Jellyfish Transitions for History Channel

America: The Story of Us is one of the History Channel’s most popular series, telling the story of how the United States was invented. To help showcase many years of history in only a 12 part series, Jellyfish Pictures realised several sweeping ‘transition’ shots to link stories together. We talk to Jellyfish creative director Phil Dobree and visual effects supervisor Hasraf Dulull.

10Jul/jellyfish/H6_240_020_sequence_framesfxg: What was the overall philosophy behind the narrative device of these sweeping transition shots?

Phil Dobree: This show is quite different to anything we’ve been asked to do before. What the TV documentary guys are trying to do is find a new way of showcasing history. They’re trying to get away from doing the doco-drama approach, which can sometimes have cheesy historical reconstructions with lots of commentary. In this series there was a mixture between talking heads with celebrities. They’re trying to give some more mass appeal. Then they would take these very key moments in the history of the US and link them. The technique we had to come up with was to take the story and link it to the next story. You’ve got these global views that involve traveling across the country in time and space to the next story.

The reason they came to us, I think, was that we’ve got a good reputation for coming up with creative solutions to those tricky problems. We just don’t take visual effects shots and deliver them – we’ve have quite a lot of say in the whole creative approach. They didn’t really the budget to do these sequences entirely photoreal. It just wouldn’t have been feasible to go from big close-ups to these wide travelling shots to global views and back up and down again. So we came up with some creative solutions and ways of doing those shots in a more stylised look.

fxg: Can you give me an example of one of the transition shots?

Dobree: One of the shots had to show the effect the transcontinental railway has had on developing America. We start at a railway station in the 1800s and then had to cover about 200 years of history in one shot. You start with the train pulling out of a station in the mid-west which is in the process of building and a town in the middle of development. We follow the train through developing towns through the 18th and 19th century showing that things grew around the railway – that it had a catalyst effect.

Once the east coast and west coasts were linked by railway, trains then spread and then the industrial side of America could grow on the back of that network. And cities spread around the railway junctions. The idea is that you get a modern day city being developed and then we rise up and you get this big emotional shot to see the whole of city develop with skyscapers.

10Jul/jellyfish/H1_020_020_sequence_framesfxg: How did you achieve that shot technically?

Hasraf Dulull: It was about 1000 frames long. We had to split the whole sequence into three parts. We used Vue to generate elements that a matte painter could then use to build up landscapes, and with Nuke do some camera projections that were re-projected onto geometry. The buildings were rendered in mental ray and we used photorealistic shaders for those because we had reflections and refractions in there, but still with that stylistic approach in mind. We used things like ReelSmart to do our motion blur rather than render it straight in and we used vector passes to control that. It meant that we could tweak motion blur to suit the client.

To start on the shot, we would previs it first. We presented different camera angles, different speeds, different lenses and different building layouts. The buildings actually animated upwards as well, so it was good to get approval for that look. Once previs was done we did a look development frame. We used the skyline system in XSI, which alllows you to move the skyline around and it generates the time of day for you.

That helped during post-viz too. We used Nuke’s 3D capabilities to do some UV mapping – and we were able to change the windows inside the building without having to go back into 3D. The rest of it was down to creative compositing. Splitting up the sequence also meant that we could play with the transitions and use lens flares and dust for integration.

fxg: There’s a nice pullback from a ship – how was that accomplished?

Dobree: That’s another transition shot. There’s a guy coming out of a hatch on the deck of a boat and as he came out we transition through to a CG boat that had to be historically accurate. We pull up through the rigging of the sails, and we see the ocean, which was all CG ocean. The camera then tilts up and tracks across the ocean towards America. It’s a ‘Land of promise’ shot showing the first pilgrims coming to America discovering their new land. Then there’s a whole sequence flying over the forest of the east coast, through bison herds, down into seams of gold under the ground and some guy picking up a nugget of gold from a river bed. It was a 90 second shot.

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fxg: What were some of the more traditional visual effects shots Jellyfish worked on for the series?

Dulull: One involved some crowd replication for a Civil War army. They wanted to extend the crowd but they weren’t sure about how many to extend it by. There was no motion control – just one camera crane move. For the particular shot we did a lot of stablising in compositing and then a lot of paint work. There’s also some greenscreen compositing work for a tornado shot and another one is a tracking shot of Boston Harbour. A lot of look dev went into that shot because it’s quite an iconic image. The camera move is not looked off at all. We had to deal with quite a bit of lens distortion. We had to give it a very painterly look and the only reference we had were obviously paintings so we tried to follow that.

Some of the other shots included a meteorite we did using 3ds Max and Fume. And there’s a shot of some ships through a telescope. The ships had to be historically accurate with all the ropes and rigging, so we were provided with loads of references from the production company. It’s 100% CG but for the wake we found plates that we had in our library and did some compositing tricks like luma keying and just composited them in.

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fxg: What sort of turnaround did you have?

Dobree: For the work we did, they started shooting in October 2009 and it was delivered in April 2010. There were also two other companies involved in the visual effects – Modus and Lola Visual Effects who worked on different parts of the series.

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