Erwin Zwart and The Ocean Cleanup

A Digital Voyage to a Fresher Future

By Danny Rollings

Part I: Solving a Sea of Troubles

What is Ocean Cleanup?


For those of you who haven’t heard of them until now, The Ocean Cleanup is a Dutch foundation with a long-term plan to rid the oceans of plastic as much as possible, starting with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. In the short term, however, a recent design breakthrough and design overhaul should allow TOC to remove half of the plastic waste within the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in just five years, and if all goes to plan real-world trials are now due to begin in 2018. TOC was officially established in 2013 by the now 23 y/o Boyan Slat, an ambitious Dutch engineer and entrepreneur and his grand dream is certainly something everyone from all fields should support.

Caption: Great Pacific Garbage Patch with and without cleanup

Million Dollar Boyan

The Ocean Cleanup has support from various influential and well respected parties, including the Netherlands’ government and many other partners and suppliers. Just recently the foundation received an impressive 21.7 million USD in donations alone, thereby raising the foundation’s overall funding since 2013 to a hefty $31.5M (£24.4M/€28.1M). Over the years TOC has already been quite well covered by various media organisations across the globe, including TV news, websites and talk shows, so rather than obsessively rehashing everything that has already been said about TOC, from this point on we will primarily focus on the eye candy Zwart created for the project. His visuals are responsible for making strong presentations that gets the project more support. However, if you’d like to find out even more about The Ocean Cleanup, you could give Slat’s most recent presentation a watch, or if you’d rather a written summary then navigate over to their website to sea How to Better Clean the Oceans – In 10 Pictures.

The man behind the visuals

It’s all well and good a company saying “We’re going to do this, that, and that!” but without something visual to go on it can be extremely difficult for outsiders to connect with an idea. This is where Erwin Zwart, the accomplished Dutch visualisation expert, animator and founder of Fabrique Computer Graphics (1990–) comes in. Since TOC’s first steps as part of 2012’s TEDxDelft conference, Zwart has been creating increasingly impressive visuals for the project.

This key collaboration between Zwart and Slat came to be thanks to Jeroen van Erp, who helped organize the conference, and happened to be one of Zwart’s fellow co-founders of the Fabrique Group; more on them later. It was van Erp who asked Zwart to create the important renders needed for the speech visuals, who, in the midst of another project, still happily obliged, even when all this stranger named Boyan Slat had was an idea, a sketch, and construction of a plastic bag, wood and wires meant to represent the ‘manta ray’ cleanup system.


Zwart chose to contribute to the project not only because he believed in Slat, but because they shared a belief and an ambition that the cleanup could prove itself to be more than just a young man’s fantasy. Make no mistake, since the very start Zwart has been well aware of the huge technical challenge cleaning up humanity’s mess. Zwart had worked on visualisations for environmentally-focused projects before, including land and sea wind farms, as well as an animated highway concept meant to reduce wind drag resistance, with the added benefit of a large amount of solar power generated for the lights at night.

The projects I do for longtime customers where I am supporting their goals and developments for years are very rewarding. A visit to their facilities where you see how many people work on the actual machines and products makes me proud to be a part in the early process of making that all happen.
Erwin Zwart

5 years and 4200 water-filled frames of animation later, the real life cleanup of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is achingly close and two years ahead of schedule, so it’s easy to imagine Zwart must be overflowing with pride, meanwhile confidently holding out hope that TOC’s final preparations for “C-Day” go swimmingly. It’s thanks to Zwart and his close collaboration with Slat that we have been able to peek into the future and visualize the intended result of all the hard work that goes on behind-the-scenes of The Ocean Cleanup.

Of course, there are many more than just Slat and Zwart who are responsible for how far TOC has come, however to cover exactly how every member of the foundation’s 60+ strong team contributes to the project would be enough to fill a dissertation, heck, maybe even a thesis—a word I shiver at the thought of! After all, it wasn’t too long ago I was an undergraduate uni student desperately working into the night to finish my 8,500 word dissertation on time, let alone an 80,000 word PhD thesis; which, by the way, turns out to actually be shorter than TOC’s thankfully well illustrated Feasibility Report from 2014, with over 150,000 words. If you’d like to see exactly who the 60+ people are behind the project, the official website has nicely provided a portrait gallery of the team and their individual roles. While we now know of the people behind the project, there’s one very important thing we have so far overlooked, one easily taken for granted by over 3.5 billion of us, that thing is the internet.

