Dan Johnson

My illustration work from 2016

Well, it’s that time again. The year is over and I look back at my work over the last 365 days. It seems like not that many jobs were completed in 2016, but for a couple months, I was employed at ILM and that took practically all my time. So my work during that time is all in Rogue One, spaced out in various increments all throughout the movie. However, it’s hard to point out my work; rotoscoping and paint fix are truly an invisible art. If I do my job well, no one will ever know. Therefore, on to art that can be seen.
This illustration began as a 3D model I built in Cinema 4D. It was to depict work done on the Selim Bridge being built over the Bosporus Strait in Turkey. Since it wasn’t completed, I had to work from construction site photos and previous animations. I did my best to make it look correct, but work like this usually requires very accurate measurements and all I could do was eyeball images and guess as best as I could. Hopefully, it looks somewhat correct. The final render was finished and painted in Photoshop. Later, as a personal project, I animated a camera going down the road with trains rushing past on the rails in the middle between the lanes of traffic.
My illustration work from 2016
This one may not look that exciting, and it really wasn’t. Actually, it was based off of a a previous image I did years ago, and this was an updated version of new equipment. The trick here was to make it look nice, but not spend much time on it.
My illustration work from 2016
This was one of my major projects of the year: the usual calendar header illustration. I spent much longer on this than I had originally planned, but as you can see, it was quite detailed. Usually, I like to work from a detailed image, but I didn’t have much this time. The main photo I was given was low resolution without much detail, and the view didn’t show all the bridges I needed, so I had to combine a lot of images and fudge it a bit. But I like the end result.
My illustration work from 2016
The same illustration needed to have an inset illustration of the bridge being worked on, but luckily, the end client took good photos of the job site, so I had my pick of good source material. It just needed a lot of detail.
My illustration work from 2016
This image was a redo of an image done by an earlier artist and it needed to look more impactful and realistic. I used some images from previous work I had done for the same client and did my best to jazz it up.
My illustration work from 2016
Yes, it’s another version of the same image. But working with Photoshop’s layers makes it fairly easy to make adjustments to technical illustrations like this.
My illustration work from 2016
Another quick one. An artist I work with did most of the work as a 3D scene and I finished it off in Photoshop to give it that final touch.
My illustration work from 2016
This was for a magazine ad. For a view like this with complex imagery, it’s easier to start in 3D. I used some pre-existing models from an earlier project, along with some models provided to me. The background and details were painted in. For some reason, my client thought it looked like an African savanna, but the top area ended up getting covered by content in the ad anyway.
My illustration work from 2016
Now this one was quite the challenge. The layout, design, and seemingly the purpose of the image kept changing during during the whole process. I think I made more comps and WIPs on this one than any other job. The primary elements were a 3D model provided by the end client, because that’s what their product is. I then had to turn it into an image showing the various stages of design, rendering, construction, and final scene.
My illustration work from 2016
I was pretty excited about this one. It was basically a matte painting project, starting with a  daytime photo. I had to add snow, turn it to a nighttime scene, and create Christmas lights. I later animated it for a holiday video used by the company.
My illustration work from 2016
My last big project was a long animation. I used some previous 3D scenes and animations, but I did have to build new parts for it. Much if it was animation in Cinema 4D and After Effects, so I try to implement a new technique for each job. This was a test render of drill bits to see if I could get their textures right.
My illustration work from 2016
Here is a final rendered frame from the final animation. The 3D elements were animated and rendered in Cinema 4D and then composited with backgrounds I created in Photoshop and animated in After Effects to match the renders and combined in a 2D environment to depict a cutaway of the drilling process.
My illustration work from 2016
This was just a quick job to texture and render out a model provided to me. It was build in a CAD program to very exacting specs. When I finally got a file I could open, I had to do a good bit of work to organize all the many pieces for easier application of materials. I have illustrated machinery like this from scratch as 2D images in Photoshop, but if the client has 3D models available, why not use them?

A quick VFX fix

I saw Rogue One this week: once on opening night, but once also a few days earlier at a private company screening. It was quite something to see my name up in the credits for a Star Wars movie. After seeing it on Friday, we came home to watch A New Hope for the continuation of the story. I have a recent Blu-ray release of both trilogies, with all sorts of digital updates, corrections, and additions. But there were some easy fixes that mysteriously were not made. I noticed one glaring problem while watching Luke practice with his lightsaber onboard the Millennium Falcon.
You can see the problem in this comparison image of two sequential frames from the movie. Mark was holding a handle with the blade attached, probably a rotating one covered with a highly reflective material. Then the camera stopped, he tried to remain still, and his lightsaber was switched out for just the handle. But as it’s impossible to stay still enough, there is a noticeable jump between the two frames, looking abrupt and unnatural. This is a very old camera trick, practically dating back to the very first moving pictures.
However, with digital technology, the fix here is quite easy. It didn’t take me long to figure out that the first good frame with the lightsaber turned off could be used to cover the few frames with the lightsaber on, so that there is no jump in Luke’s position. The training ball was matted out so that the rotating version from the original frames would show through. Then some animated noise was added to the single frame to make it match the moving footage. Since the lightsaber’s blade is missing, it could easily be added in with a shape layer and a glow effect. The benefit here is that it can be animated going down, instead of just sharply disappearing from one frame to another. You may also notice that even in this new release of the movie, the blade’s color is wrong; it looks either colorless or almost green, instead of the blue we all know Anakin Skywalker’s lightsaber had.

A quick VFX fix

This correction was quickly done on my laptop using Photoshop and After Effects, although it probably could have been done with either program instead of both. This was just a little project that I did on a whim. In reality, it only takes a few minutes to get the shot mostly there, but as with much of this kind of work, getting that last 5% can take the most time. 


New matte painting demo reel

My contract at ILM is almost up and it looks like it won’t be extended this time. So I’m getting ready to go back to looking for more projects. Digital matte painting is always my interest, so I have been working on updating my demo reel for this kind of work. Here is the latest version.

Lucasfilm Sidewalk Festival

On Friday, I participated in Lucasfilm’s annual Sidewalk Festival. Teams of four get to sign up for a sidewalk square each and are given chalk to use in creating their design. I thought it would be fun to be a part of it, but I didn’t have a team. Luckily, there was a team of two that needed some extra artists and I got hooked up with them. It was only three of us, but we had a good design to work on and together we were able to get a nice representation of it on the sidewalk square. The judging happened after I had left for the day, so I don’t know what the final result was, but we got a lot of positive comments from passers by. Does anyone know who this is on our picture?

Current contract

Earlier this month, I had an interview at Industrial Light & Magic, a studio I’ve been trying to get into for years now. This kind of work has opportunities that are very hit-and-miss, but this time was different. Instead of another phone interview, I was invited to come on the campus at the Presidio in San Francisco. That’s an offer that’s hard to refuse.

It sounded very promising this time, and they shortly made me an offer: a 2-month contract working as a digital paint artist on an upcoming movie to be released in December. I don’t know if I can say much more than that at the moment. But it’s an exciting chance and a fun place to work. The daily commute is not so fun, but it’s worth it. Hopefully, this will lead to more of the same. My overall goal is still digital matte painting, so hopefully, this is a step in that direction. I’ve already done that kind of work professionally. Now I just need to do it for a major motion picture.

Recent work

Things have been busy these days, so my blog has suffered a bit. As usual, I’m doing digital illustration work, looking for new projects, and seeing what my next big move should be. I’m looking at trying to get some visual effects work on upcoming movies and I actually had an interview at ILM yesterday! Onsite at the Presidio in San Francisco, so that was pretty exciting. We’ll see what happens.

Here are some sections from a project I finished recently. If the format or subject matter look familiar, it’s for a calendar header like many I’ve done before. This one was fun, but really took me a long time, painting all those darn buildings. And then all the bridges. And then that inset image of the top of the bridge…


Back to business as usual

I’ve recently noticed that it’s been a long time since I’ve posted anything. As you can guess, I’ve been working on various freelance projects and looking for more work. I’ve also been checking on full-time employment, especially teaching positions. Recently, I was contacted by Tulsa Community College about a digital media instructor position. I went out there and interviewed. It was a nice facility and I did the best I could, but they ended up going with other candidates. I was disappointed, but the job starts this fall and it would be hard to make a big move like that so quickly. 
So, it’s back to business as usual and I’ll keep looking. I have been thinking about getting my Masters degree, since that’s almost a requirement for a tenured teaching position.

My illustration work from 2015

As I was working on current projects, I was thinking about the illustrations I did last year. I did a good bit of other work like animation, design, and page layout, but as this is an illustration blog, that’s what I will concentrate on. As usual, some of the images here are favorites of mine, and some I’m not so happy with. That’s just how it goes in the world of commercial art.
This was a pretty major illustration, painted quite large for an exhibit background. It took a lot of work and is actually one of my favorite pieces now. I’m especially pleased with the pipe threader (that’s the thing on the left side). It was almost my best piece of the year, completed quite early on.

My illustration work from 2015

Here’s one that’s not quite an illustration. It’s more of a logo that I had to design, but with Photoshop I was able to make it look a bit more dimensional and give it some texture.

