Labor of Love
Issue: Volume: 31 Issue: 8 (Aug. 2008)

Labor of Love

This year’s SIGGRAPH conference is acknowledging the dynamic shift toward 3D in the entertainment industry, not only by the two days of programming on the subject, but also by commissioning veteran animation artist Meats Meier to create a digital hologram to serve as the centerpiece for the conference and the exhibition’s newly revamped Computer Animation Festival.

The animated piece, titled the “Animation Mother,” is the latest of Meier’s creations in collaboration with RabbitHoles Media of Ottawa, Canada, which produces its own branded form of holography, the RabbitHole (see “Digital Holograms,” June 2008). As viewers walk around the hologram, the image of the woman moves. She morphs into different incarnations. She is dimensional. She literally pops out from the canvas.

As such, the “Animation Mother” will be the face of this year’s SIGGRAPH, gracing the award plaques given to winners of this year’s Computer Animation Festival. Prints of the image will also be widely featured at the conference and exhibition.

From Interest to Art
Having seen his first hologram on the cover of National Geographic magazine in the early 1980s and then seeing many examples of them in the now-defunct Holos Gallery in San Francisco, Meier became inspired to try his hand at what is now being termed “analog holography” (compared to the more recent “digital holography”). This pre-digital form of holography has very exacting requirements for vibration isolation and challenges artists in many ways, prompting most to custom-build their own systems for creating such pieces. Working with a friend, Greg Downing, Meier quickly realized how difficult the process is when the pair attempted to make holograms themselves.

Although somewhat stalled in his quest to create holograms, Meier remained fascinated with the medium and made understanding it a long-term goal. More than two decades later, in early 2007, the artist happened upon a Web site for XYZ Imaging, the original company that developed the technology now owned by RabbitHoles Media. After months of unsuccessfully trying to contact the company by e-mail, Meier finally had a change of luck with a phone call on what turned out to be the first day of RabbitHoles’ ownership of the company. After checking out the artist’s Web site, RabbitHoles quickly established a partnership and friendship with Meier, giving him free reign to do tests for them.

Meier’s initial viewing of samples by Rabbit­Holes Media elicited an excited response from the artist. “RabbitHoles had already created a few of their different commercial-style images, including one, a 3D model, that was done by an actual 3D artist,” recalls Meier. “It blew me away, and I brought in everybody that was possibly connected to me to see these things.”

Soon thereafter, Meier’s initial test holograms arrived, and he began to understand some of the rules that underlie the creation of good-quality holographic images. Although disappointed with some of his original tests, Meier began to play with the possibilities of the technology. With his growing understanding of the creative limits of this new medium, he realized that his original excitement was justified.

“Once you understand the rules, you can play with them a little bit, and the resulting 3D in the holograms is just amazing. The fact that it is animated as you walk around from one side to the other and the brightness of the colors really excites me,” says Meier. “These holograms can really reproduce bright colors very, very well.” In fact, Meier has been exploring the limits of these images by running tests on “everything from black and white all the way up to really high contrast images.”

The “Animation Mother” image will serve as the centerpiece for the SIGGRAPH Computer Animation Festival. The animated hologram, which plays 1300 frames, will be on display at the festival. Also, a holographic rendering of the image will grace the awards given to the festival prize winners.

Understanding the Medium
One of the limitations of digital holograms is the issue of “time smear.” Digital holograms are created from a series of rendered 3D animation frames or video footage that viewers see as three-dimensional because they experience them as a series of stereo pairs. The left eye may be looking at frame 10, for example, and the right eye would then be seeing, say, frame 15. If too much movement occurs between the two frames, the brain cannot effectively fuse these pairs of images into a 3D image, and a distorted view results.

Meier found this distortion to be one of his biggest problems, but he found that he could make it work to his advantage once he gained an understanding of the issues. “I want to animate things and make things move from one frame to the next, but it really just comes down to the motion blur,” Meier explains. “If the image is moving too fast, you will get blur, so you really have to keep things fairly subtle and moving purely locally. It is definitely a problem, but at the same time, I think we can make it work for us as a visual effect when we want it to be like that. Sometimes blur in the image is pretty cool.”

