happy new year!


HAPPY NEW YEAR!  Many thanks to all of you happy-go-lucky, loyal Darth Mojo readers.  I really do enjoy sharing all this neat stuff with you, and it truly makes me smile when someone tells me they learned something from a post.  I hope all of you have at least a few moments worth remembering from 2008 (aside from the day you discovered this blog) and let’s all work together to make sure 2009 kicks some serious ass.  For me, finding a project – and a crew – that tops Battlestar Galactica sounds like wishful thinking but, then again, having BSG come back and finding myself working on it was a dream come true itself, so it just proves that we never know what’s hiding around that corner. 

Speaking of boldy going into the future, the image you see above is just a small section of a poster I recently did for a friend’s Star Trek-related project.   If you click on it, you’ll be treated to a hi-res picture that seems fitting for our charge ahead into the new year…  

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Darth Mojo post if we didn’t go into extreme detail about the picture you’re looking at, so allow me to share a little bit about what went into creating it.



Rarely in the world of visual effects is anything completed in one render, or “pass,” as we like to call it.  A “pass” is generally what we call a single element that will be used to construct the final image (calling it a “pass” may originate with early motion control, in which the camera (on a computerized rig) would pass by the ship to simulate the ship’s movement).  All of this work generally could be done in one pass, but by breaking it up into multiple elements, you give yourself the flexibility to make small changes and tweaks to individual parts of the image later.

For example, if we did a shot of the Enterprise flying in space all in one pass and decided later we wanted to make the stars brighter, you’d have to re-render the entire image.  However, if we rendered the ship in one pass and the starfield seperately, then we can easily adjust the stars without affecting the ship.  To give yourself more control over how the ship itself looks, the most basic passes you’d want are for the key light (the main source of illumination in your scene, usually the sun), fill light (a slight amount of non-directional, ambient light, to make sure that the parts of the ship not in the path of the sun don’t turn out totally black) and, in the world of Star Trek, it’s also handy to have the running lights in a seperate pass (all the little pools of light and bright windows dotted around the ship).

If you want to get really anal and have maximum control, you might split out the running light pass into seperate passes for windows, spotlights, warp engine lights and the light reflected from the warp engines, but for this image I decided to keep it simple.

Here is what the key light pass looked like (yes, you can click for the full res):


Pretty dark, huh?  The “key pass” is generally the most important, since the direction of the key light is what largely will determine the look and mood of the scene.  In this case I knew I’d be putting the sun behind the ships, so I (more or less) wanted to be consistent with the direction of light.  Unfortunately, it’s rarely as easy as setting one light and going home, since the shape and position of every ship means it takes light differently.  A key light that makes one ship look great might look like poop on another (and often does), so you find yourself setting multiple lights (I think I had five key lights for this image).  One handy feature in Lightwave is you can tell the lights which objects you want them to effect, so I don’t have to worry about the light I set for one ship hitting the others.  Without that feature, I’d have to manually set light-blocking objects (like a piece of cardboard) to stop the light from going where I didn’t want it to (and until a few years ago, that’s exactly the way it was).  The other important factor when setting the key is to make sure it’s not too bright – if it is, you’ll overexpose your objects and, once you have that ugly, bright white smear on the hull, there’s no getting  rid of it!  It’s usually best to set a medium-range for your key and make it brighter afterwards.  Next, we move onto the fill pass:


This is done using “backdrop radiosity,” a technique described in detail in my last post.  The idea here is to have very soft, non-directional lighting to bring out all the hidden detail in the ships.  Afterwards, in Photoshop (or After Effects for animation), you can strike a good balance between how hot the key light is and how dim the fill (there’s no real rule for this – it generally comes down to a matter of taste.  Back on Babylon 5, we went for a more realistic, harsh look, using very little fill.  Conversely, Star Trek’s style was a little more even-tempered, generally requiring a brighter fill area).  And finally, we have our oh-so-tantalizing running lights pass:


Kinda looks like Christmas in space, huh?  This is another pass that you generally season to taste.  When parts of the ship are bathed in bright light, you may find yourself goosing up the running lights so they aren’t lost.  On the other hand, if you really want to nitpick, you might say that the aperture of the camera is so stopped down to expose properly for the sunlight, you wouldn’t see the dim light coming from the windows anyway!  While this is certainly true, people like to see the cool little lights all over the ship, so, again, you tweak this to simply look the way you (or the producer) likes best.  To round things out, we have the starfield pass:


The sun pass:


And the sun haze pass:



And there you have it!  Everything you need to create your very own, professional visual effects shot.  In fact, if you were feeling really adventurous, you could download and save all of these hi-res elements, load them into Photoshop and experiment with balancing them out to create your very own Star Trek poster!  And no one says it has to look like the one I did – you could ditch the sun, remove a few ships or add your own elements.  I encourage everyone to let their imaginations run wild.  If you want to send me your finished work, I’ll be happy to share my favorite ones with the rest of the world in a future post (send your images to: DathMojo4U  at aol).

