Larger than Life: Communicating the Scale of Prehistoric CG Animals

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This week I created a proposal for my 10-week research block next quarter! I’m excited to finally delve into the Dreadnoughtus project (pending approval). I decided to limit the scope of this research to one topic: Scale. I still have (roughly 60) tons of research to do before I feel comfortable making any qualified statements about Dread’s anatomy, but scale in cinema is a topic I have a working knowledge of. I want my Dreadnoughtus reconstruction to elicit the same cinematic appeal as a good monster movie, but while implicitly educating the audience with thoroughly-researched biomechanics and ecologically plausible sauropod behavior.

Below I’ve copied over the abstract of my paper and linked to a PDF. Please feel free to read and give feedback – this research will go a long way in determining the look and feel of my Master’s thesis, so comments and opinions are welcome!

dreadnoughtus_scale

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Larger than Life – Communicating the Scale of Prehistoric CG Animals

Abstract — Since the earliest days of cinema, toying with the perception of scale has given filmmakers the ability to create spectacular creatures that could never exist in the physical world. With the flexibility of CG visual effects, this trend has persisted in the modern day, and blockbuster movies featuring enormous monsters are just as popular as ever. The trend of scaling creatures to impossible proportions for dramatic effect becomes problematic when filmmakers use this technique on non-fictional creatures. Prehistoric animals in particular have very few scientifically accurate appearances in popular culture, which means that films such as Jurassic Park play an enormous role in determining the public’s view of these animals. When filmmakers arbitrarily adjust the scale of dinosaurs to make them appear more fearsome, it can be detrimental to the widespread perception of prehistoric life on Earth.

For my Digital Media Master’s Thesis, I intend to create an accurate digital reconstruction of Dreadnoughtus schrani, a 77-million year old titanosaur with the largest calculable land mass of any terrestrial animal ever discovered. This animation will target a general audience with the intention of appearing in documentaries. I propose to spend the next quarter researching effective monster cinematography and creating an animatic that successfully conveys the massive scale of Dreadnoughtus while still maintaining scientifically accurate proportions. My goal is to prove that despite the freedom of scale in computer graphics, there are more effective ways to demonstrate massive size than simply making the subject larger than it should be.

Doodle: Icthyosaur

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Last night I had a dream that my mom got me an Icthyosaurus off of Craigslist for my birthday. I spent the whole dream frantically calling aquariums trying to explain how a prehistoric marine reptile came into my possession, begging them to come take it away before it ate my cats, and trying to assure my mother that I loved it very much and I appreciated the thoughtful gift.

I had some spare time at lunch today, so I doodled the little guy in my sketchbook. Well… not SO little; the person’s there for scale.

The dream ended with me trying to hide my cats up high in the kitchen cabinets, because the house had accidentally flooded and it was swimming around trying eat everything. It was a very bad icthyosaur. 🙁

 

SPROJ: Dyer & Danforth WIP

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After a few weeks of work, I’ve rendered out the first WIP turntables for our Senior Project characters!

On the left is Danforth, a young graduate student with an open and brilliant mind. On the right is Dyer, a seasoned explorer with a stubborn sense of command.

Both characters were modeled by my teammate Gabriel Valdivia, I then created the textures, shaders, and hair / fur systems. Both characters are rendered in V-Ray, and I painted different levels of subdermal maps for the sub-surface scatter material. Danforth’s hair and eyebrows are VRay fur, along with Dyer’s eyebrows. Dyer’s hair and mustache were created in xGen for Maya, then exported as curves and converted to dynamic nHair. All hair and fur systems were rendered with VRayHairMtl3 shaders.

In the next round of characters, I’m aiming to have completed hat shaders for Dyer, a redone mustache for Dyer (that doesn’t look like it’s floating off his face), and modeled and textured clothing.

For more frequent updates on this project, feel free to check out http://mountainsofmadness.net!

Thesis Ideation: Reference

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During my meeting with Dr. Lacovara yesterday, we traded reference materials and resources to keep in mind when going forward. Here they are!

 


This Puertasaur reconstruction is pretty awesome, albeit a little too jiggly for my tastes. Either way, it’s a good starting point, especially since it was all created in Maya and ZBrush! I’m willing to learn Houdini for this project, but if I’d prefer spending limited time learning new software. Dr. Lacovara specifically said that he wanted Dreadnoughtus to be a bit jiggly, since it would be a massive, fleshy mass of skin, fat, muscle, and air pockets.

 


As goofy as their martial art style may be, these giraffes are pretty badass. Because of the frailty of sauropod skulls and neck vertibrae, Dreadnoughtus probably wouldn’t do too much neck combat. That being said, the cinematography and behaviors in this documentary-style video are worth taking note of.

 


At :26, this komodo dragon tail whips a monkey. While this isn’t necessarily the best reference (since komodo dragons have splayed stances and Dreadnoughtus is upright with a wide gate), The quadrupedal reference might be useful.

 


This movie makes me cry every single time. Stylized as it may be, any Lucas / Spielberg cinematography depiction of a sauropod fighting with its tail should be useful!

 

This bull elephant is also pretty fantastic reference:

Thesis Ideation: Meeting with Dr. Lacovara, 12/7

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Yesterday I had a meeting with Dr. Lacovara and Emma Fowler, during which we discussed our thoughts and hopes for the Dreadnoughtus reconstruction. We talked a bit about the audience, narrative, and purpose of the animation, and traded reference videos and shot ideas. I was excited to learn that Dr. Lacovara has been contacted by several different filmmakers looking to pitch a Dreadnoughtus documentary to The Discovery Channel, National Geographic, the BBC, and David Attenborough. Any animation that I create for my thesis will be viewed by a wide audience, thanks to the fact that Dreadnoughtus is already an internationally recognized name connected to Drexel.

I still need to formulate a specific thesis statement and research question, but Dr. Lacovara raised some very interesting points during our meeting. He expressed frustration that sauropod dinosaurs are often interpreted as sluggish, dopey and bovine — easy prey for any passing predator.  He proposed that a creature as massive and powerful as Dreadnoughtus would likely be very intimidating to theropod predators, especially considering the fossil evidence indicating that Dread’s tail was used as a weapon. Due to the unusual completeness of the fossil holotype, we can estimate with relative certainty that Dreadnoughtus was 65 tons of muscle-bound long-neck.

Lacovara suggested I instead consider the African bull elephant, a herbivore that is nonetheless deadly and incredibly territorial. Hippos also fit into this category, and are notoriously dangerous. A cow may be funny, but an angry bull is fiercome. Giraffes are objectively absurd looking, but even they exhibit impressive territorial behavior.

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