"A Slight Upgrade" is a 3D animation project rendered out to a true resolution of 4K that was created in the last semester of the Digital Design Graphics Technology program at Napa Valley College. It was produced with intensive 3D modeling of the V-8 engine parts in Autodesk Inventor, animated with Autodesk 3ds Max, and edited in Adobe Premiere and After Effects.

Choosing the Model

The model chosen was a small, deeply detailed plastic model of a V-8 Engine.

Modeling in Inventor

The physical model V-8 Engine was composed of more than 250 intricate parts. Our team then took these parts and modeled them in Autodesk Inventor using a reverse engineering process: we measured the dimensions of the parts with calipers and then built digital 3D parts from our measurements. The parts were then put together in an assembly and checked for errors or interferences and modifications were made as neccesary.

Animating in 3ds Max

After the assembled V-8 Engine was modeled in Inventor, it was imported into Autodesk 3ds Max for animation. Materials were assigned to the engine with the goal of making it look realistic and polished. After we completed our animations for our individual sequences, we rendered out the frames as targa files in 4K. The targa file format was chosen as it supports alpha channels, which renders with transparency so we can finalize our background post-production, and it is uncompressed.

The project was simplified into four sequences, one for every member of the group. Sequence one covers the introduction of the video, beginning with the opening shot of the 3-Piston Engine blueprints and ending when the assembled engine touches down. The fan, desk, and engine were all constructed in Autodesk Inventor, while the papers were made in 3ds Max. The fan and engine were rigged in 3ds Max, the first using a simple rotation constraint, the latter utilizing a bone structure.

Sequence two consists of the V-8 engine dropping on top of the 3-Piston Engine and crushing it. The “crushing” effect was created in 3ds Max using a bomb to explode the 3-Piston Engine. The sounds and smoke / sparks effects were added post-production in Adobe Premiere and After Effects.

Sequence three includes the animation of the V-8 Engine and all of its internal moving parts. This animation was done by using 3ds Max tools such as Bone Systems, Wire Parameters, and Linking. After rendering, the files were ready for video editing and compositing.

Sequence four encompasses the explosion of the V-8 Engine into individual parts. This animation was produced using advanced scripting in 3ds Max. A script was associated with the V-8 engine so that the timing (and other parameters) could be configured to make the flying out of all the little parts occur with favorable results. The DDGT logo coming out from behind the exploded engine was created by using the Adobe Compositor Link between the 3ds Max and the After Effects software packages. This allowed us to work in the same 3D environment post-production.

Video Editing/Compositing

Targa files were rendered out of 3ds Max in 4K resolution. The renders were then imported into Adobe Premiere to be mixed with sounds effects and music tracks. For Sequence three, to achieve the ability to fade the parts in and out during post-production, the animated sequence had to be rendered out multiple times with different visibility states (setting the visibility of parts on or off). All of the rendered files were then layered and key-framed with changing opacity levels for the final product post-production.

Web Design

This website was created to showcase our final project. It uses HTML and CSS coding and was built with Adobe Dreamweaver. The graphics of this website were designed in Photoshop with the design principles of minimalism in mind. The goal was to create a modern, clean, professional feel.


Two custom made music tracks were created and arranged in GarageBand using Apple Loops. Multiple sound effects were collected from the internet to further enhance the audio. The audio and video were further edited to create synchronous timing.

Outline / Storyboards

The idea for our story was written out as an outline and refined through multiple revisions. Once the scope of the story was more polished, we created storyboards, drawn out on white paper by hand. The storyboards were then scanned and placed into Adobe Premiere as place holders for our final rendered frames. You can see the original storyboards in the video below

File Management / Backups

It was vital to the success of the project to maintain proper file management and proper backups. It was essential that all group members had a clear understanding of where to save their files, and were to work from, to prevent confusion or possible loss of work. A duplicate of the master project file was backed up on a regular basis to an external drive. Once a week, a new iteration with the current date was saved as a new backup to create a “history”. This allowed us to go back in case files were lost or corrupted.

Gantt Chart

Essentially, a Gantt Chart is a project schedule. It allows you to see what tasks can be worked on independently and what tasks need to be created sequentially. It also allows you to adjust the timing of your project to meet milestones when you get ahead on some tasks or behind on others. The Gantt chart was built in Microsoft Excel and was later printed out roughly 3’ x 6’. The printout was placed on the wall at the front of the classroom so the group knew when certain tasks of the project needed to be completed. The Gantt chart really allowed us to stay on track and helped to prevent us from falling behind. Without a Gantt chart that tracked our weekly goals, this project may have not succeeded as well as it did.

Team Effort

This project was created by Alex Kuykendall, Douglas Bendaña, John Bolla, and Linnea Carr. Our instructor, Gary Strommen, and his assistant, Jim Kisiel, provided invaluable support. Mr. Strommen knew that he had limited time to oversee the project so he assigned us to nominate a Project Leader from a member of the group. We unanimously voted Alex as our Project Leader. Alex did a tremendous job, often placing the needs of other members over his own, to keep the project moving forward and on schedule.

Struggles of the Project

Initially there were concerns as to whether the project was overly ambitious and unrealistic given our current skill level and time allotment.

Modeling and assembling the parts in Inventor took up far more time than expected, which caused us to fall behind on our Gantt chart in certain areas. Some of the parts were fairly easy to model while others were far more complicated and needed several educated guesses for it to work. Part of the model required that we design two mating gears that were driven by the Crankshaft. These gears were quite challenging to create due to simplicity of the plastic model. Additional research had to be done to create a more detailed, accurate gear train.

Modeling, rigging, and animating an assembly of this scope as a group required us to overcome a major learning curve. Until this project, all previous assignments were smaller in scope and worked on individually. Despite the struggles, we were able to work through all the errors we ran into through teamwork and the needed guidance from our instructor and his assistant.

There were many other hurtles we had to overcome throughout this project. Several programs were very temperamental and did not always act reliable across multiple computers. While rigging the assembly in 3ds Max, we encountered several hang ups to the flow of the project. We had to remodel the pulley drives so that they were in an appropriate belt ratio of 2:1, went through several designs of bone structures to get the Rocker Arms and Intake and Exhaust Valves to work, and remodeled the Camshaft to allow the Push Rods to animate properly.

The department also received new computers halfway through the semester and had them installed right in the middle of a project – something that is typically avoided. There were a few glitches that needed to be addressed with the new computers but overall, the additional computing power increased the productivity of everyone and we were able to be the first class to render out at 4K!