Meier also discovered another key relationship in the process of creating these holograms. The depth that can be achieved effectively in the image is related to the degree of animation. “RabbitHoles Media mentions that it’s good to have about one-third of the image projecting out in front of the holographic film and about two thirds behind, and I think that’s pretty accurate. There’s a certain point where you start to get that depth of field, which is a really nice thing,” Meier explains. “What we’ve found is that you can have a lot of animation or you can have a lot of depth. So the faster that things are moving, the less solid they appear in three dimensions; but if it’s fairly stable, you’ll get a really solid effect. Mostly that is because of time smear—the motion blur doesn’t give you the depth correctly. It’s just like when you see motion blur in a photograph: If it is moving fast enough, it is transparent.”

Birth of Animation Mother
Approached by Jill Smolin, SIGGRAPH 2008 conference entertainment director, to create an image that would serve as the “face” for this year’s Computer Animation Festival, Meier introduced her to RabbitHoles Media, and together they came up with the idea of placing the resulting image onto the awards that will be handed out to the festival winners. Also, several large-scale holograms of the “Animation Mother” printed by RabbitHoles will adorn the conference floor.

When brainstorming ideas, Smolin and Meier began looking at an older image of Meier’s, from his “Mother Nature” series. “Because the festival is based on the concept of evolution, we thought it would be a cool idea to see where that idea would evolve to now and how my work itself has evolved,” says Meier. Developing this earlier image, updating, and changing it was seen by the pair as a metaphor for the evolution of 3D computer graphics.

Describing the animation in the final hologram, Meier says, “As you walk from the left side to the right side, it starts out as a fairly flat image, and it’s more of a lower-resolution version of her. But, as you turn from one side to the other, she blooms—her hair grows, and she forms into the lady as you get to the other side. Parts of her are scaling, her hair is traveling outward, and she presents the big, hovering, floating teapot,” a perennial SIGGRAPH icon.

Building an animation that works as a hologram is a multi-layered process for Meier. “It’s basically ‘what you see is what you get’ with 3D art, so I’m continually moving from one side of the timeline to the next,” Meier explains. “When I’m at the front of the timeline, I see what it looks like at the left, and as I get to the end, I can see what you would see at the right. And it’s just building, one thing after another. I look and see what I’ve done in the animations; I keep playing it back and forth and slowly add or take away until it’s what I want.”

In all, the hologram plays approximately 1300 frames of animation as the viewer walks from one side to the other.

One challenge Meier had to overcome is his initial instinct to make everything move and spin around. “I always have to edit myself,” he says. “I start out trying to do as much as I possibly can, putting in everything I want, and then I have to go back in and take things out. What’s neat about this process, though, is that I create the 3D geometry and I can also create five or six layers on that same geometry that are rendered completely differently. So, for instance, one layer may be a shiny chrome or one might be bright blue. I render out all those different passes, and later on, using compositing, I can make all those changes.”

Tools of the Trade
Meier can use software, such as Adobe After Effects, to mix and match the different passes. He starts out with a version that is, for instance, flatter, a brighter white, or a different shade, and he’s able to fade that one compositing layer into the next. As a result, he can make several different composite holograms from the same 3D data.

Pictured here is an early version of the “Animation Mother.” Mainly, the artist uses Autodesk’s Maya and Pixologic’s Zbrush for the modeling and sculpting. He also used Braid Art Lab’s Groboto.

As for creating the 3D imagery itself, Meier works in Autodesk’s Maya 2008, software he has used since it first came out years ago. However, he points out that any 3D package today would provide the necessary tools for creating the image base for holographic images.

Meier also works with two other programs to achieve many of the effects seen in the animation for the “Animation Mother,” including Pixologic’s Zbrush, software he has been using since it was in beta form and he has taught how to use at The Gnomon Workshop. “I used Zbrush mostly for the detailed sculpting in the face and the morphing of the face,” he points out. “The teapot also morphs from a sphere into a teapot, so I used Zbrush to create those different morph targets.”

For this particular piece, Meier also used Braid Art Lab’s Groboto, new 3D imaging software. Creating instances of geometry, called bots, produces extremely detailed geometry very easily that can then be animated. “In Groboto, you can actually set up two different instances of geometry, and they’ll morph from one to the next, so you can set up different sequences. It will play with dynamics, albeit with a little bit of lag, things like that,” he says. “I used it mainly for the hair, where the hair was different spirals and fractals.”

Meier integrated into Maya the models created with Groboto and Zbrush. He notes that a series of .OBJ files can be exported from Groboto and strung together and animated. “It’s something that is actually fairly new; in fact, the sequencing of the .OBJs is something I requested,” says Meier. “They had requests for it before, but they actually put a kick into their development work and sped up the process to create that plug-in so I could generate this hologram.”

As for hardware, Meier builds his own machines. “The main machines that I like to put together are the Shuttle machines, which have a small form factor. All of them are quad core with 8 gigs of RAM; I have six of those networked together into a renderfarm,” he says. Meier equips these machines with high-end Nvidia GeForce graphics cards.

Show Images
In addition to the holograms, the animation is also being used to create a lenticular image for SIGGRAPH. Using nine rendered views for the lenticular version, Get Flipped, an Orange, California, company, is creating ID badges for SIGGRAPH organizers.

In terms of exactly what we will see at SIGGRAPH, the final number of images on display there has yet to be determined, but the main image will measure 13.9 by 19 inches, and there will be 11 prints in this edition, with three artist proofs. For the Computer Animation Festival, there will be three awards given, each with the same RabbitHole print of the “Animation Mother.” Those prints will be 8.5 by 12 inches, and will be framed, with an engraved plaque on the frame. A wall-mounted light will be included for the winners to view their  awards.

The “Animation Mother” is extremely high in resolution, even in her earlier form.

The “Animation Mother” will also be included in a show at the Gallery of the Gnomon School of Visual Effects in Los Angeles, where the opening of the gallery will be timed to coincide with SIGGRAPH 2008 and will remain open the following month. The art show will consist of 12 new limited-edition holograms by a group of respected 3D entertainment artists and commissioned by RabbitHoles Media.

When asked about seeing his holograms on exhibition, Meier replies: “Every time I’ve been included in a public display of these holograms, I try to hang out a little bit to get a feeling for how people are reacting. One thing’s for sure, whether or not you like my particular art style, just the hologram itself, the medium itself, stops people in their tracks, and they look at it longer than they would a painting. A lot of people look at a painting for five or six seconds and move onto the next one, but the holograms pretty much lock people down.”

Meier points out that it is always an interesting experience at a gallery where holograms are being shown because to see the piece correctly, a viewer has to walk from one side to the other. “So at times, it’s a little bit like bumper cars. In a really crowded area, there are people moving from one side to the next, bumping others who are also moving back and forth,” he says. “It’s always kind of interesting what people look like. It’s more interactive than just looking at a painting.”

When asked what fascinates him most about holography, Meier points out to a benefit of 3D animation: As he is creating his images, he can turn them around. There is a back to them; they are fully dimensional.

“I get immersed in it. I can spin it around and look at it. I can closely zoom into it, and it becomes an actual thing,” Meier says. “But when I print that 3D object using a standard printer, it becomes this flat thing. I turn it around and I just see the back of the paper. So, I just love the fact that there is a medium that will actually bring this out and let everybody see it basically how I see it, with dimension and movement—and that there’s life within those polygons.”

According to Meier, he now has the ability to create anything. The image can morph into the smallest speck. It can change color 5000 times. “It gives me unlimited possibilities,” he adds. “I don’t think we have really scraped the outer layer of what this will lead to.” For those digital artists looking to get into holography, Meier advises them to look into what has been done so far. “True holographers built the base of all this, and now it’s starting to go digital like everything else, and that has opened [the medium] to everybody.”

Meier may have been in the right place at the right time when he contacted Rabbit­Holes Media last year. The “Animation Mother” will bring major exposure of this exciting new medium to thousands of 3D animators this summer at SIGGRAPH 2008, and with companies like RabbitHoles Media available for production services, we may see a wave of new and experimental 3D art heading our way.

Linda Law is a digital/holographic artist who has been working in holography since 1975. She is a fine artist who has also worked in holographic research, education, as curator for the Museum of Holography, as a 3D animator for digital holograms, and as a writer about 3D technology. She will be co-chairing the Digital Holography sessions at the eighth International Symposium on Display Holography in China in July 2009. She can be reached at; for more about Linda Law and her work, visit