Digital animation and broadcast design studio Pixeldust Studios recently created numerous state-of-the-art animations for a new NASA documentary film entitled The Year of Pluto, which was written, produced and directed by Geoff Haines-Stiles, who was also a producer/director on Carl Sagan‘s classic 1980 TV series COSMOS. The new project, filmed behind the scenes at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab (Laurel, MD) and elsewhere over more than 11 years, is a one-hour documentary which turns hard science into personal stories, and gives viewers insights into the history and long journey of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, and why it matters.
For The Year of Pluto, Pixeldust Studios had to render more than 10,000 frames for the entire Kuiper Belt sequence, which ran nearly 6-minutes long. The company deployed its render farm for this monumental task, which was comprised of 70-80 render nodes running Intel i-7 processors with 12-16 GB of RAM. The renderer used was Maya’s Mental Ray. The overall render time was about 5-6 days, spread out in different increments. Final frames were composited in Adobe After Effects CC 2014.
The documentary details the mission of the New Horizons spacecraft, which launched from Earth on Jan. 19, 2006. New Horizons is presently hurtling toward the still more distant “ice worlds” situated at the furthest edge of our solar system. The spacecraft flew by the dwarf planet Pluto on July 14, 2015, returning stunning close-up images of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon.
Interviews with leading scientists are featured throughout The Year of Pluto, as they share their thoughts about how the New Horizons mission will answer many long-pondered questions.
“Pixeldust brought creativity, intelligence, and a deep commitment to accurate science to this project,” said Haines-Stiles. “They took the best still images from telescopes, plus space artists’ speculations and expert input from our advisors, and transformed that data into a dramatic television trip through the Kuiper.”
“Our assignment here was to digitally recreate the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud based on Tony Dunn‘s Gravity Simulator point cloud data from the Harvard-Smithsonian Minor Planet Center and vector images,” explained Samar Shool, Pixeldust’s CG supervisor on this project. “The biggest challenge was to create both of these elements in a volumetric form for which we deployed the use of nParticle systems inside our native software Autodesk Maya 2015. With use of nparticles, we were able to achieve large volumes of point clouds and render them efficiently, using Maya’s own Mental Ray renderer.”
“In addition we had to recreate 7 Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) based on certain locations on July 14 2015, from data provided again by Tony Dunn. These relatively large KBO’s had to be digitally sculpted, textured and rendered realistically based on other planetary references, including color data from the Hubble Space Telescope,” he added. “We used Zbrush 4-R6 to sculpt these objects and we rendered them in Maya/Mental Ray. We paid special attention to realistic ‘space’ lighting and had to make sure our camera always faced the lit side of the planets. The next overall challenge was to show the presence of these objects along with their motion orbits, all together housed inside the Kuiper Belt. Using carefully planned camera moves and the use of Zdepth, we were able to create interesting fly-throughs between the KBO’s and their orbits.”
Beyond July 2015, New Horizons will continue its journey by venturing deeper into the distant Kuiper Belt – a relic of our solar system’s formation.