How to Train Your Ocean

twinOtterSunset_0140Once upon a time I was an oceanographer, and many mist-shrouded years before that I had some fragmentary dream of designing ships for a living. I thought of it as something called hydrodynamic engineering. Now I know it’s called marine architecture. Needless to say I moved on from these dreams onto others, better and cooler and dryer. But imagine my joy when the UAMN production unit found itself working (or was it pushed, maybe, at least in part by myself) on both an animated film about bowhead whale migration and on an exhibit about the UAF-managed and newly being-constructed research vessel, Sikuliaq. And then, this last summer, I had the good fortune of joining our Earth Sciences team for a week on the Yukon River in search of dinosaur tracks. AND THEN, this week it snowed and melted and there were puddles in the road.

But forget the puddles. Forget the dinosaurs; that was time on the river, with cameras, powering downstream for 500 miles — looking at water. A lot of our endeavors seem to concern water these days. THIS YEAR seems to be all about water. Let’s not even get into the soon to be advertised Polar Voices project. There’s lots of water and coastlines in that one too. Check back soon for a blog very close to this one.

But this one is all about computer generated water, and we’ve looked at our rendered water critically for more than 6 months now and still, continually find things to nit-pick (at least I do). But here is where the Yukon River comes in: looking at the very real water on the river – and looking very critically at that very natural effort, I found flaws there too, especially in the raft’s wake and in some of the turbulence behind the outboard motors when coupled with the river chop. Sometimes it did not seem as realistic as it should have been, given it really was quite wet and quite cold. Seriously. Sometimes, you stare at something for too long.

Is there a lesson to take from this? Yes, I think we’ve achieved some darned good water for this show. About time.

A couple years ago we invested in some robust fluid simulation software for the animated rendering of tundra ponds for a museum film about the collections in the museum galleries (it’s a long story. About half an hour).  This year, we updated the software to handle the  projects at hand. What’s good for the pond is good for the ocean – WITH UPGRADES.

Whether our film camera is below the water, looking at an angle near the water surface, looking down from thousands of feet in the air or even hundreds of miles out from satellite, or seeing a strip of water wedged between great sheets of Arctic pack ice — OCEAN appears in more than 90% of shots in our little film about whales. Each and every one of these perspectives requires something very different from the fluid simulator.

Not nearly as sublime as floating the Yukon, most of our simulated water begins as as infinitely thin sheet in the shape of a square. A “square” skin of water such as shown below is constructed of between 1 and 5 million triangles, is fully animated according to the laws of fluid dynamics, and can be reconfigured for any windspeed, the presence of whitecaps, etc…


The square of water shown above is also only 100m wide, and while it is significantly larger than a bowhead whale, it is also quite inadequate when it comes to filming said whale. When filming arthropods and zooplankton, the camera depth of field and “fogginess” of the under-water ensures we never see as far as 50 meters in any direction (and usually much less), but when when we film a whale moving through and on the surface of the ocean, it runs out of surface width very quickly. Luckily we are far from the first production crew to run into such problems. The above ocean square is also very thoughtfully designed to be perfectly, infinitely tileable. Swim off one edge and you instantly appear on the opposite edge and never know the difference. Computers do INSTANTLY very well. Taking the subtle magic of computer processing even further, we can duplicate our already rather detailed square and extend it out to something closer to 2 kilometers square. Wash, rinse, and repeat.


We wouldn’t want the computer to actually think about all those triangular faces we’ve just asked it to think about (as much as 2.2 billion). As far as the machine is concerned, there is still only the original square at the center of the instanced array, with its modest several million triangles. Technically, the method is called INSTANCING and it is a lot more efficient on computer RAM than the, in this case, 441x horrific alternative. This is all the computer need worry about even though the end result is so much more.


Of course, there are caveats. We would never want our camera frame to reveal a perspective such as this…


…where the repeated squares are obvious and artificial. For such a shot we would need to simulate a different square of greater scale and less resolution. Let’s face it, there are only 2.3 million pixels in the film’s final image. It is only moving animals and an animated camera that require more. But for a shot like this…


…with a quickly moving object and camera, variances in lighting and an ocean surface changing over time, it is very difficult to see the instanced nature of the squares, even though the repetition is “visible” in this scene. Even in the “obvious”array render above, we can see that the offending pattern is  broken up best where the sunlight hits the water.


