The story of a CGI scene

Behind the scenes with the graphics team...


Clotilda, America’s last slave ship, stole them from home. It couldn’t steal their identities.

Last May, 400 years after shackled Africans first set foot in the English colony of Virginia, a team of underwater archaeologists announced that the charred, sunken remains of the Clotilda, the last known slave ship to reach U.S. shores, had been discovered near Mobile, Alabama.

In 1860—52 years after the United States had banned the import of slaves—a wealthy landowner hired the schooner and its captain to smuggle more than a hundred African captives into Alabama, a crime punishable by hanging. Once the nefarious mission was accomplished, the ship was set ablaze to destroy the evidence. The captives were the last of an estimated 307,000 Africans delivered into bondage in mainland America from the early 1600s to 1860, making the Clotilda an infamous bookend to what has long been called “America’s original sin.”

In 1865 President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed that the Civil War that had devastated the nation was the Almighty’s judgment on that sin. After the war ended and slavery was abolished, the displaced Africans from the Clotilda put down roots as free Americans, but they didn’t relinquish their African identities. Settling among the woods and marshes upriver from Mobile, they built simple homes, planted gardens, tended livestock, hunted, fished, and farmed. They founded a church and built their own school. And they created a tight-knit, self-reliant community that came to be known as Africatown.



Drain The Oceans, National Geographic

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National Geographic’s Drain The Oceans makes archaeology accessible and fun by taking a ‘cinematic and tabloid’ approach to reveal what lies beneath the waves, says Phil Craig

Production company Mallinson Sadler Productions
Commissioner National Geographic
Length 15 x 60 minutes (series two); 10 x 60 minutes (series three)
Executive producers Crispin Sadler; Phil Craig; Tom Adams; Jobim Sampson
Series producer Savas Georgalis
Head of production Kathy Hale
Post house Clear Cut Pictures

“Phil, it’s US cable. It’s not ‘woo, woo, woo’, it’s ‘bang, bang, bang!’”

Pretty much everything I have ever learned about documentary production can be traced back to notes from my all-time favourite US network exec, who remains unnamed here, and this was definitely one of the best.

That was more than 10 years ago – I think that today we’re living in an age of both ‘woo’ and ‘bang’, as proved by the success of the series I jointly run for National Geographic: Drain The Oceans.

Lost Nukes 2

The concept is brilliantly simple and an instantly appealing way of making archaeology accessible and fun: what if we could remove – or drain – the water? What would we see and what could we learn?

My friend Crispin Sadler spent six years making six single episodes of Drain, laboriously stitching together complex international co-pro deals, hustling around the markets to plug funding gaps. And they worked – especially for Nat Geo.

Eventually, the network asked him to make more. That’s when I got involved, at first along with Australian indie Electric Pictures and then as a partner in Crispin’s company, Mallinson Sadler Productions (MSP).

Hamish Mykura, executive vice-president of programming and development at Nat Geo, calls our approach “cinematic and tabloid”.

We still have the ‘bang’ – the bold story beats and the ‘roll up, roll up’ appeal of subjects like Nazi warships, secrets of the pharaohs and lost ocean liners.

But there’s plenty of ‘woo’ too – a sense of grandeur and mystery, stylistic flourishes and delicate musical scoring that’s a long way from what we used to call ‘the Discovery drums’ back when everything in cable-produced non-fiction was ‘bang, bang, relentless bang’.


After all, Drain is sitting on the same network as Nutopia’s high-end One Strange Rock and we want it to have some of that flair and finesse. The show is not a simple format.

Hamish, alongside original commissioning editor Carolyn Payne and our Nat Geo boss in Hammersmith, Simon Raikes, really presses to make our storytelling different.

So the drain device – crafted by the CGI team at 422 South in Bristol – is rarely just an illustration and certainly never wallpaper.

It sits at the centre of our thinking and is our critical story-driving machine, celebrated in heightened language and emotional music every time we deploy it.

Phil Craig
Phil Craig

In a recent episode on the China seas, we told the story of powerful rivalries and lucrative trading routes that left these waters strewn with shipwrecks, from a 12th-century Mongol invasion fleet off the coast of Japan to long-lost ships laden with porcelain along the coast of Vietnam.

These now provide archaeologists with amazing opportunities to study time capsules from the past and piece together a key story of human civilisation, trade and politics.

On the face of it, this sounds a little academic and maybe even a little ‘woo, woo, woo’ but, in fact, it’s a hugely enjoyable watch because you get to see astonishing evidence emerge from under the water and the silt, which is then reassembled into a ‘ghost ship’ as if by magic.

And we’ve found that our drains open up stories that might challenge other formats. One of the unspoken rules is that US audiences won’t watch programmes about World War I, but by calling an episode based around the Battle of Jutland Drain The Ultimate Battleships, we found a way that works just fine there.

The key is the focus on finding these metal monsters at the bottom of the North Sea; more akin to a cool video game than a black-and-white archive history show.

Making discoveries

To access great stories, we work closely with the archeological community. Partly thanks to our rising profile on the network, and partly due to our tireless lead series consultant James Delgado, researchers are now bringing their new discoveries to us.

