The Wave of the Future – Small, Lean VFX Studios & a Kick-Ass Specialization!

With Troubled Times in the VFX Industry, a Small, Highly-Specialized Team of Artists May Just Have Carved a Niche to Not Only Survive, but to Excel!

Splash Garden, Fusion CI Studios, RealFlow Simulation, Maxwell Render

Fusion CI Studios, a boutique vfx house in LA & Vancouver, specializes exclusively in cg dynamic fx – water, fire, smoke, all kinds of particles & destruction fx. Renowned as a world expert in dynamic fx, co-founder, Mark Stasiuk , is sought by studios around the world to create photo-realistic fx work for commercials, television and major motion pictures – The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (opening title sequence), The Three Musketeers, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Gulliver’s Travels, National Treasure: Book of Secrets, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and The Guardian, to name a few. Along with co-founder, Lauren Millar, Stasiuk has created a visual effects studio with a unique working model that just may be the wave of the future. They’re about to celebrate 10 years in this troubled industry, so they must be doing something right!

Their niche specialist team provides indispensable support to fellow visual effects studios around the world by performing as an instant, plug ‘n play fx team, fitting seamlessly into most effects pipelines and enabling studios to deliver advanced effects work, cost-efficiently, without worrying about software, personnel or infrastructure stress. Fusion’s innovations lie in the proprietary tools (scripts), methods and technologies that Stasiuk, with a PhD in fluid dynamics, has developed over years that make typical fx software perform far better than usual. One happy client calls Fusion’s work the “crack-cocaine” of the vfx industry, he says it keeps him coming back for more. In this exclusive interview, Stasiuk offers insights into Fusion’s success & strategies for creating leading-edge effects as an innovative, highly-efficient boutique.

An Interview With VFX Supervisor

Mark Stasiuk, PhD

Co-Founder, Fusion CI Studios

Mark, by looking at your amazing reel you’d think yours would be one of the most talked about effects studios around, yet we don’t see Fusion CI Studios in the vfx news regularly – Why do you think that is?

We sort of operate under the radar I guess you could say. Most of our clients are not movie studios or creative agencies, rather they are other effects houses who are awarded shots requiring photo-realistic fluid or dynamic effects. We act as a resource for them, a service. CG fluids in particular continue to be really difficult to do well. Getting a realistic behavior and appearance for fluids requires dedicated research & development on a long-term basis and when studios only occasionally do fluids or effects work, it’s tough for them to get up to speed to produce high-end effects work within a limited timeframe and budget. As schedules and budgets shrink, this issue becomes more and more prominent. Because we specialize exclusively in dynamics, we’ve developed a stable of very advanced technologies and tools that deal with the typical problems inherent in fx work, and in cg fluids in particular. These tools allow us to create a much better look & natural behavior much faster than even very experienced effects artists can achieve. And we customize these tools to respond to our clients’ specific creative direction.
We work as our clients’ instant, plug ‘n play effects team and we fit really well into any studio’s pipeline. So we’re kind of absorbed into their studio. Many of our clients don’t usually disclose to their clients that Fusion is creating the effects, so our work is often uncredited and I guess that might be why you don’t hear too much about us.

Can you describe your ‘toolbox’ a bit more?

Fusion’s work is based on physics simulations, which give fx a particularly rich, organic look and a level of complexity and detail that you just can’t get any other way (except by maybe blowing up your own buildings). Our work over the years has consisted of a whole series of innovations, developed out of necessity because this area of vfx is so challenging – we’re always asked to create effects that aren’t fully covered by any of the off-the-shelf software. As a result, many of the effects Fusion has done have been “firsts” they haven’t been achieved before with off-the-shelf software. And have most typically been achieved through practical effects. Things like: large-scale fluid simulations, floods of water down a hallway, u/w explosions, hyper realistic rivulets of water draining down temple walls, air-entrainment trails underwater behind plunging bodies, and macro-style slow motion hyper-real splashes of paint and highly art-directable fluid morphing (which has had tens of thousands of hits on our Youtube channel.) Each one of these was a first in the field. You can see a list of some of the tools & plugins we’ve developed on our website in the r&d section.

We’re doing this by building custom functionality into off-the-shelf fluid solvers like RealFlow. For some of these effects, big studios like ILM have of course done them, but not with off-the-shelf software. In other cases, the effects themselves have not been done at all in the field, at least to our knowledge. So this illustrates a new and exciting path for the vfx industry that we’re on the cutting edge of – building proprietary innovation into off-the-shelf software packages. By not having to create our own physics solvers from scratch, we’re able to bypass a massive amount of overhead that’s taken on by teams of research scientists at large studios. Instead, we work with developers like Next Limit who are responsible for building the base solver that can be used by anybody. We then develop our own particular innovations that allow us to be first in the field and allows them to create entirely innovative and unique methods and phenomena. So Fusion can compete in terms of types of effects with any studio out there. This means that even a small studio can do ground-breaking work without having to rely on pre-fab effects in software packages.

Smokin’ Pot, Fume FX Simulation, Krakatoa Render

So you take all that innovation, and you work as an “instant, plug ‘n play effects team” for your clients. How does that work?

Once we decide to work together with a studio, we have a call or skype meeting to thoroughly go over what’s required and really clarify the look and behavior that the director & vfx sup require. Then our clients supply us with whatever 3D assets the effects will interact with and we work to create the effects. Through phone calls, secure ftp, email and cinesync sessions (a brilliant technology, by the way!), we’re in constant communication with our clients, providing them with wips as we go along, getting feedback and revising, just as if we were their effects department down the hall in their own facility. We work that way with clients around the world from LA to the UK to Australia to Japan. One of the advantages of this approach for our clients is that our project bids are all-inclusive. So long as there are no major creative changes along the way that alter the scope of work, we hold to our quote and that helps our clients keep strict control on their budgets. Really important in the complex world of vfx where artist hours can go crazy when productions hit technical hurdles. And now that budgets are really squeezed beyond belief, it’s nice to be able to count on something.
We create simulations for our clients to light/comp and finish, or we can light and comp; we’re flexible according to whatever our clients prefer. Oh, and our core tools are Maya, 3ds Max, RealFlow, Houdini, Fume FX & Krakatoa and Maxwell, so we can easily work with most studios.

Swirling, Colliding CG Paint Simulations for Shilo, NYC. Valspar Paint.

There appears to be a strong tendency for many vfx studios to want to do everything in-house, especially once they reach a certain size, many studios feel it’s more cost-efficient to have everything under one roof. How does that affect your working model?

I’ve seen the pendulum swing back and forth on that one and it does seem to be swinging now toward having everything under one roof, particularly because there’s so much uncertainty in the industry right now, there seems to be a ‘circle the wagons’ mentality. Strangely enough, Fusion did really well during the recession because studios were being careful with their resources; rather than wasting money and time trying to create effects that were complex and unpredictable, they went with the sure bet and reached out to us to create the effects for them. That way, they could be certain that for the same cost as hiring effects artists to work in-house, they could hire us to create the effects and they didn’t have to worry about finding the right artists, using their infrastructure, buying additional software, etc. With the industry changing in unpredictable ways now, we’re seeing more studios wanting to have effects artists work in-house, but I can’t see how that’s more cost efficient for them than hiring us. I think it has more to do with wanting to be regarded as a one stop shop in a competitive cg market. There are always studios needing our help with effects work and we’re more than happy to be there for them. I think creating our own area of expertise, then collaborating with others on work that’s outside our area of expertise is the smart way to go and given the state of the vfx industry now, it might be the way of the future – stay lean, stay focused and collaborate – combine your resources to make something better than either could do individually.

You’re world renowned for your cg fluids work. The things you make RealFlow do with your python scripting are amazing, like the fluid morphing in the Whole Water Project, I love that one. But Fusion isn’t just about cg fluids, your studio specializes in dynamic effects. Can you tell us what projects you worked on that do not involve cg fluids work?

It’s funny you should mention Whole Water, that was several years ago now and we still often get that piece sent to us by clients as reference for how they want their creative to look. They’re very pleasantly surprised when they learn we created the morphing & the fluid simulations for The Department of Motion Graphics in Australia. Still one of our favorite clients to this day.

I think a Burn Notice promo on the USA Network was our break-out piece for dynamic effects work. That was the first time we got a lot of interest and feedback in that area. We worked with Go Film in Hollywood, a brilliant director, Andrews Jenkins, and an outstanding vfx supervisor, Eric Rosenfeld. It was a huge challenge to execute Andrews’s creative vision. Each element, including the actors, were laid in as separate comp elements and all had to be choreographed in reverse to make sure all the deadly effects — explosions, debris, bullets whizzing by — would not have someone walking right thru them. It was a lot more difficult to sort out than you might think.

CG Smoke, Fire, Destruction FX & Water, for Go Film, LA. Burn Notice, USA Network

After that we worked with Method Studios in Santa Monica to create a promo for Canon’s Imagin8ion Project -the contest to inspire Ron Howard’s next film. Method did an outstanding job on that piece and they reached out to us to create fire, smoke, and water effects for a couple of shots.

Those two projects really launched awareness of our dynamics work and we’ve gotten lots of destruction fx & fire & smoke in commercials, games, phone apps & films since then.

One of our greatest recent accomplishments with cg water was interestingly not for feature film work where we’ve typically do a lot of grand-scale cg water, but for a television series. Zoic reached out to us to create ocean simulations to combine with practical water shot in a wave tank for a stormy ocean scene in ABC’s Once Upon A Time, The Stranger episode. Zoic filmed a raft scene with a live-action Geppetto and a cg Pinocchio and needed the surrounding stormy ocean and waves hitting the raft to be cg. Geppetto and Pinocchio were also being stalked by a giant cg whale so Fusion needed to generate massive streams of water draining off the whale as it dove and surfaced and also make the whale’s skin appear wet & shiny. The challenge was creating these massive-scale sims on a tight tv schedule & budget. And despite the constraints, the creative called for photo-realism of course. But this is the kind of thing we really rock at, and we had a solid foundation of tools to build on, so we were able to optimize sim times and develop some amazing efficiencies. There’s a pretty detailed case study about that on Fusion’s blog. Zoic was nominated for a VES award and an Emmy for the effects in that episode, so we were pretty happy to have been part of their team.

ABC’s Once Upon A Time – Ocean FX Sequence for Zoic Studios-
Monstro’s cg tail flipping massive volumes of water

I see we’ve dipped back into water again…

Yes, sorry, occupational hazard! It’s what people associate us with and we’re trying to help our clients realize we specialize in a much broader area, so I should be careful about that! Actually most of the work we’ve been doing lately for game trailers and television series have been fire & smoke & destruction effects. We’re working on a massive explosion for a tv series directed by a very well-known feature film director, so the team is stoked about that. And we’ve been working on helicopter explosions and building destruction for a very popular game that’s about to launch. Our team loves blowing things up!

