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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

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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

Visual Effects Beowulf with Houdini January 1, 2008

Posted by farhanriaz in Movies, Software, VFX.
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The epic poem Beowulf tells the tale of a great Viking warrior battling dragons and monsters for fame and glory. Based on a script by authors Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, Academy Award -winning director Robert Zemeckis set out to bring this classic to the big screen as a digitally enhanced live-action movie that changes all the rules.

Presented as an immersive 3D cinematic experience, Beowulf is an amazing leap forward for hyper-realistic CG that is perfectly suited to its mythical setting. To bring this digital world to life, Sony Pictures Imageworks was asked to further enhance the audience’s experience with a wide variety of visual effects. From fire to charring wood, Imageworks knew that they could rely on their Houdini artists to achieve amazing results.

“The inherent nature of Houdini’s procedural workflow allowed us to build dynamic networks that could automate a huge portion of the work throughout the project,” says Vincent Serritella, FX Animation Lead. “This made it possible to manage extremely complicated imagery and large data sets while working under very tight deadlines.”

Streamlining the Production Process

Houdini’s Digital Asset technology combined with Houdini’s VEX scripting language was a great benefit as it allowed Imageworks to develop a streamlined production process at an early stage. Knowing that there were going to be literally hundreds of shots with similar effects, it made sense to build a library of Houdini Digital Assets to manage the repeating workflows.

One effect that would be repeated often in Beowulf was the complex weaving of small chain mail links worn by many of the characters in the film. Houdini made it possible to generate a chain mail system that could be used by the cloth department. Built using Digital Assets and Houdini’s scripting language the chain mail workflow proved to be extremely efficient and optimized.

Digital Assets were used in many different parts of the production process. From something as simple as initializing a scene by sourcing cameras, characters and scene data to something as complex as organizing entire fire, chain mail and water pipelines, senior technical directors utilized Digital Assets to efficiently build production-ready tools for junior TDs and artists.

Sketching in 3D

“As a fine artist by foundation, I like to sketch out an idea then refine the details as things develop,“ says Serritella. “This is something very familiar and intuitive for me, and with Houdini, I am able to work through shots very quickly, discuss the iterations with a supervisor, then either swap out or build on the network to make key creative decisions.”

Of course these decisions needed to take into account the greater context of the movie. Effects artists would therefore bring in virtual environments and characters from other parts of the pipeline to use in Houdini. Even if this work was done in other applications, the files fit perfectly into the Houdini workflow.

To heighten the reality of a shot, the animation from a character could be used to drive secondary and elemental effects such as snow, rotor wash, fog, steam, wind, smoke, embers and water to name a few. Being able to integrate Houdini with other parts of the pipeline was critical to making these shots work effectively.

In the end, the Houdini team at Sony Pictures Imageworks helped make Beowulf a visual feast worthy of the man whose name has been passed down in history as one of the world’s first true heroes.

All Images © 2007 by Paramount Pictures and Shangri-La Entertainment, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

 

~by farhanriaz