Inside the latest SideFX Houdini demo project: ‘The Dawning’

Go deep behind the scenes to see how Houdini was used on the animated short.

The Dawning is an internal SideFX Houdini demo project that follows a lone astronaut on an alien planet. A crew of 17 artists inside and outside SideFX contributed to the animated short, taking particular advantage of Houdini’s procedural workflow and some new features introduced to the tool (including pyro and scattering features).

Here, project lead Fianna Wong (technical marketing lead, SideFX) takes befores & afters through the making of The Dawning, including all the aspects of design, modeling, rigging, animation, environments—contributor Nikola Damjanov weighs in here, too—and FX. Wong also discusses the compelling score; in fact, as you watch the short below, be sure to listen in the best sound environment possible.

b&a: How did The Dawning come about as a project at SideFX?

Fianna Wong: The Dawning came about in the same way as any visual demo at SideFX is created; generally to demonstrate an upcoming feature. We create visual content based on what comes down the pipe from R&D. The idea of The Dawning came before the release of Houdini 18, for the purpose of showcasing Solaris. We were unable to do so, but after the wrap of Houdini 18, I made the decision to complete the animation. So this project was done concurrent to the work of preparing for H18.5 release.

2020 was not only the year of COVID, but also discovering new limits. Lightly put, preparing for the release of new product has its own deadlines, challenges and expectations. So this ‘side’ project on top of all that, is not something a sane person would consider doing. But it was a lot of fun at the same time and working with so many amazingly talented artists, and having all the things come together—it is pretty cool and I am so grateful for such an opportunity. Working with people who understand each other doesn’t happen all the time, but when everyone is painting on the same canvas, it’s crucial. I will also admit that it is my first time working on an animation, so I was full virgin going in and finding out about stuff along the way.

Astronaut design by Steven Stahlberg.

b&a: What was involved in writing any treatment and planning out any visuals?

Fianna Wong: There wasn’t any writing of treatments. The idea (visually and story) came from Daniel Siriste, who did the storyboard. I worked with him and Nathaniel Larouche to create an animatic; Nathan animated the cameras and framing and timing, based on Daniel’s vision. Working off of a storyboard, you still don’t realize things until you put them into 3D. It’s like working off concept sketches and when you start modeling it, you say ‘Well, this doesn’t work…’ but it looks ok in the sketch.

Anyway, there was quite a bit of that. I was able to ‘act’ out a lot of the shots for Nathan in a park, when the COVID numbers in Toronto were super low. Sketchbooks and other items used for visualizing camera pans/positioning. It must have been funny for people to watch in the park.

Astronaut model by Bruno Peschiera.

b&a: What approaches were taken in realizing the landscape/terrain for the film?

Fianna Wong: I worked with Nikola Damjanov, who created the majority of the beautiful terrain that you see. We also utilized some satellite scans for some parts of the environment (they were mixed in with the hero terrains from Nikola), because visually they already achieved what we were looking for. I have nothing but the best words to say about Nikola. Keep in mind that half of the crew were in different timezones. And Nikola would be at odd hours replying and iterating to catch exactly what we needed for the particular shot. We would both be up at stupidly late hours, half awake and going over versions and such.

Nikola Damjanov: All the terrains in the film were predominantly made using Houdini’s heightfields systems, but almost every shot had a unique problem that was solved using some of the other tools.

Usually, a terrain feature would start off from a very coarse proxy geometry which was modelled to fit the camera movement and character animation. From there we would use several layer of HF Distort to breakup those simple forms and add visual interest.

The next step would be to work on a shot specific features. For really close-up shots where the astronaut is walking on the surface we utilized the SOP modeling and fracturing tools to simulate the look of a cracked dried ground. Then we project those details to a new heightfield and mix it with the original one. That way we can get the benefits of both procedural terrain and hand-crafted one.