I understand Fusion CI Studios is weeks away from celebrating 10 years in the business! Congratulations, a great accomplishment, especially in these troubled times for vfx. What do you see ahead for you and the vfx industry?

Well that’s an interesting question… We’ve developed a very specific vfx niche where we excel that’s appealing to a wide range of clients – we work on commercials, game trailers, phone apps, art-installations, websites, television series, and motion pictures, so we’ve really diversified and kept our studio alive and thriving. Our willingness to share our dynamic fx expertise with any studio that wants to work together to make their product stronger has been a good working model for us. We don’t have grand designs to expand, in fact, we’ve fought against it. We want to be a lean, mean, specialist team that has a lot of fun doing what we’re doing and churns out great work. And we have some fun internal projects we’re working on to release for our 10th Anniversary, so keep in touch about that!

Small studios can specialize in areas of their expertise and still work on really amazing high-end projects which normally would go exclusively to the larger studios with their proprietary software. Provided you have some expertise you can leverage, you’re able to compete for some very advanced work.

Our work has been an inspiration for a lot of groups – like students and other artists who have used our on-line r&d resources for a lot of their project work. In addition, other artists, for example in the Houdini and RealFlow communities have seen our proprietary work as an inspiration that many have emulated and we’ve even influenced the development of RealFlow, for example, as Next Limit has used equivalent versions of our developments to add to new versions of RF.

Thanks Mark, that’s excellent, congratulations again on your 10 years in the business and we look forward to seeing more outstanding fx work from Fusion!

Fusion CI Studios specializes exclusively in dynamic fx for television, commercials, game trailers, art-installations and motion pictures, acting as a plug ‘n play fx team for vfx studios who need to expand their fx capacity & creating customized fx tools for their clients to achieve challenging, leading-edge fx.

310-928-1483 LA
604-673-6790 Vancouver

ABC’s Once Upon A Time – Stormy Ocean FX Case Study

Client: Zoic

Project:  Once Upon A Time, The Stranger Episode

When Zoic approached Fusion CI Studios to create a very challenging stormy ocean sequence for ABC’s Once Upon A Time, The Stranger episode, there were a lot of excited fluids artists here in the house! We love ocean work and even the rigorous demands of a tv schedule couldn’t dissuade anyone from jumping on board.

The final scene:

The episode received both an Emmy and a VES award nomination, so it’s a great example of how near film quality fx work is penetrating series tv. In the sequence, Gepetto and Pinocchio attempt to navigate stormy ocean waters while stalked by Monstro, a giant whale. This kind of sequence would be out of reach for many studios, but Zoic is no stranger to doling out high quality VFX on crazy episodic tv schedules, having built a pipeline around the extreme demands of series television. And Fusion, with its extensive experience with fluid fx on any scale and schedule, has a well-developed suite of tools and methods for creating oceanic fluid fx – honing its expertise on films like:

The Guardian

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

As well as a vast array of commercial & installation projects needing ocean fx.

As a team, Fusion and Zoic were perfectly suited to pumping out this sequence.

A real Gepetto on a real raft in a wave tank. The ocean surface tight to the raft is practical, with cg water beyond that.

Not all the effects were CG. The real Gepetto spent what must’ve been an arduous shoot, standing on a raft in a small wave tank, being buffetted by fans, water sprays and the occasional bucket-full of water. The practical fx gave Zoic real water in the immediate vicinity and in contact with the raft, and interacting with Gepetto. Even tho the wave tank’s surface did not approach the stormy character that was needed for the finished shot, it created a small patch of high detail reality around the raft and meant that Fusion wouldn’t need to create that water. This of course meant that Zoic’s compositing department had to blend together the wave tank surface near the raft with the more turbulent CG ocean surface.

Ok, let’s have a look at how some of the cg fluid fx were put together. We’ll also highlight how the project was managed, which is a big part of how these kinds of fx could be completed on schedule.

Ocean Surface Assets

While the Zoic team refined the animation of the giant CG whale, Fusion focused on working up a stormy ocean surface. The first decision to be made was that Fusion would create a single re-useable or “generic” ocean surface that could tile into the distance as needed for a particular shot, so that Zoic could use and re-use the surface for whatever shot in the sequence made it to the locked edit. In order to do this, the team had to commit to leaving out any true physical interaction between the ocean surface and the raft or the whale, in order to avoid having to generate a custom surface for each shot. By “interaction”, we mean ripple-type wave generation on the surface generated by interaction with geometry. This was a solid decision for efficiency but also safe from the physics perspective because if you watch real objects at the surface in stormy conditions there’s almost always very little visible interaction of this kind, and most of what you see are things like splashes and waterline foam — both of which could be generated on an as-needed basis using Fusion’s ocean fx tools on a generic ocean surface. In practice this also meant that the Zoic team took care with camera and geometry placement to avoid seeing waterline contacts so the whole topic of interaction could be neatly side-stepped. This is the kind of team decision that really helps move a project forward and avoids repetitive and costly looping back into the production pipeline for negligible gain in the final visuals.

A single tile of the CG ocean surface used throughout the sequence.

Fusion’s team set about building an ocean surface that would meet the needs of the shots, making it menacing and “sharp” and heaving, with lots of detail at the 10-cm wavelength and including towering ocean swells and a lot of horizontal displacement, but not so crazy that it would make Zoic’s animation and camera work nightmarish. For this we used RealFlow’s RealWave system, which for these kinds of shots is extremely effective and allows you to generate a surface that is art-directable, highly detailed, fast to sim, and tiles seamlessly so you can create wide ocean shots easily. The team decided to shorten the ocean swell wavelengths to enhance the steepness of the ocean and make it move more rapidly, which for the low camera angles in most of the shots would still look natural. Zoic’s creative director Andrew Orloff then signed off on the look of the surface — here’s a playblast showing a single tile:

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And here’s  render of a small collection of tiles, with simple physically-based lighting and a cloudy sky background dropped in, showing that the tiles can form a large expanse of ocean:

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The approval of the ocean surface kicked off another flurry of activity with Zoic’s animators placing cameras and CG raft and whale on the surface to meet the story’s needs, while Fusion’s team set about creating a number of whitewater hero wave crests to dress up the surface, making it even more scary and realistic and providing an opportunity for some custom interaction with geometry such as a wave “hit” on the raft in the opening shot.

A few hero wave crests on the ocean surface tile.

The hero wave crests were generated using a rig that Fusion’s VFX Supervisor Mark Stasiuk built for previous ocean work, although for this project it was updated to automate some of the rig setup and implement Fusion’s Smorganic tool ( to help fill out the fluid volume. The wave crest rig is conceptually simple and designed to create open (deep) ocean breaking waves rather than coastal (shallow) surfer-style breaking waves. Deep ocean wave crests are more like wind-triggered collapses of water from steep wave tops, and behave much like avalanches of snow. The rig consists of a source emitter that follows tightly in behind a wave crest, shooting at it’s lee slope just beind the high point of the wave. The fluid from this emitter is actually set to not interact with the wave surface, instead going right thru and hitting a piece of guiding geometry just below the surface. On contact with the guiding geo, the fluid is switched to another emitter which represents the actual whitewater, and bounces off the guiding geo to emerge from the wave as wave crest fluid. By adjusting things like the emission speed of the source emitter, angle of the guiding geo and a variety of scripted controls to enhance different components of the wave crest fluid’s velocity on creation, we can go a long way to controlling the look of the wave crest. The setup is built this way to give the user a maximum amount of art direction control, since we found that just letting the fluid do it’s own thing rarely satisfies a director’s vision and these wave crests are typically a big part of the storytelling in particular shots — such as the opening shot where the camera moves in on the raft just as it is hit by a wave crest.

Getting a wave crest to behave itself perfectly naturally for a given ocean surface is a tweaky thing and can be quite time consuming, especially if the wave shape is very sharp and rapidly changing with time. This tweaky nature is often the down side of making an effect very art directable. The most tweaky part is the moment when the wave crest initiates, where it tends to look a little too much like fluid is simply jetting out of the wave surface, altho immediately after emerging the crests look quite natural:

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And the wave crest fluid also had the advantage of forming quite realistic surface foam patches after the emission part of the cresting behavior ended, as you can see in this top view playblast:

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Here the team again made a smart decision since there was no shot where we needed to show any foreground cresting activity as it initiates. When used in the background and with lots of stormy atmosphere applied in comp, the cresting elements looked fine so their slightly unnatural startup wasn’t an issue there either. This again allowed things to move forward quickly, avoiding spending a lot of time tweaking simulations just for a good look in the first 15 frames of a 150 frame sim.

A custom wave crest, designed to hit the raft with a specific timing, direction and shape

A little more care had to be applied to the custom wave crest in the opening shot, since it was not only very visible in the shot but also important to the story. For this, Zoic first placed the raft in the general position on the ocean surface and indicated which wave should crest and hit the raft:

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Then while Zoic’s team refined the raft and character animation, Fusion worked up a low res wave crest sim for prelim comments — initial results like this being used for timing and size comments but otherwise looking distinctly unimpressive to anybody not familiar with fluid simulations:

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But after a few tweaks and turning up the detail level / particle count (the fluid resolution), that sim above becomes much more appealing:

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Soaking Pinocchio

One drenched CG Pinocchio, complete with CG water streaming off him and a mix of cg & practical “rain”.

In a close-up shot showing the CG Pinocchio on the raft, Zoic planned to comp in practical rain and spray elements — having gotten lots of footage while blasting poor old Gepetto on set — but they needed to make Pinocchio really feel like he was in the driving rain of a storm. That is, the CG character had to get really wet. For this task, the Fusion team was able to use an in-house “streaming” tool, used to make fluid either stream off surfaces or simply wet them, but without having to actually throw fluid at them in the first place. Prior to developing the tool we had done lots of wetting of objects by jetting / splashing / spraying but it was never controllable enough and we always found we were simming a lot more water than we really needed. That becomes time consuming and expensive.

So we developed a tool that distributes fluid as evenly as desired onto a painted-on poly selection, allowing artists to control exactly where an object gets wet, allowing for art direction at the same time as avoiding problematic locations where the character’s geo interpenetrates and produces ugly fluid behavior. As the fluid is generated, it inherits as much of the motion of the geometry as desired to give a really nice physical “lock” into the motion of Pinocchio, and that plus a little wind gives Pinocchio a major soaker. By wetting geometry this way, we not only get a lot of control on the look but also don’t need to generate any sort of environmental sim like falling rain, which wasn’t needed anyway so would’ve been a waste of time (and money).

