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Vol.33 No.2 May 1999

Dinosaurs - Before the Beginning

Mike Milne

May 99 Columns
About the Cover Gaming & Graphics

Entertaining the Future
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A couple of years ago - well, three actually - I was called to a pre-production meeting by one of our producers. Now these meetings are always a problem in our profession, because they always take place while you are awake. And the problem is that if you are awake, you're in one of several stages of increasing panic - depending on how many days there are to run before the delivery date of whatever animation you're working on - and the idea of taking time out to attend a meeting is about as welcome as the idea of Thanksgiving dinner is to a turkey. So, when a pre-prod meeting looms, the first question that the producer tends to be asked is "Can't you find someone else to do it? I'm trying to finish these Hypo-Energising Vitamin blobs for a shampoo commercial!" (or words to that effect). This occasion was no different, and I asked the question.

"No, I think this one's right up your street" was the producer's reply, followed by those honey-coated words that guarantee you'll drop everything and appear, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, notebook akimbo and pencil poised, in the meeting room: "It's a big project." Ah! The Big Project! This could be the one which means you'll have to do three months' research in the Bahamas, perhaps, into - well, whatever it is that they do in the Bahamas that might conceivably be of use in a Big Project - not likely, I grant you, but nonetheless possible - or maybe it's the one where we get to recreate Ancient Rome for a costumed epic - naturally, we'll need to do some research for that one too ...visions of sipping a negrone in the twilit Piazza Navona ...

Let's Get Real

....Aah, but these dreams soon fade. Precisely how many times has a project required a computer animator to travel to exotic places to do research for a big project? Precisely none, in my case. Well, I suppose that's not quite true. I had to go to the east coast of Scotland one bitter January afternoon to look at a petroleum refining station (would we like to quote on a CG animation to explain the workings of the plant? We would. Would they like to pay what it would cost? They wouldn't). Also, I once spent a sweltering day in Madrid at a meeting about a proposed TV show - the day that the temperature hit 40 degrees in the shade (that's 105 for those of us who still cling to the old ways), and the production company didn't have any air conditioning (would we like to quote on producing a CG character in real time to interact with the actors on the show, five nights a week? We would. Would they like to pay what it would cost? You guessed it). So what is so attractive about a big project, if it doesn't entail lounging on a tropical beach for a few weeks? Well, I suppose it's that faint glimmer of a hope that a large project gives you the chance to Get It Right. Most of the careers of CG professionals working outside California (and maybe quite a few inside as well) are spent working on animations whose life cycles are relatively short - a TV commercial or broadcast title is typically a few weeks from start of preproduction to air date, and many times it can be much shorter. On one occasion I walked into a meeting on a Tuesday morning to be asked if I could produce an animation for a commercial that was to be aired on Friday. It was for one of those "Best Disco Dance Collection You've Ever Ever Heard In Your Life Ever" sort of CD compilations that the British music-buying public are so fond of. Were they happy for me to decide what the animation would consist of? They were. Did I accept the job? I did. Animated on Tuesday afternoon, rendered overnight, edited on Wednesday, dubbed and ready to play out on Thursday night, transmission on Friday. Was I proud of the job? Not particularly - but with that schedule, I wasn't complaining, and neither was the client. Obviously this sort of thing isn't typical, but nevertheless the general demeanour of work for the CG professional tends to be hurried. A venerated TV design guru once said to me, back in the long lost days of analogue video and flying logos, "In television, everything is urgent but nothing is important." And it's precisely this urgency that, ultimately, can wear down a CG animator's pride in the profession. Everything is always being rushed out, there's no time to refine, and there's certainly no time to experiment - there's no time to Get It Right.

