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Rainbow Studios Helps Dinosaurs Roam the Earth in HD for A&E

(August 08, 2001)
Rainbow Studios announced it has digitally cloned and animated 3D dinosaurs for MPH Entertainment in HD for the upcoming A&E Network special "The Lost Dinosaurs of Egypt," premiering this fall.

You can preview a sampling of dinosaurs in HD from "The Lost Dinosaurs of Egypt" at BOXX Technologies (booth #1059) during SIGGRAPH 2001, August 14-16.

Perhaps the only thing more exciting than finding a new dinosaur would be the chance to see that dinosaur come to life. Although this isn't really possible, renowned paleontological restoration illustrator Robert Walters believes that the digital animation experts at Rainbow Studios have done the next best thing.During six minutes of animation in the upcoming A&E Network special "The Lost Dinosaurs of Egypt," Walters says Rainbow artists "have brought a lost world to life. This sort of work is as close to cloning as we'll ever come."

For this Phoenix-based animation house, turning fossils into creatures through CG was as complex as the science fictional cloning techniques in "Jurassic Park." The CG process of creation took a lot of attention to detail, artistic know how, and even more scientific input.

"We did a lot of things different on this project," explains Director Jim Milio of MPH Entertainment, the production company that-along with Cosmos-helped fund both the recent dig that uncovered the new genus and species of large dinosaur, Paralititan stromeri, and the documentary recording that event. "Because we heard so many stories from scientists about how inaccurately dinosaurs have been depicted, that some of the most famous dinosaur imagery has been filled with misinformation and falsehoods such as wrongly shaped bodies, heads and behaviors, I promised to keep the scientists closely involved."

Keeping the scientists involved, however, meant that every aspect of CG dinosaur creation-down to the placement of a foot or blink of an eye was critiqued to the nth degree. "The scientists said things like, 'He's blinking way too much. He wouldn't blink that much,' " says Milio.

Rainbow Producer and Vice President Nicholas Napp agrees that this attention to detail was, at times, very intense. "There definitely were a lot of little things we had to pay attention to, which were compounded by the resolution of the final render for 1080/30 hi-def. Fortunately, we are used to overbuilding our models to meet these kinds of demands."

It was this over-the-top attitude that helped land the job for Rainbow. Says Milio, "This was my first time doing CGI, so I was pretty nervous because of all the horror stories you hear about budget over-runs. In fact, we met with a half dozen companies, three of which went out of business during the bidding process, which added to my nerves. Columbia TriStar recommended Rainbow and they basically promised to make me happy. They hadn't done dinosaur work before, but I could tell they could. They had that sort of tenacity."

Rainbow's exercise in tenacity began in the Everglades of Florida. Recreating the world unearthed by the paleotological team led by University of Pennsylvania Ph.D. candidate Josh Smith required a tidal backdrop similar to the mangrove jungles of the Sunshine State. Rainbow modeler and animator Adam Schimpf, along with several paleontologists, was along for the ride as the film crew shot background plates.

"It was cool to see the environment through the eyes of the scientists," says Schimpf, who explains that long days spent together in a flat-bottom boat gave him plenty of time to learn about the lifestyles of the dinosaurs he would animate. "It was definitely hot, but it was also very beautiful. That whole area outside of Everglade City is submerged in water except for a few hours at low tide. But it's all very shallow. We'd be cruising along and all of the sudden hit ground. That gave us a unique perspective on the dinosaurs. You quickly got the idea that because of their size, they wouldn't have any trouble walking through water." Schimpf also learned a lot about the "look" of this lost world, how unexpected creatures-like dolphins he witnessed from the Gulf-could suddenly appear and then disappear through the maze of water-soaked vegetation. Yet, before he or the rest of the Rainbow Team could begin to animate, digital models had to be constructed. Using NewTek's Lightwave 3D, Discreet's 3ds max and Nichimen's Mirai software packages Rainbow creatives formed digital sculptures of four dinosaurs: two enormous Brontosaurus-like plant-eaters and two T.Rex sized carnivores.

By far the most difficult creature to model and animate was the crocodile-like Spinosaurus. "The Spinosaur has a sail that runs along the length of his back that was very complicated to model," explains modeler Boyd Lake. "The scientists told us that sail was really an extension of its spine, but that sort of skeletal set-up made the model very difficult to flex and move smoothly. Inside Alias|Wavefront's Maya we set-up a custom muscle object to help the sail compress as the creature arched it's back and expand as it lengthened its spine forward."

