The Movie Makers: Raytheon animators use Hollywood magic to bring technology to life

The camera skims low over a dazzling blue nightscape. Pulses of light zip through the city below as fiery columns plummet from the sky, exploding on impact. “Cyber attacks spread fear, disrupt commerce and leave a trail of widespread damage…” says an unseen narrator.

It looks like a landscape from the movie TRON, but overpopulated and under assault. The resemblance is not a coincidence.

At Raytheon, skilled animators use sophisticated software and Hollywood-honed techniques to illustrate complicated defense and aerospace technologies. They show what missiles look like in flight, what satellites do in space and how battles unfold on the ground. Their work shows up in everything from customer presentations to virtual engineering models and online videos. It all starts with the same basic tool: An artist’s eye.

Take that cyber attack. “How do you visualize something that only happens in a computer system and turn it into a compelling story that is informative and exciting to watch?” asked Luke Stewart, a project manager with Raytheon’s CONOPS Visualization team in Tucson, Arizona. “We turned to the world of TRON, where cyberspace was a vast network of glowing cities and fast-moving data.”

Stewart’s path to the profession began with a passion for video games. “I started taking programming classes, switched majors to 3-D animation and really fell in love with the art,” he said. “What we do is primarily an artistic endeavor. There’s a misconception that the computer does it for you. Don’t get me wrong, the computer does a lot, but if you don’t have a talented person at the helm, you’re not going to get anything worth showing.”

The video game world is one source of animation professionals. Hollywood is another. Trent Stroud and Kiel Pease, animators based in Huntsville, Alabama, came to Raytheon after working at Rhythm & Hues Studios. The California shop created Oscar-winning special effects for a number of movies, including “Life of Pi,” which featured a wholly-animated tiger and miles of empty, virtual ocean. 

Stroud helped to create the meerkat island in “Life of Pi.” Pease worked on a key visual effect: the film’s vast expanses of ocean. After performing highly specialized functions for the movies, they both now enjoy the freedom Raytheon gives them to take part in more of the creative process.

In the industry, Kiel focused on lighting and I focused on modeling. Now we kind of wear both hats,” said Stroud. “You get to do a lot of fun stuff.”

Pease also appreciates the wider scope of responsibilities. “At Raytheon, a small group of us handle the projects from start to finish,” said Pease. “With the turmoil in the [movie] industry, it just made sense to come to Raytheon.”

One of the most impressive showcases for the work of Raytheon’s animators is the Immersive Design Center located in Andover, Massachusetts. Known as the CAVE, it is a futuristic circle of screens and software that surrounds visitors with 3-D images and videos.

 “The CAVE is basically like a video game engine, except instead of looking at a screen, you’re actually in the game, walking around in the environment,” said Jim Coletta, a 3-D animator with Raytheon’s Advanced Media team.

The CAVE allows engineers to work out design challenges in a virtual environment. Coletta and other animators create 3-D versions of structures and parts that designers can manipulate in real time, even moving inside software versions of rooms and structures without having to create them in the real world.

I consider the value of what I do for the company is to help protect the warfighter,” he said. “We prototype stuff instead of having to build and test it. It saves the company and the customer money and gets it to the warfighter quicker.”

Coletta helped to produce a CAVE presentation to a delegation from Poland, showing how the Patriot Air and Missile Defense System would be set up in that country. Rather than create something that might look like Poland, he went to the source.

I downloaded high-resolution satellite imagery of the area in Poland and set up a virtual environment with all the Patriot equipment on the satellite image,” Coletta said. “The group at the CAVE animated a camera flying to each battalion, showing them interacting with the Patriot launchers and other equipment. They could actually grab one of the racks of electronics and pull it out to show what it’s connected to.”

Creating that level of detail is exacting work. “I love working with all the creative people, kicking around ideas and watching a storyboard mature into a 3-D animation, Coletta said. “It’s time-consuming and sometimes tedious, but the payoff is a great feeling of accomplishment.”


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