This tool also includes smorganic, so as the fluid splashes or is blown off Pinocchio it can form stringy shapes that snap apart into droplets. An early version on temp character animation shows how this looks more like gooey drool when smorganic is turned up too high (oops!): 

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But once the setting is tuned-up it generates a very natural looking dripping water effect, seen here on final animation:

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Selling a Whale

Monstro’s tail flipping up as he dives. Numerous CG water elements were added to give enough detail / scale to sell Monstro’s huge size.

In this sequence the hero element is clearly Monstro the whale, a massively large character that had to feel like it was displacing some serious water not only to look like it was interacting with the ocean surface (which it wasn’t), but also to give it the right sense of scale — and scariness. In fluid fx, you can approximately equate scale with detail — a little splash of water is generally simpler in form than a giant splash. So making Monstro feel big and powerful meant pouring on the water in a big way.

There were 3 main shots where Monstro is the star, and for each of these Fusion applied a combination of a splash setup similar to the wave crest rig described above, and also used the streaming tool extensively.

In shot 7, we see Monstro’s tail flip up and slide down as he dives below the surface, a classic whale movement. For this shot we really had to work the water elements: since there was no other spatial reference for scale, the water and ocean surface were the only way to tell that Monstro is monstrous. To do this Fusion generated the water in 3 parts: streaming water off the tail geo, a splash around the base of the tail as it drives forward, and a splash off the end of the tail as it flips up. Key to the look was keeping gravity fairly low to reduce the descent speed of the water and give the illusion of great size. A single pass of the streaming water gave good results but wasn’t voluminous enough:

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But once the gravity settings were tuned up we cranked out 3 passes of high res streaming sims to get some serious water volume:

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And that along with the tail base and tail end splashes, and it feels like that’s one big whale. The particle counts were sufficiently high that playblasts of the action make it difficult to see what’s happening in detail:

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The next Monstro shot (shot 12) was one where he does the classic shark-like “swim by”, to take a close look at his prey before pouncing. In this shot he surfaces and moves past camera, just behind the raft, and we see one of his huge eyes peering at Gepetto and Pinocchio.

Monstro ‘spy-hops’ past Gepetto to take a close look at his prey.

The challenge here was just how close Monstro gets to camera, filling frame. So not only is he huge, but he’s really close — for cg water, this means a lot of detail and tight interaction with Monstro’s geometry. For this shot we adapted the streaming tool, adding in camera-dependent clipping so as Monstro’s geometry leaves view, the streaming fluid from that geometry shuts off. And, any fluid that leaves camera view gets killed off as well.

A perspective view of the streaming water on Monstro’s skin, showing how it was limited to what was in view.

We went to this trouble so we could put all our simmed fluid on screen instead of spending computational time simming hidden water. Unfortunately we did have to give the fluid some time prior to coming into view, since the nicest looking streaming action took a little time to develop as the fluid poured down Monstro’s surface. You can see in the playblasts run from other views, the sort of flow development taking place:

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We quickly realized that a big part of what would be in shot was Monstro’s mouth, specifically his giant scary teeth, so we added some elements of streaming water coming off his teeth and gums to make it feel more like there was water gushing thru his mouth:

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And once all the elements were put toghether with the final animation, they looked like this:

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In the final major shot with Monstro (shot 52), where he pounces on the raft, he makes an extremely fast move — which if you consider his size is truly extreme in its motion. This is a great example of where art direction has a big influence on fluid fx and how you have to be able to adapt to what’s needed in a shot, even if what’s happening isn’t really physically right.

Monstro lunging at the raft, with tons of CG water streaming off him.

You can see the extreme motion of Monstro in this perspective view (not from the shot camera), where you also see a set of our streaming water elements coming off his teeth and gums:

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Had we generated elements that were more physically realistic, we’d have not only generated such vigorous splashes and spray as to conceal Monstro from camera but also totally swamp out the raft before Monstro ever got to it. Instead we toned down the splashing and spray activity and pushed all the elements back over Monstro’s geo to avoid it splashing forward onto the raft.

For splashes around his waterline, especially at his leading edge where he bulldozes thru the water toward the raft, we used a splash rig which is an adaptation of our hero wave crest rig. In this case we use an array of emitters (green fluid in the low-res sim playblast below), and on contact with Monstro’s geo the fluid is switched to a “splash emitter”, which is the actual splash that is later rendered. This is a great rig for customized, high volume splashes, altho it does require animating the array of emitters to follow the geo. The advantage tho, is that you don’t have to sim a giant pool of fluid around the character, and you get tremendous control on the look of the splashes:

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After turning up the fluid resolution and adding in a pass of spray, we get the playblast below, now from the shot camera: 

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After making some final adjustments to the splash elements and generating streaming fluid off Monstro’s head, we get this final playblast where we’ve set the particle size to be really tiny so you can see a bit more of what’s going on:

[hana-flv-player video=”” width=”640″ description=”” player=”5″ autoload=”true” autoplay=”false” loop=”false” autorewind=”true” /]

High-End VFX for Episodics

The fluid fx on this episode are a great example of how tough, high end vfx can be done on an episodic schedule. Just 2 or 3 years ago we would never have tried this — but as our tools have improved, and studios like Zoic have gained experience and built a better episodic-capable pipeline, it has become…. well, definitely not easy, but at least not something that makes you question your sanity.

It’s important though, to keep in mind that you still can’t dive into this kind of project without solid backing. Our tools have been developed and evolved over years of project work, so there were very few technical unknowns. Zoic’s pipeline is similarly tested, so there’s no lack of hardware or people resources there to handle the wide range of CG tasks like camera tracking, roto, matchmoving, modeling, animation, texturing, lighting, rendering and compositing. We’re laying all this out there to appreciate what’s involved in this stuff, since it’s easy to get overly focused on just your little piece of the machine. If you don’t have this kind of muscle to back you up, it’s important to not take on these kinds of projects or you run some serious risks.

The final component we didn’t mention is just as important as the other parts: project management. The success of the work reflected smart decisions on the part of the project’s creative and management team to simplify on less visually important aspects — such as leaving out interaction between CG characters and the ocean surface — and also maintain a disciplined schedule of client approvals on components of the work. Character modeling and animation was accelerated and client approvals were won very early in the production schedule, so there were little to no changes in models and animation after the time Fusion got to work on the fluids. This meant that Fusion’s artists were working with final or very nearly final animations and cameras almost from day 1, preventing wasteful looping back in the fx pipeline from late stage animation changes, and optimizing the results on screen.

Congratulations to the Zoic team on a fantastic job!

Renuage Brandy – A Fluid Simulation Case Study

RealFlow & Smorganic – a marriage made in cg heaven!

Fluid elements we created for a Renuage Brandy spot. When we create generic elements for our clients, it gives them multiple options to develop the look they want.

When Trizz (Barcelona) approached Fusion with concept art for a Renuage Brandy tvc, we could see the need for our ‘‘smorganic’© tool written all over it!  The spot was beautifully conceived by creative director Oriol Puig, very dramatic and moody, demanding gorgeous, thin, delicate splashes and highly art-directed, complex performances from cg fluids. The cg splashes needed forces applied so the fluid would behave very specifically while still looking sensuous and natural.  Even the tendrils and droplets off the delicate splash work had to comply with specific art-direction.  Fusion’s fx team was very excited by the challenge as we have developed a number of in-house tools here, like our ‘‘smorganic’©, that are ideal for this kind of detailed, complex work. Smorganic© :

Before we really get into the case study, have a look at the finished director’s cut from Trizz’s Vimeo channel.

While the concept was unique and inviting, the practical parameters of schedule and budget were not.  As is more and more common in vfx these days, tremendously complex work is expected on very limited timelines and budgets… but that’s a whole other article! The schedule allowed only 4 weeks to deliver 18 challenging fluid elements. Fortunately however, we’ve done enough fluid projects that Fusion’s VFX Supervisor Mark Stasiuk was able to determine that each of the 18 elements bore at least some slight resemblance to elements we had done for past projects, giving us advanced starting points so we would at least be able to get out fairly quick first versions after doing some rapid adaptation. The team at Trizz were very helpful in that regard, because they knew there were a lot of shots, a lot of elements, to be created. They were happy to take Fusion’s elements and see how they could be manipulated, layered into shots, re-used as background elements, as well as to alter camera to extract the best possible shot from the element. In most cases Fusion was able to create elements that Trizz’s creative director Oriol Puig was happy with after 10 or fewer internal sim versions, which in the world of simulation fx is definitely on the low end.

In this detailed case study, we’ll go thru each of the elements to illustrate 1)methodology, 2) the creative and technical process of artistic fluid simulation, and 3) we’ll show the full length versions of some of these beautiful digital creations. We like to think of them as dynamic sculptures!

A wip of the vanilla flower in the Renuage spot, created from several of Fusion’s fluid elements along with lighting fx done in post.

In all these simulations, Fusion applied its proprietary suite of ‘‘smorganic’© tools — the toolset that inspired Next Limit to develop their broadly similar tool called the “sheeter daemon”.  The concept behind these tools is simple; it’s used to fill-in undesirable gaps (swiss-cheese holes) that develop in the particle cloud which prevent the user from creating the classic sheeted mid-air splashes that we’re all so used to seeing as reference for our simulation work.

Fusion’s toolset has been continually evolving since we created ‘‘smorganic’© in 2009, giving us added control on many aspects of art-directed splashes.  We can set dynamic thresholds on when the fluids are allowed to break apart, what parts of them break apart, and the character of the break-up. We’re able to generate not only smooth, infinitely stable un-broken sheets of fluid but also ‘paint on’ regions at their margins where narrow tendrils are generated, and ‘paint on’ areas where fluid break-up starts. Some of these tools were first introduced in our work with Shilo (NYC) on their beautifully creative Valspar paint project — and you can see a case study on that here in this blog, see the menu on the right.

For the Renuage project, we brought together a wide variety of simulation setups from past projects that were broadly similar to what was needed, did rapid adaptation of the sim setups, flow shapes and guiding forces, upgraded the ‘smorganic’© code to the most evolved version, and then added custom scripts where needed to gain additional control to meet Trizz’s art direction as best we could in the time available.

There are 2 key steps to getting going on a shot’s fluid sim work, which are especially important in these kinds of high concept projects. First, you have to spend some time “boiling down” the needs of the shots, stripping away all the tiny details and layers that are desired, to finally understand the core, base element that is needed as the centerpiece. Very often it’s hard to understand what the most important element is — it’s size, shape and behavior. Usually you can safely over-simplify it to some extent at least as a starting point, for example by visualizing it with some basic proxy geometry. It’s important not to jump right into trying simulations before understanding what’s really needed, otherwise you can waste a lot of time on details that turn out to be unimportant.

