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One Giant Leap for Framestore CFC
Is it still possible to communicate the incredible excitement and promise of space exploration? This is the challenge faced and triumphantly answered by Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets, a new two-part drama-documentary devised and produced by Impossible Pictures for BBC1. The two hour-long episodes, narrated by David Suchet and directed by Joe Ahearne, will air on BBC1 at 9pm on November 9th and 16th. The digital visual effects were created by Framestore CFC.
It's the same teaming of production talent and VFX artistry responsible for the ?Walking With?' series and specials, seen by millions of viewers around the world since the series began in 1999. As Joanna Nodwell, Framestore CFC Producer on Space Odyssey, notes, "In previous collaborations with Impossible Pictures, we had 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 is also a drama-documentary - very different from the natural history style we were used to."
Over two hours, Space Odyssey takes us on an extraordinary voyage of discovery. It follows an international team of five astronauts on an imaginary near-future tour of our galactic neighbourhood. Their 6-year journey aboard Pegasus the 1 kilometre long mothership - takes them from as close to the centre of the solar system as it's possible to get, to its remotest regions. Their trek encompasses landings on the surface of three planets and a moon, as well as close encounters with asteroids, comets and the rings of Saturn.
Location shoots in Chile in September 2003 provided some of the raw material for the Venus and Mars environments. Other surface locations were created in the studio at Pinewood, and further sequences of the earthbound end of the project - were shot at the European Space Agency in their actual Mission Control rooms. Crucial zero gravity shots of the astronauts floating around the craft were filmed during a parabolic flight in Moscow. VFX Supervisor Tim Greenwood oversaw the flight, going up with the cast and crew in an aeroplane that had been rigged up with a large green screen so that Framestore CFC could comp in the appropriate backgrounds. Greenwood, along with colleague George Roper, supervised all the location shoots, as well as being responsible for compositing the finished work.
If Space Odyssey represents a major departure for the Framestore CFC team, it was one that initially fooled them. "We thought we were in for an easier time," says Mike Milne, Head of Computer Animation, with a rueful chuckle, "We were wrong. The animation for the rigid bodied elements is, naturally, easier; but their construction was not the level of detail needed was incredible. To give you a sense of the scale of the team's achievement, it took 235 man-days for the team to create Pegasus alone, never mind all the ancillary craft and other elements."
"Pegasus is a 1 km long spaceship designed to support 5 people for at least 6 years," says Sarah Tosh, Senior Modeller on the project, who led the core team of four modellers, "It also has to carry several different landing craft, as well as a host of scientific equipment, laboratories, fuel and so on. Using what was essentially a napkin sketch that NASA had come up with in the 1970s, specialist consultant Dr. David Baker and advisers from EADS (European Aeronautic Defence and Space) produced a conceptual plan of an interplanetary spacecraft. Our CG modellers then designed and constructed the full CG model of Pegasus."
Senior Technical Directors, Darren Byford, Adam Burnett and Theo Facey, surmounted a huge range of challenges as they worked to build, envelope and light the craft. "Some of the shots at the very end were logistical nightmares," recalls Byford, Supervising TD, "You had 3D rocks, 2 ½ D rocks, matte painting in the background, up to 8 layers of Pegasus that had to be rendered individually and built up, you had the astronauts, the lander? It was a much more complex weave of elements than the dinosaur shots tended to be a much richer CG environment."
Without giving the game away about the dramas that unfold on the various planets visited, it's safe to say that the environments the astronauts encounter can be incredibly hostile to human life. Michael Davis, Space Odyssey's Line Producer at Framestore CFC, elaborates, "Venus has a thick, heavy atmosphere visibility was described to us as being ?like looking through water', so we applied various treatments to the footage. Mars, on the other hand, is much more like Earth. There it was big sky replacements and the grade needed to be very strong."
Mars also featured some striking CG work. The astronauts are ambushed by a dust-devil, or whirlwind, which turns out to be surprisingly innocuous. It was created by Jamie Isles who, working in Maya using volumetric particles, created multiple swirling layers of the Martian vortex.
Another key figure in the creation of the planetary backgrounds was Jason Horley, leader of a group of matte artists whose job it was to paint these planets into being. As the project moved from the initial conception of 3D textured and rendered terrains toward the 2D and 2 ½ D solutions that were finally adopted, Horley found that the matte schedule had grown from 12 to some 350. In addition, Horley and the team created over 70 digital illustrations that were used in the BBC book that accompanies the series.
Beyond the Stars
For the Framestore CFC team, Space Odyssey was an opportunity to push themselves technically and artistically in directions they'd never gone in before. And the future? More (and different) dinosaurs will undoubtedly be lumbering across our screens, and another Odyssey is already being planned. Mike Milne sums up the company's ongoing relationship with Impossible Pictures thus, "Tim Haines and I have an understanding and a trust and when he comes up with a new direction, we at Framestore CFC are quite prepared to follow, because he's been right in the past."
Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets is an Impossible Pictures Production for BBC Television
Produced By Christopher Riley
Directed By Joe Aherne
Executive Producer Tim Haines
Associate Producer Duncan Copp
Executive Producer for the BBC Adam Kemp
Executive Producer Of Computer Animation Fiona Walkinshaw
Director of Computer Animation Mike Milne
CGI Modelling Sarah Tosh, Jon Veal, Oliver Cook, Romain Segurado, Stuart Penn, Jenny Bichsel
CGI Scanning Sean Varney, Guy Hauldren
Animators Pete Clayton, Simon Clarke, Stephen Endicott, Stuart Ellis, James Farrington
Technical Directors Darren Byford, Theo Facey, Adam Burnett, Jamie Isles, Nigel Rafter, Angela King, Chi-Kwong Lo, Henriette Plum, Jenny Bichsel, Edmund Kollen, Chris Thomas, Duncan Robson, Frederic Cervini, Alfie Oliver, Martin Macrae
Research & Development James Studdart, Eugenie Von Tunzelmann
Digital Paint Artists Jason Horley, Nathan Hughes, Danny Geurtsen, Virginie Degorgue, Daren Horley, Elsa Santos
Visual Effects Supervisors Tim Greenwood, George Roper
Digital Effects Artists Sirio Quintavalle, Nick Seal, Darran Nicholson, Christian Manz, Pedro Sabrosa
Producer Joanna Nodwell
Line Producer Michael Davis
Production Co-ordinator Sophia Dixon
Visual Effects Editor Tom Parker
Colourist Matt Turner
Related Keywords:Framestore CFC, Joe Ahearne, Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets