Fugu & Tako is an upcoming short film by Sydney, Australia’s ROBOT VFX that offers a humorous mix of live action and some 200 plus VFX shots. The film’s protagonist swallows a live fugu, also known as puffer fish, and as a consequence develops a fugu-shaped head. The story uses a realistic documentary format with VFX created in Houdini being an essential part of the “surrealistic” fish head effect.
“We required a seamless solution that would keep the audience engaged in the story” comments Ben West, the film's director. “In character effects, that’s the biggest challenge. How do you narrow the gap in the uncanny valley?”
For this project, the answer was Houdini which was used to develop a number of detailed facial animation and tracking techniques. The chosen approach resulted in a character that echoes the voice and character of the actor in a very convincing and original way.
Narrowing the Gap
Throughout Fugu & Tako, there is a variety of creature FX work, including an actual puffer fish, the Fugu head, wiggling sushi and an octopus’ tentacle - each of which required a unique solution. “Our animation was always going to be very realistic. We found that less is more when studying performance” says Ben.
To animate the fugu head, Alan Do, ROBOT’s lead animator developed a kind of heads-up display (HUD) that linked into a multitude of blendshapes and bones, enabling them to animate it with precision while referencing the actors’ performance on screen.
The animation of the little puffer fish involves a rig with bones and multiple deformers with procedural animation piped into fins to give a smooth yet random flow for realism. The octopus tentacle also involved procedural animation which utilized copy stamping and expressions to construct the model. Individual suckers on the tentacles also have unique animation.
The use of Wire Dynamics gave a sense of secondary motion and weight to the characters. When the puffer fish leaves the fish tank there are a number of shots that show him slipping about. Houdini’s soft body simulations with rigid body interaction gave them a very realistic result.
Wires were also used extensively in their animation work, especially with the wiggling sushi pieces. A number of approaches to rigging were tested including the use of bones, but they found that wire switch points linked to nulls provided them with a more flexible solution. With the octopus tentacle however, they created a blend node that combined both wire and bone deformation so the tentacle could overstretch when necessary.
A Non-Destructive Workflow
When deciding on a pipeline, ROBOT were seeking a solution that would evolve as they work. “Houdini gives us a non-destructive workflow that allows for changes at all levels without any detriment to the whole” comments Ben.
“With it we were able to make design changes to characters, reinvent rigs, and add blendshapes without any concern. In fact, quite often it’s when we had final renders that we wanted to explore more nuances in character performance and were able to feed them back into the workflow without any significant overhead. Essentially, Houdini’s procedural workflow and scene interchangeability were major assets.”
With FUGU & TAKO, Houdini gave ROBOT an open and flexible set of Character Rigging and Dynamics tools. With Houdini they can tailor solutions to meet their needs, no matter what project they take on. And with Fugo & Tako, Robot VFX is creating a short film which acts as a prelude to future feature film work.