Wet Disney

For a spot promoting Disney’s ‘World of Color’ show, Motion Theory orchestrated fountains of colored water and light and mixed them with renditions of well-known Disney characters. We talk to MT’s vfx supe John Fragomeni and RealFlow lead Andy Cochrane about the techniques used for the commercial.

fxg: What were some of your early considerations in realising the spot?

Fragomeni: When the initial idea of a commercial for the Disney World of Color show was presented to Motion Theory, we knew up front that the strength in our pitch was that we operate as a design, visual effects and production company, so we were strong in creative as well as the technical delivery. Very early in pre-production, the directors, Mathew Cullen and Christopher Leone, along with our design team, lead by Rham Bhat, the agency and Disney conceptualized the spot to create the overall look for the commercial. As soon as I saw the concept work, I realised that it couldn’t be done as live action production with 3D enhancement. We were tasked with mixing animated Disney icons like Mickey Mouse – who was re-designed for the first time in 25 years – with a photo-real water show. We also established that we would rely on a mix between RealFlow and Houdini fluids to achieve our desired look.

Click here to see a finished quicktime movie

fxg: How far could you take any storyboards and previs?

Fragomeni: The boards were more like look frames – taking some of the Disney characters and realising them as water figures. The concepts were a little more glassy than what the end product ended up being, because really water behaves in such a random way. Scale was something we also had to address. As we worked through it in early R&D we fleshed out a lot of things in how the water would behave, such as using the characters as hold-outs and forcing water over the geometry. The concept also changed a little after we had gone to a sneak peek of the World of Color show. It blew our minds and really set the bar. That’s where we started to break up what was going to be RealFlow and what we would do as Houdini fluids.

click on any images for larger versions

fxg: What was involved in accessing or modeling the Disney character assets?

Fragomeni: All the 2D characters were modeled and match moved from either animation from Duck, or 2D animated or 3D animations. Mickey was actually animated for this project by Duck Studios, which Mathew Cullen and Chris Leone directed. The Mickey animation was supplied to us as pencil tests to commence our modeling and match move process, this then evolved to final lines, colors, tones and highlights which we lit and integrated in Nuke. The other 2D animated characters like Ariel were supplied as 2D sequences and we modeled and match moved them to create our fluid sims. Pixar supplied us with 3D models of Crush and Buzz which also involved the same process of using our models and match moves to drive our fluid simulations. In both cases Real Flow was used for fluid simulation and Houdini was used for final light and render.

Buzz as a realflow screen grab
Buzz as a water pass

The final frame

fxg: How did you then integrate those characters with the fluids and particles?

Fragomeni: Well, firstly, our previs, which was done in Maya, actually became the layout. We used those cameras from the previs and they became our hero final cameras. So the match-moves were modeled, rigged and animated in Maya to the Maya cameras. We then got the geometry from Maya over to Houdini. Sometimes you have to scale geometry up or down when it goes into RealFlow in order to have it at the right scale for the simulation engine, so all that geometry conforming was done in Houdini. We used dozens of different techniques for each of the characters – there were between at least five to ten different fluid simulations for each. All those different fluid sims were layered on top of each other and rendered together in Houdini all at once or in groups. What you’re seeing is no single technique at a single time, it’s a real mix.

Cochrane: There were actually over 150 simulations for this 30 second spot and I think we amassed about 12 terabytes of data.

Fragomeni: And that doesn’t include revisions and techniques that we didn’t use!


fxg: The fountain shots are pretty cool – how were they achieved?

Fragomeni: Any water or fluid that interacted with a character we decided was going to be RealFlow. Any of the additional spouts, mist or atmosphere was always going to be Houdini. In some cases, we actually built specific spouts for some of the scenes in RealFlow, but mostly they were done in Houdini.

Cochrane: We also used Houdini’s volumetrics system which is normally used for smoke and mist to augment almost all of the RealFlow spouts. We would take the RealFlow simulation into Houdini and do another pass to get the mist. So there was definitely a hand-off between the two packages.

Crush as a realflow screen grab
Crush as a water pass

The final frame

fxg: What were some of the challenges of using an early beta version of RealFlow 5?

Cochrane: When we started the project, RealFlow 5 was in its second to last beta. Throughout the project, we got one beta update and then release candidate 1 and finally release candidate 2. Then they actually shipped the product about a week before our final delivery. We were in constant contact with them, say early our morning or late our night as they are in Spain. They were great in solving any problems we came up against. Using beta software in production is normally quite nerve racking but there weren’t any real nail-biting moments on this one.

Simba as a realflow screen grab of part of one of the most complex shots
Simba as a water pass

wilderbeast simulation only
Just the Wilderbeast as a water pass

An early frame from the sequence
A later frame from the same sequence

fxg: How did you approach the rendering of the fluids?

