months in the making, 48 minutes of 3d computer animation, in excess
of 300 shots and over 4 billion particles rendered. Body Story 2 began
in January 2000.
I was responsible for designing and developing the whole look of the project and also for supervising the first 3 programs, "Puberty" "Allergy" and "Hunger".
During the initial design phase although I had a fair amount of visual reference to hand - medical imaging pictures of varying technique (sem, angiograms, histology slices, xrays etc..) - it was decided by the clients that we would not mimic any particular type of image seen in medicine today. For example, tinted scanning electron microscopy pictures can be very appealing and have proved immensely popular in CG in recent times (Fight Club etc..) but we would not be copying that type of image for any shot or environment. Rather, we would develop a new and unique visual style to portray the Body Story world - a look that would perhaps borrow character from medical pictures today but would ultimately be personally bound to my own idiosyncrasies as the 3d designer and shader artist.
For the first 4 months or so, I began by taking key objects from the "Puberty" program (which represented over one third of the total graphics content) and developing shader sets and textures for them, exploring different visual styles and investigating newfangled shading techniques. Jonathan Stroud worked closely with me, writing Renderman code which could effectively achieve my desires and streamline the rendering process. It all began with a turntable rendering of a microscopic drop of sweat on skin and then to defining elements which were to be frequently used - red blood cells, brain cells, sperm cells, primordial egg cells.
The clients were very accepting of these key objects, their design and the aesthetic style that was emerging. Trust grew quickly and they allowed me complete freedom to go on and evolve the Body Story look further, perhaps only occasionally changing some minor detail that was not in keeping with their own vision. The beauty of this type of work is that it is more often than not, completely free from the constraints normally associated with high end 3d work, affording the artist an immense amount of scope for exploration and creativity. Body Story 2 was no exception.
After a few months I then began to work on the design on a global shot basis, working out universal rules for Rendering settings and effects. Taking a mock up or example shot, I performed tests with Renderman depth of field and depthcue fog. It soon became clear that dof and fog were to be a major feature of the Body Story look - their usage so obviously augmented the impact of any one shot. I set about creating a standardized camera to be used for all shots that not only included depth of field controls and easy to use clipping controls, but also had a whole host of projection systems (or Rman co-ordinate systems) attached to it to allow for the usage of some of the shaders that we had developed.
The clients were also keen to stress that most of the shots in Body Story do take place in an aqueous environment. We decided that one of the best ways to indicate this was to have a pass of detritus or "debris" in each shot. I set about working out a universal particle setup that all animators could use. The particle system gave each particle a unique id which was then used by slim to randomly offset a fractal based texture giving a different shape to each piece of floating detritus.
Late spring, I turned my attention to the Brain. Across all 6 episodes the brain was to feature in very large quantities. The "Baby" program for example, was predominantly Brain shots - 28 out of about 38. "Crash" was also over one third brain shots. So clearly it was going to be key in the overall look and design. Early discussions with the clients had established that they did not favour an SEM look for the brain (like Fight Club which had recently been seen by all at that time). They were eager for us to create something less brittle and more animate looking, perhaps soft and more friendly and alive. I took one neuron model and built the shaders up in layers, adding in different features to suit. After plenty of playing around and experimentation, we had something very detailed in texture and also lots of subtle layers of incandescence with a fair amount of displacement and bumpiness but looking soft, fruit-like and living instead of dead and brittle (or metallic as SEM's are in fact matter coated in metal).
With the brain set out, it was time to design the impulses or neuron signals which would tell most of the story depending on their behaviour in any given shot. It was hard to avoid the stereotypical usage of light (an obvious misrepresentation). I devised a way of filling the neuron with green/white light but also making it more transparent in its area of effect and shrinking it whilst a second layer expands giving a bulge or an inflated outline where the impulse is. The icing on the cake came in the form of a custom shader which displaced another layer of geometry by a large amount giving a sharp, sparkling multicoloured aura of "shrapnel" around the area of the impulse.
You can read a more technical breakdown of the Brain Rendering in the Body Story Rendering Technical Discussion.
