March 2009

From Dave McComas, IBEX Principal Investigator

Dave McComas

Planetarium Show
Image Credit: SwRI/IBEX Team/Adler Planetarium
IBEX continued to take fabulous science data throughout February and we have now observed nearly a quarter of the sky! The remainder of the sky will be imaged over the next several months as we continue to repoint the spacecraft roughly each week as the spacecraft flies back in near the Earth on each orbit. The data so far are really fascinating with clear variations in both the fluxes and energies of the neutral atoms traveling in from the edge of the solar system. Another exciting thing the IBEX team did in February was to complete the Planetarium show - IBEX: Search for the Edge of the Solar System. This show was developed by our Education and Public Outreach folks at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, Illinois. The show debuts Friday March 6th at the Adler - after that it will start to be shown at various Planetaria across the country, and even around the world. 

This month I'm delighted to introduce another key member of the team that developed this show, Lu Natalino, who is a Senior 3D Artist/Animator at the Adler. Lu always has cool new images and visuals to show me whenever I stop by in Chicago. Lu and the rest of the team at Adler have done a tremendous job on creating this show - I thank them all for the tremendous work they have done on making the IBEX mission and science understandable and exciting to a general audience. Check it out when it comes to a Planetarium near you - you are really going to enjoy this one!

Meet the IBEX Team: Lu Natalino

By Michelle Nichols, Adler Planetarium Educator

Lu Natalino
Lu Natalino
The onset of March 2009 brings thoughts of spring, continued data-gathering by the IBEX spacecraft, and the eagerly-awaited debut of "IBEX: Search for the Edge of the Solar System", a new full-dome digital planetarium show produced by the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, Illinois. The show premieres on March 6, 2009 and will be distributed to interested planetaria in the coming months. The March Monthly Highlight features Lu Natalino, Senior 3D Artist/Animator at the Adler, and one of the team members who produced the IBEX planetarium show.

Lu Natalino was born in Norridge, Illinois, a small suburb of Chicago that lies within the main borders of the city of Chicago. He later moved to Arlington Heights, Illinois, where he currently lives. Lu's father and his mother's parents were born and raised in Italy, so Lu is part of a very large Italian family. "Unfortunately I can't speak Italian but sometimes I can pick up on a couple words here and there," Lu says. He credits his parents as being a huge inspiration in his life: "They are very hard working and always want me to be the best I can be."

What did Lu want to be as an adult? "Believe it or not I actually wanted to be a lawyer for a very brief time. I am not quite sure why. It was short lived since I am terrified of public speaking. Then for a good portion of my life, I wanted to be a comic book artist. Comic art was what I drew growing up. Seeing the first Jurassic Park and Toy Story movies really changed my mind about what I wanted to do, though. Those movies combined my love of art with my growing interest in computers and put them together perfectly." 

At the Adler Planetarium, Lu is a Senior 3D Artist/Animator, a job which focuses primarily on planetarium show production. Lu explains, "My school preparations at the Illinois Institute of Art in Schaumburg, IL helped me to prepare for my current job quite a bit. The whole process of 3D show production that I learned in school is directly applicable to how I do my job here, especially for details like lighting and texturing. The process of applying that knowledge to the planetarium dome, however, was a steep learning curve. Even today I am still learning what works and what does not work on the dome. As much as school helped, what I have learned here while working has far surpassed what I learned in school."

Lu continues, "The school learning environment is definitely different from my work environment. I was surprised with how collaborative the whole show production process is. When I was in school, all projects were done solo. The teacher would give advice but, for the most part, I did all of the work on my own. It wasn't until working professionally that I realized how much more open I had to be with my work. I like this process so much more because a fresh set of eyes looking at my work is always a good way to continue to grow." 

On a typical day, Lu comes in to the office and checks on the progress of scene rendering by the computers to see if they were completed overnight. "Since a lot of the scenes we work on take multiple days to complete, usually I try and start and stop at different milestones so when I come in the next day, I won't be in the thick of trying to solve a challenging problem." The Adler production team also has at their disposal a small planetarium dome, called the "minidome", with which to preview the rendered scenes. "We usually make a lot of minidome preview movies for the team to look at and critique. I always draw a lot of inspiration and new ideas from these conversations." 

In the past few weeks, the show production team has been finishing a few changes to "IBEX: Search for the Edge of the Solar System," and the end of the process is in sight. Lu and the team are excited to show off their work to the world. "Since we are nearing completion, I have been touching up some rough spots on some of the scenes I did earlier. For instance, on the Pegasus rocket launch scene, we changed the stars and Sun on the space shots. They look a lot better than they did a few months ago."

Lu exclaims, "The best part of my job is getting to work in a creative field. The team is always looking to push the envelope in the look and quality of the shows we work on and it is always inspiring to be a part of that. Sometimes there are technical hurdles in the software that I have to overcome. In my mind, I know what I want a scene to look like from an artistic viewpoint, but occasionally I can't seem to get the 'look" through the program. Of course these are challenges that really pay off when I do actually solve this issue, and the scene ends up looking great."

Lu is very realistic when it comes to obtaining and keeping a job that involves art. "A job in an artistic field is always tricky because artwork is subjective, and something that looks good to one person doesn't always look very good to another person. As far as my position goes, I have experienced pretty streamlined growth in my skills, and I hope to continue down that path." He has words of advice and caution to students who may be thinking about a career similar to his: "Never stop continuing to develop your artistic and technical skills. This industry changes incredibly fast, and keeping up with the current trends in what other studios do in the field is essential for survival. Take any critique you can get. I see a lot of students who are offended when offered suggestions on their work. Get out there and see what is going on in the field. There are always interesting developments happening, and that, in itself, should prove to be inspiring." What is also inspiring to Lu are other 3D artists. They help to keep him focused on striving to better his own work. 

When Lu is not checking computer renders, meeting with team members, and developing spectacular planetarium shows, his interests include spending time with his girlfriend, watching movies, attending heavy metal concerts, sitting in front of a computer - for fun - and playing guitar. "I've only been playing for about a year so I'm still not very good. Ha, ha!"

Having a job that combines art and science is exciting to Lu. As for Lu's science side, "I would like to think that in ten years or so that we would land on the Moon, and perhaps establish an answer as to whether life exists elsewhere in space. My sci-fi side hopes for that. Personally, I would like to continue to develop compelling shows and animations that help people understand the importance of exploring our Universe, as well as inspire them to want to learn more."

Inspiring people to want to learn more is not only Lu's goal, but also a major goal of the IBEX mission. The Adler Planetarium's IBEX Education team hopes the new planetarium show will help to further public understanding of our exciting solar system.