Going Viral, Getting Gasps

Artist Aristomenis Tsirbas knows how to use LightWave to create viral videos that really grab your attention

Posted: Thu 16 Jan 2014

Many careers have been made because a photographer or videographer just happened to stumble upon a major event as it unfolded, and capture it for all to see. The chances of this happening, however, are few and far between – many professionals have gone a lifetime without such luck. But, not so for filmmaker Aristomenis (“Meni”) Tsirbas, who has captured several OMG moments, including a roller-coaster as it derails, a helicopter getting sucked up into a tornado, a close-up UFO encounter, a glimpse of a secret prototype vehicle in flight, and a near miss as two jets almost collide during takeoff and landing, respectively. And, that’s just for starters.

So, what is the secret to Tsirbas’s uncanny ability of being at the right place at the right time? LightWave 3D.

You see, although the videos are totally believable, they are, in fact, all-CG, created inside a computer. And it is this combination of photorealism and outlandishness that have earned the filmmaker and his viral videos a large following on Tsirbas’s YouTube channel.
Tsirbas has been creating the viral videos for the past year in his spare time, using LightWave Version 11.5.

LightWave 3D contains polygonal and subdivision surface modeling tools, making any modeling process especially efficient. The software also offers a fast and easy layer-based surfacing system that is ideal for generating concept designs and visualizations, as well a more flexible and powerful nodal system for work that is more complex. And, artists are able to use both types independently or together for even faster results.

“I constantly switch between polygonal and subdivision surfaces when modeling because it’s so easy and fast to do in LightWave,” Tsirbas says. “I then usually freeze the subdiv geo in Modeler after I get the organic shape I want, then go in for detail work in poly mode.”

What’s more, the nodal system within LightWave includes easy-to-use, physically accurate material shaders that can be used to re-create realistic glass, metal, and car paint. “For surfacing, I usually stick to the layered system and make sure to add Fresnel reflections to most of my vehicle surfaces by using the Incident Angle type of gradient in the reflection channel,” says Tsirbas.

All the animation in the videos is keyframed; no motion capture or procedural animation was used. The one exception, however, came when Tsirbas added a Noisy Channel modifier (from within the graph editor) for the camera’s heading and pitching channels. He added small values to achieve subtle jittering to the hand-animated motion.

One of the more compelling animations occurs within the tornado video, as a helicopter gets sucked into the vortex. As Tsirbas explains, the tornado was a manually modeled particle cloud that spun and moved via bones. It was shaded with hypervoxels. What makes this video especially realistic is the addition of raindrops on the lens. “The raindrops were the biggest challenge because I wanted them to refract the background. So, I modeled them with a liquid Refractive Index and even created morphs to have them move around,” he says. The filmmaker then rendered them, along with the rest of the scene, to contain the proper refraction, although the background itself was set to Unseen in the camera.

“That way, I had just the raindrops on black as a discreet element – one of the few times I did that – so I could then control transparency and focus in the comp,” Tsirbas says.   

According to the filmmaker, one of the coolest additions in LightWave 11.5 is the camera’s Rolling Shutter option, which accurately reproduces the ‘jelly vision’ artifacting that most digital cameras exhibit when panning quickly. “Very cool,” he adds. And, very useful, helping to sell the realism of the videos.

“Once my models are in good shape, creating a realistic documentary style is simply a matter of letting things get ‘messy,’ mostly with camera animation and rendering. So, [I use] plenty of camera shake, bad exposure, and post effects, like blooms and lens flares,” notes Tsirbas. 


These features in LightWave are vital, because no live-action footage is used in the viral shorts. “For the sake of simplicity and enjoyment, I usually keep all my CG assets in-camera and all-3D,” Tsirbas says. “That way, I control everything at once, with no multi-element pipeline to manage.”

And this is where LightWave especially shines. “One of LightWave’s greatest strengths is its ability to handle large amounts of data at once. I can throw several multimillion-poly objects into Layout and have no problem managing them, often in real time,” he notes.

Among LightWave’s other strengths is its “fast, beautiful renderer,” says Tsirbas. LightWave contains a fast and robust render engine, which is augmented by the LightWave VPR (Viewport Preview Renderer). This unique feature enables artists to experiment with lighting, textures, volumetrics, and shading within the viewport and receive near-final-rendered results in a fraction of the time.

