National Geographic Channel’s “World’s Toughest Fixes” was headed into its second season when the creators decided to find a company they could trust to make the show’s animations rather than doing them in-house as they had the previous year. The animations, which usually depict some of the most complicated aspects of repairing something out of the ordinary—often under tricky or dangerous circumstances, have a very distinct style (closely resembling blueprints). So they were looking for artists with very specialized skills. Enter Cosmocyte.
Cameron Slayden, founder and creative director of the Savage, Maryland-based medical and scientific animation house, and his team had already worked on “National Geographic Explorer” when this opportunity came up. “So they already knew we could produce good results and they gave us a chance,” Slayden explains, adding that while the first season’s 3D animations had been done in After Effects, Cosmocyte used MAXON’s CINEMA 4D in their work. “I specifically selected my team for their creative ability and science focus,” he says. “And one of the best things about C4D is that it has such an easy learning curve, I can bring people on even if they don’t know it because it will only be a few weeks before everything falls into place for them.” (See Cosmocyte’s reel at: www.cosmocyte.com/demo.swf).
For this animation of a rotor lift being used to fix a windmill generator, Cosmocyte’s artists brought a CAD file provided by the client into Okino’s PolyTrans in order to cut it up and rig it before starting the animation process. Two-dimensional jpgs of different types of grids were used as a background.
Once they had the style nailed down, Cosmocyte’s goal was to keep the animations, many of which couldn’t be illustrated without using 3D, visually interesting while explaining what was happening in ways that were clear and understandable to viewers. Creative was based on a rough cut and voiceover script delivered beforehand by the client. Sometimes, they would also receive CAD files, but artists usually had to make everything from scratch. “It was nice when we got the CAD files because using Okino’s PolyTrans we were able to easily convert the files over for use in C4D,” Slayden says. With 13 episodes in season two, Cosmocyte’s 4 animators, including Slayden, and one intern, worked hard to deliver 5 to 12 high-definition animations per show (depending on the complexity of the fix). Most of the time, everything had to be completed in two to three weeks.
This “old-school” animation, used in the wind power episode, shows how electric generators work. “Sometimes we had trouble keeping all of the lines faithful to an object using Sketch and Toon for high-def renders,” explains Creative Director Cameron Slayden. “So we would produce a wire-frame cel render to get a computerized contour.”
One of the best examples of Cosmocyte’s work on this project can be seen in the episode about the building of a solar power plant in Lancaster, California. (Watch the clip here: http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/series/worlds-toughest-fixes#tab-Videos/06901_00). In the episode, crews confront the daunting task of suspending two boilers, each weighing 65 tons, from two towers 160 feet above a field of mirrors. Once programmed, the mirrors were designed to reflect the sun’s rays back to the boilers creating enormous amounts of steam. Cosmocyte’s animators illustrated this process, as well as a detailed explanation of how a parabolic mirror works so viewers could understand how the mirrors in the field could collect light waves and reflect that light onto a single point on the boilers.
MAXON’s MoGraph module played a big role in the creation of this series of animations showing how parabolic mirrors work when assembled in a solar field. “Without MoGraph’s cloner object, we would have had to hand animate thousands of mirrors,” says Slayden.
“Using MoGraph, we placed all 20,000 mirrors onto a disc that had a slight parabolic shape,” Slayden explains. “Then we used Inheritance Effectors to take the mirrors (which appear to be falling into place) down to the level of the field.” MoGraph’s Target Effector helped ensure that the parabolic orientation of the mirrors was maintained as each one took its spot on the ground. “We were trying to show how the two principles at work are identical between the parabolic disc and the much larger field of mirrors,” Slayden says.
For another episode, in which an old satellite is replaced with a new one that will provide phone and Internet service to people around the world, Cosmocyte’s animators created graphics showing how the outbound satellite would be placed on top of a rocket and launched into space from French Guiana. To illustrate how a system of tunnels is used to protect the rocket from damage by carrying away the vibrations caused by igniting the fuel, Cosmocyte’s animators used C4D to create expanding animated spheres with white luminance and a fresnel shader in the alpha channel composited over the scene. “We also used compositing tags to matte out everything else to make it look like the waves were engulfing and moving around the other objects rather than being visible over the top like a cheap radio-wave effect,” Slayden says. “By applying distortion in After Effects, we even made the waves look like they were affecting the air.”
Cosmocyte’s artists used PyroCluster on a MoGraph matrix object, which they used to create Thinking Particles with PyroCluster materials, for this animation of a satellite exploding in space. The constellation star map was dropped from the final scene.
One of the most challenging aspects of this project, Slayden says, was its strict style. On the upside, it was good to have a consistent look and know how to achieve it. The downside, though, was having to make everything look and act as it should within a limited palette (mostly shades of blue) using a small pool of assets. “Normally,” Slayden explains, “you would use a lot of texturing to define objects. In this case, we could only use geometry so everything had a real engineering kind of blueprint feel to it.” To do this, artists primarily relied on CINEMA 4D’s Sketch and Toon module and cel renderer. “Whenever you have a bunch of objects, and you start showing their geometry with lines, it can flatten out,” he continues, adding that ambient occlusion with ambient and key lights as the light source helped pull out edges and keep everything well defined.
While it would have been easier in some ways to go with photorealism for animations such as this rocket launch, Cosmocyte needed to follow National Geographic Channel’s strict design parameters and color palette for this project.
Over time, the team devised a few “clever methods” for producing luma mattes they could use in compositing that were different from standard object buffers. Creating these mattes for most objects allowed them to dynamically control the position, size and shape of the transparency gradients during compositing, which helped control what was in focus. “Everything had to fade out at the edges because we couldn’t show a greater environment,” Slayden says. “So we had to develop a technique for getting C4D to output these luma mattes.”
Cosmocyte’s artists used Inheritance Effectors (seen here) and MoGraph’s cloner object to create this 31,000-polygon scene of parabolic mirrors being laid out in a solar field. (Around 25,000 of those polygons were individual mirrors.)
While this project definitely got the team up to speed on all of the ways they could use MoGraph in their work, it also brought the full power of Cosmocyte’s render farm to bear. “This was essential,” says Slayden, “because the high-definition versions of the animations had to be created within 24 hours of approval of the final low-resolution versions.”
After they developed their optimization procedures, the final high-definition render for most of the 15-second animations took about two to three hours using C4D’s NET Render module. To help the process run smoothly, projects were cut up into different passes and rendered at the same time. “Any one of those passes would be about 1.5 Gigabytes,” says Slayden, who is pleased with the ease with which C4D was integrated into their creative pipeline. “CINEMA 4D is so much of our focus now, we look for other programs based on how well they can work with it, not the other way around.”
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Meleah Maynard is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and editor. Contact her at her website: www.slowdog.com
September 7, 2009
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