For Example: Vue and Whiskytree

With credits on such films as Thor, Captain America, TRON: Legacy, Terminator: Salvation and several others since its inception in 2007, Whiskytree has developed an enviable reputation in the field of created environments. One of the tools making up Whiskytree’s arsenal in order to create natural landscapes and fantastical environments is e-on software’s Vue. But first we take a look at how Vue works in general with fxphd’s Wayne Robson.

What is Vue?

Vue is a professional tool for producing 3D environments. Vue itself has been used on films like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Sucker Punch, Kung Fu Panda, Indiana Jones IV, Alice in Wonderland and many more. Currently in version 10, the software is now well developed and mature.

Above: watch e-on software’s customer reel to see how Vue has been used on several recent projects.

Technically, the software uses a range of techniques to produce landscapes, which it then can add as additional models such as foliage, or atmospherics including clouds and skies.

Under the hood there are several key ways the program can create the base terrain, from procedural and imported data to Hyper Terrains with Hyper Textures, and HyperBlobs.

Procedural & standard terrains

At its simplest the program can generate a terrain, this is fixed in resolution and fully internally generated. It can also import DEM (digital elevation maps) which are real world mapping of land masses. For example, if you needed to build the Grand Canyon, DEM data would be available to drive this accurately.

A standard terrain is, to a large extent, baked to the resolution one builds them to, so the more detail the director needs, the higher the resolution one needs Vue to displace them. A procedural terrain, however, is resolution-less and will allow Vue to make its displacement finer and more detailed the closer the camera is to the mesh.

Procedural terrains (L) vs. a standard Vue terrain (R)

Both are driven by fractals and are to a large extent displacing either up or down from a 2D plane. Some experts such as Wayne Robson, who teaches Vue at fxphd.com, points out that a standard terrain responds better inside Vue to sculpting than a procedural terrain does, both clearly have their uses.  “A standard terrain renders faster as its resolution is baked in, whereas a procedural terrain takes longer as this is worked out at render time. For this reason it often makes more sense to use standard terrains further from the camera and procedurals (or procedurals baked to standard terrains ) near to where the camera will be.” Although, if one is doing a shot traveling over and close to mountains in the scene, then procedurals may be better due to the finer resolution of the mesh as it approaches the camera. “So procedural terrains can be thought of in a similar to LOD’s in games, albeit a far more complex version of this,” adds Robson.

HyperTerrains

HyperTerrains enable a user to get shapes that would ordinarily be either impossible or very difficult to achieve using a normal terrain or height map. One can make a very rough form using a section of one or many Vue primitives, then you convert them to a meta blob which creates a new form that encompasses all the selected primitives.  “Then by adding fractal displacement to it you get a more detailed shape by displacing this blob shape outwards,” explains Robson. Also, interestingly one can perform a Boolean operation during or after the blob process to get complex shapes before one even starts this stage.  The result can either be kept as ‘live displacement’ at render time or baked to actual polygons. The fractal used for displacement does not have to be the same for each primitive used in the blob, and one can vary these to give exactly the look required.
One of the biggest advantages of HyperTerrains is that it often gives a far more natural look than a simple fractal or even hand sculpting could. “Although there is nothing stopping you taking this HyperTerrain into a sculpting application such as Mudbox or Zbrush and refine this shape even further,” says Robson (who is also a well known Mudbox Autodesk awarded “Master”).

HyperTextures

Sometimes maintaining a sense of granularity can be difficult when dealing with a HyperTerrain, especially if one is breaking it down to an actual polygon mesh. A scene that uses a number of HyperTerrains can soon get heavy and harder to deal with. HyperTextures help to get around this to a very large degree. They allow one to take a mesh and then treat it as a sort of a balloon to contain the generated shape within it. The generated shape is a form of ‘volumetric procedural’ using 3D fractals to create a shape from within the shape that contains it. An advantage is this keeps things far less heavy to handle both while working on the file and at render time and can be used to create shapes that be far easier to set up and look amazing. “Think of it as creating a solid cloud that you can’t see through,” says Robson. “We can then add materials as needed. This is a much faster process at render time than HyperTerrains or standard displacement.”

