Diving into deep time

Our current First Animals exhibition is extending its run until 1 September, and to mark the extension our Research Fellow Imran Rahman takes a look at how animal life in the ancient oceans was brought to life in our Cambrian Diver interactive installation.

One of the biggest challenges in developing the First Animals exhibition lay in visualising rare fossil specimens as ‘living’ organisms, transforming them from two-dimensional imprints in the rock into three-dimensional animated computer models.

Many of the specimens on display in First Animals were collected from sites of exceptionally well-preserved fossils called Lagerstätten. These deposits preserve the remains of soft-bodied organisms that are almost never seen in the fossil record; things such as comb jellies and worms, as well as soft tissues such as eyes, gills and muscles. Even so, most of these fossils are flattened and two-dimensional, which makes it very difficult to reconstruct what they looked like in life.

Vetulicola cuneata from the Chengjiang fossil site had a large body with triangular openings on either side and a segmented tail. Its three-dimensional shape is uncertain.

To help exhibition visitors visualise the animals in a living environment we worked closely with Martin Lisec and his team at Mighty Fossils to create a set of detailed computer models of a key set of animals. We have worked with Martin before on the video of a Jurassic sea inhabited by plesiosaurs and other marine animals for our Out of the Deep display. That was very successful, but our idea for First Animals was even more ambitious: to create a unique interactive installation called the Cambrian Diver.

The material focused on the Chengjiang animals from the Cambrian of Yunnan province, China, which provides the most complete record of an early Cambrian marine community, from approximately 518 million years ago. Using fossil evidence of the organisms thought to have lived at the time we selected 12 species that were representative of the diversity of the Chengjiang biota.

The first phase was collecting as many materials as possible to be able to create 3D models. As usual, we started with rough models, where we set basic dimensions, shapes and proportions of body parts. Once approved, we moved to very detailed models for the animations, artworks and textures for less detailed models to be used within the interactive application. – Martin Lisec, Mighty Fossils

Images showing a preliminary 3-D model of the lobopodian Onychodictyon ferox in multiple views, with annotations in yellow highlighting changes suggested by Museum researchers.

To provide two-dimensional templates for Mighty Fossils to work from we scoured the scientific literature for the most recent accurate reconstructions available for each of the species.

The predatory arthropod Amplectobelua symbrachiata is a good example. We drew heavily upon a 2017 paper by Dr Peiyun Cong and colleagues, which included a very detailed reconstruction of the head region. This reconstruction shows that the underside of the head of Amplectobelua consisted of a rod-shaped plate, a mouth made up of two rows of plates, and three pairs of flaps with spiny appendages, all details that are included in our 3D model.

Scientific reconstruction (left) and our 3D model (right) of the arthropod Amplectobelua symbrachiata. Left-hand image modified from Cong et al. (2017).

Colour and texture were another consideration. To inform these we looked at living species that are thought to have similar modes of life today. For Amplectobelua, a free-swimming predator, we examined the colouration of modern marine predators such as sharks. Many sharks have countershading, with a darker upper side of the body and a lighter underside, which acts as camouflage, hiding them from potential prey.

We reconstructed our Amplectobelua model with similar countershading camouflage, with blue and red colouration inspired by the peacock mantis shrimp, a brightly coloured predatory arthropod that lives in the Indian and Pacific oceans.

3-D model of Amplectobelua in angled upper (top) and lower (bottom) views, showing countershading.

The next vital step was establishing how the animals moved and interacted with one another. This is a major challenge because in many cases there are no modern equivalents for these extinct early animals. For Amplectobelua we inferred that the flaps on the sides of the body were used for swimming, with the tail fan helping to stabilize the animal as it moved through the water. This agrees with previous interpretations of swimming in closely related animals such as Anomalocaris.

The models were built and textured by Mighty Fossils using the 3D gaming engine Unity. The video below is an accelerated sequence showing how the elements of the model are layered together.

The finished, animated and annotated Amplectobelua model is shown below, and can be zoomed and rotated. All the models generated by Mighty Fossils for the First Animals exhibition are gathered in a collection on our Sketchfab page.

