode of action, showing how the molecules create a channel through the cell wall which leads to the rapid depolarization of the cell’s cytoplasm proving lethal to the affected bacteria.
3D Jewelry Animation / Illustration
For Hearts On Fire, makers of the world’s most perfectly cut diamonds, I animated and rendered hundreds of pieces of diamond jewelry in multiple metal colors in LightWave 3D from models built by one of our talented DreamLight Associates, Eric Streeter. The jewelry included everything from solitaire rings to necklaces encrusted with hundreds of individual diamonds. I created 3D animations for the interactive CD-ROM that DreamLight produced for Hearts On Fire as well as high resolution still renders for use in their printed catalogs. This enabled Hearts On Fire to send their salesmen out, armed with a complete 3D virtual representation of their entire product line on CD-ROM while only carrying a few pieces of actual diamond jewelry.
Have the recent changes in LightWave impacted the way you work?
Yes they have. I’m very excited about NewTek’s latest efforts for LightWave on the Macintosh. DreamLight recently added our first new eight core 3GHz Mac Pro workstation to the studio and the LightWave UB open beta just screams on it. We can’t wait for the LightWave UB’s final release to add a few more eight core Mac Pro’s to our render farm to really accelerate our animation rendering. This dramatically increased render speed improves our overall 3D creativity by enabling the artists to see the results of their efforts in record time, there-by allowing much more experimentation and refinement.
Are there any new features of LightWave v9 you’ve found particularly useful?
I particularly like the new photo real motion blur and depth of field (DOF) which fixes a long time Achilles’ heel of LightWave. It was usually easy to spot LightWave animation by the stepped motion blur and DOF. Now with LightWave 9.2 we can have fantastic looking motion blur and DOF that even works correctly through transparencies and reflections. I also find LightWave 9’s new nodal texturing system to be a stupendous addition. It enables all sorts of new possibilities for extremely complex texturing effects that would be virtually impossible to create if we were limited to the typical layered approach.
Do you have a “LightWave tip or trick” others might find helpful?
I periodically write case studies, called DreamLight Insights, about various projects and computer graphics topics. While setting up our in-house DreamLight render farm I wrote the DreamLight Insight – Mastering LightWave ScreamerNet on Mac OS X. Most of this tutorial has already been incorporated into the LightWave 9 manual. The complete tutorial is still available online and also covers using the third party controllers ScreamerNet Controller for OS X and RenderFarm Commander along with SharePoints to run a production level Macintosh based LightWave 3D render farm. After the LightWave UB is released, I’ll update the online tutorial for any necessary network rendering changes for LightWave UB on the Intel Macs.
What’s next for Michael Scaramozzino and DreamLight?
Ever since DreamLight’s inception twenty years ago I’ve always wanted to create my own 3D animated short films, but the technologies available on desktop computers always seemed to come up short of what I really needed to be able to realize my vision. Now with the incredible power of LightWave 3D v9.2, phenomenal workstations like Apple’s new 8-core Mac Pro and a direct link to the entire world through the World Wide Web, iPods and Apple TV, all the technology I’ve ever dreamed of is finally in place.
BlastOff! was conceived as a simple test to see if I could produce a 3D animated short film at DreamLight and release it directly on the Web. With the success of BlastOff!, which has been much more successful than I ever hoped, I’ve recently begun production on The Autiton Archives™, a 3D animated series of shorts to be released on the Web. The Autiton Archives will follow the adventures of a couple of 3D characters, NineOh™ (0090™) and ThreeBeDee™ (03BD™), who are object-oriented software “Autitons” in search of meaning in a digital universe. An early version of the NineOh model textured and rendered in LightWave 3D can be seen at left. You can follow my latest progress throughout this production on the Autiton Archives WIP Blog. [TheAutitonArchives.com/blog/]
Do you have any advice for someone new to the 3D industry?
Don’t be afraid to dream, and don’t give up if your first attempts don’t succeed. Just keep on truckin’ and eventually if you’re persistent enough, you’ll get to where you want to be. Just don’t forget to have some fun along the way!
Any final thoughts?
I would like to thank NewTek for the opportunity to chat and show my work as well as for making LightWave 3D which is what makes all this work possible in the first place. I’m extremely impressed with the recent advancements that NewTek has made with LightWave, particularly on the Macintosh platform. I can’t wait to see where NewTek takes LightWave 3D next and where LightWave 3D takes me next.
Thanks for taking the time to talk to us, Michael!
To learn more about Michael and his 3D work, visit his website: DreamLight.com