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Mahmoud Ageena talked about the production of a complex 3d scene, which was done with the help of UE4 and Houdini.
I’m Mahmoud Ageena “Agina” a VFX Artist and a designer, I can say I was lucky as i started my professional career in Egypt on 2002 as a graphic designer in a tv station called Dream TV, I’ve worked there for around 2 years ,I was mainly involved in motion graphic work and composting as TV idents and Promos where also had a great chance to work on and learn a lot on Autodesk Flame that wasn’t an easy thing then to put hand on such a machine unless are working on a big studio and there was only like two or three of those in Egypt at the moment.
Then moved to Graphic Aroma one of the best post productions in Egypt and the middle east as I spend there around a year and it was full of challenges as we were handling channels identities the area that I really found myself in. And the company won Promax Arabia in 2005 for best TV idents and package.
In med 2005 I got a chance to go into a new challenge as Al Jazeera Network and Qatar offered me a position as the network was expanding to cover different genre so they started with 2 channels targeting kids and preschooler called Al Jazeera children channel now called Geem tv and the other one for preschooler and named Baraem.
I had the chance to work with a famous French Broadcast design company called Gedeon as it was responsible of creating the indents and the look of the channel , it was a great experience to discover the French mentality and taste in the Broadcast design area , and we were also lucky to win a Promax for best logo animation at the same year.
A side from that I had a chance to work with a very talented and ambitious and very well educated young Qatari fresh graduated team.
At the end of 2007 the channel implemented the Autodesk Flame in the pipeline , I had the chance again to get back to composting , as I was also handling lots of shooting work so I needed such a power horse machine to help me tackle the challenges we face specially during shooting.
In 2008 I traveled to Montreal to attend Flame advanced courses at Autodesk headquarter and that was a priceless experience, to be in the headquarter in one of the greatest company in our field was like a dream.
In 2010 I’ve joined MBC ” Middle East Broadcast Center ” in Dubai UAE as a Flame artist, one of the first and the biggest TV network in the Middle East, and I still proud to be working there till the moment.
Working in MBC is a dream to any artist in the middle east area, and it was a dream that stayed with me for quite a long time.
Working with such a professional team is a great thing, the project’s size is always big the thing that raises the challenges than the expectation and so on and on and it never stops the sky always is the limit for the company.
I got the chance to win the Gold Award for a generic TV spot in 2015 Promaxbda in Los Angeles competing with the biggest US and international networks.
As the challenges are always raising I also had to challenge myself , I needed to learn extra tools so I started with Nuke, Houdini and lately UE4 and started to implement them in my workflow the thing that really improved the end result and opened the doors for new bigger ideas that couldn’t be approached with our traditional workflow specially after discovering UE4.
Work with Houdini
As a compositor, I needed to serve on my work and ideas, and to introduce a wider or a ‘bigger catalog of ideas’ if I can say to my client to choose from.
And definitely, Houdini was there at the right time. Such a procedural tool was the right to use at the time especially with the presence of the Houdini engine that is very beneficial in building tools and assets that can be used in plenty of other packages, and when I decided to learn the UE4 I knew that the time that spent on Houdini was not a waste.
In the case of the non stop action project , the whole thing started on Houdini since the early stages of the storyboarding as it was more familiar for me to be used I went on adding things till it became almost there even the texturing and lighting , till I reached to a point that I couldn’t make it more beautiful although it feels it needs more and for sure the rendering time became a bit crazy , as I work on my workstation without a render farm it was clear that I need to find a better and more convenient solution.
At that time I was studying Unreal and seeing a lot of potential in it as a tool that might change a lot in the TV and broadcast design industry so I thought that was the right time to tackle that challenge and migrate my work to the Unreal, and there the fun has begun.
The main challenge here was the animation, I decided from the early stages to depend on physics-based animations as much as possible to benefit from the accuracy and realism . So I can say around 75 % of the animations was rigged body physics , and the rest were keyframed or manually animated if we can say.
Being in my first stages in learning UE4 transferring the animations wasn’t quite an easy trip. I faced lots of obstacles during that process and it took me awhile to figure it out, at the end, I manage to import the simulated part as vertex animation in alembic and some as fbx.
The car slot race was a Houdini digital asset with the spline ready to be animated in UE4 as the Houdini power clearly rise.
The project was a Tv spot for MBC action and it shows from the name, the channel is screening whatever related to the action genre.
The channel wanted to expand around that area to cover more audience categories and we needed to promote that in a new and attractive way that goes under “action”. The producer came with the idea that Is based on the “Rube Goldberg machine”.
I had to think about it as if we are building it for real so I started to think about from the physical side of it , putting in mind to make it more believable and look a life and with that in mind I managed to make a bit believable storyboard concept.
I started place objects in Houdini and testing with RBD “Rigid body dynamics” trying to relay more on Simulation and reducing or avoiding as much as I can the need of keyframe animations.
So all the animations has been completely done on Houdini that really equipped with great animation tools , as for example the drone animating at the end has been done using procedural and node base animation in chops and it is completely keyframe less process.
Domino’s falling effect
The domino effect animation was like if we can say the soul of the animation in this spot and without it things would look a bit dull as most of “Rube Goldberg machine” experiences are goes around the use of dominos in most cases.
It’s all done in Houdini, first I had to place the dominos to draw a certain shape based on any image , so I made in the beginning using the play icon and from an image using the trace node , getting the points in rows then using the copy node to place my dominos then starting the simulation process by hitting it with the ball that had to be with a certain mass to do the needed effect.
After finishing all that We needed to change the play icon to a gun shape and with the beauty of procedural workflow in Houdini that wasn’t a problem at all just replace the image in the trace node and that all.
My biggest challenges started definitely after the decision of switching everything to Unreal.
As It was my first trail with a project with that size on Unreal, I had to figure out a lot of stuff and some of it not with the easy way.
From the light building error messages that I had to study them one by one and learn how to avoid them. From the UV overlapping to the smoothing group issues, etc.
I had to import the elements individually as it seemed impossible to import the whole thing at once. The shadow looked a bit not that realistic, using the distance field shadows changed a lot. Importing the animation of the dominos was a big challenge, I managed to import as alembic vertex animation, then came the issue of sending their materials. I managed to export them in groups and solved the problem.
It was a tough challenge but surely never regretted it, it open the door for something big.
I believe that in the very near future Unreal will be the first choice and a mandatory tool in the broadcast design area.
Designed by Mahmoud Ageena
Audio designer Javed Khan
Promo producer Waleed Masoud
And Many thanks to our great team:
Ahmad Faour, Roy Doro, Pietro Marchioni and Greg nice and Rasha Saada.
Mahmoud Ageena “Agina”, a VFX Artist
Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev.