Digital dinos blend seamlessly into live-action scenes alongside humans in a uniques television series.
By Karen Moltenbrey
In books, movies, and more, cavemen often are shown living alongside dinosaurs—a situation that is absolutely contradicted by archaeological and paleontological evidence. In fact, dinosaurs were long extinct by the time Neanderthals walked the earth. Yet, through the judicious use of computer graphics in the ITV television series Prehistoric Park, prehistoric beasts are shown interacting with man—modern man, that is.
Prehistoric Park, a broadcast series that aired in the UK, melds the present and far distant past as it follows the intrepid Nigel Marven while he ventures through time to save creatures from extinction by bringing them back to the safety of a modern-day prehistoric park. In this dramatic adventure, Marven attempts to stock his park using time portals to jump between time periods. Each episode contains several story threads, as Marven’s adventures in a variety of prehistoric environments contrast with those of his park staff situated in the present.
The production is the latest collaboration between the UK production company Impossible Pictures and visual effects facility Framestore CFC, whose partnership has produced a number of award-winning productions, including the Walking With… series. Working on those shows enabled Framestore CFC to hone its prehistoric skills while creating a range of realistic CG dinosaurs that traversed land, sea, and sky. During the past several years, the Walking With Dinosaurs shows, as well as the studio’s sequels and specials, evolved from straightforward documentaries, wherein dinosaurs were seen in their natural prehistoric environments (shot straight in the style of a modern wildlife documentary), to the more recent programs, which introduced Marven as presenter and showed him in the shots with the creatures—even interacting with them.
In Prehistoric Park, the director takes that concept a step further by placing the digital dinosaurs in a modern setting and having them interact with live actors. "One of the things we all enjoyed about Prehistoric Park was the different slant that the program makers took this time," says VFX supervisor George Roper, who had worked on several previous Impossible Pictures collaborations. "Prehistoric Park has a little more fun to it—it is a move away from the serious documentary style of previous Walking With… projects."
To create this time-blending adventure, Framestore CFC spent 18 months planning and storyboarding, and then creating and animating the 3D creatures, as well as crafting the visual effects. The facility also was responsible for the final digital intermediate for all six one-hour episodes. In all, more than 70 artists, technicians, and producers worked on approximately 750 shots (630 of which were CG shots). According to Roper, that breaks down to 120 shots, or 20 minutes of CG, per episode, from time portals and matte-painting shots to herds of Triceratops and battling T. rexes.
"The storyboards were quite ambitious—lots of herds, numerous creatures running through water, fights, and close interaction between the dinosaurs and the environments," says CG supervisor Laurent Hugueniot.
Despite Framestore CFC’s extensive experience wrangling digital dinos, the studio was only able to utilize its past knowledge, not its past models, for this project. "Everything was new," says Roper. That’s because the BBC produced the previous dinosaur programs, while Prehistoric Park is an ITV creation. In fact, some of the 22 types of dinosaurs featured in this series are familiar and recognizable, while others are not; and not all the reptiles within the species are identical, as they vary in age. In fact, some of the dinosaurs that appeared in the program were new to the artists: Incisivosaurus, a bird-like feathered raptor with big teeth, Truoodon, another raptor/bird-like creature, and Deinosucus, a 60-foot-long crocodile.
The group began the creation process with maquettes. "Some of the creatures were old friends—Triceratops, T. rex, woolly mammoth were all creatures we had worked on before," says animation supervisor Neil Glasbey. "But there were differences. For example, this time the T. rexes were two juvenile specimens captured in the first episode, which we then follow as they grow to maturity. Also, a good 50 to 60 percent of the shots feature the dinosaurs interacting with human performers—being fed by them, chasing them, and so forth, so there were new challenges even in that regard."
Framestore CFC, experienced at creating realistic dinosaurs, crafted the beasts for this series. The dinos were modeled in Maya and later composited into the live action with Flame and Shake.