It Could Be The Big Project

So, a CG animator going to a Big Project meeting is as hopeful as a child on a birthday morning - maybe this is going to be the chance to really get to grips with something, to really hone it, to (if you'll pardon a third split infinitive) really Get It Right. And so it was with me as, bristling with smiles, notebooks, pencils and my obligatory mug of coffee, I breezed into the meeting room to meet the Big Project - or rather, its instigator - who turned out to be a producer from the British Broadcasting Corporation's Science department. His first words to me were something like: "About the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park..." and I didn't hear the rest of the sentence. It was drowned by the audible clang as my face fell, and I could see my producer glaring at me from the other side of the table - that "for God's sake be more positive" sort of glare - but I couldn't help it. This was obviously a JPBF job.

When the movie Terminator 2 came out at the turn of the decade, we had a rash of clients coming to meetings (at the company I then worked for) and starting off their briefs with: "You know that really good bit in Terminator 2 when..." and usually finishing off with "we've only got five grand and we want it by Thursday." This sort of thing came to be known as "T2BT" - Terminator 2 By Thursday - and was our code for an unrealistic project which the client couldn't afford and for which there wasn't enough time. Later, when Jurassic Park came out, there was a similar stream of requests from hopeful clients about massively advanced CG projects for no money in double-quick time ("You know that really good bit in Jurassic Park when you first see the brachiosaur..."). I dubbed these "JPBF" because they were usually a bit larger in scope than T2BT's, and had a little more time - hence "Jurassic Park By Friday."

And now, here I was with a textbook example of a JPBF taking shape before me, and I could feel my head shaking of its own accord as I started to say (in spite of the weapons-grade glare coming from my producer) "No, I'm sorry, whatever it is we can't do it, not for that kind of budget and deadline..." but the words died on my lips as I began to fall victim to the lure of the Big Project, as I started (blind fool that I was!) to listen to the man from the BBC.

Tim Haines (for that was his name - it still is, actually) is a producer for Horizon, the major U.K. science documentary series that has been running in the U.K. ever since I can remember. In fact, it was Horizon that encouraged me in my major career shift many years ago, when I moved from traditional graphic design into CG - I had seen a Horizon special on the brand-new field of computer imagery, which featured an interview with a certain Dr. James Blinn, who was explaining the even-newer technique of bump-mapping with the aid of a CG goblet, and the programme convinced me that my "changing horses in mid-stream" was not as foolhardy as it seemed to my friends and family at the time.

Tim explained that it was his intention to make six half-hour documentaries, with the working title Walking with Dinosaurs, and the series would cover the natural history of dinosaurs. "Which particular bit of the history of dinosaurs?" I asked. "All of it," said Tim. "Ah. I see. And how much of that is computer generated?" "All of it," was the reply, "well, nearly all of it, anyway. And it must look like Jurassic Park - people must believe they're looking at the real thing. Can it be done?"

I tried to say no - I really tried: "No, I don't think... well, that is.. it would be very expensive..." I lamely stuttered, but Tim charged ahead at full steam. He produced a compilation of some wildlife footage, which we examined frame-by-frame; he explained that wildlife documentaries were filmed in 16mm, which is grainier than the 35mm used for feature films like Jurassic Park, so that the texture work need not be as detailed; that the grammar of wildlife camera work was very different from Hollywood's, and we could use that to our advantage; that many scenes were shot in low light conditions, and we could use that to help us; that there were plenty of present-day animals on which to base our animation; that dinosaurs had neither fur nor feathers (which he knew would be problematic for CG), and that therefore there were no major technical breakthroughs needed; and furthermore... there were many furthermores.

I wasn't totally convinced, but at least it wasn't really a JPBF. I mean, there was plenty of time - two years, apparently. And there would be a budget of a sort - not a Jurassic budget, by any means (this was to be a documentary series, after all), but more than anyone had spent on a documentary before - and furthermore... well, furthermore, there was that tempting glitter of the Big Project hovering over it all. It's enough to say that I left the meeting a couple of hours later having promised (to my producer's horror) to do a test for Tim to look at when he returned from filming frozen mummies above the snow-line in the Peruvian Andes, in three months' time. He was going to approach some other companies, and he would review the tests in October, with a view to starting a pilot sequence at the beginning of the following year.