Some of the shots required detailed cliffs to be made—they were produced by first detaching a piece of the original heightfield, were the cliffs should be. That piece of the heightfield was voxeliezd, turned to a mesh, and treated as such. Surface noise and remeshing nodes were used to get the initial rock look but then the mesh was sliced into individual strata layers with varied thickness. Every strata piece was then processed individually—adding another layer of local variation and edge damage. All the layers were combined into a single VDB where we added the high frequency details using noises.

Cliff terrain by Nikola Damjanov.

For far-away landscapes we even used real-life scan data of mountains and deserts, thanks to the super useful MapBox node.

No matter what the specific shot was, all of the terrain making approaches were finalized with similar steps. Once we had all the elements in place they were tied up together using several layers of erosion and slumping—simulating the passage of time and accumulation of sand. Heightfield Scatter was the final touch – distributing medium and small rocks over the surface.

Once the terrains were finished everything was projected to a high resolution heightfield and then converted to polygons. Depending on the shot, those models were segmented into square pieces—usually around 8—and every segment was unwrapped to its unique UDIM tile.

With meshes and all of the terrain masks exported (i.e. flow, debris, strata…), we used Substance Painter to texture the terrain, as we could heavily rely on its Smart Material system to have speed and consistency.

b&a: What about the astronaut—what aspects of Houdini were utilized for rigging/texturing/animation/FX/lighting comp etc?

Fianna Wong: The astronaut was designed by Steven Stahlberg, who worked with Bruno Peschiera to iterate on the 3D model of our character. Bruno did the beautiful textures on him, and we had some general wear and tear added to his suit and boots, courtesy of Emily Fung. These tasks were done outside of Houdini.

From here, Bogdan Zykov created the rig for our astronaut and working with the guys at Cinemotion, who had a Character TD and one Animator who was using Houdini for the very first time (as they are traditionally using Maya for animating)—the astronaut was brought to life through these guys. We went through many references to find the appropriate movement on the non-terrestrial planet, and combined with the limitations of movement via his heavy spacesuit, we have the laboured walk of a spaceman who finds himself stranded on a lonely world.

 

b&a: Can you discuss the FX work?

Fianna Wong: For FX, there were a number of artists behind this as well. Akmal Sultanov created the VDBs in the opening shots of the martian planet. Kyle Climaco, one of my interns, was the artist behind the dust devil, the footstep grain sim and environment detailing of adding extra layer of grains across most terrain geo you see.

I want to take a moment to point out, that Kyle had moved to Toronto before the COVID lockdown, and had to deal with all the problems that came with moving to different country, not knowing anyone, and coming to basically learn Houdini in a small and foreign bedroom. He was working with our office machine, which we were fortunately able to send out to him at the start of the pandemic, and sending jobs to the farm. On top of doing the FX, he was learning PDG, which is admittedly no walk in the park, but he did it!

Another FX requirement was the large smoke plume, courtesy of Attila Torok. Attila was working on the new pyro updates seen in H18.5, and on top of preparing some of the pyro demos as well as the downloadable pyro sample files (and also the pyro documentation and HIVE presentation), he worked on this as well. We were really fortunate and grateful that he said yes to this.

Emily Fung who worked alongside me for H18.5 release marketing material, played a critical role. She did the environment scattering of rocks, also created some dust passes, and she had the most reliable and fastest internet of us all, so she was the poor bastard farmer…taking care of scene versioning, HDAs, assets, farm jobs and upload/downloads of render jobs. She did this while working on 18.5 demos and without her, well, probably we would still be working on the animation today.

So, all of these things I mentioned, required countless iterations and adjustments to get the exact look. I am grateful to everyone who tirelessly grinded, while working on other projects they also had, and endured all the different timezones, uploadings, and nonstop communication to understand what was needed and to pursue the changes to their final state. While I rarely like to use the word professionalism, because I find it is overused, I have to highlight that pure untainted passion these artists have, that running alongside them on this towards the end goal—it was really incredible.

Static grains layer by Kyle Climaco.

b&a: For the final lighting and rendering, how was this approached? What changes/adjustments were possible?

