Issue: Volume: 24 Issue: 11 (November 2001)

Reptilian Reproduction

With help from scientists, animators digitally clone a new species of dinosaur

By Karen Moltenbrey

It's a tale that would make Indiana Jones envious: Two paleontology graduate students from the US unearth long-forgotten research by a turn-of-the-century German explorer that leads them to a unique find in the Egyptian desert-a new species of dinosaur. Their story of adventure, tenacity, and luck will be the subject of an upcoming A&E Network special, The Lost Dinosaurs of Egypt, by MPH Entertainment and Cosmos Studios, which funded the recent excavation and the documentary that recorded the event.

The fossils are creating a buzz within the scientific community, but they only provide a partial picture of the ancient creature. That's why MPH hired Rainbow Studios in Phoenix to flesh out the dinosaur's framework by creating 3D models of what the huge beast possibly looked like, based on scientific evidence. Rainbow Studios also created nearly 10 minutes of computer-generated animation to augment the live-action documentary.

Given that the models and animation will provide viewers with the first glimpse of paralititan stomeri, a brontosaurus-like plant eater that is the second-largest known land-dwelling reptile, it was imperative that the re-creation be as scientifically precise as possible. "We had heard many stories from scientists about how inaccurately dinosaurs have been depicted over the years-that some of the most famous imagery contains misinformation and falsehoods, such as wrongly shaped bodies, heads, and behaviors," says Nick Napp, producer and vice president at Rainbow Studios. "To avoid those issues, we worked closely with the paleontologists and others from the scientific community. This meant that every aspect of the digital creation-down to the placement of a foot or the blink of an eye-was critiqued to the nth degree."
Animators used LightWave and Maya to create scientifically accurate models and animations of dinosaurs, including a newly discovered species, shown here, for an upcoming TV special. The digital footage will be included in the live-action documentary about

The digital portion of the project began with a film crew shooting scenery for background plates in the Florida Ever glades, where the backdrop of water, foliage, and trees represent what scientists believe the Egyptian landscape looked like during this Jurassic period. Accompanying the crew were paleobiologists and a group of modelers and animators, whose observations enabled them to better understand how the dinosaurs would have traversed this terrain.

Next, the artists created the dinosaurs, using a sketch by paleontological restoration illustrator Robert Walters as a reference for constructing the various models in NewTek's LightWave. "Even though we consulted with paleontologists, there's still a tremendous amount of educated guesswork involved," says Napp. "The models went through numerous iterations until everyone agreed on the final outcome." In addition to the new dinosaur species, the artists also created several models of well-known dinosaurs, including the carnivorous spinosaurus, which were added to the scenes for effect.

Using The Beaver Project's translation software, the artists transferred the Light Wave models into Alias|Wavefront's Maya, where they were animated. Later, the models were ported back into LightWave, where they were rendered. "LightWave's renderer is very flexible, and you can get some fantastic-looking results without the added layer of complexity that RenderMan or Mental Ray adds," notes Napp.
Artists at Rainbow Studios had to create extremely detailed models and textures for the dinosaurs, including this T-Rex, because the documentary will be shown in high-definition television format. The HDTV resolution also made compositing the 3D images in

Presenting an especially difficult modeling and animation challenge was the spinosaurus, because of the huge, sail-like ridge that extends along the length of its back. "It had to move in conjunction with the rest of the body and not look like it was pasted on," says Napp.

According to modeler Boyd Lake, scientists believe that the ridge was an extension of the creature's spine-"another element that made the model more challenging since that kind of skeletal setup made it difficult to flex and move the body smoothly." To overcome this hurdle, the artists set up a customized muscle object structure using Maya that helped the ridge compress as the creature arched its back, and expand as it lengthened its spine forward while walking.

The animators also had to envision how these and the other dinosaurs might have moved through the tidal landscape. Walters supplied some of this information, suggesting that the enormous paralititan might have moved with the lumbering elegance of an elephant, and the spinosaurus with the grace of a large Komodo Dragon. "The paralititan's anatomy is similar to that of an elephant, whose legs can support a tremendous amount of weight," Walters explains. "From fossilized footprints, we can tell that these dinosaurs moved similarly."

Yet combining scientific fact with animation art was not always straightforward, and sometimes the scientific-based animation did not look right on the screen. "We had to create a walk cycle [for the paralititan] that was based on the footprint patterns of similar dinosaurs and elephants. But the length of the strides appeared to put too much stress on the models' legs; they looked like they were going to break," explains modeler and animator Adam Schimpf. "So we had to take the available information and work with the scientists to find compromises."
The spinosaurus was the most difficult dinosaur to model and animate because of the ridge that runs along its spine. The animators resolved this issue by setting up a custom muscle structure that smoothly compressed and flexed the ridge as the dinosaur wa

The artists had more artistic license when texturing the dinosaurs, which was done in Adobe Systems' Photoshop, using texture maps for the skin that were based on the size and shapes of scales found in various fossil remains. The textures were extremely detailed, as were the models, since the documentary is being aired in high-definition television (HDTV), which requires a final rendering resolution that is close to film quality. At times, the pipeline of HDBoxx systems from Boxx Technologies was handling frames of 6mb each.

"Working in hi-def meant the attention to detail was definitely cranked way up. We were more than quadrupling the pixel counts on all our frames," says Lake. "HDTV shows up every little mistake, so we had to intensely scrutinize everything: textures, shadows, lighting."

The HDTV resolution of the imagery also presented a compositing challenge. The team used Adobe's After Effects and Eyeon Soft ware's Digital Fusion to composite the live-action and computer-generated imagery.

"In some shots, where the dinosaurs are moving through the water, we had to replace all of the water in the live-action background plates with digital water be cause we couldn't get the interaction between the water and the dinosaurs to look realistic," says Napp.

Although the digital paralititan models have not yet made their television debut, they are already getting a good deal of attention in scientific journals and papers by providing a plausible look at these long-lost creatures.

Key Tools:
HDBoxx, Boxx Technologies (
LightWave, NewTek (