Since the introduction of HD to our television screens, we’re starting to see a huge push from a number of channels to deliver a broader range of quality viewing in HD, and the BBC are no exception. Their latest project Planet Dinosaur aired on BBC ONE from September 14th and is an exceptionally ambitious six part series, exhibiting the findings from dinosaur research over the past decade. Each episode is entirely computer generated, and it was one lone company based in London that produced this work completly in house. The company I’m referring to is Jellyfish Pictures, and we at Escape Studios were involved with kitting them out in preparation for this difficult project. Jellyfish now have a completely up to date system, and are in a great position to offer future clients the very latest software and hardware, putting them ahead of the rest for a couple of years.
We got in touch with Phil Dobree, Creative Director of Jellyfish Pictures, to find out more about how they tackled a project like Planet Dinosaur, and what the future holds for the company off the back of its success.
What were the main challenges you faced starting out with this project, and at what stage did you feel you had conquered them?
To turnover three hours of full CGI in little over a year (around 2700 shots) from a standing start was a huge ask, from storyboard right through to final composited images. Every CG artist knows dinosaurs, and with the legacy of Walking with Dinosaurs around us we knew it wasn’t going to be easy, especially with decreasing budgets meaning we really only had around 4.5 days to complete each shot from start to finish. Technically we knew lighting and rendering was going to be a real challenge. Calculating at having to render up to 70 shots per week was a pretty tall order. Once we had got our lighting/environment and compositing workflow going and could see shots being produced at a fair rate we knew we had started to conquer our worst fears. Our render farm was sufficiently large and Arnold turned out to be a pretty predictable renderer giving us high quality results at a pretty good rate.
What effect did a project of this scale have on your resources?
This is certainly the largest project we’ve taken on in terms of number of shots and minutes of CGI. We needed to almost double in size overnight to deal with the extra workload and Escape Studios helped us enormously in gearing up sufficiently to meet the challenge!
We had to carefully juggle the jobs so that we didn’t put everything just onto Planet Dinosaur. Having the BBC in our studios was actually pretty successful, obviously you are exposing yourself completely and it needs a truly collaborative process with total honesty. Fortunately we had this and hopefully this shows on the screen – the main aim was to get engaging stories across to the audience that would help re-ignite an interest in dinosaurs for fans both young and old! We enjoy keeping the creative process entirely in house and having storyboard artists and concept artists here was very helpful.
Were you upgrading existing kit or were you bringing in entirely new setup?
On the whole we had to bring in entirely new kit. In order not to affect our existing workload too much we needed to more or less create a new renderfarm and add to our existing Isilon storage. Escape Studios helped enormously in terms of getting the correct kit for the right price and at the right moments in the production.
Are there any ‘words to the wise’ from this project you wouldn’t mind sharing with us?
Not really, but we did find that if you make things too real looking (like crocodiles) people don’t think it’s CGI because it’s an animal that still exists, and think that you’ve composited in real crocs into a dino show. Also, it’s always worth considering your pipeline very carefully before you start a major project. Find out exactly what you need to achieve and try to plan as well as possible. It’s a creative process making television at a fast pace and the only way to control the pace is to try to plan ahead as much as possible.
Are there any particular jobs you hope to attract off the back of Planet Dinosaur or anything you haven’t done that you now feel more equipped for?
Well we’re now working on an exciting film called The Dinosaur Project for Studio Canal and Kent Films. Obviously this has dropped out from the quality and level we’ve achieved on Planet Dinosaur and hopefully we can show what we can do with dinosaurs in live action environments and a little more time to complete our shots! They’re slightly different creatures, but we’re all very excited by the way it’s looking at the moment. There are a number of other interesting projects we’re working on and in discussion on. The BBC remains one of our most important clients and we’ve enjoyed a very fruitful relationship with it over a number of years. Hopefully this will continue, and yes, we are always talking about possible upcoming projects.