Fianna Wong: Lighting and rendering was done by Nathan Larouche. Nathan did several flavours of lighting style. We worked from the original concept and tried with more tints of green, blue and oranges at different saturations, until we arrived at the result you see. We were looking at martian and earth references (namely Wadi Rum desert in Jordan) and cherrypicked elements from each.

Nathan also did the compositing and layered in lots of small atmospheric touches (we did use some prefab VDBs in the final) and the final colour grading was by Akshay Dandekar. To say that Nathan ‘did the compositing’, while technically true, I should clarify that he wove everything together, added lots of small details like the astronaut HUD animation, smoke plume distortion, overall strategic/intentional highlights/mid and shadows placement, and much much more.

For this animation, we were fortunate to work with AMD who graciously provided Nathan with a beast machine (powered by a Ryzen Threadripper PRO 3995WX — that’s 64 cores, 128 threads) which is capable of sim’ing and rendering the entire animation under a reasonable time, but because everyone had their part and were independently iterating on their own machines and on the farm, we did not utilize the unit in such a fashion, but we COULD HAVE.

Grains simulation by Kyle Climaco.

b&a: In particular, how would you say Houdini’s procedural nature helped make The Dawning?

Fianna Wong: While we were not doing anything groundbreaking with this animation, I would say that the non-linear nature of Houdini allowed for much flexibility in iterating, without too much heartache of starting from zero (ok, sometimes things had to be restarted but generally not). Everything from changing the weights on the astronaut rig, the many many times of terrain variants with heightfields and subsequent setdressing with rocks and pebbles of varying sizes and positions, and placing sand overtop of it all…yes of course this is possible to do in other existing software packages as well, but the breadth of the software allows you to do so many things in a single package, pretty much from start to end, gives you confidence you can achieve your idea fully.

And I see so many cool things that the community does out there, mograph stuff, R&D tests, games, data visualization…all of which are completely different styles and subject matter. You have the confidence that you can feed the software anything, data no matter how big or small, and Houdini will just crunch through it.

b&a: Any other new developments in Houdini that helped make the film? How do you also plan to share these assets with the community?

Fianna Wong: Yes, we did use the new Scatter and Align SOP to create the added layer of detail for the environments. We were unable to take advantage of KineFX tools since this project was concurrent with the development of 18.5 KineFX. As mentioned earlier, Attila did do the smoke plume using the new H18.5 pyro toolset.

For sharing assets, we will distribute things (and probably full scenes) via sidefx.com’s Content Library. This will be the dumping ground for any distributable assets going forward—you may have noticed already that we are uploading *.hip files and HDAs since Houdini 18 release. As well, throughout the year, we have ongoing projects that may also find their place as standalone downloads.

b&a: The sound design is incredible – can you talk a little about the collaboration here?

Fianna Wong: The sound design is by Olivier Orand. Some of you may recognize his name and music in the Houdini 17 Sneak Peek video, where we used his tracks from the “Forgotten Ritual” album. About the track in The Dawning—this is all Olivier. I sent him the animatic and described to him the visual and story. Since we were still solidifying the animation, it was subject to timing changes, as well as shot changes (addition/removal). Olivier did the initial pass, and he sent along a few versions of it, and also stuff like the breathing sounds you hear while the astronaut is looking through his helmet. As we progressed with the animation, I always sent Olivier new edits as well as in progress renders, to keep him together with us, the visual side.

Audio is a critical part of visual storytelling. It is in fact, 50/50. And the fidelity that we are so critical about and appreciate in the visual industry, there is the same parallel in the audio world. Specifically, I am referring to the ranges in audio (in any audio, in fact), which unfortunately is clipped by average consumer audio equipment (it is something equivalent to a heavily compressed image, from 4K *.exr to 320×240 *.jpg). The incredible detail and range in high/medium/low frequencies in this track is breathtaking, and Olivier did an incredible job composing this track. His imagination and interpretation of the animation was spot on, and was not even something I could have imagined.

You can see more about The Dawning, including tutorials on the process, at SideFX’s microsite here.

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