In Method Studios most recent Super Bowl spot for Kia, a son asks his father the age-old question of “where do babies come from?” The response leads Method to an epic CG project and Houdini made it possible to include a variety of visual effects elements for the spot including clouds, water, fur, smoke and fire.
In the spot, dozens of furry baby characters from all corners of the animal kingdom are thrust into space from their home planet of Babylandia and are set on a course to be delivered to their new parents on Earth. The project involved dozens of characters, hundreds of shaders, thousands of objects, and 1662 textures. Flexibility and time-saving techniques were key and with Houdini in their pipeline it was no problem to handle such a wide range of assets.
Houdini and the Method Pipeline
Houdini gave Method Studios a means of bringing together CG elements that were generated using other 3D applications to form modular assets that were populated throughout the spot. Because of Houdini’s procedural nature, artists had flexibility to finesse every detail right down to the last minute, bringing everything together without requiring excessive kickbacks to upstream departments.
“Houdini's architecture in combination with Alembic provided us with a stable 'out of the box' pipeline that allowed things to be organized and sharable across the team” says Brian Burke, CG Supervisor. “Controlling and managing scene complexity was fairly straightforward and chaos-free”.
Houdini Fur Tools
This project involved a wide range of cute, furry creatures. Due to the scope of the project many of Method Studio’s artists found themselves working to develop a range of fur looks.
In preparation for this task they created a time-saving ‘grooming’ network template using Houdini’s Fur Tools in order to get these artists up and running right away. That same ‘grooming’ network was then used for the creation each animal’s individual fur look.
“We added a system for publishing versions of the final grooms, as well as a publishing system for fur dynamics using Wire simulations” says Corinne DeOrsay, TD/Lighter at Method. “This kept every asset neat and similarly organized and sped up the grooming and per-shot fur simulation dramatically”.
For the rocket launch sequence, the team created a procedural setup on one rocket to generate its trail curve and set a path for the volume container to align to. From there, the rockets could be wedged on the farm and within minutes they could generate trails for as many rockets as needed.
“For the launch shot we took advantage of the power of Houdini’s Pyro FX solver” remarks Jonathan Vaughn, Lead FX Artist. “We ran a couple of hero sims which were then instanced to provide a much denser effect. For the rocket trails and base launch smoke, we used Houdini’s Pyro FX clustering”.
To develop the cloud shots, initial shapes were setup and defined using metaballs. In later stages the clouds were sampled in CVEX, advected through noise patterns and then sculpted into clouds. In this process, artists were given an option to sample low resolution CVEX volumes if more accurate visualization was required in the viewport.
“This type of setup kept the scene light while providing Mantra with infinite volume detail” says Tomas Zaveckas, Lead FX Artist.
Because of Houdini's flexible workflow, Method Studios was able to develop a custom water surface deformer that could fit the project's needs in only a few days. The limitless combinations of deformation techniques available using vex operators (VOPs) along with the speed of compiled VEX execution allowed them to rapidly prototype a mesh deformation system without having to write a plugin, as necessary with other software packages.
“The immediate feedback we received by building the tool directly in Houdini allowed us to diagnose problems much quicker than if we were developing an external plugin“ explains Charles Trippe, Lead FX Artist.
Physically-Based Rendering (PBR) with Mantra
Kia Space Babies was the first major project finished by Method Studios that was completely rendered using Physically-Based Rendering (PBR). In past projects, particularly the ones involving fur and volume rendering, traditional rendering using the raytrace engine was required to deal with the massive geometric complexity of certain scenes.
In the spot’s 260-frame "Right Stuff" hero shot, the suits of the CG animals needed to precisely match the real suit worn by the live-action baby as they walked side by side. The diffuse light bouncing onto and between the characters enhanced the realism. In addition, the lighting team used area lights with physical attenuation and HDR light texture maps and projected HDR photos onto geometry to get the most realistic lighting possible.
“PBR global illumination was key in matching the lighting of the filmed elements and getting realistic light interaction” says FX Artist Nate Shaw.
PBR volume rendering was also indispensable for finishing the complex exhaust emitting from the rocket ship, rendering with global illumination and multi-scattering in the clouds. These were all effects that contributed to the overall ‘soft’ feel of Babylandia.
On previous jobs, these complex volumetric effects would have been achieved with point cloud based approximations or simple shadowless lights. The subtle realism that came from tracing these effects out properly with PBR added richness to all of the volumetric effects.
VFX Supervisor Andy Boyd summarizes “What stands out about Space Babies was that the work was so well executed across many disciplines, it was a huge collaboration between departments – everyone had their work cut out for them. Houdini's ability to manage lots data easily made it possible for the artists to work with complex scenes but stay focused on the art.”