When the BBC unveiled the natural history miniseries Walking With Dinosaurs in 1999, it brought to the small screen a brand of complex CG dinosaurs that usually appears only in big-screen entertainment sagas like Jurassic Park and Dinosaur. Walking With Dinosaurs won an Emmy for Outstanding Visual Effects (not a common occurrence for a nature show) and firmly established the "virtual dinosaur" credentials of Mike McGee, visual effects supervisor at London's FrameStore-CFC.
Now McGee and his team have written a new - albeit more fanciful - chapter in the evolving history of CG dinosaurs. Dinotopia, Hallmark's three-part, six-hour miniseries that aired in the United States on ABC, challenged McGee's CG artists to push creature animation into places they'd not explored before. Author James Gurney's popular Dinotopia books presented an elaborately painted world where dinosaurs did amazing things - including carrying humans on their backs - so McGee and director Marco Brambilla faced a unique dilemma. "The concern was making our dinosaurs look real next to human actors," recalls McGee, "especially in long meandering shots with real people in them. We gave Dinotopia a look and a feel that's semi-illustrative. It's not reality, but it has its own reality."
For the project's 1,800 effects shots - 1,200 of which included CG - McGee had to find a balance between what the script required and what he'd learned from paleontologists about how dinosaurs probably behaved. "We've built dinosaurs in the past that were true to the researchers' thinking," says McGee, "but Dinotopia was pure entertainment. We broke all the scientific rules. We have dinosaurs climbing ladders, playing table tennis, and pouring tea. How do you make a dinosaur dexterous enough to do those things? And there are so many creatures in the back-grounds and foregrounds of many shots. We have 13 different species of dinosaurs and 69 different skin textures for them. We also had dinosaurs strutting about wearing hats and coats. We had to create wardrobes for 300 creatures. We took LOTS of artistic license."
One prime challenge was animating the character Zippo, a Stenonychosaurus who delivers significant dialogue. "Zippo is on screen for 32 minutes," reports McGee. "He's a walking, talking, interacting creature. When you're animating creatures, it's always a problem to have them purse their lips to make human sounds. You have to find a compromise that looks real." The process of modeling these dinosaurs at FrameStore-CFC actually began with maquettes created by Henson's Creature Shop, which contributed the project's animatronics. The CG modeling and motion then required a 42-person animation team that worked primariliy in Softimage. McGee notes, however, "We did use some Maya for the swarms of Pterandons and for flocking behavior - but just because the guys who were working on those things were Maya specialists." All told, McGee's team labored for a year to create 110 minutes of CG for Dinotopia.
The software specialists at FrameStore-CFC created some proprietary plug-ins to handle the animation challenges inherent in making so many dinosaurs appear to be individuals. But McGee, who has substantial expertise in compositing, thinks that some of his company's most innovative strategies were developed to handle the integration of the CG dinosaurs into the show's live-action photography. He cites as an example a wide shot where DP Tony Pierce-Roberts filmed a Brachiosaur walking down the street with humans on his back. "That's a simple shot," observes McGee. "Just put a wide angle lens on the camera and shoot roughly in the direction where the Brachiosaur will walk. But we wanted to keep the camera moving as much as possible, so once the set was built, we did a survey of it. Then we took an animation cycle of the Brachiosaur, and once the camera was in position, we fed the camera position into Softimage. The cameraman was then able to see - on a second monitor - the Brachiosaur walking down the street. So he was able to pick a lens that was appropriate to the scale of the creature."
"Even more advanced than that," McGee continues, "we then put an encoding device from Softimage onto the camera head. As the camera panned and tilted, the CG model panned and tilted as well. We were able to cue the creature walking down the street and have the cameraman look at the monitor rather than looking through the lens at the street. He could pan from the creature's head down its neck, onto its back where the actors would be, and then pan down to the extras who were all clapping and cheering in the street. That gave us a very natural, flowing camera move."
Perhaps the most ingenious strategy of all involved applying the concept behind motion-base simulator films to the challenge of making humans "ride" on a dinosaur's back. Typically in such cases, actors are photographed astride a nondescript bluescreen rig - and then animators do their best afterwards to slide in the CG character. Instead, McGee's group built a hydraulic rig that could be operated like a programmable simulator platform. That platform was driven by the CG creature animation. "We took our Softimage animation and translated it into realtime," explains McGee. "We built a life-size torso of the dinosaur, put a saddle on it, and put humans on that. The actors were actually riding on the true animation of the CG creatures. That's why they look like they're really ON the creatures - it's not like they've been put on a motion platform that just rocks back and forth."
McGee is understandably happy that FrameStore-CFC solved a traditionally thorny problem. "I saw an article that said one problem ILM still hadn't cracked in the latest Star Wars was actors riding on the backs of CG creatures. So I'm pleased that's something we cracked for Dinotopia. And it all came from building this rig. Of course, it weighs several tons, so once we had the inertia of a creature at full gallop, the rig wanted to leap off the floor. We had to screw it into the ground!"
In addition to using the Softimage animation to drive the motion base, McGee's team used it to program a motion control camera as well. "Imagine that a creature walks camera right, looks at the face of an actor, and exits camera left. The only way we could get that change of perspective was by moving the camera around the rig. What we'd do was shoot a background plate, then animate the CG dinosaur, and then take the animation and translate it into a motion for the motion base. Then we'd drive the motion control camera around the rig. We had Softimage on stage driving both the motion base and the motion control camera at the same time. It was computers talking to other computers." When it came time to marry this photography with the finished creature animation, he notes, "We just lined them up and - pop! - they came together."
With these techniques and an extensive CG dinosaur library in place, FrameStore-CFC is well positioned to handle the animation for 13 one-hour episodes of ABC's upcoming Dinotopia television series. In fact, his shop began that assignment even before work on the original Dinotopia was done. McGee himself won't be working on the series, planning instead to move onto other challenges. After 2 [fraction one-half] years working on Dinotopia, and 2 years before that on Walking With Dinosaurs, he says he's leaving dinosaur animation "for a long rest!"
"Dinotopia: CG Dinosaurs Evolve." Millimeter 1 July 2002. Fine Arts and Music Collection. Web. 2 Dec. 2009.
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