Category Archives: fun

Growing Shiso

The first month of our shiso plants. Left: green shiso; right: red shiso.

This season I got a head start on the garden, and also started branching out with some interesting-sounding seed packets from local growers. One herb I absolutely love, but have only ever seen in Japanese food, is shiso leaf. I wanted to see if we could grow it here, and what else we could do with it besides roll it in sushi. So far it’s been a raging success: a ridiculous number of sprouts have come up, seemingly twice as many as the seeds I planted. The leaves are gorgeous and super aromatic. Really looking forward to seeing what we can make out of this later in the year!

It’s also really fantastic on avocado toast. Left: with pepitas, ancho chile flakes, and cilantro from the garden. Right: with sesame and red shiso.

Monster Mash in Two Minute Papers!

If you’re any kind of graphics geek, you’re probably familiar with the outstanding YouTube channel, Two Minute Papers. If not, you’re in for a treat! In this series, Károly Zsolnai-Fehér picks papers from the latest computer graphics and vision conferences, edits their videos and adds commentary and context to highlight the most interesting bits of the research. But what really makes the series great is his delivery: he is so genuinely excited about the fast pace of graphics research, it’s pretty much impossible to come away without catching some of that excitement yourself.

What an honor to have that firehose of enthusiasm pointed at our work for two minutes!

Monster Mash

This past January I had the incredible good fortune to fall sideways into a wonderful graphics research project. How it came about is pure serendipity: I had coffee with my advisor from UW, who’d recently started at Google. He asked if I’d like to test out some experimental sketch-based animation software one of his summer interns was developing. I said sure, thinking I might spend an hour or two… but the software was so much fun to use, I couldn’t stop playing with it. One thing led to another, and now we have a paper in SIGGRAPH Asia 2020!

Have you ever wished you could just jot down a 3D character and animate it super quick, without all that tedious modeling, rigging and keyframing? That’s what Monster Mash is for: casual 3D animation. Here’s how it works:

Bread and Butter Pickles

When life gives you gherkins, you make bread-and-butter pickles. At least, that’s what I’ve been doing. I started with this recipe, but as usual, had to modify it based on what we happened to have in our spice rack. I made a few rookie moves, like using the mandoline bare-handed (and let me tell you, that’s a mistake you’ll only make once. Those things are vicious!) But the pickles are so worth it. Sweet and spicy, great with a sandwich, or just straight out of the jar in your pyjamas (not that I’d ever do that, no sir.)

Four gherkins picked fresh from the vine.
These fresh gherkins have an amazing flavor, almost sweet, even the weird-looking yellow ones.
Sliced gherkins in a bowl.
Finally got an excuse to use the zigzag blade on the mandoline!
Spices and vinegar in the saucepan.
Cinnamon, turmeric, clove, cardamom, mustard seed, white peppercorns, chili flakes.
Gherkins and onions simmering in the pickling syrup.
3 pint jars of bread-and-butter pickles.
Two 5-inch gherkins, with 1/2 cup of pickling syrup, will just about fill one pint jar.

Growing and shrinking

Some gherkins grow, others shrink…

Our new hand-built garden enclosure seems to be doing its job perfectly: we used wire mesh (or hardware cloth as the pros call it) with 1/2″ holes, too small for rats and mice to crawl through, but still plenty of room for the bees that have been happily pollinating our cucumber flowers.

Vegetable gardening and timelapse photography turn out to be an amazingly good match, because they both seem to make me pay attention to tiny details that would otherwise escape my notice. I never thought much about male and female flowers before, but on this gherkin plant it’s really obvious which ones are which: the males have pointy petals, and the females come equipped with a proto-fruit, ready for seed. Much less obvious is how they behave after pollination: some fruits grow, some shrivel up immediately, and others grow for a while, and then seem to give up halfway and start shrinking again. (I’ve read that this last case is what happens when there are some fertilized seeds, but not enough to fill the entire fruit.)

Here’s that big gherkin from the timelapse above. It was delicious.

Dragon Wrap 360

An animated loop of the directors, producers and PDI-based crew of "How to Train Your Dragon", made from photos taken at the wrap party in March 2010.
Click the image to see the full animated GIF!

Here’s a thing that happened. Remember that crazy accidental stereo photo that we shot at the LA wrap party for “How to Train Your Dragon”, back in 2010? Well, not long after that, we had a second wrap party in Palo Alto, for the PDI part of the crew. At one point I was talking with Chris Sanders, and I showed him that stereo photo from the other party. His eyes got really big, and his inner ten-year-old, always very close to the surface but particularly so in that moment, looked at me very seriously and said “we have to do this again… right now… with EVERYBODY HERE!” Without any kind of plan, we just snapped into action, moving tables, herding animators, passing on instructions in a game of telephone as everyone gathered in a big circle with Chris, Dean, Bonnie and Bruce in the middle. Cameras and phones out and ready, on a count of three, we all snapped a shot– as simultaneously as a crowd of reveling filmmakers can manage (which turns out to be not simultaneous at all, but hey, we’ll fix it in post!) I got everyone to email me their photos the next day, and spent way too many hours truing them up over the following weeks. I even did some very bad morphing at one point. I never quite got it to a state that felt good enough to share, so this sat on my hard drive for the better part of a decade without anybody seeing it.

