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Mission Galapagos
 Zoo VFX, BBC One, 3 part series


Liz Bonnin and a team of international experts have assembled for one of the most ambitious scientific expeditions ever attempted in the Galapagos, a magical set of islands that are often described as nature’s biggest experiment.

Working again with the team at Zoo VFX, this ambitious 3-parter needed a series of maps based around the scientific journey the team embarked on. I had envisioned a 3D map based on widely available 90m DEM data to create the islands and then marry them to Bathymetric data too. As so much of the story around the Galapagos is tied to the ocean around it and the Volcanoes that make up the islands, this was an important aspect to include.

Although there are a lot of sources of data freely available for this, they are not very complete or in great detail to be able to show close-up in any detail. They would also require a lot of patching up to flow seamlessly which is very tricky. My method for this was to bring the most complete data I had for the islands and the seabed and create 2 separate 3D objects from them. I knew some of the smaller islands, like Wolf island, would need to be built from scratch, as it is so small it hasn’t yet been mapped or imaged in a good resolution either.

Map style test, based around a technical science theme

STL generator.jpg

Another problem arose from the texture we would use for these models. Again the satellite sensor imagery, mostly from Nasa is recorded in strips and square areas of various stages, so is not seamless. It’s also recorded at different times of the day, in different weathers and at different quality. And hand patching from other sources would create a widely looking different texture and be very time consuming and probably run into clearance issues, as beyond a certain height, google maps switches from space agency/government available sources to private aerial imagery suppliers - which can be very costly, if you need large areas covered in a good resolution to zoom into. Each of the islands also has its own distinct flora and fauna, and geology that makes them all look different when viewed from the air as well.

My solution was to make a custom material that would add detail but still retain map-like characteristics, like terrain height bands. This would allow a custom design look but also tie into the scientific nature of the show and give the maps a feeling of craft rather than just a physical image of what it probably looks like from space/in the air. Also I could show the terrain as a whole landmass bothe under the ocean and above and include the translucent ocean surface to obscure the seabed when it wasn’t needed.

Online Terrain DEM data

I had opted to use Cinema4D to process the terrain and fix any holes, add detail where it was needed and give the 2 sections a good base to sit on. I knew there would be a lot of extra GFX and labels to add onto these base maps, so my favorite program to bridge this divide in 3D space is Video Copilot's Element 3D. It is a neartime rendering engine for After Effects, that allows you to manipulate custom 3d models and texture them to then present inside After Effects internal 3D camera system. I knew text labels would be able to sit in that space and any particle systems and graphics I used would also marry together. Plus any changes and reversioning needed, this was very quick to re-render out and match shot durations from the edit. It gives me so much more flexibility to deliver more shots to edits, often to a higher design standard than 3D images passes from another programme. Although as this was a 4K delivery I did run into some problems with memory usage, which would now be addressed with the new breed of GFX cards that can process the heavy data lifting needed to show these resolutions and lighting effects. I think in the end we rendered out passes of element layers at 3200px wide of the seabed model and then another one of the islands and the ocean surface to composite together to free memory to make 4K, 3840x2160 image frames. That's part of the flexibility of this workflow and to be able to tweak the materials to look great together.

Mapping Imagery around the Galapagos Islands

Another problem with 4K graphics is the fidelity of any moves and vector graphics, like thin lines and text. As the resolution is so high, you have to be careful not to introduce too much of a move across this, as you often get banding and jarring edges that seem to flicker, especially if they are coming in and out of depth of field blurs or different zoom scales. The things that bring a map a life and give it character have to be carefully weighed with how they will appear on screen. 


Across the 3 parts, there were between 8 and 10 maps each episode needed, either to act as locators for where the crew was or moving too, or as a basis for the scientific data. They were tracking tortoise movement on the slopes of a volcano, hammerheads in a bay off Doplhin island, a submarine descent from Alcudia’s ship, and sea current flows across the Pacific Ocean. Also across the series there were several GFX sequences to present the data in a more polished look and feel in keeping with the graphic look.

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