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Sketchbook: NASA Animators


[John] A lot of people know about visual facts and sophisticated graphics from the movies, from television. There's a general perception in the public about this kind of work can only be done in Hollywood. We're here in Hampton, Virginia and we've collected a group of guys from across the country and we use the latest tools, we use the latest technologies and bring that Hollywood level of graphics to the work we do here. I'm John Levy, Studio Director of NASA's Advanced Concepts Laboratory here at AMA Studios.

The tagline for AMA Studios is design and story at the forefront of technology. What that technology component means is the target's always moving. There's always a new computer, there's always a new way of communicating. VR is the latest and greatest. It's been around for years actually but it's back in the spotlight. AR for augmented reality. There's always another tool and then 3D graphics. There's always another piece of hardware to learn. We wield the tools, we're experts at these tools and at the same time, that's not what it's about. It's not about those tools at all. It's about messaging. It's about concepts and connecting with people. I won an Emmy for my work on Lost, visual effects for the pilot of Lost. It was a great day. Red carpet, celebrities, limos, and people, they see that and you get some pats on the back but working here at NASA is a lot longer lasting.

I moved here from Portland, Oregon and I moved here because I want to contribute to something more lasting, something more significant. I want to take my skillset and kind of bring it full circle. Bring it back to design, bring it back to making a lasting impact. It's a joy to wake up, it's a joy to participate in this process, it's a joy to work with people here and the ideas and capture that in a video and see our customers, the engineer's excitement when they see their idea embodied. When they see their idea on the screen and they share it with people.

Art is artifact. It's a thing. It needs to stand on its own. If it's a painting in a gallery, hanging on the wall, you don't get to stand next to it and explain to people what your paintings about. Art is also the execution, the quality, the craftsmanship and it's the concept. So if you have a piece of art that's beautiful but has no meaning behind it, it's flat. It doesn't last. It's not that interesting. If you have a piece of art that has a lot of meaning and significance but it's ugly, no one's gonna look at it. And so what we do when we create is we marry the concept with a beautiful execution. That's when it has legs. That's when people see it. That's when people are engaged and interested in the product.

I'd also say that traditional media, learning how to draw and learning how to paint is really important because the computer may render an image and it's technically accurate and lights here and the ground's here but it's ugly. The computer doesn't know it's ugly. And so you have to have that traditional art background to be able to make a judgment call and say, "I think it should look like this" and then you have to wrestle with the computer to make it look like that.

So I went to school for automotive design. Automotive design school is really car drawing school. So for years, doing car drawing school and in the early days of car design, they would use hand painting. They do gouache and pencil and they illustrate car design. It's similar here at NASA. In the ‘70s, in the shuttle program for example, they would do beautiful renderings of the conceptual spacecraft. It's cool stuff. I love it. I love looking at that old artwork. What we bring now, on top of making it beautiful, what we bring now is, because it's 3D, we can actually explode the 3D model and look at the parts and pieces. We can integrate landing gear and jet engines and we can layout how it looks, we can spin it around and look at it at different angles and it's a marriage of CAD, computer-aided design from the engineering world with beautiful renderings that communicate. It's magic.