Foundry’s Modo and Nuke help the ocean cleanup

Dazzling pitch video brings ambitious pollution pick-up proposal to life.

Erwin Zwarts environmental proposal project uses 3d visualisation to clean up the oceans

Plastic pollution is a rapidly growing concern for the world's oceans, with loads of bags and debris floating along and collecting in massive gyres—the largest of which is found in the North Atlantic Ocean. Millions of tons of plastic endanger the lives of seabirds and marine mammals and threaten various ecosystems. Meanwhile, the traditional methods of cleaning up such water pollutants are expensive and time-consuming.

The Ocean Cleanup hopes to change all of that, and its plan comes from the mind of 20-year-old Boyan Slat, a Dutch student who envisioned a passive and much less expensive way to catch the plastic using floating barriers. His idea gained rapid support, and Slat led a team of about 100 engineers, researchers, and other volunteers to perform a Feasibility Report, which showed how the plan would work. From there, the group raised more than $2 million USD through a crowd-funding initiative to push ahead with construction efforts.

Integral to the success were Erwin Zwart and Fabrique Computer Graphics. The Ocean Cleanup tapped Zwart, who has worked with computer graphics for more than 25 years, to create compelling, visually realistic footage to bring the concept to life for viewers. His impressive animation of the proposed cleanup efforts is part of the reason why The Ocean Cleanup raised its funding, from 38,615 backers, so quickly. Zwart relied on Foundry’s Modo® and Nuke® to execute that important task.

Zwart founded Fabrique Computer Graphics in 1990, and the studio operates within the Fabrique Group, "a Dutch multidisciplinary communication and design agency." The team has tackled a wide array of projects, including everything from bus stations to a smart thermostat, along with many websites since the dawn of the web.

Artists, engineers and storytellers work here with pleasure and passion on various assignments. We share a passion for developing new products and brands, always from the perspective of the market and the user.

Erwin Zwart, CG Artist, Fabrique Computer Graphics

Fabrique's Co-Founder and Creative Director Jeroen van Erp helped organize the TEDxDelft 2012 conference, at which Slat first presented The Ocean Cleanup idea. He asked Zwart to develop the renders needed for Slat's talk. Those images were then used prominently on The Ocean Cleanup's initial website, as well as in media activities. When it came time to present the findings of the Feasibility Report and begin the crowdfunding campaign, Zwart was tapped to create animation and new visuals to help spread the message.

Environmentally friendly ocean clean-up project visualised with Modo and Nuke
Showing the practicality of the project using 3d visuals with Modo

Envisioning environmental benefits with Modo and Nuke

Currently based out of Singapore, Zwart collaborated via Skype with Slat, who had a specific vision for the animation. Together, they mapped out camera locations and pathways to mimic the feel of footage being shot from a helicopter. "I got a lot of reactions of people thinking that the array already did exist because of the helicopter shots, so that worked as expected," says Zwart. 

When it came time to create the footage, Zwart began with a platform CAD file provided by UGS Engineering, which he imported into Modo via the CAD Loader plugin. He tweaked it further to fit in well alongside the booms, buoys, mooring and tension cables he modeled within Modo.

As for the ocean itself, which is strikingly realistic in the footage, Zwart used procedural emodo textures with movement, based both on previous water animations he'd made for other offshore projects, as well as a tutorial from Modo community member Andre McGrail. Zwart then tapped the talents of Simon Lundberg, Dino Zanco and Jonathan Kolodner—friends within the Modo community—to help devise a workable solution for using Modo's Surface (Particle) Generator to power the "plastic soup" pollution floating atop the water's surface.

Even with so many moving parts, Zwart says that Modo's immense power handled it all with ease and let him retain full control throughout. 

Using Modo for 3d visuals and Nuke for compositing
Realistic ocean clean up shot from Erwin Zwart's environmental ocean clean up project
Render preview of many instances and replicators is the feature I always loved most in Modo. It makes previewing huge scenes possible that would virtually freeze an OpenGL window.

Erwin Zwart, CG Artist, Fabrique Computer Graphics

"Sometimes I get CAD files from the semiconductor industry that are so detailed, and still I can load those and see them in Global Illumination in render preview. It's amazing", continued Erwin.

He also credits the OCIO tonemapping feature in Modo 801 for helping "enormously to preview the balance the light of the sky and the water."

Zwart had just started using Nuke when he tackled The Ocean Cleanup project, and he found it a significant help in nailing the shots he needed. "It changed my animation workflow completely. I could stay in full colorspace by rendering unclamped to EXR in Modo," he says.

In the past, when using other software, Zwart would have to wait until he rendered all final shots to catch and fix mistakes or needed changes. Not so with Nuke, which he used alongside a render farm to push through to his deadline. "I felt in full control over the deadline process during the hectic last days for the first time in all those years," he notes. "I could do little tweaks per shot to get just the needed overexposure in the sky and darkness in the waves."

He says that Nuke features, like real-time RAM playback of Full HD rendered EXR sequences and easy A/B comparisons of shots, were essential for this project, as well as having all clips (plus earlier versions) in a single nodeflow so he could view every stage. "It is a given for compositors, but an eye-opener for a 3D artist who tend to keep it all in the renderer and render final frames that way," he admits.

All of that work in Modo and Nuke has helped this great cause generate significant publicity, with the footage used widely in newscasts and online, not to mention yielding more than 2 million views on YouTube. And while Zwart can point to the excellent footage in his professional life, it's clear that his involvement in The Ocean Cleanup project has personal significance as well. "My intention to work on this campaign is to get it done for real, and that is why I sponsored it with a lot of my time."