Teaching 3D animation is no simple task. Especially if the center of interest is astronomy and fulldome! So in September 2013, I was asked to teach my astronomy visualization techniques as a visiting artist at OSU.
Shane Mecklenburger is the 3D animation professor of a class called “The End & the Beginning of Everything”, which received a Battelle Endowment. Participating OSU astronomers and astrophysicists paired with the animation students to create a dialogue and help inspire their artwork.
It’s interesting to note that Shane wanted to be careful to not focus on purely data visualization. Instead he wanted the students to use the techniques to make their own artwork inspired by real astronomy and astrophysics research. This allowed the students the creative freedom to go in any direction, with the foundation of astronomy to work from. Since I’ve spent every working day for years creating outer space imagery, it was a natural fit to give a few technical workshops.
The work of the students will be exhibited at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago sometime in 2014 or 2015. They have also been experimenting with fisheye rendering and viewing them in the OSU Smith Laboratory Planetarium, which was recently refurbished with a 2.6k projection system.
In the first workshop we covered star fields, galaxy fields, and close-up fluid suns. Then in the second workshop we covered 3D nebulae, hall of mirrors, and DomeAFL installation. It was a wonderful experience to share my techniques with students and see them learn so quickly.
The End & the Beginning of Everything is a collaborative art-science initiative between the OSU Departments of Art and Astronomy, the University of Chicago Department of Astrophysics, Chicago’s Adler Planetarium and the Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design (ACCAD). Accelerating technologies are amplifying astronomers’ ability to model and observe, expanding our understanding of life and the universe. This initiative guides young artists in creatively interpreting astronomical research for a public contemporary art exhibition.
Interview with Shane Mecklenburger:
3D Animation Professor at OSU
Over the years, I’ve noticed a gradual increase in the offerings of college classes that focus on astronomy art or fulldome. So I’d like to interview Shane and hear his thoughts about this experience.
Can you share a little about yourself as an artist and teacher?
Lately my projects are exploring exchange and simulation. I’m also interested in the origins and effects of science and technology, which are often tangled up with real or imagined conflict. I teach courses on cross-disciplinary collaboration and new media art in the Art & Technology area in the Department of Art at The Ohio State University. One of my courses is Experimental 3D Animation, and another is called ArtGames, which is about using games as a format for making artwork. Also, this semester I’m teaching a new graduate level seminar I developed called APPROACHING SYSTEMS.
What inspired you to create a class combining 3D animation and astronomy?
I was working on a project called The End & The Beginning of Everything, where I’m collaborating with astronomers who make simulations of supernova explosions. It occurred to me this would be fun to do with my Experimental 3D Animation class, so I wrote a grant to connect them with astronomers at OSU to make artworks based on their research.
You mentioned to me that visualizing orbiting planets was a default starting point for the students. Once you were able to break the students of that, how have their perspectives changed in terms of what to visualization? Was there a tipping point?
I guess the tipping point was when I banned spheres from their animations! I did it after the first project, as a challenge to get them thinking in more abstract ways. The point of the course is to make video artworks that aren’t simply science visualizations. So the course is meant to develop the non-literal, symbolic dimension of students’ art making abilities while learning about astronomy.
Do you think this class has changed how the students perceive astronomy?
I suspect it might have, to differing degrees depending on the student. It’s hard not to come away with a new perspective after spending time at an actual astronomy research facility, talking to astronomers, and coming to understand the phenomena and theories they’re researching. I know it happened for me.
What has been challenging in teaching this class?
Just about everything! Many of the students had no experience with 3D animation and we were working with very advanced animation techniques like dynamics and fluid simulations. We were also making sound tracks, and using a render farm to produce fulldome masters, so the technical hurdles were extreme, and I was learning most of the fulldome techniques myself on the fly. Dealing with these kinds of problems are what make teaching fun for me, and I hope they also demonstrate for students how complicated and unpredictable this kind of work can be.
What do you hope the students will take from the course?
Three things: First, I hope they come away with artwork they’re proud of. I also hope students emerge with a better sense of their own unique creative approach, style and voice. Finally, I hope they come away with a sense of the special challenges and importance of cross-disciplinary collaboration.
Do you think a fulldome specific class at OSU has merit?
Absolutely. As a pilot/test, I feel this course has demonstrated that, while there are still technical challenges to sort out, the interest is there from both students and faculty.