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One of the joys of university is the freedom to create anything that you can imagine without being bogged down by real world issues such as budgets and focus groups. For four students from the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design at Drexel University in Philadelphia, this freedom led them to create a unique short film for showcasing their VFX talents. The piece was created by Digital Media students Dan Bodenstein, Jessie Amadio, Corinne DeOrsay and Brett Angelillis as a project for their Advanced Animation class (DIGM-411) and they chose to use Houdini Education and Houdini Apprentice for all the effects.

The foursome decided to develop a pitch by Jessie which centered on the idea of an artsy daydream. The group worked together to come up with ideas for effects that would offer them a technical challenge and synced up well with their selection of music. After ten weeks of brainstorming, refining all the details and rendering out their shots, the final submission went viral after becoming the staff pick on the popular video site Vimeo.

Franz by Dan Bodenstein, Jessie Amadio, Corinne DeOrsay and Brett Angelillis on Vimeo

A Breakdown of the Effects

The sequence puts us, the audience, in the shoes of a pedestrian who starts off the piece by putting on a set of headphones. As we stroll together through a European streetscape we listen to the symphony music playing as the pedestrian waves their hands to the music. The daydream begins as each swing of the hand triggers a fun and unusual event within the environment. These effects compliment the music while giving the team a chance to try out a number of different effects using Houdini.

Early in the sequence, lights come streaking out from some windows. This effect was created using instanced point lights and a trail operation for the streaks. The effect was set up in a network where the artist could adjust the look by simply drawing a curve and editing some parameters.

The fire hydrants that pop open from the top and gush water were created using a simple particle simulation. A second pass of collided particles was rendered as a solid color to use as a wet map for the ground surface.

The fruit being ejected from the fruit stands was created using objects instanced to a particle simulation which used an interact particle operation to avoid any interpenetration. To control the flipping of the bricks in the sidewalk, a channel operation network was setup. This made it very easy to art-direct the height and speed of the flips as well as make any corrections if necessary. The setup was fully procedural, so when adjustments were required, everything updated all the way down the chain.

The balconies which dissolved and floated away had particles generated out of a volume. At one point the balconies dissolved overtime as the volume shrank, but ultimately the team decided that dissolving all at once was more visually appealing. “The amount of control Houdini gave us over volume primitives was great for this effect” says Dan Bodenstein.

The leaves floating down from the trees were created with Houdini’s copy stamping which added the leaves to a particle simulation. The stamping allowed for subtle deformations on each individual leaf. The base geometry of the trees was created with L-Systems. To create the fine tree branches that helped fill the space between the leaves and the trunk, a Ray operation was used to place the particles directly onto the tree surface. Another geometry operation was then used to create the lines from the leaves to the tree’s branches.

Approaching the end of the street, the glass in the street lamp along with a few of the windows in the building shatters. For this effect, a custom tool was created where each artist could paint the break probability of the glass onto a grid. The tool would break the glass based on these painted values. After this, all that was required was to bring the fractured pieces into Houdini’s dynamics environment, and set up a rigid body simulation to simulate the effect.

The moody clouds that quickly enter the shot were built using metaballs that were copy stamped onto a grid that was deformed with a mountain operation then the volume was defined using an iso-offset and a modified billowy smoke shader was applied to create the final look. The rain was created using motion blurred particles with a split operation applied to create the splashes.

The Learning Process

For this team, Houdini’s procedural approach gave them a great deal of flexibility in their work. They are still learning to apply it to their projects as they continue in their studies at Drexel. One big benefit of this project was the amount of self learning needed to complete each shot. Despite having access to an extremely knowledgeable professor, the team did a lot of exploring on their own.

“One of the most valuable skills we developed was the ability to work independently,” says Dan. “Only so much can be covered over the course of a three hour class, so we had to solve many problems on our own.”

Outside of the classroom, the team turned to a wide variety of resources within the Houdini Community. From the helpful forums in the od[force] forum to the lessons and stories on the Side Effects website, the team was able to get the information they needed.

“The tutorials on sidefx.com made it super easy for me to get my feet wet,” says Jessie. “After that, most of my learning was peer-based. Luckily, Drexel University has a thriving community of Houdini users who are always available to share ideas with.”

Having acquired the resourcefulness to learn the finer details of Houdini independently certainly has prepared the team for a world outside of University. As CG / VFX technology continues to evolve, the learning process is one that will continue throughout their careers. The team will be graduating from their studies this coming June of 2010. Be sure to look for them when the demo reels start rolling in later this year.

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