Once you’ve got a good idea of what the shot needs in its simplest form, you move naturally to step 2 — develop the simplest possible version of the simulation setup, or method. Figure out what is the simplest way to make the fluid behave like you need it to. Simple is very important, because as the work progresses and we need to get more and more details and art-direction into the element, the complexity of the sim always increases. If you start off with a complex sim, it very quickly becomes so complex that it is unmanageable and the time to revise your elements goes thru the roof. In sims like those in the Renuage project, we usually start off with just some interacting geometry, an emitter, and 2 or 3 forces — usually some combination of drag, gravity and noise.

OK so let’s now look thru the Renuage simulations…

The Droplet Sequence…

The drop sequence, showing the droplet shooting over the fluid surface, generating a splashy wake.

The first major sequence of the spot we called the “Droplet” sequence because it followed a single droplet coming out of a splash of brandy. To do this, Oriol and Mark decided on a workflow that would not over-constrain the fluid behavior but still give ample opportunity for specific art direction. Fusion developed a specific kind of splash meant to feel like the end part of a small ocean wave crashing on a beach but well after the initial violent crash, and more toward the part where the surge of water from the wave is turbulently flooding up the beach and over the top of the water from the previous wave. Once the splash element was done, the Trizz team then selected a point in the splash and animated a sphere representing the hero droplet as tho it was arising from the splash, coming up thru the splash. They handed this animation back to Fusion, and we coated the droplet geo in fluid particles and meshed it together with the splash simulation to create a seamless element.

Final mesh of the drop sequence, showing the flat splashing element and the droplets just after emerging.

Now back to the splash. At first this element sounds a little complicated but we boiled it down to creating 2 fluid emission rigs that would generate slightly noisy sheets of fluid, and simply shoot one at the other to create the turbulence and interaction. A playblast of the final sim shows the rigs in our setup:

[hana-flv-player video=”” width=”640″ description=”” player=”5″ autoload=”true” autoplay=”false” loop=”false” autorewind=”true” /]

At first glance this would seem to lack any way of really generating the needed fluid turbulence, but we knew it would work because of a few past projects — the Epic Mickey game trailer project where we worked with Zoic ( ), and also the Beckham Plunge fragrance project where we worked with ReelFX/Radium ( ).

For the Beckham spot in particular, we generated a very interesting, turbulent splash by simply dropping a layer of fluid onto another layer of fluid. The turbulent feeling to the splash motion comes from the particle-particle interactions, much like you’d expect from dropping a sheet of marbles onto a floor covered in marbles. If you dropped the marbles straight onto the floor, they’d mostly bounce straight back up. But if they hit other marbles, they’ll bounce off in a wild variety of directions. Doing that with ‘smorganic’© turned on so the fluid doesn’t break apart, and you get the sorts of contorted shapes you are wanting.

The only challenge then was controlling the violence of the splashing. The simplest single parameter was just how fast we shot the one fluid toward the other. This of course changed the speed of the action but we could dial that back and forth using the fps of the simulation.

You can see in our particle playblast that we use a very particular fluid emission rig, consisting of a sort of “scoop” of smooth geometry to guide the fluid, plus a bounded drag force to calm the fluid down as it hits the scoop and usually another force, say a bounded gravity or a d-spline, to squash the fluid against the scoop. This rig creates a smooth fluid sheet. This basic concept of having a fluid emission source rig is something we use in almost all our sims to get “nice” fluid as it enters our shots. It’s something we’d encourage all sim artists to do since the “raw” fluid particle cloud as it comes out of the emitter, is always a fairly sparse set of particles with limited particle-particle interaction. This is done on purpose so the fluid will emit stably, but it does not make for nice looking emission. So we apply some kind of rig to push the particles against each other in some sensible way for the shot.

You can see the end result fluid element here after Trizz hand-animated the hero droplet and handed by the animation for us to coat the geo and re-mesh:

[hana-flv-player video=”” width=”640″ description=”” player=”5″ autoload=”true” autoplay=”false” loop=”false” autorewind=”true” /]

For the next shot, there’s a change in camera to a side view to show the hero droplet flying over the surface of the fluid and generating a splashy wake, a little like you’d expect from the air turbulence of a fighter jet flying low over the water. The concept in the commercial is that this brandy has some serious power, like an energy aura.

Initially we tried creating a custom (scripted) force field to generate the splash wake but that turned out to be a little tougher to do than expected, and it was clearly going to take some extra effort to get it working. While we mulled the problem, Oriol did some creative thinking using the accumulating library of elements they were getting from us on other shots, and found that placing 2 copies of our splash elements from the Vanilla Flower sequence (see next section) on their sides and partially submerged below the flat surface of fluid, created a look approaching what he wanted. He showed us and that got us going on a new and simpler track.

Final mesh of the wake elements for the drop sequence, showing a view from the rear of the wake showing their wing-like, curving forms.

So armed with that concept, Fusion adapted the splash sim setup from the Vanilla Flower sequence to create 2 customized splashes for the droplet wake. We adjusted the behavior of the tendrils more to Oriol’s liking, and also added a scripted force that would bend the splash over as it got higher from the fluid plane, the goal being to have the 2 splashes making up the wake, and have them spread out wing-like to give the wake a more interesting character. The scripted force field is the kind of thing we often use to get that little extra control for sculpting fluids. It often takes just a few minutes to create — consisting in this case of less than 20 lines of Python code — but gives you absolute control on the distribution of forces. We usually find that the native force daemons, altho tremendously useful in a lot of situations and always the first thing we try, just don’t have sufficient control on the fall-off of their forces to meet the needs of highly art-directed elements. You can see a playblast of the meshes for the final versions of these elements here:

[hana-flv-player video=”” width=”640″ description=”” player=”5″ autoload=”true” autoplay=”false” loop=”false” autorewind=”true” /]

The Vanilla Flower Sequence…

Another view of the vanilla flower created from a group of fluid elements along with some lighting fx done in post.

 In this sequence the idea was to create a splash that resembled a vanilla flower, from which (eventually) springs another hero droplet. Fusion has done lots of fluid morphing on projects in the past but in this case Trizz’s CD Oriol Puig wanted a more abstract look rather than a literal morph. This is a great example of bringing together a number of relatively simple fluid elements to create a highly complex, detailed look, and is our favourite part of the commercial.

Here’s a playblast of the particles from the final versions of the sims all put together into approximately the vanilla flower configuration to illustrate the concept:

[hana-flv-player video=”” width=”640″ description=”” player=”5″ autoload=”true” autoplay=”false” loop=”false” autorewind=”true” /]

And here’s a playblast of the meshes showing something closer to what was used in the commercial:

[hana-flv-player video=”” width=”640″ description=”” player=”5″ autoload=”true” autoplay=”false” loop=”false” autorewind=”true” /]

First, for the flower petals Oriol wanted a few separate splashes to make up the petals and the action needed to feel a little like the flower was opening. For this we fell back to our mid-air splash rig, which was described in the previous section and has been developed over many projects, with settings and experience really developed thru Zoic’s Epic Mickey project where we generated hundreds of “throws” of paint with all sorts of shapes. In this case we created not so much “throws” of fluid as fountains, shooting up and arching over under the influence of simple gravity.

The 2 key aspects to making these elements feel natural was to get the marginal tendrils feeling right (number, spacing, length, thickness), and to get the right level of noisiness in the emission. It’s crucial when making mid-air throws of fluid that you really do nothing to them after they’ve launched, except maybe pull them down with gravity and maybe a tiny amount of noise. Any other significant force makes them immediately feel unnatural and defeats the whole exercise.

What that means is you have to get the fluid launch conditions just right to get what you want downstream. You have to launch off tendrils of just the right size and vigor at the point of the launch, and you have to wiggle the scoop and pulse the emission just enough to add a pleasing, not overly chaotic irregularity to the flow. Since you aren’t applying any other forces downstream, and the fluid has momentum, any irregularity you introduce in the fluid at the launch point continues to grow throughout the sim. So there’s a very carefully determined zone of settings that give you the right sort of natural, attractive irregularity while maintaining form and structure, and if you wander out of that zone you get….well basically you get a big mess.

In the center of all this splash activity, Oriol needed to have a little crown splash and a little pillar of fluid rising up out of it, with which a descending droplet would collide. We broke these out into separate elements for added control.

For the crown splash, at the time of the project we actually had relatively few options. By the way, by “crown splash” I mean the classic tiny splashes you get when a droplet of fluid falls onto a calm pool surface and generates a crown-shaped, thin-walled splash whose rim emanates a set of little tendrils. We had in our methods library a nice crown splash setup ( ), but that setup is quite simple and limited in control, and also in its resulting splash, and doesn’t incorporate our more evolved version of ‘smorganic’©, nor does it allow for those all-important tendrils.

Fortunately, in this case, we could get away without seeing the origin of the splash, so we used an adapted version of our splash rig to generate the crown by using a hemisphere as the guiding geo instead of the scoop, and emitting into the bottom of the hemisphere so the fluid would shoot up the walls and out the open top. We then painted on tendril locations along the leading edge of the splash and we had a nice, if highly simplified, crown splash. Worked into the shot with all the other layers of splashes and 2D fx, this worked well even if it it isn’t as realistic as we’d like to have created. But it’s a good example of how a simplified method can work well for a shot and really help you out when the schedule is short.

The fact that we didn’t really have as good a crown splash method as we would’ve liked, and the fact that we keep getting asked to do these kinds of splashes (!), put the heat under our team to start developing a better crown splash method. This is actually in progress even as we write this case study; you can see an example of where we’re at here:

[hana-flv-player video=”” width=”640″ description=”” player=”5″ autoload=”true” autoplay=”false” loop=”false” autorewind=”true” /]

We’ll follow up with another case study on crown splashes once that r&d is further along!

The last element for this sequence was the “pillar impact”, where an upward moving pillar of fluid gets hit by a downward moving droplet. The idea here was to reproduce the look where there is a stream of descending droplets in a line, each droplet generating a crown splash, and each crown splash ends with a “back splash” where a little, single pillar of fluid comes up, just in time for the next falling droplet to hit it.

Again this sounds pretty complicated, but we had already done something a little bit similar working with Shilo on the Valspar paint project, mentioned earlier. In fact in this case, because we only had to generate a natural reaction to the collision, the element could be made much simpler than the Valspar element where the resulting splash was sculpted into a spinning sort of umbrella of fluid. See commercial:

[hana-flv-player video=”” width=”640″ description=”” player=”5″ autoload=”true” autoplay=”false” loop=”false” autorewind=”true” /]

For this element, we created an upward moving pillar of high surface tension fluid by simply emitting from a circle emitter and squeezing the fluid gently with a d-spline right after emission. We created a descending droplet directly above the pillar with a sphere emitter and simply let them hit each other, and with ‘smorganic’© turned on the result was a sort of mushroom-shaped splash very similar to what happens in nature. You see this element especially well in the particle playblast of the elements, linked to above.

