Monthly Archives: January 2012

Photos with Heat

Shot yesterday at the corner of 3rd and Martel

I remember back in art school, my photography teacher told us that Ansel Adams mixed his own emulsion, which allowed him to expose photos in the visible and near-infrared spectrum. This is the sort of thing I remember.

Ansel Adams knew how to take pictures but not how to shave

Flash forward 308 years to today, where the sensor on your digital camera does the same thing. This would be weird for taking snapshots of the kids’ birthday party, so the manufacturers cover the sensors with a filter that blocks the infrared. But if you WANT to shoot photos in infrared, you can take that filter off. Nerdy!

While I have a DSLR, I stills shoot most of my stuff with a Canon G-9. It’s a great point-and-shoot that allows you to shoot in camera raw format, gives you lots of controls, and also is ideal for using the Canon Hack Development Kit, a bit of software you can put on your camera to do fun stuff like time-lapse photography, or automatically take photos of lightning. Canon has updated over the years to the G-12, so I was able to find another G-9 on eBay for around 60 bucks, ready to be modified into an infrared camera.

I decided not to screw it up myself, and found a number of places on the web that will do the operation for you. I sent mine to a guy in New Hampshire, who charged me another 60 bucks to take the filter off.

I took a picture of two cameras with another camera!

Take a look at the difference between the two cameras (infrared on the left). The infrared camera sees reflected heat as white, so plant life (which has to reflect a lot of heat) comes out as white. A shot of my front yard in Southern California in July looks like a snow-covered winter wonderland.

It’s a boiling 84 degrees, folks!

Another cool thing is clouds. They really reflect the heat back down to us, while the blue sky lets it all go. This gives you great detail and contrast in cloud photos.

The clouds over my house 20 minutes ago

When we were at Mt. St. Helen’s, there was a forest fire raging north of there, so there was a lot of smoke haze between us (at the visitors’ center) and the volcano. Most of that interference is in the visible spectrum, it turns out, because when I shot the mountain with the infrared camera, the details were clear and there was very little haze. Which is weird, since clouds reflect so much heat, but whatever, I’ll take it.

Mt. St. Helen – but buy her a drink first

This is a 3x closeup to show the increased clarity

Pictures of people always turn out weird for some reason. Pupils and irises turn out black, even if the subject has blue eyes. Some blemishes are reduced, and clothing colors always get screwy. Also, if there’s something gross on someone’s clothes that they thought they had cleaned off, this camera pulls a CSI and shows the residue like a black light in a hotel room in Laughlin. (Image not included for obvious reasons)

A textured rock formation in Big Bend National Park

Tinted windows and sunglasses, for the most part, come out clear. Take a picture of someone looking stylish in big-lensed sunglasses, and they come out looking like Rod Steiger in “The Chosen.” You can put an infrared light on the camera, which is invisible to the naked eye, and take pictures into cars with blacked-out windows. It’s a wonder TMZ isn’t doing this, but I guess it’s an invasion of privacy so… it’s a wonder TMZ isn’t doing this.

I get all my glasses from Florida retirees

Here are some photos I took this Christmas on our trip to Big Bend National Park. We hiked down to a spot called “Windows,” a ravine that used to end in a waterfall, and still has the 200-foot drop just beyond. After the drought and fires, a lot of the rock faces were covered with soot, which was matte black in visible light but had a shiny, coal-like sheen in infrared.

A blackened cliffside in Big Bend

You can see that, in the case of these two photos, the color version is pretty but the infrared version shows the relief of the cliff face in much greater detail.

Finally, here’s a shot of an art installation outside Valentine, Texas, miles from nowhere. This was taken at midday, and the infrared camera gives the scene an almost antique look, with the gnarled wooden fence posts and scrubland looking pretty beaten by the brutal Texas climate. Also, if you look closely, the front door window (made of plastic) has a nice bullet hole in it, probably from a 30.06.

The art in Valentine is of a high caliber, as are the guns with which they shoot it

Guess there’s nothing else to do outside Valentine, Texas besides shootin’ up the phony Prada store. Yee haw!

Cat With A Leaf Blower

I thought I’d write a quick blog about a drop-in I put together last week, to try to get back into the swing. We have a running joke that Jay’s cat, Bedalos, is smarter than any other pet in the world. This usually plays out by showing a popular internet clip featuring a pet doing something cute, like riding a Roomba. After the clip, Jay brags that Bedalos is much smarter, and we show a clip of a cat (actually an actor cat played by Zorro) doing something impossible.

