What is your job title and what do you do?
I run a company, Maas Digital LLC, which creates realistic 3D computer graphics and special effects. Officially I'm the President and CEO, but there are no other employees yet, so I'm also a digital artist, computer repair person, caterer, janitor, etc...
The main clients of Maas Digital are in the aerospace industry. In addition to my work for NASA, I've also made computer graphics for the Ohio Aerospace Institute and the BBC. I'm currently working on a science documentary for PBS.
What were your favorite subjects in elementary school?
I always really enjoyed math and science classes. I like using math to describe and understand the world (in fact the essence of computer graphics is simulating reality with math and physics!). I had some very good math teachers in elementary and middle school who gave me a good foundation for expanding my knowledge later on.
What were your least favorite subjects?
Hmm, I'd hate to make any of my former teachers feel bad! Well, sometimes I bit off more than I could chew. I took piano lessons for a few years, but with everything else I was doing, it was hard to find time to practice. Rather than come unprepared every week, we decided it would be better to stop.
Which subjects prepared you the most for your career?
The math and science classes I took in elementary school prepared me for learning subjects like calculus and optics later on, which are important in computer graphics. Composition helped me become a better writer, which is vital these days because so much communication is through email and other forms of writing. Learning to read well was obviously important too.
How were you able to skip your last two years of high school? Did you receive a high school diploma?
During my second year of high school I felt like I could try learning at a faster pace. On a whim I took the SAT that year, and when the score came back - I hate to brag but it was 1 600 :) - my parents and I decided to look into applying to college early. Thanks to the support and recommendations of my high school teachers, mentors, and parents, I was admitted to Cornell. Technically I dropped out of high school, so I never received a diploma!
At what age did you enter Cornell University?
I was 16 when I started at Cornell.
Did you have any regrets about not being able to participate in typical high school activities? Did you go to high school dances, football games or things of that sort?
I didn't particularly enjoy the social environment of high school, but before and after - middle school and college - were great. To me, being social is less about events like dances and games and more about finding friends who you enjoy hanging out with. Once I got to Cornell I was accepted just like any other student. The student body there is so diverse I was hardly out of the ordinary!
What hobbies did you have as a kid? Did you watch very much television or play video games?
When I was younger I read tons of books. Some I read for school, but I also read for pleasure. I especially liked fantasy and science fiction, as well as serious math and science. I watched a lot of movies too - that helped me build a sense of film editing and narration. And yes, I was an avid video game player. Not all of that was a waste of time I hope. I credit some of the more complex strategy games with helping me analyze the world and make decisions based on numbers - just the kind of things a businessperson needs to do!
How old were you when you began producing digital animation? How did you learn to do that?
I think I started doing graphics when I was twelve or thirteen. Most of my computer animation skills are self-taught, with a bit of help from mentors over the Internet. There used to be very few sources for learning graphics techniques, but now plenty of material is available on-line for free.
When did you first become interested in animation and filmmaking? What inspired you to pursue that field?
I think I was influenced by many movies I watched, like Star Wars and Jurassic Park. I have always been fascinated by the special effects process - making "unreal" things appear to be real. My dad helped tune me in to all the things that happen behind the camera - he has directed several documentary films during his career as a professor of psychology at Cornell.
More recently my role models have been the new generation of small special effects studios, like Foundation Imaging in Valencia, California and Station X Studios in Los Angeles. Up until a few years ago it was unthinkable that top-notch computer graphics could be created by anything less than several hundred people with millions of dollars in funding. These studios broke that mold, and I hope to push even further in that direction with my own company.
How old were you when you started your company, Digital Cinema? Why did you form your own company?
I started taking on paid graphics projects when I was 15 or so. My first big project was satellite graphics for an "infomercial" about a system that tracks stolen cars by GPS.
Originally I called my operation "Digital Cinema." I've since changed that name to Maas Digital, since "digital cinema" has become a generic term for digital movie projection, which has nothing to do with my work!
