Mission to Mars with NASA’s Curiosity

Artists at Bohemian Grey animate the rover's mission to Mars with LightWave 3D

Posted: Mon 05 Nov 2012

NASA’s latest Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), Curiosity completed the cruise phase of its journey between Earth and Mars, landing on the red planet in August of 2012. Yet, prior to touchdown, the public was able to watch the latest Mars rover perform its detailed mission months in advance of the MSL spacecraft landing via a breathtaking short animated film from Bohemian Grey Inc.

The Curiosity MSL’s mission—part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, designed to foster robotic exploration of the red planet—is to gather information intended to help scientists assess whether Mars is or ever was habitable, or capable of supporting microbial life. Bohemian Grey’s mission, also complex, was to make the best-looking short rover film possible to inform and excite the public.

“These are exciting days for Mars exploration and JPL wanted the public to be a part of that excitement. This required that the mission to be depicted as truthfully and accurately as possible,” says Kevin Lane, founder and president of Bohemian Grey Inc. as well as director and animator on the Mars Science Laboratory animation project for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). A division of the California Institute of Technology, JPL manages the Mars Science Laboratory mission for the NASA Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

Contract for Curiosity

Lane bid for the JPL contract work, and won. Having previously worked with JPL on an animation about the very same rover mission, Lane was very familiar with both the rover and the mission that NASA and JPL were planning. “It was a factor in my favor, as was being able to make a highly competitive bid, which was in no small part made possible by the flexibility of LightWave 3D,” he says. “It’s truly a Swiss Army knife of VFX.”

Lane, a Boston native and a graduate of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, learned 3D decades ago by running LightWave on a Commodore Amiga 4000. He loved LightWave 3D then, and he hasn’t looked back. “LightWave was immediately appealing to me. It combined all the things I enjoyed doing: sculpting, painting, model building, and, of course, animating.”

CG artists at Bohemian Grey use LightWave 3D to craft an impressive animated film for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Lane met with JPL officials and technical liaisons, committed Curiosity’s animated mission to a storyboard, and then guided the project through to its completion as an animated short film.

“I was able to promise [JPL managers] a high-quality product within their time frame at a reasonable price,” Lane adds. “Thanks to the talented people I had on this project and the tool we chose, we kept our promise and delivered a product of which we are quite proud.”

End to end in eight months

A team of three artists at Bohemian Grey worked on the Mars Science Laboratory animation project from start to finish, with three others assisting at different times throughout production. “Considering we made the rover, which is a hugely complicated model, recreated the surface of Mars, and did nearly 17 minutes of animation, I think we pulled off no minor feat in just eight months,” Lane admits. Modeler Andrew Harlow built the intricate, true-to-life rover model.

Computer graphics artists demonstrate the Curiosity rover’s mission on Mars well in advance of the actual event, which took place August 2012. 

Integral to the team and the quality of the animation was Animator/Modeler Bill Arbanas. “I am the oldest living LightWaver on the planet, having used it from the Amiga days when it was version 0.9 and fit on a single 3.5-inch floppy disk,” he says. “My first computer was coal-powered, but even way back then, the potential of this 3D software was obvious. It was like magic, being able to build something three-dimensionally and then put it into a virtual movie studio, make it move around, and control the lights and camera. For someone creative, it was, and still is, like crack cocaine. Once this gets into your artistic system, you are hooked for life! LightWave 3D has enabled so many of us to visualize and then realize our creative dreams!”

The Bohemian Grey team constructed the animation in a rather atypical way. Based on Lane’s past experience with JPL, he knew they would use, reuse, and re-reuse the animation in dozens of ways and then hand it off to news agencies and networks, such as The Discovery Channel and The Science Channel, which would use it in different ways, as well. “From the beginning, I wanted to ensure it would have as long a shelf life as possible,” he says. So, the team approached virtually every shot and group of shots as though it would have to stand on its own. As a result, most of the shots in the film are actually longer than what is shown.

NASA's Curiosity rover is tucked inside the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft's backshell as the craft descends on a parachute toward Mars. 

“In one shot, we are riding on the back of the rover as it goes down a hill. We used a portion for the film, but the shot was so fun, we just decided to render the whole thing,” Lane says. “Although that shot is only a few seconds long in the movie, the original render is roughly 3,000 frames long.

“Under normal circumstances, you would never want to do more than is going to end up in the final product. But in this case, future use was a consideration, and we built it in wherever we could,” Lane adds. In total, 81 or 82 shots are used in the film. Bohemian Grey provided many more, but shots were inevitably changed, added, and removed as NASA and JPL were working to finalize the actual, future rover mission.

Size matters

The sheer size of the terrains proved challenging for the artists. “Finding that balance between detail and usability was hard,” admits Lane, “especially given that some shots went from seeing pebbles on the ground out to viewing full vistas.”

Artists recreated the vast expanses of space in the digital realm, modeling two planets, roughly 10 environments, five vehicles, and a dozen or so effects elements such as rocket exhaust, the heated plasma of the atmospheric descent, and dust.

The sky crane maneuvers during the descent of NASA's Curiosity rover to the Martian surface

Lane and his team opted to use LightWave for its speed and quality. “Given the detail needed and the time allotted, I wasn’t convinced that we could get it done in time using another animation package,” Lane recalls. “With LightWave, I knew we could make our assets very quickly and make changes as needed without it causing a domino effect of work.”

Lane prefers LightWave’s interface over that of other 3D software. “I don’t like feeling like I’m lost in a sea of redundant tabs and pull down menus. LightWave’s lighting and rendering systems are also uncluttered and provide a terrific render that doesn’t bring a render farm to its knees.”

“LightWave was a work horse,” Lane says. He and his team used it for modeling, rigging, animation, and rendering. “In short, it was the software centerpiece of the project.”

“When a project has a severe deadline and lots of technical issues to hurdle, only LightWave can produce the final results in the time required without an army of artists and a massive render farm,” Arbanas adds.

Bohemian Grey artists depict how NASA’s Mars Science Lab spacecraft will look like during its descent in the Martian atmosphere.

Lane’s hand-drawn storyboards were turned into 2D animatics, after which the drawings were replaced with low-resolution 3D models and a simple animation for composition and pacing. The team used 3D Coat for compositing, texture painting, and some terrain sculpting. “I needed a way to sculpt and paint directly on to a terrain models,” Lane says. “3D Coat and LightWave seem to be kindred spirits and work together extremely well.” Everything else on the project was done in LightWave and went smoothly, with the exception of a single, heart-stopping glitch.

Moving target

NASA and JPL officials were hard at work building the real rover and deciding what the mission was going to be while Bohemian Grey artists were producing the animation. “It provided some of the biggest hurdles, but LightWave’s work flow allows for the easy replacement of models and motions—it really saved our bacon on more than one occasion,” Lane recalls with a laugh.

“A small army of more than 2,000 scientists and engineers at JPL in dozens of specialized teams worked on this mission. They needed everything we did in the animation to be 100 percent accurate,” Arbanas explains. “They are geniuses at what they do, but they are not always able to communicate that verbally, which made our job a whole lot more interesting at times. Many of the shots required multiple re-dos until all parties were satisfied, and I do not believe any software out there except LightWave could have kept up with those demands.”

At the very end of the film project, an engineer at JPL noticed a piece of equipment that was in the wrong place on the rover model. Artists had modeled the rover using reference material that “had something in a place it didn’t exist anymore,” Lane explains. “Given the complexity of the model and the fact that the real rover was still changing, it’s no wonder. But still, no one saw it ’til the very end, when the one guy that actually worked on that segment of the real rover happens to be looking at a pre-final version of the film and said, ‘Hey, what’s THAT doing there?’ A few heart attacks later, we fixed the rover, swapped out the model, and yes, re-rendered all the shots with the offending geometry. It was a caffeine-fueled triumph of man and technology over deadline and Murphy’s Law.

NASA's Curiosity rover examines a rock on Mars with a set of tools at the end of its arm. Its drill can collect sample material from inside rocks, a scoop can pick up samples of soil, and the arm can sieve the samples and deliver fine powder to instruments inside the rover for thorough analysis.

“There is no doubt in my mind that LightWave’s ease of content replacement and rendering power helped save the day,” Lane affirms. “In any project, whatever you can do to make things simpler is a blessing. The fact that we weren’t dealing with a third-party renderer made things faster for obvious reasons. We made changes, saved our work, and submitted to our render controller, all from within LightWave—taking something tedious and time-consuming out of the equation all together.”

A view from above

The Bohemian Grey team worked on Windows-based, 64-bit machines with Intel i7 CPUs and 16GB of RAM, accompanied by a 30-inch display and a prerequisite copy of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, for after-hours stress relief, says Lane.

“On a good machine, you get almost instant results, which is amazing,” Lane notes. “You can finally make what you have in your head happen on the screen, without waiting for long renders to find out if you got it right. A person’s creative thinking is not interrupted, and that’s an amazing thing for CGI (computer-generated imagery). It’s something that traditional artists have had and that digital artists lacked—until now.”

The Bohemian Grey team relied on LightWave’s Viewport Preview Renderer (VPR), introduced in LightWave version 10, as part of the creative process. “When I had notes on a shot and needed to send a quick image or a preview to the client, the VPR made it possible to make changes and see them almost immediately. It’s a great way to make a client happy,” Lane acknowledges.
LightWave’s innovative preview capabilities also made the artists happy. “The VPR, along with dome lights and a much faster renderer, made lighting a scene not only fast, but fun,” Lane says. “The same goes for texturing, as well.”

Artists at Bohemian Grey crafted a 3D model of the Curiosity in intricate detail as the real-world rover was still being built by NASA engineers.

Over the moon

Lane and his team are proud of the rover model and terrains they produced. Response to the finished short film, from JPL and the public, was overwhelmingly positive. “We pulled off some really nice-looking settings on Mars that people haven’t seen before,” Lane admits. “But the main thing that this short film has going for it is that it’s dynamic and exciting to watch. It’s fun and, in the end, that’s what really counts.”

“Plus, it is technically accurate,” Arbanas interjects. “I still claim that it is the only legitimate job I have had since working in this business!”

Lane counts the overall experience as a great success. “As projects go, this goes down as one of the really good ones,” he enthuses. “I am, without a doubt, going to continue to use LightWave, especially with the functionality coming in version 11. LightWave is poised to take the VFX community by surprise if they haven’t been keeping up on current events. I’m very excited about what’s coming.” The CGI and VFX communities are equally excited about what’s coming next, both from the LightWave 3D Group and Bohemian Grey.

View the animated short film and follow Curiosity’s mission: on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/marscuriosity  or Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/marscuriosity, and online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P4boyXQuUIw .