This time, we showed a clip of a dog jumping into a pile of leaves and retrieving a ball. It takes the dog a while, and it’s a mess. Bedalos, on the other hand, runs off-screen and comes back with a leaf blower.

In order to achieve this, I first had to build a cat that looks like Zorro. I took some production stills of the cat, and using a 3D software package called Mudbox, sculpted and painted a computer-generated cat from a low-res, stock mesh.

Sculpting the cat

That done, I brought the model into Maya, and rigged the cat so I could animate it. A rig is a set of virtual bones that are connected to the 3D mesh. As the bones move, the cat model deforms like a real cat, or at least tries to approximate that movement. The rig also features a system of control bones and curves that allow you to move the bones around in a simplified way, much like you would a clay model or other figure used in stop-motion animation.

The cat is rigged for animation

Next, I used the color of the cat to give it fur. I added the ability to control the exposure and lights to the camera, which would simplify making the cat look like it belonged outside in the sun with Jay.

An early pass at the fur


Next, I found a photo of a backpack leaf blower on Amazon.com, and used it as a basis to build a virtual one. Since I wasn’t doing any close-ups and the leaf blower is made of plastic, I didn’t have to do any complicated texturing or materials to sell the audience on the idea that this was a real leaf blower. Plus, a cat-sized leaf blower is going to look like a toy, so there’s that.

The toy leaf blower

Now it was time to shoot the bit. I gave away the storyboards I drew while I was planning the shots with our cameraman, so I don’t have them to show you here. Suffice it to say they consisted of a series of cuts that would allow us to switch from the real cat to the CG version.

We went out to the grassy knoll on the NBC lot. If you look at the segment, then look back at some old episodes of Laugh-In, you’ll see it’s the same place, only the trees are newly-planted on that show.

Jay lets the cat wranglers do their work

We needed real leaves (which you have to buy, it turns out), and someone to blow them away. Our special effects team brought along an enormous rig that a child could use as a jetpack. There were two actor cats, which makes sense when you figure even the most cooperative is still a cat. The wranglers used treats to get the cats to focus on their marks, and little buzzers that they could plant next to the treat and activate when we called “action.”

Still, the cat was unable to carry the ball in its mouth, so that became another effect I would have to do.

Things went pretty well. We shot with Jay for about 20 minutes, then did a few pickup shots with the cat in another 15 minutes. We shot close-ups of the ball <i>in situ<i> for the added effects shots, and that was it.

The cat and leaf blower models connected up

Back on the computer, I placed the leaf blower on the cat, and constrained it to the cat rig so it could be moved with the animation controls and would look more natural. I imported the footage for the leaf blower shot into Maya and positioned the camera so the ground plane in the shot matched the one in the software. I had build the cat to scale, so it was the right size already. Now all I had to do was animated the cat walking in, and blowing the leaves away in a fashion that matched the way the special effects guys had done it in the shot.

(It had taken about 35 seconds for the leaves to blow off the ball, so I sped up the shot by about 3 times, and even used that sped-up audio because it matched the toy-sized cat leaf blower)

I rendered the cat separately from the background, and did a simple, shadows-only pass to give me better control over the lighting when I composited the shot together.

The rest you can see in the final clip, below. The prep time for this bit was about a day, and the shoot and final was another 4-5 hours (the ball-in-the-cat’s mouth took about 15 minutes, right at the end). The writing on this gag was a team effort, so credit is due to John Melendez and Rob Young.

It got big laughs. Also, this CG cat is going to come in handy, since we will use it in next week’s “Cop N Kitty” segment for a shot where the cat dives off a building and kills a criminal.

Now the cat looks off to new horizons of leaf blowing.

An Entry 4 Years in the Making

It’s been well over 4 years since I last updated my blog, due to all of the changes at the Tonight Show and the turmoil that they caused. Here’s a quick list:

  1. Writer’s strike permanently damaged relationships at the show.
  2. The switch to the 10pm show was really hard. The hours were crazy and the reviews terrifying.
  3. While still writing and directing segments, I was given more responsibilities. This includes shooting the bumpers and packaging in addition to the titles and special effects I have been doing.
  4. The move back to 11:35 was also disruptive.
  5. Now we stage almost every segment with some sort of graphical packaging element, and it’s my job to figure that out.

Still, it’s a fun job and I like it. I especially like not having to travel so much. As God is my witness, I will never fly to Tampa again.