We very much want to retain their confidence in our journalism, so we never claim that the drain itself ‘discovers’ anything or that it’s a magic archaeology machine. We always show or refer to the data we are using, and seeing it being gathered is an exciting part of the format.

Gold Rush 2

That said, whenever we can, we like to hold back the precise nature of what’s been discovered until we ‘see it’ for the first time in the CGI. It’s a lot more fun that way and sometimes means we tell stories in a surprising, non-chronological order.

We don’t claim to find anything that hasn’t already been found. However, in our MH370 special – and in a show on the Bermuda Triangle – we do create ‘educated guess’ drains.

In other words, if we could find the missing plane, it would probably look a certain way, based on all previous discoveries of commercial airliners on the seabed.

In our latest episodes, we’re pushing further into ‘historical drains’ too – seeing things as they once were. This helps us apply the drain concept to several subjects we might never have considered before: engineering, social history or even current affairs.

That’s why we have upcoming episodes on the Gold Rush, the Cold War, New York City and a story (currently under wraps) that’s been making international headlines for the past 12 months.

With a couple of dozen episodes on the go right now, it’s an exciting if head-spinning time. Building a machine like this without losing the soul of the series has only been possible because of Crispin’s continued focus, along with an incredible editorial team led by exec producer Tom Adams and our head of production Kathy Hale.

Under the creative command of Dave Corfield, 442 South has been busy refining the drain idea, and is now creating what Raikes calls ‘camera-real’ CGI images of real beauty.


We no longer simply ‘drain’ the water away and fly over an undersea object; we now imagine what we’d do if we had a classy DoP on the sea bed, picking shots, throwing focus and attaching GoPros to parts of the wreck so that water pours past the lens as it drains away.

For us, going large also meant going to London – to an extent. Crispin, local production supremo Adaire Osbaldeston, Sarah Pitt’s drain development team and about a third of the episodes are still based in MSP’s original Bristol home, while I head the London office.

From here, we’re developing new ideas for new customers. Clear Cut in Brook Green was our original landlord as we tried to set up a complex production from a couple of windowless edit suites and run conference calls out of its car park and furniture store.

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We’re now in slightly smarter digs around the corner but doing all our London offlines in those same edit suites.

Through the talent and energy of more than 100 members and access to some incredible science, we’re showing things that have been invisible for centuries, and we love doing it.

All our drains are special, providing moments of revelation, astonishment and even joy. We’re continually asking the audience: “How amazing is this?” As we look forward to yet more expansion of our output, we’re asking ourselves the exact same thing. Woo!


Nat Geo Uses Technology To Reveal 3D Survey Of Epic Thai Cave Rescue


Unless you were living off the grid in a cabin in The Rockies somewhere in the summer of 2018, you are probably familiar with the dramatic rescue of 12 boys and their soccer coach from the Tham Luang cave system in Thailand. The rescue took weeks of planning and careful consideration that left many wondering what was so challenging. If the boys could just wander into the cave while hiking, why couldn’t rescuers just “wander in” and go get them? Nat Geo will explore that question on Monday, September 2 with a special episode of Drain the Oceans.

Drain the Oceans: Thai Cave Rescue

If you recall, the attention of the entire world was focused on the plight of the young boys and the heroic efforts to locate and save them. Billionaire genius Elon Musk—of Tesla and SpaceX fame—even sent a rescue submarine in an attempt to assist. Thankfully, all 12 boys and the coach were eventually rescued from the elaborate cave system.

Now, Nat Geo will reveal why it was such a challenging and harrowing rescue. Using advanced mapping and LiDAR technology, Nat Geo is able to digitally “drain” the water from the flooded cave system and provide a unique and enlightening perspective on the dilemma the rescuers faced.

Nat Geo worked with the authorities in Thailand’s Department of National Parks to send a team into Tham Luang to conduct the first digital 3D survey of the cave system. The team used a laser scanning system that emits 400,000 beams per second to record reflections from the cave walls, enabling them to map the 1.5 mile span between the mouth of the cave and the pocket where the boys and their coach found themselves trapped as muddy monsoon waters flooded the cave. The extraordinary effort to produce Drain the Oceans: Thai Cave Rescue is the result of 8.7 billion data points from nearly 400 scans throughout a 3-week survey. The team also captured every crack and fissure of the cave system with more than 7,000 photos.

A press release from Nat Geo explains, “Once stitched together in a compelling episode directed by Sophie Elwin Harris, the final 3D scan reveals with absolute clarity how the boys were cut off by rising floodwaters in a matter of hours while they explored the caves. Stripping away the fast-flowing water, which filled several passages, the scans reveal how narrow tunnels hampered rescue efforts; where the guide rope was perilously placed, leading to life-or-death loss of direction; and how much preparation was needed in placing air tanks throughout the caves to move the boys to safety.”

Revealing Underwater Mysteries with Technology

The Thai Cave Rescue episode is part of the second season of the Nat Geo series Drain the Oceans. The concept of the show is awesome. The Drain the Oceans team examines various historically significant events and maritime mysteries using science and technology to remove the water from the picture so the viewer can get a clearer understanding of the scenario that took place.

