Inside the Space Shuttle Atlantis Project

LightWave plays a key role in this 2014 VES Award-winning Special Project

Posted: Wed 05 Mar 2014

Story by Paul Hellard

The team of VFX artists and technicians at Mousetrappe and EdenFX have walked away with the 2014 VES Award for the most Outstanding Visual Effects in a Special Venue Project. The awardees included Daren Ulmer, John Gross, Cedar Connor, Eric Hance and Christian Bloch.

John Gross was one of the first users of LightWave, having beta-tested the application back in the early nineties. He used the first iterations on early episodes of the Seaquest production and Star Trek Voyager. He was very active in creating assets for those TV shows we love to remember as being the test bed for science fiction visuals on network TV.  Gross and his co-worker Christian Bloch were contacted by a company they’d worked with before, called Mousetrappe. This was a project beyond their dreams for geekiness, and instantly brought a smile to their faces.

The real Atlantis shuttle had been retired to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex at Cape Canaveral in Florida. The idea was to hang the vehicle at a 43 degree angle, as if floating in space. Mousetrappe’s job was to create an immersive visual show that visitors would experience before the real orbiter is revealed to them.

They took a visit down to the Kennedy Space Center and initially met with the clients, which were Delaware North and NASA. “Among the many proposals, briefing notes and ideas thrown back and forth, the whole process took about a year to land the job,” says John Gross. “Mousetrappe is a company that specializes in creating attractions. Their job was to construct a museum attraction involving the space shuttle Atlantis. This would include almost all the assets that are included in the exhibit.”

Dome preview at 4K.

Final comp at 8K.


Launching the Project

The production starts off with the launch of the first shuttle where the team ties a CG environment into iMax footage of the first shuttle launch. Eric Hance was responsible for showing the swamps around the Florida launch site. This was all instanced geometry everywhere.

The project also required building a huge model of the Atlantis Space Shuttle, the Hubble telescope and the EVA suit. Mark Hennessy-Barrett was the CG artist responsible for the astronaut’s space suit during the Extra Vehicular Activity. Here the idea was to recreate the iconic photograph of Bruce McCandless’ first untethered space walk, but to turn it into an immersive moving shot in 8K resolution. Mark used ZBrush and LightWave’s GoZ bridge, to recreate all the wrinkles and cables present in this particular (now ancient) EVA suit, getting it exact down to the correct mission patch. Not only that, a high resolution International Space Station (ISS) was created. “In orbit, the real ISS is always changing, always being added onto and developed,” says Christian Bloch. “In reality, it is a perpetual construction site, so we had to track down the state that it was in, back when the Atlantis Shuttle went up and docked. They really wanted to have it as real as possible, because the client knew that specialists and astronauts alike would be seeing the final product in the museum.”

Launch dome preview at 4K.

Launch final comp at 8K.

 Launch reprojection.

 Wireframe of launch imagery.

The team received all the layout geometry from NASA, and veteran modeler Anthony Vu was assigned to the ISS build full time for four months. While it may appear like a lump of cylinders, the ISS is such an intricate construction. “Since the theater at the Kennedy Spaceflight Center is a domed space, the audience gets to see the ISS from all angles,” says Blochi. “When you stand in the theater and look upwards, you clearly see those girders fly past you. Pretty much everything had to be geometrically realistic from all sides.”

“This brings up a good point about the rendering,” adds John. “This isn’t just a model. Christian (Blochi) had to visualize and project the rendering onto the architecture of the theater. There is a large 4K screen at the end of the room, which in this case is actually a door. Four arches reach all the way above the audience.”

Orbit with Sahara clouds.

Orbit with Hubble.

“It would have become a nightmare when collecting the data for the surround projection,” adds Blochi. “So instead, we devised a special camera, directly from the room geometry, basically using the BakingCam in LightWave. This allows you to use the geometry as your ray source. When you look at the CG scenes in LightWave, you actually see a tiny model of the room. What’s so genius about LightWave’s BakingCam is that it only changes the way rays are fired, while all other features are virtually unaffected. Shading plugins, instancing, render buffer export, even the interactive VPR preview - it all worked flawlessly and LightWave performed like a champ in our weird dome camera. Everything was rendered into a UV map, which resembles the view from the center of the room (the sweet spot) through the arches into the near-earth orbit. Later this UV map is reprojected in NUKE. Individual projector tiles are rendered out in real time and projected onto the arches in the room. So it’s a completely surround view, completely fitted especially for that room. 4K at the front, and 4K around the edges.”

Orbit sunrise.

Orbit sunset with clouds.

The guys used Digital Fusion to composites the scenes back into the geometry and the final compositing was done in NUKE by Mousetrappe. “Halfway through production we found out that the Baking camera was only single threaded. The team at the LightWave 3D Group put together a special build overnight for us, with features that weren’t even in the beta. That special build cut our render times down to one third. One of those shots was the longest of my entire career. Just over 11 minutes, 15,200 frames, one continuous shot, displayed at the exhibition space on a 120-foot LED screen in 4K, which is behind the Space Shuttle. When you are standing in the exhibition, it looks like you’re in space with it, and you fly an entire orbit around the Earth.”

“I think there was almost 10Gb of texture data for the Earth alone, using multiple layers,” he explains. “We wanted the highest resolution possible,” explains Blochi. “The orbit is a replica of the highest angle orbit ever flown. At 55-degree to the equator, you take in the most spectacular views of Earth, with the middle of the USA and Europe at night, the Himalayas, across Indonesia and out into the Pacific via New Zealand, with Aurora Australis lights.”

Christian was especially impressed with db&w’s infiniMap plugin for LightWave, being able to render 15Gb of texture map in record time – even interactively in the VPR.

John Gross loves the comments they heard from not just the public, but the astronauts that have been in space and experienced the full orbit, have been very complimentary. “Until you actually go there to Florida and see it in person, there’s a limit to how you can describe it. People are pretty much blown away,” he says.

Re-entry final comp.

Re-entry dome preview.

Some stellar statistics on the project:

• 4.1 Terabytes - total project data (after extensive cleanups).
• 3.5 Gigapixel - texture for the earth surface alone (86K Blue Marble NextGen).
• 9.2 Gigabytes - accumulated textures for the earth (incl. clouds, citylights, ect).
• 6.2 TeraHertz - total processing power of our render farm (extended for all this).
• 37,472 frames - cumulative frame count of all shots (over 26 minutes).
• 10.5 Million - polygon count of our ISS model.

CG Visual Effects by Eden FX

• Christian Bloch - CG Supervisor / Lead Artist / Compositing
• Mark Hennessy-Barrett - CG Artist (EVA sequence)
• Anthony Vu - Modeling & Shading (ISS, Flight Deck)
• Eric Hance - CG Artist (Swamp opening sequence)
• Emmanuel Yatsuzuka - Modeling (Atlantis)
• Dan DeEntremont, Keith Matz, Sean Jackson - Additional Modeling
• Rebecca West - Project Manager
• Carrie Stula - Coordinator

Paul Hellard is an industry writer specializing in the visual effects and CG industries.