Going viral online allowed the idea of an ocean cleanup to get truly considered in the first place, via Slat’s TEDxDelft talk and Zwart’s first concept renders. The internet enabled thousands across the globe to easily put their money where their mouth is and invest in TOC via its crowdfunding campaigns. It gives us a means of quickly and freely communicating with people from across the globe.


Internet virality is digital gold dust. This complex mesh of computer algorithms, people power, human psychology and a dash of luck can make the difference between an idea falling on deaf ears and one that reaches the masses. Internet virality is very sudden and doesn’t always happen straight away, heck, it wasn’t until 6 months after Slat’s first TEDx talk and Zwart’s images were published online that they finally got their much deserved recognition.

In 2014 the internet made two vital things possible: TOC’s very successful $2M-raising post-Feasibility Report crowdfunding campaign, and the first photorealistic animation of the cleanup process, which Zwart created alongside the campaign to help spread the message. It was thanks to Skype and its screen-share feature that he was able to closely collaborate with Slat from across the ocean, who, unlike most of Zwart’s clients, liked to direct the camera shots. Zwart was living in Singapore from 2013 to 2016, and during production he discussed with Slat to what level some detailing should or should not be visible, while they both sussed out the pace and trajectories of the cameras, as well as how much plastic and what shapes should be dominant in view.

Zwart’s choice to make his renders photorealistic have made it far easier for people to connect to the idea of an ocean cleanup in the first place. These renders and animations give people something that already feels tangible. It’s something to react to, to critique, and to be inspired by.

Providing the groundwork

In a surprising parallel over a generation apart, both Zwart and Slat attended the Netherlands’ architecturally unique Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) to study Aerospace Engineering. It is unlikely that Slat’s decision to leave was based on the quality of the university itself, after all the 175 year old university stands high at #20 in the engineering & technology category of the world university rankings. Slat decided to put university on pause after just 6 months in order to freely pursue TOC. A decision that came after the idea of cleaning up the ocean had been nagging at him since 2011 during a plastic-heavy Greek diving experience. While university may have helped provide Slat with an expanded knowledge base, in the end he didn’t need a degree to make something of himself.

The exterior of TU Delft’s brutalist auditorium in 1966

As unnecessary as a degree may have been in this case, Zwart and Slat’s experience studying aerospace engineering would have given them a more refined understanding of some of the challenges they were to encounter in future, such as those relating to the intermingling fields of mathematics and engineering. Maths helped Zwart understand the mechanics of Foundry Modo® on a deeper level, since like other similar software, at its heart is a formulaic basis in maths. Of course, a stomach for advanced mathematics doesn’t just come out of nowhere; our future interests begin developing from a very early age, while our experiences quietly wiggle their way into the back of our minds through trillions of electrical impulses we don’t feel nor think of. When explored, these origins often prove to be very intriguing and sometimes even inspirational, so with this in mind I will share with you the story of how Zwart eventually came to create his various impressive visuals for The Ocean Cleanup.

The TU Delft library, a bookworm’s paradise

Part II: The Power of Inspiration

The Apollo era and digital flight sims

ET found home in the Evoluon, built 1966 Eindhoven, Netherlands

Zwart was born in the Netherlands in the midst of the space race, just three years and one month before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first stepped foot on the the lunar surface in July 1969. It was not long before a young Erwin Zwart naturally developed an interest in spaceflight, like many others during the the moon landing era.

With the arrival of digital flight simulators during Zwart’s early teens came the catalyst for his exploration of the virtual world, with the first being January 1980’s SubLOGIC Flight Simulator 1, released for the Apple II when Zwart was aged 14; the very same year the gaming icon that is Pac-Man consumed the arcade scene. Flight simulators were just the beginning of a long journey for Zwart. The biggest career influences of his early life came when he hit 16.

subLOGIC Flight Simulator 1
Source: Youtube

Industrial Light & Magical Awesomeness

The famed VFX and animation studio, Industrial Light & Magic, founded by George Lucas in 1975 for the production of Star Wars (1977), has since provided special and visual fx for hundreds of films and franchises, including E.T. (1982); all the Back to the Future (1985–1990) and Jurassic Park (1993–2001) films; The Abyss (1989); several MCU films since Iron Man (2008); the fully CG-animated Rango’s (2011) blooming impressive photorealism; and of course every single Star Wars film, including Rogue One. It’s easy to see why Zwart has been so influenced by the rightfully multi-award winning studio.

