Factual flash

Whether it's to recreate history or to bring abstract scientific concepts to life, cutting-edge CGI and awesome animation are making more of an impact on factual programming than ever. Here, realscreen looks at three projects bringing flash to factual.
November 1, 2011

The Fabric of the Cosmos (PBS ‘Nova’)

As the VFX studio tasked with bringing the concepts within physicist Brian Greene’s book The Fabric of the Cosmos to a television audience via a ‘Nova’ four-part series of the same name, Washington- and New York-based Pixeldust had its work cut out. Nineteen months worth of work, in fact.

Ricardo Andrade, founder and executive creative director at Pixeldust, says it took close to a year of the 19 months to flesh out the ideas behind the 1,000-plus animations and visual effects created by the studio for the project. Every single shot had to be storyboarded first and then run past Greene for feedback. Indeed, Greene’s input was so comprehensive that a database had to be created to track all the feedback for particular shots.

“There were some things that were approved on the first round, while some others were approved on the 20th round,” explains Andrade. “Brian Greene was putting his stamp on the show and endorsing it, and he wouldn’t want to risk his entire career on a mistake. He didn’t compromise and neither did we.”

The VFX team – 22 at full-strength – was responsible for conveying some of the trickier theories in Greene’s treatise, such as the existence of a “multiverse” (of which our universe is but one component) and the relationship between space and time, with visual metaphors. And if the VFX treatments lost something in translation between Greene’s text and the workstation, it would mean going back to the source.

“As animators, we have to understand what it is we’ll be illustrating,” Andrade says. “If [our] animators turned around something that didn’t make sense, they’d have to read the portions of the book some more to understand.

“We created a ton of style frames, and there was a lot of stuff that wound up on the cutting room floor because he might’ve thought the concepts were a little blurry.”

Still, there was room for the odd bit of artistic license. Andrade cites The Quantum Club as one of his favorite segments of the series. In that sequence, Greene visits a digitally-created environment meant to illustrate some of the more mind-boggling aspects of quantum physics. For example, when Greene takes a shot on one of the club’s pool tables, the balls on an adjacent table shoot off. The club’s patrons are equally hard to pin down.

“When he goes into the Quantum Club, the people [there] represent particles,” explains Andrade. “They’re all acting erratically, because there is no predictability in the quantum world, in contrast to the Newtonian world.”

That segment, while fun to craft, was also one of the more labor-intensive, requiring motion control cameras and a four-day green screen shoot with about eight to 10 actors, and then compositing multiple layers of footage to create a hotspot where people are particles, and unpredictable ones at that.

“It was a long process but it was fun,” sums up Andrade. “With projects like this you have to be careful to make sure that from beginning to end you have the same level of quality and consistency of entertainment throughout.” Barry Walsh

The City Beneath the Waves: Pavlopetri (BBC2)

BBC2′s history program City Beneath the Waves: Pavlopetri, which aired this past October, brought viewers to the first ever excavation of what is believed to be the oldest submerged city in the world, discovered more than 40 years ago off the coast of Greece. The special also teamed top underwater archaeologists, led by Dr. Jon Henderson, with the broadcast VFX team from the London office of Prime Focus, led by creative director Simon Clarke, to reveal the 3,500-year-old secrets of the ancient city hidden by the seabed.

“Typically, archaeological programs can be quite dull,” admits Clarke. “The whole intention of this project was to embrace new technology and perhaps create something that would hopefully become a bit of a legacy for the historical site.”

Part of that new technology came from a team of specialists from the Australian Centre for Field Robotics, which provided an aquatic robot that took stereoscopic images of the sea floor. Those were then given to the Prime Focus team, which would feed the data and imagery into its own software, in order to render into 3D a map of the seabed floor upon which the digital reconstruction was based.

Artifacts found on the seabed and other areas on location were then scanned by the team with digital laser scanners to create 3D models, which were then wedded to the pieces’ actual textures and glazes.

Using Maya for modeling and Nuke and After Effects for compositing, the team, in collaboration with the archaeologists, digitally rebuilt the Bronze Age city; in some cases, brick by brick. But given the tight turnaround – five or six weeks according to Clarke – time was of the essence.

“We had a couple of guys on the team who were writing scripts and codes to automate the building of the structures so we wouldn’t have to hand-animate every brick coming into position,” he recalls.

The collaboration between the archaeologists and the VFX team took place both behind the scenes and in front of the camera. Clarke says the constant interplay between the teams ensured a far more accurate end result.

“Often, in the work we do, the liaisons are with directors or producers and the information or research is often filtered through them,” says Clarke. “But here we could ask direct, specific questions.” BW

Titanoboa: Monster Snake (Smithsonian)

Recreating a number of super-sized creatures, including 48-foot long snakes, might seem the domain of horror films’ special effects shops, but with the upcoming Titanoboa: Monster Snake (pictured), that was the task for Montreal-based Mokko Studio, and in London, VFX shop Jellyfish Pictures and Wide-Eyed Entertainment’s in-house CGI department.

The international coproduction from London-based Wide-Eyed Entertainment and Toronto’s yap films split the CGI jobs between the three studios for the two-hour documentary special.

Titanoboa: Monster Snake uses a mix of live action and CGI to tell the story behind 60 million-year-old fossils recently discovered in a Colombian mine, and gave the CGI/VFX houses the major challenge of recreating the massive creatures with 100% accuracy while also depicting the sheer scale of it.

“Here we’ve got a world where they’ve found giant turtles, giant snakes, giant crocodiles, and it’s very easy [for the] mind to not see it as big as it really is,” says Wide-Eyed CEO Jasper James, who served as the project’s executive producer.

To create the monstrous snakes, models were generated based on the discovery of the vertebrae, with the aid of paleontologists and modern snake experts. The modeling and some of the CGI and live action shots were taken care of in the UK, and once the models were generated, they were sent to Canada where the full CGI shots were done.

“The scientists were very rigorous,” says James. “They were across every bit of that process, which makes it time consuming from a CGI point of view, but if you want something to be inarguably accurate, then it takes a lot of input.”

He adds, “For us it was a question of having one part of the process, and then passing over the assets that could then be used in Canada.”

The “long-gestating project” began filming in May 2010, and relied on a follow-up dig in Colombia to answer questions “about this land of giants,” says James. The CGI components of Titanoboa took the team approximately six to eight months to complete.

In all, the final version will feature about 24 minutes of CGI in the 92-minute running time. The program will debut on Smithsonian Channel in the U.S. in the spring of 2012. Kelly Anderson

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.