Whereas a HyperTerrain displaces in mostly an outwards direction, a HyperTexture displaces within the boundary shape and not beyond it. One problem with HyperTextures is that it can sometimes create parts of the mesh that are disconnected from the main forms which can be a problem in production for moving shots.

Hyperblobs

To solve the HyperTexture ‘disconnected mesh’ problems, instead of using a simple primitive or MetaBlob, you can use a MetaBlob which has controls that allow you to keep the largest part inside of the target boundary.  One downfall to this is that it cannot be baked to an actual polygon mesh and so is an object that is stuck inside of just the Vue software, although still fast to render once the initial processing has taken place. Although, as long as no changes to the HyperBlob are made, it won’t need to be calculated again if one enables the ‘cache mesh between renders’ option.  The processing time depends on the density of the fractal used to drive it.

Rendering and export
Simple screen shot from Vue 10.

Finally, scenes need to be rendered and Vue works both with its own renderer and allows export to other pipelines. There is however one key aspect of Vue that is perhaps remarkable useful and unexpected useful. While most people would come to the product to generate terrain and then either render it or export it for external rendering, it is also possible to export HDRs from Vue, to aid in rendering other models or characters to have them integrate with a scene.

Vue allows HDR’s to be imported for use in rendering, but if a CG character needed to be render to be placed into a real NASA Mars Rover still flat 2D shot, it is possible to re-create the Mar’s landscape, match the conditions and then render a Global Illumination or HDR data set to feed into a third party renderer – this would allow the character to be rendered using a GI solution and then composited more accurately back with the original 2D photo, its lighting coming from Vue, via the HDR. The Vue scene may be used only for background wide shots, sky extensions or perhaps not even at all directly, but still provide a key technical lighting component, namely the HDR the artist would otherwise find hard to photographically obtain.

For more from Wayne Robson visit www.fxphd.com.

Whiskytree

To see how a user actually incorporates the software in production we spoke to three senior members of Whiskytree, an award-winning visual effects company, as part of our ‘For Example’ series.

fxg: Could you give a brief account of the work Whiskytree was set up to do?

Jonathan Harb (CEO and Creative Director): Whiskytree creates visual effects for feature film projects. While our bread and butter is visual effects for the silver screen, we frequently produce work that ends up on the web and in other digital mediums. We are also adept with art department and design skills, and our clients frequently rely on us for these skillsets.

Thor cyclorama.

fxg: Could you explain the approximate set of tools you use?

Votch Levi (computer graphics supervisor)
: Our lighting and rendering pipeline is based on XSI and Arnold. Vue assets are rendered in XSI/mental ray using the Vue xStream plugin. All renders are then output as OpenEXR and sent off to Nuke for compositing.

fxg: Could you outline an example of a shot you used Vue?

Susumu Yukuhiro (matte painting supervisor): For the last few years Vue has been an important part of our concept work. Vue increases our ability to quickly create multiple environmental design concepts with a photo-real sense of atmosphere and lighting. Unfortunately, our current list of projects utilizing Vue are still confidential and have not been announced to the public, but we can say that Vue has given us the ability to produce high quality paintings in a very short amount of time for each of our clients.

For the production of Thor we were able to conceptualize a cyclorama of Asgard using Vue (click here to download a 3.5mb version of the cyclorama). This allowed the client to see the general look of the city, and atmosphere. The artist rendered the mountains and the ground in Vue, combined rendered buildings from XSI, and finalized the painting with the additional touch ups on top.
 Normally this kind of work, even in the concept phase, could take quite a long time to produce but utilizing these great tools enabled us to work a lot faster than before.

A render from Whiskytree's work for Thor.

fxg: It seems these days the concept of a ‘matte painting’ is nearly fully been replaced by digital environment. Would you agree? Or does the technique of a matte painting projected over geo mean that a ‘traditional digital matte painting’ has as much relevance today as 10 or 15 years ago?

Yukuhiro: Yes, the concept of a matte painting has changed dramatically these days. If it was a 2D matte painting, it used to be mostly image-based and done almost entirely in Photoshop. For the last few years we have even started doing 2D locked off camera shots in 3D so that we have a lot more flexibility than we normally would have if we did it with a traditional matte painting.