Cochrane: The rendering was all done in Houdini through Mantra. When we started the project, the RealFlow Renderkit did not exist. I’ve used it for RenderMan and mental ray and we didn’t actually know there was going to be one for Mantra – we just assumed we would have to do it all with meshes. But about two weeks into our project they asked if we would be interested in seeing the extremely early pre-build / pre-alpha of the Renderkit. In the end they got it working in time for our project. So we were able to deliver the show in not even an alpha version. In fact, there was a week or two where it didn’t even do motion blur, but we had faith they would pull through, and they did. Traditionally you have to sim the particles and then mesh the particles so you can render the meshes, but the Renderkit does that for you at render time. When John says we had 12 terabytes of data, that was 12 terabytes of particles. We didn’t even have any meshes on this show. I think we would have had 20 terabytes if we used meshes.

Also, the water was actually rendered without colour. We rendered it as clear water using Houdini’s Physically Based Renderer (PBR). If you look at the raw elements, it’s almost black and white. All of the character textures and colours was done in the comp. If you look at the raw renders it was pretty monochromatic – still beautiful but all of the color is in the comp.

fxg: There’s also some nice interactive lighting with the characters. Was that a rendering or compositing approach?

Cochrane: If you look at Mickey in the spot, there’s a lot of great interactive lighting with a 3D look to it. That was the compositors. They were roto’ing color corrections to make the flat 2D animation feel 3D. Any time we had Mickey, we would have the fluid simulation react to a 3D match-move of him. When he stamps on those spouts in the beginning, we had a match-move of his feet and they are actually stamping on the RealFlow spout and stopping it. Some of the interaction was in the sim and some was compositing. For the shot of Simba with the wildebeest, there are 11 wildebeest each with their own splashes and Simba’s own simulations, plus interactive lighting.

click on any images for larger versions

fxg: There’s so much going on in this spot – I wonder whether there was ever a tendency to hold back on some of the color and action?

Fragomeni: Mathew Cullen and I talked early on about creating a world where the 2D characters live in a 3D environment, so to speak, which is a difficult thing to pull off. We were really conscious of that. We started R&D of the water first and then saw a sneak preview of the Water Color show. The next consideration was, because we were doing fluid sims and super-saturating contrast, that things might start to look fake. So we were challenged with the next hurdle of making it look photoreal and making the characters recognisable. Also, once we saw the show we realised that not every fountain or spout that went off appeared as water. They were shot up like mist sometimes and dissipated very quickly, so occasionally the water took on a different characteristics.

Cochrane: I think it can’t be said enough how impressed we were with the real show. It wasn’t just that the bar was set high – we had to take everything we were initially thinking much further. We needed to go bigger, brighter and more colorful than we were already even thinking. It’s an incredibly overwhelming show and after we saw it we thought, ‘Alright, they just brought their A game and we need to bring our even better A game’ to make this possible.


Client: Disney Destinations, LLC

Agency: mcgarrybowen
Executive Creative Directors: Ned Crowley, Jonathan Moore

Production/VFX Company: Motion Theory
Directors: Mathew Cullen, Christopher Leone
Executive Producer: Javier Jimenez
Creative Director: Mathew Cullen
VFX Supervisor: John Fragomeni
Art Director: Ram Bhat
Comp Supervisor: Andrew Ashton
Producer: Christina Caldwell
Designers: James Levy, Satomi Nagata
Illustrator: Carm Goode
Pre-visualization: Simon Dunsdon, Christopher Leone

RealFlow Lead: Andy Cochrane
RealFlow Artists: Jennifer Hachigian, Klaus Seitschek, Parker Sellers, Karen Smith
RealFlow Technical Consultant: Gustavo Sanchez Perez (Next Limit)
Houdini Lead: Marion Spates
Houdini Artists: Brandon Lester, Ahmed Hassan, Val Kharitonashvili, Klaus Seitschek, Tom Allen
3D Generalist: Parker Sellers
Modelers: Gil Hacco, Trevor Tuttle
Rigger: Gil Hacco
Matchmovers: Brandon Lester, Gil Hacco
AE Compositors: Aaron Frebowitz, TJ Sochor
Nuke Compositors: Krista Benson, Ryan Geist Bozajian, Rachel Keyte, Daniel Raschko
Matte Painters: Ram Bhat, Jason Dunn, George Fuentes (print), James Levy, Reina Sparks
Finishing: Danny Yoon
Rotoscope Artist: Megan Gaffney
Storyboard Artist: Yori Mochizuki
Production Manager/HR Director: Tina Van Delden
Production Coordinator: Paul Pianezza

2D Production: Duck Studios
Executive Producer: Mark Medernach
Producer: Dan Ridgers
Animator: Tony Bancroft
Digital I&P Technical Director: Kyle Borth

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