The Molecular Look
Halfway through production of the Puberty program, around early Summer 2000, we began to turn our thoughts to "Hunger", the next episode in the series. This and some of the other programs included shots at a very much smaller scale than we had been working. There were shots inside cells and close to sub-cellular bodies, almost down to the molecular level. To illustrate these scale changes to the viewer it was necessary to develop an offspring of the main Body Story look - a new style of shading which reflected this sub-cellular, magical world.
I proposed to the client that I could develop something akin to deep underwater footage and some of the glorious transparent micro organisms that can be seen in these environments. It was my feeling that this type of style would convey the "otherworldliness" of our molecular or sub-cellular shots and provide a fair amount of presence and wonder. I also suggested that the colors should perhaps be limited to blues and greens, giving a bioluminescent and simplistic feel. My route was to work on just a single cell unit - the mitochondria, site of cell respiration. The mitochondria was an element that was to feature heavily in the Hunger program so it seemed a worthy reference for the whole look.
The result was warmly received by the clients and I went on to create a host of general cell gubbins all in the same style. We could import this stuff to pad out any molecular shot and make the end result a lot more detailed and richer.
ANIMATION AND SOFTWARE
Whilst I was busy in Renderman MPC animators Glen Swetez, Lars Johansson, John Leonti and Russell Appleford began modelling any complex objects that would be needed, and also began creating animation setups for certain elements.
Sperm cells needed a special set up so that large groups of them could swim around realistically but not intersect or collide with one another. This was achieved firstly by using a proprietary particle replacement system which could communicate much better with Renderman than the standard Maya replacement system. Additionally, for some shots, actual geometry was used which had complex animation rigged on to it - a series of lattice and nonlinear Maya deformers moving the sperm head and whipping the tail with random jittering and cycle alteration built in. This group would then animate along a path with speed matched to the intrinsic sperm movement.
From day 1 we knew that red blood cells would feature very heavily throughout all 6 Body Story episodes. In accordance with the clients preferences, it was deemed that we would use different types of blood for different situations. The first was particle blood; this would be small particle spheres representing red blood cells and this method would be employed when we were at a relatively large scale (like in a minor or major blood vessel). Although this was a massive cheat (in a blood vessel, artery or arteriole you would never be able to see individual erythrocytes as they are way too small) it was nominated as the best solution.
Secondly, and perhaps most prolifically used, we would employ a particle system for blood cells in capillaries (which can be 1 cell thick in diameter) but replacing the particles with the real original blood cell geometry. Jonathan Stroud once again came up with the goods, writing a solution which would have been impossible in terms of rendering and dynamic computation using any off-the-shelf software. He devised a setup which took a model of branching capillaries, automatically created a central curve for each "tube" to form a network of branching paths. Particles were then fed down the paths in single file but with equal distribution at junctions using animating fields and also full collision and non-intersection. When a shot was created, the software wrote out the animation as a sequence of particle files which then came back into the shot via a rib-box or a Renderman "shader". The result was that animators scene files need not have any red blood cells in them, just the shader which appended the rib at the rendering stage to include all the flowing blood inside the scenes capillaries. It was a very tidy way of distributing the "blood" part of a shot to a different individual with the final result hidden from those who would animate the main part of the shot or set off the final renders.
In addition, other mechanisms were used to create blood cells. In many brain shots where lots capillaries were in the background the above system would still prove way too labour-intensive. So we created animated textures on long planes running inside the capillaries and with their faces constrained to camera. This "strip blood" worked out very well and was key to streamlining the brain scenes of the series which accounted for a very large part of the total shot count.
Later on, for shots of blood cells in vessels and capillaries where the camera was inside the vessel itself we also used sprite blood, or particles of little pictures of red blood cells with a random offset to give variation.