We still do some additional touch-up in Photoshop on top of the 3D render, but thanks to the technological advancements the necessity for touch-up work is even becoming less and less nowadays. 
Image-based projection is definitely one of the quickest ways to achieve the photo-real environment and yet due to the high demand of the changes from the client, which we often receive, we use this technique much less than we used to.

CG elements in 'Salvation'
Final shot.

fxg: We think of Vue as great for Pirates 2 style green mountains/jungle, but you guys used it extensively on Terminator: Salvation, including the desert but also looking at a destroyed LA. Could you give an example or discuss an example of this ‘non-green jungle’ style shot use?

Yukuhiro: In T4, we didn’t have enough resources and time to build hundreds of the destroyed buildings, but
 Cornucopia3D (the site that sells hundreds of Vue assets) had extensive building libraries that we could use as the starting point.
 We modified those buildings and applied the grimy texture detail that made them appear as a part of the destruction aftermath.

Vue also was helpful to us when creating the look of the burned ground. It always takes some time to find the right look, or inspirational image to begin with, but instead of going through hours of reference hunting, we had a control with lighting and output size from Vue.
That element gave us 80% of what we needed and we did additional touch-up painting on top.

fxg: How do you find yourself using Vue assets? Do you use Vue xStream in conjunction with another app or solo for matte production?

Yukuhiro: There are so many great assets in Cornucopia3D and we wish we could use them more in our production. Since we do so much more full 3D shots that are tied with the Arnold renderer now, it unfortunately makes them very difficult to use.

fxg: Vue’s fractals provide a lot of power, do you find yourself using, for example, the rocky terrain fractal a lot or do you vary their use by project?

Yukuhiro: We’d love to explore that function but we haven’t had a chance just yet. I see many beautiful images being done using that feature and I can see how powerful it is.

fxg: Do you find yourself using more procedural textures in Vue or standard textures for non-terrain assets?

CG building elements for 'Salvation'.
Scene render.
Final shot.

Yukuhiro: Both. Some artists use more standard but some artists use the procedural and came up with pretty nice result.

fxg: Now the vegetation controls for ecosystems in Vue can populate an entire shot very quickly, for example with trees or plants. How do you ensure that you have enough variation to sell the shot to the viewer as real and not CGI? Do you find yourselves using the plant editor a lot?

Yukuhiro: When we do this kind of work, we make many varieties of assets, but when you are duplicating millions of them, you would still start seeing some duplicated patterns. We would normally render mattes for the tree leaves and color correct them in the comp to give a more subtle variety to the look.

fxg: Atmosphere in Vue can add quite a bit to render times, how do you cut down on this and do you use external apps to help with the main atmosphere for Vue shots.

Yukuhiro: We love how Vue renders a beautiful atmosphere, though we use the Arnold renderer for any moving camera shots and use Vue atmosphere for a still frame.

fxg: When matching the terrain of a reallocation are you using for example DEM (digital elevation maps) to help with this or some other data?

Yukuhiro: Yes, DEM is very helpful in generating very detailed and realistic geometry quickly.

fxg: Has Vue’s addition of HDR lighting been useful for you for matching to a shot at all or has this workflow produced any problems or things that surprised you?

Yukuhiro: No, we haven’t tried that feature yet.

fxg: When you’re importing or exporting, what formats do you find the most reliable for your pipeline? (as some apps do have a history of problems on importing a Vue OBJ for example).

Yukuhiro: OBJ is the format we use the most.

fxg: How are you handling the assets and shots at a composite level? What passes do you render out for compositing, and normally at what resolution?

Yukuhiro: The resolution depends on the shots. We normally render between 3-4k so that we have enough pixels to paint on top of. We always render with EXR format and we tend to render many separate passes for flexibility.

fxg: If you could have any new feature added to Vue from purely a production point of view what would it be?

Yukuhiro: Arnold support! (I know it’s not that easy though…)

fxg: Did you initially find yourself having any problems integrating Vue into your pipeline? Or was it a matter of rendering out bases upon which to paint over and build on? Yukuhiro: Yes and we still do. I wish we could seamlessly render the Vue assets in our current pipeline but since we use the Arnold renderer now, we need to treat the Vue assets separate from the others.

Terminator: Salvation images copyright © 2009 Warner Bros. Pictures. Thor images copyright © 2011 Paramount Pictures.

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