Set construction and “scary math”

posted by Megan
May 23, 2014

In which Megan talks about stage design and facing down her fear of mathematics.

There’s something you need to know about me: I did not become an artist to do math.

I mean, I was a pretty smart kid and all, but numbers (and crunching them) did not come easy to me. In fact, I hated math so much that at one point I actually decided against a potential career I liked, just to avoid it.

Now, granted, this was a younger me. It was only a few years after I’d given up hope that I’d be able to turn “be a mermaid” into a viable occupation. (Of course, had anyone informed me of the existence of Weeki Wachee Springs prior to setting out for college, my career path would almost certainly have been completely different.)

Megan's career goal, ages 5-8

Megan’s career goal, ages 5-8

Mermaids set aside for the moment; eleven-year-old Megan thought architecture was fascinating. It seemed fun! I enjoyed looking at old houses and walking through the newly constructed homes in the neighborhood as they were framed in. It looked like an architect would be as fulfilling a career as a middle school student could imagine. Soon, I was spending hours sitting on the computer with basic design software, creating floor plans for fictional homes and offices.

So, it wasn’t completely out of nowhere when one day my father, the engineer, brought out the blueprints to our house.

Disclaimer: not actual blueprints of my parent’s house.

Disclaimer: not actual blueprints of my parent’s house.

I was captivated by how the walls and corners I knew so well were rendered into precise 2-dimensional detail. How exciting to see something I had a real-world reference for!

But then things took a turn. I noticed the other notations all over each page: numbers. Lots of them.

A niggling thought appeared in the back of my mind.

“Sure seems like there’s a lot of” *shudder* “math involved here.”

Well, yes! My dad agreed. And he explained how you needed to calculate for things like the thickness of the walls and the weight of a second story and the riser height of a staircase and a many other interesting and intimidating other things.

“Huh. So um, what’s this over here then?” I asked, pointing at some symbols I’d never encountered in my Windows 95 compatible design software.

Very advanced design software, as you can see.

Very advanced design software, as you can see.

“Oh, you mean the plumbing!”

As the sinking feeling in my gut grew, he went on to describe how you had to plan for not only the pipes, but also HVAC ductwork and electrical wiring. Had I been more mechanically inclined, I probably would have dedicated my heart and soul to the fields of architecture and construction right then and there. As it was, I didn’t exactly back away slowly, so much as I turned tail and ran away.

I fled into the open arms of cartooning and animation. (Which was regressing a bit, to be honest. If I couldn’t BE a mermaid, then I could at least draw them, right? Thanks, Disney.) There I needed only basic arithmetic to get by. And all the BIG SCARY MATH (like vectors – oh, how I hated calculus) was contained within programs like Adobe Illustrator or Cinema 4D.

Odd how this is LESS intimidating than the Pythagorean theorem

Odd how this is LESS intimidating than the Pythagorean theorem

Safe from math at last, right?

Or so I thought, until a recent project at Blue Pony had a big construction element to it, that is.

We were doing 3D and holographic projection mapping for an event at which Baker Hughes would reveal their newest oil production technology. It was a fun project where we got to break out a lot of our talents. Design, computer animation, motion graphics, compositing – the works! (As someone who loves 3D design and animation as much as 2D, I was thrilled. It’s great fun to be able to flex some muscle in Cinema 4D, not just After Effects.) We even got to design the set that would be the stage for the entire event. And that’s where the math came in.

Brandon’s initial sketch

Brandon’s initial sketch

Brandon had sketched up an interesting stage design, and Tony had mocked it up in Cinema 4D. But now Nathan needed to actually build it, and that meant computing some hard numbers.

Tony’s 3D mock up

Tony’s 3D mock up

I began by opening the file with the 3D model, but alas, the mock up wasn’t quite to scale. I began trying to tweak it, estimating measurements based on the constraints we already knew. (The middle screen would be 9’ tall by 16’ wide. The length of the stage itself was 36’, etc.) It was frustrating and nerve-wracking work. I was trying to make the program do the work for me, but the numbers it gave weren’t adding up. That eleven-year-old me that still lived in my head was pretty irritated, as she’d clearly tried to avoid this future for us.

But then, I heard the calm, collected, voice of my dad echoing in my mind, surely embedded there from years of help with frustrating algebra homework. The voice told me I was making this way too hard on myself. By trying to avoid doing the math I was driving myself bonkers and in the end, I wouldn’t get anything resembling accurate results.

So I took a deep breath, mocked up a quick blueprint, and began refreshing my memory by looking up trigonometry equations on Google.

The task begins

The task begins

The process wasn’t exactly fun, per se, but it was rewarding.

As I calculated the relevant size of each triangle in the stage design, I became more and more confident. The math made sense. Opposite angles added up to 180 degrees just as I knew they should. Without pause, I figured up the length of each side on every panel, giving Nathan the “rise-over-run” that made physical construction more straight-forward.

In the end, the stage came together perfectly and the event itself went off without a hitch. Though I didn’t have to go down to the shop and assist in the physical assembly of the set (thank goodness) it represents a little personal triumph of my own.

Final calculations

Final calculations

I managed to do something that terrified me for years. And I proved that while I might not LIKE working with numbers and math, I most certainly CAN do it. And well.

So, don’t fret, eleven-year-old Megan! Just look what we helped do:


MeganFeatured2Megan Wiegand
is a Designer at Blue Pony

Leave a Reply