Design Visualization

Denman Productions

Animators use Autodesk 3ds Max to accurately showcase European Space Agency's mission to Mars

Anthony Gambier-Parry entered the computer animation field in 1979, creating for the film Alien what was, at that time, pioneering computer animation. "Ridley Scott asked me to produce some clips for the onboard displays illustrating the 'Entry, Descent, and Landing' sequence of the Nostromo spacecraft," recalls Gambier-Parry, founder of London-based creative house Denman Productions. "Back then there was no 'computer animation software.' To create that sequence, two programmers had to write the code for me from the ground up."

Little did Gambier-Parry know that 20 years later his computer animation prowess would be called upon to simulate a real space mission. Instead of using homegrown code, however, this time he relied on 3ds Max software.

On June 2, 2003, the European Space Agency launched the Mars Express orbiter. Its mission is to help answer questions about the geology, atmosphere, surface environment, history of water, and potential for life on Mars. On December 19th, the Beagle 2 lander was released from the Mars Express to begin its descent to the Red Planet. Touchdown is scheduled for December 25th.

"Beagle 2: A Mission to Mars" is the 4½-minute animation Gambier-Parry and his team produced that accurately showcases the Beagle 2 as it's released and lands on Mars. The animation shows the lander entering the Martian atmosphere, firing its drogue chute to steady itself, and then firing its main chute, which brings it a few hundred feet above the planet's surface. The craft's airbags inflate and it bounces to a halt on Mars. As the airbags roll away, Beagle 2 unfolds its solar panels, charges its batteries, and collects samples of Martian soil. The samples are returned to the lander's onboard laboratory for analysis, and the data is beamed back to Earth via the orbiter.

Gambier-Parry says several 3ds Max features were crucial to his latest space animation. One was backward compatibility from one version of 3ds Max to the next. "Mike Rickett at Matra Marconi Space in the UK, now called EADS Astrium, contacted me in 1998 to create an animation of Beagle 2 that could be used to raise funds for its construction," Gambier-Parry recalls. "Back then we were using 3ds Max 2."

Through the years, as Gambier-Parry upgraded his version of 3ds Max, the Beagle 2's design evolved. With each major evolution Denman created a new animation for use in announcing project milestones and raising funds. To tweak the latest animation, being televised to highlight the actual mission, Denman used 3ds Max 5. "We created the Martian surface a long time ago," says Gambier-Parry. "It was essential that we be able to reuse our initial investment in modeling and scene creation."

Also crucial to the project was the software's network rendering capability. "We rendered this using the scanline renderer and had seven machines running on our renderfarm. Without network rendering, we couldn't have completed the project," Gambier-Parry says. "We couldn't have afforded software that required us to pay for every rendering machine."

Other features the animators found beneficial are the software's Xref system and Materials Editor. "Because of the complexity of the Beagle 2 lander and the huge array of rocks on the Martian surface, the 3ds Max files were very large. With Xref, we could split up the scenes to make them easier to work with," Gambier-Parry explains. The Materials Editor enabled the animators to create complex, multilayer materials, such as the Martian surface. "We could carpet acres of Mars with a realistic-looking surface rather than tiling the same few pictures of a square meter of sand with curry powder mixed in," he says. Also helpful were the software's Morpher tool, for animating the airbags; and Scatter tool, for randomly distributing the rocks across the planet's surface.

As helpful as these features were, perhaps most impressive was the software's modeling tools. "We had to construct a mechanical object, accurate to the millimeter, based on input provided in various formats from numerous people around the world who were designing its components," Gambier-Parry states. "While animating components of the lander early on, we found several problems that prevented them from working properly. We told the chief scientist, who asked me to show the engineers my findings. That was a strange day… standing in front of 10 rocket scientists, humbly telling them what was wrong with their Mars probe."

Thanks to its robust features, 3ds Max has helped Denman Productions produce an animation that's truly out of this world. "3ds Max has matured into a powerful product," Gambier-Parry concludes. "We couldn't imagine using anything else."

Denman Productions (pdf - 192Kb)