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LIFE IN RUINS - By Alison Dieste

LIFE IN RUINS - By Alison Dieste

Alison Dieste
by alisondieste on 18 May 2022 for Rookie Awards 2022

Entry for the VFX category in the Rookie Awards 2022. Life In Ruins is the story of a shrine unforgiven by nature itself! Entirely built in Houdini -the compo was made in Nuke.

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Life In Ruins is a story of ancient power and forgetful devotees, where the wrath of a forsaken god forces its own demise. 

When the time came to outline this project, the very first list of needs included the usage of other 3D softwares for the environment creation. For example, most of the props and assets were set to be modeled in Blender, so Cycles would be in charge of the texturing, illumination and render, whereas Houdini would handle the simulations. However, after some tweaking with procedural rock generation, the entire project changed course and ended up being carried out completely inside of Houdini. 


In the first place, I assembled a definitive list of the props and assets that would be needed to build the main cave. The ground and main body for the cave were the first to go, so as to define the whole area and the size reference I would be working with. As for the walls, the displacement was both achieved by tri-planar displacement maps, and reinforced with material displace. The soil started as a heightfield, edited by several noises and eroded to achieve the desired hydro erosion for the still water in the scene.

To fill the cave in, three procedural rock assets of different classes were built. Two of them were converted to subnets for an efficient, diverse distribution alongside the scene of boulders and small pebbles, while the other was turned into a pair of stone walls for the back of the space. Diverse techniques were applied, and the details were achieved either by geometry vops or volume noises that were later turned into polygons. 

Concerning the main props of the shrine, the arches, pillars and altar follow the same modeling technique: the geometry was converted into volumes for the detailing, and then changed back to polygons. The arches in particular were shaped using one of the rock assets, where randomly shaped and distributed rocks fractured the arches’ bodies. By changing the controller’s parameters, the arches were modified until finding the desired structure. The extra texture and displacement were added through the materials.

Other props like the torches, trees and the statue were downloaded from free 3D model websites. 

Once the set dressing was done, the preparation for the simulations was set in motion. For the grass growth, some lines were scattered on a selected area of the ground, and then animated with an attribute transfer for scale and bending. However, for the ivy growth a specific solver was built so the curves would grow and trigger the leaves as well.

Along with the pyro simulation, the growth systems needed to be retimed to follow the narrative. The events leading to the shrine’s destruction are triggered by the extinguishing of the torche’s fire, which sets in motion the grass and ivy sims, and allows the water to flow into the cave.

The water simulation was sorted into three levels: waterfall, river and white water. For the three steps, the geometry of the cave had to be turned into volumes to serve as a collider. The river and waterfall emitters were generated by taking the environment into account and using said geometry to shape them, as well as creating custom velocity attributes, whereas the white water emitter used the river simulation as a source. Custom AOVs were made using the vorticity and speed attributes, after binding them as masks inside the material. 

Last but not least, the RBD simulation held utmost importance narratively speaking, as it represents the destruction of the god inside the shrine. The simulation was fashioned from three components: rigid body fracture, debris and smoke. 


Nuke was the software used in the compositing process, where all of the elements in the scene were finally merged together. The lighting from the render was enhanced, and some volumetrics rendered aside with blender were added as well. The mist from the white water in addition to some atmospheric fog helped achieve the eerie ambience I was looking for, and aided to highlight the statue further. A flare effect along with a glow were added to the fire, and the water simulation was also tweaked with using a vorticity pass to bring out the foam effect. 


In conclusion, Life In Ruins was most definitely a challenge that not only made me implement every bit of Houdini knowledge acquired during my courses at Lightbox Academy, but also helped me strengthen my understanding of both the software and needs behind a vfx project as complex as this one. It required me to compartmentalize every step of the way, and to create a specific pipeline so everything could fall into place. Overall, I’m content with the result – as a fantasy lover, I knew from the start that I wanted to build something magical, and I hope Life In Ruins shows that passion of mine.

Besides, working with the Rookie Awards in mind only added to the fun, and I sure strive to join again in the future! 


My deepest gratitude to my teacher and classmates at Lightbox Academy for the support even when all I could talk about was white water and flip simulations! Special thanks to Jaime Slagado for his guidance and help in my Nuke journey, and to Antonio Torralba for his endless support and wonderful artistic vision. 


The making of this project was inspired by the work of many artists all around the globe, though I’d like to specially mention Artur Gurin, Rogelio Olguin and Jacek Irzykowski, whose artwork deeply influenced this project. 

Mention to user Psychloor in sketchfab for the torches 3D model

Credits for the music used in this project go to:

Music provided by HearWeGo

Artist: Wiljan & Xandra

Title: Woodlands

Listen on YouTube.

Music provided by HearWeGo

Artist: Aurora B.Polaris

Title: Forgotten

Listen on YouTube. 

Music provided by HearWeGo

Artist: Andy Leech

Title: Dawn

Listen on YouTube.

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