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Burrell Durrant Hifle – Wonders Of The Universe VFX

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As part of our mission to look at excellence in VFX we had a chat with Burrell Durrant Hifle  – a design and direction company based in Bristol. With their close proximity to the BBC Natural History department, BDH have produced VFX and graphics for such programmes as Planet Earth, and currently airing on BBC One on Wednesday nights, Frozen Planet.

To create these stunning visuals it involved meticulously stitching together high-res photographs taken from space by NASA. The above video from Planet Earth has received over a million views on YouTube. Planet Earth was the first nature documentary shot in HD and at the time it was also the most expensive to be commissioned by the BBC. It has gone on to be shown in 130 countries worldwide, won countless awards and sold DVDs in the millions.

What we have to show to you today, is even bigger and better. You’ve seen Earth… now the Universe!

This video, recently uploaded to Vimeo, is a compilation from the TV series Wonders of the Universe. It collates all the graphics sequences in the series into one ‘Cosmological Fantasia’, with a score composed by Timo Baker.

Dotmogo have a few insights into the VFX for you…

To achieve such organic visuals, BDH called upon the talents of Peter and Chris Parks, a father-and-son duo of film-makers. They filmed small petri dishes with chemicals and inks and shot them at 4K resolution with a RED camera. These were composited together using a combination of Maya, After Effects and Shake.

Each element needed to be approached in a different way and the BDH team had to learn the details and differences in a wide range of cosmological phenomenas from a Lagoon Nebula to a gamma ray burst. “They all had different characters,” says 3D artist Paul Greer. “We had to try to reflect the science accurately with the material and techniques that matched it.”

But creative director Rob Hifle explains, “We had very distant Hubble telescope images to give us representations, but certain things were virtually non-visible – they would just look like a red blob – so it was a completely different brief in that respect.”

The team also used 2.5D effects and layering using photoshop element and footage such as slow-motion fire. However, the speed of the live-action explosions was an issue, says Hifle. “Anything that exploded quickly would give the scale away. The faster you move on things, the smaller they look. It had to feel enormous.”

As a finishing touch, the shots were given lens flares and camera shake, whilst you can see a spattering of dust on the lens during a big explosion. This gives the viewer a sense that they are watching through a tiny window in a spaceship and floating through space completely engrossed in the scene.

Personally, I feel the VFX sequences in Brian Cox’s programmes are the best bit and add much needed weight and contrast to shots of him on a beach counting grains of sand!

Author: Reuben Armstrong

Digital Creative at Conran Design Group

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