Exclusive Insights Interview with ScanlineVFX
- Independence Day Resurgence effects
- Flowline and thinkingParticles 6.0
ScanlineVFX Flowline, thinkingParticles 6.0 Reel 2016
ScanlineVFX.com VFX reel featuring work from major blockbusters.
In this segment, Cebas interviews Joe Scarr, TP FX Supervisor at ScanlineVFX Vancouver, on his FX Team’s superb work on IDR.
Cebas: Joe, thank you for taking the interview, how has 2014-2016 been for Scanline?
Joe/Scanline: Scanline is proud to have the opportunity to work on some of the most exciting and effects-heavy films in Hollywood and around the world.
In 2014 we delivered "300: Rise of an Empire", "Pompeii", "Divergent", "Captain America: The Winter Soldier", and "Exodus: Gods and Kings", and effects for two episodes of "Game of Thrones".
2015 saw creative work in "In the Heart of the Sea" and "Pan", and the technically-challenging "San Andreas" which helped us develop new technologies and workflows for massive-scale destruction scenes.
In 2016 so far, we've had a blast working on "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" and "Independence Day: Resurgence", and we are very excited about our current projects which include "Justice League", "Power Rangers", and "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2".
Cebas: An impressive list for sure, Joe, it will be a dream come true for the VFX community if we had time to talk about all of them :) For today, let's focus on some of the best, powerful shots from the "Independence Day: Resurgence" - VFX BREAKDOWN RELEASED December 20, 2016 and the original official trailer #2:
(1:04-1:18 - the wide city shot with tidal waves and buildings being sucked upwards)
Joe/Scanline: This is one of the Singapore shots where the massive gravitational effect of the mothership is pulling everything on Earth up into the sky.
Our entire FX team worked on this shot and it was one of the first big shots we pushed to deliver for the first IDR trailer during Superbowl, of which all the major FX shots were done by Scanline.
The water, smoke and dust were done with Flowline, our in-house simulation software, and the destruction of the buildings, ground, bridge and cars was done with Thinking Particles with a number of custom script operators and other tools.
Members of the FX team developed a system for pulling these buildings apart, which we customized per building to achieve a specific look. This is a common and effective workflow: build an open-ended template and then modify as needed.
This was a wonderful shot to work on because everyone played a part, and we were able to pack an incredible amount of FX into one shot.
Cebas: yes, that anti-gravitational shot was simply incredible, wasn’t it? And very innovative science :) and ‘what goes up must come down’: the 1:16-1:18 glass tower crashes down scene..
Joe/Scanline: When the mothership gravity engine turns off, everything that was torn upward begins to fall from the sky. This shot shows the Burj Kalifa building smashing into the ground in a multi-stage destruction as floors and structures are compacted.
This was achieved using the template from the Singapore shots, modified to meet the vision of the director. The system worked so well that the artist was able to import the asset, tweak the cage and iterate very quickly to hit the deadline.
The 1:20-1:25 - the ocean tidal wave VFX scene …
Joe/Scanline: This shot shows the tremendous power of Flowline and it's ability to handle not only complex simulation details but large-scale art-directed shots. It is an extremely versatile tool that continues to add new features and enhancements with every show we deliver.
And the 1:40 - Washington Hospital sequence - wall of debris
Joe/Scanline: As the mothership's toes pressed forward through the ground they churn up land, buildings and everything in its path, creating a leading-edge wave of debris and mayhem.
For this we used some control surfaces and populated a ton of debris particles on the front edge. Collisions were done in TP Bullet and we added extra small-scale debris with the new 6.3 FlowSolver.
What is interesting about this shot is that massive amount of debris were accomplished using an in-house instancing tool developed by our Pipeline team that uses the TP particle transform data and TP Data Channels to control which objects would appear and where.
This optimized rendering so much that we could add several extra layers of details with little impact on rendering RAM.
The 1:50 - wide shot of Washington and three toes landing
Joe/Scanline: This memorable shot was an early look-dev priority and we used a combination of tools to achieve the look.
