Sea Lion Ballet

Below the busy streets of New York City's Times Square, you could find an unusual tourist attraction called National Geographic Encounter: Ocean Odyssey. It featured interactive virtual underwater environments created by VFX studio Pixomondo where I was part of their design and animation team in 2016-2017. One of my favorite parts of the project was a pre-show event that visitors would experience while riding an escalator from street level down to an underground lobby. They would pass through a wall of mist onto which was projected an underwater scene starring playful Sea Lions and a menacing Great White Shark.

All of the environments created for Ocean Odyssey were very elaborate and complicated having required the collaboration of many artists and animators. For the aforementioned pre-show project, I was given the opportunity to choreograph and animate the sequence completely on my own. This pleased me immensely! The whole point of the scene was to amuse the people as they rode down through the misty "screen" on the escalator.

There were certain necessary staging requirements: Sea Lions needed to come and go, with occasional brief pauses (where the scene was empty), then ultimately leave due to the appearance of the Great White Shark. I was specifically instructed to have the Sea Lions enter and leave either by the top or bottom of the frame or from the murky distance, but never by the sides. These limitations were challenging due to the vertical format of the sequence which gave the appearance of a tall, narrow virtual aquarium. Sea Lions are wonderfully fluid swimmers so, for inspiration and to accurately portray their movement, I viewed a lot of reference footage of these animals in the wild. I utilized a technique known as “path animation” for their main body movement. This worked perfectly for the Sea Lions’ gracefully gliding motions, and for the Shark as well.

After completing the animation, I received only a few detail notes from my Pixomondo supervisor, Sebastian Butenberg; otherwise, I apparently nailed the performance because this client had no comments or corrections – a situation that is quite unusual in the animation business. In completion, the lighting department rendered the scene for delivery to the client. Unfortunately, the National Geographic Encounter: Ocean Odyssey attraction was severely impacted by the 2020 New York Covid-19 shutdown and was forced to close, possibly permanently.

  • Story © 2021 Joel Fletcher
  • Ocean Odyssey © 2017 National Geographic
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