The Walnut Sequence…

The bursting-style splash of the walnut sequence, another cluster of independently-generated fluid elements.

The walnut sequence is another example of simulating elements separately and bringing them together to make them look like a single coherent element. In this sequence a sort of bursting splash happens, and from its center appears a droplet that is shaped like a walnut. Here’s a playblast showing the meshes of all the final elements, put together in the approximate configuration to illustrate the concept:

[hana-flv-player video=”” width=”640″ description=”” player=”5″ autoload=”true” autoplay=”false” loop=”false” autorewind=”true” /]

The first set of elements, for the “burst”, were sets of splashes done similarly to the vanilla flower petal splashes, but with a different shape to feel like they were more explosive and also enclosing something (the walnut). For these we were able to fairly simply adapt the vanilla flower simulation setup, which gave us quick results.

The inner burst element was designed to be something more like the crown splash of the vanilla flower, but to spread out and open up a bit trumpet-like. For this one we adapted our setup for the vanilla flower’s crown splash and added a scripted daemon that acted as a repulsor in the center of the crown and allowed us to carefully control the falloff of the repulsion force so we could sculpt the form of the trumpet-like section.

For the next 3 elements, the Trizz team provided us with the animated geometry of the walnut. As the walnut appears, it had to look like it was a sort of bulge on the end of a tendril of splashing fluid, so in the frames prior to the shot starting we pushed the walnut’s geometry into a little container of fluid, made the geometry sticky, and then as the walnut animated up and away the fluid simply stuck to it. With ‘smorganic’© on, we could keep the tendril continuous and unbroken until we wanted it to break away and release the walnut.

For the walnut itself, we started by using the coating / morphing technology we developed originally for our Whole Water project with The Department of Motion Graphics (New Zealand) ( ) and then evolved to a more advanced functionality in our Frey Chocolate projects with Asylum (Santa Monica) ( ). This technology is conceptually simple but quite challenging to implement. Basically we run a calculation that tightly “fits” fluid onto the polys of an object, so the first challenge is calculating that fit for each and every polygon no matter the aspect ratio of the triangular face. Once a fluid particle has its place on the geometry, we calculate axes on each poly face and record each particle’s position in poly face space, and stick each particle to its assigned position so the geometry can be animated and can even deform significantly without breaking the fluid coating. In this case there was only slight deformation, but mostly what we had to do was get very high detail definition in the fluid coating because the walnut has a finely wrinkled surface. That simply meant getting the fit of the fluid coating very tight, using very high res fluid.

The fluid walnut, made of a sim that coats the walnut geo meshed together with a sim of fluid streaming and dripping off the walnut geo.

The final touch was an element of dripping fluid from the walnut. The walnut just being a fluid coating on the walnut geo wouldn’t read as a fluid shaped like a walnut, but rather would look like a not very well defined walnut. This is simply because the fluid making the shape isn’t really moving in a fluidal way. If the walnut was shown actually forming from the fluid then the dripping wouldn’t be needed, but in this case when the walnut first appears, it’s already fully formed. By adding dripping fluid, we could re-establish that we’re actually looking at fluid. To do this we used our ‘streaming’ technology.

It’s interesting looking back on how these kinds of specialized technologies came about. One of the things we emphasize in our work is the adaptation of previous methods and the constant improvement of them wherever possible, which means we can keep r&d periods very short — usually a few days — but our tools are always evolving and improving. The streaming  tool was actually an offshoot of our morphing technology — in this case, instead of creating an even coating of fluid over the entire surface of an object, a small fraction of polys are randomly selected on each frame during the sim to receive a coating. And instead of sticking the fluid to a particular location, once the fluid is created on the poly face it’s released (after inheriting some fraction of the poly’s motion) to slide down the geometry and stream off. Because this method was adapted from existing technology, we were able to re-use big chunks of challenging code — the calculation for fitting fluid on poly faces — and so get the streaming to work very quickly.

A simple version of the streaming technology was actually first used in our Whole Water morphing project ( ) to get extra water pouring off the morphed shapes, but it’s been continuously improved and had controls added over a long list of projects, with probably the most important ones being our work with Baked Beans of the Netherlands ( ), our work with Zoic on the Emmy and VES nominated Once Upon a Time’s episode “The Stranger” ( ) and our work with Blur on the title sequence of the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (case study with links to clips: ).

The Wave Sequence…

In last shot of the commercial, revealing the product, we were tasked with creating a sort of vertical, sheeted splash of fluid that would fill frame, then break up into tiny droplets in some attractive and cool way, revealing the product bottle behind the splash.

It all sounded very simple conceptually but we knew from the outset that this would be the most challenging element to make look beautiful and elegant. Technically it’s straightforward to do, we just create a sheet of fluid that’s kept coherent using ‘smorganic’©, and then turn off ‘smorganic’© at some moment and let the fluid break up naturally. But in practice, this doesn’t get anything remotely elegant or attractive. Eventually the fluid would form little droplets but there’d be a long period between it being a sheet and droplets when it would look very ugly — like some kind of weird webbing or a sheet of swiss-cheese. Let’s call this intermediate break-up period the “webbed” zone.

We had run into this problem on a variety of previous projects where fluid had to break up and had developed a force field that would break the fluid up from specific locations that you could specify, a similar action to what you see in slow-motion footage of paint sheets flying thru the air. The best example of the use of this method was in the Valspar paint spot where we worked with Shilo. For that effect however, the break-up was pushed hard to happen fast and quite explosively, so we’d see as little of that ugly “webbed” zone as possible — for example see this WIP clip:

[hana-flv-player video=”” width=”640″ description=”” player=”5″ autoload=”true” autoplay=”false” loop=”false” autorewind=”true” /]

In the case of the Renuage project the challenge was increased because the fluid break-up was the hero moment and everyone really wanted to see that event clearly. So, early in the project, in order to give ourselves as much time as possible for development, we implemented the Valspar fluid break-up on the Renuage splash sheet, but it just didn’t look good enough. We could see too much of the “webbed” zone. I remember having a call with the creative director Oriol Puig, who had shown his wife a WIP of the whole spot the night before and she had been really impressed with everything until it got to the very last shot, when she said something along the lines of “yuck what’s that?”. Here’s that original element in a playblast:

[hana-flv-player video=”” width=”640″ description=”” player=”5″ autoload=”true” autoplay=”false” loop=”false” autorewind=”true” /]

We had a suspicion this would happen so we were actively pursuing a few parallel lines of development to get a different look to the break-up, trying to shorten the time when the fluid looked webbed, or remove the webbed part of the fluid:

[hana-flv-player video=”” width=”640″ description=”” player=”5″ autoload=”true” autoplay=”false” loop=”false” autorewind=”true” /]

Or remove the webbed part but leave some tiny droplets to feel like “spritz” or “spray”:

[hana-flv-player video=”” width=”640″ description=”” player=”5″ autoload=”true” autoplay=”false” loop=”false” autorewind=”true” /]

Or push it out of the way:

[hana-flv-player video=”” width=”640″ description=”” player=”5″ autoload=”true” autoplay=”false” loop=”false” autorewind=”true” /]

All of which were not really attractive nor what was wanted. But could make for a cool effect in a sci-fi film!

As you might imagine from the various trials, long hours of r&d went into this problem without fully solving it, altho by the end we had worked out a “theoretical” algorithm that we think is likely to work, with the only problem that the mathematics are a little tough to implement and it’s bound to run very slowly since it’ll involve a few nested loops over the fluid particles. In the end we simply ran out of time without being able to quite get this to work as we all wanted it to, but the Trizz team came up with a solution where they just minimized how much of this fluid break-up you could see, and that worked out sufficiently well to finish the spot — using one of the earliest trials of the elements (ugh!). That’s life in fx work!

This element is a good example of how something in VFX can appear fully possible to do, and may indeed be possible to do, but if the budget doesn’t allow the artist time or the schedule is too short, it ends up being practically impossible. Often the results aren’t fully predictable even if you’re experienced with the type of effect. This is where it’s extremely important to communicate clearly the risks with your client and to nurture a relationship with them that allows for creative flexibility, so when you run into these technical challenges the group can put their heads together and make a creative change that’s tolerable to the client and evades requiring a full technical solution. We think you’ll all agree that the final version of the Renuage spot shows how beautiful the results can be despite challenges along the way.

Composing with Fluid Elements…

On heavily art-directed projects, one of the things we emphasize with our clients are the advantages of building up shots with independently-generated fluid sims. So basically you break up all the shapes you want in the shot into different sims, each one of which is far easier to create than doing it all in one, and then you have separate control on each part which helps tremendously with revisions and hitting creative targets. For our clients, this approach also means they can compose and re-compose elements without a need to re-sim. Over the course of a project, a library of fluid elements gets built which can be used not only in the shots in which they were intended, but also to fill out other shots with background and extreme foreground elements to add depth. The Trizz team used this approach to great advantage in the Renuage project, allowing them to build up complex shots quickly and cutting down on the total number of unique sims by a dramatic margin.

Another advantage to this “generic library” approach is that the same elements can be used not only in completely different shots, but also in completely different projects. We put some rough lighting tests together showing how flexible this approach can be, see below:








Fluid Simulation Case Study: Valspar Paint Commercial

Valspar Love Your Color

Valspar Commercial:

When Shilo, NYC, approached Fusion CI Studios to create some highly art-directed, abstract fluid behaviors for a Valspar paint commercial, we jumped at the chance to work with their highly creative team.  The concept was a unique, beautiful and extremely challenging performance for fluid simulations, which had to blend together believably with practical paint.  The kind of effect Shilo was looking for has not been done before in RealFlow, so it was an opportunity to once again push the bounds of the software in an endeavor that was more performance-art for cg fluids than any commercial we’ve ever worked on.

In this spot, droplets of paint fall through air from a paint brush, colliding in mid-air to create splashes of paint that  then morph into complex spiralling shapes, again colliding in mid-air to reform into a droplet which falls with a delicate splash into a paint can.

Heart Morph

The .15 second spot required a descending paint droplet to morph into a heart shape, the icon symbol of the spot, with trailing tendrils and droplets, then re-morph  into a paint droplet which then cut with a practical droplet splashing into a bucket of paint.

The main challenge of this effect was that the fluid simulation was forced to perform in quite unnatural ways to meet the creative, yet still had to look as “organic” and realistic as possible, as if it really was a drop of paint falling through air, colliding with other droplets in space and ultimately forming a heart with lovely tendrils and droplets trailing behind.

To create this effect, the Fusion team opted to simulate the fluid motion, not actually falling through space, but sitting in place and behaving as though it was interacting with air-drag as it fell.  The cg team at Shilo modeled geometry of the heart and animated ripples across the surface to meet the exacting creative desired by the client.  Fusion’s team then morphed fluid to this geometry applying our smorganic tools to keep the fluid smooth and unbroken and the shape changed from a rounded droplet to the expanded heart form.