As the mothership lands, it extends its legs and three toes which push into and scrape the Earth - shoving land masses and buildings as it digs in.
We prepared the broken chunks of ground using a custom mesh-cutting tool, used Rayfire to prepare those further, and brought them into TP and did some additional VolumeBreaking and used the SC solver for the collisions.
2:20 - Petronas Towers vs. London Bridge
Joe/Scanline: This massive shot shows the Petronas Towers falling from the sky and landing on London Bridge. Again, we used a combination of existing TP blackBox destruction systems and updated them to art-direct the action to meet our client's vision.
Cebas: we can only say wow, wow, wow… the effects were truly mind-blowing and after watching the trailer effects, it is so realistic that now when we look up the skies, this anxiety that some massive alien mothership is going to descend. Joe, from Scanline's point of view what would your FX team say are the top four FX movies where thinkingParticles contributed heavily?
"Independence Day: Resurgence"
"Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice"
"300: Rise of an Empire"
Cebas: Thanks! ScanlineVFX uses a rich set of software tools in their production pipeline to achieve state of the art visual effects. We understand it is an important quality of a software tool to allow for easy and simple integration into existing workflows and tools either created in-house or purchased.
Could you let us know how well did Cebas software integrate into your production pipeline? How did you extend the functionality to suit your specific VFX needs?
Joe/Scanline: Our primary Cebas product is thinkingParticles. We also have the stand-alone Volumebreaker plugin which is sometimes useful for mesh preparation.
Scanline's pipeline has evolved and strengthened heavily over the years, and our fantastic Pipeline team has integrated many tools and functions that enable us to do some truly incredible things with thinkingParticles. For instance, in one publish to the farm, we can send multiple jobs that are dependent upon each other, change operator or group values in between, create renders at various stages, and hand-off the result to the Lighting or Flowline departments.
Another great aspect of working with Cebas is the implementation of the Deadline "progress update" code in TP which allows us to see the percentage progress of a sim over time.
Lastly, our Pipeline and Flowline development teams have used the TP SDK to create an array of very powerful new operators and tools, one of which allows bi-directional communication between Flowline and TP - an incredible combination of VFX power.
Cebas: And how important is it to have a fully-procedural approach to VFX ? How do you use this to your advantage. How much time does it save when multiple iterations on an effects are needed?
Joe/Scanline: A procedural approach to VFX makes iterations easier when things like assets and animation changes. "Fully-procedural" can require additional setup time and can sometimes be slow to accommodate unforeseen changes. For this reason, we prefer to remain flexible and choose methods that emphasize a balance of speed, flexibility and ability to final shots at the highest quality.
Cebas: Not forgetting the fun part, what was the most fun or rewarding part of a project for the team, or is it chaotic fun?
Joe/Scanline: It is hard to say what the most fun or rewarding part is - this is probably unique to each person on the team. Many might say the opportunity to work on major Hollywood films and then seeing that work on the big screen. Another great aspect is how our FX teams and company overall are extremely helpful and share knowledge to create the best possible results - makes for a great atmosphere.
Cebas: In Scanline’s view, what is your wish for Cebas software to achieve that it is not currently doing for you?
Joe/Scanline: Cebas has created an exceptional tool with thinkingParticles and we appreciate working with them to improve its capabilities. Some things we would like to see improved:
-SnapshotAB and GeomContactAB operators (to work with two individual particles instead of groups)
-Per particle Fluid and Smoke properties
-Merge Pyrocluster capabilities with TP Smoke
-Add a deformation method similar to PFlow's "Particle Skinner"
-Better Bullet support and fixing Bullet bugs (implement latest SDK)
-Bullet cloth vertex color control to modify behavior per vertex
-improve the Spline and Bullet Rope solver results
-VolumeBreaker: better mesh topology with noise and proper vertex normals for smoothing groups
-VolumeBreaker: new cutting/boolean algorithms -- no one wants to see Voronoi anymore
-Add a FlowData operator that can output the current values for Density, Isolation, Pressure, etc.
-Add the ability to create single-frame caches of jointed particles that can then be added to new simulations.
