Studio Focus: Universal Production Partners

Universal Production Partners (UPP) is an award-winning visual effects & post-production house based in Prague. Since being founded in 1994 they have grown to be one of the largest and most versatile studios in Europe focused on pushing the boundaries of technology and art with a strong vision for storytelling, directing and CGI.

With a wide range of services provided, UPP’s VFX supervisor and Head of 3D for advertising Mario Dubec shared some thoughts (and beautiful imagery) about how and why they having been using Yeti over the last few years.

“At UPP advertising we have been creating CG animals for years, and since some of them have required realistic fur we’ve had to keep researching and searching for the best suitable tools to create it. In the old days, we have used extensively Shave & Haircut plugin for Maya and in some cases native fur tools in XSI. As new tools were appearing we had our fair share of experience with Maya Xgen and Houdini native fur tools as well. But currently, our grooming artists found Yeti to be most flexible and user friendly yet still partly procedural tool to groom the animals.”

“The main catalyst for using Yeti in our recent and ongoing fur projects was ease of setup, simplicity of nodal approach and flexibility to do constant adjustments which are so important in the look development of creatures until very end of the project. Another advantage is how light the groom setup is on the scene and how well the plugin communicates the data with our most used Arnold renderer.”

“So far we have not reached such a limitation of Yeti which would hold us back or motivate us to look for alternative solution for creating fur. Another advantage is also flexibility to change the underlaying model during the grooming process without necessity to redo the whole setup or go through painful steps of setup transfer. And as our artists work simultaneously more and more with Houdini as well, the nodal & procedural approach allows them to stay in the same mind-set while utilizing Yeti in Maya.”

Don’t miss UPP’s animal reel which is available to watch on their website.

Crafting wings for Good Omens

We are huge fans of both Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett here at Peregrine HQ, so were thrilled when Amazon / BBC announced that a new Good Omens mini series was coming to their respective platforms.

The fine artists at Milk Visual Effects were involved in bringing the the authors prose to life on screen – including the wings for the leading characters.

The teams CG Supervisor, Adrian Williams and Senior Groom Artist, Matt Bell kindly shared details on how Yeti was used in the design and creation of these digital supernatural plumages.

“Demon Crowley (David Tennant) and angel Aziraphale (Micheal Sheen) both have large and impressive black and white wings (respectively) when seen in their real forms in the Amazon /BBC’s new comedy-drama Good Omens adapted for the screen and helmed by Neil Gaiman. Initially, our concept artist Grant Bonser designed bat-style wings for Crowley but Neil Gaiman preferred to have feathers for both the demons and angels.”

“We built each feather based on swan wings – which was most appropriate to the concept. We started building the feathers in geometry so that we had a map for our groom team to develop each feather. The wings were laid out in an anatomically correct way, with primary feathers (the long finger like feathers that feature at ends of wings); secondaries (above those on the ends of the wings) and coverts (top wings / fluffier wings). The wings were then re-groomed into feathers using Yeti. We modelled in a swan’s wing bone structure and this was then all passed to the rigging team to ensure the feathers folded correctly and worked well together. Working together, the groom, modelling and rigging and animation teams refined the wings, referencing heavily the way a swan’s wing physically folds and behaves to ensure that when doing our wing simulations, everything behaved realistically.”

“To help with rigging we extracted curves down the centre of each of the geometry feathers and converted these to fibres. The feathers were instanced to these fibres and scale determined by the curves length. A duplicate of the wing curves was then incorporated into the rig and our groom curves blended to these so as to match our animation. We created over 20 separate feather variations so as to give realism to the groom and feather orientation controlled by using the geometry’s surface normal as our up vector in conjunction with curves Yeti twist attribute.”

“We decided to create the wing texturing in the look development phase. It was all shader based so that we could have complete control over colour variants and no one feather was the same hue, to break up the overall look making it more realistic.”

