A Tale of 3D Modeling, Photography, Classic Arcades and Geek Nostalgia

Indulge me for a bit, dear reader; I feel a monumental free-association nerd ramble coming on.

It’s always fun when you can cook up a project that combines your favorite hobbies, interests and skills. For some reason lately I’ve gotten the bug to start dabbling in 3D modeling again. It’s something I’ve done off and on for years, mostly as a creative outlet. I don’t claim any great talent at it, but I enjoy the geeky blend of creativity and hardcore technical skills that this particular mix of art and science demands.

A test Modo render of my Pac-Man arcade model as it nears “completion”.

Waxing Nostalgic

I toyed with Videoscape 3D on my Amigas as a kid in the 1980’s and, some years later, spent more serious time on the original versions of Lightwave that came with the Amiga-based Video Toaster. A few years ago, Alex Lindsay got me interested in tinkering with Modo 201 and I’ve since owned copies of 201, 301, 501 and, as of this last week, the rather amazing 601 release. I was distracted during the 401 era and only had time to churn out one super-quick project using a trial copy. Keep in mind that much of my life is focused on being a professional network geek and, at that time, I was busy planning a massive upgrade of the entire campus network. Now that I think back, that quickie 401 project involved making simple animated 3D fly-throughs of the campus for a Keynote presentation I was giving to our board of directors. Why? To request funding for that very network overhaul. This is why I love my job!

Close-up of the Pac-Man joystick with a very shallow depth-of-field.


By the way, Modo 601 is fantastic. It came screaming onto the scene with no real notice whatsoever. One minute Brad Peebler of Luxology is spending half the day tweet-teasing us with previews of a “forthcoming release” (assumption: in a few months), the next minute he’s casually mentioning that all that awesomeness is ready for download now. Enjoy! You could sense the community-wide gasp, followed quickly by what I can only imagine was a massive spike in outgoing bandwidth for Luxology’s download servers.

Luxology is one of the most likable and “personal” companies I’ve dealt with for ages. I say that for several reasons. First off, they have a team of mad geniuses that create this fun product called Modo. Secondly, Luxology and Modo have character and… well… voices. One of those voices is Brad Peebler and his always entertaining, endearingly off-the-cuff demo videos and “modcasts“. Everyone in the Modo community knows the other voice, too: the dulcet, british-accented tones of Andy Brown. I can’t watch five minutes of one of his tutorial videos without coming away both humbled and inspired. The man plays Modo like a violin. So if I close my eyes and think of Modo, I see it’s interface of subtle grays and fine lines… but I hear Brad and Andy. The user community is also precisely that: a community. It feels passionate and accessible.

An overhead shot with a medium depth-of-field.

Since I’m getting my geek nostalgia on anyway, I’ll throw in this additional bit of personal history. I had been working with Modo 201 for a short time when I happened to notice a Mr. Allen Hastings posting in the Luxology support forums. “No freakin’ way…”, I thought. He was the man behind the other software I used so many years ago on the Video Toaster: Lightwave. Beyond that, Allen was the guy who wrote the first tools I dabbled with when I was all of 14 years old: Videoscape 3D.

Spurred by a few fuzzy memories, I did some Googling and actually churned up his replies to questions I posted about Videoscape on Usenet (comp.sys.amiga) in November of 1988. His reply made reference to what was then the unreleased project that became NewTek’s Lightwave. 24 years later, by sheer chance, I’m still using products made by the amazing Allen Hastings and I’m still getting helpful replies from him in the forums. (I also seem to remember that, around that same time in the late 80’s, I was running my Amiga as a dial-up uucp node to get my newsgroups… but I’ll save that for a series of posts I’m pondering for the future.)

NOTE: While editing this prior to posting, I suddenly had a picture in my mind of a some junk in the corner of the attic. After a quick trip up the stairs I found that, for once, that picture in my mind was actually accurate. Here are two relevant things (in three pictures) I managed to dig up in the last few minutes. Click’em to embiggen. 

Front of the VideoScape 3D box I found in my attic.

Back of the box showing the credits and copyrights.

The UUCP tools for my Amiga in the 80’s.

Sadly, despite this span of 24 years, I don’t have any kind of significant 3D work to share (though I chanced into one of my Modo models appearing on the freakin’ History Channel a few years back). I’ve been vastly more prolific as a photographer than a 3D modeler. This is why all I can say is that I dabble and tinker… but I learn more every time and I start coming back to it more and more often.

Part of the attraction is that the tools are getting so incredibly powerful. Back when I was 14, the modeling process involving plotting your ideas on graph paper and translating them into ASCII strings of coordinates. Today it’s realtime 3D sculpting, puppet-like rigging of characters, and built-in tools for simulating the real-world physical dynamics of hard and soft objects in your animations. The resulting imagery can be anything from cartoonish to staggeringly photorealistic. Oh… and this is on your laptop… or your iMac. At home. During evenings and weekends.

I will mention, though, that being a geek who oversees a campus network full of servers and labs has its perks. Paired with Modo’s cool network rendering and very generous built-in 50-slave license, I often fire up rooms full of lab computers in the wee hours to do my distributed render bidding. A few clicks from home using some scripts in ARD and dozens of campus Macs snap to life and start chewing on “render buckets”.

