Animal Armageddon, an eight-part mini-series currently showing on Animal Planet, takes viewers back, through 100 % CG, to the multidimensional center of this planet’s worst natural disasters.

For Jason McKinley, owner since 1990 of Radical 3D in Venice, CA, transporting viewers to another time and space is just part of his job. McKinley is best known as the creator and executive producer of Dogfights, the popular recent three-season show on The History Channel in which Radical 3D’s animation work and narration from veteran flyers reenacted airplane dogfights from World War II through more recent conflicts.

His shop’s current project for Animal Planet also attempts to recreate the previously unseen. This time, however, the human commentary comes from scientists describing the most plausible theories to date about the landscapes, dinosaurs and other early life forms on land and in the depths of the sea that succumbed to natural disasters and eventually perished. “Unlike on previous broadcast dinosaur projects, like the BBC’s Walking with Dinosaurs, which was shot with plates, we wanted to show the actual flora of the time,” says McKinley. “Back then, you had very changeable environments. There were no flowers and no grass. And the further back in time you go, these landscapes look stranger and more alien to our modern eye. The only way to show that was to build them out in CG.”

McKinley’s medium-sized shop, with 24 seats, includes a mix of generalists and specialist 3D animators, modelers and VFX artists. Recent hires include Richard “Dickie” Payne, who worked on Battlestar Galactica and also on James Cameron’s Titanic and Avatar, and is the lead character modeler on Animal Armageddon. “We’re small to medium-sized, but we have a noisy bullpen here,” MicKinley adds, referring to the background din during our phone interview.

The Radical 3D team is using a range of plug-ins to extend NewTek LightWave 3D, its primary animation and modeling package, to meet the tight broadcast deadlines and deliver a level of detail that brings that photo-real goal within reach.

The hands-down MVP, McKinley says, is Happy Digital Ltd.’s HD Instance, a plug-in used in Sin City, Pan’s Labyrinth and regularly for promos and shows such as Nickelodeon’s The Fairly OddParents. The tool lets you populate your scene and render millions of cloned LightWave objects without sapping your RAM.

“This has been the most valuable pro software plug-in we’ve ever used,” he says. “It has allowed us to make these incredible environments with rendering times that are just very manageable. We’ve got a great environmental team, headed up by Chris Osborne, and Ben Mitchell, a great young animator, and Joe Lawson, our VFX Supervisor, who also works on environments. Between the three of them, with HD Instance, they’ve been able to create these virtual environments at a level of detail in LightWave that we had never been able to do before. Depending on the CPU power you’ve got, you can actually make the trees blow in the wind or whatever you want. I honestly can say that it’s what made this show, on it’s tight schedule, possible.”

These guys really know how to rock their metaNURBS. McKinley and his team first used HD Instance toward the end of the last season of Dogfights, when the conflict in question was the war in Vietnam. “This was a time when air combat started to get lower and lower to the ground,” he says. “Especially for the Vietnam segments, when the planes fly over the rice paddies dotted by palm trees, we needed to populate our environments with a new level of detail. Matt Zeyn, another talented guy here, used HD Instance to get these beautiful flyovers at Mach 1 speeds. So we thought, ‘If we can do this, let’s see what the plug-in will do for the Animal Armageddon project.’ What we got was, in some cases, photo-real and in other instances, what I refer to as ‘photo-nice’ renditions of these landscapes that the scientists on the series describe, and which have never been visualized or seen before, as far as I know.”

Radical 3D is also using Messiah:Studio, a stand-alone that plugs into a variety of 3D hosts, including LightWave, on the Animal Planet project. Because Messiah, from the Project Messiah Group, is easier and more streamlined to work with, McKinley says his team is animating in Messiah first then exporting out to LightWave for the environments. Compositing happens in eyeonline Fusion.

Most of the desolate environments are being created with GeoControl, a terrain generator. “We’ve gotten some terrific end-of-the-world-like shots with this one, so we’re really happy with it,” says McKinley. “We’re also using Sasquatch, from Worley Labs, for fur, and the old NatureEffects for our water work. And for fire, Joe is using Normal Displacement.”

McKinley serves as an executive producer on the show, but deferred to the “multiple paleontologists on board who made sure that every plant, animal, reptile, microbe, whatever, were accurately imagined and detailed.”

Attention to detail is critical when CG is involved, he says, something he perfected to an art while making Dogfights. “I can go just about anywhere and mention that I created Dogfights and at least one out of three people tells me how much they enjoyed it while it ran. In fact, because of that show we’re now working with George Lucas on his next film. That was also an industry-changing television show; doing that much animation on a TV budget had never been done before, and it changed the way a lot of shows are done today. Plus, we had so much fun doing it.”

The first four installments of the Animal Armageddon mini-series premiered this winter on Animal Planet. McKinley and his team are hard at work on the next four episodes of the series, which will resume on the channel this summer.