And later that night, all I could think of was: "What if someone else gets it? What if, in two years' time, I turn on the television and see those dinosaurs walking across the screen, and I'm still animating Hypo-Energising Vitamin blobs? How could I ever live with myself?"

Research Begins

The sun was shining (quite a rare event in London) the following Saturday as I walked down Exhibition Road to my favourite building in London, the Natural History Museum. On the weekend you have to fight your way through squadrons of schoolchildren to get to the entrance, but it's worth it. The building was designed by Alfred Waterhouse in the last quarter of last century, and would rival many cathedrals in Europe - and the inside is just as lofty, every pillar carved with animals and birds and leaves, every arch a monument to the Victorians' sense of dominion over nature, their certainty that man was at the very pinnacle of earthly life - and that the dinosaurs, literally 'terrible lizards,' were right at the other end of the scale - not far above the blobs of amoebic jelly that had so recently been revealed as everybody's ancestor. They had the idea that the great reptiles had brains that were so small, and so far from the rest of their bodies, that the poor beasts could be eaten for breakfast by a passing predator and not know about it until after lunch.

Of course that view has changed in the last couple of decades, and I was determined to catch up with everything that was new and exciting in paleontology. After an intensive session of photography in the dinosaur hall I went to the museum bookshop and bought every plastic dinosaur model and every dinosaur book that they stocked. When I flashed the company plastic at the cashier, I got that knowing look from her that said "You're really buying these for the kids, aren't you?" but I didn't care, because I really was buying them for a kid - and that kid was me. As a child, I was never a dino freak - and in what I laughingly call my adulthood, I have been more preoccupied with living creatures than the extinct variety, so I had a lot of catching up to do. The rest of the weekend was spent reading and playing with plastic dinosaurs, and trying to figure out how to do about 10 Jurassic-Parks-worths of CG effects for about one-tenth of the Jurassic Park effects budget.

I bought a season ticket to London Zoo and found time to drop in at odd moments, making friends with a Sri Lankan elephant called Ghita and a rhino whose name I didn't know, but I called Ronnie. He didn't seem to mind, and would come trotting over to the corner of the compound where I could just reach down and scratch his nose for him. I couldn't help noticing the similarity between Ronnie and my plastic triceratops, and I soon realised that he would make the ideal subject for my test. I also soon realised that the summer had nearly gone, and that I had to complete the test before Tim returned from Chile - it's amazing how fast a deadline approaches when you think you have plenty of time! Ronnie's walk - with that surprisingly prissy front-hoof motion common to most ungulates, caused by the automatic snapping-back of the tendon as the hoof leaves the ground - became a triceratops walk, a cheesy child's toy became a CG Triceratops body, and the whole thing was composited over footage of the Serengeti plain at dawn. Add a little savannah soundtrack, and a foghorn note as the beast lifts its head, and voila! - a test.

Green Light Means Go

A couple of months later, Tim called to say that he had a green light for the pilot sequence, and did we want to do it? We did. And could we start in January? We could. It was only then, when we were going through the groundwork for the pilot sequence, that I realised that I had stumbled into the biggest JPBF I'd ever come across, and what's more, I'd actually agreed to do it. The statistics reveal the full story: the pilot sequence was six minutes long, consisting of about 60 shots. Some of these would be pure live-action background (establishing shots, insects and vegetation) and some would be animatronic (close-up heads), but at least 45 shots would be CG. The budget would cover a total CG animation team of ... well, one, actually. And even though we had three months to do it, that really isn't a JPBF, relatively speaking, that's more of a JPBT - Jurassic Park By Tonight!

Luckily for me, my colleague Andrew Daffy (who had helped on the test) came to the rescue and volunteered to share the burden by working evenings and weekends, while during the day he animated Hypo-Energetic blobs of industrial vegetable oil masquerading as butter. He took on the task of modeling, texturing and animating Rhamphorynchus (a pterosaur) and Cetiosaurus (a sauropod), while I handled Liopleurodon Ferox (a pliosaur), Cryptoclidus (a plesiosaur), and Eustreptospondylus (a theropod). Yes, we did invent shorter names, but I'm afraid they weren't very imaginative.