This scene still gives me the heebie-jeebies

Retro Rendering

I had a whale of a time (sorry) with this 80s text generator

While Lucasfilm’s Computer Division was 5 years into their journey to becoming Pixar, 5400 miles away in Delft, Zwart began his university studies. The very next year saw the release of the Commodore Amiga 1000 (1985), which changed his life forever. The Amiga provided the rocket fuel to his flame, and it was with this computer that it all took off. Made possible by the Amiga’s incredible power compared to other systems of the time, Zwart was able to start using 3D ray tracing software, such as DKBTrace/POV-Ray (~1986), the famous (Turbo) Silver (1986), and Sculpt 3D (1987), known for its juggler demo; an image of which featured on the May/June 1987 cover of AmigaWorld magazine, dubbed “Fantastic Graphics”. Ever since his first ray tracing experience on the Amiga, to this day Zwart has continued to immerse himself in the digital word of 3D ray tracing software, and will continue to do so for many years to come.

Hmmm I wonder what software this is for???

The Fabrique Group, stonebaked bread and the early internet

In 1990 the 24 y/o Zwart established his own sole proprietorship called Fabrique Computer Graphics for which he has been modelling, animating and more since the company’s very beginnings. Whilst he creates content for a variety of technical fields, Zwart’s clients primarily consist of technical innovation and product development companies, which he works with to help sell their ideas and products. Thanks to Moore’s Law, a continuous challenge for Zwart (and of course, many others) is keeping up with the technology of the time, however the potential frustration of this task is more than offset by the rewarding feeling of solving unforeseen problems and coming up with new or faster ways to finish a project, such as outsourcing the rendering of his very complex animations to a cloud based render farm.

Since the start I am modeling, importing CAD and making that into stills and animations in various technical fields, but also I work through projects from scratch for media and communication….The challenge is keeping up with the technology so that requires balancing R&D time with proven technologies during the duration of a project.
Erwin Zwart

Soon came 1992, when alongside Jeroen van Erp, Theo Wolters, René Bubberman and Paul Roos, Zwart became co-founder of a Dutch multidisciplinary communication and design agency known simply as Fabrique. The agency’s five founding designers chose the name because it reflected one thing they all shared, an interest in designing products in a structured way that made them truly realisable, rather than superficial. The word fabrique did not just sound fashionably chic, but actually meant ‘fabric’ and ‘structure’, so was therefore a perfect representation of the agency’s intentions. For the past 25 years the Fabrique Group has clearly stayed true to its roots while also moving with the times, for they continue to tackle a large array of varied projects ranging from mobile apps and animation, to bus stations and sun blinds, to many, many websites soon after the World Wide Web first became publically available on the 6th August 1991.

The Amiga Imploder

The year was 1989, and while the newly-invented web was covertly taking its first baby steps within the walls of CERN’s particle physics lab, two good friends of Zwart released V1 of a soon-to-be-famous digital delight of their own. This was the year Albert-Jan Brouwer and Peter Struijk created the free executable file compressor known simply as The Imploder for the Amiga and released it to the public, which on opening was accompanied by a fantastic chiptune created by Paul van der Valk. 2 years and two more versions later, The Turbo Imploder was ready for a facelift.

Zwart created the GUI for the new and improved V4, which in a cool coincidence was released on the 30th July 1991, exactly a week before the web. The updated software was new in both visual style and its fresh music by Valk, but not only that, it was also kind of unusual… While we may take it for granted now, at the time it wasn’t the done thing to anti-alias text and buttons to get a more rounded look; take the intriguing story of Susan Kare’s icons for the first Apple Macintosh (1984) for example. Zwart achieved the GUI’s more softened, polished look by rendering the icons and text in Turbo Silver before manually retouching them within the bitmap graphics editor, Deluxe Paint (DPaint), which was often bundled with the Amiga. The result was something like Windows’ ClearType or Mac’s LCD font smoothing but with the 640×512 PAL screen resolution of the Amiga’s interlace mode.