So click, save and begin the new year by practicing to be a digital effects artist!





40 Responses to “happy new year!”

  1. January 1, 2009 at 9:19 am

    I believe there are some lights missing, e.g. the bussards of the TOS Enterpise and the deflector dish of the Enterprise-E. I’m currently playing around with all these passes in Photoshop but I would be seriously interested in your .psd file.

  2. 2 SebiMeyer
    January 1, 2009 at 9:50 am

    Happy new year to you too!

    Any chance of giving us more of a hint just what project this is for?

  3. January 1, 2009 at 10:59 am

    That was really interesting :) I might give it a go! Thanks for the amazingly large images~!

  4. January 1, 2009 at 11:39 am

    Thanks—I think that I found the basis for my new desktop background!

    I recognize all but one of the ship classes, the one hanging behind the movie Enterprise‘s starboard nacelle. Was that one of the many background kitbashes from DS9, or was that an actual hero ship that I’ve missed?

  5. January 1, 2009 at 11:54 am

    Happy New Year, Mojo.

    You’ve been an inspiration to me for a long, long time – since Babylon 5 series 1, when I quit my physics degree to get into CGI. Never regretted it then – still don’t now. Thank you.

    Happy New Year, indeed.

  6. 6 Fernando
    January 1, 2009 at 1:19 pm

    Happy New Year all the way from Portugal! Ive been reading your website and also i’ve been following your career ever since B5, it was you and Ron Thorton who made me want to buy a Amiga and learn Lightwave, followed your tutorials on almost any medium and learned alot, now years later im loving Lightwave even more, professionaly and passionally (dont tell my wife) and i just wish you a 2009 filled with amazing projects that makes us wish we were there.

  7. 7 Jenny
    January 1, 2009 at 1:28 pm

    This and the last post about radiosity are awesome — please keep them coming! Have a wonderful new year, and best of wishes for 2009!

  8. 8 Joel
    January 1, 2009 at 3:13 pm

    Squeee!!!! Dude, I haven’t the slightest bit of skill to create images like this for myself, so I really enjoy it when you post images like this (both the image and the discussion). It makes my nerd-parts tingle.

  9. 9 Boris
    January 1, 2009 at 3:19 pm

    Happy New Year and all the best!

    Andrew: it’s supposed to be a ship of the same type as the U.S.S. Centaur from “A Time to Stand” (DS9), most likely the Centaur itself, since Mojo wouldn’t have changed the labels. I’m almost certain that this is the CG model originally built by Ed Giddings under Mojo’s supervision for the canceled “Unseen Frontier” book and then published in the Star Trek Magazine. You can see the original physical kitbash it was based on here: http://www.ex-astris-scientia.org/articles/ds9tm.htm. For more information on the reconstructed Magazine CG model, see this link: http://flare.solareclipse.net/ultimatebb.php/topic/6/1917/3.html.

  10. 10 dssstrkl
    January 1, 2009 at 4:21 pm

    Thanks for this post! I’ve never really grokked the whole post-production workflow. I assume that you use something like Premiere to combine animation passes rather than do it frame by frame in Photoshop? The texture maps seem pretty low res in the fill pass, especially compared to the geometry in the key pass. Is is OK to use textures like that if your geometry is detailed enough, or is that just for the purposes of this post? I remember when Kier Darby posted his Whitestar instructions back in the day, the textures were pretty high res.

  11. 11 ScoobieFan
    January 1, 2009 at 6:27 pm

    Nice Pic!!! Thanks Darth!!! Would love to see your take on the new movie E! Course done correctly!!

  12. January 1, 2009 at 8:04 pm

    Sorry that I forgot: Of course A Happy New Year to you, too.

    @Andrew Timson: That’s a Centaur class.

  13. January 1, 2009 at 8:23 pm

    I am a designer and photographer/Photoshop geek! This is the coolest site I have come across! What a great way to start out 2009! I am so jazzed I found you!

  14. 14 Boris
    January 2, 2009 at 2:31 am

    Markus: actually, we don’t know the canonical class name of the Centaur.

  15. 15 darthmojo
    January 2, 2009 at 4:49 am

    DSSSTRKL: I’m not sure where I see the low-res quality of the image maps you speak of. All the maps are pretty big and after looking closely at the image I *think* I see what may be catching your eye… the render itself was not done with the highest anti-aliasing settings, since the final image didn’t require it, and the fill pass can usually get away with lower AA settings since it will generally be very dim anyway. So, you might be seeing some stair-steppy lines from the actual render and not the texture maps. Otherwise I’d say you’re smoking crack.

