Un-Natural History

Although 3-D computer generated images found a home within the documentary film industry several years ago, the effect has recently enjoyed a surge in popularity. With more than a little help from the level of success won by the BBC's Walking...
August 1, 2000

Although 3-D computer generated images found a home within the documentary film industry several years ago, the effect has recently enjoyed a surge in popularity. With more than a little help from the level of success won by the BBC’s Walking With Dinosaurs, CG images have become a broadcasters’ new best friend, promising lucrative merchandising opportunities and the lure of something every commissioning editor is looking for – a fresh approach.

Natural history documentaries are no exception to this trend. Even Sir David Attenborough employed the technology in The Life of Birds, re-creating the flight of a terradactile and the look of New Zealand’s ancient moa bird. But it’s not just for representing creatures long dead; computer generated animation also offers creative ways to tell a story and enables new stories to be told.

‘People have been mad about dinos lately, but CG also works for small-scale things that can’t be seen,’ says Bertrand Loyer, a producer with French prodco Saint Thomas. Loyer is currently producing The Tick and the Bird, a 52-minute film being coproduced with France 3, that looks at parasites living within the feathers of arctic birds. Through the use of both microscopic and CG images, Loyer is able to take viewers where the human eye can never go. Zooming into the birds’ downy feathers, we see a tick’s response to a king penguin’s 500 meter dive into arctic waters, and witness another of the pests laying its eggs. CG images also enable Loyer to show what the tick offers its fowl host: ‘The tick carries Lyme disease. The shape of the Lyme virus is interesting and we’ve re-created it in graphic images. We already have an amazing sequence of a penguin dying of the disease. It’s very emotional, very dramatic footage.’

John Adams of Stroud, U.K.-based John Adams Television, is also taking advantage of the freedom from the limitations of the camera CG offers producers. His film The Future is Wild, a 13 x 30 minute series for Animal Planet U.S., travels forward 200 million years to take a sneak peek at the world and its possible inhabitants. ‘We needed to do [The Future is Wild] in 3-D animation because you want to be able to feel what the future is going to be like,’ says Adams. ‘Inherently, there’s the ability to capture the public’s imagination.’

A three-hour version of the doc will also broadcast on several European outlets including ZDF in Germany; ORF in Austria; Italy’s Mediaset and Planète in France.

Money, Money, Money

Recent changes in the cost of producing CG images has contributed to its rise in popularity among natural history filmmakers. ‘Production costs for 3-D animation have dropped quite significantly,’ says Peter Bailey, head of computer animation at 4:2:2 Bristol, which is creating the graphics for Future. ‘They’ve dropped over the past three years, but particularly in the last year – and the drop was exponential. Overall, it’s becoming more and more viable for producers to consider 3-D graphics for natural history programming.’

More precisely, the cost-to-power ratio is dropping. More powerful computers can now be purchased for less money, which means films can be made faster. Software, such as Alias Wavefront’s Maya and Microsoft’s Softimage, which are considered industry standards, are also improving. Says Bailey, ‘The problem has always been that either the hardware or the software wasn’t up to the capabilities of people [doing the animation]. Now it is, and people are able to generate much more realistic images than they were able to even two years ago.’

That said, the budgets required to pull off photo-realistic graphics are still steep. Loyer estimates every minute of 3-D images for The Tick and the Bird will cost US$17,000.

As the overall budget of the film is approximately US$530,000, the 12 minutes of animation will account for almost 40% of the budget.

Adams spent three-and-a-half years getting Future into production, partly because broadcasters shied away from the cost of such a large-scale project. About 60 minutes of CG creatures and environments are planned for Future, which has an overall budget of about US$6 million.

‘The reason it took so long was because we had to convince the world that we could make these creatures,’ explains Adams. ‘We also had to prove that we could handle the science and write credible stories. We wrote all the treatments in pre-production for both the 13 half-hours and the three one-hours. We also wrote several page profiles on about 50 animals. So, we’ve done a vast amount of work and the cost of this has been vast. The money from this program isn’t going to come from TV sales – license fees aren’t enough to pay for this project – but from everything else that goes with it. In my mind I’ve already started developing a children’s series, which will be out just after as a spin-off. I’m also working with a publisher in the U.K. on a series of books.’

Have time on your side

According to Carol Hilliard, a lead CG artist at Washington, D.C.-based Interface Media Group (IMG), time is the most costly aspect for many films involving 3-D animation. ‘It depends on the project, but there’s a lot to take care of when using 3-D animation,’ she explains.

For a sequence produced only in CG, animators need to see a storyboard and know the exact length of each shot. Segments involving filmed footage or live-action images are more complicated. Explains Sacha Bertram, a visual effects producer at H5B5 Media in Munich, ‘Storyboards need to be laid out before anything is filmed, to make sure the shot can be put together in post production. We also need to note all available camera data from the real camera so we can match it to the CG camera. That includes lens and focal length, depth of field and so on. Also, sketches for lighting should be made so the CG scene can be lit according to the real environment. For the purpose of adapting the camera moves of the CG camera to the live-action camera, reference objects need to be placed in the scene.’

