Rob Magiera, the founder and principal of Noumena Digital ( www.studionoumena.com ), was trained as a traditional painter, but he embraced digital illustration in 1986. He saw in digital techniques the potential for constant, immediate revisions.
After working for years with two-dimensional applications such as Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, Magiera taught himself how to use three-dimensional applications, which opened up new creative possibilities for the designer.
"As an artist, I was always fascinated by the unique qualities that various media offered and how they could be exploited to add to the overall effectiveness of the finished art," Magiera says. "I gravitated to 3-D because it's the one area of computer graphics that is completely unique -- you can't do it without a computer. Your canvas is now totally plastic. You can invent something that hasn't been seen before."
Alias Maya Complete ($2,000; 866/226-8859, www.alias.com ) lets designers create three-dimensional worlds out of nothing. While Maya is known primarily as an animation tool, Magiera uses it for print projects that would otherwise be unthinkable. It's a complex program, but with that complexity comes extraordinary control.
This level of control is evident in Magiera's reality-bending work on an American Express card ad campaign. The campaign's art director wanted to depict the credit cards from different angles. However, it wasn't feasible to use a camera to shoot all the real cards, each in every language of the campaign, each from several different angles. And faking shots in Photoshop wouldn't produce images credible enough to hold up at the huge sizes required for the campaign.
Using 3-D technology in combination with Photoshop and Illustrator, Magiera manipulated a virtual card. This required relatively little time and expense yet produced a highly realistic result. For each version of the American Express ad, Magiera used the original Maya model, simply changing the text when necessary, repositioning the card, and rendering it again.
Says Magiera, "If you were starting with a photograph and retouching it, how could you shoot 30 cards and stay in budget -- eight variations of each card, each ad with a different angle? It's an ad campaign they wouldn't have done."Make a 3-D Model of the Card Magiera used a digital scan of the card as a template to painstakingly create a card model. In print work, there's no animation to distract from lower-quality images, so building high-quality models is critical. In the two left-hand panes, you can see the wire-frame model from two angles. On the right is a close-up of a bevel on the card's edge, which he added so that light would hit the edge more gently in the final image. Magiera modeled some elements of the card, such as the edge, individually so he could control them with greater precision. "If you try to do it all at once, it looks like a computer-generated image," he says. "To mimic real life, you need an incredible amount of visual information." Create the Card Texture After completing the wire-frame model, Magiera began to give it a more realistic look by applying what Maya calls materials. Materials are made up of textures (another Maya term) that describe attributes such as color and reflectiveness. The image you see here is a texture that Magiera built in Photoshop and Illustrator. He created the type in Illustrator, and the hologram and computer chip are based on shapes he made in Illustrator and colored in Photoshop. He flattened the Photoshop images and saved them as TIFF files, and then imported them into Maya. Apply Materials to the Model Magiera composed the card of multiple materials; for example, the hologram material was different from that of the card background. The various materials reacted differently -- and more realistically -- to light applied later in the process. At this point, Magiera set how Maya should project materials onto the model, and he defined opacity levels for each area using transparency attributes. He also defined bump mapping for the materials; that is, he made the type appear raised without modeling every angle. Preview and Render the Image Maya uses the analogy of a camera to virtually photograph images. Magiera adjusted the camera settings (including lens size, aperture, and focal length) until he was happy with the image. A wide-angle lens distorted the image perspective a bit. At the stage you see here, Magiera still didn't have an image he could export to 2-D applications. Maya first had to render the image; that is, calculate all the aspects of the model and crunch data about the shapes, texture, and camera settings. Rendering can take time -- roughly an hour for a 6,000-by-6,000-pixel image. However, Maya can display a small, low-resolution test-render image (shown at the top left) that changes to reflect altered camera settings. "It's the equivalent of doing Polaroids on a photo shoot," says Magiera. Render the Layers and Open the Card in Photoshop Magiera rendered the card and opened it in Photoshop. Maya saved the transparency as an alpha channel, which Magiera applied as a selection mask to knock out the transparent portions of the image. On a real card, the magnetic strip is entirely opaque. In this screenshot, you can see the opacity gradient Magiera added. Composite and Fine-Tune In Photoshop, Magiera combined individually rendered elements and fine-tuned selected parts of the combined image. He also returned to previous steps to get better results; for example, he sometimes tweaked the original wire-frame model. "There's a tight integration between Illustrator, Photoshop, and Maya all the way through," Magiera notes. The Final Image This ad may look simple, but it required some serious software: Alias Maya Complete 5, Adobe Illustrator 10, and Adobe Photoshop 7. Magiera ran these applications on a dual-1.25GHz Power Mac G4 with 1.5GB of RAM. He viewed his work on a 20-inch Apple Cinema Display. The Perfection 3170 Photo scanner and Stylus Photo 2200 printer, both from Epson, rounded out his toolbox.