Movie of a heart morphing test:
Movie of final heart morphing:

Fusion also developed a scripted droplet generator which created additional fluid within the morphed fluid that was permitted to “leak” out of the heart under a specific set of forces that emulated the effects of air-drag.  The droplet methodology had to be controllable enough to allow the Fusion artists to paint on locations of droplets and also to control very specifically the lengths of the tendrils before the pulled apart and got pulled away vertically into space.

Droplet Impact

For the .30 second spot, the creative was even more complex and beautiful.  This version introduced a third challenging effect — 2 droplets would collide in space, merging upon impact, swirling outward to form a concave downward umbrella structure which would then burst apart in a controllable way.  Don’t try this at home.  The original intent was to shoot this practically.  This is a great example of where cg can really help in these kinds of spots where control and specific art-direction is needed.  If you imagine how hard it would be to shoot 2 tiny droplets of paint at each other and hit each other in an aesthetically appealing way, you see the crux of the problem.  Never mind trying to get all the other exotic behaviors that happen after the collision. To create this effect, Fusion created 2 droplets of fluid and was able to do a precision launch of the droplets so they’d impact in a very precise way, just off center from each other.  This meant that the initial impact could be designed to create a splash that was already flattened and oriented in the direction of a vortex force field.

two droplets about to collide in space




Mid-Air Collision / Merging Droplets
Forming Umbrella Structure






Movie of a “droplet impact” test:

The team then used an adapted version of the vortex force field developed for the tentacle swirl above so that we could swirl the fluid outward and then instead of pulling tentacles upward, we pulled the edges of the entire swirling sheet downward to give us and umbrella like shape.  We then scripted an add-on to our “smorganic” toolset, allowing us to paint specific spots on the fluid sheet  where tiny explosive forces would happen momentarily to burst the fluid away from those points and generate the explosive degradation of the fluid sheet.  And finally, we used our standard smorganic tool to paint on locations on the margins of the sheet

to generate tendrils and droplets.  Once everything was put together, the overall effect was both very natural looking and quite spectacular.

Final droplet Impact movie:

Droplet Swirl

For the next shot, “droplet swirl,” the Fusion team had to create an animated, mid-air sculpture essentially.  It was clear from the beginning that the only way to approach this was to abandon the native set of tools for forces in RF and build from scratch a force field that would sculpt the fluid into the shapes and the motion required by the creative.  The fluid needed to form a swirling vortex that would develop a set of arms or tentacles that would stretch outward then upward, spiraling around the center the entire time.  Fortunately, Fusion has its smorganic tool set which would prevent fluid from breaking up and allow us to add on droplets and tendrils coming off the margins of the tentacles, so it was really just a matter of creating a force field that would pull the fluid into a “tentacley” shape.  Easy, right?!  Fusion’s team set about designing a custom vortex field where we could use key framed curves as mappings to horizontal distance from the center of the vortex and vertical distance above the vortex.


 Early test of the collision /swirling/ reintegrating

Final images, swirling droplets, from Valspar Commercial

This gave Fusion’s artists an extreme level of control in the character of the swirl above and radially away from the center of the droplet.  Next, to create the tentacles, we introduced a sub population of particles which would have a controllable variation on the vortex force-field strength.  And we created a method where we could paint on the areas where these particles would be selected.

So basically, where we painted on the fluid, those particles would have stronger vortex forces applied to them and they would pull away from the rest of the fluid, forming tentacles. Getting the variations in the tentacles was a matter of having painted on the particles which gave us a high level of control so that when the creative director let us know that the tentacles needed to be wider, narrow, or have more variation in size, we could implement the changes in a straightforward way.

In the actual spot, the tentacles had to spin out, away and up. And then with time, merge into a central tail above the droplet.  This was a matter of changing with time the vortex forces on the tentacles and droplets.  Finally, two of these

Final Droplet Impact Movie:

‘tentacle swirls’ had to be right beside one another and then toward the end of the shot, collide and merge together in a highly appealing way.  Rather than trying to have this happen by true physical interaction which would have broken up the sculptural look, the team chose to take 2 different sims of the swirls, animate the particle sets in space to come together at the same spot, and then meshed the two particles sets together to create the effect of the merging droplets.

This project is a great example of technology serving art-direction. In all the shots, Fusion had to build-up and evolve tools to address the creative target. It was tempting at various points to surrender to what seemed like technical limitations, but instead our client gave us space to work and we could re-approach the problems, eventually leaping over the technical barriers — sometimes the answers were simple once figured out, sometimes much more involved. It’s also a good example of how to build your tools. Always be thinking in terms what the client is likely to want in terms of changes, and then take the extra hour or hours to build in the controls that’ll let you revise easily. That approach paves the way for relatively painless revisions and releases, rather than straight-jacketing the creative process. After doing all that, it’s of course great to have a really strong end-game team to hand off the fluid assets, who could then create beautiful lighting and compositing; editing it all together to make an eye-popping result — our hats off to the Shilo team!

The finished spot:


The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo – OpeningTitle Sequence

Inside the Ooze

Conjuring up gooey blood-like fluid dripping and splashing off a stunningly-cool dragon, melting Rooney Mara’s head into an oozing mass and ripping Daniel Craig’s head apart in a violent blood spatter are the rare opportunities that every fluid fx artist dreams of. So when Blur Studio asked for Fusion’s cg fluids expertise in David Fincher’s ground-breaking title sequence for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, there was no shortage of ‘woops’ from the team. When one of Fusion’s artists, Matthew Benson, got assigned the shot where Blomqvist’s head gets ripped to pieces, his response said it all: “You mean I get to crush James Bond’s head? Right oooon!”

Of course the usual pre-project excitement was quickly followed by the sobering reality of actually having to execute creative director, Tim Miller’s unprecedented vision — the fluid sims had to work with Blur’s meticulously beautiful, but violently-moving character animation, so the fluids had to be tightly controlled while maintaining a natural behavior, and just about all the shots were extreme close-ups — the “ECU” being the typical nightmare scenario when it comes to cg fluids. And of course there were the usual sort of technical challenges, which really turn Fusion VFX Supervisor, Mark Stasiuk’s crank…. in a good way. The fluid elements would be created with RealFlow, as it provides a stable, high-speed fluid solver that allows the user to integrate custom controls and outputs data in a format that is so standardized that virtually any vfx studio’s pipeline can take in without batting an eyelash. Even so, Mark would have to develop custom behavior technology to make the fluids look & behave the way Miller and Fincher envisioned.

The “headrip” shots were the goriest, so definitely an effects artist favorite — check out the playblast below from one of the early versions where things got just a little… shall we say, “enthusiastic.” Getting this spectacular blast of gorgeous liquid splatter ‘out of our system’ was important so we could zero in on what would work best for the sequence.


Mark’s favorites were the shots called “hothands” and dripsOnDragon”, because they involved a lot of new and interesting fluid behavior development.

For the dripsOnDragon shots, Fusion had to complete the apparently simple task of getting the dragon wet, as it had just emerged from Salander’s back. The fluid was to be dripping down and flinging off the dragon. Making the dragon’s geo wet was fairly straightforward because Fusion had developed a “wetting” technology for past projects that creates SPH fluid particles in an even coating on parts of geometry selected by an artist. In this case, we married the wetting technology with Fusion’s “smorganic” tool suite, while adapting smorganic so the wetting fluid would inherit the motion of the specific part of the geometry it was closest to. More on Fusion’s “smorganic” technology here:

Normally if you throw fluid on some geometry and then start the part of the sim where the geo moves, the fluid will just fall off. In this case, we needed the fluid to inherit the geo’s motion for some short period of time and then be released, allowing it to be flung and so develop a more exciting performance. Two of the nicest examples of this are sims done for a shot focusing on the dragon’s head:

Fluid off dragon’s head:


And off the dragon’s wing:


For both of these you can see how the initial inheritance of the geometry’s motion near each bit of fluid gives the overall fluid behavior a much more interesting and performance-connected feel. Add to that a subtle application of smorganic to allow droplets of fluid to elongate slightly, and you get both interesting behavior, and interesting, widely variable fluid shapes instead of just swarms of individual fluid beads.

In the case of the “hothands” shots, we needed a few entirely new technologies to get the shot done the way Mark wanted it to work. In these shots a set of hands converge on Salander’s head, and then start grasping at her face. But when the hands meet her face, it’s like the fingers are hot iron and her face is wax, so the fingers sink in and her face melts and surges upward slightly, squeezing between the fingers.

To do this, we had to create a semi-fluid version of Salander’s head by filling the animated head geo with fluid in RealFlow, and then used a targeting Python script that moved the mass of fluid with the Salander head’s motion. Fluid continued to move with the head until it was “melted”. Melting happened initially thru direct contact with any of the hands, and after that the heat effect was conducted thru the fluid using a proxy parameter for a random-walk diffusion. Once fluid was melted, a time-varying vertical force was applied to surge or gurgle it up thru the fingers, before letting it be pulled back down by gravity. In order to keep the fluid silky smooth, we also applied smorganic. The fluid sim results for the whole length of the animation are shown here with the hands visible:


And with the hands hidden:


And finally from one of the close-up shot cameras:


As with most of Fusion’s fluids work, we relied heavily on the capabilities of RealFlow. The tightly integrated scripting control is a fundamental feature that allows us to achieve specific behaviors and take our fluid effects to a higher level even on short production schedules. When combining RealFlow’s native capabilities with Fusion’s custom plug-ins, and high-quality vfx like Blur’s gorgeous modeling, animation, lighting and virtual camera work, you get a magic formula for outstanding visuals like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo title sequence!

Fusion Creates Watery Escape Route for The Three Musketeers!

While under attack, the Musketeers steal Da Vinci’s plans for a flying war machine from deep inside an underwater vault in Venice; the scene climaxes in an explosion blasting a ‘big water’ escape route! Fusion CI Studios, LA, created the fluid simulations for Mr. X, Toronto, who rendered & finished.

The scene:

The fluid simulations were created using RealFlow and various in-house plugins developed by Fusion’s vfx supervisor, Mark Stasiuk.  Fusion received Maya scenes from Mr. X with the solid geometry, and the geo was then simplified for export to RealFlow.  In general, the fluid sim work was done by creating a number of passes – core water, splashes, foam, spray and included post-processing using custom Python algorithms.  Fusion then passed the RealFlow data sets to Mr. X via ftp and did reviews of the playblasts of the simulations using cinesync.  Consultation and technical support was provided on various aspects of the render – Fusion provided wetmaps and custom foam passes that would work with Mr. X’s rendering technology.

