In June 2019, Montreal’s Old Port welcomed the PY1 pyramid, an immersive multimedia show imagined by Guy Laliberté, that transports you into a technological odyssey through space and time. Every night, a different show is presented in the form of 3D lasers, with seven distinct themes: Candyworld, Underworld, Astral Plane, Pop, Sci-matic, Eyewonder, and Taboo.
We spoke with Pieterjan Ruysch, the laser artist and content creator behind PY1; he shares his journey working on the project, with 3ds Max in his toolbox.
Learning 3ds Max… for laser art
I believe everyone has their own unique story with 3ds Max. For me it was in high school, where I explored my interest in animation and mechanical engineering – I absolutely loved robotics and machines that I could pick up, hold, and analyze. It was also at this point where I found out that the lasers coming from these machines were not just plain old lasers; I learned that you could use software and literally draw your own pictures along with animation sequences.
During this time, I had access to an educational license of Autodesk 3ds Max. I think this initiative is such an awesome opportunity that allows young people find a love for 3D design at a young age. I eventually found this plugin by Pangolin Laser Systems and contacted them. Unfortunately, being a 16-year-old kid, money was a bit of an issue, so it wasn’t exactly accessible to me. On top of that, the content creation process for laser art required specific hardware to run, so I couldn’t even do a trial.
Over time, I built up knowledge and interest in laser content which grabbed the attention of Pangolin. I had both artistic and technical knowledge which not many people had, and this interested them. They decided to invest in me and eventually, I worked up the ladder to work with them. As the software evolved, I also evolved with them.
The new PY1 Pyramid is built
I got wind of PY1 back in February, 3-4 months before I started working on it in June. I heard it was moving from place to place but I had very few details about it. They really wanted to keep it under wraps so not much was made public. The process of me coming onboard happened fast. While I was in LA, I was working on Coachella, but as soon as I finished, I was on a plane heading to Montreal.
When I got to the location, that’s when I started doing my work, which is when everything became official. It’s a high-tech tent that can fold up or be filled with large amounts of equipment. There is a large server room inside that moves into a ship to get from location to location. They own the equipment which utilize the lasers, so whenever they needed maintenance to the show itself (anything art-related), that’s where I would come in. I’d fix the problem, then I would get back to other work.
There were many departments that made up the team: the 360 videos were done by the video department, and the kinetic lights were done by the kinetics department. The kinetic lights were used to make shapes midair, where they would drop down and create shapes based on the night's theme.
The laser department and mechanical department is where I played a key role. My job was to program and create the lasers and graphics. The script shutdown sequence and calibration sequence were all prepared by us. Once all of that was done, we sat down and created a large manual on how to operate the show. The calibration sequence needed to be run every day, and our team stayed with the group until we felt that they could operate things without our help.
The technology behind PY1
I first started working as an intern at Pangolin Laser Systems – they developed the laser software that is used to build the content for PY1. After my internship, I stayed on, doing some freelance work creating the content for the event.
I used 3ds Max, specifically a plugin called LC MAX, to create the laser show. It’s a 3D renderer for 3ds Max that transforms creations into what we call laser content. These renders are a vector animation similar to Flash, however the difference is that we use a mechanical device to project the image. This isn’t a typical video projector nor a laser projector.
One big drawback to learning different tools is that time isn’t always your friend – especially when you’re on a deadline. There are moments where people just need things to get done, so when there would be food breaks, I would skip them as I wanted to make sure the product was the best it could be. At times, the Directors would come over to see what I was working on during the break, and instantly wanted the content to be in the show.
When it comes to 3D laser models, a challenge is that the designs must be super clean. Things that you would normally not see due to color, such as blending, you now suddenly see because it's grabbing a silhouette, or it's seeing the creases in a model, and seeing things that are overlapping incorrectly.
Due to the technology relying on a mechanical device, it has its limitations as to what it can show and produce. The machine has two motors which pivot to help steer the beam. Speed is also a constraint as the machine can only move so fast.
An inspirational community
I find a lot of people in the community are very inspiring, many being students working with Autodesk education licenses. As students, they just take the time to experiment and mess around, and sometimes they accidentally create these amazing things that define their learning, and it’s just so inspiring to watch. Even beginners who think on such a different level blow me away with what they can create.
It’s great to see that 3ds Max is putting a focus on community feedback, where people can voice their concerns and where they can be actioned on by the development team. Nowadays, everyone can connect quickly and it’s super important that the developers are open to hearing out creators like myself.
As someone coming from a technical background, I slowly started to learn the artist part of me as I grew with 3ds Max. I’ve been doing this for 10 years now, and it’s all about experimenting and seeing what you can do with what you’ve got.
“Nowadays, everyone can connect quickly and it’s super important that the developers are open to hearing out creators like myself.”
A 3ds Max artist through and through
I am a dedicated 3ds Max user through and through. The 3D portions were made with 3ds Max and even a portion of the 2D images. For example, some of the content in the show that used 3ds Max consisted of a cat with laser beams coming out of its hands, and these talismans, which were also manufactured and handed out during the event to extend the effect.
Each theme night needed different colors, so one of my responsibilities was to create code that the lighting team could use to easily adjust the mood and create beautiful sequences. Using Mini Clock, which follows beats per minute of music tempos, the lasers were able to read the tempo and change with it.
The best part – at least for me in 3ds Max – is the power of third-party support. There are so many exotic renderers like Pencil+4 that I use in my day to day, along with the laser renderer Illustrate which I originally started tinkering with. Because I started off with 3ds Max, I got used to the interface, and it has become second nature to me at this point, and I don’t want to use anything else. Over time, while spending many hours in the program, I got to see many things change which has been awesome. My favorite tool would have to be the new line tool, which allows you to draw directly onto mesh.
Pieterjan Ruysch is considered one of the best laser graphics creators and has worked with numerous artists such as Pink Floyd and on large events such as Coachella.