Niels Prayer: Animating ‘Foundation by I. Asimov

Niels Prayer: Animating ‘Foundation by I. Asimov

A great look into how procedural technologies could be used to develop amazing visuals for games or TV.

We were fortunate to talk to Niels Prayer – a great VFX artist, who most recently released a fantastic title sequence for the ‘Foundation’ TV-show. Although this is a fan project, it’s done exceptionally well (like most of work by Niels). In out little interview he discussed the production of this video and the tools he used to do it.

Could you please tell us a little about the background of the project? What did you want to test here? What inspired you to create this amazing video?

Working on something using the Foundation’s Asimov books as background is a thing I’ve always kept in mind. I just love the man’s work and I’m a huge fan of what he did through the Foundation series. The first main challenge was to create a product respectful and really humble face to the initial material. I always wanted to see those books in a movie or a TV show, and creating an opening title for that fit what I wanted to see and what I can do. So, I’ve read the books again, taking some notes during the reading process and I isolated the main concept, the main characters and I’ve seen how I could organize the amount of informations in simplest ideas/visuals. The main inspiration was first the books of course, but visually, I wanted to break with the sci-fi codes, the blueish mood, lasers or glowing spaceship trails etc… I wanted to illustrate the concept of religion, manipulation and game of influences visually.

Could you talk about the creation of the huge open mechanics, that works as the central part of the animation? How was this created? What software did you use to model and animate it? Is it Cinema 4d or Maya?

Everything was done in Houdini. (except the end statue made by a friend in Zbrush)

It’s a procedural modeling directly done in the soft, and I’ve linked all the animation of the solar system, gears and lines, into one little asset. After that, I have just to use a little slider and control the speed to fit in my frame. Not really complex, but a little bit long to create. The beauty and flexibility of Houdini allows me to modify at will the number of planets or gears. When the setup was done, I’ve added the number of assets I wanted and I did the animation directly with my layout process. Really easy at this point: Camera placing, then, pull a slider to align planets in a good way, put keyframes, done.

You’ve done some amazing Houdini work here. Great procedural effects here with bubbles, particles – it looks amazing. Could walk us through some of the techniques you’ve used to build these crazy looking effects? 

I had a lot of fun creating the golden smoke. It’s basically a pyroFX simulation, converted to a VDB, playing with some smooth operations to obtain a great soft mesh.

The stars are particles generated through pops, using different forces to get a nice shape for the simplified milky way. The hardest thing to create was the automatic lines growing between each systems, and each planets of each systems. Quite a procedural mindstorm. It’s basically some recursive techniques using old pop networks, creating a setup to procedurally choose the points and detects the nearest points around it.

I’m really interested in how you’ve managed to combine all that action look like it was the part of the statue in the end of the video? It looks surreal. What is the production process behind this awesomeness?

That was the trickiest part! On every aspect, it was a challenge. From a design point of view and from a technical one. For the first part, I wanted to reveal the statue, the book, giving some mystery in there, starting from a crowd finishing with a part of the statue. Playing with that type of scale changes was really tricky. I’ve used some copy instancing to create the crowd, painting the positions on the points directly on the cracks of the book, and populate that by scattering points. The end part, was just heavy to compute but not as hard as the previous one. It’s just some noise on faces, used to extrude the primitives, creating the height differences, and animate through a custom attribute to have a proper look at the end.

Overall how much time did you need to build this video? Was it a collaborative work? Or did you work alone? What were the biggest problems you’ve had to solve here?

It takes me one month to complete, in my spare time (evening and WE); without counting the “reading/taking notes” process. I did everything by myself music included (like most of my personal projects), except, as I’ve mentionned above, the end modeling of the statue. It was the work of a very good and very talented friend, Ladislas Gueros. He did that really quickly, and it was good on the first shot. Check out his ArtStation.

Due to my time constraints, I’ve used the amazing Gridmarkets cloud rendering service to render most of the shots. 

The biggest problems was first to isolate the main ideas of the books, and to choose which one I want to focus on. Technically, maintaining the same gold aspect on everything, and trying to keep things readable that way, was really a big rendering challenge.

Do you think Sci-Fi might use it for their show?

Haha! It could be amazing to see my work on a real show, and particularly the “Foundation” TV show, normally written by J.Nolan. If they call me to make one, inspired by my little piece, of course I will say yes! But let’s face it, when you see titles like Patrick Clair’s “Westworld” one, I have a lot of work to do before pretending reaching their poetry and their quality! I’m really inspired by those modern opening titles, and it feels so good to see people can make such detailed and perfect products like that. It really encourages me to be  really demanding with myself. It pushes me every day to be a better artist.

Niels Prayer, Direction / Art Direction

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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