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Method Creates VFX Magic with Houdini March 2, 2008

Posted by farhanriaz in 3D, Review, Software, VFX.
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Artist Andy Boyd crosses the Pond to Create

High-end VFX for Method Studios in Los Angeles

Working in England, where he was Head of 3D Commercials for Framestore CFC, Andy Boyd developed a passion for creating high-end visual effects. His portfolio includes two well received Rexona commercials that feature digital animals running wild in the urban jungle. One of these creatures was even featured on the cover of 3D World #89 along with an article highlighting Andy’s furring technique.

In the summer of 2007, Andy set off for Los Angeles and a new job working at Method Studios. In six short months, Andy has tackled several high profile projects that range from a Hummer commercial to a high-profile Super Bowl ad for Bridgestone. In each project, Andy uses Houdini to help him meet tight deadlines while creating effects that can be easily revised in response to client and director feedback.

Particle Splashes

The first advertisement Andy worked on at Method Studios was a car commercial. A digital Hummer was being driven through a pool of water and Andy needed to supply the splashes. Given the tight timeline, he decided to use Houdini’s particles instead of a full blown fluid simulation because the water didn’t need to settle. He used Houdini’s particle fluid surfacer to create the splash geometry which he then rendered in Mantra using Houdini 9’s physically-based rendering.

Little Minx Project

Andy’s next project was a short film called As She Stares Longingly at What She Has Lost by director Phillip Van. Set to melancholy music, the film is part of the ‘Exquisite Corpse’ project launched by Little Minx in partnership with RSA Films. Andy worked with a team of talented artists to create an entire forest, a waffle cloud, a waterman, and vines.

For this project, actors were shot against blue screen and all the environments created digitally. The trees needed to be highly detailed in order to give an ominous feeling to the scene. Realizing that he would have to manage all this detail as efficiently as possible, Andy took advantage of the Mantra: Delayed Load feature. Trees were set up as scattered points on a grid with parameters that would populate the tree with details such as branches and vines at render time.

As Mantra rendered the scene, the geometry needed for each section was loaded in. Then as Mantra moved on to another section, the geometry was removed and new pieces were loaded. This approach allowed Andy to put as much detail into the scene as he needed without any memory limitations. At one point in production, he created vines that would creep up the trees but this shifted the focus away from the characters and did not get used in the final film.

By choosing Mantra, Andy was able to add motion blur, depth of field and volumetrics without significantly impacting his rendering time. Many of his colleagues at Method Studios were used to adding depth of field later using compositing techniques and were impressed that he could combine camera effects in one render pass. All of the shadows were created using the new deep shadow technology so that raytracing would not be needed.

Going to the Super Bowl

The ads that play during the Super Bowl have become as much of a spectacle as the game itself. Super Bowl ads are scrutinized in the press and companies pay a lot of money to showcase their products on the big day. For Andy, a Bridgestone ad called Scream would be his introduction to the world of Super Bowl ads.
In this spot, Method Studios had to create a digital squirrel that almost becomes road kill as he retrieves a fallen acorn. The squirrel, a number of other forest animals and a female passenger all scream out in fear while the driver, confident in his Bridgestone tires, easily swerves around the frightened animal. Working under a tight six week schedule, Andy would need to help create a number of digital animals including the squirrel that would be cut against a live-action squirrel. To make things even more challenging the squirrel’s scream would be a close-up shot in HD that would leave nothing to the imagination.

Andy’s experience creating furry animals at Framestore CFC came into play with one key difference. In England he was rendering with RenderMan and had access to programming talent to build all the fur procedurals needed to achieve a realistic look. In Houdini, Andy needed to create his own system using the Mantra fur procedural. Luckily the grooming features of the fur could be created using Houdini’s CVEX language instead of coding in C. This was a time saver because the CVEX didn’t need to be compiled every time a new feature was added.