Modo 601’s render tab showing scene previews and setup.


When I was 14, I  took photos that required a darkroom or lab to develop and making a “movie” involved borrowing a friend’s expensive VHS camcorder (which, if memory serves, was roughly the size of a dorm refrigerator). I did make 2D graphics and animations that I could put on VHS using a “genlock”, but there were no accessible digital tools for doing actual editing. It was tremendous fun nonetheless. Today the iMac on my desk lets me process extremely high resolution stills and high-definition video from a single camera, edit it easily, create and apply visual effects and mix in 2D and 3D animated elements. Well, the potential is there anyway…

The Quintessential 80’s Game: Pac-Man

Some years back I spent a while collecting and restoring 1980’s era classic arcade games as a hobby. It was great fun, but it takes up a ton of room and is seldom your wife’s choice in home decor. I parted with most of the 30+ machines I had, but kept three (Millipede, Marble Madness and Pac-Man). Emulation is another of my techie passions, so I get to mix my love of arcades with Linux, MAME, wires, power tools and soldering irons. That’s another whole topic… one I pretty thoroughly documented on a mostly dormant blog of mine that you can still find here.

Reference left side photo of my Pac-Man arcade.

One of the three arcades sitting here in my home office is a fairly unmolested Pac-Man upright. I bought it from the college where I work after it had lived an unusually sheltered 20+ year life in the campus bistro. Most arcades got the crap beaten out of them in a few short years and are then were stripped of their identity and converted to some crappier, newer game (many arcade operators of the 80’s were notoriously stingy folks whose actions, in retrospect, horrify purist collectors like myself… but their actions were justified at the time in an industry that, after all, made its often meager profits in increments of 25 cents). A Pac-Man squirreled away in the corner of the cafe of an all-women’s liberal arts college in semi-rural Virginia is generally spared the usual abuse and indignities suffered at, say, a laundromat or pizza place. It has all of its original parts and plays like a champ.

I decided to use the Pac-Man machine as my subject for a fresh round of Modo self-training. It’s a hard-surface rather than organic model, but still involves some interesting geometry and shading challenges. I parked it in the middle of my home office behind my rolling chair and, over the course of a few weekends and nights, photographed, measured, partly disassembled and repeatedly stared at it the blue-flecked yellow behemoth while trying to recreate it digitally in three dimensions.

I’m not completely done, but far enough along that I felt like sharing the results in the form of a few rendered stills. I have some test fly-by animations, too, that include the real game playing accurately on the screen… but I need to tweak and re-render those before sharing.

So Where Does The Photography Come In?

Early test render of the cabinet.

Photography comes into play in a few ways. I used straight-on, distortion-corrected shots of the sides as an on-screen reference in Modo to accurately recreate the profile of the cabinet’s contours. Those 2D curves became extrusions that became sides with accurate scale applied. The rest is a series of parts built from there; tackling the moulding, door locks, control panel, buttons, joysticks, marquee, etc., as individual parts. It’s tremendous fun watching it come together over time and get more and more realistic with each addition.

I also photographed some bits of the artwork that I couldn’t already find in digital form online. My father, a retired graphic designer with far more Adobe Illustrator knowledge than I’ll ever have, traced them to generate EPS files with transparent knockouts that would properly overlay on procedural or image-mapped textures on my model.

Early test render with marquee placeholder.

Some of Modo’s camera settings.

Lastly, knowledge of photography plays a big (and very fun) role in 3D modeling. You set up scenes in much the same way you would photograph something in a studio. This involves realistic lights, the properties of surfaces in the scenes, and manipulating a virtual camera right down to accurate focal length, aperture, and even blade count in the virtual iris of the virtual lens. Using this knowledge, you plan your depth-of-field and even control the geometry and softness of the bokeh.

Basically, I can be a real-world photographer to gather the reference imagery I need to build a scene. I then get to be a virtual photographer with far more control over the elements than real-life would ever allow. From a composition standpoint, the creative thought process and technical approach is much the same in the virtual world as it is in the real one.

Coincidentally, a great article on PetaPixel (a photography blog I love to follow and highly recommend) appeared in my Google Reader feeds the other day: How to Visualize Photography Lighting Setups in Blender. Cool, huh?


Another camera angle and different lighting of the Pac-Man models.


As a photographer experimenting in 3D, you can also use your real-world camera skills to photograph textures that can then be used to enhance the realism of your models. You can use your skills and tools for shooting 360° panoramas and HDR’s to create environments that realistically light your 3D scene.

The list goes on and on… but I’ve yammered on way too much already (hey, I warned you!) and I suspect you probably stopped reading many paragraphs ago. I’ll share more Modo creations as I produce them and, if I get time soon, will write a few posts of  my fond Amiga memories. I’m sure Brad Peebler will remember more than a few of the names those will stories will conjure up… names like Carvey and Stockhammer. Yes, the Amiga community was small enough that attending a developer’s conference included partying with the NewTek team and ending up on rides at Epcot with the inventor of the Video Toaster (who happened to also be Dana Carvey’s brother… you know… Wayne’s World and the Church Lady?). Fun times, indeed. 🙂

Oh… and my new iPad arrived yesterday around mid-morning. That retina display? Whoa! I’ve had to re-render the images above just to fill that gorgeous screen pixel for pixel.


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