Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Putting Together the Whole

For this year's steelhead trout exhibit, I couldn't find many stock photos that showed the San Gabriel river, let alone ones that were large enough to cover the 40' x 4' space that I needed to cover for our steelhead mural. The initial concept from Bowman Design Group has the mural covering the journey of steelhead trout from the ocean all the way to the their freshwater homes in the upper watersheds. Since our exhibit speaks about our local southern California steelhead trout, the mural was designed to reflect that.

So, since I couldn't find any appropriate photos, I decided to take a few of my own. I visited several locations along the upper San Gabriel River and also around Malibu to take several panoramics that became part of the final image. The interesting takeaway for me is that you can never have too many photos. A lot of what wasn't used for the main part of the image was used in smaller sections of the final image, or pieces to transition from one scene to another.

The final section, from the estuaries to the ocean, was made of stock photos since I couldn't find any locations nearby that reflected what we were looking for. Making a composite image of stock photos of various sizes presented its own challenge, especially since that section was 10' tall.

Here is a short .gif showing the different layers of the final image for the section between the upper river and the estuary. It doesn't show how much work was put in to blend those layers together, but it does give you a bit of a glimpse of how many images are there to make a cohesive whole.

Here is the final image, though we did add more ocean to the left of it later. What surprised me about the final was that a lot of things I worried about, namely where transitions seemed to be glaringly obvious, were not as apparent on the actual printed mural. The 4' section goes behind the live trout exhibit, while the 10' section acts more like a backdrop for the rest of the exhibit. The total number of photos that make up this image is over 100. The final length is almost 100' wide.

One the ways you know it's a job well done is that no one really notices it and just accepts it as part of the exhibit. Mission accomplished.

New Challenges

This year, the Aquarium of the Pacific opened a new exhibit about steelhead trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss). Because I don't know a lot about steelhead, I had a lot of research to do, which mostly involved a lot of google searching. However, in this case, I had the privilege of working with the actual fisheries scientists from USFW and regional fisheries scientists, which meant I also was able to supplement my photo reference with images and input from the scientists.

One of the things I was tasked with was creating an image for the steelhead life cycle, which is exceedingly complex because all steelhead start as eggs in a freshwater stream and as they grow older they can choose to stay in the freshwater and become what we call rainbow trout or they can can transition—in a process called smoltification—into the ocean-going form known as steelhead trout. To make things even more complicated, steelhead trout transition in freshwater to rainbow trout colors, but don't become rainbow trout. And they can return to the stream year after year to spawn unlike salmon. So yes, the big takeaway is that rainbow trout and steelhead trout are the same species.

This process started out with a sketch from Rosi Dagit from RCDSMM (Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains).

The initial Illustrator/Photoshop image based off Rosi Dagit's design:

The initial design looked too complicated on reflection, so we simplified it.
Another part of the process was to send out an image of all the trout life stages to the scientists for their review. Here you can see the various notes that were given on an initial version of the illustrations and a later version of the illustrations after I'd made the changes.

Here's an image that shows a rough progress.
The first image is a rough sketch, in this case of the steelhead (ocean-going form of the rainbow trout). For the ease of changing the outlines and scale of the various stages of the trout, I did all the "inking" digitally. These are vector images drawn in Adobe Illustrator and colored in Photoshop. It's hard to see the difference between the first outline and the second, but there were minor changes in the mouth shape and a general slimming down of the overall shape, since steelhead tend to be more streamlined than rainbow trout.

Here, you can see the final image, where includes a change in the title and a more pared down look. The background of the image reflects the exhibit so I made minor modifications there as well.

Next post is a little glimpse of what it takes to create a composite photo, without it looking too Photoshopped. Visit the Aquarium of the Pacific to see the new Steelhead Trout exhibit and the new signage in person!