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March 29, 2017

Faculty Profile: Eric Hanson

By Sabrina Malekzadah

What class(es) do you teach at SCA? I’ve been at USC fulltime for ten years, but I’ve been teaching here for 15 or 16 years before that as an adjunct. I was originally brought in to teach the fundamental technical animation classes as far as 3D animation. My expertise is from visual effects, using 3D animation, in features. I’ve helped forge the curriculum here for technical animation classes by focusing on environments, lighting, and rendering. In my classes I am showing how to create a world by using techniques from my own work in environments and places. One of my classes is an Introduction to Cinematic VR and we utilize the Jaunt camera in the Jaunt Cinematic VR lab. This is a research lab that we set up just to investigate cinematic narrative using 360 cameras that Jaunt donated. My classes are the primary classes for that. The follow up class to that is a VR master class or studio. It’s called Creative Production in Virtual Reality. It’s a new class that explores both linear and real time and how you can tell stories that span across the two types of VR. I teach a technique called photogrammetry, a method of capturing the real world and bringing it into VR so that you can have a facsimile of the virtual world. Overall, I am teaching this notion of spacial storytelling, and how we tell narrative stories in a spacial format, without the frame.

Given all the high-tech applications, how do you define Animation as an art form? Animation by its nature is incredibly broad so just by using your cellphone there are some aspects of animation as far as software. Then there is taking it to feature animation, which is some of the highest realms of animation. The work that I do is an extension of landscape photography of which I do quite a bit of and I integrate photography into my work. As well as extending what is done with matte painting. Matte painting is the act of creating synthetic or imagined environments. Mainly, my influences are from visual effects, matte paintings, landscape photography which is documenting the real world, and computational photography which is using computation to derive 3D captures of real landscapes. I’ve shifted my focus from imaginative environments to natural, real world environments. My specialty is capturing and recreating the real world in VR.

What are the most exciting recent developments in Animation? In animation, the development of hybrid expression such as mixing disparate medias. For example, utilizing 3D animation with hand drawn with stop motion. The other thing that is evolving more is what is called generative animation. Generative, or procedural animation is where you use computer codes to derive the motion as opposed to an individual key framing. It’s more manipulating software algorithms to create motion. This would be used in visual effects for explosion or destruction events in a Marvel comic’s feature. Or showing the destruction of a city; nobody can hand animate every single piece of material that is being destroyed. This is the procedural generation where the software is actually calculating how things are moving. This could be used for destructive things in features or artistic exploration.

What are the most exciting recent developments in VR? There are two types of VR: cinematic or linear which is much like a film and it has a beginning, middle, and end; or it can be interactive which could be more in the realm of a computer game where it’s a world that you inhabit. The big innovation these days is with a thing called room-scale VR, which is a real time type of VR that allows a creation of worlds in proper scale.

What advice do you give your students who want careers in VR? Understand that VR, at this moment in time, is like being at the birth of the “talkies” in that everyone is learning simultaneously. There are experts in the field but they are relatively new experts in that they are only one or two years ahead of my students. The great thing is we are all equally learning and exploring techniques together. So this is an exploratory time, nothing has been standardized or fully defined which makes it very exciting both for the students and me as an instructor.  

How did you get into VR yourself? In the visual effects work that I did, I learned how to capture environments spherically for my feature work. This was well before this current period of VR. In my studio we began to do a lot of work in full dome, which is planetarium domes like the Griffith Observatory. It is a beautiful and immersive format but it is half the sphere. So we would find that we would only utilize half of what we shot. When VR came up, we were able to apply all the techniques that we had already developed so we were kind of ahead of most people as far as how you capture the world spherically. We did one of the first VR projects for the National Park System in 2007 with a very early VR headset. 

Anything else you would like to add? This is a very unique point in time. It is the best time to be a student right now because the field is developing and fostering. At the same time, the technology has matured where it doesn’t make you sick anymore. A lot of the technology had to evolve to a point to be widely adopted. Also there is a need for engaging and successful content that will match or surpass what you might experience in a cinema. It is a terribly exciting time because we can help write the future in this, which doesn’t come along very often.