Great Migrations
December 10, 2010

Great Migrations

Pixeldust Studios creates moving in-show animations for a National Geographic Channel global TV event
Pixeldust Studios, an award-winning digital animation and broadcast design studio, recently created compelling animated sequences that were featured in National Geographic Channel’s global HD programming event “Great Migrations.”

National Geographic Channel’s “Great Migrations,” which premiered last month in 330 million homes, 166 countries, and 34 languages, took viewers around the world as it followed the arduous journeys that millions of animals undertake to ensure the survival of their species. The series, narrated by two-time Emmy/three-time Golden Globe winner Alec Baldwin, was a worldwide initiative unprecedented in the National Geographic Society's storied 122-year history. At the core of “Great Migrations” is a seven-hour high-definition event three years in the making — produced by National Geographic Television — to premiere globally on the National Geographic Channels.

Great Migrations gives the word “move” a whole new meaning. Shot from land and air, in trees and cliff-blinds, on ice floes and underwater, the mini-series tells the formidable, powerful stories of many of the planet's species and their movements, while revealing new scientific discoveries with breathtaking high-definition clarity. The National Geographic “Great Migrations” team spent two and a half years in the field, traveling 420,000 miles in 20 countries and all seven continents, to bring this spectacular, first-of-its-kind production to television.

For the series, Pixeldust created stand-alone shots of a computer-generated Earth by which to show complex particle systems that represented the migratory paths of various animals. The company also created rotoscoped butterflies that were composited over shots and transitions. Pixeldust provided approximately three to five CG shots per each of the four episodes of “Great Migrations,” and created CG imagery for the “Science of Migrations” and “Making of Migrations” special bonus material.

For “Great Migrations,” Pixeldust Studios started with a digital globe created in Autodesk Maya. Communication with the production team was critical at the early stages to make sure the company had the correct satellite data for its Earth textures, and then used three levels of data that was limited to the region Pixeldust was going to fly into, with texture maps up to 100GB in size. As many of the animal migrations were season-specific, it was key to have that information represented in the textures created by Pixeldust.

In addition, it was important for Pixeldust to keep a definition of the day-night line and city lights, which helped give a more realistic look to the shots. Next, the company moved onto the sweeping camera moves, where much time and care was spent to ensure that the camera movements were not only aesthetically pleasing, but also precise to the migratory locations. To accomplish this, the Pixeldust team worked closely with National Geographic’s research department, which audited all the information for accuracy.

Pixeldust further focused on making sure the mood and lighting of the globes were realistic and represented the National Geographic brand appropriately to the epic scale of the rest of the show. After collaboration with the production team, the company took on the task of creating the look of the migration paths. The Pixeldust team studied hundreds of migratory paths and created vector versions with a combination of Particular in After Effects as well as with hand-drawn paths that were projected onto the globes to maintain accuracy — no small challenge. The company created the migration paths to pop off the globes, but also wanted to make these paths feel as if they were cohesive with the established look. In the end, more than 100 layers were composited, with a good deal of time spent on color correction.

An interesting aspect of Pixeldust’s CG work was conveyed by the mood presented, combined with the camera moves over the migration paths. “I believe these were rather unique,” says Ricardo Andrade, president and creative director of Pixeldust Studios. “Being able to visualize something that would otherwise have been left to the imagination truly aids this series and makes the graphics stand out.”

Among other challenges presented to the Pixeldust team were finding access to satellite cloud textures in a high enough resolution. In the end, the team at Pixeldust ended up combining a few plates as well as hand painting some others. The company also used a combination of digital painting and particle systems to create some of the animated cloud coverage seen in some of the shots.

From development stage to final delivery, this Pixeldust assignment lasted approximately one year. Much of that time was spent in establishing style, not only in look, but also in movement of the cameras.

Regarding the contributions of Pixeldust Studios to this project, series producer David Hamlin says, “ ‘Great Migrations’ features incredible tales of dramatic animal migrations, and we tasked Ricardo Andrade and Pixeldust Studios to provide us with a graphical depiction of animal movements around the planet that could mirror the stunning visuals in the film. The end product is highly artistic, informative, and dramatic, and adds to the stories we are trying to tell.”