For Arctic Currents, we have pre-simulated half a dozen water “squares” of varying scales and sea heights. The higher seas are used for open water shots and the more subtle skins for where the water exists between ice floes and in leads. We will likely simulate another half dozen for specific before the project is through.

A simulated ocean square requires about 30-60GB of drive space to store for later use, and about 2-3GB of ready RAM overhead to load and apply to an animated scene. Very manageable compared to the FOLLOWING and far more complicated ocean simulation.

What happens when a whale breaks the surface? This isn’t something we can simply instance across a wider ocean like we can do for wind-driven waves. A whale’s wake will not tile realistically. In this case, we need to extend the simulated ocean to a point where sleight-of-hand with cameras can hide EDGES. It’s horrible even to think of it, the ocean having EDGES, but these are the times in which we live.

More on these tiny nightmares later, but to tease, what better way to “hide” the EDGE of the ocean but to make an edge, an ice edge. Here, one of our whales is making waves in a lead between two big sheets of ice. To save drive space, memory, and calculation time, we make the ocean relatively shallow (only a few meters). Trust that the water ends abruptly just to the left and right of the frame; the full lead width is about 100 meters. The simulator is very accomodating. We can dial up the resolution as far as our tricked-out machines can handle — about 30 million calculated particles. It takes about a week to run through the various levels of watery domain from the core fluid to the splashes, waterline details, foam, and even mist, when and where they are needed. The real sticking point is the drive space. A 30-second simulation, calculated and data stored for subsequent in-scene rendering, requires something just over a 1000GB. Okay, I’ll say it. It takes a TERABYTE. Hmmm. Yes, more on this later.

It is very pretty though, and really, it would take about the same to simulate a rafting adventure on the Yukon, or even a puddle in the middle of a road — because we’d want the camera to come a lot closer, naturally, and NEED a fair amount better resolution — right up until the computers throw up their hands. Magically, right about THERE is where things begin to look about right, unless we train our eyes on it too long.

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I’ve always liked water, even if it doesn’t always look right. Don’t let the math fool you. It can do strange stuff. It’s a character all its own.

– Roger Topp (UAMN Head of Exhibits and Digital Media Production)


Render Time


The summer is coming to a close and with the coming of fall, the museum will be filled with school children as much as world travelers. We settle in for winter, and how we think of time and audiences shifts significantly. We stack our project wish-lists and wonder what we can achieve before November? What can we achieve before the new year? The task list that comprises any one project is extensive and often daunting. The UAMN Exhibits and Digital Media Production team is currently working on two major film pieces and half a dozen minor ones, four exhibits, and many smaller remediation and improvement projects in the museum’s galleries, public spaces, and behind the scenes.

Arctic Currents is scheduled for release in late spring, 2014, and while we are continuing to model and animate and program shots, edit vocalized drafts of the script and refine the ideas for shots still on the concept list, we are running completed shots out to the rendering machines.

There are two kinds of Time in animation, personnel time, which is a well-described, sometimes civil animal often handled best with chair in one hand and key-lime pie in the other — and render time, which is both calculated and fickle.

An animated shot is ready for rendering once the models are molded and positioned, the cameras and lights are placed and tuned, the effects such as fog and depth of field and motion blur are set, simple objects are replaced with complex ones, instances are ramped up, the pre-drawn imagery is imported and mapped, the scripts are written and loaded, and the quality levels are compromised. Then a computer stuffed with RAM, more than a little bit of power, and lot of time to spare is told to draw pictures as fast as it can.


We’ve put a lot of work into making computers very fast, and so the drawing happens at a frightening speed. UAMN Production runs  i7 machines sporting 16 or 32GB RAM, 8 cores, and a few Terabytes of hard-drive space each. Not too shabby.

This image of our twin otter in flight at a finished pixel resolution 2160×1080, better than so-called “Full HD”, takes one machine 3 seconds to draw from scratch, not including the clouds and the airplane detailing, which while also from scratch were pre-drawn and imported into the shot to same time.


Not bad, but note the image (click to see details) is a little rough around the edges with aliasing, also known as the jaggies. The single rendering pass takes the model literally and paints the pixels crudely. This also results in the body speckling. The computer isn’t paying enough attention to quality. No matter. This is easy to fix. We’ll have the machine run 5 passes instead of one. Because the computer is programmed to do this efficiently, it doesn’t take 5 times as long, but understands which parts of the image require refining. Now the draw time is 10 seconds, and all the edges are smooth and polished to an acceptable degree.