Drain the Oceans combines the latest scientific data from underwater scanning systems with state-of-the-art digital re-creations to reveal underwater mysteries. Season 2 of Drain the Oceans deals with a variety of compelling stories aside from the Thai Cave Rescue, including Hitler’s plan to dominate the seas with killer battleships, the secrets of Loch Ness, and the effort to respond to the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese and reclaim control of the Pacific.

Check out Drain the Oceans on Nat Geo, and mark your calendar for Monday, September 2 at 9pm Eastern / 8pm Central for the special episode—Drain the Oceans: Thai Cave Rescue.

Paul Allen’s Petrel project wins spotlight in TV show about Pacific War shipwrecks

Rob Kraft is Vulcan’s director of subsea operations. (Image © 2019 Navigea Ltd. / R/V Petrel)






















The voyages of the R/V Petrel, funded by the late Seattle billionaire Paul Allen, are the focus of a National Geographic documentary premiering on Monday – and as a prelude to the show, the leader of the Petrel team is talking about what it takes to find historic shipwrecks in the Pacific.

“Our missions have led to discovery of over 30 historically significant shipwrecks, diverse ecosystems and encounters with rare marine species,” Rob Kraft, Vulcan’s director of subsea operations, says in an online Q&A. “The environment we operate in brings inherent dangers, challenges and risk that most people will never experience.”

That all sounds like a natural fit for the next episode of “Drain the Oceans,” a National Geographic series that delves into what we’d find beneath the waves if the world’s oceans could magically disappear.

“Pacific War Megawrecks” focuses on the Petrel’s discovery of the USS Lexington, an aircraft carrier that sank in 1942 during the Battle of the Coral Sea; and of the USS Indianapolis, a Navy cruiser that delivered parts of the Hiroshima atomic bomb in 1945 but was sunk before the bomb was dropped.

University’s U-Boat research featured in Drain the Ocean

Bangor University

Research by Bangor University is to feature in the Drain the Oceans series on National Geographic Channel on Monday 7 October 8-9.00pm. Monday’s programme outlines the development of U-Boats, and how they changed the shape of naval warfare. The introduction of the world's first stealth weapon forced Allied forces to adopt new tactics to fight back. Highlighted in the programme is work carried out by Bangor University’s School of Ocean Science’s research vessel the Prince Madog, which has surveyed numerous shipwreck sites in the Irish Sea as part of a joint research project with the Royal Commission on Ancient & Historic Monuments in Wales‘s Heritage Lottery funded project: Commemorating the Forgotten U-boat War around the Welsh Coast, 1914-18. A team of staff from the School of Ocean Sciences led by Dr Mike Roberts have been using a multibeam sonar system and the latest imaging techniques to reveal underwater wrecks from the Great War.

The sonar system on the Prince Madog generates very high resolution, three-dimensional models of the seafloor as the research vessel moves through the water over it and these models can allow researchers to identify objects at near centimetre scale. In water depths of 100 metres, typically found in the Irish Sea, the team are generating models and images of wrecks that can help marine archaeologists confirm their identity and even provide evidence of their demise. Dr Mike Roberts explains why the information is so valuable: “While these wartime relics can provide valuable information to historians and archaeologists, they may also help lead to the birth of a new industry. The data we’re collecting is providing unique insights into how these wrecks influence physical and biological processes in the marine environment. This information is being used to support the ambitions of the marine renewable energy sector.

Future Episode of National Geographic’s “Drain the Oceans” to Reveal New Shipwreck in the York River!

Visit York Town Virginia

A major discovery in the York River brought a special film crew to the area to document the findings. In June, we shared several headlines about an eleventh Revolutionary War shipwreck found by JRS Explorations—cannons and all. Divers were able to utilize data and research to pinpoint exactly where to search. And boy did they strike history gold!

In addition to the cannons, according to JRS Explorations CEO Ryan Johnston, they also found a piece of charred wood which gives weight to their theory this could possibly be the remains of the Shipwright. The Explorations crew consisted of Dr. John Broadwater (JRS Explorations Vice President and Chief Archaeologist), Joshua Daniel (President of Daniel Archaeological Consulting), Bill Waldrop (ASV Maritime Heritage Chapter), and Bill Utley (ASV Maritime Heritage Chapter).

As you can imagine, this story has international appeal. So much so that a film crew made the voyage over all the way from London to document the findings. (This was one tough secret for the Tourism office to keep!) With Riverwalk Landing Piers their home base at night, they spent their days out on the water getting footage for National Geographic’s maritime mysteries show “Drain the Oceans”. In the episode featuring Yorktown, they’ll “drain” the York River with CGI to show you exactly what lies beneath the water. They “use a combination of scientific data and digital re-creations to reveal shipwrecks, treasures, and sunken cities all around the world.” This is going to be so cool! As soon as we get an air date, we’ll be sure to let you know so you can tune in. So make sure you’re following both us and JRS Explorations on Facebook for all the big announcements.