LONDON — The extraordinary 10-part series One Strange Rock, which debuted recently on National Geographic Channel, tells the story of our amazing planet from the microscopic to the cosmic. Two years in the making, the production combines the stunning live-action photography that NatGeo is known for with practical special effects and CGI that give viewers a peek at things impossible to see otherwise.
The series, from filmmaker Darren Aronofsky and producer Jane Root, is hosted by Will Smith. Guiding the episodes is a roster of eight astronauts who have unique perspectives on planet Earth. Shows feature extreme locations, the smallest and largest lifeforms, the greatest depths and heights, massive speeds in space and on Earth, and unique cultural celebrations and sites.
Framestore’s television department was commissioned to manage the creative and production VFX process in its entirety across the series. The Academy Award-winning creative studio drew on internal expertise to realize the brief and produce the VFX sequences throughout, commissioning a number of creative partners to help execute key sequences.
Framestore VFX producer Meg Guidon says it was quite a challenge to work on a 10-part TV series with many sequences requiring upfront design and sign-off prior to shot execution. “Particularly hard was the need to marry up the creativity and the science,” she notes. “Nutopia, the production company, wrote the scripts and supplied the scientific references. Darren is big on science himself, and people who come into animation and VFX often have math and physics sides along with their creative sides. So they can mix the factual science with the alchemy that makes the invisible visible.”
Each sequence was discussed and visualized by the key television creatives at Framestore before the production team worked out how to accommodate the delivery schedule.
The Earth’s magnetosphere is a highlight of Episode 3. “The idea of the sequence was to show the constant churn of the Earth that you can’t really see,” says Guidon. “They wanted to give some drama and character to the weight of motion and energy. The sequence starts in the center of the Earth with the churning of the magma, then pulls out from that red-hot core through the crust of the Earth to space to show the magnetic shield and how it affects space.”
The tectonics for Episode 7 illustrate the living, flexible surface of the Earth. “People usually show tectonics with a cross-section of the planet, but we were keen to avoid a sphere cut in half,” Guidon says. “So we took a less predictable approach, with a close-up of the Earth like a tarmacked road surface that breaks up and rises up against itself.”
CG diatoms, in Episode 1, examine how oxygen sustains life. “Real footage of diatoms exist, but we needed to show what they are doing underwater when a glacier calves and drops a sheet of ice into the water,” Guidon explains. CG diatoms illustrated that story; they appeared again when a girl cannon-balls off a jetty and her white water splash cross-dissolves to oxygen-bearing diatoms.
Specialist photography also plays a role in One Strange Rock. Photographer Chris Parks was commissioned to provide a library of textures shot at high speed from organic elements. “His beautiful textures and patterns often served as the final layer, a real organic layer on top of CGI,” says Guidon. Some were blended into animations of the surface of Mars, which appear in several episodes.
Other examples of specialist photography appear in timelapse footage of the growth of bamboo in Episode 8 and the emergence of a Monarch butterfly from its pupa in the final episode. The butterfly footage acts as a metaphor for astronaut Peggy Whitson’s astonishing life and career, Guidon notes. “The sequence was shot to look like a black stage with a performing escapologist,” she says.
With multiple strands of high-caliber VFX to bring together for each episode, it was Framestore’s task to creatively manage the collation of the series overall. Supported by a solid global infrastructure and a highly experienced production team, the work proved an ideal opportunity for the creative studio to collaborate with its UK VFX partners.