Funny thing about surfaces in the real world. Every single one of them is in some part reflective, and this reflectivity increases inversely with the angle of the surface viewed. It is greater for glossy objects and less for matte surfaces. Our twin otter has several coats of gloss paint, and it would be nice to see it reflective, so we’re compelled to add this to the render engine – not to mention, for the first time we might see the ocean over which the plane is flying, reflected in parts of the surface. This scene chews up 4.5GB of RAM while rendering, and much of that is owed to the ocean below. The updated render takes 24 seconds to draw.


The ocean is barely visible in the reflection in this image (visible mostly in the far wing), but it becomes more apparent throughout the shot. The reflection of the detailing is clearly visible on the rear stabilizer.

Another less apparent effect in this shot, but important through much of the film, is limited depth of field (DOF). We all know the difficulties with getting photographs properly in focus, what with low light and camera shake. Computers have the opposite problem. Every pixel is in perfect focus – unless we do something about it – and we want to do something about it. Depth of field gives our minds subtle cues about the size of objects and the distances between objects in 3D space. Without DOF in cinema filmography, we could not have lived without 3D glasses for so long. So that we do not reintroduce problems with aliasing when we start computing for depth of field, we have to increase the number of anti-aliasing passes again – now to 9 passes or so (or so, because we actually specify a range of passes which the computer adaptively selects based on circumstances). The draw time is now a whopping 35 seconds for the image.


But now things begin to get serious. A photographer with a high speed camera might very well capture this image of the twin otter cruising along at 100 knots with its props spinning at some 2000 rpm. That’s a fast shutter to capture the props so clearly, freezing time so perfectly. Too perfectly. A video camera would never give us such a crisp image; we need to add motion blur to the shot. This will give a better feel that the plane and the camera are in motion and that the props are indeed spinning. Most of the shots in AC can get away with 3-5 motion blur passes, but for the props, we need something upwards of 11 to get the render to properly blur them in all their high-speed glory. The draw time is now 3 minutes, but these props are worth it. Hannah put that that detailing into the props. Thanks Hannah.


And we’re not done yet. Basic animated scenes in the computer employ cameras and lights, but in the real world, what is a light really? The sun? A bulb? An LED? The great blue dome that we call the sky? If you don’t believe the sky is a light, look at your shadow on a clear summer’s day. What color is it?  But the real world is even more complicated than that. In the real world, EVERYTHING is a light. Best example is perhaps right at your desk. Find a colored Post-it. Hold it close to a sheet of white paper. You just made a light, and it’s illuminating the paper, not very strong and very localized. Again, the computer doesn’t think that parts of the twin otter are light reflectors unless we tell it to do so, and it’s a very complicated process, requiring all sorts of programming cheats to make the effect remotely doable before the turn of the next decade. It is usually referred to as global illumination (GI), and it is basically the principle that any object in the scene acts as a weak reflector or light source that bounces and recolors incoming light rays. In some shots it is critical. In this shot, it is merely highly valuable, brightening the twin otter against the background clouds. It makes sure no shadow are completely black and gives objects better definition in the creases where less light penetrates.

Hello there. Now the image takes 7 minutes to render.


And that’s all we’re going to force the rendering computer to do on this shot. There are ways to optimize time on the render, but that’s a trade-off between render time and personnel time. We could ramp up quality of the antialiasing or the motion blur passes to very high values, ray-trace a more accurate shadows, and certainly give CPU a headache calculating a more perfect global illumination solution, but this will do it for us… because, this is 7 minutes for a single image/frame. We’re making a movie. The movie plays back at 24 frames per second, which for a 5 second shot of the twin otter (120 frames), now takes our rendering machine almost 14 hours.

Not bad. These computers are fast, even imagining everything we’re throwing at them. A job like this could be given to any of our machines to do overnight. Arctic Currents is more than 20 minutes long though, so we had better get started a month ago. If all the shots were this complicated to draw, and we only had the one machine, it would need 140 days (4.6 months) to draw the film.

Many shots are a lot more complicated. Exhibit this example…

We have a basic shot of Baelin, our senior whale, cruising under the ice. There are bits in the water. There is a near-field “fog” caused by the severity at which water filters out light from the sun and sky, and there is water and ice and a cool looking whale with the custom scarring of a 100 years of life spent under the ice.

