Employee Q&A: Virtual Reality Photographer Gary Mackender

Employee Q&A: Virtual Reality Photographer Gary Mackender

By Alexis BlueUniversity Commmunications
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Gary Mackender worked as a touring musician and artist before starting at the UA.
Gary Mackender worked as a touring musician and artist before starting at the UA.

Gary Mackender

Location Supervisor, Virtual Reality Annex

Number of years at the UA

Favorite part about working at the UA
"I feel like I've been fortunate to be surrounded by smart and happy people who like their jobs as well."


Gary Mackender isn't your ordinary photographer. In his position as location supervisor at the UA's Virtual Reality Annex, he snaps still photos, yes. But those photos are then pieced together using computer software to create virtual reality "movies" that allow viewers to study objects and locations from all angles simply by moving their mouse.

Through the movies, one can rotate a piece of pottery on a computer screen to view it from all sides or scroll for a 360-degree view of Arizona Stadium.

It's not the kind of virtual reality that requires goggles, but it does provide for a more extensive look at objects than a standard two-dimensional photo would allow.

Mackender, who once made a living as an artist and a touring musician, was a nondegree-seeking student worker at the UA in 2001 when the VR Annex opened his doors. It was then he was asked to put his background in photography to work and try his hand at virtual photography for the first time.

Mackender has now made several movies, viewable on the VR Annex Web site, that can be used by University departments with permission. When he's not making his own movies he's helping UA students, faculty and staff, who can access VR Annex services for free, to create their own movies for classroom presentations or other academic endeavors.

Formerly part of the Office of Student Computing Resources, or OSCR, the VR Annex moved to a new location in the Integrated Learning Center this semester and it is now under the UA's newly created Office of Instruction and Assessment.

Mackender stepped out from behind the lens to talk to Lo Que Pasa about his work with a not-so-traditional form of photography that has seen significant advancements in recent years.

You make object movies and panorama movies. What is the difference?
(With an object movie) you can take an object, put it on a platform and move the platform around and shoot (still) shots from various angles. Then you put them all together almost like a flip book (using a software program) ... so that when you scroll through it in the (QuickTime) movie viewer you can move (your mouse) in any direction to allow yourself to see all the way around the object. ... The panorama movies are more about viewing your environment, so we place a camera in a given environment and we turn the camera rather than turning the object. ... We will stitch those (images) together with pixels in a program called Autodesk Stitcher.  We've had students from archaeology use them for site analysis. We also do it in our community outreach. We shoot a lot of historical sites in the Tucson community and beyond, as well as geological sites, such as Kartchner Caverns.

What are some examples of how people have used the technology?
We've had an anthropology professor who brought a series of skulls – human and animal – from various time periods (to make object movies). ... It would allow any faculty member to show these (skulls) in especially large classrooms where you might not want to take an object and hand it around to everybody. You can show this projected on a screen, very large. You can zoom in on it, you can show details and move it all the way around and see all sides of a three-dimensional object.  So it's the illusion of three dimensions on a two-dimensional platform. ... We shot quite a few pots in the Southwest pottery collection at the Arizona State Museum. They have so many pots; it's the largest (collection) of Southwest pottery in the world. They can only show so many to the public at a time, so with what we've shot for them, they're able to have this (set of images) online and people can see these pots, one, instead of (them) being stored away somewhere. And, two, they can see all the way around them and inside them. Also we've shot several gallery installations at the CCP (Center for Creative Photography) and this gives them an archive of how they set up these exhibits and what pieces were in them. We've also done this with ... the Arizona State Museum (and the UA Museum of Art). 

What are the main benefits of using VR photography?
It's a way of viewing environments and objects without having to, perhaps, go there. And there are so many people now, especially students, who get most of their information on the computer or even on the phone so this is a way to bring more information to them virtually.

What's the most interesting movie you've done?
I got a hold of Herb Stratford down at the Fox Theatre when they were renovating the place and got in there at a point when they had pretty much just dug up everything in the interior. We started taking pictures once a month until they were finished. We'd go to the same spots each time so month to month you could see the progress through the whole thing.

You did something similar with the Student Recreation Center expansion?
The idea there is to show, like we did with Fox, the steps (in the construction process). So the first one we did was when the building was basically a skeleton. ... Then we went over a few weeks ago and shot it with it being finished.  ... We hope to do more of that kind of thing for any sort of new, important building that the University's doing, sort of create a visual record.

What do you like best about your job?
I love that I am able to make a living using photography and the skills that I love and have known for years and also (to) be able to work in technology. There's always something new to learn and we're fortunate to have the resources here.

What's your background in photography?
I have a BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts degree) from the University of Kansas in photography and printmaking and I've shot thousands of photographs.

Do students and employees make their own movies or do you do it for them?
It depends on their needs. What I encourage is to teach them, is to show them how to do this, because it is accessible. But if it's something that's a little bit beyond their reach or is a little bit too complex, we do the work in house. It's a free service.

What's the procedure if they want to do it themselves?
We do have a Gear-to-Go (equipment rental) program. I have a certain amount of still cameras and I have the tripods and what are called VR heads. ... I'll train them here, and I can usually tell what their level of understanding is pretty quickly. If they have an understanding of how the camera works they're 75 percent home.  ... We have the software for all of this available in the Multimedia Zone, which is in the OSCR Lab. ... I also have a pretty robust tutorial on my Web site that they can click on that'll walk them through.

Do you use a special camera?
Nope, just a regular (camera). (We use) what's known as SLR cameras. Those are single-lens reflex cameras that have detachable lenses, and (with) most of those cameras you're able to shoot in manual mode, so you can set your shutter speed and your aperture. ... An understanding of an SLR camera is pretty important because you want to shoot these in manual mode and really control your light.

Were you working in photography before you started at the UA?
I never had a job that actually paid to be a photographer before this, but I kept up my photography until maybe about 1992, and from '92 to 2000 I was a touring musician. I played (drums) in a band called The Mollys, and we toured the world. ... Before the band I basically supported myself as a musician and an artist up until I started my career staff position (at the UA) on my 50th birthday (in 2004). ... In the early '90s here in town, from '90 to '95, I was the artist on the Miracle Mile and I-10 freeway project, so there's six giant murals and a pedestrian fence. And if you see that pueblo deco design that's all up and down the interstate corridor, I did the first model for that with a big piece of wood, carved it out and sent it in and they made molds. ... I was also selling a lot of handmade jewelry and hand-painted floor cloths and paintings out of my studio. I had a studio down in the barrio.

Do you still play music?
I have my own band called the Carnivaleros that I play accordion in. ... I also have a jazz trio that I play organ in. I'm quite entrenched in the music community here in town.

Do you know someone who has an interesting job at the UA? Send his or her name and contact information to lqp@email.arizona.edu for consideration for a future Employee Q&A.

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