    Yes, that “mystery ship” is the USS Centaur, a model build by Ed Giddings and rendered by yours truly for the now-defunct Fact Files magazine. The link to further images that Boris provided no longer works (the thread is still there but the images are gone), so I dug up a few of the original renders and have made them available to folks who would like to get a better look at this hard-to-find ship:


  16. 16 Boris
    January 2, 2009 at 12:12 pm

    Thanks for the additional shots. BTW, I actually wanted to provide a link to Mark’s Flare post with the making-of, not to the Magazine views specifically. If anyone is interested, they can be found here: http://www.ex-astris-scientia.org/scans/sfvarious1.htm.

  17. 17 _pole
    January 3, 2009 at 5:47 pm

    Hey Mojo, a happy new year for you too!

    With both this and the last post you outdid yourself again! Thanks so much. You are making some geeks very, very happy. You’re so good at explaining things, it makes me feel smarter than I actually am! For example just that random notice about having to render the borg cubes at a higher resolution because of aliasing… that’s the sort of detail that we’re so hungry for!

    There’s one question I have. I downloaded all the separate passes for the Star Trek image and tried to create a beautiful image in Photoshop (lots of key light, nice contrasts) but I found it rather difficult to “key” the spaceships (give them an alpha channel). Now I know that with some hand work it can be achieved but I figured that while this is reasonable for one image it can’t be done that way for animation. Is there something I’m missing? Are you just working with blending modes? Thanks again, and keep it up!

  18. January 3, 2009 at 6:10 pm

    Merry New Year, Mojo! Certainly thought of you as we toasted the New Year, and then watched (keeping the old McA traditions) “your” DVD of Buckaroo Banzai after midnight. I hope you were somewhere fun!

  19. 19 KC
    January 3, 2009 at 6:32 pm

    Happy New Year Mojo! This is amazing stuff, I’ve still been keeping up with your blog from Portland, and my friends and I can’t wait to see how Battlestar turns out. Hope you had a good rest of the year and have a great 2009.

  20. 20 darthmojo
    January 4, 2009 at 2:55 am

    POLE: I think the dirtiest little secret amongst imaging “professionals” is that we ALL cycle through blending modes until we find something that works :-) This picture was a quick job, so I did it very seat-of-the-pants. I didn’t use any alpha channels and just winged the whole thing. And you’re right, some techniques that might work for a still won’t always work for a single image – like winging it! The only difference between what I posted for your guys to work with VS what I used was I *did* split the ships up into foreground and background passes – I combined them into a single image for the passes I posted here. And honestly, the main reason I did that was not to make the compositing easier, it was because I didn’t have enough RAM to render all those ships in one pass!

  21. January 4, 2009 at 12:23 pm

    Haha I see. :) Thanks again for explaining! Like I said, your posts are very enlightening, keep up the good work! (and the radiocity renders now adorn my desktop :))

  22. 22 Boris
    January 5, 2009 at 3:17 pm

    Could I make an annoying personal request for some really-high-resolution renders of Andrew Bradbury’s Defiant, Mojo-style?

  23. 23 The Lobby Lurker
    January 5, 2009 at 11:00 pm

    Happy New Beer! Nice work on the poster. You forgot to put the Brother Jimmy’s on the Rec Deck, complete with the flashing (M)EAT sign :)

  24. 24 darthmojo
    January 6, 2009 at 4:56 am

    BORIS: Stay tuned ;-)

  25. January 6, 2009 at 8:56 pm

    For some reason I keep getting bounced when I try to email my composite, so I figured I’d just post it :)

    Nothing too fancy, just my attempt at tweaking things.

  26. 26 Bronson BearBelly
    January 6, 2009 at 10:19 pm

    Since you’re in the mood to take requests, how about something wallpaper-friendly with that there Oberth class for a fellow retired Mcauliffian?
    NCC-860 style, of course. :)

    Hey, Mojo. Happy New Year!

  27. 27 darthmojo
    January 8, 2009 at 1:51 am

    Nice job, Michael! I’m holding on to the images people have been sending and I’ll post them all at a later date.

    BRONSON: Why do you think I put that Oberth up front in the first place? Class pride, baby!

  28. 28 supesguy
    January 8, 2009 at 2:59 am

    Noticed the Oberth Class right away too. It’s always been a favorite, such a cool design totally different from anything else.

    Nice work!

  29. 29 Boris
    January 8, 2009 at 2:12 pm

    So you lived in Boston in the 1980s?

  30. 30 darthmojo
    January 9, 2009 at 1:56 am

    Boris, what makes you think I lived in Boston? I’m originally from New York and have friends in Boston (shout out to the USS Mcauliffe) so I visited often, but never took up any roots.

