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    Review: The Creative Magic of Ron Thornton: Spacecraft Model Design
                        A LightWave tutorial video
  By Bohus Blahut - Modern Filmmaker                       Bohus@xnet.com
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Since this video tape tutorial is in two parts, this review will also be in
two installments.  These videos allow us to sit alongside Ron Thornton,
President of Foundation Imaging.  This is the Emmy award winning company
that brings us sohpisticated LightWave rendered animations on TV's Babylon
5 and Hypernauts.

"The Creative Magic of Ron Thornton" is a pair of two hour videos.  The
first deals with the LightWave construction of the spacecraft depicted on
the video's cover.  The second video stays almost entirely in Adobe
PhotoShop and LightWave's Layout.  Though Thornton is creating this
spaceship using LightWave for PC and PhotoShop, his techniques apply to
Amiga LightWave 3.5 and above, and I was able to emulate the PhotoShop
surfacing techniques by using ImageFX 2.1a.

The first video is a look into the techniques that Thornton uses to create
a spaceship that is both well-detailed, and will render in a reasonable
amount of time.  Desktop Images' advertising calls this tape series "a
video apprenticeship", which is no small claim.  These tapes deliver.  We
follow the spaceship from a rough pencil sketch, all the way up to its
finished construction.  Peppered throughout his presentation is some design
philosophy as to what it takes to make a ship "look right".   This is one
area that these tapes could improve upon.  Though at the end of watching
these cassettes, the average LightWave modeler will have a good looking
spaceship, I'd find these tapes even more useful if there were more
segments of this design philosophy for future spaceship designs.

"Spacecraft Model Design" follows in the fine tradition of other Desktop
Images training videos.  Many Lightwave got over their 3D jitters
(polygonal displacement tool purely unintentional) through DI's excellent
series of Lee Stranahan training videos.  The goal of that series is to
take the user from zero 3D knowledge up through intermediate modeling. 
This series would be a good primer for the spacecraft tapes.  These videos
are definitely not intended for the beginner, but the intermediate modeler
and experienced veteran alike will walk away with new techniques that can
be applied in all aspects of 3D, be it modeling another spaceship, a logo,
or any number of typical LightWave tasks.

The viewer of the video is treated first to a montage of new Foundation
Imaging 3D animations (not Babylon 5 material).  The final segments of this
animation montage are shots of the tutorial's spaceship on the move.  This
broad range of 3D reminds us of Thornton's professional credentials.  In
America, Thornton did model work on the feature films Terminator 2 and the
Addams Family Movie.  He bought an Amiga and Toaster, and produced a rough
version of the Babylon 5 station in his bedroom in two weeks.  (You can see
this animation in NewTek's "Revolution" video that heralded in Video
Toaster version 2.0)

To the auspcious ranks of British Sci-Fi otaku, we recognize Thornton's
name from the closing credits of such B.B."Aunty Beeb"C.  programs such as
Doctor Who, Tripods, and an Amiga Report Favorite, Blake's 7.  The
intriguing thing of watching this 20 year old television, is that one can
spot stylistic commonalities between Thornton's work then and now.  Though,
when I spoke to someone at Foundation, they told me, "er...  we were hoping
that no one in America would remember those shows."

Ron Thornton is a perfect example of the Amiga's power.  An already
substantially successful artist bought into the Amiga mystique, and was
able to form his own significant company.  A company that has changed
television forever.  While his studio has changed over from Amigas to PC's
as speed dictates, I certainly hope that there is a warm spot in
Foundation's heart for the little computer that could.

After the montage, the video opens onto the Desktop Images standard
"teacher at desk with computer".  An interesting new angle in these tapes
over others in the series is that instead of littering the background with
assorted hi-tech looking scenery (i.e.  TVs, lava lamps, etc.) they compose
Thornton onto a rendered background.  This serves to put us in constant
touch with the artist's work, and serves to remind us just how good Ron
Thornton and associates are.

Except for occasional visits with the face of the artist, we spend most of
our time looking into LightWave's modeler interface.  Through the next two
hours, we spend our time building a model that will look good through a
number of different camera shots, while not having an unreasonable polygon
count.  Once done, the ship only took a few minutes per frame on my '060
DraCo with 32 megs of RAM.  You could expect reasonable results from an
'040 Amiga.  Also, if you plan on doing a lot of 3D, the '040 is a
functional minimum along with 16 megs of RAM.  (We will also be trying some
of these techniques using HiSoft's Cinema 4D in a future issue)

The ship is built out of uncomplicated structural primitives; mostly tubes,
cubes, and a metaformed shape or two.  The artistry is in knowing what
details are necessary to the good looks of the model and must be done in
the modeling stage, and what can be left to the surfacing mode of creation.


Your reviewer found the best way to get the most out of this tape is to
watch it through once without being in front of the computer, much the way
one will often skim a technical manual before reading it in great detail. 
Later, it would be advantageous to the user to move a TV/VCR to a location
near the computer.  Though the video is two hours in length, you shouldn't
expect your construction work to take that little time.  I found myself
starting and stopping the VCR often so that I could take notes, or try
different techniques for a certain look.  I found that by treating the
video like a class, and taking good notes into my 3D modeling notebook
helped.  (oh yes...  I keep a notebook of tricks and tips, and things that
I've done that are sucessful).

The video has lots of good quality screen shots, but because a high
resolution interface can show up rather poorly on a conventional
television, you'll need to pay attention to what Thornton is saying.  On a
few occasions, Thornton proceeds with an operation without telling you the
exact settings that he enters into numeric requesters.

Due to my production schedule, I had to spread out the project over a
couple of days.  This didn't pose a problem, and I was able to use
techniques that I'd learned along the way on other projects.  (A note to
Mr.  Thornton: I've almost worn out the Bevel button on my computer, and my
objects love you for it!)

One problem I have with Thornton's technique is that he doesn't seem to
build to scale.  With the model exisiting in virtual (shudder) space, it's
possible to build it to real man-scale.  I build all of my objects to scale
so that in future projects, I can use objects together in the same scene. 
In the tape it would be nice if Thornton mentioned why he makes the door a
certain size, etc.  Since his measurements are given in millimeters, I
could conjecture that he is working with the units that he is most familiar
with in model building.

One of the best elements of this tape is its practical, yet artful approach
to building this ship.  Not all of us have the resources of Foundation
Imaging, nor the staff of artists at our disposal.  Yet with a modicum of
skill, we can all create this ship.  All of his detailing does have
excellent reasoning behind it i.e.  adding a cooling tank toward the end of
the craft, adding support struts throughout the ship to give it "strength",
and so on.

Many of the spaceship models that I've seen created by various artists and
put out in the public domain try to emulate the Thornton "mech" look, but
to little avail.  Often the surfacing on these objects is so poor, it looks
like sheer nonsense up close.  Thornton's modeling and surfacing strive to
make sense and answer both to art and the practical needs of a real
production studio.

In the future, we'll look at the follow up video cassette: "Spacecraft
Surfacing Techniques".  You'll learn Thornton's techniques using the model
to determine efective surfacing.  He adds paneling to spaceships in places
where it makes sense.  While these models often look better in motion than
they do in a still shot, they hold up rather well.  I will be posting my
completed model to the Aminet once this review is finished.  Hopefully
owners of these tapes will use these techniques to create a myriad of
better looking objects, and not just dozens of thinly veiled variants of
this ship.

I heartily recommend that you purchase these tapes.  The price is a
bargain when compared to the cost of taking a class in 3D modeling.  Yet
you get much more than what's available from a class, you get a true
apprenticeship with a working master of the CGI world, and that's cheap at
any price.

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