My illustration work from 2015
This one was kind of interesting: realistic but a bit conceptual as well. I’ve been working on mimicking photographic techniques, so I tried a bit of depth of field here by making the background out of focus. I also got to paint some figures, so that’s always fun. After completing the illustration, I also did the final ad layout and design.
My illustration work from 2015
If you’ve been following my work, you may recognize this one. I did an illustration of a nice, completed shower installation. For this image, the client wanted the same layout, but a before image, showing old, ugly, and broken tile as a contrast. Sadly, I used my own shower as an inspiration for this illustration.
My illustration work from 2015
Here’s one that never really worked, but I just had to get through it. The background elements were taken from older illustrations and incorporated into this image to save me some time. I was not able to fit all the elements in to my liking, but it fit the requirements for this job.
My illustration work from 2015
Another one based on a previous illustration. For this one, I had to extend the bottom and add the bridge damage and work scene around it, so the bottom quarter is new. It started out as a 3D scene, but for the addition, I just extended the canvas in Photoshop and painted in 2D elements.
My illustration work from 2015
Because of the complexity of something like this, I built it as a 3D model first. I also textured, lit, and rendered it, so there wasn’t much more to do in Photoshop, except paint the background.
My illustration work from 2015
This isn’t much, but it’s just a small image I had to whip out quickly. With Photoshop’s layer effects and vector shapes, it’s pretty easy to do something like this without putting too much time into it.
My illustration work from 2015
Back to my usual painting of construction scenes. New client and equipment to render. It’s okay, I suppose. The main thing is that the client liked it.
My illustration work from 2015
More construction stuff. This image went back and forth until I finally figured out what the client wanted. Again 3D made this relatively easy. The water was built from photos, based on techniques I’ve shared previously in this blog. A bit of final Photoshop painting, and it was done.
My illustration work from 2015
Now this one took some time, but I really like how it turned out. It was quite challenging and I tried some new techniques to represent artificial illumination at night, which ended up pretty successful. My initial inclination is to get by with as little work as I can and my client kept wanting more elements added. But as much as I hate to admit it, they helped the final image. I liked the final result so much that I kept on working after it was complete and approved, adding details on the far left span of the bridge, like the truck and streetlights. Anyway, this ended up being on of my favorites.
My illustration work from 2015
Another quick project. Intended for a large exhibit background, it was really just a simple 3D scene textured and rendered. I also did the text and layout and it ended up doing what it needed to.

My illustration work from 2015

Another calendar header image. This one worked out okay, but I had hoped it would have been a bit better. Still, it’s pretty good I guess.

My illustration work from 2015

My illustration work from 2015

My illustration work from 2015

This is a series I got through my rep. It was a pretty cool job, but the images were very large and required a lot of work. Much of the detail gets lost in these small images, but they should give you an idea of what went into the final images. The first two are panoramic images from a coal plant and the third was a cutaway view of one of the interior turbines in the plant.

My illustration work from 2015

This last one is really a photo editing project instead of an illustration. The background was quite complex and required a lot of hand painting to mask it out. There is some concept going on here, but it might be hard to make out.

3D construction images

Back to bridge illustrations for me. These may look nice, but there’s not that much to them, at least in the way of digital painting. For images like these with critical relationships of structures to each other, it’s easiest to build them as 3D models. As usual, I worked in Cinema 4D. Making something like a bridge can be a bit tricky, as I had no definite schematics to work from, just low quality photos and conceptual artwork done by someone else. But I made it work. The final result may not be perfectly accurate from an architectural point of view, but it works for my purposes.

3D construction images

I did do a bit of texturing for the geometry and rendered with Ambient Occlusion and Global Illumination to get realistic highlights and shadows. the renders were done as multi-pass so that I could take them into Photoshop and separate out the parts I needed. There was some background painting and touch up here and there to band things up and add a bit more realism and get away from that sterile look so common in many 3D renders. Overall, I think they look okay. On the bottom cofferdam image, the water isn’t a photo, but I started with water photos to pull selections out of to make the final layers. For detailed waves and ripples, I’ve found that this technique is much more efficient than painting water from scratch. I used the same steps for the water in a previous illustration. You can check out my tutorial on how to do it here.

Latest work and other details

Well, after a long time of waiting, I have finally found out that I won’t be teaching in Arkansas after all. It took a while, but they apparently chose someone else for the instructor position. I’m disappointed, but in a way, relieved. However, I have been looking at other similar positions. Most require a Masters degree, so that leaves me out for the moment.
In other big news, I finally upgraded my computer. I’m now on a fairly new Macbook Pro with retina display. I’m not necessarily a huge fan of the new display, since it means that things like RAM and the battery are a permanent part of the hardware and not replaceable. Being so new, it’s also missing a Superdrive, so I needed an external one. Generic models can be quite economical, but beware the kinds that read but do not write DVDs, as I have found out, much to my dismay. 
To save some money, I bought a refurbished model directly from Apple. It had 8 Gb of RAM. But when it arrived, I saw that they had a version with 16 Gb available that wasn’t there before, and I was immediately hit with buyer’s remorse. Remembering a Jewish proverb that says something like, “Spend more the first time and cry only once,” I returned it and ordered the one with more RAM. I hope it was worth it.
In work news, I have finally finished the 3-painting project that I’ve been off and on for a few months. It’s moved along a bit slowly, but getting approvals on various stages of the work has not been too fast. I’ve also been doing matte painting projects for ESPN promos, featuring trailers from current movies. The latest one I just finished was done without a finished trailer to work from, so I had to create the entire painting on my own. You can see it below.