One of the most satisfying things about this sort of project is meeting people who have made a lifetime's study of a subject, and who are really thrilled by it, and who want to tell you about it. Let's face it, that's a rare attitude among the creators of Hypo-Energetic blobs, who are probably more thrilled by the thought of a second Porsche and a weekend retreat somewhere in the Caribbean. Come to think of it, they want to tell you all about that, too, but it's not quite the sort of enthusiasm I had in mind. While making the pilot sequence, we exchanged a stream of email with our designated paleontologist from Portsmouth University, whose particular field of expertise covered the pliosaur and plesiosaur - both of them sea-dwelling creatures that had returned (or rather, their common ancestor had) to the ocean from a land-based existence, and who had readapted to an aquatic environment. Their peculiar mode of locomotion - a sort of underwater flying - has completely disappeared from the planet, leaving only the faintest of echoes in the forearm movement of seals and turtles. After reading through some fairly technical papers, and revisiting Bernoulli's theorem, I felt fairly competent to animate it - and was quite gratified at the result - it actually looked as if I'd Got It Right at last. I wish I could say the same about the theropod walking (another paleontological hot potato - did they run, or just walk very fast?), but unfortunately I can't - it was to be another year before somebody Got that one Right.

After a lot of hard work from some very dedicated people, the pilot sequence was finished, on time. And it's amazing how sound effects, music and a well-written commentary can cover up the shortcomings in a theropod's walk cycle! We showed the pilot to our paleontological expert; after seeing the section about the plesiosaur, he said: "I've been teaching that for many years. But this is the first time I've seen it with my eyes. Thank you." I think I saw a tear in his eye - there certainly were tears in mine. It was, quite simply, the most moving moment I've experienced in all my professional life.

Did the pilot enable Tim Haines to go to Cannes and raise the coproduction funds? It did. Did the pilot get the green light for the series? Absolutely. And did we Get It Right? No, not all the time. But we weren't complaining - and the client wasn't either.

Pilot Complete; Bring on The Big Project

The pilot was completed exactly two years ago as I write, and the go-ahead for the series marked the beginning of the real project, the Big Project. And just how big is it? Well, if you measure it by number of people working on it, it's quite modest compared to the U.S. equivalent. We have about 40 people on Walking With Dinosaurs, of whom less than half are directly engaged in CG animation or CG software development. Our project will end up with around 900 CG shots, which is only half the number I've heard suggested for the CG shots in Star Wars:The Phantom Menace, and of course we're working at video resolution (albeit at 16:9 anamorphic, which will shortly be the new European standard) which is considerably less expensive, in both rendering times and disk usage, than 35mm film. If we compare budgets - always a tricky one, that, since nobody likes to admit exactly how much something is costing - I would guess that our digital effects budget is somewhere between one-twentieth and one-sixtieth of the budget of Disney's current Dinosaur project (based entirely on rumour, which is notoriously unreliable). If we have a claim to Big Project status, it must be the sheer quantity of animation that we are producing - nearly three hours, or more than a quarter of a million frames of keyframed, photo-real animation.

Well, the story of the series itself is far bigger than this article. There's so many things I'd like to tell you about it, now that we've all been immersed for a year and a half; I'd like to tell you about how Sharon turned a gutted floor into a dinostore, and how we interviewed for months to find our kindred spirits; I'd like to be able to tell you about the way Carlos and Virgil cracked the theropod walk, or about the way that we all stood in the rain and measured the bounce of an elephant's foot in Woburn Wildlife Park. I'd like to be able to tell you about how David, Stuart and Sophie built 40 dinosaurs, and how Daren painted an 18,000-pixel-wide diplodocus skin, and how we sat in an underground movie theatre for two days and listened to paleontologists from around the world argue about how dinosaurs moved; I'd like to tell you about Rich's iberosornis animation, which the client swore was a live-action shot, or how Marco led the Dinostore racing team to victory and still finished all his shots, or how Richard made the plesiosaurs live on the land; how Max's chorus line was cured of synchronised blinking, and how Alec added wobble to the longest neck ever seen on Earth, and how Tim tried to hide the photo of his baby sauropod. Most of all, I'd like to tell you how much we all get off on the simple process of trying to Get It Right.