When re-creating or creating animals, as is the case with Future, animators need detailed information for each creature. ‘There’s a whole range of different ways to approach your subject matter, much like in a traditional natural history film,’ says Bailey. ‘We have to be very aware of script requirements before we embark on a project because they have a huge impact on the way we create creatures. If a film looks at how a creature digs, we take more time and care over modeling the feet.

But, if it focuses on how it runs, we’re more concerned with achieving an overall look and making sure it runs in a convincing way. It’s very important when doing computer generated imagery that everybody very clearly understands, very early on, what is required.’ Bailey estimates the graphic component of Future will take 18 months to complete.

Once all this information is entered into the computer, the images then have to be rendered. This basically involves pushing a button and letting the computer do its thing, but if the image is complex or is produced in HD, it can take several hours to complete a single sequence.

Wine or vinegar?

Due to time constraints, IMG visual effects supervisor Jeff Weingarten and ThinkFilm founder/director Joe Becker ultimately farmed out the rendering for Treasures of the Royal Captain, a 50-minute documentary chronicling the final voyage of a British East India Company trading ship and the excavation of its watery grave. It was their attempt to achieve satisfactory images that forced the move.

‘Our intention was not to create water that looked like CG water,’ says Weingarten. ‘Hands-down, the most problematic animation for this film was creating realistic water. That was the biggest factor in pushing the time, which ultimately pushed the budget.’ Continues Becker, ‘I was committed to making this film as best I could.

I never consciously said ‘damn the cost’, but you’re

only as good as your last film.’ Treasures, which aired on Discovery in July, exceeded its US$75,000 graphics budget (there are approximately ten minutes of animation, but the budget includes all graphic elements), with ThinkFilm and IMG absorbing the excess costs.

Loyer cautions producers contemplating employing CG images to consider the technology’s current limitations. ‘You make a strategic choice when you use 3-D animation. Five years from now, graphic images done today will look extremely boring.’ Five years is actually a very generous life expectancy for today’s miracles. Although budgets, time and creativity determine a projects final appearance, if 3-D animation continues on its current trajectory, CG created today will begin to look stale within three years.

Weingarten argues animation that conceptually fits within a film will always look good. But, the issue of whether a natural history doc that uses CG will age as well as a blue-chip film produced on a similar budget suggests natural history filmmakers may not want to leave the Serengeti in favor of air-conditioned offices just yet.

‘The philosophy in special effects circles is if you can shoot it for real, there’s no point spending a lot of time trying to replicate it,’ reveals Bailey. ‘The human brain and the human eye are very difficult to deceive. Computer generated imagery is there to enhance what’s already in existence and to enable people to take their imaginations a little further.’

Becker agrees: ‘Animation sometimes creates a hyper reality by bringing out dramatic potential. This often allows a greater understanding of a subject than cinematography can.’

CG sleight of hand

Due to the fact that CG creates rather than captures animal behavior, its use in natural history films has become a topic of debate. ‘We see this as an evolving process,’ says Cathy Wilkin, a graphics producer at 4:2:2 Bristol who’s working on an 8 x 50 minute doc series titled The Shape of Life. ‘If you build a creature according to one scientist’s beliefs, there will always be another scientist who has a theory that contradicts it.’

For The Shape of Life, which is being produced by Sea Studios Foundation in California (in association with National Geographic), Wilken and her colleagues put images onto a website to shuttle information between the various parties involved. The program looks at the premise that all life-forms belong to one of eight categories of animals, each with their own body shape or plan. The information used to design the body plans is taken from paper references and scientific consultation, but Wilken admits ‘there comes a point at which we have to use artistic license.’

According to Bailey, the level of scientific accuracy employed in a film may also depend on the outlet receiving it: ‘Some broadcasters prefer an entertainment bias, [so images] are more visually entertaining and less science-based. On the other hand, there are still many clients who want programming that’s more biased towards science and the accuracy of the subject. It depends on the end market and where it’s being broadcast.’

Cornwall, U.K.-based veteran wildlife filmmakers Victoria Stone and Mark Deeble, who will spend two years in the bush for a film, argue: ‘Fewer people spend long periods of time in the field around wildlife and so are in a position to critically assess how accurate the motion and behavior [of an animal] is. Getting it ‘signed off’ by scientists isn’t necessarily the answer.’ They later add, ‘Traditionally, an important element of wildlife films was their revelatory content – showing behavior that was unexpected and totally new – often even to scientists. This can only be achieved by spending time in the field. Imagination is not an honest substitute.’

Stone also raises the concern that CG animation may eliminate the mother of invention: ‘In the past, the challenge of ‘getting the shot’ has led to the development of innovative and imaginative techniques. The use of CG animation could completely stifle this.’

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.