Since 1925, The Rockettes have dazzled New York audiences with their high-stepping precision dance routines. Every winter, they take their show on the road as they tour North America with their Radio City Christmas Spectacular. This year the show was called “Humbugged, Rockettes to the Rescue”, and the Rockettes are joined on stage by computer graphics created by Dallas firm Reel FX. As an added twist, the dancers interact with digital creatures and sets displayed behind them on a giant 3D stereoscopic display.
For this unique project, Reel FX was recruited to create CG wintery sets and generate a giant ice monster that the Rockettes would perform with on-stage. With the audience wearing 3D glasses, the dancers become perfectly immersed within their digital backdrop.
To create the forest shots, Reel FX needed to generate thousands of snow-dusted trees without overloading their modeling and layout departments. Taking advantage of Houdini’s ability to create repeatable node-based workflows, they built several Houdini Digital Assets to assist with different parts of the project. These assets included customized toolsets for technical direction, VFX, set dressing, fur creation, texturing, lighting and rendering.
“Given the aggressive production schedule for Humbugged, we took advantage of Houdini’s procedural nature to efficiently execute the show” explains Walter Behrnes, VFX Simulation Supervisor at Reel FX. “When tackling any project, one of the first things we do is assess where we can use Digital Assets. In this process we strive to create systems which can not only automate tasks but, when needed, can also be art directed”.
Tools of the Trade
ReelFX created several key assets that would help them procedurally create a forest of trees. A “Tree” Digital Asset was generated to allow them to quickly generate multiple stylized trees.
An important requirement for the foreground trees was that they needed to have fur-based pine needles, giving them greater detail. Realizing that asking a fur artist to groom individual trees would be rather time-consuming and complicated, they instead developed a procedural system that automated the creation of pine needle bunch variations. They archived and pushed the needle clumps into their “Tree” Houdini Digital Asset for placement.
The end result was a single tool that could create custom trees in minutes and output a custom format for efficient renders. This output mechanism separated the trees’ core elements, such as leaves, branches, trunks and snow, then tagged specific asset types, and pushed the data into a terrain population Houdini Digital Asset.
“This terrain asset gave us the ability to quickly visualize and art direct the precise placement of our tree variations and to output that population data to Houdini Mantra” says Walter.
Next, Reel FX built an asset that involved creating a “Christmas cheer” visual effect, one with glittery, ribbon-like gold sparkles that integrates into the live action component of the show. Throughout the show, dancers appeared as though they were shooting this “Christmas cheer” from their wands when it was actually being projected digitally on the stereoscopic screen.
To achieve this look, the team created a “Cheer” Digital Asset that generated a series of effects based on guide curves which were built in layout and then animated. The methodology behind this asset workflow allowed them to build a system where the director could comment on timing and placement before the effect was simulated. Reel FX used this same concept for the creation of the Katy Perry “Firework” video.
“This approach was highly successful because it reduced the number of times we had to run our simulations” comments Walter.
Another Digital Asset created by Reel FX was the “Footprint” asset. Since their environments consisted mostly of snow, they needed to generate footprints in every shot. The Digital Asset not only created footprints but added the additional effect of kicking up snow in the process.
A Bigger Houdini Pipeline
Throughout production, Reel FX was able to implement Houdini across multiple departments in order to maintain quality while accommodating a relatively small crew size. Prior to Humbugged, only the effects department at Reel FX were using Houdini. By employing the procedural nature of Houdini across multiple departments, the team realized they could complete numerous iterations of effects and renders more efficiently.
“Houdini gave our artists the ability to quickly produce and use Digital Assets and galleries across multiple shots, saving us a tremendous amount of time in the end” says Walter.
Humbugged was Reel FX’s first project to utilize Mantra for rendering beyond the scope of effects. They integrated Houdini into the lighting and texturing pipelines so artists could work directly in Houdini and render to Mantra without having to export their work to another CG software package.
The final product is a truly unique experience as The Rockettes take their time honoured tradition of precision dancing to the next level, incorporating stereoscopic 3D motion graphics into their show. Using Digital Assets and Mantra, they leveraged Houdini as a tool that allowed them to meet their deadline, and just in time for Christmas.