Issue: Volume: 24 Issue: 3 (March 2001)

Island on the Move

A six-minute animation covers more than 1.5 billion years of geological history

By Jenny Donelan

The Danish island of Bornholm is a geographical oddity for several reasons. First, it's off the coast of Sweden rather than Denmark. Second, due to tectonic plate movement, it has moved from the Southern to the Northern Hemisphere over the course of its 1.7 billion years of existence. And last, a fault zone slices through it, dividing the island into two distinctly different types of rock-an ancient granite layer and a sandstone layer that is 1.2 billion years more recent.

Several years ago, the town of Aarkirkeby on Bornholm decided to build a museum to demonstrate the island's unique geological history. The facility was to include a series of interactive installations, including a large-scale time-travel animation that would take visitors back to the island's earliest days in the preCambrian period. The Copenhagen-based firm of Christian Bjrn Design was chosen to oversee the development of the internal installations for the museum, and Bjrn employee Herman Bailey was assigned to create the necessary animations, including the large time- travel piece.
Trees populated the steamy, swampy environment of Bornholm during the Jurassic period. Animator Herman Bailey created each geological period using 3D Studio Max and other tools.

This was to be his first full-fledged animation project. "I'm trained as an industrial designer," says Bailey, a British citizen who has been working in Denmark for several years, "but my previous experience with computer visualization gave me the necessary tools for this project." In the case of the time-travel animation, the finished film covers six different geologic time periods, beginning with a view of Bornholm during the ice age (a mere 13,000 years ago), then proceeding back through the Cretaceous, Jurassic, Cambrian, early Cambrian, and preCambrian periods, ending up 1.5 billion years ago 40 degrees south of the equator. The animation takes place in a room in which three projectors run in parallel to project imagery in high-quality format onto a wall 10 meters wide. The idea is to immerse visitors in the sheer scope of geological change.

Bailey created the animation using Discreet's 3D Studio Max running on a 400mhz dual Pentium II-based workstation with a Diamond Viper graphics card. For textures, he used a combination of Darkling Simulations' DarkTree Textures, Adobe Systems' Photoshop, and Onyx Computing's Tree Storm plug-in for 3D Studio Max.
The island's volcanic beginnings in the preCambrian period (right) took place south of the equator. Millions of years later in the early Cambrian period (below), cracks wound their way through a desert. Textures were created with DarkTree Textures and

The greatest challenge Bailey faced was depicting each time period accurately. A number of advisors, including a geologist, worked with him to ensure this. "With the Jurassic images, for example," he says, "we researched how the trees were shaped, how tall they were, and even the sort of massing they would have had within the landscape-just to give a more realistic impression of the swamp-type climate that would have existed." By contrast, the Cambrian segment represents a desert, for which he communicated extreme heat by inserting waves of heat distortion into the scene.

Texture mapping was also tricky. "It's very easy to dream up some fantastic material, but we had to keep our feet on the ground and use textures that geologists and others would respect as plausible. It wasn't enough to impress people with pretty pictures," he says.
A form of primitive sea life in the Cambrian period (top) had died out by the time of the ice age (bottom).

The time-travel animation has been up and running for several months now, and has been well received. After viewing the animation, museum visitors proceed through a series of rooms, each utilizing a variety of media to represent the different time periods in more detail. The museum's creators hope the interactive and immersive nature of the different installations will communicate something of the immense forces that over huge spans of time created this unique part of Denmark-a tall order for human beings, who have difficulty comprehending time spans of thousands of years, let alone millions. Bailey's task in this regard was to compress those millions of years into one very short film. "We spent a lot of time researching the precise characteristics of the different periods," he explains. "Then I had to capture the character of each in about a minute."

3D Studio Max, Discreet (