“Getting the right balance of iridescence on the black feathers and then ensuring the white feathers had enough detail and variation to stand out was challenging. We spent time in the look development stages tweaking the shaders and then when we got to actual shot production we were working very closely with Neil and our groom and creature effects team so that we were able to get a look that he and Douglas were really happy with.”

“Some of the shots needed to have a bespoke groom set up as we soon realised that when the animators were posing the wings at some angles they would not capture the correct shape or volume that was required for that specific shot, but this gave us the freedom to sculpt the groom and make sure that none of the detail was lost and so the wings looked and felt a part of the actors as they progressed thought the scene.”

Yeti was also used for the digital neck and head extension of Adam’s lovable pet, the Hell Hound.  A big thank you to the Milk team and you can watch Good Omens on Amazon’s Prime Video now.

Yuriy Dulich’s Great Horned Owl

Yuriy Dulich kindly shared details about how he crafted his beautiful Great Horned Owl over the course of 4 months using Yeti, Maya, Arnold and Mari.


 

“I chose my typical approach with this type of character – to make it as realistic and anatomically correct as possible. The research process for this project included reading scientific literature, speaking with amateur keepers and meeting professional ornithologists including a live owl to study.”

“It all started with the collection of detailed references. There were no problems with photo-references as there are a lot of them from different angles and once I started gathering these the scale of the work became clear. But it was necessary to dig into more detail and problems started with the owl’s anatomy, the location of the feathers on the body and how their length and structure depend on their location and how the texture of the feathers varies themselves.”

“I decided to visit the zoo to talk with ornithologists and thanks to my friend Simon Andrew, who is a scientist fond of ornithology, I managed to study the living Ural owl very closely. This made it possible to better understand the volume of feathers in relation to the volume of the body itself, the location of the pterilium, the anatomy of the body, the structure of the feathers, and much more. The book “The Unfeathered Bird” by Katrina van Grouw helped me a lot with anatomy and additional feather textures were obtained from the online database of ornithologists: https://www.fws.gov/lab/featheratlas/ and https://www.featherbase.info/ru/home. The rest of the textures I hand-painting according to the reference with the whole process taking place in parallel with the sculpting and grooming.”

“Before sculpting I managed to find a scan of the skull of the desired owl and assembled the skeleton according to the reference while basing it on a modified skeleton of a parrot.”

“The next challenge was building the skin up to the intended volume, making a guess based on all of the reference as there are no photos of this specific owl without feathers. When the base model was built, the grooming and feather creation began. This is a very delicate and long work that requires attention and a large number of references.”

“I have implemented an iterative grooming method in my pipeline and with this method, literally in 2-3 passes, I get close to the desired shape of the strands. In Yeti, I used a new feature with a shader node which allowed me to visualize where the right layer of feathers is on the body by procedurally setting different colors for each layer. An expression based on the length and layer was used to automatically selected the necessary set of feathers with the required density.”

“To generate the feathers, I used both the Yeti built-in feather primitive along with the jcFeather plugin and divided the whole owl into zones.”

“Each region has from 3 to 9 variations of feathers. In total, there are 3,913 feathers on the body and 2362 feathers covering of the wings. The wing and tail feathers were based on photo references I took from the ornithological researchers – although their resolution wasn’t great their shape was clearly visible and creation was not difficult.”

“I want to note that I did not use polygonal planes in general, all of the the feathers based on fibres where the total number of feathers was 6327 which consisted of 2188922 fibres.”

“I tried to keep the Grooming as anatomically correct as possible following the so-called pterilium and the length of feathers while measuring and adjusting to my subjects proportions.”

“This is quite a laborious business as there is very little information or scientific articles on this topic. But the analysis of other birds and familiarity with the Ural owl allowed me to solve this problem.”

“I iterated on the grooming by repeatedly fitting to the body model, adjust wing positions and small tests with body deformation – once I was happy I finalized the basic shape of the owl. In ZBrush, I performed a highly detailed sculpt and together with the vector textures I finalized the body model.”

