Prime Focus has completed over 90 VFX shots for the BBC’s new 5 x 60m HD series “How Earth Made Us.” The program explores how geology, geography and climate have influenced and continue to shape human history. Each episode examines a different force, including the effects of deep earth, wind, fire and water. The series concludes with a look at how the human race has become a geological force in its own right. The first episode aired in the UK on BBC Two on Tuesday 19 January.
Travelling to some of the most iconic locations on the planet, Professor Iain Stewart discovers how the river Nile caused Egypt to dominate the ancient world, how the break up of a super-continent 200 million years ago shaped an energy revolution, and how wind patterns changed the history of China and Australia.
“Graphics were a vital part of the series ambition, helping to explain the nitty gritty of how the Earth has influenced human history,” said Jonathan Renouf, series producer for the BBC. “Prime Focus was great to work with.
The team grasped difficult concepts and came up with some stunning ways to visualize them, whether it was the relationship between the planet’s wind systems and the growth of trade, or the way in which fault lines stimulated the growth of early civilizations.”
The Prime Focus team, led by Broadcast VFX creative director Simon Clarke and VFX producer Melody Woodford, worked for eight months on the project, supplying around 50 minutes of high-end VFX shots. “We were tasked to create a large number of shots with a fairly tight budget and high expectations of quality,” said Simon. “As well as creating credible visual effects, many shots required a level of conceptual visualization to demonstrate specific scientific phenomena. For example we were tasked with depicting the formation of distinct sand dunes created by consistent wind cycles that sculpt the shape of the land.”
The initial phases of work involved blocking out camera moves to get some sense of timing and to provide the edit with animatics. In parallel to this, digital matte painters worked on creating high levels of texture detail to apply to 3d models and backgrounds. In addition the team was tasked with streamlining the ‘Earth’ pipeline – optimizing render set ups to deal with the vast amount of picture information and detail that were required for the surface textures.
“For many shots the camera travelled more obliquely across the surface, so a more three dimensional approach was called for in creating terrain and volumetric clouds. This added another level of detail and scale enabling us to start in fairly close on the earth and pull out wide. The clouds would then scale accordingly,” said Simon. “One particular shot caught the eye – a huge pull out from an aerial live action shot of the presenter standing on Mt. Connor in Australia to a ‘space shuttle’ type view of the earth, giving the illusion that it was one seamless camera move.”
Melody Woodford, the VFX producer, was able to call on the Prime Focus Film VFX team in North America, who was busy working on James Cameron’s Avatar at the time, for a specific shot which showed the progression of giant crystals forming in a Mexican cave.
“We knew that our Film VFX colleagues had used a piece of software for simulating the kryptonite sequences in Superman Returns which was very similar to the look we were trying to achieve,” said Melody. “We did some modifications to the software and the R&D that was behind it and then they took that sequence on board to deliver the finished shot. It was a great example of our ‘Worldsourcing’ business model.”
Prime Focus is one of the world’s largest visual entertainment services groups, specialising in creative and technical services for the film, broadcast, commercials, music, games, internet and media industries. With a market capitalisation of $140m USD, it operates nine facilities in India, four in the UK and four in North America, offering clients access to a talent pool of over 600 visual effects artists worldwide.
Project: How Earth Made Us
Broadcaster: BBC Two
Production manager: Alison Castle
Series producer: Jonathan Renouf
Executive producer: John Lynch
Directors:Matthew Gyves, Nigel Walk, Charles Colville, Annabel Gillings, Matthew Dyas
VFX: Prime Focus
VFX creative director: Simon Clarke
VFX producer: Melody Woodford
VFX coordinator: Paul Driver
3D: Ian Baxter, Simon Goodchild, Sam Cox, Peter Forsythe, Scott Nelson, Nick Hanks, Lenka Zuckova
2D: Graham Stott, Pedro Lara
Graphics / matte painters: Johan Gay, Milan Schere
Flame: James Adamson, Adam Crocker