According to Hugueniot, one of the biggest challenges facing the group involved the large number of different beasts, each of which had to be modeled, rigged, and textured. The team modeled the dinosaurs from scans of physical models provided by the clients, using subdivision surfaces within Autodesk’s Maya running on Dell workstations. Next, the group painted high-resolution textures onto the models within Adobe’s Photoshop. After that, the group rigged and enveloped each creature, and then a muscle, or sometimes "fat," simulation was added for secondary movement.
While many of the beasts had rough skin, some contained fur, which was accomplished using Maya’s Fur system. "The Smilodons were the most complicated of the furry creatures because they were shown in close-ups," says Hugueniot. "We implemented a system that allowed us to use global illumination normally done in Mental Ray to tint the fur, which was rendered in Maya. The fur not only benefitted from direct light, but also from indirect bounce light from the ground and objects or other creatures, thereby greatly improving the quality of the lighting on the furry animals."
The remainder of the rendering was done within Mental Images’ Mental Ray. "We had more than 40 creatures to deal with, including the variations. We had to have a strict system to follow up the creature from the initial stages to the final result," explains Hugueniot. "We automated a lot of the rendering whenever we could—another lesson we learned from past experiences."
In addition to the exotic beasts, Prehistoric Park features beautiful cinematography from a number of exotic locations in the Yukon, Brazil, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, and Florida, which was used for the prehistoric scenes, while the park setting was filmed in South Africa. Senior Framestore CFC staffers supervised these shots, spending nearly a month on location for each episode.
A croc gets ready to grab one of the dinosaurs, and when it does, it twists the dino in the water as it swims away. Achieving the desired interaction required artists to rotoscope and paint each frame.
To contrast the look between the prehistoric adventures and life back in the park, the production company shot the park scenes in HD, while the adventures were filmed with 16mm. The mixture of the two formats meant that the Framestore CFC team could retain the epic feel for the adventure segments and have a more immediate documentary feel for the park scenes.
Back in the studio, once the artists animated the creatures, they had to re-create the lighting from each location using on-set digital photography so that the creatures would appear to receive the light from their environment. For each shot, the artists used HDR stills that were taken on location, which provided an approximation of the real lighting. Then, the artists embellished each shot by tailoring the lighting for the creature, adding bounce lights, shadows, rim lights, and more.
In addition to the location sets, the team also used matte paintings, particularly in Episode 3 for shots of an erupting volcano and in Episode 5 for creating a carboniferous forest. Moreover, the artists employed matte paintings for the park area to extend existing buildings, populate landscapes, and enhance the surrounding mountain range.
Another challenge for the crew was the level of interactivity in Prehistoric Park. In the show, the creatures interact with their environment, kicking trees, cages, bushes, and even attacking humans. "While difficult to do, it was well worth the effort, as [the interactivity] reinforces the illusion that the creature is seated in the environment," Hugueniot notes. The artists shot various interactions between live-action elements and the environment—for example, someone kicking up dust or using a complex rig to simulate creatures attacking each other in deep water. Sometimes the artists enhanced the scene with CGI.
Some of the beasts, such as these woolly mammoths, are covered in fur, created with Maya’s fur system. The artists then used global illumination to enhance the fur’s lighting.
As Roper points out, the crew has learned from past experience that bigger is better in terms of the interactions, which were then used with other bluescreen elements, also shot on location. "Our animators use these interactions as cue points for specific action," he says. "Using Apple’s Shake or Discreet Inferno, we can bed them into the shot."
One of the most difficult sequences involving these interactions occurred during a Deinosuchus (huge croc) attack. "It was grabbing a Parasaurolophus and dragging it into deep water while it was twisting in the water," Roper explains. To create this interaction, the crew built a rig that spanned vertically in the water, and the animators matched the action as best they could. But the shot still required hours of careful rotoscoping and painting on a frame-by-frame basis.
After the modeling and animation was complete, a team of five spent nearly eight months compositing the digital imagery into the live-action shots. This was done mainly in Shake and Discreet’s Flame. Finally, Framestore CFC perfected the overall look of the series in the company’s Digital Lab.
Despite the fact that Prehistoric Park takes an unusual and more fantastic story approach, the dinosaurs nevertheless had to be realistic. And that is a task that Framestore CFC has proved time and again it can do well.
Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor for Computer Graphics World.