The Animation of Gorilla Valley

July 24, 2002
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3D laser technology helps zoo visualize new exhibit.



Preparing to provide a home for a bunch of gorillas is not a normal undertaking for most. And when that home is to be built on the property of the largest indoor desert in the world, it’s even more unusual. A couple of us from Lamp, Rynearson and Associates Inc. (LRA), an engineering, surveying and planning firm in Omaha, Neb., were tasked to perform such a project in the spring of 2001 and it was…interesting, to say the least.

The project site was the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Neb., one of the area’s largest attractions. A reader survey in the April 2001 Disney-owned Family Fun magazine ranked the Omaha zoo No. 1 among Midwest zoos, ahead of Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, the Brookfield Zoo and the St. Louis Zoo.1 The zoo offers many different exhibits, including a 1.3 million gallon marine aquarium, an IMAX Theatre and the favorite 1.5 acre Lied Jungle, featuring three different jungles from around the world. The zoo recently opened the doors to its latest addition, the 13-story Desert Dome, the world’s largest glazed geodesic dome and indoor desert exhibit.

Due to the increasing popularity and growth of the zoo, and the future addition of more gorillas, the officials at the Henry Doorly Zoo wanted to solicit funding for a major upgrade of its world-class facilities. They thought an eye-catching, yet realistic digital animation of their proposed improvements on a CD would be a valuable aid in promoting the project and soliciting funding. The project’s focus was to triple the size of the gorilla indoor space and to add an enclosed 550' long, glass-walled walkway through the valley between the expanded gorilla exhibit and the existing orangutan building. The valley will become the new, outdoor gorilla habitat with the gorillas roaming free and the humans enclosed in the tunnel. The idea is almost like evolution in reverse, giving the animals the “run of the house.”

In the spring of 2001, A.S.D. Stanley J. How Architects, an architecture firm located in Omaha, Neb., contacted local firm LRA Inc. to provide a topographic survey and a 3D model of the area for the Henry Doorly Zoo.

The area of the zoo to be surveyed included five existing buildings and the terrain enclosed by them. Three of these buildings are habitats for gorillas, orangutans and large cats; each has walled enclosures adjacent to the buildings. The nearly five acres of ground measured approximately 600' long and 550' wide, with an elevation difference of about 50' between the two end buildings and side walls.

The Cyrax 2400 collected the locations of the aviary enclosure nets and support structures at a distance of over 260 ft away.

Choosing the Equipment

Conventional surveying techniques were neither accurate enough nor fast enough to economically collect the amount of data needed for a detailed model of the buildings and the valley. Use of conventional techniques would also be hazardous to the operators since they would have had to enter the animal enclosures to collect the needed data. The decision to use the Cyrax 2400 3D Laser Scanner from Cyra Technologies (San Ramon, Calif.) proved not only to be more efficient but also reduced the exposure of staff to dangerous situations by remotely collecting the required data.

There were several other benefits of using the 3D laser scanner. With the Cyrax 2400, there was minimal disruption to daily zoo operations, as no animals had to be removed from their habitat (and we didn’t have to be in there with them). We rendered more accurate and complete as-built information with the scanner, which yielded a better model for the video. We had the ability to accurately model otherwise obscured building edges and eaves and were able to capture zoo signs and poster information in the habitat area, which improved the model reality.

A view of the point cloud from the 18th scan location. Even with a 25-ft retaining wall, the existing gorilla exhibit data was collected easily using the laser scanner.
To complete the project, a two-man crew used the Cyrax 2400 to complete 26 scans of the zoo buildings and adjacent landscape in two days. They achieved 1⁄4" accuracy where a proposed walkway would tie into the buildings. The complicated geometry of the valley, including concrete retaining walls, buildings, moats, trees and vegetation, and the vast elevation differences proved to be a challenge. In response to the challenge, however, the steep terrain was quickly scanned with a 6" scan resolution to yield an acceptable lower accuracy point cloud. The crew also used a Leica TCRA 1101 total station from Leica Geosystems (Norcross, Ga.) and prism pole to collect topo data in an area where the ground was covered with brush, deep grass and knee-deep weeds.

Following the scan, back at the office, point clouds were processed with Cyra CGP V2.1 software. By using the software’s planar intersection tools, building edges and eaves were accurately defined even where trees, walls or other buildings obscured the surfaces. With the Cyrax system, we were able to scan five buildings and a large ground area in only two days. We obtained details that made our 3D model more accurate and realistic, such as detailed terrain model and signs on the buildings in and around the animal enclosures.

A wireframe model of the buildings, wall surfaces and scanned terrain was produced in Cyra CGP software and combined with total station topo data in LISCAD. LISCAD was then used to generate a 3D topographic CAD model of the existing terrain, including the many contours. This data will be used in the future to design footings for the enclosed walkway. Also, 2D plan drawings were produced in AutoCAD using Cyra software plan views and total station topo data.

This view demonstrates the realism that can be obtained by building proposed sites virtually.

Animating the Job

To produce the promotional CD/animation, the building wireframes from CGP were combined with the total station topo digital terrain model from LISCAD. The data from LISCAD was then loaded into Autodesk 3D Studio Vi2, a 3D rendering and animation software package. After four weeks, a seven-minute animation featuring a 3D computer model of the proposed zoo upgrade was completed. The viewer could “fly around” a 3D model of the gorilla valley and “walk through” the existing and proposed gorilla exhibits and the enclosed walkway. Animation production required many iterations of color, surfaces, lighting and texture. Representatives from the zoo were involved during the animation phase, which allowed them to make any changes in the animation they felt were necessary to create the desired end result.

“Doing the walk-through of the animation, based on the original conceptual designs let us see how things fit and let us change things to incorporate the best possible solutions,” says Dr. Lee G. Simmons, DVM, director of the Henry Doorly Zoo. “For example, some windows in the exhibit area were changed to increase the views of the animals and lessen the times tourists would be viewing other tourists.”

The animation has been shown worldwide to solicit funds for the project. “I have shown the animation in Australia, Canada, London and in four American cities, to other zoos and conservation groups. No one else is doing this stuff. It is fun to be ahead of the curve,” Dr. Simmons says.

The south perspective contains 26 different scan clouds combined to give an overall representation of the existing valley.
The processes used to collect data and to create the animation was cost-efficient and provided the Henry Doorly Zoo owner with a realistic visualization of the completed project. “In the past colored renderings were our best sales tool,” says John E. Armknecht, A.I.A., principal of A.S.D. Stanley J. How Architects. “Now we use animations. You can show a whole lot more, communicate more details and how things fit with animation than you ever could with a still shot.”

“There is no doubt in my mind that having the 3D animation helped us substantially with two different donors,” Dr. Simmons said after showing the animation video to potential donors. “One, [it helped] in simply convincing the donor, letting them visualize what we wanted to do. The other one, [it helped] in shifting that donor’s enthusiasm from a future project that we want to do to a current project we need to do. That second donor is the single biggest donor on the project. There is no question in my mind that having animation really made a difference in our fundraising.”

Thanks to new technology, safe measuring techniques and a state-of-the-art automation video, several gorillas now have a home at the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha. And a few workers have an interesting project story to tell.

1 Omaha World Herald, March 25, 2002.

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