SIGGRAPH 2015: Day 2 - Microbots, Mountains & Membranes

Posted By David Blumenfeld on August 12, 2015 08:25 am | Permalink
Today was hands down the best day I've ever had at SIGGRAPH in my many years of attending, and I thought I would reflect on something for a moment that anyone working in this industry should consider. As I'm sitting here in my living room at midnight writing this recap with a snifter of cognac in hand, prepared to head outside afterwards to catch a glimpse of the perseid meteor shower, my wife sleeping in the chair next to me and my son fast asleep in the other room, it occurs to me that all of us working in this visual effects business quite possibly have the best job in the world, hands down.

Over the past two decades, I have had to opportunity to work in a field which allows me to express myself creatively, think critically across multiple disciplines to solve a wide range of problems and challenges, and delve into a plethora of different facets of science and technology, all to create a positive, enjoyable, uplifting form of entertainment and artwork. I've helped make films, theme park attractions, television commercials, magazine ads, training manuals, billboards, photography, musical compositions, and more. I work at an amazingly-creative studio with people who all love what they do, and graciously provide me the ability to challenge myself and those around me, pushing the boundaries of our field, all the while feeling completely empowered to try new things and succeed, and sometimes fail, in new and unique areas. Their support, friendship, and artistic skill afford me the opportunity to grow personally and professionally, all while encouraging me to share my knowledge and experiences with others through outlets such as this publication.

More importantly, they understand the myriad benefits gained by attending trade shows such as SIGGRAPH, and allow me to take time away from my daily responsibilities to attend this conference, where I am able to learn from the current state of the industry and colleagues doing similar jobs. For all of this and more, I am eternally grateful, and honestly incredibly lucky, as many of the rest of you who share in this community are. Today, I witnessed and took part in some events that really made a mark on me personally. I saw others express their gratitude and amazement in similar ways, and had the opportunity to meet a personal childhood hero of sorts, all of which I intend to write about here. 

Today's article may indeed end up being a bit long winded, but I have a lot to share, and I hope in reading this (should you make it to the end), you walk away with a bit of the sense of wonder and excitement I experienced just a few hours earlier.

My day began at a 9am talk entitled "Got 'Bots," which featured two presentations. The first was MPC's making of the blade (metal scales) covered body of the Sentinel characters in the X-Men Days of Future Past movie, presented by Tony Micilotta. I actually arrived a few minutes late to this, but I was able to see how they utilized a follicle mesh system inside of Maya to indicate particle locations for tens of thousands of these blade meshes, which were instanced at render time in Katana through the use of pRef attributes and a custom rig allowing them to be organically animated and textured. 

I haven't seen the movie, but the shots they showed looked great, as expected, and the system they created will surely be leveraged on other productions for similar purposes where large numbers of intersecting, semidynamic controllable geometry is needed.

The second presentation was about the procedural animation R&D for the microbots in Big Hero 6, presented by Dong Joo Byun, FX animator at Walt Disney Animation Studios. Back around 2000, I worked with his current supervisor, Michael Kaschalk, when I was at Disney, on the animated short One By One. That was my first exposure to Houdini, which his team was using for developing blowing grasses and pollen at the time. I recall driving around in his souped up classic Camaro and learning about professional pyrotechnics from him. It's amazing how everyone you meet, in some way, makes their mark on you, even if sometimes only in a small, potentially obscure way. 

In Dong's presentation, he laid out the framework for developing his Houdini Vex-based system, taking a purely engineering-styled approach to the problem of creating significant numbers of microbot entities behaving in a highly ordered yet organic, fully-controllable manner. There were approximately 230 shots in the film, which required these microbots, and on average, each of those shots contained between 2,060 million individual instances. 

Using PCBs (printed circuit boards of the type found on many electronic devices, such as your computer's motherboard) and their familiar uniquely arranged copper conductive track lines as visual inspiration, he went about devising a method for creating a base curve of straight lines and 45-degree angles, which he termed the "Microbot Circuit Board Generator."

Through his toolset, he could branch off this base curve with offset curves that added additional detail, all while dynamically culling curve intersections, to build up a two-dimensionally-offset cluster of subpaths. From there, he could build off of those in the perpendicular direction using the same algorithms, thereby forming a volumetric cluster of these paths, like a bundle of fiber optics or plumbing pipes. 

He created tools to animate these curves growing along their own trajectories, allowing for time offsets as well as framestep quantization to make it look more steppy and mechanical. The next phase was to develop the movement of the actual microbots themselves, allowing them to either move along these paths or to walk over the top of the bundle like small trapeze artists flipping one another head over heels to inchworm their way along, similar to how ants create living bridges across gaps of leaves. 

If you've seen the film, you may recall that the design of the microbots are visually almost as simple as two faceted cones connected at their opposing bases by a sphere in the center. They are able to bend 90 degrees in any direction from this center pivot, and they "connect" to one another by magnetism. 

