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WCSFP ’12: Worlds of wonder, part 1

As the World Congress of Science and Factual Producers continues, realscreen spotlights the VFX wizardry in recent factual mini-series Mankind: The Story of All of Us and Alien Deep with Bob Ballard. (Pictured: Mankind)
November 29, 2012

As the World Congress of Science and Factual Producers continues, realscreen spotlights the VFX and CGI wizardry in the recent factual mini-series Mankind: The Story of All of Us, which aired on History, and Alien Deep with Bob Ballard, which aired on National Geographic Channel.

Look for the second part of this special report, featuring America Revealed and Secret Universe: The Hidden Life of the Cell, tomorrow on realscreen.com.

MANKIND: THE STORY OF ALL OF US (pictured, above)

Produced by: Nutopia

VFX studios: Jellyfish Pictures, Lola Post Production, Rushes, Prime Focus (London)

In visual effects, as in writing, there is an ongoing concern with the active and the passive.

In 2010, U.S. cable network History aired America: The Story of Us, a six-part, 12-hour miniseries produced by Nutopia that recounted 400 years of United States history. Millions tuned in, so two years later the network re-teamed with Nutopia to produce an even more ambitious follow-up: Mankind: The Story of All of Us, a six-part series that premiered on November 13.

This time, the producers took a different approach in deploying CG throughout the series, which tells the story of humankind, while touching on climate, geology, geography and science.

America was the training ground to find out what worked and what didn’t work to create an emotional impact,” says Julian P. Hobbs, VP of development and programming at History and Mankind‘s executive producer. “By merely doing scene extensions that are passive and not active, while they look nice, there is no emotional resonance for the viewer.”

An example of a “passive” effect in America was a scene in which the British take control of Boston. History and Nutopia went to elaborate lengths to recreate the Boston harbor circa 1770 as a backdrop for a cast dressed as British soldiers to march past, but found that all of that effort didn’t draw viewers deeper into the story.

Rather than merely extending backdrops, the VFX teams working on Mankind focused on creating immersive, dynamic sequences that incorporated aerial and time-lapse photography to show the construction of the Roman aqueducts, Stonehenge, the Great Wall of China and the Pyramids in what Hobbs calls “active” or “wow” moments.

“We concentrated on creating dramatic moments that are tight, immersive and focused on core characters leading up to these larger CG aerial or high-speed building moments,” he says. “These [sequences] are the culmination of the drama but give you a great visual spectacle and [a] ‘wow’ emotional impact.”

Four post shops worked on Mankind: Lola Post Production, Jellyfish Pictures, Rushes and Prime Focus. Lola supervised and executed the CGI for the live-action drama sequences (shot in China, Morocco and South Africa), satellite aerials, and maps; the other three created the narrative CGI sequences. At any given time, there were between 45 and 60 artists working across the series’ 120 major VFX shots.

While it was important for the VFX work in the live action scenes to be photo-real, the CGI narrative segments, although grounded in historical research, take a more heightened approach to reality.

The producers used dark, foreboding colors; dramatic skies full of scudding clouds; low angles and impossible camera moves to show the dominance and scale of buildings such as the Pyramids. Occasionally, the sequences veer toward the fantastical, as when the Norse god Thor’s hammer makes a cameo.

Maintaining visual coherence between each of the sequences was a big challenge for the post team, as was scale.

“When you are going from a global scale to the microscopic level over the duration of a single sequence, the visual coherence, composition, timing, camera angles, [and] choice of lens all has to be worked out well in advance,” says Nicola Kingham, a VFX producer with Lola.

In episode one, the camera travels through the cosmic dust of the Big Bang past the face of the sun before crashing into the Earth’s atmosphere and honing in on multiplying human cells, from which early humans emerge in Africa’s Rift Valley – all in a single sequence. It involved dynamic camera moves lasting upwards of 45 seconds and seamless transitions between 2D and 3D.

“This is a motif that reappears throughout the series, where we use the CGI to enhance the viewing experience and tell stories in the first person with a sense of continuity and fluidity before they land in a dramatic moment, ‘where history was made,’” she says.

Narrative CGI sequences showing the reconstruction of ancient buildings required complex changes in scale between a single brick and a highly-detailed wide shot. The CGI not only required enormous amounts of detail in the modeling and texturing, but also had to be optimized to render quickly.

Whereas VFX in factual programming is typically used in an illustrative manner, there is a shift toward more entertaining and fantastical uses of the medium that is influenced by Hollywood features and computer games that companies such as Nutopia will continue to build on in future such projects.

“We look at different techniques from films that have creative use of graphics such as 300, or The Watchmen and games like God of War, which are more to do with animation,” says Nutopia executive producer Ben Goold. “It’s about creating an emotional experience and continuing to see the un-seeable.” Kevin Ritchie

ALIEN DEEP WITH BOB BALLARD

Produced by: National Geographic Television

VFX studio: Pixeldust Studios (Bethesda)

While best known as an avid explorer of the world’s oceans, for National Geographic Channel’s five-part miniseries Alien Deep with Bob Ballard, the man who discovered the wreck of the Titanic also cast his gaze towards Mars.

For the VFX team commissioned for the project, that meant creating shots detailing unseen worlds both underwater and in space.

“It was interesting to do astronaut shots as well as underwater submarine shots,” says Nick Jernigan, VFX supervisor for Pixeldust Studios, the Bethesda-based shop that took on the project. Indeed, the scope of Alien Deep, not to mention the attention to detail required for its 200 animated sequences, resulted in a process that Pixeldust founder and executive creative director Ricardo Andrade director terms as “very intense.”

“We had about 90% of our team working on this,” he says. “We had two executive producers working on it, and our entire render farm was beefed up. We had 450 processors of rendering power going day and night.”

While Pixeldust created Martian landscapes for one episode which juxtaposed ocean exploration with voyaging into space, the bulk of the series naturally dealt with more aquatic concerns. With subject matter including the creation of the Hawaiian Islands, ancient shipwrecks, and the increasing dangers inherent in exploring the seas, the team was tasked by series producer Gary Johnstone to, as Andrade recalls, “dream ‘out there.’”

Of course, in the interest of accuracy, Pixeldust had to contain that cinematic vision within scientific findings. Using bathymetric data supplied by scientists to visualize the topography of the “Alien Deep,” the team created underwater landscapes “hundreds of miles long,” according to Andrade.

Creating convincingly rough seas and rogue waves also provided challenges for Pixeldust, as separate render passes were required for the color of the water, the reflection of the water, the refraction of light bending as it hits the water, and so on – no corners could be cut.

“So many people have seen stormy water footage or have seen stormy seas in person, and if it doesn’t look right, it takes the viewer out of the experience,” says Jernigan.

Still, there’s a difference between looking “right” and looking “real” – a difference the team also had to be mindful of.

“[In reality] the wind can move in a certain way sometimes and create repetitive patterns on the ocean,” explains Andrade. “But in CGI, you can’t have too repetitive a pattern – otherwise, people will think it’s fake. It adds an extra layer of complexity to the process.”

Another layer of complexity came with the requirement to recreate animations originally made in 2D to stereoscopic 3D for a special episode. Calling in feature film stereographer Isa Alsup, the team expertly turned around the 3D animations in six weeks. Barry Walsh

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