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An FX TD's Take on Cinematic Environments | Daniel Lee

An FX TD's Take on Cinematic Environments | Daniel Lee

by danieltslee on 13 May 2022 for Rookie Awards 2022

These are my favorite pieces that I completed during my first year at Gnomon School of VFX. I love to create cinematic environments and problem solve in clever ways. The scope of these projects ranged anywhere from modeling and texturing to scripting and scene optimization. I hope you enjoy!

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Valley of the Scared Tree

I wanted to make a landscape that captures the scale and magnitude of an epic, ancient tree. The forest is built from assets created in SpeedTree. The landscape and hero tree are created in Houdini with the help of SideFX Lab's Tree Generator toolset. 

To achieve the scale and complexity of this scene, I needed to create my own pipeline of importing data. This involved processes such as importing/exporting models, creating materials, and generating proxy geometry. 

The project was a ton of fun because I had the chance to exercise both my creative and technical muscles. I know that I just scratched the surface of tool creation but I cannot wait to do more.

Houdini - SpeedTree - Python - Redshift - Nuke

Below is a quick demo of the tool I created to import SpeedTree Fbx assets. The tool is launched through an integrated python panel tab. It imports detected Fbx models under the specified directory and optionally generates materials. The tool will display information regarding imported assets, alerting the artist about missing materials or unimported fbx assets.

Full tool at

In addition to the importer tool, I created a two additional shelf tools to optimize my work flow. 

The first script creates tree groups (subnets) with scale and density controls. The generated subnets were intended to be used with Houdini's Heightfield Scatter HDA.

The second script generates .rs Redshift Proxy files on all selected geometry. The proxies are only loaded at render time, thus, not slowing down the viewport when working on the scene.

I created the terrain using Houdini's heightfield toolset. I separated the terrain into two main sections: a hi-res foreground and a lower-res background. To further optimize the scene, I deleted the back facing geometry on the background heightfield and provided a buffer for a seamless transition. Working with heightfields this way allowed me to procedurally mask areas to scatter different layers of my forest while retaining the control that I needed.

In Nuke, I reconstructed the beauty pass using the Raw compositing workflow. This gave me the most control over each element of my render. For the background, I utilized Nuke's 3D tools to match my camera movement. I projected mountain textures onto 3D cards and the sky texture onto a sphere. This way, I was able to use a Scanline render to achieve accurate parallax between the elements.

After the adding plates and grading the image, I added elements to make my shot feel more cinematic. This included atmospheric fog, glow effects, lens distortion, chromatic aberration, handheld camera shake, and of course, lens flare.

I used PureRef to compile reference images that fit what I wanted in the scene.

Nixie Workshop

I wanted to make a scene that captures the feeling of an old school electronics workbench as well as the aesthetic of nixie tubes. I began by gathering references of nixie tubes and some vintage electronic test equipment. I also studied manufacturing and assembly processes to ensure that each piece is modeled how it would be built in reality. Lastly, I added some electrical components to fill the scene.

Maya - Substance Painter - Vray - Nuke

Raw render vs Composited

I used PureRef to compile reference images that fit what I wanted in the scene.

In Nuke, I reconstructed my scene using Vray LightSelects. This way, I could quickly change and lookdev the intensities and colors of the individual light contributions. Using ZDepth, I added some atmosphere and lens effects. I added two layers of glow to make the nixie bulbs pop more. Finally, I included a subtle vignette to complete the compositing work. 

The light select workflow is extremely versatile. It allowed me to animate flickers on individual light elements without the needed for long render sequences.

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