Pixeldust Studios, an Emmy Award-winning digital animation, visual design, and production company with studios in Washington, D.C. and New York City, has produced 200 animated sequences that will be featured throughout the new, five-part, mini-series event “Alien Deep with Bob Ballard,” premiering Sept. 16-17 on the National Geographic Channel.
To view a promo of this work, please see:
For “Alien Deep with Bob Ballard,” Pixeldust Studios was charged with conceiving and producing dramatic and highly detailed animations depicting everything from the depths of the Earth’s deepest seas, to landscapes on Mars. Rogue waves, ancient shipwrecks, dwellings for human beings built atop oil rigs and the Hawaiian Islands emerging from the Pacific Ocean are just a few examples of these compelling animated sequences.
ABOUT THE PROCESS:
Pixeldust Studios’ primary creative assignment for the “Alien Deep” project was
to create complex 3D and VFX shots and photo-realistic and stereoscopic animations that would seamlessly blend in with the overall vision of the Series Producer. These animations ranged from lighting up the deepest parts of the ocean, to riding the global ocean conveyor belt, to seeing the Hawaiian Islands teaming with underwater sea life, to depicting human beings settled on Mars. The most significant challenges were creating the range of ocean simulations that the Pixeldust team had to deliver, which ranged from calm water to the worst storm ever! Pixeldust artists also realized that creating shots that appear underwater and shots that appear in zero gravity/outer space are completely different challenges.
To accomplish these tasks, Ricardo Andrade and his team used bathymetric data to visualize the underwater topography in 3D. The team then rendered out 32bit EXR image sequences, which gave them the ability to completely control water depth and water density. Some other special techniques which were used during the CG work of special note were the fact that the team used a software called Realflow to generate the "Perfect Storm" water and ocean simulations. Rendering out 32 bit EXR files in separate passes (Color, reflection, refraction, foam), the team was also able to create realistic stormy oceans.
The bathymetry data was enhanced with additional texturing and displacements in Pixeldust’s native softwares Maya and Vue. Use of specialized Gamecaster True Virtual 3d camera that syncs with native software (Maya) for animating cameras in the scenes. Use of Realwave dynamic systems inside Realflow to simulate rogue waves and splashes, rendered with native Mental Ray renderer. Finally use of EON-Vue to achieve open wide hawain shots and underwater shots with plant growth using Vue ecosystems. Above all these, Pixeldust made efficient use of Maya dynamics, particle systems, fluids and Mental Ray + Renderman rendering techniques.
Pixeldust Studios also utilized a Specialized Camera that was connected directly into Maya and recorded the camera operators movements, so they could be translated into a 3D scene. This gave the team control to create organic and natural camera moves. Hardware and software used by Pixeldust included Autodesk Maya 2013, Z-brush, Next Limit Realflow 2012, Eon Vue 10, Mental Ray (for rendering), Sytheyes, Nuke 6.3, After Effects CS5.5/6, and Photoshop, and Pixologic Zbrush 4.
“Ricardo and his team at Pixeldust Studios certainly had their work cut out for them with the large number of highly complex graphics required for this series,” comments Stephen Hunter, Executive Producer of the series for the National Geographic Channel. “Water replication is one of the most difficult things to accomplish with computer animation, so a great deal of work was involved to get everything right. The end result enhances the viewer experience of this ambitious documentary.”
Ricardo Andrade, Founder & Executive Creative Director of Pixeldust Studios, said, “The producers of this extraordinary mini-series presented us with an enormous wealth of data. We were challenged with translating some of this data into amazing, underwater landscapes. For example, we created a fly over of Hawaii with the islands emerging from the water, we recreated a number of historic shipwrecks from ancient Greek and Roman times, and we imagined futuristic dwellings on Mars in which human beings might live.”
Andrade points out that especially demanding were the super complex fluid simulations they devised, which ranged from massive rogue waves in the oceans to tiny waves that appear in a teacup held by Dr. Ballard. “Our other animations presented geologically-correct underwater mountains, debris that appears to ‘rain’ down into the water from shipwrecks above, and a variety of Earth views looking down through clouds from outer space. All in all, this project was truly a wonderfully creative challenge,” remarks Andrade.
Isa Alsup, a renowned 3D Stereographer and visual effects artist whose credits include the 3D versions of the feature films Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Green Lantern, Conan, and Dolphin Tale, worked with Pixeldust Studios on the Alien Deep episode entitled Fires of Creation. “Pixeldust wanted their already beautiful work to give the audience an impact-filled 3D experience in the stereographic version for this episode,” states Alsup. “In particular, we worked to ensure that our submarine scenes had a genuine ‘being there’ feel.’ We worked on our landscape and underwater flyovers to make them appear magical, with a hyper-real feel that can best be experienced using 3D animation and 3D stereo presentation. Also, having our audience ‘flying’ through the clouds in 3D stereo brings a real ‘Superman’ moment to the show.”
The biggest challenge facing Pixeldust was rebuilding the 2D shots as 3D stereo, throwing away all the depth of illusion tricks used by traditional VFX artists in their work. “On a really short schedule, we were able to deliver all the shots re-mastered in 3D stereo, without using 2D to 3D conversion and with few differences,” adds Alsup. “Then we made sure the 3D stereo version was better than the original. The shots we delivered were uniformly magnificent.”
ABOUT PIXELDUST STUDIOS:
Founded in 2004, Pixeldust Studios is an Emmy Award-winning digital animation, visual design and production company with studios in Washington, DC and New York City. Pixeldust Studios specializes in creating innovative motion graphics, animations and visual effects for television, film, new media and corporate clients. For more information, please visit www.pixeldust.tv or call 301-656-0050.
ABOUT “ALIEN DEEP WITH BOB BALLARD:”
This five-part series premieres on Sunday, September 16, from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. ET/PT, with the final hour airing on Monday, September 17, from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. ET/PT on the National Geographic Channel (NGC). Dr. Ballard is joined on camera by leaders in modern science, like Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin and TV personality Bill Nye the Science Guy, as well as professional surfers, fishermen and boat pilots who understand the sea at an instinctive level.
From scientists to surfers, Dr. Ballard and his team will travel the world, seeking answers to questions at the root of earth and humanity. Where did life come from? What made the continents? What is the ocean’s engine? Are rogue waves real? Will men ever call the sea home?
To find these answers, Dr. Ballard visits breathtaking sites from volcanoes submerged more than 3,000 feet beneath the Hawaiian islands, to shipwrecks on forgotten ancient Greek trade routes, to cracks in the ocean floor where red-hot magma pours into open water. It is a surreal journey on which the National Geographic Channel’s cameras catch never-before-seen rock formations, lava vents and unusual species that call the ocean bottom home. Dr. Ballard will depend on the knowledge of peer leaders in science to decode the evidence he finds in this bizarre world.
“Alien Deep with Bob Ballard” is produced for National Geographic Channels International (NGCI) by National Geographic Television (NGT). For NGT, series producer is Gary Johnstone. For NGCI, executive vice president and head of international content is Hamish Mykura.