Saturday, May 30, 2015

Molecular shading

Finally some biomedical visualization, right? These images are work in progress for a few animations I am working on to demonstrate in a simple way some important concepts of molecular behaviour. This is from my work, as opposed to a personal project.

When creating the molecular shaders, I had two important ideas to consider. The first was that the form of the individual molecules was not very important. They should be treated simply and cleanly. I considered going as far as flat shading or toon shading, but decided against it in favor of a softer representation with a slight indication of form.

The second was that contact between molecules and their spatial relationship should be clear. Ambient occlusion is a great candidate for this, but I didn't want the AO to show form within the molecule, so I resolved this dilemma using an miLabel attribute on the objects, separate AO shaders on molecules, and using the idnonself attribute of the mib_amb_occlusion shader.

Finally I wanted to add just a bit of aesthetic interest to the molecules, so I gave them a slight sheen of a different color using a samplerInfo.facingRatio to ramp to lambert.color to achieve the effect. I'm rendering each of these components of the overall look in different render layers so I can play with the strengths of each.

For the lighting, I used a single very large area light with soft shadows and final gather that employed an IBL sphere mapped with a colored ramp. See if you can figure out the ramp colors.


Friday, May 22, 2015

SaD - Special Preview

Last week I released my novel Severing a Dendrite. Amazon provides a short sample of the book you can read before buying. However, I want to share the opportunity to read a longer section, five chapters (over 50 pages in the pdf), before potentially buying the book. Here are a few different formats for your reading pleasure.

The Special Preview in PDF

The Special Preview in MOBI (Kindle format; use Send to Kindle)

The Special Preview in EPUB (other eReaders)

If you are wanting to read these previews on a device (or buy the Amazon book), and aren't sure if it will work or how to go about it, send me an email ( and I will help out as best I can.

If you are a non-kindle user and you really want the whole book in EPUB format, shoot me an email ( with a screenshot of your amazon receipt and I'll hook you up with an EPUB file.

Thank you so much to everyone that has purchased the book so far. Of much greater importance than the two bucks I receive, I'm thrilled that someone is reading the story I wrote, and I'm very curious to hear what people think. If you've read all or part of it, I would love a) an amazon review, b) a comment below with your thoughts, or c) an email with your honest opinion.

Thanks again,

Monday, May 18, 2015

SaD - About the Cover

I released my first novel two days ago ( and interestingly, the cover was one of the most challenging parts (see the previous post for a nice look at the cover). I played around with a couple of 2D geometric/graphical ideas and then discarded those in favor of a 3D recreation of one of the characters from the book.

The book is full of plants and animals similar yet dissimilar to those we are currently surrounded by. I wanted to capture a bit of mystery, a bit of familiarity, and a bit of softness and appealing texture. An image came to mind of an animal with a long curved tail, a back, and ears visible almost in silhouette. Perhaps someone else has done this and I subconsciously borrowed the idea, but I think it suits the feel of the novel. If you read the book, you'll know who the character is ( buy it ).

ZBrush is a great tool for messing around with ideas in digital clay, and dynamesh allows you to work without worrying about edge flow, poly counts, or anything technical.

I sculpted out what I thought the hairless version should look like (left), then drew guides for the automatic retopology process (middle) after which I got a decent medium resolution mesh to work with in Maya (right).

I also painted a rough texture on the model in ZBrush, allowing it to be pretty loose and non-photorealistic because it would sit under the fur. It would also define the fur color. Then I unwrapped the UVs and exported the texture to photoshop.

I brought the model into Maya, connected the diffuse texture and set up the camera to match my working illustrator layout.

In order to get the fur on the animal, I had two options in Maya: xgen or the classic fur system. I tried working with xgen, because it is supposed to be the new workflow for fur, hair, and arbitrarily generated primitives (their words). Unfortunately it got the better of me, and I couldn't get colored workable fur. That was the point where I didn't get my cover out and published, and so began the move, the baby, and temporarily putting the project on hold.

More recently I returned to the project and began working with the classic fur system. One might expect that I started with the Racoon preset, but I actually started with the Calico Cat fur preset and did all the tweaks and changes from there.

Maya Fur Preset: Calico Cat
In photoshop, I made modified copies of the diffuse texture to be used as the fur base color, the fur tip color, as well as various grayscale maps to drive properties of the fur itself (length, baldness, bending).

The ears were the most frustrating part, and I created a whole separate fur system just for the rims of the ears. This meant painting even more grayscale maps, but I still found it more intuitive to work with than xgen.

Looks pretty ugly until render time
In terms of lighting, I thought I would need something sophisticated and clever to highlight the fur, but it turns out I was quite happy with a pretty standard Physical Sun and Sky setup, though I made sure to turn off the automatic gamma correction (Linear Workflow all the way).

Once rendered, I did some post-processing in Photoshop. I performed color correction, cleaned up some of the fur manually, added a slight warm back-lit glow to the ear, and made a few other tweaks. Then I assembled it with the text in Illustrator. I used Playfair Display as the typeface and tried to keep the composition nice and simple.

Along the way, I made sure it looked good in grayscale, since many kindle readers are black and white (I mean the devices, not the people...). And that's pretty much it! Oh yeah... nudge:


Saturday, May 16, 2015

Severing a Dendrite - Now Available

I am very proud to announce that my first (and potentially only) novel is now available exclusively on the Amazon Kindle Store. I will be posting the first five chapters in pdf, mobi, and epub formats on my blog soon, but you can read the first chapter here if you want to preview the book before buying. Only $2.99 in the US and Canada! We Canadians have enough frustration with mismatched book prices that I manually set it the same as the US :)

Available at 
and all the global amazon sites

This has been a tremendously fun undertaking. My timeline has perhaps been unorthodox. One month writing (NaNoWriMo), one month editing (five years later) and then about six months on the cover. To be fair, the cover was bits of time among a move and a new baby and all that. But it is finally complete!

It might be interesting to take brief look at the progress of this book on my blog:

So the cover ended up being the real bottleneck and it took a long time to get a satisfactory result close to what I had in mind. I'll make a blog post about the creation of the cover, since I am pleased with how it turned out in the end. So, back to back publication posts! I'm not sure which one I'm more pleased about. I promise I'll return to making posts about actual images and animations and that sort of thing soon.

Yesterday, I had a computer failure, which underscored the importance of backing up data and how ephemeral computer hardware is. In turns out I have a decent backup system, allowing Publishing Day to move forward as planned (okay, not the original Nov 30 publishing day, but the deadline I set for myself last week). And the drive didn't physically and irreparably fail (yet), but I'm going to use it as an impetus for you to drop a few dollars on my book. Maybe if it gets shared around and enough people buy it, I can scrape sufficient royalties together to buy a new SSD for my computer. Who knows? Thanks in advance.

Happy reading,