Issue: Volume 33 Issue 6: (June 2010)

Baby Steps

By: Karen Moltenbrey

The gestation period for a mouse is 19 days. An elephant, 645 days. A human, 280 days. But for an anxious, first-time mother awaiting delivery of a beautiful baby girl or boy, those 40 weeks can feel like a lifetime.

As the baby develops from a fertilized egg to a newborn child, it undergoes rapid, radical changes. It is easy to find illustrations of a growing fetus at select stages, particularly where the changes are significant: four weeks, eight weeks, 18 weeks, and 38 weeks, for example. However, it is highly unlikely that an accurate depiction can be found for every week during the development cycle. Yet, many expectant parents want to know what their unborn baby looks each and every day, from the moment they get the exciting news to the day the child is delivered. Are some basic features appearing, such as the heart? What about the hands? Is it a boy or girl? They also want to know, What is new today? What can I expect tomorrow? This weekend? In three weeks?

 
3 Dart artists used mainly 3ds Max and ZBrush to model and animate a realistic
depiction of fetal development.

Artists from 3 Dart, an animation/visual effects boutique in Exton, Pennsylvania, have answered those questions in a series of animated videos that take viewers inside the womb to show an accurate depiction of a zygote as it evolves into an embryo, then to a fetus, and, finally, to a newborn. The project, headed by 3 Dart founders Chris Ferriola and Michael Zurcher, includes seven medical animations—each averaging two minutes in length—for Babycenter.com’s Inside Pregnancy series.

Since the animations became available on the Web site several months ago, Babycenter has witnessed a significant increase in traffic. The work also helped Babycenter earn a finalist spot for an Internet OMMA Award for Web-site excellence.

Conception
The project was conceived by Babycenter and production company Ikana Media. Babycenter had wanted to build a library of content for expectant mothers, and, initially, its plan was to send out a short animation every two weeks via e-mail to would-be moms who signed up on the site. The animations and other materials would coincide with where the person was within the gestation cycle. However, due to constraints, Babycenter decided to commission fewer animations that instead would encompass broader time periods—weeks one through nine, for instance, and weeks 10 to 14—as opposed to chronicling the development on a bimonthly basis.

“We tried to pick key points throughout the pregnancy when different things were happening, so we could add a few milestones into each animation without it being overwhelming, while still fitting into a 90- to 120-second segment,” says Ferriola. To ease delivery, Babycenter decided to send an e-mail notification with a link to the animations on its Web site, rather than attach the animations.



The animations themselves, from conception through delivery, took a year to complete, though actual production work took about eight months total. According to Zurcher, whose background includes a bachelor’s degree in scientific/medical illustration, one of the project’s biggest visual challenges was coming up with a look for the animations that was enticing yet medically accurate. “We developed our look to complement the Babycenter Web site by pulling in some of the colors and keeping it as friendly but as realistic as possible,” he says, “and then carried that throughout all seven pieces.”

Zurcher describes the look of the animations as “stylized realism”—medically accurate but without the gore. “The fetus is as real as it can get, aside from the creative end of the color palette we chose,” he says of 3 Dart’s models.

Documenting such a medical journey without the use of CG is nearly impossible to do. Videos from National Geographic and Discovery, for instance, have done so using live shots with a latex-crafted fetus. However, some of the information that Baby­center wanted to show could not be done practically, Zurcher notes. “With CG, we could show the development as it goes from one stage to the next quickly though morphing,” he says.

To ensure that 3 Dart’s work was on target, doctors and medical advisers were involved in every step of the project, which attributed to the lengthy time frame of the project. In some instances, the artists took a bit of liberty by creating a little more space around the fetus than is normal, to allow them to move the camera around so that the information being conveyed was clearly visible.

Making a Baby
Zurcher and Ferriola, along with lead modeler Christopher McCabe, worked with a writer assigned to the project by Ikana. Zurcher and Ferriola, though, did extensive legwork and research, and helped develop the script, written to support what was occurring visually in the animation. Research came from a host of medical textbooks, the Internet, and Babycenter.com’s own library of information. “We did a ton of research,” says Zurcher.

To build the base models, the artists used primarily Autodesk’s 3ds Max, however oftentimes switched to Autodesk’s Softimage to assist in the modeling process. Then, they imported the models into Pixologic’s ZBrush, where they sculpted all the details as well as the environments. Surfacing was done in ZBrush as well as Adobe’s Photoshop, with hand-painted textures. Afterward, the artists brought the textured model back into 3ds Max, where they lit it and applied shaders, which were generated in Max.

Rendering was done using Mental Images’ Mental Ray and managed using Prime Focus Software’s Deadline. “We used subsurface scattering on almost everything, and rendered things in multiple passes—20 to 30 passes per shot,” says Ferriola, “an ambient occlusion, beauty, diffuse, shadow, environment pass, and so on.” The group then composited all the elements together with Adobe’s After Effects, with which they also color-treated the imagery.

Nearly all the animation was keyframed by hand within 3ds Max, with one exception. In some shots, the fetus is interacting with the umbilical cord, and to tackle that, the artists used a few different techniques depending on the number of shots and the particular motion. Sometimes they animated the umbilical cord in 3ds Max using standard IK bone chains, other times they moved it with a dynamics simulation within Softimage, or keyframed a custom rig.

When watery effects were needed, the group added them in post using a small amount of warp distortion. “Other than the cord’s dynamics, everything else was keyframed. There were no other simulations used,” maintains Ferriola.

According to Ferriola, the first nine weeks were by far the most challenging to create, with three distinct environments, four vastly unique stages of fetal development, and an array of technical issues requiring some creative problem-solving methods. In order to allow the viewer to see multiple key aspects of development within each stage, 3 Dart developed creative transitions that didn’t interrupt the flow of the animations, yet kept them within the two-minute time frame.  

Not surprising, the last stage, which involved labor and delivery, was also tricky to re-create: “There is a certain sequence of events that happens with the mom’s uterus contracting and the baby coming down the birth canal, and we had to get that perfect,” says Zurcher.
Indeed, the project was labor-intensive for the team, and the gestation period for the animations was longer than what is required for an actual baby. But the results were worth the wait.

Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor for Computer Graphics World.

 

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