- BBC / VIXPIX Films
- 2 x 60 minute documentary series
- Release Date
- 13th May 2018
Design and build the most scientifically accurate CG Neanderthal face ever created for a two-part series commissioned as a co-production between the BBC and the Wellcome Trust. In addition to constructing a photoreal Neanderthal, conceive stylised animated sequences scattered throughout the show and manage and direct live action elements.
The show centers around debunking the myth that Neanderthals were the knuckle dragging, hairy, lumbering ape-men they so often find themselves associated with today. Instead, the show brings together the very best scientific minds in this area, and demonstrates that, in fact, Neanderthals were relatable, sophisticated creatures who had language, culture and were as aware and emotional as modern-day humans.
All the experts involved in the project agreed that if we were to meet Neanderthals we would be struck by how human they were; therefore, it was the commissioners’ intention the show should feature CGI recreations of Neanderthals that set new standards in scientific accuracy, realism and creative expression. This required expert scientific input to ensure that the show’s Neanderthals conformed to current research, with the result looking completely, photographically real.
Considering the newly found discoveries from experts in this field and to make the Neanderthal faces photoreal, the task of creating a convincing CGI Neanderthal presents the same technical challenges as if Jellyfish Pictures was creating a CGI modern human face.
To create its Neanderthal, Jellyfish Pictures designed a pipeline, which built on previous CGI face replacement projects. The pipeline was adapted and evolved for this project, increasing the team’s knowledge and technical ability.
Jellyfish’s process started with a 3D scan of an original Neanderthal skull. The skull, named ‘Shanidar 1’, was originally found in a cave in Iraq in the 1950s and belonged to a male Neanderthal who lived there about 35,000 years ago. The skull is one of the most important specimens of its kind, so it had to be delicately scanned and then a replica was 3D-printed for our in-house team to use.
Whilst the forensic sculpt was scientifically accurate, it didn’t hold the aesthetic of a believable human face as it was not detailed and low resolution. To solve this, our team remodeled the face, sculpting a high level of detail into the geometry to give the forensic reconstruction more of the wrinkles, bumps and asymmetry that any normal face possesses. The team consulted with Adrie and Alfons Kennis, the world’s leading Paleo reconstruction artists. The brothers visited Jellyfish’s studio and advised on the sculpting process. The result was a beautifully realistic base model with a high degree of realism and believability – unlike most scientific reconstructions, it genuinely felt like the face of someone who had lived on our planet.
It was imperative to the accuracy of the Neanderthal head that the very best facial textures to wrap around the 3D facial sculpt were used. The Jellyfish team sourced an actor whose skin had just the right amount of weathering, scars and wrinkles, scanning the actor’s face at a 3D facial scanning facility. The actor made a variety of different facial expressions, so that the supervisor could record the deformation and wrinkling of his skin. These textures were then used to provide the highest resolution skin detail for our model.
A selection of twelve expressions for the Neanderthal to make were chosen, followed by different versions of the model being sculpted to accommodate these new facial contortions. The high res skin detail was re-worked for each of the expressions, giving the team a range of beautifully detailed versions of the face, articulated in a variety of ways.
The next step was to create a rig for the face which allowed for each of the facial expressions to be used, either in its entirety or combined with another one. Jellyfish’s rigger is a specialist in creating sophisticated rigs which can deal with multiple versions of the same model, incredibly high polygon counts and motion capture data. He gave the Neanderthal head a similar range of movement to a real human face, with all the correct skin wrinkling, creasing and deformation. The rig allowed Jellyfish’s animators to create both large extreme expressions and smaller subtle ones. Again as with all of the team specially picked for this project, Jellyfish’s team of animators were chosen due to their ability and extensive experience in facial animation and motion capture.
Jellyfish’s team of lighting and shading artists are experts at recreating human skin. The team worked on creating incredibly realistic shaders for the face, which absorb and reflect light just like real human skin. Jellyfish’s CG team added several scales of simulated CGI facial hair – both stubble and much finer ‘peach fuzz’, to add more depth and detail to the skin. The final addition was layers of extra detail like dirt and face paint, which all added to the layered texture of the face.
In addition to creating a photorealistic Neanderthal head, Jellyfish Pictures was tasked with directing live action shoots, and creating fully animated sequences. With regards to the live action shoots, as the brief was to only create a photoreal CGI head, not body, Jellyfish shot the live action sequences with a performer playing the Neanderthal. To not lose any of the authenticity already painstakingly built, Jellyfish’s VFX supervisor cast a performer who was exactly the right physical height and proportions to pass as a Neanderthal, using prosthetics to change the shape of his body and wigs to give him convincing hair. Everything was to be real in camera apart from their face, which Jellyfish completely replaced using the CGI model. Jellyfish produced and directed the entire prosthetics and shooting process, which allowed the team to shoot the live action in a way that would be sympathetic to the CGI and provided the best environments to properly creating a convincing CGI face.
Alongside the live action shoots and prosthetics work, the team at Jellyfish also spent time in a motion capture studio with its performer. Working on Neanderthal movement and harvesting motion capture data, Jellyfish used moments when the team were unable to use live action footage and instead created a full CGI body replacement.
As the film required both a male and a female Neanderthal, the above process was done twice. The same steps were followed for the male and female characters, so that both of their faces were as accurate and real as possible.
The final stages of the project fall to the compositors. Blending photorealistic CGI with live action footage.
The stylised animation sequences were scattered throughout the two episodes, depicting visually beautiful re-enactments of Neanderthal behaviour. These segments included a hunting scene, weapon making, an adult Neanderthal departing wisdom on to his child and a female Neanderthal caring for her wounded partner. Jellyfish also created all the environments for the animation sequences.