Render time: 2:20


We add the anti-aliasing passes (Click image to see details).

Render time: 3:47


We add the ray-traced reflections and refractions crucial to rendering the caustic effects of ice and water.

Render time: 8:34


We add the limited depth of field necessarily to establish depth and take the close “bits in the water” out of focus so they add to the atmosphere without distracting from the whale.

Render time: 8:34 (Unchanged because our AA is already high enough to compensate)


The whale and the camera are moving at a brisk pace compared to the ice and the “bits in the water.” We add motion blur, but only 3 passes this time as the camera movement is much slower than the twin otter propellers.

Render time: 24:34


And we’re good… except for the little issue of our water object (pre-simulated over about 6 hours) not knowing that it’s supposed to stop where the ice begins and ends. All the ice appears as if it is floating above the water. To solve this without needing to simulate the water and ice together (Witness that expensive beast known as personnel time), we render the scene three times, once like we have done, once without the water, and once as a series of matte images that will tell our compositor where to draw the water in the final composited (combined) image.

Render Time: 24:34 (for full image)

Render Time: 17:51 (for waterless image)

Render Time: 1:49    (for matte layer)

Total: approximately 44 minutes.


Mix and combine. Add salt and pepper to taste.


A five second sequence would take 89 hours to render. Sounds a like a job for the Labor Day weekend, but since we want at least 15 seconds of this shot, better budget the better part of a week (not all the shot reveals the ice and will need the extra layers). Regardless, this is why we have 3 machines that can render frames 24/7 and up to 3 more staff desktops that can be leveraged for nights, weekends, and holidays. Spring will be here before they know it.

– Roger Topp (UAMN Head of Exhibits and Digital Media Production)

Seven Shades of Grey


Well, a lot has happened since our last post!

Firstly, we were lucky enough to meet with North Slope Borough Department of
Wildlife Management Senior Wildlife Biologist Ph.D. John C. ‘Craig’ George, who is wise in the ways of the Bowhead. We discussed everything from Bowhead tongues to scarring patterns to mating behaviors to baby butterball whales.


Feedback on our whales included creating paler shading on the upper and lower palates, and switching out the tongue texture from a Gray Whale to a Bowhead Whale (Craig kindly shared a gorgeous tongue photo).


This diagram was sent to our marine biologist consultants to address other unknowns, like marking sizes on the chin and eyes, and where exactly a Bowhead’s genital markings should be painted (a subject that had me confused for days).


After a nice period of time, a few minor revisions and a lot of layering in photoshop, here is Mysti in all her glory. (The texture/colour map has 92 active layers in total, added to the bump map which has 43, equals a lot of RAM but an infinitely customizable Bowhead texture package).

What is a bump map you may ask?


This is what a bump map does (set to extreme levels, mind). It’s like a topographic map that coordinates with the colour map (refer to the clown whale post if you haven’t read it already).

It is basically a simplified, greyscale version of the color map, where white raises and black depresses areas of the texture too detailed to effectively model with polygons and splines. In this way we can create scratches and bumps and wrinkles without spending tedious hours modelling them into the actual model shape (saves a lot of time and effort). It’s like playing shadow puppets, except in a computer.

7-11CHIN It lets you create chin scratches…


…baleen with visual depth and body…

7-11fluketail …and bitten and beaten up tail flukes.


Here is Finnegan with the bump map applied.


Here is Finnegan without the bump map. As you can see, it adds a depth and realism that really helps make the whale feel like a living, breathing, scratched-up animal. The skin of the animal is just as smooth in both pictures, but the bump map fools the lighting into creating shadows and breaking up specular highlights.


Now, onto our main broadcast, and the topic of this blog.



Imperative to creating a recognizable and engaging cast of whales is making each whale individual and thus unique. Otherwise samey small whale is just interacting with samey big whale, in a sea of samey clone whales doing samey things. To keep them straight, we’ve named the whales. From left to right there’s Ghost (white and black phases), Mysti, Finn, Finnegan, Fluke and Baelin.


Mysti the mum whale with yearling Ghost (black and baby Ghost (white). Ghost’s baby and  yearling sizes have not been finalized/scaled at this point. A yearling Bowhead is usually about twice the length of a newborn.