This portion of his development fell into the "Microbot Flippers" and "Microbot Transformer" categories of his development. In order to determine the method by which these bots would walk along a curve, he started by dividing his curves into 40 equidistant points, allowing for seven unique behaviors of the bots which, working in unison, would create locomotion. He performed a four step process of Pattern Analysis, Time Step Setup (to be used as a trigger for animation), Pattern Reconstruction, and Pattern to Time Step Linking. Once devised and implemented, an animator could easily work with this system completely interactively and utilize the rendertime geometry loading after the fact for speed in turning shots around. 

There was nothing dynamically simulated about this system, and I personally feel the way he went about figuring this out and deploying it was fantastic, as evidenced by the final shots in the film.

Moving to the next presentation, I went to the 10:45am production session for Disney/Pixar's short film Lava. For those of you who haven't had the chance to see this work of art, which played in theaters before their feature film Inside Out, the tale is a beautifully-told love story set to a charming slackkey ukulele tune in the traditional Hawaiian style. I found it to be very moving when I saw it with my family, and I was eager to hear about their inspiration. To say I wasn't disappointed would be an understatement, which I will do my best to retell now (if I get some details wrong or mixed up, my apologies to James Murphy as this is all from memory, but the general gist and feeling should still come through). 

When the lights went down, a panel of seven artists sat on-stage, and one of them, the writer/director James, began by telling a story with slides. He showed a picture of he and his wife when they were first married at a much younger age on the big island of Hawaii. He fell in love with the island's beauty, culture, and music, and returned many years later with his three children, exploring the erupting Mt. Kilauea by helicopter. At this time, his younger sister (43, I believe) had just gotten married, finding her true love a bit later in life. While at a shopping mall, his family encountered a relief map model display of the island labeling the five volcanoes on Hawaii (two of which are active), but a sixth label in the water caught his attention. It listed an undersea volcano named Lōʻihi, and this got him to thinking about an idea. What if, like his sister, this lonely volcano, which few people knew about, actually longed for love and companionship, and it waited a very long time to find this, finally ending up getting what it hoped for all these years? 

They travelled to a small music shop in Hilo where he purchased a new ukulele. At this point in his story, he pulled this instrument from below his desk, and said this is the song I wrote to pitch this idea, and then he played and sang it for everyone in the room. I literally had tears in my eyes, and it was one of the best prepared and delivered introductions to a presentation I have ever witnessed. I highly encourage you to close your eyes and listen to it now, if only for a minute, here:

The next hour was filled with the group explaining how they went from concept and inspiration to revision and implementation, creating a compelling and visually-stunning film that pulls at the heartstrings and delights the senses. The ability and desire to create art for the sake of art is the epitome of what I feel the animated medium is really for, and to see the current state of technology and the vast resources being used for this purpose is both refreshing and inspiring. Damn you, Pixar! But in all seriousness, great work, and a truly-uplifting presentation.

After this portion of the day, I took a break to regain my composure and get some lunch, making sure I had plenty of time to prepare for the 2pm presentation by Double Negative on the making of Interstellar. This is where the inner geek in me emerged, so pardon me for digressing for a moment. 

Back in the mid-1960s, my father worked at NASA's Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, MD, primarily on the Gemini Missions, of which he and I are both very proud of. When I was a young child, I quickly inherited his love of spaceflight and science, and at a relatively early age became very interested in astrophysics, quantum mechanics, and the like, specifically Black Holes. I received my first book on rocketry at five, and was lucky enough to have a second grade teacher, Ms. Taitz, who allowed me to bring in hand-drawn cutouts of the solar system, tape them on the chalkboard, and present it to the class. 

In third grade, I created a hand-drawn accurate star chart for my science project, complete with apparent magnitudes and Greek characters, as well as many Messier objects including nebulae, galaxies, and globular clusters. By the time I was in eighth grade, I wrote a term paper for my English class on Black Holes, with hand drawn representations of spacetime gravitational warpage and cutouts from magazines such as Astronomy and Sky & Telescope. 

Much of the citations and information I referenced in my paper was from one of the leading researchers in the subject, Dr. Kip Thorne of Caltech. While in college, I bought his new at the time book entitled "Black Holes & Time Warps" and read it from cover to cover. In the prologue, Kip takes the reader on a fictional expedition to a few black holes across the galaxy with a first mate named Kares, a ten centimeter tall robotic probe named Arnold, and a ship computer named DAWN. On page 40, we find ourselves at a supermassive black hole by the name of Gargantua (the same as in the movie Interstellar 20 years later). When I saw the film for the first time only a few months ago, I was instantly reminded of this story, and had to pull the book off my shelf and reread that portion again. 

To be honest, I was very much interested in hearing about the making of this movie, and there was one question I had that I was unsure if it was portrayed the way his book said it should have been, but my true desire to attend this presentation was really to have an opportunity to shake the hands of a man whose passion and discovery helped inspire a very young boy almost four decades ago. I brought my book with me today and a sharpie. Let's see how it all panned out.

