Using 3D to Show, Not Tell

Related: 3D, C4D, Cinema 4D, Maxon

Thorlabs Uses Cinema 4D to Bring Photonics Equipment to Life

When it comes to learning how to assemble and use complex equipment, written directions are nice, but visuals are even better. And thanks to a growing series of 3D animations by graphic designer Anthony (Tony) Barone, Newton, N.J.-based Thorlabs ( can better demonstrate to consumers exactly how to quickly make use of their products.

Thorlabs designs and makes photonics equipment for research, manufacturing and biomedical applications. The company hired Barone in August of 2012 on a contract basis to take and retouch product photos in Photoshop and draw diagrams in Illustrator. But when Barone mentioned his background in 3D animation (a self-taught area he’s been working in since the 1980s), his bosses put him to work using MAXON’s Cinema 4D to make short animations showing how to assemble Thorlabs products. (Check out Thorlabs’ YouTube channel here:

Barone uses company-created images of product components to show how they go together, as in this still from video of the CLR1 rotatable lens mount.

Among those was the CLR1 rotatable lens mount, a product designed for use with Ø1-inch round cylindrical lenses and other rotationally sensitive optics. To show how the parts of the CLR1 go together, Barone created a 32-second animated video ( using product models created by Thorlabs using the SolidWorks 3D CAD program. The video makes clear how the retaining ring and mounting tap are threaded onto the mount and demonstrates how to attach threaded lens tubes and adjust the mount’s settings.

Getting the Details Right

Products featured in animations are chosen by a team of Thorlabs’ technical writers from the thousands of products the company makes. Because the writers are tasked with creating content for the company’s website, they’re in a unique position to say whether it would be helpful to show how a product is assembled or used. Technical support staff also weigh in on whether products should be featured in animations, and often base their opinions on the number of questions they receive for particular items.

Once a product is chosen, Barone has a Thorlabs engineer export the SolidWorks file using the VRML 2.0 format to bring the model into Cinema 4D. Next, he starts texturing, which depending on the complexity of the model, can take two hours or more. “I have a default setup containing all the textures I use,” he says.

Thorlabs’ CP360R Pivoting Optic Mount (

As he works, if he needs an element that enhances the animation, he creates it in C4D. For instance, on some of his animations, he needed arrows to show how one part is threaded onto another, or which direction a screw is to be turned. “One of the earlier animations I did showed these little screws going into the part,” he explains. “I thought, ‘You’re not going to be able to show those rotating.’ So, I came up with the idea of having arrows just appear.”

After some trial and error and consultation with other artists on 3D forums, Barone came up with a way to deploy directional arrows using an Xpresso setup that triggered arrows pointing in the appropriate direction for different rotations. Arrows appear when the rotation movement begins, and disappear when it stops.


In this video, directional arrows created using Xpresso help show how the cord jack on top of this power adapter screws on (

Another challenge Barone faces when creating the company’s animated product videos is ensuring that everything that should be seen is visible. Sometimes, parts of the SolidWorks model such as threads on screws, for example, won’t make it through the export process, so he has to create them himself. “I either model something or use a texture I’ve developed,” he says, pointing out that the texture on the inside of the large rotation mount in the CLR animation is a texture because the 3D geometry for the threads was missing.”

Accuracy is Everything

Depicting the magnification and refraction qualities of a Thorlabs product can be a complicated task. To get an idea of how those qualities should be portrayed in an animation, Barone consults with a Thorlabs tech writer about what the refraction index is of a certain lens. He uses that data in the texturing process. The goal is to make the lens qualities look as realistic as possible.

“Sometimes I’ll get comments like, ‘This piece is not rotating the correct amount of times according to the number of threads,’” he says. “But, the point of these animations is really just to show the end-user how something is assembled. If I showed it spinning the number of times it actually does in the time I have allotted, it would spin so fast it would be a blur, or it would be a much longer animation.”

Thorlabs’ KM100P Kinematic Prism Mount (

To control the mechanical motions of product components, Barone creates an Xpresso user data controller, making it easy to create key frames where he needs them using a HUD element. Finally, the animations are rendered in high definition at either 720p or 1080p and assembled in Final Cut Pro.

Thorlabs’ RSP1X15 Indexing Rotation Mount (

Currently, Barone is working on a video for Thorlabs’ Virginia division depicting the B-SCOPE rotating translating multiphoton imaging microscope—a process that required him to learn inverse kinematics, which is used in character animation. “I needed a way to animate the articulating arm for that animation,” says Barone. “Because it moves much like a real arm, it’s a bit more complicated than one or more pieces having specific pivot points that move or rotate at precise moments.”

Internal response to the videos has been extremely positive, and several of the company’s other locations have requested animations, as well. Recently, Barone created an extensive animation for Thorlabs’ Texas location demonstrating a new camera sensor technology the company developed. The video was shown at Thorlabs’ booth at the Neuroscience 2012 and Photonics West trade shows and Barone is hoping that he may soon be working in Cinema full time.

Editor's Note: Be sure to check out the following related links:

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Article by Dan Heilman

Dan Heilman is a St. Paul, Minnesota-based writer and editor.

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Tags: 3D, C4D, Cinema 4D, Maxon
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