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Tackling The Vault


Up In The Air Productions and the Fremont Street Space Frame
By Nick Belardes (UITA Writer)

It moves. It lights up. It's loud and to get immersed in the show you gotta stand and crane your neck like you're trying to see the top of a 300 foot redwood. It's four blocks long—a light canopy attached to nearly a dozen casinos—and it's full of flying colors and shapes coming at you from crazy arcing vantage points in extra-large Vegas-style animation. It's even free as you watch Swing Cat Blues and see giant animations of cartoon cats trudge through cartoon landscapes over your head. In 7 minutes the show's over. Don't worry. It happens every night of the week. And it's just one of three Up In The Air Productions (UITA) animated features always playing every hour after dusk.

That’s the latest big show, the result of months of work from storyboarding to modeling, animating, and testing on a display that offers quite the artistic and technical challenge. With an incredible curvature arching over Fremont Street; including distortion, a strange aspect ratio, and other obstacles, there’s always a challenge in tackling the ‘vault’. Let's go back to the show's production, a Las Vegas weekday morning six months prior to the debut of Swing Cat Blues:

Donnavon Webb, lead 3D artist, plods up a flight of stairs, unlocks the door to the Up in the Air Productions office and walks in with his fat lunchbox full of power bars and bananas. He's got earrings. He's got blonde-dyed cyberpunk hair. He's just commuted through the crankiest morning traffic in America; skipped the annoying morning radio shows and listened to his favorite band, Morphine, jazz up the air. Now he's had his coffee and is about to look at Swing Cat Blues storyboards.

Outside the Friedman Building window where Donnavon works, stands Mr. O'Lucky, a pure Las Vegas oxymoron in form, being a 30 foot Leprechaun standing over Fremont Street. Aren't leprechauns supposed to be small as chickens? Doesn't matter. Donnavon can see him every morning across Fremont Street, waving his mechanical green-painted arm, smiling over his pot of gold: the entrance to the Fitzgerald's Casino. Donnavon and the rest of the UITA —a subsidiary of the Golden Nugget Hotel-Casino of the Mirage Resorts organization—are strangely connected to Mr. O'Lucky. Donnavon and Mr. O'Lucky's symbolic stature represent some form of responsibility for the ongoing productions of the massive 70 million dollar project that vaults over the street between eleven downtown Las Vegas Casinos and a multitude of businesses. The Golden Nugget Hotel-Casino is the entity responsible for show productions: the UITA animated features displayed on the vault.

And Donnavon's worry? He's just gotta help make shows that can fit the most alarming format ever conceived to baffle the minds of animation artists anywhere. Opening in 1995, downtown Las Vegas' Fremont Street Experience is a curved surface with an aspect ratio of 2596x184 pixels covering a 200,000 square foot area.

Kool CatRudyThumperTickles

No problem. Donnavon's modeled several cat characters already: Tickles, Kool Cat, Rudy and Thumper: all down-and-out cat musicians set in a cartoon-style cross country traveling motif. Character Studio has been used along with the plug-in Bones Pro, considered the simplest method to create the Warner Bros. inspired cartoon creations. At the desks next to him are two other artist/animators, Ken Seward and Jason Maier. Both have also begun modeling cats and other scenes for the show. Another animator, Brad Alexander sits in a back room, intense on putting actions to cats crazily bopping, walking, waving, gettin' in and out of cars, and dogs doing the same kind of loony motions. In another office sits Cindy Chinn, Creative Director, UITA's boss-lady who composites all of the 3D animation renders. She divvies out various responsibilities to the artists so that each has a portion of the show that they will specifically create.

Tackling the vault is the main concern for the artists and animators at UITA. Donnavon has to create the all-important first scene for Swing Cat Blues, that of the fictitious town of Dullsville. The scene must be low in polys so his workstation won't get bogged down with the enormous amount of 3D images (geometry) that will go into it. Streets, buildings, tenements, a fish factory, smokestacks belching smoke, trees and so on will eventually comprise the background scene. Later, cars, a tow truck and various cats will be added…

The trick is in the rendering farm. "Like shrinky dinks going into the oven," Donnavon says in a later interview, talking about how images are composited. Such compression is needed to render from 3D into a 2D format so the multitudes of 3D animation will work in a scene without bogging down the workstations. But what about the Fremont Street Experience vault itself? Las Vegas downtown is a booming area partly as a result of the creation of the Fremont Street Experience. Tightening the downtown business community spirit with free entertainment has actually increased development and infused city ordinances that have helped clean up what was once a decaying area. From new government buildings to the addition of the Neonopolis mall now under construction, downtown Las Vegas is now thriving. But what is the Fremont Street Experience? Some call it the space frame, or light canopy. Regardless, it’s no TV. A thousand people can’t gather under the vault and all witness the same show. There is no localized action like when watching a TV screen and everyone has the same reference point of viewing. People stand under it, often in the thousands and peer upwards from every direction—some facing, North, East, South, or West, and they don’t see all of the vault at any given moment. It’s too massive. It’s curvature and non-localized nature means you can’t move your camera when making a scene. “No 2 people are looking from the same angle. Curvature, perspective, distortion and that crazy aspect ratio (2596x184 pixels) means you can’t look straight overhead for a clear view. You have to look down the street at an angle,” says Donnavon. And that takes the average street-goer a good minute into the show before getting their bearings. The curvature distorts images, causing artists to have to treat it almost as if it has two sides and a top. Images don’t typically stretch over halfway through the curvature, and so as Donnavon peers at storyboards he makes sure to model buildings that don’t stretch from one side of the vault to the other. Taking it for granted that distortion issues are just part of the process that has to be solved with each show made,

Donnavon creates geometry, repeating as many building models as he can get away with in order to cut down on production time and to prevent the all-intrusive slowing of the workstation. Soon his scene will be tested on the vault, and street-goers will look up and wonder why Donnavon and a small group of people are pointing and pacing on Fremont Street.

Of course it’s all in a day’s work for Donnavon, and the process for he and the rest of the UITA staff continues with a Motown-driven show slated for the new Millennium.

UITA Team from left to right: Cindy (Director), Nick (Creative Writer), Ken (Graphics Artist),
Jason (3D Artist), Donnavon (Lead 3D Artist) and Warren (Systems Administrator).

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