The workflow at Fusion starts with fluid behavior look-dev, using low-detail fluids for faster sim turnaround times, and run in parallel with the development of in-house technologies custom to the project. As the behavior gets close to the creative target for each shot, the fluid detail is increased and versions of the data were passed to Mr.X to start lighting development. The tail end of the project was highly collaborative, with Mr. X’s lighter, Ayo Burgess, and VFX Supervisor, Dennis Berardi, providing feedback and Fusion responding with revisions and added layers of simulations.

In the first shot (VV300), where the explosion is triggered in the subsurface vault wall that lets the water from the Venice canal flood in, Fusion filled canal geometry with high res SPH fluid particles. The huge volume of the final sim (around 10 million particles) was needed to achieve the right level of detail and sell the scale of the shot. This kind of shot would seem to be perfect for applying RealFlow’s voxel-based grid fluid solver, but the grid fluid has a slightly different behavior which becomes particularly evident, and particularly non-water-like, in a shot like this where the water first bursts up and out, straight toward camera, so we fell back to the SPH solver. The same sims when run using the grid solver generated long, unrealistic ‘ropes’ of fluid in the explosion phase. Sim times for low res fluids were a very reasonable overnight, but once at the high res level, this stretched to around a week. However, by the time Fusion was running hi res sims, the results were already approved by the director and it was just a matter of getting in the extra detail to sell the scale of the body of water. The initial explosion was created using a combination of expanding spherical negative attractor fields, noise fields and a vertically directed jet force, followed by a vortex to pull and spin the fluid downward.

For the initial shot Fusion generated a number of passes of foam and spray as post-process sims, as well as running a post-process to create wet-maps on the geometry to allow Mr.X to add wetness wherever the water splashed on the buildings. For these post-process tasks Fusion used its in-house tools, giving us the ability for extreme control on the results.  For example, for the foam pass, water particles were converted to foam particles based on a combination of exceeding a threshold speed, impacting geometry and height in the water column, and converted back to water after particle speed dropped below a critical threshold for a long enough period.

This movie shows both the water and foam particle sets for a near-final version of the simulation.

The capability of RealFlow to use Python scripts at many points of its calculation pipeline is a feature of fundamental importance to this kind of fx work.

In the next 2 shots, where the water first geysers into the vault (VV140) and then floods it entirely while wiping out the bad guy (Cagliastro), Fusion used RealFlow’s grid solver to generate the core fluid behavior. Once the core fluid was simmed with the right behavior and timing, the team at Mr. X tweaked the animations of objects in the scene that needed to respond to the water, such as the corpses of the guards on the floor and the torch stands at the sides of the vault, as well as the digital double of Cagliastro after the point of impact. The tweaked animation was passed back to Fusion for a final run of the core water so it would respond correctly to the solid geometry.

Once the core water was finaled, Fusion used the native foam and splash emitters to emit SPH particles from the grid fluid as post-process sims.  RealFlow’s splash and foam tools work very well for this purpose, and have the advantage of giving you the ability to control the areas from which the splashes and foam are generated so artists could break the sims up, covering different sections of the flood if necessary. In the case of vv140, where the geyser first appears, it is small enough that it wasn’t necessary to break up the foam and splash generation but the controls on the secondary emitters also give great ability to distribute the secondary fluids where you want them.

This movie showing a well-advanced version of the vv140 core water (although the geyser shoots too high, too early), you can see the natural distribution of foam particles that are triggered by threshold radius of curvature in the core water surface.

The foam and splash fluids were set at very high detail level (fluid resolution), and it was really these particles that gave the flow it’s high detail look because grid fluid in general suffers from a lack of detail, even when the voxel size is very small. However with the splash and foam emitters, just about any level of detail was possible to achieve, and these dramatically improved the dynamism of the sims.

This movie shows SPH splash fluid particles over the entire surface of grid fluid core water sim.

The SPH particles from the splash emitters were then themselves used as emitters to create huge masses of spray, where Fusion again went to its in-house tools because of their level of control.  The biggest challenge for the fluids work was the combination of art-directed fluid behaviors and the large scale of the fluid effects.  Fusion’s team is accustomed to dealing with art-directed fluids, but typically these are small scale, for example single splashes forming into art-directed shapes.  They’re also used to dealing with large scale water, but in those cases the creative goal is usually simply making the water behave as it naturally does and not specifically directing its behavior.  In TTM we had to create specific fluid behaviors that were also timed precisely to the action of the shots. i.e. for the initial explosion shot, Fusion created a carefully timed & shaped water explosion which then evolved into a downward sucking vortex, and that had to be done with a sim that became 10 million particles.  Similarly in the shot where Cagliastro is swept off his feet by the flood, the fountain of water had to behave in a specific way, filling the space but remaining behind the character, then striking the character at the exact time in the plate where the real actor jumps into the air. This was made more challenging by the fact this was a stereo project, so it wasn’t an option to do the usual cheats, like translating the water sim back behind him further in order to delay the impact. In this project, the 3D space had to be precisely accurate.

To make all these things happen, Fusion relied heavily on its library of in-house technologies which provide the sort of control that’s required for art directed fluid behaviors. In the vault flood shots, this involved script-controlled rigs of laterally-directed gravity fields to gently nudge the various parts of the sim back away from camera and the Cagliastro character (who starts off standing very close to the large geyser), done in such a way to not look like the water was hitting an invisible barrier.

The above movie shows the core water sim.  When viewed from the side it’s obvious that the flow is being held back until the appointed moment, at which point the forces reverse and the geyser and water on the floor are surged forward toward camera to flood the vault and hit Cagliastro.

Side view movie:

If you look closely at the side view movie you’ll also see evidence of another Fusion in-house tool, for generating turbulence. In general, whether you’re using RealFlow or not, SPH-based fluids as well as voxel-based grid fluids both suffer from a lack of true turbulent behavior, which is normally excluded from the solver for optimization purposes and because the fluids that are typically simulated are at the more viscous end of the spectrum and less likely to show obvious turbulence — say compared to violently moving gases such as fire and smoke, for example. The problem is that fast moving river-type flows should show turbulent flow motions or they just won’t look right, and end up moving in a boring, sludgy way like a plug of fluid sliding over a surface. The usual methods to combat this are to churn up the flow with a noise field or add in lots of obstacles to add more splashy interest to the motion, but still this doesn’t make for a realistic motion. In VV150 the flow on the vault floor, despite hitting all the bodies and torch stands, was still too much like a sliding mass, especially obvious when it approached the camera toward shot end. To get a more turbulent look, we add in a swarm of vortices that are connected to averaged flow-lines of the fluid, and apply scripted tools to control the animation of the swarm’s parameters. You can see in the side view movie how the flow along the floor churns rapidly as it is disturbed by the vortex swarm. The advantage of this method is that we can “inject” as much turbulence as the Director feels look good, rather than being stuck with whatever the fluid solver does.

One last word on the fluid sim work from a studio productivity perspective, relates to the comparative ease of use of RealFlow. Over the last couple of years, numerous new simulation tools have appeared, and we’ve been experimenting with them. But in our view one of RealFlow’s major advantages is the simplicity of its scene structure and controls, despite the advanced dynamics happening under the hood. Compared to most sim packages with endlessly nested dialogs and huge lists of blurrily defined parameters, RealFlow’s straightforward and flexible scene setup, and well-defined parameters is refreshing and makes it a place where fx artists can work productively, with low levels of frustration — and that’s very important in an environment where schedules are always shorter than we’d like. Anybody developing physical sim software should really have a close look at RealFlow to get some ideas on how it should be done!

Fin Design Shares a Coke with Fusion CI Studios!

Fusion CI Studios Shares a Coke with Fin Design!

Coke bursting from a bottle, launching through the air in an elegant, dynamic, sculptured cg splash — super slow-motion and close-up!  This looks like a job for….. dynamic effects specialists, Fusion CI Studios!

When Fin Design + Effects, Sydney, Australia, ( ) was tasked to create this kind of effect for an end tag for the Coca Cola “Share a Coke” campaign, they turned to Fusion to create the cg fluid simulations because of our experience with macro-photography style CG fluids. Fusion has developed an extensive library of technologies and methods for these kinds of effects. Our clients come to us for challenging fluids work, so each project has unique, demanding requirements that pushes the bounds of existing technology and propels us to develop ever more advanced tools to meet creative expectations — the resulting extensive library allows us a good ‘leg-up’ on new project work.  Consequently, Fusion provides its clients with outstanding effects for about the same amount it would cost them to hire an experienced effects artist, while creating a far superior product.

The campaign invited people to send photos of themselves to be featured on TV- the photos would be grouped according to first names. Fin’s task was to find a design solution to showcase the photos that wouldn’t alienate the core concept and that would keep the pictures “Hero.” Fin imagined all the places one would normally see pictures of friends & family – on our phones, in a picture frame, on social networking sites, in a snow-dome, in a locket, etc – and created a series of shot options for the campaign’s TVC’s.  But when Ogilvy asked Fin to also create the new Coke endtag – “a celebration of the pop & burst Coke moment as the lid comes off the bottle,” Fin turned to Fusion to generate the fluid simulations.

Coca Cola is one the world’s most well-developed and iconic brands — everyone from a villager in a remote area of a developing country to Donald Trump knows exactly what coke looks like, so when it’s moving super slow with the camera super close-up, the cg fluids must be stellar. And of course they have to look like something you’d be excited about drinking — this is no small task with CG fluids, which are very challenging to create realistically and far harder to make look tasty.

Fusion was asked to create 2 kinds of mid-air cg fluid splashes for Fin: a splash bursting from the Coke bottle (which had to be sculptural and beautiful while also feeling explosive, pushing toward a chaotic feel), plus a variety of curving splashes that Fin’s team could compose in 3D space in the comp to create a dynamic “Coca Cola space”. So it was up to Fusion to experiment with digital “throws” of fluid and work up a palette of shapes from which Fin’s creative director could give further direction, and then select elements to build the 3D composition.

Fusion has created a wide variety of broadly similar mid-air splashes:

Iconic crown splashes:

Milk & juice splashes, Minute Maid NutriBoost:

Paint splashes, Epic Mickey promo: .

Fusion’s basic splash technology makes use of our “smorganic” tool, developed in-house to prevent CG fluid from breaking up into ugly swiss cheese-like holes that is typical of CG fluids: .

If you’re a RealFlow user you can think of Fusion’s smorganic as RF’s sheeter daemon on steroids. In addition, our splash tool finds flow edges and from these creates the little droplets and tendrils that are so characteristic of small-scale splashes. For the bursting splash, the shape was going to be so chaotic that our tool would create those features everywhere and turn it into a truly crazy shape, so we had to develop artist-friendly ways of controlling where the tendrils came off. We found a simple solution by just having artists paint over the particle cloud, highlighting those zones that would allow the creation of tendrils. Once this was done, it was a matter of creating interesting splash shapes using an array of tiny deflector planes just inside the mouth of the bottle and then running a matrix of tests to see what shapes were generated.