Once animated models of all 12 species were created we placed them in a realistic marine environment. Study of the rocks preserving the Chengjiang fossils suggests these animals lived in a relatively shallow, well-lit sea, perhaps 50 metres deep and characterised by a flat, muddy seafloor. A continuous shower of organic particles is thought to have filled the water column, as in modern oceans.

Reconstruction of the Cambrian seafloor with ‘marine snow’

Based on present-day marine ecosystems, we infer that the number of immobile suspension feeders would have been much greater than the number of predators. As a result, we included multiple individuals of the suspension feeders Cotyledion, Saetaspongia and Xianguangia, which were tightly grouped together, but only a small number of the active predators Amplectobelua and Onychodictyon.

This scene is now populated with animals, including two predators: Amplectobelua (swimming) and Onychodictyon (centre)

The final step involved setting up a camera and user interface to allow visitors to discover the various animals in our interactive environment. For this we worked with creative digital consultancy Fish in a Bottle to identify eight locations, each focused on a different animal.

As the video above shows, users can navigate between locations by touching an icon on the screen, and when the Cambrian Diver sub arrives at a location information about the animal, its mode of life and its closest living relatives is presented on-screen. A physical joystick allows users a 360-degree rotation to look around the scene, and explore the ancient watery world.

This project was significantly bigger than the Out of the Deep work we had done previously with the Museum, mainly because of the complicated approval procedure needed for 20 individual 3D models. Along with three large illustrations, two animations and the interactive application this was a big workload! Fortunately, we managed to finish the whole project on time for the opening of the exhibition. – Martin Lisec

Animating the extinct

This sumptuous video features on our brand new Out of the Deep display and brings to life the two large marine reptile skeletons seen in the cases. The Museum exhibition team worked with Martin Lisec of Mighty Fossils, who specialise in palaeo reconstructions. Martin and his animators also created a longer video explaining how the long-necked plesiosaur became fossilised, as well as beautiful illustrations of life in the Jurassic seas. 
Martin explains the process of animating these long-extinct creatures:

The first step was to make 3D models of all the animals that would appear in the films or illustrations. After discussion with the Museum team, it was clear that we would need two plesiosaurs (one short-necked, known as a pliosaur, one long-necked), ammonites, belemnites and other Jurassic sea life. Now we were able to define the scale of detail, size and texture quality of the model.

In consultation with Dr. Hilary Ketchum, the palaeontologist on the project, we gathered important data, including a detailed description of the discovered skeletons, photographs, 3D scans, and a few sketches.

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We created the first version of the model to determine proportions and a body shape. After several discussions with Hilary, some improvements were made and the ‘primal model’ of the long-necked plesiosaur was ready for the final touches – adding details, mapping, and textures. We could then move on to create the other 3D models.

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The longer animation was the most time-consuming. We prepared the short storyboard, which was then partly changed during the works, but that is a common part of a creative job. For example, when it was agreed during the process that the video would contain description texts, it affected the speed and length of the whole animation – obviously, it has to be slower so that people are able to watch and read all important information properly.

A certain problem appeared when creating the short, looped animation. The first picture had to precisely follow the last one – quite a difficult goal to reach in case of underwater scenery. Hopefully no-one can spot the join!

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At this moment we had a rough animation to be finalised. We had to make colour corrections, add effects and sound – everything had to fit perfectly. After the first version, there were a few more with slight adjustments of animation, cut and text corrections. The final version of both animations was ready and then rendered in different quality and resolution for use in the display and online.

The last part of the project was creating a large illustration, 12,000 x 3,000 pixels, which would be used as a background for a large display panel. Text, diagrams and a screen showing the animations would be placed on this background, making the composition a little tricky. We agreed that the base of the illustration would be just the background. The underwater scene and creatures were placed in separate layers so that it would be easy to adjust them – move them, change their size, position etc.

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In the first phase, we had to set the colour scale to achieve the proper look of the warm and shallow sea, then we made rough sketches of the scene including seabed and positions of individual creatures. We had to make continuous adjustments as the display design developed.

Then we finished the seabed with vegetation, gryphaea shells and plankton floating in the water. The final touch was to use lighting to create an illusion of depth for the Jurassic creatures to explore.


More Out of the Deep videos are available on the Museum website.