Andy needed to add lots of detail to the squirrel because of the HD broadcast. He imported the animated squirrel into Houdini and fixed smoothing problems using Houdini’s procedural modeling tools. He then assigned and groomed guide hairs that would be used by the fur procedural to create the final fur. These curves were then run through a Wire dynamics simulation for added realism. The procedural was then used to generate about 1.5 million hairs – all at render time. Andy also used a CVEX shader to set up clumping and painted a number of different attributes on the squirrel’s skin to control the final look of the fur.

Andy’s confidence in the fur tools he created in Houdini helped him handle such a high level of realism, in such a tight schedule. Being able to have complete control without relying on programming talent showed that even smaller shops can create film-quality work while respecting client budgets.


Going to the Super Bowl

The ads that play during the Super Bowl have become as much of a spectacle as the game itself. Super Bowl ads are scrutinized in the press and companies pay a lot of money to showcase their products on the big day. For Andy, a Bridgestone ad called Scream would be his introduction to the world of Super Bowl ads.
In this spot, Method Studios had to create a digital squirrel that almost becomes road kill as he retrieves a fallen acorn. The squirrel, a number of other forest animals and a female passenger all scream out in fear while the driver, confident in his Bridgestone tires, easily swerves around the frightened animal. Working under a tight six week schedule, Andy would need to help create a number of digital animals including the squirrel that would be cut against a live-action squirrel. To make things even more challenging the squirrel’s scream would be a close-up shot in HD that would leave nothing to the imagination.

Andy’s experience creating furry animals at Framestore CFC came into play with one key difference. In England he was rendering with RenderMan and had access to programming talent to build all the fur procedurals needed to achieve a realistic look. In Houdini, Andy needed to create his own system using the Mantra fur procedural. Luckily the grooming features of the fur could be created using Houdini’s CVEX language instead of coding in C. This was a time saver because the CVEX didn’t need to be compiled every time a new feature was added.

Andy needed to add lots of detail to the squirrel because of the HD broadcast. He imported the animated squirrel into Houdini and fixed smoothing problems using Houdini’s procedural modeling tools. He then assigned and groomed guide hairs that would be used by the fur procedural to create the final fur. These curves were then run through a Wire dynamics simulation for added realism. The procedural was then used to generate about 1.5 million hairs – all at render time. Andy also used a CVEX shader to set up clumping and painted a number of different attributes on the squirrel’s skin to control the final look of the fur.

Andy’s confidence in the fur tools he created in Houdini helped him handle such a high level of realism, in such a tight schedule. Being able to have complete control without relying on programming talent showed that even smaller shops can create film-quality work while respecting client budgets.

Flying Free

The tools and techniques used to create fur for the Super Bowl squirrel were quickly put to use on Andy’s next project. In a commercial developed for Washington Mutual Bank, digital hair would be needed for a bald man who imagines driving a convertible along the coast as his hair grows back in front of our eyes. The tools used for this project were easily re-purposed from the fur project except the guide hairs would require more styling control and the wire dynamics would be much more dramatic.

“The flexibility of Houdini’s approach makes it easy to start from an existing solution instead of building every project from the ground up,” says Andy. “When working with tight deadlines, this gives us more time to focus on the creative needs of the project. For example, Jack Zaloga, Junior TD, was able to pick up the fur system from “scream” and right off the bat was render hair blowing around without any prior fur/hair experience.”

These projects demonstrate how far commercial VFX have come. These projects can be a real test-bed for tools and techniques that must achieve feature film quality in the new HD world. Tight deadlines rule the day and artist ingenuity is a critical part of the process. One can only imagine what Andy and Method Studios will pull off over the next six months.

[Related Links]
http://www.sidefx.com/

~ by farhanriaz

The Mill uses Houdini February 2, 2008

Posted by farhanriaz in 3D, Review, Software, VFX.
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Time Saved is Real Tipping Point

In the end, the final look of the Tipping Point ad is a testament to the creative vision and skill of the team which resulted in a commercial that is spell binding in its impact on viewers. That achievement is all the more remarkable when one considers the tight twelve week time frame in which the production was completed while bringing to life the vision of the director.

