Jan. 20, 2000

Dan Maas flies to Mars with his computer artistry

Junior Dan Maas
Robert Barker/University Photography
Junior Dan Maas, at his home computer, shows off his digital animation work depicting a Mars space flight.

The Delta 2 launch vehicle sits on the pad, belching smoke -- then you see it as it lifts into space. Next comes an intimate view of the separation of the solid rocket motors, two minutes into flight, then the separation of the first stage followed by the second-stage ignition. All this is lovingly viewed from the vantage point of a camera following the rocket on its starboard side.

Of course such a camera view, for now at least, is impossible. And that's the point. This amazingly realistic recreation of a space launch is entirely computer generated. And the video, equal parts artistry and technical accomplishment, is the work of Cornell junior Dan Maas, who has trumped NASA's own video efforts by producing a work of visual beauty, excitement and tremendous accuracy, down to the decal on the launch vehicle.

Maas, a College Scholar in the College of Arts and Sciences, who entered the university at the age of 16, has been making computerized animations since he was 10, although his interest in film goes even farther back. His father, James, the noted Cornell professor of psychology, recalls giving him a home-built toy film-editing machine for his third birthday. At the age of 16, Dan Maas started his own company, Digital Cinema, to provide animations for television commercials, and at the age of 17, he went to Los Angeles to intern at one of the leading digital animation studios. In the meantime, he has been studying theater arts at Cornell under David Feldshuh, professor of theatre, film and dance, and taking courses in math and physics.

Somehow Maas also found time to work for Cornell's astronomy department, which is where he met Steven Squyres, professor of astronomy and the leader of a 20-member NASA science team managing science and exploration packages to be carried by the next two Mars Surveyor landers.

Squyres was not impressed by previous videos that had attempted to depict space missions. "They were dry as dust," he said. But when Squyres discovered Maas' abilities to create such computer-generated scenes as a helicopter being struck by a missile or a prison guard tower blowing up, he signed on the then-freshman student.

Maas began by hand sketching a storyboard, with each panel depicting a specific scene from the Mars mission, which he transferred to the computer with a wash of color. Then, using a program called Lightwave, he began creating the images in three-dimensional detail. Later, using another program, Digital Fusion, he created special effects, such as graininess to simulate the look of film, and lens flare -- the bright flash caused by the sun.

Amazingly, almost none of Maas' scenes contain actual photographic images. Instead he uses a wealth of material -- conversations with Squyres and engineers, blueprints, images from NASA web sites -- to create his computer-generated space flight. Take, for example, the rocket-shaped launch vehicle. First, Maas sketched a geometric model of a cone with cylinders attached to simulate bolts and other hardware. Then, with the action roughly blocked out, he rotated the model and positioned it correctly with relation to a camera lens. He then instructed the computer to render 24 full-resolution frames for every second of video footage (currently, the video has about 8,000 frames of computer animation, each of which took between 10 minutes to an hour to generate).

Of course, there's much more to it than that. There is, for example, the considerable artistry involved in turning a simple cylinder into a convincing image of a Delta 2. "Basically, I think my job title is digital artist," said Maas. "I would consider myself as much an artist as is a writer who produces a novel using Microsoft Word."

For a computer animator who says he is basically self-taught, Maas is winning accolades for his Mars-flight video, which is about half finished. "I had Mars project engineers gathered in an office at JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) and they were practically cheering when they saw it," said Squyres. "The reason I'm in this business is the excitement, the thrill. This video gives a sense of that."

A clip of Maas' video can be seen on the "Missions to Mars" web site at http://www.athena.cornell.edu/gallery/home_gal_msp01_fs.html. More of his work can be seen on Digital Cinema's web site, http://www.dcine.com.