Meet the IBEX Team: Mar–-Andrew Soehl
What would a spacecraft designed to travel past the boundary of the Solar System look like?
A new segment in the Adler Planetarium & Astronomy Museum's sky show, TimeSpace
, uses state-of-the-art animation to take the audience to the year 2508. There, they witness a groundbreaking space science mission to transport humans outside of the Solar System on a spacecraft called the IBEX-Voyager. The segment explains how two past missions, Voyager and IBEX - launched 500 years earlier 1977 and 2008 - paved the way for this new voyage of discovery.
The segment is science fiction, featuring an enormous, asteroid-like ship filled with hundreds of space pioneers, but it's based on scientific fact. It also uses 3D graphics and video of IBEX Principle Investigator Dave McComas to explain how the results from the current IBEX mission would have shaped the hypothetical space mission.
Senior 3D Artist/Animator Marc-Andrew Soehl helped bring the future of space science to life for the thousands of people who see the TimeSpace sky show in the Adler's all-digital StarRider Theater. He and his colleagues worked with astronomers to create a 3D world that is both visually appealing and scientifically accurate.
"Being technically and scientifically accurate with our work is at times different than being cinematically appealing," Marc-Andrew said. "For the IBEX mission [segment], we wanted to have sound in space when the rocket thrusters ignite, but we know there's no sound in space. It seems odd, but it's scientifically correct. We also try to simulate real-world light, but in space, lighting is different, so things may look bad."
Specifically, Marc-Andrew was responsible for designing and animating all the people interacting in the IBEX-Voyager control room during the segment. "I had [the people] doing various tasks, whether it be monitoring computer screens or walking across the room or interacting with other characters," he said. He also designed the IBEX-Voyager control room where the scene takes place.
To do realistic 3D animation, Marc-Andrew has to understand how the human body works. "I look at [video of other people moving] and act out half the stuff I try to animate," Marc-Andrew said. After he creates a 3D figure made of data points called vertices, he gives it a type of skeleton through a process called rigging. Then, he assigns each vertex a combination of 'bones.' "If one of the bones is moved or rotated, the group of vertices linked to that bone will move as well, which is how we get to the animation," he said.
Marc-Andrew has been interested in art since he was a child. He was born in Maryland, and spent five years living in Japan while his parents were in the military. His family settled in Illinois, where he earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Media Arts and Animation from the Illinois Institute of Art. He is currently working towards a master's degree from the Academy of Art University.
Disney's animated movie The Jungle Book first interested Marc-Andrew in animation. "The Jungle Book did it for me," he said. "When I saw that, I knew that when I grew up, I would make cartoons." He was seven years old.
As he grew older, Marc-Andrew thought that he would create art for comic books. "I didn't discover that I wanted to be an animator until my senior year of high school, which is where I was first exposed to 3D and animation. 3D for me was still relatively new and interesting, but I still wanted to do 2D animation. Now I get to do both," he said.
At his first internship at a game development company, Marc-Andrew learned important skills that he continues to use at the Adler. "My previous [work] experience gave me first exposure to a production environment: working as a team and understanding the reality of deadlines," he said. He reports that deadlines are the only downside to his job. "I sometimes have to say, 'enough is enough,' and that I don't get opportunity to make the product the way I want it to be due to deadlines. I'm a perfectionist," he said.
When he works on an animation project, Marc-Andrew meets with the other artists, art director, and producer to figure out what tasks need to be done and how to best accomplish them. "We look at 'dailies,' which are renders of scenes that we did the night before, to see if something needs to be changed, whether it be lighting or animation," he said. He also helps out the junior 3D artists and animators. Right now, Marc-Andrew and his colleagues are working on a full-length show about the IBEX mission to be distributed around the country. He is also doing research and development on crowd simulation animations for the TimeSpace show that can also be used for future shows.
Marc-Andrew loves being an animator. "It's one of those jobs that's extremely rewarding. I love seeing the end product on a screen, especially in our full dome theater, that's huge - 55 feet - it's just incredible! For anybody that wants to do something like this, if you put your mind to it, you can do it," he said.
To get to where he is today, Marc-Andrew had to be persistent. "Most employers want [work] experience, and it's difficult to get your foot in the door if you don't have much or any experience. I actually kept applying to numerous positions, and when I saw the posting for the position [at the Adler] I got a feeling that I was a really good candidate for it, while knowing that I didn't have the experience on paper," he said.
In addition to being persistent, Marc-Andrew offers other advice to people interested in pursuing a career in animation: "Draw! No matter what you do in 3D, it all starts with the fundamentals of being able to draw. If you want to do animation, understanding human anatomy or the anatomy of what you want to animate is also a big thing. I would also say self-learning is a big thing because you won't learn everything in college - there's just not enough time," he said.
Although he loves animation, Marc-Andrew likes to pursue other types of art. "I like to do something physical by painting on canvas," he said, "It's my pseudo-therapy for getting away from the computer." He also takes his own advice and continues to learn outside of work: "I love reading and fine art." He pursues other interests, too, and enjoys playing the guitar, Irish dancing, and keeping fit through weight training and playing sports.