The presentation panel included Paul Franklin, VFX Supervisor; Oliver James, Chief Scientist with a background in optical physics; Eugénie von Tunzelmann, CG Supervisor with a background in engineering and computer science; and Professor Kip Thorne. They spoke about the production itself, with locations atop glacial ice floes and shallow ocean lagoons in Iceland, prairies in Alberta, Canada, with production planted corn fields, and stages in Culver City, CA, with multi-axis gimbal rig motion control bases to name a few. They explained how very little greenscreens were used behind the live-action stage shots, instead projecting near finished or partially-complete matte paintings or animated CG sequences onto the stage to provide proper reflections, interactive lighting, and actual visuals for the actors to relate to and react with, most all of which were then replaced later in compositing (clearly a more painstaking process, but producing far better results). 

Much of the film was captured in-camera with live action props and practical effects as well, including puppeteered rigs for TARS (the ship's robot) and model miniatures for the Endurance and other spaceships lit with a single 20K key light. In all, Double Negative spent 18 months with a crew of around 450 artists and technicians on approximately 700 VFX shots. Of course, the two main highlights of this presentation were the custom renderer they wrote to properly calculate the bending of light, or gravitational lensing, around Gargantua, as well as for the wormhole effect, and the development of the Tesseract, or mathematical four dimensional cube, which in the movie is a transport device of sorts. 

Some of the parts of the movie that are glossed over a bit were explained in greater detail in this talk, though there's quite a bit much to go over in this report (but if you want to know more, please feel free to email me). Kip then proceeded to cover the notion of how the fifth dimension factors into the key fabric of this film, explaining concepts such as the Bulk (and subsequently inferred Bulk Beings in the film, who are responsible for not only constructing the wormhole but for transporting Cooper the approximately 10 billion light years from Gargantua back to Earth in the time it would take a present spaceship to traverse one astronomical unit, or the distance from Earth to the Sun). He also gave a succinct explanation and accompanying graphic of a brane (short for membrane), representing fifth dimensional space in a way which allows one to easily visualize both black holes and wormholes (two distinct structures both in form and origin).

Two very rare and impactful events transpired at the end of the presentation. For one, the people on the panel iterated how thankful they were to have had the opportunity to work on this film and do something so impactful. Oliver's work on the renderer, through Kip's formulations and mathematical solutions, produced a result so accurate according to modern physics, that NASA in fact contacted him about it and is now planning on using his algorithms on an actual mission to study distant Neutron Stars and their properties. He stated that this work was easily the highlight of his whole career. 

At one point, Eugénie nearly broke down in tears relaying how, at a young age, she became fascinated not only in mathematics, but in the actual tesseract geometrical shape itself, and showed a two dimensional projection view of it tattooed on her left upper arm. She stated that she never in her life expected to have the opportunity to be able to focus her work on a topic like that, and how being allowed to develop this into something so compelling was a dream come true for her. To see that kind of raw emotion and passion for this type of work is something I share in, and no matter how simple or complex the task at hand I have to tackle may be, I make it a point to research the subject and the intricacies behind it, both to further my own knowledge and appreciation of the topic as well as to create a better, more complete and compelling end product. And to be honest, it just makes it more fun to do, for they say anything worth doing is worth doing well, and I believe in that sentiment wholeheartedly.

The second thing to occur was at the end of the presentation, when they allowed the attendees to meet and further discuss or ask questions of the presenters. I waited my turn in line patiently, and when my time came, I calmly walked up to Professor Thorne, extended my hand, and introduced myself. I told him how I read the book I was holding 20 years ago, and wondered, after all the work they put into the gravitational lensing effects of the light bending around Gargantua, why I didn't also see the same effect on the starfield, which would, according to his explanation in the text, be bent into a small disc instead of a spherical view, as if one were falling into a deep well and looking out the top at everything squeezed into that small window?

He acknowledged that was something they discussed during the making of the movie, and that there is in fact only one single shot, when Cooper is descending towards the event horizon, where the camera looks back at him and beyond, and the compressed view of the stars and galaxies are all visible only in a small disc. I was delighted to hear this, and will have to watch the movie again and look for that specifically as I clearly missed it the first time. 

I then asked him if he would be kind enough to sign my book that, along with his other writings, has been an inspiration for so many years. I asked him to please make it out not only to me, but to my eight year old son Justin, so that one day it might inspire him as well to reach beyond the limits of his imagination and follow his dreams, no matter how strange or different they may be, for you never know what wonderful and unexpected things lie waiting down the road. 

To me, this is the heart of what makes us human, and I for one am very satisfied to be part of this ultimate intersection of ingenuity, creativity, and expression that is visual effects!

David Blumenfeld is the Head of CG/VFX Supervisor at Brickyard VFX ( in Santa Monica, CA. He can be reached at: