Raytraced Toilet

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Raytraced Toilet

Ali mohammad

“The Utah teapot is like the Wilhelm scream of 3D objects.”

Interview by L. Valena

Would you please describe to me what you responded to?

Yeah. I got this photograph which looked like maybe a darkroom or something and it had a bathroom in the background.

And what was your initial reaction?

Well, I wasn’t sure what was going on in the picture, I had to think about it a lot. I thought the lighting was really interesting, so it took me a lot of time to decide what to do. Thinking about how I was going to respond to this image sort of pulled me in a particular direction.

Have you done a lot of 3D modeling before?

No, not a whole lot. When I was an undergrad a million years ago I used to do scientific visualization, so like 3D rendering of a molecular structure or nanocrystal or whatever. But that’s not at all an object that a person would recognize. So that was kind of what was fun for me, was exploring lighting and making a toilet… and things like that.

Yeah, when you sent this in you said something about exploring your perception of light. Can you talk to me some more about that?

The interesting thing about the image is figuring out where the light is and what the light looks like. Because you’ve got these really nice soft shadows in the back, and it’s a little bit crisper in the front. And also it’s all red. I had a really hard time getting the red to work- I think in the end I just gave up. I wound up, just to put in a dash of red, I had this glass thing, just to see what that would do, also just to bring that color in. But getting the shape and texture of the shadow was the interesting part for me.

And you also mentioned these ‘classic 3D objects’... talk to me about that.

So, have you seen a Utah teapot before? The teapot that I have there on the toilet?


Okay, so this is one of the first common, everyday objects that was 3D rendered. It’s some professor, who bought a teapot, wrote down coordinates for the surface, and published them. And it’s everywhere. If you look at things that are 3D rendered you’ll see that teapot all over the place. I think the first time I saw it on the big screen was in Toy Story, the teapot is just like randomly put in there. It’s like the Wilhelm scream of 3D objects.

It’s the well known what of 3D objects?*

You know the Wilhelm scream? There’s this scream, it’s a sampled sound effect that just shows up, it’s just like ridiculously over the top, and you’ve definitely heard it before! It’s in a million movies, but until you listen to the sample alone, you probably haven’t noticed that it’s everywhere. But the Utah teapot is like the Wilhelm scream of 3D objects. I remember I saw the teapot in this music video the other day. It’s just.. everywhere. So I thought it would be a fun thing to throw in. And especially to try another finish, so I made it really chrome. And then the square checkerboard, it’s just an interesting pattern that sets the stage well- it keeps the lines really well described. And then a chess piece-  I thought a chess piece would be just a nice, interesting thing to do out of glass, and again to get that red in there.

What is it about the photo that you were given, why is it that the perception of light and 3D modeling were things that you jumped to?

The [subject] itself is mundane- it’s just a toilet! It’s really the color and the light that are the interesting part. When I started, I thought I would try to capture all the detail- and I started looking at it really carefully. There’s a trashcan with a hand written sign, and all kinds of little things. But at the end, it was the light that I thought was more interesting. I think that’s why.

*[Editor's note: Since differences in communication and crossed signals are part of what this project is all about, I think it is hilarious that I misheard 'Wilhelm scream' as 'well known scream'. I honestly didn't know about the Utah teapot or the Wilhelm scream until this conversation, because apparently I live under a rock. Thanks Ali for the links, and for reminding me once again how complex, strange and unknown this world is!- LRV]

Call Number: M2VA | M3VA.moRa

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Ali Mohammad is interested in lots of stuff and likes to build and to learn.  At the moment, he's experimenting with coffee. Ali is from Iraq, Kansas and Cambridge (in that order) and has a doctorate in artificial intelligence from MIT.