From the beginning of the "Puberty" program, it was obvious that we were going to encounter a challenge in realising shots that involved villi or scillia. The female fallopian tubes and some of the tubes of the testes are covered in literally millions of microscopic stalks rather like underwater plants. This had to be a another particle solution but no software existed to effectively achieve the sheer numbers of villi that we wanted to create and get them done through Renderman. Peter Grecian wrote a dedicated solution for us, a piece of software that worked in conjunction with the Maya Fur system and this enabled us to complete these shots in a truly stunning manner.
In the spring, John Leonti and Glen Swetez were busy creating assets for Brain shots. Using a combination of the Xfrog software and in-house subdivision surfaces, they generated a large number of brain neuron cells of differing types. With a substantial library of geometry it was time to call upon the masterful services of Jonathan Attenborough. Jon "BattenBurg" learnt the Brain shader and rendering processes inside out and began animating and completing Puberty brain shots. Using the "strip" blood method for brain capillaries and detritus passes for each shot, he soon established a very efficient production line.He also devised a much improved methodology for rendering the brain impulses as 2 distinct passes to be composited with the main beauty runs.
ESTABLISHING A PIPELINE
"Puberty" was the first episode that we tackled and for good reason. Not only did it represent over one third of the total graphics that we were to deliver (Puberty and Crash were both 1 hour in program length, Baby, Food Poisoning, Hunger and Allergy were 30 mins each) but it also was composed of the greatest variety of environments and contained many many elements common to all 6 programs. It was therefore only natural to complete Puberty first and through its production establish all the aesthetics, animation and 3d processes for the whole series. Perhaps more importantly, the experience of Puberty laid the foundations for the whole production process. We could fill pages and pages describing production on this job, the lessons learnt and the techniques and modus operandi that had to evolve to ensure that we were always on top. It is a fascinating topic and one which I would like to cover elsewhere but suffice to say that a project of this size requires just as much skill and application on the production side as it does on the animation, software or rendering aspects.
It is no wonder that Puberty was completed not one third of the way through the year (we had 1 year to deliver) but almost 2 thirds. On completion it had taught us many production lessons and also provided us with the whole design and folders and folders of palettes, custom shaders, animation setups, models and in-house software. After completion and with a streamlined, high efficiency production pipeline fully operational (largely to the credit of Producer Asher Edwards and Coordinator Gil James) we steamed straight into the "Allergy" program and also "Hunger".
These were both completed in under 5 weeks under my supervision and also under the art direction of MPC head of 3d, Sean Schur. With maybe only 3 months to go (and me going off for Honeymoon) the remaining episodes "Baby", "Food Poisoning" and "Crash" were swiftly executed by a largely expanded 3d team. Chas Jarrett skillfully supervised "Food Poisoning" and Jim Radford courageously undertook the supervision of both "Baby" (which was mostly brain shots) and the other 1 hour program, "Crash".
In addition to the animators already mentioned, the following deserve mention for their monumental efforts in the later programs: Adam Lucas, Tony Thorne, Kevin Modeste, John Kay, Rory Marks, Martin Heigan, Ben Sheperd. Robin Shaw was responsible for providing a thorough and highly accomplished set of storyboards for each program - his input in helping direct shots and visualising the geography, action and camera was crucial to the jobs success; he deserves a special mention.
Finally, a huge thank you to Roma, the Italian cafe on Berwick Street who kept us all well fed and provided lunchtime sanctuary for the whole 12 months.
> Body Story 2 can be purchased on video & dvd from www.discovery.com or from this direct link
> Channel 4 created their own Body Story sub site just before launch
> Body Story was selected to appear in teh 2001 Sigraph electronic theatre
> Body Story won 1st place in the Education/simulation/training category at the 2001 VEAF (Vancouver Effects and Animation Festival). Details can be found at VEAF's site.
the latest 3min40 2001 bodystory2 showreel at the Forge here
> Body Story won the Special Animation award at London's LEAF festival. A shortened compilation reel of the LEAF entry, excerpts from "Puberty" and "Hunger" episodes, can be downloaded from the Moving Picture Company website - click to download direct:
> A Rendering technical discussion on Body Story can be found here
> Full credits can be found here
Richard C. Morris 2000