The polyandrous group- Baelin (m), Fluke (m), Finnegan (m), Finn (m) and Mysti (f). Bowhead whales are quickly becoming my favorite creatures, because they are incredibly peaceful animals. They do not retaliate when attacked, but will simply swim at high speed to ice cover. They do not aggressively compete for a female either. In mating season, Bowhead males calmly cohabit with the female and share their time with her, allowing the sperm to determine the progenitor.

‘Ghost’ (White) Baby Bowhead

Bowhead whales are born very pale and very chubby, rather like oversized butterballs with flukes.

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‘Ghost’ (Black) Yearling Bowhead

By the time they reach a year old, Bowheads have entered their dark skin phase, usually with chin markings starting to emerge.


‘Mysti’ Matriarch Bowhead

Bowhead females peak in growth faster than their male counterparts, and often dwarf their male companions.



Female Bowheads have a distinctive butterfly genital marking- the two dots demarcate where the nipples are tucked away in the blubber, to protect from the cold waters.


Mysti bears some nasty rope entanglement scars on her tail. Sadly, many real whales (Bowheads and others) have been seen with such scars.

7-12Mysti3 ‘Finn’  the Grey

Finn is an older male with fading skin and some nasty scars.


Note the walrus-tusk scars and the larger white eye-patches.

7-12Finn4The age of a Bowhead can be gathered by the abundance of white on their tail flukes, rather like grey hair. In comparison, younger Bowheads will display little to no white phasing (see Ghost and Fluke).


The triangular genital marking of the male bowhead is visible here, though more immediately noticeable on Finnegan and Fluke.

7-12Finn2‘Finnegan’  the Blue

Finnegan is the middle-aged male of the group, with a recognizable blue tinge to his skin.


Each whale has a unique white chin and chin-spot pattern.

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He bears the mark of a boat propeller on his side, tough man.

‘Fluke’ the Young Guy

Fluke is the youngest of the breeding males, with very little scarification or white phasing on his tail. His eye spots are still quite dark, as Bowheads will not display fully-developed eye spots until they are 20 years old.


Chin patches and spots are a privilege, not a right. Not all Bowheads will develop chin spots in their lifetimes, and some whales will not develop the characteristic white chin patches either.

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Old Man ‘Baelin’

Baelin is the ancient whale of the group, based on an actual Bowhead thought to be over 200 years old. Extremely old whales can exhibit white phasing extending onto the caudal peduncle (upper tail). Their eye spots are also larger, and their pectoral fins exhibit more wear and tear, as well as whitening.

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5-10% of Bowhead whales have speckled bellies. It is not yet known whether this is due to cross-breeding with Southern Right Whales or if it is a genetic throwback sneakily coding for speckled bellies in certain individuals.


The concentrated scarring present on the rostrum (bony nose hump in front of the blowholes) is caused by the action of pushing up and breaking ice sheets to create breathing holes.


Now, I’m curious, who is *your* favorite whale?
– Hannah Foss (Project Lead Animator)

Clown Whales and Painting Textures


So if you have ever seen a Bowhead Whale, or maybe a photo of one, you may notice that this is not the usual coloration of a Bowhead, or indeed any whale.

Why the crazy colours, you may ask?


It has to do with this. When you texture (colour) a 3D model, you are not actually painting the physical model, but an associated UV map- a flat skin that wraps around your model in a rather hannibal-esque manner. UV are dots that anchor particular points on a 3D model to particular spots on a texture map. Think of them like digital tacks, pinning texture-clothes to a naked model.clownwhale3

The Bowhead model that was acquired for this project (nick-named Ghostie) had a workable but rather low-res texture- in short, not up to snuff for our project. In an effort to discern which patches of grey texture went to what appendages, I painted each patch a different colour in Photoshop and then refreshed the texture map in Maya (one of our 3D animation software packages), giving us our clown whale.



First to be replaced were Ghostie’s eyes.  On the right is the duller low-res texture, on the left is the more striking and accurate whale eyeball.  (Whales tend to have elliptical pupils, not circular, with ice blue irises.)


The eyes purvey the living essence of your essentially dead, binary-coded computer model, so they have to be the most convincing part of the whole creature.

Otherwise it’s just a lively taxidermy model.


Next to go were the Baleen sheets. Bowheads have shiny black baleen with sea-scum and other detritus built up in layers. (It’s hard to brush when you have flippers) After some debate, we agreed that the original baleen above appeared to belong to a sun-bleached, dead Bowhead whale.