“Next was the final fit of the grooming, the angles of rotation of the feathers, the number of fibres in the feathers and their thickness with repeated test renders to try and match the feeling and look of the reference.”

“Having good success with my previous work I decided to perform the final visualization in the studio as well. By lighting nothing complicated, I used from 2-4 AreaLigth to simulate a soft box of light sources and one sky dome at a low exposure.”

“In the end the average render time on 2*Xeon E5-2695v3 (2*14core @ 2,8GHz) for 8k images was approximately 30h, and 4k images for the head was 14h.”


 

And here is a fantastic breakdown of how it came together – thank you Yuriy.

 

TeamTO’s Mighty Mike and the Wild Bunch

TeamTO is a full featured producer and independent animation studio in France who handles 100% of their own CGI production process across two studios, one located in Paris and the other Bourg-lès-Valence. This strategy enables them to closely control every stage of production and guarantees the consistent quality of every show while maintaining a flexible, reliable and high-performing environment which encourages artistic talents to flourish.

We had the chance to speak with TeamTO’s CTO, Jean-Baptiste Spieser, about how Yeti helped them deliver their most recent endeavour – Mighty Mike and the Wild Bunch.

Mighty Mike and the Wild Bunch, Courtesy of TeamTO

“When we decided to launch our new show, Mighty Mike and the Wild Bunch, in 2018; we hadn’t experimented extensively with fur in a TV series production. Of course we’ve used Yeti previously on a feature film (“Yellowbird” directed by Chirstian de Vita) but our experience told us that feature films and TV series are so different in terms of flow and pipeline – the quality-budget-shedule equilibrium is very specific to each typology of production.”

“Our artistic requirements were high with Mighty Mike and we didn’t want the presence of fur to bring limitations to our directors and artists (close-ups on characters, cartoon deformation, number of characters in the same shots, environment and FX interactions ). That was quite an ambition to deal with and the choice of Yeti was definitely one of the good ones!”

“The 5 main characters were animals with fur and there is an average of two of them in each of our 10,608 shots. Once they were groomed and our pipeline stabilized, everything went so smooth on the farm or, as we say in French, au poil!

Mighty Mike and the Wild Bunch, Courtesy of TeamTO

“With a powerful toolset and open graph we were able to easily integrate Yeti in our pipeline. This freed us up to deal with the derivate characters while allowing the development of our dedicated collision-tools to deal with all the interactions the animals had with the sets, props or themselves – with the characters spending so much time chasing, fighting and hugging each other.”

“In total 1,697,280 cache files were exported with 8000 furry images being rendered each day enabling us deliver 3 episodes per week at cruising speed.”

“Peregrine definitely provided us a powerful tool to serve our artistic ambition.”

Elephant Tangles with Giraffe

Cirkus uses Yeti to help WWF remind us the fragility of fresh water

It’s always exciting to hear when Yeti is used for causes close to our heart, and Elephant vs. Giraffe created by the team at Cirkus for WWF doesn’t fall short.

In a poignant statement about the future of fresh water vs. global population growth Romain Borrel, the film’s director, came up with a concept where an elephant and giraffe end up in an altercation over a bottle of fresh water with many twists and turns (literally) along the way.

Giraffe inspects water

Romain told us Yeti was chosen by the team as it allowed them to achieve the level of realism and feature film quality required to create these two photorealistic animals.

A big but critical decision made part way through the project was to switch from their previous rendering engine to Redshift – with the tight integration offered between Yeti and Redshift the team felt both products worked incredibly well together resulting in five times the speed in per frame render times while still maintaining the same, high quality, result.

Elephant and Giraffe pretzels

Although many of the core crew were familiar with Yeti and happy using it due to its power and ease of use, the fact it is taught widely among New Zealand students provided an additional win for Cirkus who was able to scale their team with artists comfortable using it from day one.

Thank you to the team at Cirkus for reminding us our planet is fragile and supporting WWF and similar foundations who endeavor to improve life on Earth for all species is imperative to a long and sustainable future.

Below is the full video for you to enjoy.