“So, having everything in-scene makes sense. And, it’s fun,” says Tsirbas. The filmmaker occasionally breaks out elements, especially when he has to deal with visual effects. But even then he generally commits to a single pass. ‘”LightWave is able to handle motion blur and depth of field in-camera, as well – one of its other unique strengths – so I generally skip that stage in the comp.”

For the final compositing, Tsirbas often uses Adobe After Effects. As he points out, all of the viral videos go through a significant amount of post-processing. Editing is done with Apple’s Final Cut Pro X. 

“Since this is a leisure activity for me, I decided to break away from Windows machines and create everything on a maxed-out 15-inch MacBook Pro Retina. This way, I can create high-end CGI almost anywhere,” he says. “It’s no ordinary laptop, but an extremely powerful mobile workstation that rivals the Windows Xeon towers I used up to that point.”

The filmmaker notes that the videos enable him to stretch his creativity as well as his skills, adding to the technical breadth of his work by keeping him multi-platform in terms of operating systems (Mac OS and Windows) and digital content creation software. “It keeps me well-rounded as a digital artist,” he says.

Tsirbas may be proficient using various tools, but he has been a LightWave user for a long time, starting back when the software was still in beta on the original Video Toaster 20-plus years ago. He even served as a resident director at NewTek in 2001, working with the original development team.

Currently, Tsirbas is turning heads with his viral videos, though he and his work have been grabbing attention for years. He started his professional 3D animation and visual effects career nearly two decades ago, and his first big job made industry waves – generating all the above-water CG for the simulation sequence in Titanic. While at Digital Domain, he also helped push photoreal vehicle animation, especially in car commercials, at a time when the use of practical models was still the norm. That work has obviously helped Tsirbas with his viral shorts, since the key to their success lies within the realism of the imagery.

“I enjoy making CGI look real. It’s been a pet peeve of mine for at least the past decade when I hear people clamoring that CGI doesn’t look as good as model photography. It can, and it does – but only when done right,” says Tsirbas.

When making the videos, Tsirbas also relies on his directing skills. In 2000, he founded MeniThings Productions, and has earned a number of awards at various festivals, including Sundance, for his work. His film credits include the SIGGRAPH 2000 opener “Ray Tracery in Full Tilt,” the game cinematic “Mechwarrior: Vengeance,” a number of short films (“The Freak,” “Terra,” “Anthro,” and “Exoids”), as well as the 2009 feature film Battle for Terra.

The filmmaker “went viral” during a stint as the resident director at The Gnomon School of Visual Effects, upon urging by owner Alex Alvarez. “So, I came up with the idea of creating a handheld-style UFO video where the spaceships did such over-the-top things that one would clearly assume they were CGI. But the gag wasn’t the UFOs, but that all the video was CGI: the car, the environment, everything,” he says. “The challenge was to create an environment so lifelike that it would trick the viewer into thinking it was real.” 

And it did, as the video, created by a team of Gnomon students, quickly racked up views online and even was mentioned in Wired Magazine.

The experience was so fun and exciting that Tsirbas decided to continue the genre on his own, which he does as a hobby while shifting his attention back to directing story-driven work. “I do them because they have a quick turnaround, and I have complete free rein,” he says. “Plus, I get a kick out of the general idea of trying to trick the viewer. I think of it as a digital version of ‘sleight of hand,’”

So far, Tsirbas has five viral videos in the queue, making at least one every few months. “They are starting to get a following, at four million views so far,” he notes. And, the filmmaker plans to continue this trend, though the frequency will depend on how much free time he has – currently he is employed at Blur as a director. Each video takes approximately a month to complete, although he estimates the actual time investment at three to five days.

“My take-away from making these videos is that anyone who has a decent computer can create content that can be seen by millions of people,” says Tsirbas. “Even though I’ve been in the industry for some time, nothing about how I make these viral videos is special. I use only off-the-shelf software running on a consumer laptop. So, almost anyone with a halfway decent computer can do what I do. All that’s required is time, discipline, and follow-through.” And, some skill and vision.

“Since this is a hobby, what’s most important is that it remains fun,” Tsirbas adds.