User Focus: Making Waves
Issue: Volume: 27 Issue: 4 (April 2004)

User Focus: Making Waves

Although memorialized in a Hollywood blockbuster film, that incident, sadly, was not the area's worst seafaring disaster. Nearly a century earlier, another fierce New England storm—the Portland Gale—sank the passenger ship Portland, killing everyone aboard. Recently, that incident also became the focus of filmmakers, only this time for The Discovery Science Channel's documentary.

"The Wreck of the Portland," which includes two minutes of 3D computer animation, depicts what researchers believe happened to the ship after it left Boston for Portland, Maine.

Known as the "Titanic of New England," the tragedy was one of the worst maritime disasters to occur off the Northeast coast of the US, with the death toll reaching nearly 200. With no survivors, very little debris, and only a few bodies ever recovered, the Portland's fate also became one of New England's greatest maritime mysteries.

Then, just two years before the Andrea Gail incident, a Massachusetts firm specializing in locating lost objects at sea, reported having discovered the wreckage in 460 feet of water just 20 miles north of Cape Cod, but the ocean depth made it difficult to verify the ship by name. During the summer of 2002, though, underwater sonar and the use of a remote-operated vehicle helped confirm that the submerged boat was indeed the Portland.

For the TV documentary "The Wreck of the Portland," digital artists created an all-3D simulation depicting what researchers believe happened one fateful evening 100 years ago.

As part of Discovery's Science of the Deep series produced by David Clark Productions, researchers give television viewers a glimpse of Mother Nature's wrath and take them down to the watery grave. To augment the production, Home Run Pictures in Pittsburgh, along with Kaleidoscope Animations in Cleveland, created a 3D simulation of what experts believe occurred that fateful evening. Photographs of the wreck show no holes in the ship's hull and the top two decks missing, supporting the theory that a rogue wave, rather than a collision, was responsible for the sinking. Lending more credence to this speculation is the side-wheel paddleboat's design, whose long, narrow shape, combined with a shallow draft, made it unstable in high seas.

To bring this theory to light, the artists began researching these ships from yesteryear, working with Discovery producer Stacy Jannis as well as ship-design experts. They even visited a museum in Boston, where they took high-resolution photographs of a large model of the Portland on display. Using these pictures and blueprints of the boat as references, Kaleidoscope's Joe von Enck and Chris Holm led a team of artists who constructed the digital replica with Alias Systems' Maya.

The most challenging aspect of the project, however, was creating the CG water, particularly the giant wave responsible for the sinking. Initially, Discovery looked at filming rough seas and then compositing those frames into the scenes. "However, we were able to convince them that the best way to do this was to use all CGI," says Tom Casey, president of Home Run Pictures, "which gave us far more control over the imagery." The group then proceeded, using Maya's fluid effects tool and shaders.

The production of the giant wave, though, generated a great deal of discussion among the artists, including whether a wave in the middle of the ocean could actually crest like a surfing wave. After discovering that this indeed occurs, the artists then began simulating the effect, first having to decide whether to manipulate the surface data to deform the wave or produce the effect in postproduction.
In addition to modeling a replica of the Portland, the artists created realistic CG water for the animation.

Their solution, in fact, was a combination of CG and compositing. To achieve the desired shape, the artists manipulated the model's control vertices, and later added layers of particle-driven spray rolling off the top of the 3D wave. Meanwhile, the actual wave that lifts off the surface of the other undulating ocean was a separate model that was hand-animated and then composited into the scene using Discreet's combustion.

Because of their limited time and the need for high-def imagery, the rendering was outsourced to RenderCore, a remote service provider.

"The bar [for CG water] was set following The Perfect Storm," notes Holm. "And often, people expect feature-film quality on a documentary budget, which isn't possible. But we were able to push hard with the tools that are now available and get something that looks really good, which couldn't have been done a few years ago for a documentary."
—Karen Moltenbrey

Maya, Alias Systems