After quite a few hours in Photoshop this is the result. I was really intimidated by the prospect of having to visually represent hundreds of baleen plates, but after identifying the striking aspects of Bowhead baleen (the steady repetition of grey and black lines offset with scummy browns and yellows) I put my hand to painting realistic-looking baleen.


I threw a basic lighting setup on him to see how his new choppers held up to rendering. (Maya tends to down-sample high resolution textures in its work window to keep the program running smoothly.)


Next on the list were Ghostie’s tongue, and upper and lower palate. The tongue was pieced together from high resolution photo reference and colour-balanced accordingly. The palates were hand-painted using photos for texture and colour reference. Bowheads have a pickled-pink mouth with scummy grey patterns and white scars and scratches.


The most rewarding thing about painting 3D model textures is seeing your 2D art seemingly magically project itself onto a fleshed-out model. I would work a few hours in photoshop, save the texture map, then hurriedly refresh the texture map on the whale model and smile at the results.


Well, most of the time. One of the downsides of UV maps is that they have edges and stitches where different parts of your map come together. In the picture above, three different maps (tongue, top palate and bottom palate) are butting up against each other. This is made glaringly obvious because the colours and textures do not match one another at all.  However, if you refer to the colour map at the top of this post, the tongue (red shape), top palate (purple shape) and bottom palate (green shape) are three different patches and do not join at all.

This is because in Maya you can cookie-cutter out your texture patches and ignore the black spaces by arranging your UV’s accordingly.

stitch22 stitch33

Above are two more stitch edges- the top one is top palate vs. baleen plates, and the bottom shows where top palate becomes bottom palate.


Here you can see a much happier stitch area. By arranging, stamping and overlapping the tongue texture, a much more subtle stitch area is achieved. I will be revisiting this gremlin later, but for now this is a happy whale mouth.

HAYGUYS2After two days of researching, painting and refreshing we have a brand new high definition whale mouth! Ghostie seems to be happy with his new textures.


Next on the list is an overhaul of the body and fluke textures. Here he is with his low-res body to give you a better idea of the colour scheme.


The body is definitely going to be the most challenging aspect to paint and texture- I need to research scarification patterns on whales as well as Bowhead fat rolls and markings. The trickiest part will be blending the fluke textures into the main body.

HAYGUYS3I‘ll leave you with a particularly terrifying render, which coincidentally gives a nice closeup of rendered baleen.

– Hannah Foss (Project Lead Animator)

Cracks in the Ice

IMG_8065The next entry was originally going to be titled “A Year Out” but that milestone came and went in a flurry of travel and parallel projects. The museum opened a new exhibit a couple weeks ago (Denali Legacy) and a couple weeks before that, I had the good fortune to be in Barrow for a few days to speak with scientists and whaling captains about bowhead whales and the sea-ice environment. I also hoped to capture some ambient audio, hear and see the odd whale, and check out the ice first hand to get a better sense of the cracks and leads, the ice ridges, and the water beneath it all.

IMG_8036Unfortunately, the winds were not in our favor the week before I arrived, the week I was in Barrow, and even the week following. That’s not entirely true. When you fly into Barrow, you come across the water and on the monday (April 15th) we did so, there was a fantastic lead opening northwest of the point and clearly visible on the descent. The whaling crews were heading out. Everyone seemed to be excited that the season was finally starting. In the first satellite image below, you can make out the lead, north and west of the blue circle that is Barrow. The dates for the four images are April 15 through April 18, 2013.

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The next day we went out on the ice via snow machine, mapping the trails of the whaling crews and hoping to get out to the ice edge when unexpectedly the whaling crews began coming back towards shore. The ice was coming back in. It may have been a mile wide at the start of the day, but by evening it had snapped shut. It essentially stayed that way for the next couple weeks.

Two days later we went back out on the ice, having no hope this time of getting to the ice edge and open water, but we did want to put a hydrophone down through a crack in the ice and listen for whales. Where two days beforehand one whaling captain had set his camp on the ice edge, it was now jumble ice where the two sheets had come back together.


We found water there, but the slush was too thick and too deep to sink the hydrophone through to clear water. We fell back a half mile closer to shore where there was a significant crack in the sheet. Here we could get the hydrophone down into the water and have a listen to the ocean under the ice. We heard no whales, indicating that there were no whales for miles in all directions. Seems they might have understood the conditions weren’t quite right around Barrow and were either waiting or passing by farther out to sea.  We did hear bearded seals in the water. The whale scientists were not impressed, but the seals were pretty neat to hear.

