With the release of my new dinosaur storybook, Ankylosaur Attack (available from most booksellers, including Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, and Skeptic.com) many younger scientists (especially those aged four to eight) are asking, “How did you make these pictures look so real?” I’ll be discussing that further at the Vancouver International Writers Festival next week, but I thought I might give Skepticblog readers a first glimpse behind the scenes.
My first answer to this question is always, “Time machine.” It’s even true, as long as we understand “machine” to mean my Mac, and “time” to mean “countless months of my life.” According to early reviews, that effort paid off. Calling Ankylosaur Attack one of “the best of this fall’s new children’s books,” Canada’s national Globe and Mail newspaper raves,
A combination of minimal text containing maximal information and computer-generated, photo-realistic images of the creatures in their natural setting makes Loxton’s book a mind-blower/eyeball popper for that dino-crazy species that lives among us.
Here’s a peek at how we did it.
Location photography for Ankylosaur Attack began long before the project was even conceived. In 2006, I shot several thousand texture shots and dinosaur-ready background plates in the island countries of Dominica and St. Lucia (many at locations used for the film Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest). These were intended especially for second installment of the two-part Junior Skeptic story on evolution—which would become my book Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be—but as we’ve joked at Junior Skeptic, “We eat every part of the animal.” Aiming to provide high-end production values on a non-profit budget has taught me to waste nothing, and to maximize every opportunity. With that in mind, I banked thousands of pictures against future needs, feverishly documenting everything from rusting cannons to crumbling walls to volcanic steam. This became a fabulous treasure trove, which I constantly dip into for Junior Skeptic and other projects. For example, if you look very closely at the Ankylosaur Attack spread at the top of this post, you may be able to spot a concealed gecko. That gecko is a Dominica boy (or girl).
The first round of principal photography for Ankylosaur Attack took place in southern British Columbia and Alberta in the Summer of 2010.
The basic magic of projects like Ankylosaur Attack or the photorealist CG monster scenes I create for Junior Skeptic is to take fake creatures and insert them into the middle of real photographs. Not on top, mind you, but into the photographic backgrounds. That means the creatures—whether computer generated like the dinosaurs in this story, or physical sculptures like the Bigfoot on the cover of Junior Skeptic #21—must be inserted behind foreground and mid-ground elements, such as ferns or mossy branches. That can be done with great difficulty by hand using a Wacom tablet and many long days of effort (there was a lot of that for Ankylosaur Attack) but the process can be sped along by tools like a portable greenscreen. First, the camera is locked off on a tripod, and the location shot without a greenscreen. Then, the screen is set up, and the shots taken again. Thankfully, my wife Cheryl is very used to this tedious process. At least she didn’t have to jump in a lake to create splash elements this time! Water or no, however, the process was complicated for this project because the resolution needed for full-spread art for print far exceeded the resolution of my DSLR. Every image in Ankylosaur Attack is a mosaic sewn together from multiple shots!
The fake creatures must also share the lighting of the objects in the scene, and interact with those objects by casting and receiving shadows and bounce light. Even more complicated, reflective elements in the location (puddles, say) must reflect the creature, while reflective elements of the creature (scales!) must reflect the background. For this, we use a mirror ball to capture the lighting conditions of the environment. Once wrapped around a virtual sphere, this provides highly accurate reflections on the scales of our dinosaurs.
All of the backgrounds in Ankylosaur Attack started as photographs, but none of them went to print looking as they did when we stood there. All the shots in the book are highly modified. Not counting the dinosaurs, I added logs and ferns and boulders, removed roads, replaced skies, and many other tricks besides. In some cases, the environments were almost completely synthetic, constructed from elements taken from multiple locations.
We’ll take up some of those compositing challenges in an upcoming post—and reveal how beautiful maple leaves almost defeated this project. Stay tuned!
Until then, I’ll leave you with this shot, which is one of the images I used to create the spread at the top of this post. Photographic assistant Crystal Cerny spent many hours holding a white screen over her head (for this and many other shots) while I looked through the viewfinder and yelled, “Left! More left. Higher. OK, got it. Now, left again….” She exhibited tremendous patience (thanks, Crystal!) but, alas, was unable to be fifteen feet tall. For this reason, it took me days of post-production to finish extracting all the moss and branches for this spread.
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