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Descartes prize

3D visualisation of the unseen ocean

How we made a three-minute animated documentary showing a thriving nekton ecosystem and the incredible variety of deep-sea bioluminescence. Our challenge was to create a film that was not only factually accurate but also entertaining and beautiful to watch!

By Amy Scott-Murray

In 2006 I was a third-year student at Duncan of Jordanstone School of Art in Dundee. Along with my fellow student Kevin Adams, I was looking for a compelling topic for our graduation film. We were both very drawn to the use of animation for illustrative, educational purposes and to the deep sea as a setting. It appealed to us that animation can have a unique function in showing the public what happens in the deepest ecosystems, due to the difficulty of filming live-action documentaries in this environment.

 still from film
A still from the film.

We read many articles and research papers about discoveries in the deep oceans, and we were captured by the idea of deep-sea bioluminescence – not only would our film show creatures and situations that are unfamiliar to most viewers, but it would also give us the scope to create something visually stunning. We contacted the authors of one paper – Nikki King and Monty Priede of Aberdeen University’s Oceanlab – and were thrilled when they offered to help us with scientific advice on our film.

A modelsheet for the brittle star, used to help with modelling.

Kevin and I continued our reading and with Nikki King’s (Oceanlab, University of Aberdeen) help we built up a list of animals that have interesting luminescent displays and could all be found at the same depth and geographic location. We then went on to consider the animals’ behaviour and to storyboard out a sequence of events for the film which would capture the viewer’s interest and show interesting aspects of the creatures’ interaction with each other. We also wrote a script for the narrator.

In order to give a unifying thread to our collection of creatures, we focused on the journey of a dead whale which sinks from the surface to the darkest ocean. After landing on the seafloor a variety of creatures are attracted to feed on the whale fall and on each other.

Concept painting 
A concept painting used to help plan the shot’s composition and lighting.

The next stage was to produce a rough previsualisation of our story, so that we could work on the pacing and timing of the shots.

In early 2007 we were ready to begin production in earnest. The first stage was for me to model all of the creatures, using Autodesk Maya software.


The lantern shark Etmopterus spinax at the modelling stage.
I then handed the models over to Kevin who worked on surface displacement sculpting for fine details, and painting of texture maps.

Shark after sculting
The shark after sculpting (above) and after texture painting (below).

Shark after texture painting

A different painted map is needed to control each aspect of the shark’s skin – colour, specularity, reflection, small bump textures and luminescence.

While Kevin was working on the texturing I was ‘rigging’ the models – this is the process of setting them up with controls for the animator to work with. For example, the shrimp rig was set up with an automatic cycling motion for each set of legs for which the animator can control speed and amplitude, controls for the head, tail and overall attitude and curve, and a dynamic simulation for the feelers, driven by Maya’s hair simulator. You can watch a video about making the shark model.

I also spent some time developing effects such as the comb jelly’s rainbow-refracting ciliae and the shrimp’s viscous glowing liquid.

With the creatures completed we were ready to start animating. Kevin worked on the creature animation and I focused on effects animation and eventually render setup.

Each shot was rendered out in many different elements, or ‘passes’, which would show for example only the reflective parts, or the glowing parts, or the floating particles in the water. The process of combining these passes is called compositing.

You can see another video about the process of creating and compositing a shot.

We had been extremely fortunate in securing the help of the musicians Seetyca and Achim Reisdorf, who made a wonderful soundtrack for us. Their work really adds to the experience of watching the film and is far better than anything we’d imagined! We were also very lucky that the professional voiceover artist Andy Turvey agreed to help by reading our narration. The final step was to combine our finished video with their sound files and to output on to DVD. The finished film is available to watch online.

The film launched at the Deeper than Light exhibition at Aberdeen Maritime Museum (thanks again to Nikki King!) and we’re very happy to say it has been received well, winning second place at the ACM-Siggraph student competition in Los Angeles and best Scottish student documentary from the Royal Television Society. We were also pleased to be selected for exhibition at the Bienniale of Scientific Film in Ronda, Spain.

Kevin is now working for a major visual effects studio in London and I am continuing my work with documentary animation as a freelancer. I am currently completing a commission for the Aberdeen museums service, and my next job will be another deep-sea themed film for EuroCOML and ChEss. Please do get in touch with me if you feel animation could be of use in your work!


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