Pixeldust Studios produced over 1,000 animations and visual effects that will be featured in the upcoming, four-part NOVA television series, The Fabric of the Cosmos. Based on the best-selling book by author Brian Greene (The Elegant Universe), The Fabric of the Cosmos will air on PBS for four consecutive Wednesdays, beginning Nov. 2.
For Ricardo Andrade, Pixeldust Studios’ founder/executive creative director, The Fabric of the Cosmos presented a unique opportunity to imagine the mysteries of the universe in visually engaging and accessible ways. “Without question, the animation work that viewers will be treated to during the course of four episodes of The Fabric of the Cosmos represents the most ambitious project we’ve undertaken during the seven-year history of our company,” he said. “Our artists and producers have spent more than a year crafting these motion graphic sequences to ensure that they are not only visually arresting, but also scientifically accurate.”
For the past 19 months, Pixeldust worked on this project in close collaboration with executive producer Joe McMaster, senior producer and creative director Jonathan Sahula, and producers from NOVA.
“In working on The Fabric of the Cosmos, Pixeldust had the very difficult task of creating visual metaphors that would explain extremely difficult to grasp concepts of physics,” said Paula Apsell, NOVA senior executive producer. “The animators were extremely collaborative. The outcome and the work done by the Pixeldust team was not just clear and explanatory, it was also very beautiful.”
“The series was a true partnership between NOVA and Pixeldust, in every sense of the word,” said Sahula. “From the earliest stages of brainstorming design and scientific analogies, to the last tweaks that refined the look and feel of each animation, the Pixeldust team was committed to perfection. I’d estimate more than 80 percent of the shots in the series have some degree of animation, so Pixeldust had their hands in all aspects of NOVA’s workflow. I can’t say enough about Nick Jernigan’s willingness to collaborate, Ricardo Andrade’s ability to problem solve visual issues, and Pixeldust’s unrelenting focus on the end result, even when grappling with scientific concepts that make ‘rocket science’ seem like child’s play.”
In order for Pixeldust to visualize the complex physics concepts in The Fabric of the Cosmos script, every single shot was storyboarded first, then run by physicist/author Brian Greene for his feedback on accuracy. After this back-and-forth process, certain scenes were pre-visualized with animatics, and in certain cases, such as the slicing of the “Space Time Loaf,” three or four different versions were created to find the best combination of beauty and accuracy.
“Before our animators could even illustrate these concepts, they had to understand them, so that was our first challenge,” Andrade explained. Other challenges included the visualization from the inner workings of subatomic particles to the outer reaches of space and the “Multiverse,” as well as novel depictions of “empty space” that can bend, twist or ripple.
“The most challenging sequence of all was visualizing the expansion of the universe,” said Andrade. “As everything is pulling apart in the universe and expanding further away, at the same time, it’s also coming towards us and growing larger. It’s a very difficult concept to convey, along with depicting six-dimensional space with three-dimensional software.”
For Nick Jernigan, Pixeldust’s visual effects supervisor, one of the biggest achievements for this project was creating a seamless look, by blending live action greenscreen shoots, 2D and 3D animations, and visual effects. Based on creative discussions with the producers, Pixeldust would show them style frames to determine which visualizations were best. “Once the producers approved a style frame, we’d plan out the greenscreen shoots, using C-stands with fishing wire to direct Brian Greene’s actions,” Jernigan explained. “Then, using detailed, on-set camera notes, we were able to track the camera moves using match moving software to seamlessly integrate the CG elements with the actions of Greene from the green screen shoot.”
In addition, Pixeldust also created digital sets and environments for the series, such as the futuristic teleport, two futuristic spaceports and a futuristic art gallery.