The Year of Pluto
July 21, 2015

The Year of Pluto

BETHESDA, MARYLAND – Pixeldust Studios, a digital animation and broadcast design studio, has created and produced many state-of-the-art animations featured within a new NASA   documentary film titled “The Year of Pluto,” which was written, produced and directed by Geoff Haines-Stiles, a producer/director on Carl Sagan’s classic 1980 TV series “COSMOS."

The new project, filmed behind the scenes at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab (Laurel, MD) and elsewhere over more than 11 years, is a one-hour documentary that turns hard science into personal stories, and gives viewers insights into the history and long journey of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, and why it matters.

For “The Year of Pluto,” Pixeldust Studios had to render more than 10,000 frames for the entire Kuiper Belt sequence, which ran nearly six minutes long. For this task, the company deployed its renderfarm: 70-80 render nodes running Intel i-7 processors with 12GB-16GB of RAM. Maya’s Mental Ray renderer was also used. The overall render time was about five to six days, spread out in different increments. Final frames were composited in Adobe After Effects CC 2014. 

The new documentary details the mission of the unprecedented New Horizons spacecraft, which launched from Earth on January 19, 2006. New Horizons is presently hurtling toward the still more distant “ice worlds” situated at the furthest edge of our solar system. New Horizons made its first reconnaissance of the dwarf planet Pluto on July 14, 2015, returning stunning close-up images of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, and becoming NASA’s biggest social media success to date.

Beyond July 2015, New Horizons will continue its journey by venturing deeper into the distant, mysterious Kuiper Belt – a relic of our solar system’s formation. Interviews with leading scientists are featured throughout “The Year of Pluto,” as they share their thoughts about how the New Horizons mission will answer many long-pondered questions. 

“The Year of Pluto” has already generated over 320,000 views on NASA TV YouTube and more than 64,000 views on APL's site. To view this documentary, visit:

Regarding Pixeldust Studios’ contributions to this new documentary project, Geoff Haines-Stiles, Writer/Producer/Director of “The Year of Pluto,” said, “Pixeldust brought creativity and a deep commitment to accurate science to this project. They took the best still images from telescopes, plus space artists’ speculations and expert input from our advisors, and transformed that data into a dramatic television trip through the Kuiper Belt.”

Adds Ricardo Andrade, Founder/Executive Creative Director, Pixeldust Studios, “This was really an amazing project for us – after all, how often do you get the chance to visualize the outer edges of the solar system, Pluto, and beyond!  Pixeldust also had to re-create our solar system and sculpt Pluto and its moons using realistic planetary textures. Extra attention was given to overall relative scale of planets and their moons with respect to the larger Kuiper Belt.”

As Samar Shool, Pixeldust’s CG Supervisor on this project, explains, the assignment was to digitally re-create the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud based on Tony Dunn’s Gravity Simulator point cloud data from the Harvard-Smithsonian Minor Planet Center and vector images. The biggest challenge, he says, was to create both of these elements in a volumetric form, for which they used nParticle systems inside Autodesk Maya 2015. “With use of nparticles, we were able to achieve large volumes of point clouds and render them efficiently, using Maya’s own Mental Ray renderer,” he adds.

In addition, the team had to re-create seven Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) based on certain locations on July 14 2015, from data provided again by Tony Dunn. These relatively large KBOs had to be digitally sculpted, textured and rendered realistically based on other planetary references, including color data from the Hubble Space Telescope. The artists used Zbrush 4-R6 to sculpt these objects and rendered them in Maya/Mental Ray. 

“We paid special attention to realistic ‘space’ lighting and had to make sure our camera always faced the lit side of the planets,” says Shool. “The next overall challenge was to show the presence of these objects along with their motion orbits, all together housed inside the Kuiper Belt. Using carefully planned camera moves and the use of Zdepth, we were able to create interesting fly-throughs between the KBOs and their orbits.”