The Side Effects head office can be found in Toronto, Canada which is also the home to Scott Pilgrim, the main character in the graphic novel/feature film Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, created by Bryan Lee O’Malley and directed by Edgar Wright.
Scott Pilgrim is a slacker, bass player, lover and a fighter who falls in love with the mysterious Ramona Flowers. The catch – he must fight her seven evil exes in a series of battles which play out like the levels of a video game. The results are a strange brew of action, romance and rock and roll which are destined to achieve cult status in years to come.
To bring Scott Pilgrim’s world to life, CG effects were used to not only support video game battles and comic book graphics but also to enhance the real world shots. Houdini played a role in both these tasks with Mr. X using it for digital snow and Double Negative using it for a very intense battle of the bands.
In Scott Pilgrim’s Toronto, it is winter even though the movie began filming in spring. It was therefore logical for “Toronto” studio Mr. X to winterize key scenes in the movie. The snow was going to need to be more than just an environmental simulation of snow. Mr. X’s goal was to treat the snow just as if it was another character in the movie. It needed to be very directable and with Houdini, they were able to create quick and easy setups which would provide them with the control they needed.
“We used Houdini because its procedural workflow would allow us exacting control over particles,” explains Mr X’s Effects Lead Kyle Yoneda. “We were also able to quickly evoke changes across all shots in production.”
Stephen Wagner, an FX Animator at Mr. X used Houdini Digital Asset technology to develop a highly directable “Snow” tool that would allow them to perform automated efficiency checks straight out of their pipeline. The snow could be tuned for density, speed and wind’s effect, as well as for its character and the style.
This kind of versatility was especially useful during the pre-visualization stage while working out ideas with the film’s director, Edgar Wright. It allowed them to easily present Wright with a range of possibilities. Artists could vary its look from a photo-realistic snow system to a more whimsical, cartoon-like version inspired by O’Malley’s books. Wright responded well and ended up using almost all of the options, changing the character of the snow when the mood called for it.
Once a scene was setup and ready to be winterized, effects animators Stephen Wagner, ”Neon” Shaun Galinak and Erik Lacroix would reference a master animation curve for the density of snow. Their animation department would provide them with depth cues used to indicate where the actors would be placed within each shot.
Those cues were then used to make turbulent forces as well as holdouts. Motion blur could be adjusted per layer of snow based in depth to get realistic turbulent looks without generating too much chatter in the renders. The final product was rendered using Mantra, adding a nice bokeh effect created in comp.
Double Negative’s work was largely centered on a number of key fight sequences. This meant combining and syncing lots of unique and challenging effects work. It was critical that they had access to the best features from each component within their pipeline with Houdini set up to seamlessly interchange data from a variety of packages.
“With Houdini we were able to create scripts that could process our animation geometry, incorporate the sound track for the shot in a visual manner and write out the data we needed as texture maps,” Dneg CG Supervisor Andrew Whitehurst explains. “The flexibility that Houdini offers to effectively create new tools on the fly for such specific tasks was invaluable”
This interaction came into play when Scott’s band, Sex Bob-omb, duels with the Katayanagi Twins. This battle scene intensifies as two electrically charged CG creatures become part of the action. A yeti and a double-headed dragon emerges from the sound generated by each band. As their sound intensifies, the creatures respond accordingly.
The surface of each creature had to look electric which was achieved using a Houdini particle system. For the Yeti in particular, the artists needed a way to groom the direction in which the particles were emitted from the creature’s surface. The particle system needed to look and feel like a kind of fur made from pure energy. With Houdini, they had enough control over the surface normal data and other inputs to allow them to bake out maps to precisely control the emission direction of the particles.
“We tried out several software packages when creating the dragons but eventually chose Houdini as it had the strongest and most flexible particle tool-set” says Whitehurst. “I was very confident having tested our set-up that any changes the client asked for could be accommodated and implemented swiftly. That confidence also gave us the opportunity to experiment with the look and movement of the creatures more than we otherwise would which made for a better creative result.”
Thanks to the efforts and creativity of Mr. X and Double Negative, Bryan Lee O’Malley’s series maintained its authentic “comic book” look and feel even when presented on the big screen. Using Houdini, both studios were able to work alongside the director and make quick and flexible creative decisions. They also had the ability to generate custom tools and play friendly with other software packages allowing them to efficiently get the job done.