MSC2016 - Visualization Methods

In this course you will create an image intended for the cover of Nature, Science, etc. It can be a popular science magazine or a journal. You decide, or the nature of the material will decide for you. The intent is not to create a strictly didactic illustration, but rather an editorial illustration that employs visual metaphor and analogy to communicate a key message about a particular scientific concept, research finding, etc. This is not about the creation of a figure, but instead the distillation of a potent, and perhaps playful, idea delivered in visual form. The objective is to communicate a complex idea in a compact and effective way - not a full explanation but instead a clever take on a topic that points to its most salient features and serves as an invitation to further exploration. You can see plenty of actual covers like this online. Nature has some interesting posts about the development of its conceptual covers: here and here

Crazy idea follows...

This piece should stand as a still image, but you could render out a slightly animated version. A one to three second loop or a one to three second alteration of the image. 

Examples that you should not try to emulate but give the idea (please note that these are all 2D - this will be harder in 3D):

Time magazine Trump

White House Kremlin

This is too much but I like it

This is more like it - minimal animation but interesting

Don't know what it means but I like it!

Should we do it!? These examples are way more complex than what I imagine you would do. Here are some examples of what I am thinking about:

If your piece has molecules/proteins floating around, the animated version could have them vibrating in place. God rays illuminating your scene? Slowly shifting god rays! Water tap metaphor? Dripping water tap! We'll talk.


I am inviting the Biology faculty at UTM to submit some topics based on their own research or that of others. You may choose one of these or present an idea of your own. You may choose your own MRP as a topic... could you distill the topic into a single image? 

External places to look for ideas:

In terms of technology, our focus is on the use of Autodesk Maya for 3D modeling  and Adobe After Effects for assembling the image. While Photoshop could be used in its place, I will ask you to use After Effects to assemble and compose your image. My intent is to give you some experience using After Effects; it is a key tool in 3D/2D animation production. However, I invite you to use any other skills or software in the generations of the image: Zbrush, laser scanning, Photoshop, Illustrator, etc. Keep in mind that 3D modeling in Maya should be at the heart of the process.

Useful resources:

Autodesk Learning Pathways

Online textbooks through the U of T library

MEL Scripting for Maya Animators
Mark R. Wilkins, Chris Kazmier ; with a contribution by Stephan Osterburg.

After Effects Expressions
by Marcus Geduld.

Lynda - Essential Training for Maya 2018


Course Schedule

Due Dates:

Sept. 24 - be prepared to discuss ideas with me in class - 10%

Oct. 1 - Three thumbnail sketches - 15%

Oct. 15 - Comprehensive drawing - 25%

Dec. 10 - Final image due - 50%

There will be plenty of consultation between Oct. 15 and Dec. 3


For each week listed you will find links to videos that are required viewing. You must watch these videos before you come to class. I want you to walk into the room with a grasp of a few basic concepts, tools, and workflows. While there will still be technical instruction in class, I will mainly be giving demonstrations in which these tools are put to use, and asking you to do the same through a variety of in-class exercises.

Week 1 - Sept 10

Week 1 - Sept 10

Week 1 - Introduction to the course and learning the basics

3D image making production starts with asset creation (after the pre-production stage of planning, sketching, etc.). This week we will begin with a simple introduction to Maya's interface, navigation around the scene, and the basic manipulation of objects. 


  • Assemble a fossil hand (download)

    • Navigation, transformation, perspective, orthographic

  • Assemble an exploded skull (download)

    • Object vs. World transformation; grouping, freezing transformations

  • make a beaker

    • curves, revolve

  • make a flask

    • curves, revolve, object display

  • make something else that you'd find on a lab bench using just the tools that you know.

Week 2 - Sept. 17

Week 2 - Sept. 17

Week 2 - Important modeling tools

This week we'll continue modeling in Maya. Really, there are a few basic tools that you will use, and these are described in the linked videos.

I will demonstrate some of the tools that you have been learning about and then you will create a model from scratch.

Exercise: Model a Volkmann's Retractor; build some basic shaders; light the scene; rendering; model a scalpel; already done, you say? Surgical scissors, I retort.

Volkmann’s retractor reference image

Eye profile this is a link even if you can’t tell

Topic ideas? Tell me.


Week 3 - Sept. 24

Week 3 - Sept. 24

Week 3 - Shading, Lighting, Rendering, and Look development

In addition to modeling you will need to define the surface properties of the objects you create. To do this you will apply and adjust shaders to your objects. We will be using the Arnold renderer and the Arnold shaders. In addition, we will be looking at the Arnold lights available to you and the Arnold Renderview window that will allow you to see the changes you make in (near) real time.

Speak with Marc about your topic ideas!

Download this: Mercury statue

Download this: HDR images

Exercise: Shade and render your glassware and surgical tool(s). Make an interesting scene


Introduction to Arnold for Maya

Physically based rendering with Arnold

Removing noise from your renders



Recommended viewing: Arvid Schneider's Youtube channel (CG technical director)


Week 4 - October 1

Week 4 - October 1

Week 4 - Thumbnail sketch presentations and UV mapping

DUE: Three thumbnail sketches submitted digitally. These will be discussed in class (< that whole sentence is a link for you to submit your files)

This week you will present your thumbnail sketches and describe three ideas for a treatment of your cover. 15 minutes per student. We will judge you.