IMG_8049                  hydrophonePano

One take home lesson from listening with the hydrophone is how much noise a person can make walking on the ice sheet. If any one of our party so much as took a light step, the noise propagated into the water prevented hearing anything else below.

Talking to scientists in Barrow and taking a look at years of photographs and video shot by scientists on the whale census and hunters waiting on the ice edge, I was able to bring back a large about of valuable information to our little animation project.

For a look at the ice conditions via satellite for today, check here.


Three Scales

PLANKTON: Shot 16.2.4


Rachel Potter, physical oceanography research staff at the School of Fisheries and Ocean sciences has been working on on satellite maps of Chlorophyll-A productivity in parts of the Arctic for use in the film. Nutrients coming out of the Mackenzie RIver (lower center) fuel plankton production in the Arctic. This in turn feeds the copepods which feeds in turn, the whales. The maps shown here are weekly averages of the satellite images from different points in the summer of 2012. Black areas in these images refer to areas where there is land, sea ice, or clouds. A subsequent series of images will differentiate between these features.

KRILL: Shot 8.1.1


We’ve made progress on our krill rig and animation, tucking the feeding legs up and speeding up the swimming legs significantly. One of the continuing tasks for this May is to take this little guy, multiply him thousands and tens of thousands of times and then set them all swarming cohesively. That is, they need to move as a group while behaving like individuals, swimming close together and yet not colliding with one-another, seeking goals and avoiding obstacles – obstacles like a phalanx of feeding whales. We will have something to show for these tests in the weeks to come.

WHALES: Shot 18.1.4

whale_sim_01 whale_sim_02

We’ve completed the first round of whale – water-surface interaction tests resulting in a fully rendered sequence of images where a whale surfaces briefly and then dives again. As we’ve observed before, the resulting action is far too dynamic, but we have let it ride for testing purposes, verifying the computers do not mind the near 10 million particles (water droplets) generated as splashes and foam by the simulator. Five seconds of this shot goes through the computer-pipeline and renders faster than a single macro shot of the krill character above. More importantly, we now know the simulator and subsequent hardware and photorealistic renderer should be able handle everything else we intend to throw at them.

Next time on this blog: pictures and thoughts from our trip to Barrow, Alaska.

– Roger Topp (UAMN Head of Production)

Updates: New Models

Shot 6.2.2

copepod_02 copepod_04

Hannah has built a new copepod model, and we have imported the static version into some scenes to test lighting and focus prior to calling it done and proceeding with the “character” rigging. All seems well and we’ll probably leave it be for now until we put together the rig and other shot elements. Plankton! You see, we make a film about whales and thus we animate whale food, and then it makes less but still significant sense to model whale food – food. We will probably leave it at that lest we start telling a history of the sun.

We will be showing the copepod singly, in small groups and also large, by the thousands swarms. Most of the details won’t be noticeable in the latter, but we hope to have a fair amount of fun with the multitude of legs and antennae while showing off the creature’s dramatically different styles of movement. They appear to move in two ways: while feeding, where they sort of pull themselves through the water, more with their antennae and feeding legs; and escaping, in which they use pretty much every appendage they have in order to propel themselves forward at a speed that, while over a very, very short distance, gives them status as the fastest animals on the planet.

Shot 18.1.6


Later in the film, we will be showing the behavior of one whale repeatedly diving to the bottom over the course of several hours. The data in the chart above shows the real life whale’s dives as recorded by researcher Mark Baumgartner. The data is recorded by a short duration “tag” that can be attached to the whale and then separates from the whale after several hours, providing the recorded data that can be retrieved by researchers. Data captured includes depth, temperature, salinity, and the amount of food available to the whale. The seafloor is not shown in the chart, but is evident as being tracked pretty closely by the whale’s dives. The chart itself will be animated with accompanying water temperature and ocean depth information.

For a scant few seconds of the film, we will show the tag attached to the diving whale. Enjoy the quick models shown below. In the film, they will not be seen so clearly, hence we have not bothered to model all the features of the tag. The tag configuration shown is of that attached to the whale and one of only two configurations required by the film. The second involves just the main barrel, as if floats to and then at the ocean surface. For those interested in scale, the main barrel is about 16.5 inches long.


— Roger Topp (UAMN Head of Production)