“In the past, I had always thought about making a jump to Houdini because of its reputation as a powerful CG animation tool,” said Bares. “After using it, I realize how on certain projects I have been throwing away time writing scripts to solve production problems. Now I see that Houdini’s node-based approach is great to use period. I expect we will be seeing a steady stream of work from The Mill that uses Houdini.”

A Growing Appreciation for a Powerful Tool

The team at The Mill was pleased to see that the ramp-up time to learn Houdini was modest. An experienced Houdini artist was brought in to do the initial TD work based on pre-production plans. At the same time, he worked with the other team members to quickly get their Houdini skills productionready.

As familiarity with Houdini grew, initial plans to only use it for a small part of the pipeline was adjusted to give it a bigger role in order to better meet production requirements.

“I initially wanted to do the inner structure of the pint shot in Softimage XSI. I then realized that it was much faster to set things up in Houdini before transferring to XSI for geometry tweaking,” said Bares. “We built a very sophisticated proprietary import/export system so we could transfer geometry, particles, fluids, and hair from Maya to Houdini and back again and from XSI to Houdini and back again. This lets us to work with whichever tool is best suited to the job at hand.”

“From the beginning, we anticipated scrutiny from the client, director and agency when it came to creating the look of a Guinness pour using a tower of books,” said Jordi Bares, Joint-Head of 3D of The Mill’s London-based studio. “We needed to manage more than 60,000 CG objects, each controlled by multiple variables, while maintaining the ability to respond to client feedback.”

Using Houdini meant that the team could accommodate changes such as making the pint taller , adding more books, or creating more pages per book. For example, the ability to shift timing elements and speed in specific rows played a major role in helping to create the stop and start characteristic in the sequence that imitated the Guinness two-part pour.

“We found out very soon that we had to do the final scene in 3D. Tests involving our CG team, a concept artist and matte painter showed us that the shot was complex but do-able,” said Bares. “By rigging up the whole structure in Houdini, we could make very accurate changes. For example, Houdini let us set up specific controls for the number of pages per book and the speed at which they turned. This had a tremendous impact on the overall feeling of the shot.”

“We were able to tie in the start and stop pattern of the pour into the rig by adding per row control. Each book would find out which row it was in, read the right parameters for that row’s control and act according to instruction.” said Bares. “Even though this was one of the most difficult, jobs I have ever worked on, using Houdini gave us control over timing and speed and ultimately made the project pretty easy to manage.”

By taking advantage of Houdini’s procedural architecture, the team was able to explore creative ideas throughout the production process without ever writing a single script. They were able to load over 60,000 objects and easily manipulate them in 3D. The team also usedHoudini Mantra to render the shot and was able to build a fast and effective rendering process that helped make sequence visualization quick and detailed.

“Manipulating this many objects would have been a huge challenge in either Maya or XSI,’ said Bares.“And Mantra was able to render the whole lot in no time which made me very happy.”

The Mill uses Houdini to deliver the Perfect Pourin Guinness “Tipping Point” Ad

Getting the perfect pour on a pint of Guinness is considered part art; part science. Animators at The Mill faced a similar challenge when asked to create a Guinness pour out of thousands of books with flipping pages for the commercial “Tipping Point.”

Set in an Argentinean mountain village, the commercial follows an elaborate domino project that starts in a small house then grows to include everything from wheels to cars to flaming bales of hay. The action then culminates in a three dimensional tower of books where the pages flip in sequence to create a dramatic working model of the classic Guinness pour.

Built-in Flexibility

The team had initially planned to shoot the first few books on location then use CG to complete the shot. After a few days on set, the team quickly realized that the high altitude of 3200 m made it virtually impossible to create a real working model of the structure. The complete effect would therefore need to be created using CG. To establish a flexible process capable of meeting creative demands, the team chose to model, rig and render the Guinness tower shot in Houdini 9.

