VFX focus: Animating the ancients

Two upcoming projects are using cutting-edge CGI to bring to life ancient civilizations. Their animators and producers tell realscreen how they are reconstructing history. (Pictured: Pixeldust's A Curious World: The Bronze Age for CuriosityStream)
December 1, 2015

Two upcoming projects are using cutting-edge CGI to bring to life ancient civilizations. Here, in advance of the World Congress of Science and Factual Producers, the animation teams and producers behind the programs reveal to realscreen how they’re reconstructing history.

A Curious World: The Bronze Age
Produced and animated by Pixeldust Studios
Airing on CuriosityStream in January 2016

Having produced and animated the first season of CuriosityStream’s A Curious World series, Washington DC-based studio Pixeldust was tasked with tackling 2,000 years of history for the follow-up.

A Curious World: The Bronze Age¬†(pictured, top) scans, over the course of three episodes, ancient civilizations in the Aegean/Mediterranean, Egypt and Near East, in the period from 3,000 – 1,000 BC. As part of the overview, the Pixeldust team had to reconstruct four capitals, including Egypt’s Thebes, the Greek capital of Mycenae, and the ancient Sumerian/Babylonian city of Uruk.

“The scarcity of artifacts and ruins from the Bronze Age was a major challenge,” explains Pixeldust president and creative director Ricardo Andrade. “While ancient Egypt is well documented, other capitals such as Uruk and Mycenae had far fewer reference materials. Our team worked with the archaeologists and scholars who are part of the series to identify the most compelling materials that are still in existence.”

With a toolkit that included Maya as the main 3D application, Mental Ray for rendering and After Effects for compositing, Pixeldust turned to Google Maps of the current locations for each city as a framework for their creations, using imagery of ruins to geo-locate them on the maps, creating a new custom map, and then painting in the ancient streets, houses, and temples for the 3D models that were ultimately used.

2.5D camera mapping was also used on frescoes and ancient artifacts, by layering images from the Bridgeman Art Library into three-dimensional space and adding motion.

With CuriosityStream being a relatively new venture, having launched last spring, Andrade says budgets aren’t as high as “what we typically have become accustomed to for major television series and specials.” However, Pixeldust’s “highly collaborative partnership” with the CuriosityStream executive team allows the company to streamline the process by delivering rough cuts with reference images instead of animations.

“This makes the process run more smoothly and adds more in both value and creativity to the final product,” says Andrade, adding that being asked to deliver animations early in the process “can lead to multiple revisions, delays and overages.”

raising pompeii

Raising Pompeii

Raising Pompeii
Produced by Twofour and Handel Productions, CGI by Digital Dimension
Airing on ITV, CBC, Canal D and other broadcasters in 2016

In 79 AD, the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, near present-day Naples, was in the midst of recovering from a severe earthquake in 62 AD that had destroyed scores of buildings, temples, roads and bridges. While many had left following the earthquake to other Roman settlements, a good number of its 11,000 remaining inhabitants stayed to rebuild. That effort would prove to be in vain, with the eruption of nearby Mount Vesuvius burying the town in multiple levels of volcanic material.

In the upcoming one-hour special Raising Pompeii, UK-based Twofour and Montreal-based Handel Productions have the daunting task of effectively raising the city from the cinder and ash via CGI, 3D terrain mapping, and expert testimony. Adding to the challenge is the need to place two presenters in the action for different international versions – David Suzuki for the version that will air on the CBC’s ‘The Nature of Things’ strand and Michael Buerk for the program to air on ITV.

“We have another version with no presenter, so every shot has to be stand-alone,” says Handel’s vice president and executive producer Andr√© Barro.

The producers turned to Montreal VFX shop Digital Dimension to create a photorealistic, historically accurate version of Pompeii. Working from start to finish in Maya, rendering in Red Shift, and compositing in Nuke, the team there began working in earnest on the project in September, and will be delivering its final shots in December, according to Digital Dimension senior producer Peter Skovsbo.

While Skovsbo cites the post schedule as the biggest hurdle the team of approximately 15 at Digital Dimension will have to face, Barro says budget considerations prompted the producers to focus on specific locations to hone in on. But having worked with the VFX company on other projects, Barro says taking a collaborative approach always yields the best results.

“We don’t just have the studios doing the storyboard, we want them to be a part of it,” he says. “For us, it’s less about the technology than the people. We’re chasing the talent.”

  • Our VFX Focus first appeared in the November/December 2015 issue of realscreen magazine, which is out now. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.
About The Author
Andrew Jeffrey joined Realscreen in 2021 as its news editor. Here, he helps to oversee assignment, reporting and editing for Realscreen's daily newsletter. Prior to his work covering documentary and non-fiction film and TV, he worked as a reporter and associate producer for CBC Edmonton, and as a reporter for The Star Calgary, where he covered daily news on beats such as local and provincial politics, health care and harm reduction, sports and education. His work has appeared in other Canadian news outlets such as TVO, the Edmonton Journal and Avenue Magazine.