Pixeldust creates 1K animations for 'Fabric of the Universe'
October 31, 2011

Pixeldust creates 1K animations for 'Fabric of the Universe'

Pixeldust Studios, an Emmy Award-winning digital animation and visual design studio that creates innovative animations and motion graphics for major broadcast and cable television clients, has produced over 1000 animations and visual effects that will be featured in the upcoming, four-part NOVA television series, “The Fabric of the Cosmos.”
Based on the best-selling book by author/physicist Brian Greene (The Elegant Universe), “The Fabric of the Cosmos” airs on PBS for four consecutive Wednesdays, beginning November 2.

The series takes viewers to the frontiers of physics to see how scientists are piecing together the most complete picture yet of space, time, and the universe. With each step, audiences will discover that just beneath the surface of our everyday experience lies a world we’d hardly recognize—a startling world far stranger and more wondrous than anyone expected. During the course of the series, Greene will reveal that we've all been deceived. Our perceptions of time and space have led us astray. Much of what we thought we knew about our universe—that the past has already happened and the future is yet to be, that space is just an empty void, that our universe is the only universe that exists—just might be wrong. Interweaving provocative theories, experiments, and stories with crystal-clear explanations and imaginative metaphors like those that defined the groundbreaking and highly acclaimed series “The Elegant Universe, The Fabric of the Cosmos” promises to be the most compelling, visual, fun, and comprehensive picture of modern physics ever seen on television. 

For Ricardo Andrade, Pixeldust Studios’ founder/executive creative director, “The Fabric of the Cosmos” presented a unique opportunity to imagine the mysteries of the universe in visually engaging and accessible ways. “Without question, the animation work that viewers will be treated to during the course of four episodes of ‘The Fabric of the Cosmos’ represents the most ambitious project we’ve undertaken during the seven-year history of our company,” he says. “Our artists and producers have spent more than a year crafting these motion graphic sequences to ensure that they are not only visually arresting, but also scientifically accurate.” For the past 19 months, Pixeldust worked on this project in close collaboration with “The Fabric of the Cosmos” executive producer Joe McMaster, senior producer and creative director Jonathan Sahula, and producers from NOVA. According to Paula Apsell, NOVA senior executive producer, “In working on “The Fabric of the Cosmos,” Pixeldust had the difficult task of creating visual metaphors that would explain extremely difficult to grasp concepts of physics. The animators were extremely collaborative. The outcome and the work done by the Pixeldust team was not just clear and explanatory, it was also beautiful.”

Sahula notes that the “Fabric” series was a true partnership between NOVA and Pixeldust--from the earliest stages of brainstorming design and scientific analogies, to the last tweaks that refined the look and feel of each animation.

“I’d estimate that more that 80 percent of the shots in the series have some degree of animation, so Pixeldust had their hands in all aspects of NOVA’s workflow,” says Sahula.  “I can’t say enough about Nick Jernigan’s willingness to collaborate, Ricardo Andrade’s ability to problem solve visual issues, and Pixeldust’s unrelenting focus on the end result, even when grappling with scientific concepts that make rocket science seem like child’s play.”   In order for Pixeldust to visualize the complex physics concepts in “The Fabric of the Cosmos” script, every single shot was storyboarded first, then run by physicist/author Brian Greene for his feedback on accuracy. After this back and forth process, certain scenes were previsualized with animatics, and, in certain cases, such as the slicing of the “Space Time Loaf,” three or four different versions were created to find the best combination of beauty and accuracy. 

“Before our animators could even illustrate these concepts, they had to understand them, so that was our first challenge,” comments Andrade. Other challenges included the visualization from the inner workings of subatomic particles to the outer reaches of space and the multiverse, as well as novel depictions of “empty space” that can bend, twist or ripple. “The most challenging sequence of all was visualizing the expansion of the universe,” says Andrade. “As everything is pulling apart in the universe and expanding further away, at the same time, it’s also coming towards us and growing larger. It’s a very difficult concept to convey, along with depicting six-dimensional space with three-dimensional software.” For Nick Jernigan, Pixeldust’s visual effects supervisor, one of the biggest achievements for this project was creating a seamless look, by blending live-action greenscreen shoots, 2D and 3D animations, and visual effects. Based on creative discussions with the producers, Pixeldust would show them style frames to determine which visualizations were best. “Once the producers approved a style frame, we’d plan out the green screen shoots, using C-stands with fishing wire to direct Brian Greene’s actions,” Jernigan continues. “Then, using detailed, on-set camera notes, we were able to track the camera moves using match-moving software to seamlessly integrate the CG elements with the actions of Greene from the green screen shoot.”

In addition, Pixeldust also created digital sets and environments for the series, such as the futuristic teleport, two futuristic spaceports and a futuristic art gallery. 

A range of software was used on this project, including: Adobe’s After Effects for compositing; Autodesk’s Maya and Maxon’s Cinema 4D for the CGI; Andersson Technologies’ Syntheyes for match-moving and camera tracking; Adobe’s Photoshop and Illustrator image creation and manipulation; New House Internet Services’ PTgui for stitching 360-degree HDR panoramas; Imagineer Systems’ Mocha for After Effect for rotoscoping; The Foundry’s Keylight for keying; Red Giant’s Trapcode Particular and Form for particles and simulations. On the hardware side, the team used various Mac Pros and Wacom tablets. On set, the group used Canon 5D Mark 2s.

“This project really allowed us to be creative on so many different levels, and really pushed us to think way outside the box,” Andrade concludes. “We believe that this series presents the ‘best of the best’ of the unique type of work for which our company has become well known within the television industry.”