Thursday, September 3, 2009

Looking forward to the Past

I have just been exploring the Manahatta Project
I find it very interesting to see how technology can help us picture things as they were hundreds of years ago. I’m sure that I had some exposure to this natural history during my school days and I probably read about the many types of natural life that existed several hundred years previously. Maybe there was even some nicely rendered black and white illustration of a particular detail of that time.

But there was nothing like this.

The Manahatta Project reminded me that although I have been in the VFX industry just short of my silver jubilee and I have done my fair share of producing dancing toothbrushes and singing vegetables, there is an aspect of what we do that has even greater value.
For instance, when we took on Walking With Dinosaurs at the end of the 90’s I assumed that the Production team at the BBC would find which dinosaurs they wanted in the series and source the relevant reference pictures. What I wasn’t expecting was that our team of CGi artists, headed by the remarkable Mike Milne, became part of a process that involved a team of paleontologists ‘downloading’ their knowledge so that we could build – and bring to life - a CGi model of a particular species. The technology allowed the scientists to see the results of their findings in a way that would have been impossible only a few years earlier. In some cases, the CGi representation altered their idea of how that particular dinosaur moved or changed the common perception of how long their limbs were.

The thought occurred to me again recently as my partner, Sarah Dowland, finished producing the new Planetarium show 'Journey To The Stars' at the American Museum of Natural History:
Throughout the course of a year Sarah had been working with a team of extremely bright scientists at the Museum but also with a team of CGi/VFX artists (one of whom, Jon Parker, had worked frequently as a freelancer in our team here). If you go and see the show, which I hope you do, I am sure that you will marvel at the visually rich spectacle. But what may not be apparent to you is that several moments of the film have never been visualized this way before. As Sarah has explained it, to produce the complicated representations they had waded through pages and pages of data and ‘somewhere within that data there was a picture’. They took those pictures and used them as the basis of one of the most amazing explorations of the natural world that has ever been created. When I spoke with one of the curators recently he was overjoyed that their research could be shown in this way. He was also full of admiration for Jon and his colleagues who could take those numbers on a page and create something that not only looks incredible but also aids our understanding of the universe. And this is praise indeed from the first guy to discover a brown dwarf!

Just another example of how the fine balance of technology, creativity and talent can provide a clearer understanding of a world that existed thousands of years ago on the island of Manhattan, or solar systems that we cannot actually see…or how a toothbrush would dance if it had legs.