Once the models were completed, the animators had to envision how these extinct creatures might have moved through their ancient tidal world. Walters supplied much of this information, suggesting that the enormous Paralititan might have moved with the lumbering elegance of an elephant, and the Spinosaurus in particular with the strange grace of a large Komodo Dragon. Says Walters, "The anatomy of the Paralititan is similar to an elephant. An elephant's legs are graviportal in that they can support a tremendous amount of weight. Their legs are like hinged-columns and when they move they place their feet very carefully. From track waves [fossilized footprints] we can tell that these dinosaurs moved in the same manner."

Yet combining scientific fact with animation art was not always a straightforward process. Schmipf explains that his digital recreations, animated in Maya, often required adjustments between the possible realities of science and the actual realities of what looked right on the screen. "We were asked to create a walk that was somewhere between the footprint patterns of several dinosaurs and several elephants. But the length of these strides appeared to put too much stress on the legs. It made our models look like they were going to break. So, we had to take all this complex information and find compromises that looked real."

While the animation was created, color mappers designed the look of the digital dinosaurs' skins. "That's actually where we had the most freedom to create," explains Lake. "The scientists gave us some direction, but let us roam free based on their hints. They had some speculations on the color of the Spinosaur's sail, that it was either used to dissipate heat or attract mates. They even said it might be brightly colored like a peacock and we actually started to go in that direction, but based on our thoughts internally we toned that down. We believed that since it was a predator that sail probably wouldn't be so bright. It would need to camouflage with the vegetation."

Overall, the artists stuck with fairly conservative choices for all the dinosaurs' color patterns, agreeing with the scientists that most likely the larger the animal the more subdued its coloration. Texture maps for the dinosaurs hides were based on the size and shapes of scales found in fossil remains.

As if all this complexity weren't enough to drive up the render times of these clips, Napp explains that the entire documentary was shot in High Definition and edited on BOXX Technologies' HDBOXX. "That meant we had to rely on some really fast equipment. We chose BOXX Technologies for its outstanding track record of reliable system technology. Their helpful support technicians helped us create a solution for getting the Hi Def background files into LightWave 3D, which streamlined production immensely. That whole pipeline was an interesting challenge because, ultimately we were handling frames that were between four and six megabytes each."

Lake adds that work in Hi Def meant "the attention to detail was definitely cranked way up. We were more than quadrupling the pixel counts on all our frames. Because Hi Res shows up every little mistake, you have to intensely scrutinize everything; your textures, your shadows, your lighting."

Intense scientific scrutiny combined with artistic flair has already paid off for Rainbow. The moment the paper detailing the importance of the new dinosaur find was released in Science magazine, images from Rainbow's CG creations began to hit the media. A frenzy ensued that won't let up until the air-date for "The Lost Dinosaurs of Egypt" this Fall.

Both Schimpf and Lake agree that this sort of hype is an unusual reward for hours and hours of painstaking work. Says Lake, "It's a big pay-off for guys like us, to have our work be so visible and talked about." Even with all the back-and-forth between science and art, adds Schimpf, "the dinosaurs were still really fun to animate."

Napp adds, "We are proud to have participated in the creation of the documentary "The Lost Dinosaurs of Egypt." Cosmos Studios and MPH Entertainment have given us a fantastic opportunity to showcase our artistic talents. Transforming great work into fantastic work is a strong story, and "Lost Dinosaurs" delivers it by the ton."

About Rainbow Studios Rainbow Studios is the largest digital entertainment studio in the Southwest. Headquartered in Phoenix, Arizona, the company designs, builds and delivers entertainment content for traditional and interactive media. Rainbow is built on the creation of long and short form CG animation for all media, and game titles for consoles and the PC. Rainbow is a true new media company with roots in the skills and production values of traditional media. Classically trained artists work alongside award-winning engineers to create and deliver great entertainment in all media. Our cohesive team includes veterans of live-action production, pioneers of CG and acknowledged leaders in advanced technology. Rainbow's studio includes audio facilities and the largest magnetic motion capture stage in the US.

Rainbow continues to build its business by choosing great projects and working with industry leading clients. Recent clients include Activision, Fox Family Entertainment, Infogrames, Lucas Arts, Playmates Toys, Sony Computer Entertainment of America and TV Loonland.

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