Flyover Zone's Highlights in 2022
Interview with our Historic Art Director, Mohamed Abdelaziz 
As we conclude 2022, we at Flyover Zone look back on a year filled with major accomplishments, and we wish all our readers a VERY HAPPY NEW YEAR!
  • June 20: Launch of Flyover Zone’s Virtual Museum. See it here
  • June 21: Launch of Yorescape 1.0. See it here
  • June 21: Launch on Yorescape of “Athens Reborn: Acropolis”
  • June 21: Launch on Yorescape of “Mesoamerica Reborn: Tenochtitlan”
  • June 21: Launch on Yorescape of “Rome Reborn: Pantheon” (remastered)
  • June 28: Launch on Yorescape of “Egypt Reborn: Tomb of Ramesses VI”
  • August 1: Lothar Altringer assumes directorship of Flyover Zone’s Virtual Museum
  • September 26: Press conference to announce completion of the digitization of the Farnese Collection in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples
  • October 26:  Launch on Yorescape of “Rome Reborn: Baths of Caracalla”
  • November 10-12: Flyover Zone sponsors the annual meeting of Cultural Heritage and New Technologies (CHNT) in Vienna
  • December 16: Delivery of fifteen models of art digitized by Flyover Zone for the Art Institute of Chicago
  • December 24: Launch on Yorescape of “Great Monuments: Casino Aurora”
Flyover Zone’s virtual tours take you across space and back in time to see sites and monuments as they appeared in pristine condition. To make the ruins spring to life, we create digital reconstructions. The first step in any project is recruiting one or more experts on the sites—people who have been studying and writing about the remains for many years and whose hypotheses of restoration are, therefore, as authoritative as possible. The experts first work with our 3D modeling team led by Lasha Tskhondia. Once the site model is finished, it passes to Mohamed Abdelaziz, our Director of Historic Art. He adds the finishing touches of surface finish and furnishings. In the case of classical sites, the latter include sculptural decoration. Our goal is always to give you an experience which is as historically accurate and photorealistic as possible.
A picture containing text, personDescription automatically generatedThe year 2022 saw the completion of two magna opera to which Mohamed made critical contributions: “Athens Reborn: Acropolis” and “Rome Reborn: Baths of Caracalla.” To give you a quick sense of how central his work on each was, just consider that every relief and statue seen on the Acropolis tour was created by Mohamed, sometimes (as in the case of the Great Bronze of Athena, the destroyed Parthenon metopes, or the friezes of the Temple of Athena Nike) working with reference material that was entirely 2D (for example, line drawings). For the Baths of Caracalla, the same can be said, and for this project he had to truly show his graphic prowess when he created the 3D model of the “Scylla Group (Sperlonga Type)” inspired entirely from 2D schematic drawings published by Andreae and Bertolin. Most amazing of all, he made this brilliant work of digital art in just three days!
We recently caught up with Mohamed, who kindly consented to grant us an interview.
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Where were you born? Alexandria, Egypt.
Where did you attend college and what did you study? I studied Egyptology at Alexandria University.
When did you get interested in archaeology? Like many Egyptians, I am passionate about my country’s history. So, enrolling in the university gave me a unique opportunity to study the language and art of our ancient civilization.
When did you get interested in 3D technology? This happened after I had graduated from university in 2011. I started to take courses on 3D in general and then specifically on modeling, materials, lighting, and rendering using 3D Studio Max and V-Ray. After finishing these courses, I got a job at the Ministry of Egyptian Antiquities. There, I had the opportunity to apply my 3D skills to help revive our cultural heritage in Alexandria, starting with the ancient lighthouse (Pharos), one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. This caught the attention of several colleagues in the Ministry, since at that time it was not at all common for an archaeologist to have 3D modeling skills. I learned about photogrammetry in 2012 and enrolled in a workshop at the Cyprus Institute about how to use this powerful tool of 3D data capture. Through my work at the Ministry, I was able to take many courses on photogrammetry. Before I knew it, I was considered enough of an expert to be invited to give lectures on the topic at Athens, France, and Cyprus. Then, in June 2013, the French mission in Alexandria (CEAlex) put me in charge of 3D data processing of the photogrammetric images they were collecting to document the remains of the Pharos that today are underwater. So, in the past ten years since leaving the university, I have learned a variety of 3D skills, techniques, and applications.
What are your duties at Flyover Zone? I restore ancient statues to their ancient appearance. This usually entails taking one of Flyover Zone’s 3D models showing the current condition of the monument (what we call a “state model”), repairing surface damage, supplementing missing parts (for example a nose or a finger), and repainting the surface in the case of white marble sculpture. Once this has been done, I optimize the resulting “restoration model” so that it can be added to the site model we create for the time travel part of our virtual tours. By the way, you can see over 1,000 of our company’s “state models” in Flyover’s Virtual Museum (click here). Sometimes, though, we do not have a state model: there is just 2D documentation of a damaged or destroyed monument.
I also have other duties, such as creating animations (video flythroughs of our site models), rigging avatars so we can pose them as needed in our tours, doing photogrammetric shoots both on the ground and from the air using drones. I am also skilled at using laser scanners for 3D data capture, although Flyover Zone has thus far not called on this expertise.
How important is photorealism as a value driving your work at Flyover Zone?
3D photorealistic rendering of complex, reconstructed heritage sites is not easy to achieve. For a young company such as ours still trying to establish its reputation, I would connect photorealism to another value held dear by Flyover Zone: scientific accuracy of the information presented on a tour or in the Virtual Museum. Just as our products must get their facts straight and reflect the latest thinking of experts, so, too, they must look realistic, not fake.
A picture containing graphical user interfaceDescription automatically generatedWhat was your most challenging photogrammetric project, and why? One of the challenges of scanning an object is determining how to position it to capture it from every angle. Sometimes, it is already in the middle of open space around which I can move as I take my photographs. At other times, though, it is very close to a wall or another object, making it difficult to get the shots needed to cover one area or side. Another challenge can be the material of which the object is made. Some materials (for example, plaster of Paris used in old sculptural casts) are very cooperative with photogrammetry and other forms of 3D data capture such as laser scanning. Others are not cooperative at all. Here is think, especially, of highly reflective objects made of shiny metal.
You asked about my most challenging project. I would say that it was capturing and modeling the “Two Garnitures for Field and Foot Tourney” in the Art Institute of Chicago. The materials included shiny metal, and they are displayed close to a wall and could not easily be moved in the gallery. Luckily, there was just enough room to get good coverage of the parts near the wall. For the metallic parts, I used cross polarized photography. This is a capture technique used to filter out specular reflectance from an image. With the specular light removed, you are left with a flat, diffuse color, which is well suited for texturing and re-lighting the 3D models. The initial results were surprisingly good. However, I still needed to refine the model using Zbrush.
Graphical user interface, websiteDescription automatically generatedWhat was your most challenging project of site detailing, and why? Without doubt, the biggest challenge the company asked me to confront was detailing the entire Athenian Acropolis. The project took over one year to complete and required me to collaborate with four main experts on the Acropolis. What made this so time-consuming was the great amount of sculptural decoration. For example, working with Prof. Kathy Schwab, I had to make restoration models of all the metopes of the Parthenon for which we have either physical remains or at least drawings by Jacques Carrey made thirteen years before Morosini blew up the Parthenon in 1687. Even in the case of the many surviving metopes, for which we had state models thanks to a cooperative agreement with the Skulpturhalle in Basel, I had to reconstruct many of the scenes from scratch based on Kathy’s wonderful drawings, since the overwhelming majority are so damaged that they did not furnish a good starting point for strictly digital restoration.
Do you enjoy working with archaeological experts on the sites you help to recreate? Yes, I always learn a lot from them about their modes of approaching the problems posed by their material. I love their concern for the smallest details. I always come to perceive things I had always seen but never paid much attention to. For example, Henning Burwitz, our contact at the German Archaeological Institute, Berlin for the Baalbek Reborn project, trained my eye to be very attentive to the seams between ashlars. On all the projects I have worked on since, I make sure to get those seams right!
Looking ahead two or three years, what advance in technology do you think will take your work for Flyover Zone to a new level of photorealism and historical accuracy? I am placing my bet on real-time ray-traced graphics. Being able to explore, interact with, and change a scene in real time can shorten workflows, speed up the time needed to obtain a finished image, and make it easier for our end users to understand and interact with even our most complex sites and monuments.
Thank you very much, Mohamed, and Happy New Year!
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