After this we will talk a little more about rendering images and working with them in After Effects.

Hand model

Labeled bottle project

Viewing: UV mapping; label making; building shader networks

Exercise: make a label or graduated scale for your glassware; work on a model (or models) that you will use in your cover art.


Week 5 - Oct. 8

Week 5 - Oct. 8

Week 5 - Thanksgiving

A: Don't come to class.
B: Model turkey.
C: Simulate fluid dynamics with gravy.
D: Ingest. 

Week 6 - October 15

Week 6 - October 15

Week 6 - Importing models into Maya

Due: Comprehensive sketch
Submit here

Going from ZBrush to Maya (using Arnold)
This is a really handy guide for the settings that need to be observed when exporting a displacement map from ZBrush to Maya for rendering with Arnold.

Molecular data, laser scans, photogrammetry, purchased models. We'll look at how to get them into your Maya scene, both by referencing and by importing. You've already learned how to export learned about molecular data and exporting it in MSC2020. Get something into your scene (DNA?) and make something interesting.

Today we will also look at modelling considerations when you have to rig an object, and when you can use textures to avoid complex modelling.

Rigging - great rigging tutorial on Youtube James Taylor
Texture deformer

10 important shading nodes in Maya and Arnold
Importing vs. Referencing
Retopologizing in Maya

Week 7 - October 22

Week 7 - October 22

Week 7 - Procedural Modeling and animation with Mash

One of Maya's strengths is it's node-based architecture: all complex arrangements and relationships between things in Maya can be visualized as nodes connected to one another by their attributes. We will look at how these are assembled and contexts in which this can be useful.

We will also look at one of the newest additions to Maya: Mash. Mash is a motion graphics module that has many uses. We'll examine some of these.

MASH basics
Distributing objects on or in an object
Animating MASH items with the Merge node
Deforming a surface with MASH
Rendering a sequence of images

Exercise: use Mash to distribute molecular models in a scene. Animate them and render out a short scene.

This page on the Mainframe North website (the creators of MASH) has a list of bare-bones descriptions of some very interesting MASH workflows. They are not detailed in their explanations, but try to complete one or more. This will force you to figure out a few of the steps.

Week 8 - October 29

Week 8 - October 29

Week 8 - Head Modelling

Today we will look at a fairly straightforward method for modelling a head. It is based on a tutorial from Youtube (James Taylor). I find it to be the best method for creating a basic head model with very clean topology. I have included a link to the tutorial, and a Maya project with front and side images of a woman’s head that we can use for reference. If you would like to use different images, go ahead and prepare them. Here are the guidelines for this:

  • They should be jpgs at screen resolution to avoid slowing down the system as they are continually loaded.

  • One should be straight from the side, and the other from the front. These should be at the same scale, and the features should line up (I use the corners of the eyes, mouth, lower aspect of nose, etc). This part should be done in Photoshop.

  • The images should be square (not essential, but makes things easier).

  • If possible, mask out the background.

  • None of this is necessary - you can use the images that I have provided.

Week 9 - Nov. 5

Week 9 - Nov. 5

Week 9 - Rigging models for posing or animation

We’ll rig a hand together today - build the skeleton, orient the joints, and paint the weights.

Here is a source file with a good hand model (from tutorial linked below)

This video shows a good method for building the finger joints:

3Dtotal hand rigging (start at 25:50 and end at 33:44)

Rigging refers to any modification you make to your model that allows you to pose or animate its shape and transformations. Typically this is accomplished by building skeleton rigs and applying other deformers. While this project does not involve animation, it is important to plan you modeling to account for rigging that will be added.

Skeleton and joint basics
Creating a simple rig and skinning
FK vs IK

Week 10 - Nov. 12

Week 10 - Nov. 12

Week 10 - UV mapping

UV mapping is the process in which the surface of your model is prepared for painting textures. In many instances UV mapping is not necessary, so don't think it always has to be done. However, if you are putting a 2D texture of some sort on your model, then UV mapping may be required. It is also needed if you are putting objects on the surface of your model by referencing specific local coordinates. A good way to think about UV mapping is to picture the 3D shape of the earth and a 2D map of its surface. We use longitude and latitude to identify specific locations on this map, and then re-wrap the image back onto the object to find our way around its surface. I'm just confusing myself now. I'll show you.

Exercise: UV map a hand


Week 11 - Maya Shading, After Effects, Photoshop, Rendering, Compositing

We will examine some new shaders today (aiToon) and how do develop different rendering “looks”. This will take us through building shading networks, altering render settings, rendering out different image elements, rebuilding images in 2D image editors. In addition, we will revisit a couple of topics: Molecular Maya, importing DNA data, DNA rigging, and so on.


Week 12 - Work Period


Week 13 - Work Period and progress report

Present your concepts and near-final products to me. 15 minutes each student.


Week 14 - Submit final project

Deadline shifted to Dec. 11



Modelling tutorials