Jellyfish VFX on ‘America: The Story of Us’

Jellyfish Pictures were one of several companies asked to pitch for the extensive VFX work on ‘America: The Story of Us’, a 12 part ambitious series made by new indie production company Nutopia (started up by former head of BBC2 and Discovery, Jane Root) for the History Channel.

With an introduction from Barack Obama, the series tells the 400-year history of America with extensive CGI animation, dramatic recreations and commentary from leading American figures.

Having been successfully selected as one of the three chosen companies (along with LOLA and Modus FX), Jellyfish Pictures was tasked with developing a genre-changing series style with the team at Nutopia and Jellyfish partners Modus FX, worked on the all important first three episodes, which achieved the highest ever ratings on the History Channel.

Jellyfish Pictures – Visual effects Supervisor : Hasraf ‘ HaZ’ Dulull and Creative Director : Phil Dobree break down the challenges encountered in creating the journey though the history of America with the use of art directed stylish CG and VFX.

The visual effects for ‘America ?‚àö√ë‚àö¬® The Story of US’ were central to the narrative of the series. The unique CGI sequences were created by adopting techniques from feature films married with the dynamic, sweeping camera moves of the games industry. This created a hybrid narrative device that enables American history to be told in a totally new way. By using CGI as a linking and narrative device, the viewer can travel through time and space and get a condensed action packed view of American history.

These VFX styles and techniques were used to tell the stories of environments transforming, massive migrations, iconic landmarks and cities building over time over 12 hours of television.

One of the many challenges included creating the underwater look because the director wanted a specific look for the Atlantic Ocean (between stylised and photoreal – which was the series style) at the same time it had to reflect the surface environment where we transition through the hull of the ship to a live action takeover.

Using Autodesk Softimage XSI ICE tree compound system we were able to simulate water, caustic surface reflections and the boat wake. We then used compositing to transition from the CG boat to the interior live action shot by importing the CG camera data into our compositing tool : The Foundry Nuke.

Several additional passes of CG were rendered out such as a normal lighting pass, irradiance pass, specific IDs and motion vector passes to allow full creative control in compositing because the look of the shot was evolving constantly. Additional live action elements such as floating particles were added which helped give the ocean the illusion of depth.

There were also shots which involved mixing live action plates with CG to create one seamless camera move, one example of this is the pull out of the boat to reveal the land of promise in episide 01. This involved a live action plate of an actor climbing out of a hatch shot on blue screen (it was shot on a very tight schedule with a locked off camera on a ladder). It was then composited onto the CG boat and deck with a CG camera driving the whole sequence. Additional details such as the actor shadow and wet textures were projected onto the CG boat to help it work as a seamless shot.

Using historical naval research provided by the production research team the CG boat was accurately created right down to the way the rope rigging was setup for the sails and the way the barrels are positioned on the deck.

In the following shot the CG camera races over the surface of a CG ocean to reveal land ahead. A transition through trees reveals the land of promise. In line with the series style this shot had to be generated quickly and have a look which was not photoreal but have enough of a real accurate feel to match the live action shots around it.

Landscape generation was done through VUE, with effects added in compositing along with a CG eagle helping to create a strong and distinctive style. We created a workflow between VUE, XSI and Nuke to allow for a completely seamless camera move through the 3 sections of the shots.

VUE was incredibly useful to create huge expansive landscape allowing us to create previz frames which were close to the final shot so the director could see in advance how it would sit in the sequence.

Having a stylish creative look allowed us creative freedom to do things which didn’st have to follow certain visual rules such as the use of hyper-realistic motion blur to enhance the fast dynamic camera moves in the shot.

From the start of the project the client made it clear that they wanted a particular stylised look that was new to television. This meant changing our normal photoreal workflow and mindset, giving us more freedom to create exciting long CG shots that help link stories far apart in time and space.

Abandoning the normal constraints of working in photoreal helped us achieve what would otherwise have been very complex and expensive photoreal shots. We maintained that look throughout all the episodes we worked on including shots with live action plates of actors and environments.

We knew there was going to be a lot of set extension work on a tight deadline, so we made good use of Nuke’s 3D environment, using projected matte paintings split up into several layers onto geometry and distorted cards to give parallax without having to render a CG environment.

Nuke X’s 3D camera tracker actually solved some tracking issues we couldn’t solve in other packages which meant we got our camera and cloud point data instantly within Nuke and were able to attach cards in the correct 3d space using the cloud point data generated within Nuke X.

One example of this was on the Boston wharf sequence for Episode 01. What made this shot challenging was a lot of complex tracking without any on set data (due to the fast paced nature of the shoot on set). Tracking was carried out using Syntheyes and Nuke X new 3D tracking feature.
The original plate was shot in South Africa, so all the modern elements needed to be replaced and then digitally extended.

A combination of matte paintings, CG renders and camera projections inside our 3D compositing tool Nuke allowed the shot to be constructed completely inside compositing without any 3D sequence rendering required. Using Nuke 3D space we placed the boats docked on cards, added soldiers on the decks and the other areas as well as environment atmospherics.

The original 2D matte painting concept was used as a previz and once signed off we used that to finalise the look and then broke it up into several layers of elements to be re-projected onto geometry in Nuke so when the camera moves you get true parallax and it feels 3D rather than 2D.

Click here for more information and to view trailers for the series.

-Nuke X (compositing)
– Autodesk Softimage XSI and 3D Studio Max (3D)
– Syntheyes (tracking)
– VUE (environments)

Jellyfish Pictures:
Creative Director: Phil Dobree
VFX Producer: Sophie Orde
VFX Supervisor (Modus Canada): Yanick Wilisky
VFX Supervisor (Jellyfish London): Haz Dulull
Lead VFX Compositor: Eloi Brunelle


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