[Related Links]
The Mill
Tipping Point
SideFX

~ by farhanriaz

2008 The PlayStation Evolution January 26, 2008

Posted by farhanriaz in Games, Software.
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How PlayStation will own 2008

Since the release of PSP, Sony’s been about creating platforms that aren’t just for gaming. Right now, both the PSP and PS3 are great for playing back movies, music, and displaying photos when you’re taking a break from button-bashing madness. Here’s how Sony plans to turn its PSP / PS3 combo into a real force to be reckoned with in 2008.

Sony has huge, on-going plans to evolve and enhance what both PlayStation platforms can do. It starts with PS3 becoming the centre of all your ‘digital lifestyle’ and feeding that down to the portable PSP. So much so that Sony hopes you’ll be using a PlayStation branded product as part of your everyday life.

We’re all in it for the games but with all these developments coming to our consoles, we’re happy (and rather excited) to embrace whatever other developments Sony may have. Here’s what we’ve got to look forward to in 2008.

PlayTV – TV tuner/recorder

Sony revealed at the Leipzig Games Convention last September its plans to turn PS3 into a digital TV receiver and recorder with the new PlayTV service.

Now, if you’ve got Sky Plus already you probably won’t give a damn. But with the ability to pause live TV, and to record programs onto the hard drive for later viewing, PlayTV is a luxury that many of us will be looking forward to.

And for us gadget-loving types, it gets even cooler when you consider PS3’s Remote Play connection with PSP. You’ll be able to access all your PS3’s recordings on your PSP via Wi-Fi internet, so you could be in India beaming the latest episode of Coronation Street to your portable. Isn’t that your dream? You know it is.

This is big bananas for the PS3 as a platform too, though. The phenomenal success of PS2 was partly thanks to the legions of people who bought it simply to use as a DVD player – the uncles out there that considered the game-playing part a mere bonus.

Those same people will be picking up a PS3 for its affordable, upgradeable Blu-ray capabilities as the population converts to HD entertainment, and the inclusion of recordable digital TV is, for those people, another crucial reason to buy the console over a dedicated Blu-ray player.

Hopefully Sony will keep the price of the receiver nice and low, so it can appeal to those same people, who tend not to like buying add-ons for consoles.

Home

Sony is taking its bloody time with this one, but it insists that the virtual world for PS3 has to be nothing short of perfect before it’s released. Of course it won’t be, but the firm’s aiming high with this one.

Home is one of those things that, if done right, could have A-bomb-like impact on PS3, bringing the PlayStation community together with a level of virtual interactivity not available on any other console. It’ll give PS3 owners their own virtual space that could become as precious to them as the MySpace and Facebook phenomenon of the internet. Sony wants it to be more of course, but one step at a time.

It could become the place you spend time in everyday, searching for new content, meeting other people and making Xbox Live feel like a relatively shallow, empty experience faced by nothing but menu screens.

Home could be incredible. But if done wrong – if it doesn’t run smoothly, connect gamers the way it promises to, feature all the constantly-added content or be easily personalised – it could just become another ignored icon on your XMB menu.

First impressions though are extremely positive, and we can’t wait to get our hands on it for ourselves. Here’s hoping it doesn’t turn into a breeding ground for sub-human behaviour. Like Xbox Live is becoming.

Go! Explore – GPS on PSP

None of us have TomToms in our cars. It’s got the worst name for a gadget ever, and the three-figure price tag is a lot to pay for fancy road maps that point you to the shops. They only end up getting stolen anyway.

So Sony unveils Go! Explore for PSP, which will be cheaper, smaller and more convenient than a dedicated machine. Suddenly we’re a lot more willing to let the wonders of satellite navigation technology into our lives. In fact, we’re actually looking forward to it.

PSP will become something that we’d actually carry around with us for its directional abilities. We’re waiting to see the full service in action but having a UMD dedicated to London town or another European city could put an end to getting stung at dodgy restaurants because you couldn’t find the one you wanted.

Skype

f GPS support isn’t already good enough a reason to carry about your PSP everywhere, how about the ability to use it as a phone over the internet?