    The Oberth is a nice ship, I’ll see if I can dig up any additional renders. Another shout out to 3D model maker Ed Giddings, who did a wonderful job building the Lightwave version.

  31. 31 Boris
    January 9, 2009 at 2:36 am

    Aha, OK. It’s just that Bronson called you a fellow retired Mcauliffian, which is Boston-based, so I was wondering.

  32. January 13, 2009 at 5:59 pm


    You know, you don’t have to put the NX Enterprise in there.

  33. January 13, 2009 at 9:19 pm

    I monkeyed around in Photoshop for a while and sent you the result.

    I’m not sure what Méliès would think, but I hope he’d approve.

    Happy trails.

  34. 34 darthmojo
    January 14, 2009 at 1:16 am

    JEYL: The NX-01 helps make the other ships look even better!

  35. 35 adallahq
    January 25, 2009 at 12:39 pm

    Hey Mojo, thanx so much for sharing this.

    A few questions (since I’m actually in the phase in my BSG CG project where I’m playing with compositing render passes).

    I never thought of seperating the Sun Pass from the Key Pass. In my renders the Key Pass IS the Sun Pass, it just never occured to me to seperate the two. Now in the above shot, those key lights are white distant lights while the sun is a yellowish light with lots of flare? Does the Sunlight still affect the ships? Or is it just for looks?

    Also, how did you do the Sun haze light pass, I always wondered how to make that and I never quite figured it out.

    Where would you put the haze and sun in relation to the other passes? Would you composite in this order? Stars, Fill, Key, Running…and where do you place haze and sun?

    Thanx in advance for your response.

    I’ll be sure to play around with the passes and send you something :)


  36. 36 darthmojo
    January 26, 2009 at 3:10 am

    ADALLA: I’m not sure I understand what you mean regarding sun pass VS key pass. In my example renders, the “sun pass” is simply the big lens flare of the sun, not any light actually hitting the ship.

    In these renders, the key lights are distant lights. The fill is backdrop radiosity with a white backdrop and the sun pass is JUST a flare. The orange tint for the key light was done in Photoshop.

    The haze pass is a big lens flare, maybe 300 percent. I might have given it some dissolve so you don’t clearly see a circular middle.

    The ordering of the layers is really to your own taste, as long as you’re getting the image results you want, it doesn’t matter. I usually just wing it.

    I did my best to set the key lights for the ships to more or less be coming from behind and in the direction the sun is shining, but none of them are 100% accurate. I try to strike a balance between lighting accuracy and what looks good. In general, I probably favor 60% artistic and 40% accuracy.

    As far as radiosity goes, the only trick to getting faster renders is to use interpolation. If it helps, here are the basic numbers I use to start with, at least for the scale of spaceships (assuming LW 9.5):

    Final Gather
    Bounces: 3 (this is the magic number, but greatly increases render time. Adjust to taste)
    rays per evaluation: 128
    secondary rays (if using more than one bounce): 64
    angular tolerance: 45 degrees (I rarely change this)
    min pixel spacing: 2
    max pixel spacing: 10

    That usually moves pretty fast. The pixel spacing usually has the greatest impact on quality and speed. For starship size, 2 and 20 work well. For shuttles, 2 and 10, and for human scale, down to 1 and 5.

    Play around and see what works for you!

  37. 37 adallahq
    January 26, 2009 at 8:34 pm

    *saves the response*

    Thanx a lot m8. Yeah, basically I was trying to understand if the Sun light and key lights were independent. I thought that the sun light gave that yellow/orange tint to the ships. But now that you said it’s just for the “sun effect” without actually being a real light, it makes sense.

    Thanx so much for the fantastic insights!

    I played around with the render passes and send you my version. I couldnt get the stars to work though.


  38. 38 dearhunter
    May 17, 2009 at 1:27 pm

    Sorry Mojo but as a fan of the original BSG series the new one really really sucked and I stopped watching the new BSG series after a few episodes even though the special effects were some of the best and more realistic that I’d ever seen before…The mistake of taking the original Star Buck character as well as the Captain of the only other Battle Star to survive the ambush by the Cylons and turning them into women. Was both political correctness run amok and an unforgivable sin in my book which is also one of the major reasons I avoid watching most of what passes for entertainment on broadcast and cable television including the scifi channel…

    BTW I love the Pictures…

  39. June 3, 2009 at 9:28 am

    Wow! Always looking for new tips, even when it re-affirms what you already know.

    Found this site through Drexfiles and glad I did.

    Now I’ve got something else to distract me from my work!!


    Chris dawson

  40. 40 mitch
    April 6, 2014 at 2:51 pm

    Beautiful picture, although I find the sun glare/haze distracting since there would be no such thing in the vacuum of space… But it’s the style now, I get it.

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January 2009

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