My first few seconds of stunned silence gave way to the stuttering question, seeking reassurance. I couldn’t believe my ears when Senior Graphics Editor Jason Treat told me about his graphics plan for the cheetah story on our November issue. We needed to scan every bone of a cheetah to create a never done before 3D model. And so we did this spectacular graphic (click on the image a couple of times to see it in detail):
For our tablet editions, we rigged and animated our 3D model to overlay it on top of a beautiful ultra-high-speed camera recording of a cheetah run in this video. The experts had never seen such amazing detail and were thrilled.
There are fewer than 10,000 cheetahs surviving in the wild today. The world’s fastest runner is an amazing creature, elegantly built and evolved to produce thundering bursts of explosive speed, rather than for resistance. As told by writer Roff Smith in the article:
“Put a cheetah and a Lamborghini side to side on a freeway, and it will be an even-money bet which will smash the speed limit first. Both can do zero to 60 in under three seconds, but the cheetah can crack 45 miles an hour in the first couple of strides”.
What adaptations make cheetahs such amazing runners? Jason wanted to create an illustrated infographic that would convey both the anatomical traits and the raw, dynamic power of a speeding cheetah.
From the beginning, we knew we wanted the sophisticated anatomy illustration of Bryan Christie’s studio, a frequent contributor of National Geographic. Bryan and his senior graphics editor/artist Joe Lertola (formerly of Time magazine) are two of the most respected names in graphics. Over the years, Bryan has developed a unique, truly beautiful and elegant style in anatomical 3D renderings of the human body, with transparent textures, amazing detail, beautiful poses and a unique mastery of light.
But in this case we were facing a big problem. Complete 3D models of the human body abound but no one had attempted to create an accurately modeled and articulated skeleton of a cheetah. In addition, we needed major muscle groups, organs and hair. It was obviously a massive undertaking. Jason decided we needed to find a Museum or institution that owned a real cheetah skeleton and seek their collaboration to CT scan every bone. Easy to say!
The first pencil and computer sketches (still showing a placeholder image, like the examples below) show the basic aim of the graphic. We wanted a big, dynamic and uncluttered rendering of the running cheetah highlighting the anatomical traits contribute to speed. Two simple charts would compare the fastest animals and show the phenomenal speed acceleration of cheetahs. With the small size of our magazine, it’s important not to overload graphics with too many secondary elements or too much text.
A few looks at white and black (below) backgrounds made clear they would look too clinical and lifeless, resembling an X-ray. See also the different attempts to find the right placement for the charts. We ended up making them narrower.
We decided a deep brown would look more inviting and more attuned to the earthy color palette of the photos in the story. The skeleton here was still a placeholder.
The project would have been impossible without the generous collaboration of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Kris Helgen and his team agreed to scan one of their 8 specimens, giving Bryan and Joe the detailed raw models they needed to render every bone. Needless to say, they were delighted to get such detailed 3D scans after we had even considered the possibility of asking Bryan to model the entire skeleton, something that would take many weeks.
Bryan’s intern Victoria assembled all the individual bone scans into a complete skeleton. She also gathered enough reference material on the musculature anatomy for the cheetah to be able to build muscles that attached to selected bones. As always, the sketches were sent to our experts/consultants to ensure accuracy at every step of the process.
Jason and Bryan went back and forth to create the most dynamic posture. This one had great motion but I thought the curvature of the back and the legs position made it look too much like a kangaroo!
Finally, we settled for this pose. Bryan and Joe kept working on the rendering of the different organs and muscles at the same time :
Here is the normal view of the skull:
This image shows the skull with the polygons flipped. That means we see into the skull as if the front face is completely clear and the back face is painted gray. You can see the amazingly detailed structure captured by the scans.
Bryan created a beautiful transparent texture for the bones. The grainy roughness and luminosity give it an other-wordly feel…
… and Joe worked on creating nicely detailed fur for the cheetah. The hair orientation was essential to convey speed.
I thought Bryan and Joe made the organs, bones, muscle and fur overlap beautifully with a mix of detail and impressionism that really captures a snapshot of the animal running at mind-blowing speed. Motion blur effects were applied selectively. It’s full of energy. The color palette is sophisticated and as restrained as the spare use of text. Jason did a wonderful job handling the research, design and art direction.
Adding depth and intensity to the eye of the animal gave it personality and focus. The readers immediately connect with that determined, focused gaze. Even at full speed the head barely moves, always fix on the prey.
To produce the animation (see it at the beginning of the post), Bryan created the rig that he used to pose the cheetah. The synchronization with the video had to be seamless.
I would love to read you comments. If you are curious to look at the whole story in our iPad edition, it’s a great read with wonderful photography and video. Or of course you can always run to the newsstand and while you are at it, imagine what it would be like to accelerate like nature’s king of speed!