Cebas: Thank you so much for the feedback, Joe, I think our dev team will have lots to do, on top of their lots to do :) Do you have any final comments you would like to share?
Joe/Scanline: Thinking Particles has been an incredible tool and we are happy to see Cebas push its development based on feedback from the VFX community. We hope the TP development roadmap will favor the difficult, high-end features that truly pushes the envelope. It's much better to be able to reach incredible results even if the features are difficult or slow, than to not be able to achieve it at all. We look forward to working with Cebas to deliver the highest-quality FX possible.
Cebas thanks Scanline, yourself and your amazing FX team for pushing TP to its creative visual effects limit. Through the years, this working relationship has truly helped build more and more highly developed, specialized new features. We are indeed honored to work with Joe and the FX team at ScanlineVFX.
Collection of candid quotes from the Scanline FX Artist Team
(for reason of work confidentiality, names will not be disclosed)
Senior VFX Artist #1
"I used TP for most of my shots on 'Independence Day: Resurgence'. This is definitely the tool of choice for rigid body destruction.
"I was lucky to work on some awesome close-up building destruction shots. Accuracy and stability were very important! For these shots I used SC instead of Bullet - sacrificing some speed but getting more accuracy in return.
"I would make sure to optimize my scenes. TP groups were kept to a minimum. I generally use Memory nodes and data channels for tagging particles.
"Being able to nest caches I could break up the simulation into stages. This way I wouldn't have to simulate everything at once and hope that it just somehow turned out perfect.
The usual approach to complex destruction shots would be to simulate the cage structure of the building, and then the larger sections of the building, moving on to smaller parts such as windows, frames and secondary debris.
"What I really like about TP's procedural workflow, is that over time you develop systems and black boxes for various situations. As they keep evolving and improving, you can really focus on the artistic and creative aspects of making an FX shot."
Senior VFX Artist #2
"In all this time and many projects, you’d find totally different FX between them (as different as in one show you need to blow out a building with reverse gravity, to another shot doing a system for controlling a crowd of fairies burning and reacting based on heat from a FumeFX simulation), but there is something in common. I can use multiple tools for all of them, but there is only one tool that I use across all the shots and systems, and this is Thinking Particles.
"Thinking Particles is my Swiss Army knife for FX. I can create with them any tool to solve any specific shot or problem. I don't feel any limitations to create whatever I want, and most important it is FAST. It's fast to sketch any tool to show how the effect will look to the supervisor, and then refine it more and more in successive iterations getting closer to the final version.
"TP's hierarchical cache options make it perfect for iterative sims where you refine and add detail on top of a previous cache, making it easy to art direct your sim. You start with a basic sim cache, on top of that you add more detail and you cache again, and on top of that you select procedurally or manually specific particles to correct undesired motion or bad behavior and then cache the 'final' version.
"I must say that TP has improved a lot since I started using it in version TP 4. We received major features like the extremely fast Bullet engine, ropes, splineControl, a smokeSolver, different Flow solvers, Geometry property access, a faster cache system, and the Analyzer, etc. I really like how flexible Thinking Particles is. For example, I'm using a lot in production now the new flowSolver, but I don't use it for what the you first think of (liquids). Instead, :) I'm using it as a substitute for Bullet or a deflector node, to simulate a lot of small details really fast. It's even faster than Bullet since you don't deal with geometry, and more versatile than a deflector since you can use any existing particle group as a Deflector. After the sim, I give every particle a debris mesh and I fake rotation on them, and you can have thousands of particles interacting with your RBD sim with close to real time feedback. I use this technique on the close-up shot of the building collapsing: I first did a sim with SC and VolumeBreaker activated by helpers, and from all cracks in a second sim I created a bunch of debris that interacted with the first RBD sim using the flowSolver.
"The big, new tools are cool but I will say that what I enjoy the most in TP is the small nodes that makes my life easier and improve the workflow. Now I always use LayerToParticle - I don't know any other plugin with integration this tight in 3ds Max. You first setup inside TP which 3ds Max layer is suppose to go to which TP group. This relationship is dynamic so once you setup this first relationship, after that any object you create or duplicate inside 3ds Max layer goes directly inside the TP group with its geometry and tracking motion, so you don't need to think again about picking them later - this saved me a lot of work!
