Working with scientists, the production team from “The Planets” films created more than 2.5 hours of computer graphics and visual effects to depict the physics of our Solar System.
Behind the Scenes: The Making of "The Planets"
Published: July 31, 2019
Rob Harvey: A show like "Planets", we have to create somewhere in the region of 2.5 hours of CG and VFX for this series. It’s absolutely huge. We have quite a bit of experience recreating everything from the big bang to the death of the universe. So, we’ve in the past covered most of the subject matter.
What we have to do with scientists is get a grasp of the physics and then try and represent that in an interesting way for the viewer.
When we take on a job like this, we tend to start from a story board, from a page, a drawing or a piece of concept art and just find some interesting aspect to the process that we can do something different with.
We try to get away from this sci-fi, Star Trek, Star Wars kind of look that conveys this sort of big empty space out there. Lot of black. Lot of very, very slow camera moves.
We try and shoot elements for the image or we shoot scenarios when we can in a studio and combine that with a more conventional, sort of, 3D CG images. And mash it up. And sometimes just use something from NASA maybe as a background. We might go to the location and shoot a landscape and then replace the sky with you know, a black sky and a giant Saturn.
We have a scene at the beginning of our Solar System, where the Sun’s just formed and Jupiter formed at the same time. So, this bowling ball on a piece of metal is our Jupiter. Basically, I used this in a... created an environment of gas and smoke and this was the prop that we used for that. I suppose when we get it into post production we’ll add some Jupiter textures to it.
Yeah, there’s an awful lot of this sort of thing: Creating explosions using sand and flour. And some of the Jupiter textures are sort of Hammerite paint with petrol and some horrible solvents—create these beautiful patterns—so we just experiment.
We are currently setting up to show the core of Saturn, which the pressures are so great, apparently gases are turned into a sort of liquid metal. So, we’re going to be raining helium through compressed hydrogen. We aren’t throwing some broken windscreen past the camera into some fog.
We try and find effects that aren’t rooted to a phenomenon on Earth. That’s where things tend to happen where it looks a little bit like a thunderstorm or a little bit like a volcano or whatever. We just try and go really abstract. Quite wacky.
When we’re in the studio, we have a storyboard frame or a concept image. From that, we break down the elements we need to recreate that image. So, in the case of early Jupiter for instance, we knew that we had to have a sphere that we had to then texture with gas and other material. And that then had to sit in a cloud of gas, there had to be other bits of debris around. So, I’ll shoot that as separate layers and then back here, we take all those layers and we put them back together and adjust them and put them in front and behind and color them to create the image. It’s a bit like painting.
So, one of the sequences in the Saturn film we had to pass down through some of the most violent and enormous electrical storms in the Solar System. We went to the internet and bought these antique, single-use flash bulbs. We cover those in liquid nitrogen with boiling water, sends these massive clouds up around the bulbs. And then we fire the bulbs off and it just gives a 2,000 frames a second, makes it look absolutely enormous. And then back here we take two or three passes of those, layer them together and create a giant storm. And it’s quite good fun.