Here’s a link to a playblast of the final version selected by the Fin Design team:

The arc-shaped splashes had a shape more like what we were used to creating, so our tendril tool worked as-is for those, allowing us to auto-select the flow edges and set the number and spacing of the tendrils. The challenge with these was to get controlled, curved shapes. For these we developed a new version of a path-follow tool to guide the flows in a natural way along a path in space. Again, RF users could view this as the Dspline tool on drugs.

An early version of a splash element with this tool created an element that didn’t end up being used in the spot, but illustrates the sort of look when the path was not too highly curved:

But when we really cranked the path-follow tool, we could get this kind of flow that you’d have to be in outer space to even think about re-creating practically (see below):

 The above flow was a little too extreme to be used in the spot, but with some tweaking we got a spiral-sweep going that had a sense of more natural flow while still retaining the magic that can only come from CG:

Fusion supplied Fin’s team with a library of about 15 of these kinds of fluid simulations delivered as mesh sequences, from which they picked out their favorite moments, added tiny particle-type bubbles to the fluid interiors, and built up the set of vignettes to create the final spot.

See it on Fin’s site here:

Fusion’s site:


Fin Design + Effects

Surry Hills, Australia


Fusion CI Studios
Santa Monica, CA



Holiday Magic

Click here to see some:

Holiday Magic!

We created an electronic Holiday Greeting card as a little internal project here at Fusion. Certain aspects of it were inspired by a recent SeaWorld spot we did in collaboration with Vitamin Pictures in Chicago. For that project, we created water branches that Vitamin then comped into a tree form.

We thought the idea of a dynamic, fluidy Christmas tree for the holidays fit us perfectly, since we specialize in CG fluids, so we extended and adapted the technology we developed for the SeaWorld project and built a little scene around it.

The blanket beneath the tree was created as a Maya nCloth simulation, the furry edge was done using Maya fur. The water branches were each done as 400 frame fluid simulations, using our newest technology for making fluids follow paths. This allows us to make fluid take contorted, art-directed paths while still maintaining a very natural flowing look.

The tools typically available for this kind of thing end up making the fluid look like a worm wiggling thru mid-air, which of course looks anything but natural when you’re talking fluids. So we developed a custom tool that allows complete control on falloffs along the path and with distance from it, variations in strengths along the path, and also allows the release of fractions of the fluid to create splashy edges. And of course the tool has integrated into it our “smorganic” tool ( ), which prevents breakup of the fluid into ugly cheesey / webbed shapes. The tree was then built from about 30 unique fluid branches, each placed carefully in 3D space to get a nice tree shape while maintaining an organic look. This year, our tree decorating was virtual!

Working on the project at Fusion were: Mark Stasiuk, Matt Benson, Lauren Millar and Liz Catullo.

Step away from the monitor…

VFX can be an intense business.  Long hours slouched toward a computer screen has to take its toll on both mind and body…. not to mention spirit.  So at Fusion, we try to mix it up a little.  Get away from your screen, give yourself a dose of sunshine (admittedly, a shock to glazed, grid-mesmerized eyes) and get your blood moving (remember that’s what stimulates your brain, not all those m&m’s you’re scarfin’ down).

On Friday’s we step back from the hum of the computers, grill a few dogs (hotdogs) and bash a croquet ball around the Fusion Campus…. It’s no surprise that this is where many innovative ideas are born.  Or work-arounds for bugs.  Or recipes for killer cocktails.  If you’re in the neighborhood, let us know and you can join us!

and this, my friends, is how it's done!
unusual style demonstrated by reigning champion...
wicket monitor...

Epic Mickey Launched Today for Nintendo Wii!

In honor of Epic Mickey’s launch today on Nintendo Wii, we’re celebrating our epic journey in creating the fluid simulations for Mickey’s initial debut at E3 2010, here’s a bit of insight into the project….

For the awe-inspiring teaser that launched the eagerly anticipated Epic Mickey game at E3 2010, the Ant Farm and Disney Animation Studios relied on the boundless creativity and expertise of Zoic Studios.  As Mickey, the gamer is propelled into an alternate world, “Wasteland” –  a dark & brooding place where Disney’s misfit characters have been abandoned.  Wielding paint and paint thinner, Mickey dynamically changes this world while forging his path to becoming an epic hero. So the teaser for such a fantastical journey would have to heighten a sense of intrigue and anticipation in the gaming audience – a daunting task.

property of Disney Animation Studios

Inspired by Japanese artist, Shinichi Murayama, who builds mid-air fluid sculptures with high-speed photography, Zoic developed the idea of creating deep, saturated  throws of cg paint as “mirrors,” reflecting distorted images of the game. Disney wanted something that would surprise its audience and be “bold, beautiful, and just a little bit brooding.”

When you throw real paint into the air, it performs magically. It stretches and twists into graceful forms, pulling effortlessly into impossibly thin sheets. Thickened edges then form at the margins of the sheets and off those edges, thin, delicate tendrils stretch lazily into the distance, pulling apart into lovely strings of tiny droplets…  ZZZZZZZZZPPP! In the CG world, if you throw fluid into space it does none of these things. Instead, it immediately rips apart into unsightly ‘webbing’ that pretty quickly shatters into a cloud of droplets. No sheet, no lip, no tendrils. Now what?

Zoic turned to us to create realistic, elegant cg paint throws that could be sculpted and art-directed as they soared through space.  We often hook up with other vfx studios when challenging fluids work is needed. It was a perfect blend of creativity, technical know-how, artistry and team work.

property of Disney Animation Studios

We were able to make the cg paint form 1-particle-thin sheets using our “smorganic” plugin for RealFlow. “Smorganic” fills in the gaps in the fluid during the simulation process and maintains the flow at 1-particle thick.( ). We used another technology we developed to detect the flow edge and push in sections to form the thickened lip, and yet another technology to pull small bits of the flow edge out into tendrils and eventually break them apart into droplets. With this set of tools, we’re able to keep mid-air flows impossibly thin for indefinite periods of time, make flow edges as thick as desired, and add in as many tendrils of whatever length and lifetime as needed.

property of Disney Animation Studios

Working closely and interactively with Zoic, we experimented in virtual space with hundreds of extremely high resolution, slow motion CG splashes to find just the right forms and motions to tell Mickey’s story – a story that unfolded against the backdrop of some of  our most advanced cg fluids work to date.

Zoic also needed to include speed ramps in order to get our “moments of suspension.” That meant that each splash had to be simmed out to 600-800 frames of animation and delivered to Zoic as high res meshes (resulting in more than 4 Tb of data).

The length and speed of the sims made it all the more important that our tools were working extremely efficiently, we had to create an abundance of fluid elements to give the creative director, Derich Witliff,  a lot to choose from as he built the spot. Each element ran for hundreds of frames and had to look good the whole time, and to be completely stable. Although the flows would be sped up to move quickly at times, for long periods they had to move achingly slowly, close to camera, across the frame — there’s no hiding behind motion blur or fast camera moves in a spot like this. Your CG fluids have to be perfect.  You decide.

Fantasmic Smorganic

CG fluid, especially “SPH” fluid (smoothed particle hydrodynamics), suffers from inaccurate physics at the microscopic level, at the scale of individual particles making up the fluid. Even when simulating with very large particle numbers, this becomes a major problem wherever the fluid becomes splashy since it forms thin sheets and strings — or rather, it should form thin sheets and strings, like we see in real water. Hi-speed macrophotography of fluid spashes classically show how delicate, impossibly thin and continuous sheets of fluid fly thru the air and stay coherent for prolonged periods. These produce tiny droplets and hair-like strings of fluid from their margins but otherwise hold together for a long time, before they eventually and suddenly burst apart. CG fluids on the other hand always break apart immediately, forming very unattractive and distinctly un-real cheese-like holes and webbing, never holding together in thin sheets. This has generally been the limit of CG fluid applications, and is what drives studios to have expensive table-top practical shoots, since CG fluids simply haven’t been able to reproduce the very particular small-scale features of real fluids — until now.

The movies below show recent r&d results from Fusion CI Studios that demonstrate a new technology for controlling the breakup of cg fluid, allowing us to simulate exceedingly thin, naturally organic fluid splashes.


This is what typically happens with cg fluids when you try to form thin sheets. In this sim we emit a thin sheet of fluid and bend it into a circular flow using a simple vortex force. It develops holes and breaks apart into small clusters of particles almost immediately.

When we apply our new dynamic hole-filling technology, the fluid stays as a fully coherent sheet for as long as we want. No holes! The method hunts for holes as they start to form, and fills in the gaps with new fluid. The key to this working is that the fluid insertion is done very precisely, so the simulation stays extremely stable.

How effective and how stable is this? We tried to break it — we simulated a fluid sheet being bashed violently by noise forces. This movie shows the meshed fluid, with almost no holes and running entirely stably.

Now let’s take it a step farther. Here’s 3 splashes, similar to classic hi-speed photography elements of water or paint. They form thin sheets and we add tiny streamers off their edges. Compare these to splashes of paint shown on stock element sites such as Getty Images. In the right-most element, we’ve applied randomness controls on the streamers and turn down the efficiency of the hole-infilling at different times for the inner sheet of the splash versus the outer streamers, so they break apart at different times (streamers first, then the sheet).

These splashes are very delicately structured, down to the smallest level of detail available to the simulation — the streamers and the sheet of fluid are all just 1 layer of particles thick. Since we can simply set the size of particles, this means we can make the fluid sheets as thin as we want. There’s no jerky motions due to the pollyfilla process, it’s as smooth as silk.

Just to emphasize that the results are very high quality visually, the link above is an example of one of the splashes meshed and ready for render. The mesh is smooth and shows no signs of jitter during motion. The smorganic process is turned off toward the end, allowing the SPH fluid to do what it usually does: break up. This was done to emulate the catastrophic disruption of such thin fluid sheets, that happens in nature when surface tension forces finally take over the fluid motion. We helped the disruption along by kicking the fluid with a strong noisy force field.

The image below is a render of a simulation of pouring “honey”, where we’ve set smorganic to disallowo any holes in the fluid. The results show the smoothness of the resulting meshes despite the high-spec, high-refractive nature of the shader and lighting, and despite a hard impact with a rigid body.

rd impact with a rigid body.

Goin’ with the flow…

Fusion's "smorganic" in action

In the world of visual effects, dynamics presents its own set of unique challenges.  As dynamic effects specialists, we focus our time soly on overcoming those challenges and creating outstanding fluid & dynamic effects. As a result we’ve developed a huge library and a number of advanced tools & methods to enhance existing software to acheive some amazing results.  This blog will give you a little insight to how we do what we do.  Enjoy!