VFX studio profile: Fusion CI Studios
Fusion CI Studios wasn’t even a twinkle in the eyes of founders Mark Stasiuk and Lauren Millar when they met. Rather, writes Renee Dunlop, it was an explosion
Fusion CI Studios is a Los Angeles-based effects house specialising in fluids and particles, whose credits include Poseidon (2006), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), and more recently The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011). The studio was formed in 2005 by Mark Stasiuk and Lauren Millar after the pair met on Montserrat during a volcanic eruption. Stasiuk was the head geophysicist from Lancaster University in England, and filmmaker Millar was shooting a documentary about the volcano.
Fusion CI’s preferred software is Next Limit’s RealFlow, a program that complements the studio’s other core tools, which include Maya, Houdini, FumeFX, Krakatoa, 3ds Max and Maxwell. Stasiuk’s proficiency in RealFlow led him to work directly with Next Limit, reporting bugs and suggesting improvements, a synergy that resulted in Next Limit’s referral of Fusion CI to its first major industry gig, a flooding scene in the remake of The Poseidon Adventure for visual effects company CIS Hollywood. “A wall of water blasts down a long corridor, pushing debris, charging straight toward and finally washing over the camera,” says Stasiuk.
“Initially, I worked as a fluid effects supervisor within other companies. Then, very quickly, we were getting multiple job requests simultaneously, so we started generating the effects at our own location, acting as a ‘plug and play’ effects group for other VFX companies.”
Stasiuk’s science background, and his understanding of dynamics, optics, and computational methods, is what sets Fusion CI apart. Prior to the effects in Poseidon, details such as foam on the surface of fluids or white water spray were the dominion of Stanford physicists or large production facilities such as ILM, with terabytes of proprietary software developed by teams over long periods of time. Stasiuk developed the methodology for Poseidon, accomplishing both processes in just eight weeks.
“A few seconds of poorly done visuals can pull the viewer out of the experience,” says Fusion CI co-founder Mark Stasiuk (seated)
Going with the flow
Fusion CI was formed in the earliest phases of dynamic effects, particularly regarding water. RealFlow 3 was available, but it was only used for accent effects. Fusion CI was awarded the contract to work on Poseidon at the same time that Next Limit decided to crank up RealFlow’s capabilities, which included increasing the speed and processing to 64 bits, and adding multithreading and Python scripting. It was a turning point for the industry. “It meant that suddenly there was this off-the-shelf software that hadn’t existed before that could do large-scale water shots,” says Stasiuk. “Now any studio could buy this package and have the capabilities and the tools to create the effects that had been the dominion of the largest studios.” The new software cemented Fusion CI as a speciality boutique for fluid effects, allowing its small team of experts to create stellar CG fluids, using off-the-shelf software combined with in-house tools. Rather than spending valuable resources staffing-up to create these kinds of effects, other VFX houses looked to Fusion CI to be their instant effects team.
“Because we do it every day, we maintain an expertise and toolset that we continually build on,” says Stasiuk. “That allows us to jump on projects that are really challenging, and helps the VFX houses out in terms of budget, because they don’t have to spend time in R&D. Other VFX studios look to us to perform as their instant effects team. We’re constantly improving our methodologies and tools to respond immediately to their needs, and we’ve now ramped up our capabilities to the point where we’re in discussions about significant film sequences.”
“Our brains are wickedly good at discerning physics that doesn’t quite look right,” adds Millar. “So accuracy in complex dynamic effects is worth the effort – making the difference between a cool shot and a crap shot. When companies hire us to do their effects work, they are getting a highly experienced team. They would have to search for a long time to find artists of that quality, then get those artists up to speed and do the R&D.”
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Fusion CI’s work on the Swedish crime thriller
Fusion CI worked with Blur Studio on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo title sequence, creating a series of fluid animations. Throughout the sequence Blur’s work cut to a different shot every ten frames or so, and every shot had fluid effects ranging from fire to sticky tar to melting wax-like behaviours.
“We have done a lot of those kinds of effects in the past, like on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” says Stasiuk. In that film Fusion CI handled a scene that required water to stream off a submarine, but here the fluids had to appear sticky and gooey. “The tools were designed to handle far more than water, anticipating the need for various viscosities on future projects. You have to have that flexibility to quickly adapt to the new needs.”
One of the shots required an overhaul of several pre-existing tools designed for previous projects. Six hands reach up and wrap around the head of the film’s main character, Lisbeth, melting into her skull until the fingers collapse into the liquid volume inside. Again, Fusion CI’s in-depth understanding of RealFlow, coupled with Stasiuk’s background in fluid dynamics, made them perfect for the task.
First, Fusion CI created a duplicate of Lisbeth’s head and filled it with fluid, using a targeting script to memorise the locations of the detailed fluid parcels relative to the geometry that contained it. “As the geometry moved, we targeted the fluid to the motion of the geometry so that the fluid moved with it,” says Stasiuk.
As the hands come into contact with the fluid of the CG head, they melt the fluid, releasing it from the targeting forces and allowing it to gurgle upwards through her fingers. “We created a melting script – basically we did a physical simulation of a thermal wave propagating into the fluid from the fingers – it’s the physics of heat passing through solids, resulting in a propagating wave of melting.”
on Tuesday, August 28th, 2012 at 4:20 pm under Features.
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Tags: 3ds Max, fumefx, Fusion CI Studios, Houdini, Krakatoa, Maxwell Render, Maya, RealFlow, studio, VFX