In March 2010 BBC Two aired a series on space – the first time such a series had been tackled by the BBC in ten years. Named Wonders of the Solar System the five-part series, which was presented by Professor Brian Cox, used the latest scientific imagery and CGI to show the solar system in greater detail than it had ever been shown before. A team of 18 vfx artists at Prime Focus Broadcast VFX were tasked with creating around 150 CG shots for the series over nine-months with an initial period of R&D work.
Prime Focus worked closely with the BBC production team to discuss how they could enhance the editorial content. Using real images provided by NASA from space probes - including the Cassini and Hubble telescopes - as reference material, the team set about creating images of the solar system that matched the colours and textures of the live footage as closely as possible and provided greater detail and enhancements close up. "The idea was not to create a ‘Hollywood style’ idealised version of space," said Steve Waugh, art director and vfx supervisor. "The producers wanted the CGI to integrate seamlessly with the shot material so that the viewer would think all the material was real."
"One of our biggest challenges was trying to convey the sense of scale of the subject matter," continued Waugh. "We used Autodesk’s Maya and Eyeon’s Fusion to build our 3D model of the solar system to relative scale. This meant that all the planets and moons you see in the show are built with complete accuracy - including sizes, relative distances, rotations and orbits."
Once the models were created, high-res textures were generated in Photoshop using specialist telescopic and space probe images as reference. These textures were then wrapped around the planets using displacement maps in Maya. Some of these were more complicated than others, for example one of Saturn’s moons – Enceladus – has ice fountains coming off the surface. The team had to carry out extensive development work based on footage from the Cassini probe to work out as accurately as possible how ice particles would react in space. Creating the surface of the sun including sun spots and solar flares was also challenging. The team used live footage as reference and developed their own particle system using Maya and Fusion to imitate how the solar flares came out of the sun and were then pulled back in by gravity.
Building the solar system to scale was vital as many of the shots required zooming out from a close up of a planet or moon to a much wider view of space. For example, one shot in the series shows the city of London and for this, the team painted 20 images in high-res detail to make it look like actual footage. The scene then zooms out to reveal first Europe, then the Earth and then the wider solar system. Other shots used the opposite technique, for example, in a shot where the viewer sees Saturn from a distance and then the shot zooms in so the viewer can see the detail of Saturn’s rings close up.
Simon Clarke, vfx creative director at Prime Focus, likened the process to creating a 3D version of Google Earth. "Getting the scale of the shot to work from the wide to the close up, so the viewer can see more and more detail involved a lot of R&D work," he said. "There’s more of an alignment now between broadcast and film vfx work. Many of the team that were compositing these shots have also worked on large film vfx projects which helped them with the scale of these shots. Because of the high level of detail we also needed a sizeable technical infrastructure to render the images to the highest quality."
Getting the scale of the shot to look good from wide to close up was particularly difficult with the scenes of Jupiter. The surface is very different from any of the other planets as there’s a lot of motion due to different gases which have different densities.
"The complexity of Jupiter’s surface was very difficult to animate," said Simon Clarke. "We had to make sure it looked good at different levels of scale across the whole sequence, which made it even more complicated. We went through around half a dozen different attempts before we found a solution. Using Maya’s fluid simulation we incorporated the shot elements from telescope footage with computer generated elements before mapping these elements on to our model of Jupiter."
The final result was a series that gave the viewer a privileged look into space. "It’s a truly beautiful series and the CGI complements the specially-shot material perfectly," said Danielle Peck, series producer at the BBC. "So often space-based television programmes fail to capture the magnificence and awe of space but I think the creative team at Prime Focus have done just that."
Simon Clarke added: "The BBC always looks for their effects to be totally convincing because realism within a programme such as this genuinely moves the audience. We’re incredibly proud to have played a part in such a landmark series."
To read more about Prime Focus' work on Wonders of the Solar System, click here.
Project: Wonders of the Solar System
Client: BBC Vision Production, BBC Worldwide, Discovery Channel
Broadcaster: BBC Two
Executive Producer: Andrew Cohen
Series Producer: Danielle Peck
Producer directors: Gideon Bradshaw, Paul Olding, Michael Lachman, Chris Holt
APs: Diana Hill, Rebecca Edwards, Ben Finney, Laura Mulholland, Tom Ranson
Production Managers: Rebecca Lavender, Alison Castle, David Pembrey
Production Co-ordinator: Julie Wilkinson
Graphics Producer: Nicola Kingham
Production Management Assistant: Louise Farley
VFX: Prime Focus
VFX Creative Director: Simon Clarke
VFX Head of Production: Melody Woodford
Art Director & VFX Supervisor: Stephen Waugh
VFX Line Producer: Jon Keene
3D: Andre Hitsoy, John Hasted, Christopher Anthony, Prodeep Ghosh, Goolzar Buchia, Karan Juara, Seema Schere, Sajeel Shukla, Nick Hanks, Peter Forsythe
2D: Keith Devlin, Bruno Fernandes, Graham Stott, Safiya Ravat, Mark Corpus, Jeevan Singaram
Graphics: Ryan Locke
Matte Painter: Milan Schere
Flame: Adam Crocker, Chris Chitty, James Adamson