SSE Powering Change: The Making Of

Earlier this year we got the chance to work with SSE on an ambitious project for COP26. SSE were keen to show their involvement in the biggest wind farm project to date – Dogger Bank – which they are helping bring to reality.

The Dogger Bank wind farm project, once finished, will the world’s largest offshore wind farm. The wind farm is being built in three 1.2GW phases with each phase having up to 200 turbines and spanning upwards of 500km2 in size.

With this project’s huge scale in mind, SSE wanted to create a large scale visual that really conveyed the scale of this project and the huge undertaking that it is.

Test Renders for SSE

To begin with, we created a series of test renders designed to visualize the style, quality and general feel of the project. These initial renders are a valuable tool to ensure the client is going to be happy with the result and to prove to them that their vision will be done to a high standard.

As we had yet to receive the brand new Haliade-X turbine model, we opted to use a similar model for these early visualizations. Initially we also used these test renders to try out some early ideas for creating ocean, lighting the scene and setting up a grid of turbines.

These initial renders went down well with the client, and we discussed the various options for the scene’s setup such as time of day it should be set and the amount of swell and turbulence the ocean should have.
With this vision nailed down we started to work on the full animation itself. We received a high-quality CAD model of the new Haliade-X turbine model to work with along with a layout guide for all 3 phases of the Dogger Bank turbine field.

Our first challenge came right out the gate, with the turbine model itself being so new the only way we could create an accurate display was to use the CAD model of the new turbine itself. CAD models are designed to be physically accurate rather than for use in visual effects so the model we received was highly detailed to the point where it couldn’t be used for a large scale animation. To this end we had to drastically simplify the model’s polygon structure whilst keeping the correct shape of the model and it’s unique blade design.

Certain components were rebuilt entirely, such as the main tower, access stairs and the hub. Whilst other components, such as the blades and nacelle, had to go through a manual process of simplification to ensure their unique design stayed intact whilst extraneous polygons were removed.

With the new model in place, we moved onto the subject of layout. Whilst a basic grided layout of turbines would work for the close-up shots, the fly down required the layout to be physically correct. We were given the true layout of the bank’s turbines to use, this had to be scaled down significantly as it was at true scale and far too large to be used.

Once a smaller scale had been achieved, each one of the turbine points was given an instance element. This instance element allows a reference model to be linked meaning every point on the layout could instantly be populated with our updated turbine model without the need to place each one individually.

Water simulation is notoriously difficult, even in Hollywood there are visual effects studios dedicated to its creation alone, with the primary issues being realism, scale and simulation time. Initially we experimented with procedural noise fields to create an ocean look, whilst this had the desired effect for creating our look development stills it didn’t animate well enough to be believable as a large-scale ocean.

We began to look into water simulation programs and plugins that could give us a more natural look. Our first attempt with existing tools, namely X-Particles, showed the difficulty of water simulation at this scale. Whilst the scale was achievable, the details had to be reduced so low for the simulation to complete that it wasn’t a viable final solution.

Eventually we settled on a new plugin called HOT4D (Houdini Ocean Toolkit for Cinema 4D) that allowed the use of procedural ocean waves without the need for complex simulation.

SSE HDRI

As this was to be a realistic animation, special care had to be paid to the lighting of the overall scene. To achieve the correct lighting, we used a HDRI image as our main source of lighting for the scene. These special images provide a full 360 degrees of lighting taken from a real image. This ensures a natural lighting setup that can encompass the entire scene.

An additional Sun light was added to allow us complete control over the specular highlights in the scene.

With all the primary scenes setup our focus shifted to the animation. Multiple rotation arcs were setup for the turbine’s blades so that the whole field wasn’t rotating at the same speed.

A sweeping camera arc was keyframed in as our opening shot which highlighted problems with the scale of certain effects and borders of our existing ocean. These were rectified to provide a seamless transition from high altitude to close up.

With everything in place, we did a test render to finalize quality settings and to check render times. This test highlighted the need for high settings which meant far longer render times facilitating the need to use a render farm to produce the final output in time for the show. This allowed us to send our full, 4K, high detail renders to a dedicated GPU server cluster in order to render it out in hours rather than days.

We received the rendered files with only a few minor errors that were the result of differences between the ocean plugin data. We re-rendered these individual frames ourselves before compiling the final animations.

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