But that's another article, to be written much later when the dust has settled. Right now, the animation team has reached the last episode, and the end is - all too clearly - in sight. And, even though the pace is frenetic, and the deadline rushing towards us with all the inevitability of an asteroidal extinction event, I detect a certain calmness of purpose, a certain steadiness of eye, about the people working on the project. Did we get a chance to experiment, to refine, to hone? We did. Did we get to grips with the Big Project? We did, I think. And did we Get It Right? Well, that's for you to decide later this year. I hope we did.

Mike Milne

Mike Milne
9 Nole Street
London W1V 4AL
United Kingdom

Tel: +44-171-208-2600
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The copyright of articles and images printed remains with the author unless otherwise indicated.

Mike Milne began his career in the mid-sixties, working for the Centre for Advanced Study of Science in Art - an experimental venture funded by the philanthropist Erica Marx in 1966. When the Centre was wound up, Mike joined the ranks of the drop-out generation and went to live as an artist and beachcomber in the deserts of Southern Spain. In the following decade he found himself in many diverse occupations, including two years as the warden of a field study centre on an uninhabited island in the Firth of Clyde, and a season as a zoo inspector for the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare. It was during this time that he developed his passionate interest in wildlife and all aspects of natural history and evolutionary theory.

Returning to England in the mid-seventies he joined an industrial graphic design studio at Smiths Industries plc, eventually becoming Corporate Publicity Design Manager in charge of corporate graphics for 30 companies in the group.

After a chance meeting with a computer enthusiast in the late '70s, Mike decided that the future of graphics lay in computers, so he took a night school course in computer programming at Middlesex Polytechnic. This led to a job offer at Research Recordings (now Air TV) as Head of Graphics, operating one of the first commercially available computer animation packages - the now-defunct Via Video system.

While at RR, Mike devised a system for combining computer-generated animation with live-action footage that was used to great effect in music videos (such as Culture Club's Money-Go-Round) and led to a D&AD Silver Award for Outstanding Television Graphics for the first series of Spitting Image, a political satire show that ran for 10 years.

In 1984, Mike was asked to join a small team at Electric Image to use the new Abel Image Research software running on one of the largest computer animation installations then operating in London. He became a shareholder and Director of the company, and his work was shown at the 13th international SIGGRAPH conference in 1986. Subsequently, as Director of Production, he was involved in the production of many innovative CG pieces, including the U.S. science documentary series After the Warming with James Burke, and the TV campaign for the privatisation of the U.K. Water Authority.

In 1990 he joined The Bureau as Head of the 3D department, which produced a string of successful CG commercials, before being asked to form the new computer animation department at FrameStore in 1992. The department was a success from the outset, notching up awards for the BBC's Morph and Griff campaign, and winning the London Effects and Animation Festival gold awards for several years in succession - most recently for the title sequence of the latest James Bond film, Tomorrow Never Dies. Mike is a regular speaker at computer animation conferences in Europe, and lectures at Bournemouth University, Mid-Glamorgan College and the London Animation Studio at Central St Martins.

Mike is currently working on a two-year project to create six wildlife films for the British Broadcasting Corporation, entitled Walking with Dinosaurs. The films will cover the natural history of the age of reptiles in documentary style, featuring photoreal CG animation set into live-action footage that is as close as possible, botanically, to the environment of the time.

Mike sees Walking with Dinosaurs as both the greatest challenge of his career, and the ideal project to combine his 20 years' experience of computer-generated animation and a lifelong passion for the study of wildlife - both the living and extinct varieties.