Skype, a free voice-over-IP (VOIP) program currently used by PC types, will allow PSP owners to contact each other for free, using a microphone attachment that’ll come with the software. As long as you’re in range of a Wi-Fi access point, you’re good to chat as long as you like.

You can call real phones from it too, although that’ll cost a little – but it should be reasonably cheap. The only major downer is that Skype will only work on PSP Slims. Owners of the older model – Sony’s loyal early purchasers – will miss out on it completely, or be forced to make the upgrade. Thanks for that Sony.

Profile 2.0 Blu-ray support

A slightly less significant but nevertheless noteworthy part of PlayStation’s evolution, particularly in 2008, is the expansion of PS3’s Blu-ray playback abilities.

it’s ironic that not only is PS3 one of the cheapest Blu-ray players on the market, but it’s also the only future-proof player.

Profile 2.0 Blu-ray features will be launched later this year, which will allow users to download new content for their films, including trailers, features and ringtones.

But most of the dedicated Blu-ray players on the market to date lack support for internet connection, rendering them completely incapable of supporting the internet-centred features of Profile 2.0.

So as you’re downloading all the sweet Blu-ray content of joy on your PS3, you can laugh in the face of your rich uncle who bought a first-generation Blu-ray player for RS 100,000 that can’t do any of it.

~by farhanriaz

RTTGroup a new Autodesk 3ds Max plug-in January 4, 2008

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RTTGroup is a new Autodesk 3ds Max plug-in intended to replace the limited render to texture built-in capabilities of the 3ds Max itself.RTTGroup significantly expands the standard render to texture functionality.It allows for grouping objects which are targets for render to texture process.The RTTGroup’s built-in automatic mesh unwrap mapping algorithm is very efficient and easily manages to correctly unwrap even complex meshes and tries to achieve an optimal texture space usage. RTTGroup features an automatic parametrized unwrap mapping tool ideal for creating lighting and shading textures (lightmaps) in complex scenes. Simulation and games whichuse the lightmaps rendered with RTTGroup can display images with advanced lighting and shading created with techniques requiring significant computingpower like radiosity or raytracing. The popular 3ds Max renderers are supported: default scanline, mental ray and V-Ray.

The full power of the RTTGroup plug-in has been recently used in creation ofthe complex lighting textures for The Witcher RPG game released in October 2007 by Atari.

The plug-in works with 3ds Max version 6, 7, 8, 9 (32-bit) and 2008
(32-bit). More information about RTTGroup, the downlodable demo and online ordering are available at the developer’s page:

http://www.rendertotexture.com/

The Pixel Farm release PFTrack 4.1 Personal Learning Edition January 2, 2008

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The Pixel Farm Ltd., a leading developer of advanced image processing tools, announced today the immediate availability of PFTrack 4.1 Personal Learning Edition (PLE).

The free learning edition of The Pixel Farm’s industry-leading tracking and match-moving application allows students, digital artists and facilities to evaluate, learn and master PFTrack 4.1 without the need for a permanent or temporary software license. The complete toolset of PFTrack 4.1, including geometry tracking, image-based modeling, z-depth extraction and multiple-motion solves, is included in PFTrack 4.1 PLE.

“As we close out a year of unprecedented growth, the release of PFTrack 4.1 PLE demonstrates our ongoing commitment to the production community, giving non-commercial access to PFTrack free of charge, to learn at your own pace,” Daryl Shail, The Pixel Farm Ltd. “Digital artists who are new to PFTrack will become more marketable, making a new generation of professional matchmovers available to our rapidly growing list of facility partners, equipped with the best tools in the industry.”

The only limitations in PFTrack 4.1 PLE are the ability to export camera and image data. Projects created in PFTrack 4.1 cannot be opened in the retail version, limiting PFTrack 4.1 PLE to non-commercial use.

PFTrack 4.1 PLE is free to download from The Pixel Farm’s website.

The Pixel Farm

~by farhanriaz