Pixeldust Studios, an Emmy Award-winning digital animation, visual design, and production company, has produced 200 animated sequences that will be featured throughout the new, five-part, mini-series event “Alien Deep with Bob Ballard,” premiering this month on the National Geographic Channel.
A promo of this work can be found at: http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/channel/videos/alien-deep-wrecks-of-the-abyss/ For “Alien Deep with Bob Ballard,” Pixeldust Studios was charged with conceiving and producing dramatic and highly detailed animations depicting everything from the depths of the Earth’s deepest seas, to landscapes on Mars. Rogue waves, ancient shipwrecks, dwellings for human beings built atop oil rigs and the Hawaiian Islands emerging from the Pacific Ocean are just a few examples of these compelling animated sequences. Pixeldust Studios’ primary creative assignment for the “Alien Deep” project was to create complex 3D and VFX shots and photorealistic and stereoscopic animations that would seamlessly blend in with the overall vision of the series producer.
These animations ranged from lighting up the deepest parts of the ocean, to riding the global ocean conveyor belt, to seeing the Hawaiian Islands teaming with underwater sea life, to depicting human beings settled on Mars.
The most significant challenges were creating the various ocean simulations that the Pixeldust team had to deliver, which ranged from calm water to the worst storm ever. Pixeldust artists were challenged with creating shots that appear underwater and shots that appear in zero gravity/outer space. To accomplish these tasks, Ricardo Andrade and his team used bathymetric data to visualize the underwater topography in 3D. The team then rendered out 32-bit EXR image sequences, which gave them the ability to completely control water depth and water density.
The artists used Next Limit’s Realflow to generate "perfect storm" water and ocean simulations. Realwave dynamic systems inside Realflow were used to simulate rogue waves and splashes, rendered with the Mental Images’ Mental Ray renderer. Rendering out 32-bit EXR files in separate passes (color, reflection, refraction, foam), the team was also able to create realistic stormy oceans. The bathymetry data was enhanced with additional texturing and displacements in Autodesk’s Maya and e-on Software’s Vue.
Pixeldust utilized a specialized camera that was connected directly into Maya and recorded the camera operators’ movements, so they could be translated into a 3D scene. This gave the team control to create organic and natural camera moves. The Gamecaster True Virtual 3D camera syncs with native software (Maya) for animating cameras in the scenes.
Finally, Vue helped the artists achieve wide Hawaiian shots and underwater shots with plant growth via the software’s ecosystems.
Pixeldust also made efficient use of Maya dynamics, particle systems, fluids and Mental Ray and Pixar’s Renderman rendering techniques for the project. Other tools included Pixologic’s ZBrush, Andersson Technologies’ Sytheyes, and Adobe’s After Effects and Photoshop. “Ricardo and his team at Pixeldust Studios certainly had their work cut out for them with the large number of highly complex graphics required for this series,” comments Stephen Hunter, executive producer of the series for the National Geographic Channel. “Water replication is one of the most difficult things to accomplish with computer animation, so a great deal of work was involved to get everything right. The end result enhances the viewer experience of this ambitious documentary.”
Ricardo Andrade, founder and executive creative director of Pixeldust Studios, says, “The producers of this extraordinary mini-series presented us with an enormous wealth of data. We were challenged with translating some of this data into amazing, underwater landscapes. For example, we created a fly over of Hawaii with the islands emerging from the water, we recreated a number of historic shipwrecks from ancient Greek and Roman times, and we imagined futuristic dwellings on Mars in which human beings might live.” Andrade points out that especially demanding were the super complex fluid simulations they devised, which ranged from massive rogue waves in the oceans to tiny waves that appear in a teacup held by Dr. Ballard. “Our other animations presented geologically-correct underwater mountains, debris that appears to ‘rain’ down into the water from shipwrecks above, and a variety of Earth views looking down through clouds from outer space.”
Isa Alsup, a renowned 3D stereographer and visual effects artist whose credits include the 3D versions of the feature films “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” “Green Lantern,” “Conan,” and “Dolphin Tale,” worked with Pixeldust Studios on the “Alien Deep” episode titled Fires of Creation.
“Pixeldust wanted their already beautiful work to give the audience an impact-filled 3D experience in the stereographic version for this episode,” states Alsup. “In particular, we worked to ensure that our submarine scenes had a genuine ‘being there’ feel.’ We worked on our landscape and underwater flyovers to make them appear magical, with a hyper-real feel that can best be experienced using 3D animation and 3D stereo presentation. Also, having our audience ‘flying’ through the clouds in 3D stereo brings a real Superman moment to the show.” The biggest challenge facing Pixeldust was rebuilding the 2D shots as 3D stereo, throwing away all the depth of illusion tricks used by traditional VFX artists in their work. “On a really short schedule, we were able to deliver all the shots re-mastered in 3D stereo, without using 2D to 3D conversion and with few differences,” adds Alsup. “Then we made sure the 3D stereo version was better than the original. The shots we delivered were uniformly magnificent."