Pixel wizards

From creating a newly-discovered prehistoric creature to recreating history to revealing the landscapes underneath the earth's oceans, these three CGI-heavy projects each presented their producers and the CGI teams with vast challenges. Here, realscreen peeks behind the curtain to reveal the process behind the programs.
November 1, 2009


Produced by Burning Gold Productions for National Geographic Channel
First aired: August 7, 2009
CGI team: 422 South, Bristol

Billed by National Geographic Channel as ‘a virtual expedition miles below the ocean surface,’ the two-hour special Drain the Ocean combined new scientific research with state-of-the-art CGI to reveal what landscapes lie beneath the earth’s oceans. The 422 South team had recent experience in topographic data conversion from its work on Britain from Above, but while they were working with marine survey data for this project, there were minimal references available and almost all of the features and underwater landscapes would need to be built from scratch.

With the project greenlit at the end of 2007, and National Geographic, Nat Geo International, ORF and Parthenon Entertainment on board as partners, the CGI process began in earnest after research and development wrapped by the summer of 2008, which saw 422 South’s 2D development team working closely with the 3D team even from the pre-visualization stage. 422 South MD Craig Howarth translated ocean bathymetry data into a form suitable for importing into CGI, from which art director Eduardo Schaal and director of CGI Rogerio Alves then set their teams of compositors and modelers onto the task of developing the ocean floor of nine locations around the world, including the Bahamas, Matterhorn Coral Hill, Mauna Loa, Monterey Bay in California and the mid-Oceanic Ridge. All told, the 422 South team had three months to create 130 shots.

The ocean draining sequences in the special are remarkably photo-real, but besides the tight deadline, an element of risk also added some adventure to the proceedings. The company opted to use Terragen 2, a then-new software still being tested at its alpha stage, for terrain creation, texturing and rendering. ‘It was risky, but we knew that if it worked, Terragen constituted a huge leap forward in terms of creating CGI landscapes quickly and with high levels of realism,’ says 422 South creative director Andy Davies-Coward. ‘Even though it was an early release version, Terragen proved stable and reliable. When we did need help Planetside (the software developers) were extremely supportive, even to the extent of creating unique adaptations of the software to overcome [any] problems.’

Davies-Coward says the process of collaborating with Nat Geo and Burning Gold was a smooth one, and that only minimal revisions were needed, ‘mainly to address scientific accuracy.’ He’s particularly fond of the Bahamas scenes. ‘I think we got a sense of the water having been drained away only minutes earlier,’ he remarks, ‘and the landscape there is truly epic.’


Produced by Primary Pictures for Discovery Channel
First aired: Oct. 11, 2009
CGI team for creature shots: Impossible, Denver, CO

Fifteen years ago, the Middle Awash Research Project discovered what was to be touted as the oldest hominid skeleton ever found in Northeastern Ethiopia. Dubbed Ardipithecus Ramidus (or ‘Ardi’ for short), the 4.4 million-year-old creature’s remains represented a major paleontological milestone in that they pointed towards a transitional biped that walked on two legs on the ground but moved as a quadruped in the trees thanks to an ape-like, elongated big toe.

Still, it took 15 years for the research team to comprehensively study the remains and publish the findings due to the extremely delicate nature of the skeleton. For 10 of those years, the process was documented by Atlanta-based production company Primary Pictures and the Discovery Channel. And for two-and-a-half of those years, Ardi was being recreated for the production via CGI. But with the finding still under wraps, Denver-based VFX/CGI shop Impossible was sworn to scientific secrecy.

‘We’ve had a good, long relationship with Discovery on other projects, and there were people there that we couldn’t tell about the project, as they didn’t know we were working on it,’ says Impossible VP Steve Urbano.

A team of close to 30 artists, animators, modelers and motion capture experts (half being in-house at Impossible and half being contracted) worked on the creature shots, receiving detailed anatomical sketches and other input from scientists in the field to devise the CG model. ‘The primary challenge was that we were taking input from a couple of scientists, and even they would have different points of view on some things,’ says Urbano.

After receiving drawings of the skeleton, the team conducted a motion capture session in L.A. under the guidance of a scientist, to approximate the theories on how Ardi moved. From there, the motion data was attached to a rig inside of a sculpted model in Maya, and then shading for fur, textures, lighting and natural environments were created.

With the announcement of the skeleton’s discovery coming a mere two weeks prior to the first air date, Ardi pulled in good numbers (1.8 million watched the premiere) and Impossible’s animations garnered praise from the scientists behind the project. ‘We were trying to bridge what we do in animation and VFX – let’s call it ‘Hollywood’-type work – with science,’ says Impossible president Joel Pilger. ‘We were required to bridge both of those needs.’


Produced by: Breakthrough Entertainment for History Television (Canada) and Discovery Communications
Airing: early 2010
CGI team: ACME Pictures Inc., Toronto

With Greatest Tank Battles, Toronto-based Breakthrough Entertainment is ambitiously recreating what it calls ‘the most monumental tank battles in history’ with painstakingly researched CGI and doc footage. The upcoming 10×60 series, premiering on Canada’s History Television in Q1 2010, has taken its producers around the world (specifically to Belgium, Germany, Russia, France, Israel, Egypt, the UK, and the U.S.) to the sites of these battles both to film interviews with the soldiers behind the guns and to bring back valuable intel for the CGI team bringing the fights to life.

Breakthrough EP Peter Williamson calls the project ‘pretty epic.’ He estimates that the animation for the series, due to air in the U.S. on Discovery’s Military Channel and throughout the world via Discovery Networks International later in 2010, adds up to ‘the equivalent of two animated feature films – it’s close to 155 minutes of animated material.’

The origins for the project came from work done for 2008′s Battlefield Mysteries, specifically an episode that dealt with the death of Nazi tank ace Michael Wittman. The team at Toronto’s ACME Pictures Inc., led by visual effects supervisor Thom Ranmaa, cooked up tank warfare scenes in CGI that greatly impressed Williamson and Breakthrough colleague, producer/director Paul Kilback. From there, the concept to devise a series focusing on important tank battles was born.

Ranmaa says it’s a collaborative process thus far, with Breakthrough providing extensive research to ensure that the tank reproductions are accurate ‘down to the rivets.’ At each battlefield shoot, Kilback has taken hundreds of photos that ACME then uses as either background plates or references. ‘Because we’re telling first-person stories, the research and detail is a whole different aspect of production,’ says Kilback.

In addition to using Maya, Fusion and Massive crowd replication software to build and comp the over 100 layers created per shot, the ACME team is also building its own proprietary software for specific challenges. For the accuracy of the backgrounds, Kilback and ACME trace each battlefield location using Google Maps and other maps to guarantee that ‘what somebody may have seen in the background on the day of the battle, you’re seeing in the animation,’ says Kilback.

‘It has to actually look real, not ‘movie real,” adds Ranmaa.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.