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Immersed in Movies: Scott Peterson Talks ''Dragon 2' VFX at FMX

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by Bill Desowitz
April 22, 2014 12:00 PM
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The FMX 2014 conference in Stuttgart on film, games, and transmedia kicked off Tuesday morning with "Advancing Visual Effects in How To Train Your Dragon 2," revealing how both Hiccup and DreamWorks have grown up. Scott Peterson, the co-head of VFX at the animation studio, screened the first five minutes (first previewed at WonderCon - embed below) and then offered detailed breakdowns of new and significant high-res simulations.

The opening provided a glimpse of director Dean DeBlos' ambitious vision: a funny dragon race shows just how well integrated the once feared creatures have become in the Viking community of Berk, while Hiccup and Toothless para-glide head first into new adventures beyond home. The restless teenager is about to embark on a Luke Skywalker-like rite of passage, And Peterson demonstrated how the richness of this epic world demanded greater tech abilities, Under the umbrella of the new Apollo software program, DreamWorks has stepped up its use of Open VDB (the manipulation of sparse volumetric data) along with the Academy's sci-tech award-winning Flux gas solver.At the same time, the studio launched Amorphous, a hardware lighting tool for faster running and more efficient high-res sims. Meanwhile, DreamWorks has gone from Maya and Maya Fluids to Houdini for VFX.

For the opening cloud work, Peterson described how they assigned distance fields and wisps to the models and then converted into volume and attached Occlusion points.

In a sequence called "Hiccup in the Den," in which Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) meets his mother,Valka (Cate Blanchett), the dragon whisperer, the use of fire is quite sophisticated and elegant. Hiccup sports a Dragon Blade (reminiscent of a lightsaber), which moves fire. This sim was done by both the Glendale and PDI campuses and was even more difficult in daytime under variable lighting conditions. But what's more striking were the Dragon Torches. Fuel emits from their entire mouths and the gas fire starts as blue. Crucial were emission points that were converted with volume and collisions.

During a "Monstrous Nightmare" sequence with the villainous dragon trader, Drago Bludvist (Djimon Honsou), the scary dragon emits napalm. However, Bludvist wears a fireproof suit and the effect is comprised of fire sim and heat distortion.

For some levity, there's a playful fight in the snow between Hiccup and Toothless. A trip to Svalbard with visual consultant Roger Deakins provided inspiration for the snow dev. They added stickiness and then a sand solver and a haze layer to rigid body sim. The Amorphous shader was then used while working interactively in Houdini.

The giant dragon, the Bewilderbeast," emerges from the soft, smoky water. The animators produced a mushroom cloud effect of bubbles bursting. The foam is a white water sim from Houdini consisting of volume and surface rendering,

Turns out the Bewilderbeast breathes ice, which is a saturated green or blue. For the ice blast, the brittle material breaks down in different levels connected by spheres, and the fracture is informed by these spheres. Spikes were added and the saturated look was achieved with a combination of simple and multiple scattering.

Fire and ice make for a compelling visual motif, and it looks like DreamWorks has stepped up its tech to help deliver a more dramatically involving experience.


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