A selection of Kare’s icons for the Apple Macintosh
The Amiga 1000 Source:

Part III: Behind the Oceanic Photorealism

The setup

Before Zwart could create his first animation for The Ocean Cleanup in 2014, he had to be certain he would have time to actually render it, since at the time his workstation was, in his own words, a pretty standard setup; far from a hi-tech high speed rendering monster his animations might lead some to believe (myself included). The workstation consisted of a Windows 7 PC with a 6-core Intel i7 processor and a GeForce GTX680 graphics card. The good news is Zwart had already been outsourcing his most complex renders to an external render farm for several years prior, meaning he could get to work confident in the knowledge that the project would not be bogged down by long-winded render times. This collaboration didn’t just come out of nowhere, for the first seeds were planted 8 years prior to Zwart’s creation of his now-famous TEDx visuals, when he met one of the founders of the cloud based render farm GarageFarm.NET, Tomek Swidzinski over Skype when the chat app first came out. These recurring chats would eventually lead to the project’s timely completion as using the render farm was a nitro boost.


Visualizing the Cleanup with Foundry Modo®

Source: fabrique3d

In mid-2014 Zwart used Modo® 801 to produce Phase Two’s simulation of the cleanup process as it was due to look pre-breakthrough. In order to authentically represent what was to come, the visuals were based directly upon the engineering results of the Feasibility Report. Using the CAD Loader plugin, he imported the platform provided by UGS Engineering, and was able to make the necessary tweaks to reconcile the CAD file and the assets he created in Modo® during Phase One. His primary obstacle was of course the huge task of creating an ocean and filling it with plastic debris over a large distance near the barrier. This challenge was not just a human one, but also a technological one, since in the end Modo® had to cope with over 100 million polygons worth of plastic, which unsurprisingly diminished the software’s interactivity, such as scrubbing the timeline and performing test renders. To improve this, Zwart smartly froze certain particle generators while he worked and further streamlined the process by deleting particles that were hidden behind the camera in specific shots.

The plastic soup itself consists of a mix of small polygons such as triangles and quads ranging from 2mm to around 10mm, and various larger objects such as plastic bottles, crates and buoys. Meanwhile, all the plastic geometry is generated via a point cloud using replicators, with their ability to follow the motion of the ocean being thanks not to the size of the waves, but to the same procedural noise used to generate the realistic displacement and bump mapping of the ocean’s mesh. By doing this, Zwart was able to avoid using simulations, which would have been very costly. Zwart didn’t just throw in plastic willy nilly for the purposes of aesthetics, since the concentration of the different sized plastics are actually based on real-world estimates provided by TOC’s previous survey of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Modo®’s render preview and OCIO tone mapping features helped him get an idea of the light balance and illumination in the scene and adjust accordingly.

Ol’ MacDonald had a (render) farm

Source: GarageFarm.NET

When it came to rendering-related challenges Zwart was in good hands, since he’d sometimes get a result back from the render farm with a mistake he’d made during the hectic animation process, and even then he had the means to quickly correct it and get the ideal result, thanks in part to the direct and hands-on support of GarageFarm.NET Render Farm’s skilled operators who, unlike some other render farms, were available 24/7 through Skype. The process was hassle free: downloading a simple Modo® supported plugin let Zwart upload to the cloud, check, and download the finished render. This gave him a valuable sense of relaxation during this inevitable and often tumultuous final hurdle of the animation pipeline.

Because of the faith Zwart had in the capabilities of the render farm, he knew he could push the number of polygons of the water’s surface and plastic soup as high as its nodes could handle, while also requiring pools of the largest render nodes they had available. At the time most of the animation’s 1855 FullHD frames took around 30 to 60 minutes to render, depending on the orientation of its convincing 1st person helicopter, boat and undersea cams, which were then finished in Foundry Nuke® for tone mapping from the EXR format created by ILM, to the usual mp4 format. Meanwhile Zwart also produced several lush A3-size render stills for the Feasibility Report’s chapter page spreads. You may be pleased to find out you can satisfy your thirst for even more details regarding Zwart’s experience working within Modo® and Nuke®, thanks to Foundry’s 2015 video interview with the man himself!

After the breakthrough

As you can see things have already come a long way since 2014! If you’d like to contact Zwart you can find him on Skype’s Modo® chat and Slack’s Modo® channel, or alternatively you can pop over to Fabrique CG’s contact page. To bring this voyage of discovery to an end I will bring us full circle with a great quote from Slat’s May 2017 presentation, moments after he showcased Zwart’s deservedly heartily applauded animation…

So, as you know by now at The Ocean Cleanup we’re pretty good at making computer renderings, but soon all of this can actually become reality.
Boyan Slat

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Adapted and enhanced from GarageFarm.NET’s interview with Fabrique’s Erwin Zwart
Danny Rollings @drollingscaa

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