I enjoy the freedom of running my own company. It's a more complex job than working for someone else, since I have to find my own clients, negotiate prices, and deal with lawyers and accountants. But I like having a broad view of all aspects of my business; I can change and adapt much faster than a larger company.
Was it difficult to become an entrepreneur at such a young age? What did you do for money to begin? Did you do it alone?
It wasn't too difficult; contracting for animation work was a logical step from the unpaid projects I'd been doing on my own. I started with a small investment by my parents, and became self-sufficient within about a year.
I have made a few stupid business mistakes (and I'm sure I'll make many more!), but I've learned from each one. I also benefited from taking a few business and economics courses at Cornell.
Do you design your drawings by hand before you use the computer?
Yes, the first step in any of my animation projects is always to draw storyboards with pencil and paper. It's much quicker to sketch rough ideas and make changes that way, rather than working at a computer.
Do you have a natural artistic talent or did you have special classes to help you learn how to draw?
Actually I'm a pretty bad traditional artist - my storyboards are embarrassingly simple! I think my biggest strength is designing camera angles and editing dramatic sequences; this probably comes from watching too many movies...
Can you describe the basic steps required to generate a digitally animated video like the one you did for the Mars (MER) exhibit at Disneyland?
After the pencil-and-paper storyboards, I create an "animatic," which is a very rough, simple video animation. At this point all of the objects are represented by very simple shapes like spheres and boxes. I refine the animatic based on suggestions from the client. (In NASA's case, we had to make sure all the important parts of the Mars Rover mission were included, and everything was scientifically accurate). Once the animatic is approved, I go back and add details to all of the digital objects and environments. I use CAD software to design 3D objects like the Mars Rover, and painting software to add surface details. Next I use rendering software to create a high-quality image of the digital environment. This step involves the most number-crunching - each frame of video can take up to an hour to render, and there are 24 or 30 frames per second of finished video!
Once the rendering is finished, I edit all of the different scenes together and add music and sound effects with an editing program.
How long did it take to create that particular video?
I spent about a year creating a first version of the video, but then NASA abruptly re-designed the mission, so I had to throw out most of the work and start over. From beginning to end it probably took two years. Keep in mind I was finishing my undergraduate studies at the same time; if I were doing the video again I could probably get it done in a few months.
How did you create the drawings that surround the MER rover at the Disneyland display?
That was fairly simple - Disney picked out a few of the best scenes from the video, and I went back to the digital files and rendered high-resolution still versions.
Since your graduation from Cornell University in 2001, have you continued your studies?
My studies are on hold for the moment. I'm planning to devote the near future to more computer graphics and software work, though I haven't ruled out going back for a Master's or Ph.D.
What are your future career goals?
I'd like to expand my company to the point where I can support myself and a few other employees, and I'd like to pursue more animation and software projects. I've been working on software to boost the efficiency of computer graphics production - this will be great for educational and public projects, where budgets are smaller and schedules are shorter than in Hollywood.
Do you have any specific advice for people who want to enter your field?
Learn as much as you can about traditional film-making, math, physics, and software. I believe the computer graphics industry is still in its infancy. There are still lots of powerful techniques that haven't been discovered yet. Always think about what you are doing. Learn the traditional skills, but don't just copy what other people do - you might come up with a much better way!
What thoughts would you like to share with students around the world?
Watch the MER launches next summer, and the landings in January 2004! There will be plenty of great coverage on this mission, from NASA, PBS, and other sources.
Do you have any quote that inspires you?
Hmm, I have a whole big file of quotes! Here is one:
"Focused, hard work is the real key to success. Keep your eyes on the goal, and just keep taking the next step towards completing it. If you aren't sure which way to do something, do it both ways and see which works better."
~ John Carmack (chief programmer at id Software)
For more information about Dan Maas, read the Cornell News article at: http://www.news.cornell.edu/releases/Aug00/DanMaas.Mars.deb.html
The above represents the personal views of Dan Maas and does not necessarily represent the views of Maas Digital LLC.
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- 5 November 2002
7 November 2002
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