"Other small gems I will say are Value to Value, the Math operator, and Egg Timer. Since they were introduced I haven't stopped using them and for sure, makes my life and dynamic sets easier, and this means I can work faster, iterate more, and in the end give better results.
"What I would like to see on the future? I would like on the new tools like FlowSolver or Softbodies more control, especially per particle values or per vertex control. I would like to see an overhaul of what TP is the king of: quality RBD solvers. The Shape Collision solver is one of the best solvers on the market, but can always be better, faster, more reliable, and integrate features similar to what we have now with Bullet where all properties are assigned as operators and not on directly on groups.
Improvements to VolumeBreaker would be very welcome, and I would like to see 3ds Max improve its access to third parties, so TP can improve viewport speed performance, etc."
VFX Artist #3
"Using TP for effects creation is essential. The whole procedural system acts as a Swiss Army knife for making almost all type of effects. They are outperforming other software packages with speed, stability and effectiveness. They allow us to build complex systems faster, so we can make more turnarounds and approach desired goals in shorter time.
A great benefit is that we can divide a complex system into smaller parts with the help of TP dynamic sets. Each dynamic set we can treat separately and store into the cache. On top of it we can build additional parts of system and still have fast feedback from the software which is very effective.
"With each new version TP provides new and updated tools which opens even faster ways to make different type of effects. On the other hand there is still space for improvement. For example they could have better access for shape manipulation or procedural modeling workflows and pay more attention to community feedback."
Cebas: Oh, Artist # 3 :) Cebas is definitely a user driven developer.
VFX Artist #4
"For the anti-gravity scenes in 'Independence Day: Resurgence', one of the main challenges was creating art-directed tears in the buildings. We used proprietary TP nodes to query custom attributes on objects to control things in TP such as joint strength, VolumeBreaker raster size, and all sorts of other things for the destruction. What was cool was being able to set up and see all these attributes visually before even opening TP, and it felt more like sculpting the effect instead of just running a sim and hoping for the best.
To add more randomness, the new ValueToValue node was indispensable as we could now easily create distributed values and have more refined random patterns in everything from debris size to Egg Timer frame values.
"Another new node that was really useful was the Snapshot node, since in some shots it was necessary to Fragment high-res building geo and make pieces crumble off. By being able to rebuild the unused frags back into a single mesh, we were able to reduce the caches by as much as 90% and speed up the simulation significantly.
"For things I'd like to see in TP, I'd love to see an improved Bullet solver and a more straight-forward approach to make Bullet sims work. This goes for rigid bodies, ropes, and soft bodies. It's such a great solver that often gets passed up because of the difficult setup, but there's a lot of potential there that seems untapped at this point. Also, the Snapshot node is great but we need Particle inputs so clustering becomes much simpler and optimized.
"The most fun part of working on the Scanline team is that everyone here isn't only extremely talented, but are willing to share their ideas and techniques with an understanding that we are all in it together. Even now after wrapping IDR, the R&D phase for the next films has been exciting and all sorts of interesting things are popping up in Shotgun every day. It feels like a constant progression, and the desire to always come up with better methods really pushes not only the artists but the work itself."
We cannot say how happy and how grateful Cebas is for finally getting ScanlineVFX to find that elusive time to share their team’s superb insights in a real day’s work on a major, major much-anticipated blockbuster like IDR.
We hope the team has enjoyed the Interview and we hope everyone involved in the work of mind-blowing visual effects have been gratified!
Cebas would like to thank especially ScanlineVFX's Scott Miller for his support and help in making this interview a reality. Needless to say to Joe Scarr and his FX Team - as well as those on vacation - thank-you all for being thinkingParticles valuable users!
The ScanlineVFX Flowline, TP 2016 Reel will also be showcased on http://www.youtube.com/cebasVT - you’re welcome to post constructive comments on how you find this Insights Interview. Thank you.