But the third chapter in the trilogy comes out today! So in honor of that, and all the amazing artists who were there in that room nine years ago, and the many others who have worked on these movies before and since, here it finally is, in the form of an animated GIF: Dragon Wrap 360!

Photos by: Jennifer Yip, Craig Rittenbaum, Kathy Altieri, Craig Ring, Gil Zimmerman, Andy Wheeler, Susan Hayden, Ronman Ng, Melanie Cordan, Jennifer Dahlman, Rebecca Huntley, Ben Andersen, Janet Breuer, John Batter, Andrew Pearce, Katrina Conwright, Toshi Otsuka, Lou Dellarosa, Nara Youn, Michel Kinfoussia, Kevin Andrus, Dave Torres, Michael Baula, Tanner Owen, Karen Dryden, April Henley, Kate Spencer, Cassidy Curtis, Ron Pucherelli, Scott LaFleur, Simon Otto, and Dane Stogner.

Polarized Rainbow!

Maybe this should have been obvious, but it took me totally by surprise: rainbows are made entirely of polarized light! (I’m guessing this is because of how the light bounces off the insides of the raindrops on its way back to you.) So if you put on polarized lenses (like some sunglasses) and tilt your head sideways, you can make them disappear— or make them look twice as bright against the non-polarized sky!

Inflatable Nudibranch Halloween Costume

After years of not doing anything particularly special for Halloween, this year we decided to start early and actually make our own costumes. Of course our plans were way too ambitious, so despite the fact that we started in August, by Halloween morning only one of our three costumes was actually finished.

photo by Jerry Kirkhart from Los Osos, Calif. – Spanish Shawl, CC BY 2.0

The idea: inflatable nudibranchs.  Nudibranchs (aka sea slugs) are marine invertebrates with incredible, psychedelic designs. If they look like something from a science fiction book cover, that may be because the designers of sci-fi aliens have been quietly stealing ideas from nudibranchs for decades.

I’d never made anything inflatable before, and barely ever used a sewing machine, so I learned a lot on this project. The material we used is this incredibly lightweight but sturdy stuff called 1-ounce calendered HyperD diamond ripstop nylon.  (I chose this particular kind based on one negative review where a customer had made a quilt, and complained that it was hard to stuff into a sack because it kept trapping air inside it. Which was of course exactly what we wanted it to do!)

We did a lot of experiments to figure out the mechanics of inflatable structures.  It’s pretty hard to visualize what 3D shape you’ll get from a bunch of flat parts until you’ve stitched them all together and filled it up with air. (Although I did find some interesting graphics research that solves the inverse problem!)

Body front (D1) nudibranch head, front and back point of failure

The trickiest part was figuring out how to attach the costume to a person’s body.  With most inflatable costumes you can buy in stores, your whole body goes inside the inflated part of the costume, with just your hands and feet sticking out of elastic cuffs. This seemed like it’d be really hot and uncomfortable over a long night of running around trick-or-treating.  So I made ours an outside-the-body design, with two belts of nylon webbing to attach to your torso, and a drawstring hood for your head. We found it wasn’t hard to rip the ripstop nylon at the point of attachment to the straps, so I reinforced those areas with a second layer, based loosely on how sails are reinforced at the clew.

Without quilting around the fringe, the body puffed up into a gigantic potato. And the orange cerata looked more like a cow’s udder.

Fringe quilting detailOne part I’m pretty happy with is the quilting of the blue fringe around the body. Without it, the body puffed up into a big potato shape. But I stitched in a pattern of alternating lines to make a little zigzag maze for the air to flow through. The result was a pretty decent match for the crinkly fringe of a real nudibranch’s foot.

The air blower is mounted in the ventral side of the body, below the waist so it would have a chance at clear airflow. And for illumination we ran two strands of LED fairy lights down the interior, from the tips of the blue cephalic tentacles down to the tail. This was okay, but not perfect: I would have preferred to light up more of the orange cerata sticking off the back. (The lighting was pretty rushed, and definitely something I’d like to do better next time…)


By now I am completely hooked on this inflatable costume idea. Which is good, because I’ve still got my own blue water dragon nudibranch costume to finish… but that’ll have to wait ’til next year!

Photo by Sylke Rohrlach from Sydney – Blue dragon-glaucus atlanticus, CC BY-SA 2.0