Making Graphics in Real Time

Hired by CNN in 2007, Daniel Russo earned two Peabody Awards during his four years as a production designer with the network. He also taught himself how to use Maxon’s Cinema 4D while designing and animating for “Lou Dobbs.” Next he moved to “Anderson Cooper 360˚,” where he lead the department’s efforts to incorporate C4D into their pipeline.

I asked Russo, who is now leading the graphics department at Current TV’s “Viewpoint with Eliot Spitzer,” to talk about some of his most intense projects and the unique pressures and processes inherent in the creation of fast-turnaround broadcast graphics. (Watch his reel here: http://www.danrusso.com/graphics-portfolio).


Daniel Russo won a Peabody Award for his 3D animations of the BP oil spill. Working under deadlines as tight as 90 minutes, he used C4D to model elements for scenes while incorporating 3D elements from CNN’s library.


Animations Russo created of relief wells plunged viewers thousands of feet below the ocean’s surface. “It was definitely learning by fire and I was very honest with our team that I’d never done anything like this before,” he recalls. (Watch the animation: http://vimeo.com/36768496.)

Maynard: What was a typical day like at CNN?

Russo: My top priority was “Anderson Cooper 360˚.” I would often work 15 or 16 hours a day, but I loved it. I would work weekends in a heartbeat. I did anything that needed done. Between the list of show graphics, and my 3D responsibilities, I’m very proud to say that I never missed a deadline in my role as the senior 3D animator for CNN’s NY Graphics Department.


Working with schematics and images he gathered, Russo and Sam Mandragona worked to create accurate images of what was happening on the ocean floor, after the spill. “That well on the bottom of the ocean was five-stories tall, so the remote vehicles were the size of trucks,” Russo recalls.

Maynard: Did you work with others as part of a team?

Russo: The Atlanta graphics department made elements that we could put into our environments, so we collaborated a lot. It was definitely a huge team effort and time was always short. Sometimes we would get half a day to do graphics for something, but often it would be just hours. Magic Wall Producer, Sam Mandragona and I worked closely together. Sam reached out to producers daily. He asked them what they were working on so we could get as much of a head start as possible. He made it possible for us to have a daily game plan and meet our deadlines.

Maynard: You won a Peabody Award for your work on the coverage of the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf. Can you talk a little bit about the graphics you created to help CNN tell the story of what was happening after the explosion sank the Deepwater Horizon rig? 

Russo: TV news doesn’t move as fast as the Internet moves, unless it’s live coverage. We would do our best to make everything as factual as possible before it aired. However, it was hard because for a long time nobody knew what the BOP [blowout preventer] looked like. Sam and I found schematics of the BOP and referred to BP’s website daily, for the latest official information. We did everything we could to ensure every element was as accurate as possible.

At one point, Sam asked me to try to model a remote-operated vehicle (ROV), so I created an ROV with a fully articulated arm. We combined the ROV with our BOP and the environment, which was supposed to create the feeling of being 5,000 feet under water. That is when I really started using Cinema, because before that I was still learning it in the mornings before we got going on the graphics for the day.


In between his other projects at CNN, Russo spent six months working on 3D models of all of NASA’s manned space flight ships.

Maynard: What made you decide to teach yourself how to learn C4D?

Russo: CNN purchased Cinema 4D when we were transferring to HD. I saw that it wasn’t being used. So, I started learning through tutorials. We owned the basic core edition and I created little projects for myself, like making the New York City skyline and modeling the Empire State Building. The antenna of which was so complex and detailed, it prepared me for working on the BP oil disaster models. My biggest help came when I purchased C4D training from Maxon’s Cineversity. I took every class available to me. My goal was to raise the level of production of our department. Learning to use C4D was a big part of that goal.

Maynard: How did you manage to work on something as big as the oil spill while still creating graphics for Anderson Cooper’s show?

Russo: It was a lot of long hours. The hardest thing, the craziest thing, was when orders came down for the show and I had to stop modeling and animating so I could switch gears to make daily graphics. It was super intense. I often had only a few hours to get things done. And remember, I was learning on the fly. One of my resources was Nigel Doyle of C4D Café. I practically lived there when I was learning C4D, and Nigel was great. He helped me with a couple of problems I had, including the volumetrics, for the remote vehicle. He explained what to do and he even did it for me, sending back a mock file I sent him.


The biggest challenge when modeling the space shuttle was figuring out how the main fuel tank was connected to the shuttle. “I found a guy online who sold schematics of the space shuttle, the main fuel tank and solid rocket boosters online, if you can believe it,” Russo recalls. “Even with those schematics, it was unclear how the Main Fuel Tank connected to the shuttle.”

Maynard: I saw some graphics for something about the space shuttle on your reel. What were those for?

Russo: As a child, I saw the first space shuttle launch on the news. That really captured my imagination. In 2010 I decided to take some time off and go see the last nighttime launch of the space shuttle. I went to NASA’s site and purchased tickets. I got great seats, but the launch was scrubbed due to bad weather. I couldn’t take the time off for the new launch date. I did talk to Sam about doing something for the shuttle’s final flight and he liked the idea.

In fact, he broadened the idea to a weeklong series of stories on the history of NASA’s manned space flight missions leading up to the last space shuttle launch. I worked on it for six months and modeled, textured and animated every manned space ship built by NASA. In the end, they went in another direction so it never aired. It was a great sadness for me, actually.

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Creating graphics to help viewers appreciate the magnitude of the Fukushima disaster was an ongoing challenge. Fuel rods in the reactors were stories tall and details needed to make 3D models were hard to come by.

Maynard: I know you also did a lot of CNN’s graphics after a tsunami hit the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in Japan. Talk a little bit about what that experience was like.

Russo: I wasn’t supposed to be on that project and they were already working on models at our Atlanta office when I was brought in. Things were moving so fast we didn’t have time to wait for the models. While an artist worked on the reactors, I created the location environment using Google Earth and we put together a template that everything needed to be based off of going forward.

It helped when I finally found a Japanese site with a model we could use to understand some of the details we were missing. While we did this other artists in the New York graphics department really stepped up. Between us, them and Atlanta, we were constantly making stuff for the network to use. (Watch one of the animations: http://vimeo.com/36767947.)


At CNN Russo often made models and scenes from scratch and enhanced them with previously created assets before using After Effects for compositing. Everything was rendered in HD and compressed for use on the network’s “Magic Wall.”

Maynard: Even though you’re always rushed, do you feel satisfied with the quality of the graphics you’re producing most of the time?

Russo: TV news is very much a same-day thing. Maybe one day I’ll be lucky enough to have George Lucas tap my shoulder and say: ‘Hey, come work for me and I’ll give you three months to work on something.’ But until then, I can honestly say that I love what I do. It’s a different type of creativity than what a lot of other people do, but it’s what feeds me. I know a lot of other people in broadcast feel that way too. Without all those really good people collaborating at CNN, what we did could never have been done.

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Meleah Maynard is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor. Contact her at her website: www.slowdog.com

 

 


April 23, 2012

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