Going viral recently is a video seemingly showing a waterfall inside of Salesforce’s downtown San Francisco lobby. Fusion CIS explains how it created the effect on the 106ft by 15ft display wall.
San Francisco creative studio, Obscura Digital contacted Fusion CIS to bring its designs to life. Specialising in dynamic effects, Fusion CIS has more than a decade of experience in film, TV, commercials, games and installations.
“We’ve set oceans raging, parted the Red Sea and exploded helicopters out of the air in blazing glory – all from the comfort of our computer screens,” says Fusion CIS.
“It’s a technically challenging area of visual effects and we’ve spent years honing the art, so we’re a perfect complement to creative studios who focus on other skills. But even with our vast experience, this 106ft waterfall created unique challenges.
“It’s one of those ‘awesome, not awesome’ things,” Fusion CIS continues. “The computer-generated waterfall is front and centre. Not background, not part of the scene – it is the scene. That puts intense pressure on the simulation and renders, not to mention the planning/design/creative direction from Obscura.”
On top of that, the huge physical dimension of the display wall – stretching 106t by 15ft – required a massive image size; 8112 x 960 pixels, to be exact.
“Typically we deliver rendered HD images, 1920 x 1080, which for giant VFX (visual effects) elements still means long, grinding simulation and render times,” explains Fusion CIS.
“So this project definitely cranked the bar to new heights. In VFX, the bigger the element the longer the render and the greater the detail you have to pack in to ‘sell it’ as real. So this had to be planned with meticulous care.”
Then there was shot length to take into account. The majority of Fusion CIS’ project shots are for adverts and films, with shot lengths of around 30 to 250 frames. However, to achieve the zen-like feel that SalesForce desired, the waterfall needed to be 1,100 frames.
“And, we needed two different types of waterfalls,” Fusion CIS reflects.
“The perfect storm. The key to dealing with such mind-numbing requirements is to partner with groups who have the right experience and resources to handle the different components.”
Obscura Digital’s highly skilled team is well experienced with long shots and this type of creative, so the team fully understood the technical challenges, whereas Fusion CIS has handled a plethora of deeply challenging VFX in the past. Renderstorm handled the physical render to enable Fusion CIS to focus on the rigors of the simulations and lighting.
“We used RealFlow (Next Limit Technologies) which allows VFX artists to create a wide range of dynamic and physical simulations,” explains Fusion CIS.
Fusion CIS has developed a vast library of methods and tools that extend RealFlow’s capabilities, controlling and manipulating it to achieve custom results. Here, two waterfalls had to be designed: a basic version that starts flowing gradually, develops into a full waterfall that splashes against the lobby doorways, then gradually trickles to a stop.
The second was more involved, starting with the fully flowing waterfall that then interacts with a continuously deforming set of tiers that push gradually out of the wall, then recede back.
Obscura Digital provided the protruding wall layout as a digital file, with dimensions set to match the lobby wall and also created the deforming tiered geometry for the second waterfall.
To achieve the right amount of detail, Fusion CIS designed a digital waterfall system made of four overlapping panels, which could be put together in a lighting file to create the full waterfall. Each panel could then be simulated separately, allowing four times more detail in the water than would have been possible if the waterfall was done as a single unit.
The water in the simulation pours over an edge and down a vertical face. Fusion CIS also designed a dynamically moving array of tiny cubes at the lip of the cliff, so the water would develop little internal, sinuous channels that would shift and evolve, thus avoiding a featureless flat wall of water but avoiding anything too violent that would break the zen-like feel.
Finally, Fusion CIS created a set of forces around the lobby doorways that would allow the water to flow in a natural, dynamic way, but would still separate and not become overly splashy and distracting.
The simulation time for each panel of the basic waterfall was about 48 hours for 1,100 frames, running on a high-end workstation. For the more complex waterfall interacting with the tiered geometry, this time increased to around five days.
The number of particles in each panel of simulation was 20 to 30 million. Below is a 3/4 angle on one panel of the deforming tier waterfall showing the raw simulation data as particles:
While the simulations ran on multiple machines, the Fusion CIS team generated the ‘surfaced’ versions through a process called meshing. To render the simulations as water, the raw particle data has to be taken first and then calculated on a polygonal surface that smoothly coats the particles and ends up representing the free surface of the water.
Each panel of water generated 50 to 100 million polygon meshes per frame, meaning that the total waterfall was made up of 200 to 400 million polygons.
The meshing alone took about four days to complete per waterfall panel. Below is a preview movie showing half the action of one panel of the meshes for the waterfall:
While the eight panels of simulation and eight panels of meshes were calculated, Fusion CIS worked in parallel on lighting the meshes, submitting still frames and short sections of the rendered look to Obscura Digital for feedback.
“We used Maxwell Render (another software tool created by Next Limit Technologies) for the lighting,” says Fusion CIS. “It is able to create highly realistic renders and is also highly optimised to handle scenes with huge detail levels, so it was a perfect fit for this project.”
Fusion CIS created an architectural style lighting rig made of an array of 40 soft spotlights with a cool blue tone, using a small network of machines to keep the lighting work going while the simulations and meshes were running.
Below is a turntable style view showing a section of the waterfall allowing a good feel for the dynamics and lit look:
“With final approval on the waterfalls’ behaviour and lighting, we sent all the data to render farm RenderStorm and worked with them to manage the heavy task of rendering 2,200 giant frames,” says Fusion CIS.
“With render times 10 to 12 hours per frame, it took 80-100 machines about two weeks to get the imagery completed. Obscura Digital’s artists adjusted colour/brightness and added in layers of mist to complete the overall look.”