The intrepid tale of how a small team of British animators overcame enormous odds - including having to learn Maya from scratch - to accomplish their mission. Come in Framestore CFC's 3D department, do you copy, over?
Anyone who saw Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets on BBC1 recently will most likely have been impressed by two things: the scale of the project, and the fact that - for once - television sci-fi effects didn't look as if they'd been filmed using an empty washing-up bottle and some sticky backed plastic.
Consisting of two one-hour episodes, Space Odyssey is closer to its Kubrick namesake than a Hollywood blockbuster. Although clearly dramatised, it attempts to show some of the challenges that could realistically face a team of five deep-space astronauts as they penetrate to the heart of the solar system. Theirs is no quick jaunt to the moon, either: the six-year journey sees stop-offs on Venus, Mars, and the Jupiter moon of Io.
Along the way, the astronauts study various cosmic phenomena and, naturally, get into some close scrapes with radiation sickness, cosmic rays and so on, all for the purpose of our entertainment. Their temporary home is a giant spacecraft called Pegasus (after the mythological horse): a 1.3km long behemoth powered by a nuclear fusion reactor. Its interior has the equivalent space of ten jumbo jets, carries 57 tonnes of food and 80 tonnes of oxygen. There are also five landing craft, designed for specific planets, plus a variety of unmanned probes. In short, it's real Boy's Own stuff, but with the added remit of being both scientifically accurate and, hopefully, educational. The series was created for the BBC and Discovery Channel by Impossible Pictures with Framestore CFC - the same partnership that produced the phenomenally successful Walking with... series.
But what isn't apparent on screen are the real hardships the effects crew at Framestore CFC faced while they made the series. The challenges of Odyssey were very different to those of previous series - both in terms of content and style. As Joanna Nodwell, Framestore CFC producer, notes: "In previous collaborations with Impossible Pictures, we'd placed CG creatures in real environments. Here, we faced the challenge of creating CG spacecraft and environments, as well as the physical phenomena that the astronauts encounter. It's also a drama-documentary - very different from the natural history style we're used to."
But as it turned out, style was the least of their worries; with an enormous workload, a production pipeline change, and attention to scientific detail being paramount, the team underwent an odyssey of their own.
Effects filming began in September 2003, with location shoots in Chile providing raw material for the Venus and Mars environments. Meanwhile, other surface locations were being built at the famous Pinewood Studios, with footage of the Mission Control rooms shot at the European Space Agency. To simulate zero-gravity effects, the team travelled to Moscow for several parabolic flights: massively steep ascents to 8,000m or so, followed by a virtual nosedive, which effectively induces weightlessness. Both cast and crew were aboard, with VFX Supervisor Tim Greenwood setting up a complete greenscreen rig for later compositing. Back on earth, Framestore CFC began modelling the jewel in Odyssey's crown: Pegasus.
"We thought we were in for an easier time," says Mike Milne, Head of Computer Animation. "We were wrong." With nine months in which to complete roughly 400 3D shots - 700, including compositing - the team couldn't afford to daydream: "That's about the average number of shots we're usually expected to do in that time," explains Supervising Technical Director, Darren Byford. "But on this, the workload was much greater because of the variety of the shots. We had to do the spaceship, the landers, the astronauts, particle work, environments and so on. It just happened to be the first time we'd tackled fluids and particles, too."
For Sarah Tosh, who was in charge of the modelling team, the pipeline was a whole new experience. "We mainly produce creatures, and our pipeline is set up for that, so we know where we are," she says. "With Space Odyssey, it was completely uncharted territory. We had to do a lot of R&D at the same time as working to a schedule that sort of assumed we'd already done it a hundred times. The main difference in modelling was that, with our creatures, we used scanned data. With our landers and Pegasus, we had a few reference images, but nothing else to work from. So the design was essentially made up, or taken from books about landers."
LOST IN SPACE
Pegasus had various important elements that had to be included in some form: the sleeping modules, magnetic field generators, aerobrakes and so on. The problem for Framestore CFC was not what to construct, but how - and how it would eventually look. "It was like being given an architectural concept sketch for a shopping mall or something, and being asked for a walkthrough," explains Byford. "All we had were these rough design sketches, so we had to put in all the detail, as you get so close to it [in the series]. The difficulty was getting the balance between making it look plausible, and ensuring it was a good design. We also had to fit different pieces of research together, so we'd come up with ways of doing that."
The original design, he explains, was: "a '70s sketch on the back of a napkin, which some guy from NASA had drawn as an idea." There were also some design concepts from EADS (European Aeronautic Defence and Space), but those amounted to just five sheets of A4. As Byford points out, there was a lot of filling-in to do.
Although the team had scientific advisors on hand, they undertook a lot of research on their own. "For instance, for the magnetic shield effects, we looked at the Aurora Borealis [or Northern Lights]," he says. "We'd go and do our own research, present the advisors with something, and they'd say 'yes' or 'no'. They helped direct us, but how the actual effects were done was down to us."
Pegasus was impossible to render in its entirety, running into millions and millions of polygons - Byford isn't even sure how big the final model was. "It was a mammoth build, so we had to break it up into four pieces, and each one had to be rendered separately. We were right on the upper limit of what mental ray could render. Plus, there were three levels of detail for each one, so they had to be built as well."
ONE SMALL STEP?
There was another problem, aside from the challenge of creating so many models. Traditionally, Framestore CFC had used Softimage software, along with a few in-house tools. But because of Odyssey's specific requirements, it was decided at the outset to switch to Maya - a program none of the team were familiar with.
As a result, much of the time was spent learning Maya rather than investing in new R&D. "It was mostly out-ofthe- box Maya stuff, although we did have a few in-house tools to speed things up," says Byford. "It was Maya and mental ray, and we used particles and fluids a bit. Most of that time was spent learning how to get Maya fluids to do exactly what was needed for the specific shots."
Particle systems were used most notably for the 'dust devil' whirlwinds on Mars, inconveniencing our intrepid heroes. Technical Director Jamie Isles created these using volumetric particles, layering various effects for realism. Maya's integration with mental ray was important for Odyssey. "The lighting could be very stark in space, and on the planets, so we wanted to use the Final Gathering features in mental ray," explains Byford. "There was also the particle work and the possibility of doing fluids work, so Maya just seemed like the most sensible solution."
Naturally, the change wasn't quite as seamless as they'd hoped. "The mental ray implementation in Maya is quite different to Softimage|XSI, so we had a rather exciting learning curve on that one," says Byford.
"If you broke it down individually into each shot, or each technique and area, it wasn't daunting," says Byford. "It was only when you put it all together and realised just how much we had to do - that was the scary thing." Much to the team's relief, Odyssey was completed on schedule. Now, the techniques they learned the hard way are being put to use on the new Walking with Dinosaurs series.
"It was an immense team effort and it wouldn't have worked without every single member working their fingers to the bone," says Tosh. "I wouldn't necessarily want to repeat it in the same way, but I'm incredibly proud of the way it turned out."