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Houdini a Definite Presence at VFX 'Bake-Off'

Four of the seven features vying for the Best Visual Effects Oscar -- MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD (Asylum Visual Effects), PETER PAN (Digital Domain), THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING (Weta Digital) and X2 (Rhythm & Hues and Cinesite Hollywood) - all have one thing in common: Houdini.

Furthering the popularity of Houdini for building flexible and efficient effects pipelines in Hollywood event movies, these four movies will be competing in the annual Oscar VFX Bake-Off, which takes place the evening of Jan. 21 at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills, California. Films selected for the Oscar ballot will be announced on Jan. 27.

Digital Domain used Houdini-centered pipelines and proceduralism to complete several types of shots, including large ocean sequences, water interaction, weather effects and bubbles, on the fantastically envisioned PETER PAN. Houdini artists at Digital Domain realized the ocean replacement shots by maximizing Houdini's synergies with custom tools. Close-up water interaction and CG clouds were done by plugging in-house tools (a fluid simulation software and custom operator called Voxel B, respectively) into the powerful and open Houdini architecture.

"Houdini provides the efficiency to get large and complex jobs done on time and on budget due to the fact that you can build up pipelines for overlying categories of effects, like water interaction or splashes, and use those same pipelines to adapt and tweak elements shot to shot," said Digital Domain's director of technology, Darin Grant. "The openness and 'hooks' within Houdini mean any tools we develop can be plugged in and instantly presented to artists as just another integrated operator within the interface they're already used to. We also like Houdini because it provides easy access to Mantra, one of our renderers of choice. And, the high level of support and collaboration we get from Side Effects Software really transcends the typical vendor relationship."

Expanding its use of Houdini as the studio's primary commercial software package on X2, Rhythm & Hues used the software to model, animate and render an array of particle and volumetric effects, including engine thrusts, heat distortion and dust for the X-Jet, and elements such as snow, water, clouds, blood, debris and breaking glass. One of the facility's biggest tasks was creating nearly 100 individual "attack" tornadoes.

"By establishing pipelines in Houdini and using such features as digital assets, we were able to create distinctive effects and variations of effects very quickly and efficiently," commented Doug Bloom, Rhythm & Hues' Tornado Effects lead on X2. "For the dogfight scene, for instance, this allowed us to generate some 93 differently tweaked tornadoes for a single sequence. On a film like X2, this was imperative, not just for making our deadline, but also for enabling a higher level of creative direction of the effects."

Another X2 vendor, Cinesite Hollywood, used a Houdini effects and rendering pipeline to push the envelope for the creative realization of Nightcrawler's "BAMF" teleportation technique. This impressive effect, which highlights the movie's opening sequence, was done by instilling fluidic smoke-like behavior on Houdini particles so that they took on the characteristics of the actor's real motion and clothing before collapsing on themselves. Additional work completed by Cinesite artists using Houdini and Houdini Mantra ranged from Cyclops beams and CG fireballs to energy effects and explosions.

Weta Digital's wide range of work on THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING included digital water, water-edges and reflections accomplished by artists through Houdini on shots supporting the Gray Havens and Osgiliath sequences.

"Once again, we commend all of the visual effects artists whose artistic and technical abilities keep raising the bar of the craft from year to year," said Tony Cristiano, coo/vp of U.S. operations, Side Effects Software. "With the Houdini family of software, we also hope to help these artists continue to be as creative and efficient as possible even while meeting new industry challenges, such as higher shot counts, higher project volumes, larger and more complex productions and shrinking budgets. We're also enjoying a level of collaboration with our customers to help them more efficiently and effectively address their pipeline development needs."

Established in 1987, Side Effects Software ( is a world leader in the development of advanced 3D and 2D graphics and special effects software for use in film, broadcast and game development. Side Effects Software shines in the field of non-linear animation with its popular, award-winning Houdini technology. Side Effects has been recognized twice by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences for the development of Houdini, with a Scientific and Engineering Award in 2003 and a Technical Achievement Award in 1998.

The comprehensive Houdini animation software includes modeling, animation, character tools, particle and channel operations, compositing, integrated rendering with Houdini Mantra and more. All Houdini applications work together seamlessly and are available for the Windows, Linux, IRIX and Solaris operating systems.