No Barrier to This Reef: Dazzling Film Brings Coral to Life in GPU-Powered Museum Show

by Jamie Beckett

The slithery spotted eel isn’t really swimming over you, and you’re not surrounded by a school of light blue fish. But it sure feels that way as you plunge into Expedition Reef, the new planetarium show at the California Academy of Sciences.

The San Francisco museum’s GPU-powered coral reef experience immerses viewers in a dramatic 3D video re-creation of reefs as they live, reproduce and struggle to survive in an increasingly challenging environment.

The reef teems with life — 50 species of coral, sea turtles, seaweed, algae and more than 5,000 individual fish — captured in fine detail in what the academy describes as the world’s most accurate digital reef. The film is showing daily in San Francisco until March 2019 and is being licensed to planetariums around the world.

“We wanted to bring corals to life in a way you haven’t seen in other productions,” said Ryan Wyatt, senior director of Morrison Planetarium and science visualization at the academy. “These complex ecosystems demand a highly realistic approach to help people engage with them.”

Plenty of Fish in the Sea

The film posed unprecedented challenges for the museum’s visualization studio, which relied heavily on NVIDIA Quadro GPUs, the same technology used by movie studios to create their dazzling special effects.

Making the reef and its inhabitants look real meant capturing a vast amount of detail that included everything from the reflection of light on the water to the rough texture of the coral to the gaudy colors of the tropical fish. In addition to the thousands of plants and animals, studio artists had to reproduce movement as creatures swam, swayed or floated in the ocean currents.

“We’ve produced shows with photorealistic environments before, but none have been this complex, with this much detail and variety,” said Michael Garza, the museum’s senior planetarium and production engineering manager.

A sea turtle swims above a colorful coral reef in the California Academy of Sciences' GPU-powered 3D experience.
A sea turtle swims above a colorful coral reef in the California Academy of Sciences’ GPU-powered 3D experience.

Into the Blue with GPUs

The film’s reefs are 3D reconstructions from more than 100,000 underwater photos shot by researchers and collaborators around the world. The museum’s visualization studio transformed these two-dimensional photos into 3D models, with help from NVIDIA Quadro GP100 and P6000 GPUs. The production team then used GPU-accelerated rendering software to turn the models into a movie.

“Quadro acceleration allowed us to process large swaths of undersea surveys into realistic virtual coral reefs,” Garza said. It also produced a 10x improvement in rendering performance, he said, and it drove new 32-inch, 4K monitors at artists’ workstations. The monitors were critical for artists to make creative choices and iterate more frequently.

The museum also relied on the NVIDIA Quadro Virtual Workstation to manage resources easily with limited space, easily allocating multiple GPU resources to a single large task or multiple small tasks, Garza said.

Hope for Coral Reefs

The show unfolds on the planetarium’s 75-foot, 180-degree screen with an awesome display of beautiful multicolored reefs and flashy fish darting across the screen.

But the film isn’t just about beauty.

It’s about the vital role coral reefs play in the world’s ecosystems, why they’re imperiled and what scientists at the California Academy of Sciences and elsewhere are doing to save them. It also aims to inspire viewers to do their part by consuming fewer resources.

“Most people won’t get to visit coral reefs,” said Elizabeth Babcock, dean of education at the academy. “We want to use digital tools to spark people’s imaginations and create an emotional connection to reefs.”

In addition to the planetarium shows in San Francisco and elsewhere, the museum plans to offer an HD version and lesson plans that teachers can use in their classrooms. For more information on how the museum created Expedition Reef, see the video below.

Learn more about NVIDIA GPU-accelerated rendering solutions during industry and technology focused sessions at the GPU Technology Conference, March 26-29 in San Jose. Register now.

* The main image for this story pictures a moray eel. It is provided courtesy of the California Academy of Sciences.