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Whether the situation calls for gelatinous germs, crunching car crashes or anything in between, the uber-creatives at Assemble can deliver the visual goods. The Berkeley, California-based band of designers, animators and artists is known for high-concept digital effects and design production on feature films, promos and commercials including Superman, Hollowman 2 and XBOX 360. The company was founded in 2005 by Asa Hammond and Mauchi Baiocchi, veteran CG and animation supervisors with tenures at The Orphanage, ILM and other top effects houses, and combined credits including Terminator 3, Sin City, Spider Man, and The Hulk, to name just a few. Committed to meeting each project with intensity, enthusiasm and focus, Assemble sets strict limits on the number of projects they take on. They are equally discerning about their tools, and the Nuke compositor is at the foundation of their pipeline.

“Initially we had Fusion,� said Assemble co-founder and lead compositor Asa Hammond. “But it just didn’t do what we needed it to and it wasn’t available on Linux. When we started looking for alternatives I got a demo version of Nuke and found that it had a well thought-out artist workflow that would let us do true high-end compositing—and do it quickly.� Aside from Nuke’s speed and multi-channel support, which Hammond points to as the attributes that most help Assemble’s work, it was the software’s production-focused design that closed the deal. “Nuke has so many smart little things that make the work go smoothly—like letting you type “b� to drop in a blur plug-in instead of having to click through menus. Or the fact that it clips the blacks by default but not the whites when you throw down a colour correction so you don’t get negative float values. Those are just smart ways of working that clearly come from people who understand the getting-work-done side of this business. He added, “Working in a floating point environment can get very complicated; making sure you are always doing the right things to the colour. You can drive yourself crazy with just managing the ‘correct’ colour pipeline in some other applications. In Nuke, the bulk of these issues are taken care of right off the bat and you can spend your energy working on the image.�

Keeping Things Clean for Domestos

After bringing its compositors up to speed on the new package, Assemble dove into its first Nuke project – a pair of commercial spots for Domestos cleaner, for London’s Lowe Advertising. The spots feature a pair of animated germs (voiced by the comedy duo of Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry of Black Adder fame) and, well, toilets. Assemble took an end-to-end role, handling character design, 3D animation and lighting/compositing, storyboard breakdowns, pre-vis, and directing. They delivered 39 versions that have aired 11 countries. The first spot aired in summer 2007, and the second will air in February 2008. The Assemble team animated the germs in 3D using Houdini and gave them their gooey look in the lighting/compositing process with Nuke. That’s where the software’s multi-channel compositing/Open EXR played an important role. “We used the crap out of EXR—excuse the pun,� said Hammond. “The germs have a gelatinous look, like they are made of jelly. We rendered out a series of all of the different base channels—SSS, occlusion, reflection etc.—into one EXR file, then came up with a recipe to make the look inside Nuke. We created a Gizmo for the look of one germ with sliders on it for all the important qualities of the look (the lighting, slime factor, etc,) and used those to tune the reflection and all of the parameters. That way, rather than spend a ton of time in the 3D world lighting a scene, any artist could bring a set of renders into Nuke and do a first lighting pass there. They were able to get most of the look in Nuke by combining the channels in interesting ways.� He added, “Nuke’s 3D capabilities are almost as fast as a 3D app in terms of tumbling, geometry handling and easy navigation. It gives you all of the tumbling options of the major 3D packages, real-time animated cameras, and you can even load a sequence of geometry.� Handling complex renders for the germs’ limescale castles was another task where Nuke shined. “Rendering just one frame of the complex displacement shader we came up with was a machine-month’s worth of time,� said Hammond. “It’s not something we would typically call production-worthy, but it looked nice and goopy. There was no way we’d be able to deliver twenty five versions if we had to deal with that render time for each frame.� Instead, they rendered four different chunks of limescale and imported them as images along with their corresponding geometry into Nuke and projected the render onto the model in Nuke. “We could then use these to populate the scene at a very reasonable render hit and have the freedom to move a camera over them in Nuke,� Hammond explained. Using Assemble’s own camera caching format they were able to use the same camera and data in Nuke and Houdini, saving an enormous amount of render time. Unfortunately for the germs, all of Assemble’s work creating the limescale castles was for naught. The power of Domestos ultimately wipes them out in an explosion, and they disappear in a plume of smoke. For that effect, Assemble shot smoke and cloud elements with a high-speed camera and composited them into the scene with Nuke. - more - With the delivery of the Domestos spots, Assemble turned its team and tools to a very different task, the music video for Carrie Underwood’s “So Small.�

Creating a Big Bang for Carrie Underwood

Instead of epic toilet battles, the team’s challenge on “So Small� was to create a CG car crash and fifteen cutaways of different views of the crash in slow-motion and frozen time around greenscreened actors. Directed by Roman White and produced by Revolution Pictures, the video premiered in September 2007. Hammond recalls, “We got a call on a Tuesday that they needed to shoot the video on Sunday night, and they needed two cars crashing in a head-on collision. Our first question was, ‘So… are you going to crash real cars?’ That was followed by a very long pause and a very quick ‘nope.’ So we packed our bags and headed off to Nashville.� The live-action cars were shot on an abandoned tarmac, and they never actually collided. Instead, Assemble re-created the cars in CG and had them crash, crumpling the fronts of both and spraying glass and debris into the air around the greenscreened drivers and pedestrian. The scene goes to slow motion and eventually freezes time during the crash, and cuts to Underwood performing amidst a suspended spray of glass. “Originally we shot the cars in motion stepping on their brakes with the intention of tracking in the 3D crashed car noses,� said Hammond. “We ended up doing the effect in reverse, animating the noses crumpling and crushing in 3D first, importing that animation into Nuke, and then using that information to track still images of the cars and greenscreen performances onto the animated car noses. Because we could use Nuke that way we had more freedom on how to crash the cars and we weren’t locked to the shot elements.� Hammond and his team used Nuke’s multi-channel capabilities to create the composite. “We pushed out a bunch of passes and reflections from Houdini and used those as EXRs in Nuke.� They were able to work in higher-than-HD resolution, which allowed them to re-use the composite in multiple shots; one wide and one close-up. “Nuke was fast enough to allow us to do it in a large overscan resolution (over 2300 pixels wide), We were able to use that backplate in two different shots and only had to do one composite of the cars crashing. We just did it big and used it twice. Nuke gave us a very practical solution to a potentially hard sequence of shots.� The video also required a fair degree of greenscreen extraction and compositing, for the drivers of the cars, pedestrian on the road, and Carrie Underwood performing in the scene. The team used Nuke’s roto and rig removal tools to blend elements seamlessly and create the illusion of Underwood plucking a shard of glass from the air and dropping it into a puddle. Following the successful execution of both the Domestos promos and Underwood video, Hammond reflected on Assemble’s decision to make Nuke its primary compositor. “I have to admit, thinking in channels was hard at first. Once we made that leap, it turned into the one feature we use the most and really can’t imagine working without. You just push out multi-channel EXRs from 3D and have all of the channels available in your comp. We had masks for each of the parts of the car, fresnel and lighting passes, all quickly available and easily viewable. The viewer in Nuke is well thought-out and makes viewing and working with these channels very intuitive. I keep raving about Nuke to my comper friends.