Making 2012

Sam Khorshid from Uncharted Territory talks to Cebas about working on Roland Emerich's latest movie, "2012". Possibly the most ambitious VFX movie to date.

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Cebas: I think it's safe to say that 2012 is the most highly anticipated VFX movie this year. Can you tell us how you were involved in the production of 2012?

Sam: On this show I had the unique opportunity to start during preproduction and work all the way through post. So I got the chance to get my grubby little mitts on many different aspects of the show. I worked on several previz layouts of the major VFX sequences, and look development for multiple large scale phenomena, including volcanoes exploding, buildings colliding, freeway collapses, and good ole general earthquake style mayhem! But our main area of responsibility was the limo ride through a earthquake ravaged Los Angeles. And the Atonov's flight through Vegas in the midst of being engulfed by a huge pyroclastic cloud.

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Cebas: Which shots in particular were you involved in?

Sam: The Bellagio Hotel collapse sequence, and the Pyroclastic clouds engulfing Vegas. I got to take these shot from previz all the way through to final. Its pretty exciting and rewarding to see the full progression of shots this massive and ambitious. It was a great challenge for me and I feel honored to be part of such a ground breaking (literally) project.

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Cebas: What Cebas software did you use in the production of 2012 and why?

Sam: Thinking Particles 4, Volume Breaker, and Final Render SE.

Due to the sheer number of dynamic, interacting systems, we needed a procedural solution. This show was too complex for each artist to work on a shot level. Thinking particles was the right fit for this task. The basis for our destruction pipeline was TPs integradted dynamics (shape collision) and rule based workflow coupled with final Render's fantastic instancing ability. volumeBreaker was specifically developed for 2012 along with the SC car (a dynamic rigid body car system within TP), a new robust joint system, a layered caching and retime, and new mesh handling tools for ingesting complex buildings into particle systems. What this allowed for is a world that dynamicly interacts with all of its elements, buildings reacting to earth upheavel, cars reacting to falling debris, everything interconnected.

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Cebas: How did you use our software to achieve the effects?

Sam: Thinking particles was at the heart of our destruction pipeline. If a structure was collapsing, breaking apart, or smashing through another it was driven by TP dynamics. Everything had to be procedural, we did not have time to hand craft each and every FX shot. We came up with a layered approach to this, and leveraged the caching methods in TP 4. So if a section of ground began to shake, the building atop would inherit that motion, and once a certain threshold was reached, it would begin to collapse. This would in turn generate dust particles that we would drive through a fluid simulation to create the "implosion dust" so characteristic of a falling and collapsing building. I designed all of our systems to work on this premise, but we also needed the ability at any point in the simulation to switch to a more art directable approach to satisfy the whims of capricious directors!

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Cebas: What features in particular helped you achieve your goal and how?

Sam: volumeBreaker really saved the day. We were getting bogged down with overly complex prebroken meshes, the modeling department was near to rioting as they grew frustrated hand cutting hundreds of buildings. All the existing procedural fragmentation methods produced inconsistent mesh quality or visually poor results.

When we got volumeBreaker it changed everything and allowed us to fragment objects based on definable rules. This allowed for greater artistic freedom because we were not locked in to using a pre-broken mesh, we could change and propagate the the pattern of fragmentation based on the progression of a buildings collapse, and only create extra geometry when needed.

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Cebas: What was the most difficult aspect of this project and how did you solve it?

Sam: The size and scale of everything was daunting, on a average show you might be asked to destroy a building, or blow up a gas station. On 2012 the freeway had to collapse, cars had to roll off the side, and smash into the gas station, which would then explode. All that happening within a several seconds. The key to success was creating tools and systems that took care of each task, instead of focusing on a shot level. This also allowed for the evolution of our tools, as each artist would complete a shot they would add a new feature, function or optimization to the tools used.

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Cebas: How did Cebas's software integrate into your production pipeline? Was this straightforward?

Sam: The 3D side of our pipeline was based on 3ds Max and cebas products, so straight away we were in good shape. This foundation was extended further by creating custom scripts and tools that worked with the pipeline we designed. Unfortunately integration with nuke on the compositing side was not so straight forward. This is another area where Cebas came through for us. Cebas developed a new EXR saver that allowed us to not only store all the render elements, but also to store camera and mesh data as well. Often enough super complex scenes were rendered out into a single EXRs that contain all of the information needed to isolate any object, add or adjust any render element, and create full 3d projects based on XYZ to UVW data. All of this was stored in one fancy new EXR.


Cebas: What was the most fun or rewarding part of this project for you?

Sam: The RnD phase of this project was fantastic, we got the chance to develop some amazing tools and methodologies.

I could spend the rest of my life researching and building methods to recreate natural and some not so natural phenomena!

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Cebas: What projects can we expect from you in the future? (Assuming you're able to tell us that is).

Sam: I'm currently the FX lead on Tim Burtons Alice for Cafe FX, a lighter touch on the FX ,but just as challenging, and just as fun!

See more of Sam's work at

Also, please visit Uncharted Territory

Cebas would like to thank Sam for taking the time to talk to us and provide us with images and videos from 2012. We would also like to thank Uncharted Territory for allowing Sam to talk about the making of 2012 and for releasing material to us. The VFX shots in 2012 are truly amazing, a huge amount of work produced in such a short space of time - they really do have to be seen to be believed.

A few notes on the products Sam mentions in his interview;

  • volumeBreaker is currently availble from the online shop.
  • ThinkingParticles 4 is currently in development and is not publicly available yet.
  • The EXR exporter is part of finalRender Stage-1 R3.0 (available in the online shop) and is also part of the Autodesk Connectivity Extension available to MAX 2010 subscribers.