Asian Futurism World-building with Motion Graphics Using C4D and Houdini
Follow along with Yutao Fang as she Experiments with Cinema 4D and Houdini to create Futuristic Asian-Inspired Worlds.
Yutao Fang is a Los Angeles-based multidisciplinary artist with an architectural background born and raised in China.
Yutao recently graduated with a Master of Science - MS, Animation, Interactive Technology, Video Graphics and Special Effects, at SCI-Arc in Los Angeles, California.
Experience, Experiment, Expectation, was Yutao's thesis project at SCI-Arc, with the aim of creating an Asian futurism that combines the Miao people's mysteries with technology, based on a parafunctional concept of metals with biological properties. Using Cinema 4D and Houdini, Yutao shows us how this was achieved.
The short film comes in the form of motion graphics. I will break my workflow into five parts in this blog. I hope this will help you understand my personal film from start to finish and the entire process!
Part I. Narrative and Story
I started this project with world-creating and story writing. The story takes place in a Miao people village, my hometown, and home to an ethnic minority living in southwest China. Their origins date back 5,000 years to the Yan and Huang Eras.
My project's focus was on their oral epics and silver ornaments. The Miao people are natural believers in animism. According to their oral epic, all Miao people were descended from a goddess named Butterfly Mother. She is a goddess, born in the heart of a maple tree, fell in love with bubbles and laid 12 eggs. From the eggs hatch flying insects and running mammals, including the first Miao people: Jangx Vangb.
I built a post-apocalyptic world where all the metals suddenly come alive. They are free to transform their shape, reproduce themselves and even start contaminating existing creatures' genes. All the modern industrial cities in the world are paralysed.
For the Miao people, who still live in traditional wooden structures, metal is not a refuge for their bodies. Instead, metal, handmade silver ornament, is the medium through which souls and memories are stored. The souls of their ancestors who lived in silverware and animals carved into jewellery protected them and helped them evolve into something more than humans. Their unique sorceries to control the healing or cursing of poisonous creatures helped them establish a new co-existence with metal chimeras.
The two characters in the film are Jangx Vangb, who is in different locations on the timeline. So it's important that the two designs are different but similar. One will follow the traditional image of a Miao maiden, while the other retains a touch of the coarseness of Miao silver jewellery with futuristic metallic styles. The whole story will be a Mobius strip. The Chinese title of the project is "Undecided record," implying that the past, present and future are interchangeable.
I started building a mood board for Miao people's silver ornaments, costumes and villages, both traditional and possibly futuristic versions. Besides Miao culture, metal chimeras are another important element that I had to design and visualise. I'm referring mainly to the liquid metal T-1000 in Terminator 2, the activity in Venom, and the fractal mograph animation in Annihilation. I wanted to tune down the sci-fi feeling of these metal chimera and add a touch of tradition to help them blend into this ancient-futuristic world I designed.
Part II. Character Design
A.Tradition Miao Maiden
In order to emphasise the temporal context, the character design for the past and present version of Jangx Vangb needed to accurately restore the traditional Miao maiden look. I used sculpting and realistic fabric simulation to achieve this. At this stage, my main tools are Zbrush, Character Creator 3, Mixiamo and Marvelous Designer.
To create a convincing Miao maiden look, the symbolic, horn-shaped crown must be realistically handcrafted in high detail. Starting with the largest crescent, I used only three basic brushes inside Zbrush to mimic the rough-hewn look a crown would have in the hands of an old silversmith.
After that, I carved monomers of flowers, small plates of people riding horses and butterfly-shaped pendants, then copied and assemble them exactly according to the reference photos.
It took me nearly two weeks to complete my first Zbrush work: The Crown. Once finished, I immediately drag the Fbx file into Cinema 4D and used Octane nodes to create an ageing silver texture. This texture has been kept used until my final rendering.
I used Character Creator 3 to create the rigged female body model. After adding some details inside Zbrush, I export a T-pose model into Marvelous Designer to create the traditional Miao gown, where the stitching and fabric simulation was done well.
I then upload a nude T-body to Mixamo for a short spin and a walking animation. Finally, the animated fbx model is introduced to Marvelous Designer to create fabric simulations following the moving body.
B. Futuristic Goddess
Future versions of Jangx Vangb are more interesting to me. She is a goddess who partly merged with the metal chimera. According to the Miao oral epic I mentioned earlier, she is the heir of the goddess Butterfly Mother and bubbles. I wanted to show that in her character design, so I used a smoke simulation to create breathing bubbles wrapped around her body.
I then textured the bubbles with thin silver Miao traditional patterns climbing over. And a dual mesh generation to create a set of the futuristic version of the Miao silver ornaments mimicking the butterfly pupa, half broken. I also changed the colour of her hair to white to hint at her non-human identity. The main tool I used at this stage is Houdini.
After creating a goddess version of Jangx Vangb in Character Creator 3. I introduced the model to Zbrush and roughly cut and reshape it as a basic form of smoke simulation. Then I exported it to Houdini and started a simple simulation of smoke to create bubbles. When I found that the output matched my expectations, I converted it to VDB, smoothed it out, and then use the Convert VDB node to make it a closed poly mesh again. Finally, use the ROP Alembic Output node to get an abc file that could be imported into C4D.
Dual Mesh Generation
The silver ornaments parts of the goddess Jangx Vandb were done by a dual mesh generator I built up inside Houdini.
After cutting and reshaping Zbrush, I introduced the model to Houdini and scattered out two groups of points on the surface. Next, I push a set of points outwards using Attribute Wrangle nodes, and then connect all points to a wireframe with Connect Adjacent Pieces node. The Polywire nodes are then used to give their volume, convert the polygons to VDB, and forcefully smooth them to create an organic look. Both body suits and face masks use this technology.
Part III. Environment Development
According to the Miao oral epic, the butterfly mother was born in the heart of a maple tree.
So, I decided to build a traditional wooden Miao village covered in red maple trees. Its prototype is the Xijiang Miao Village. On it, I enlarged the Miao crown as an altar and introduced some metal chimera in the shape of trees, blurring the age of the village.
Tree metal chimeras were generated in Houdini using DOP Network. In the DOP Network, there is a POP solver, in which a particle is emitted from its origin and split into two particles several times in a timeline to simulate tree growth.
This POP Solver is affected only by wind and turbulence. After this DOP Network, I use the Trail node to record the path of these particles and then bake the results using the same workflow as the dual mesh generator.
Another important scene in my film was a colourful cave. It's actually a 3D scan of the butterfly pupa I download from Sketchfab. I scale the pupa up and adjusted the colour, turning the cave into a wormhole where the past and future met.
Part IV. Style frame
At this stage, I finished all the style frames, which are a series of still images with the right camera composition, texture, and lighting to visualise each main scene, suggesting the final look of the whole video.
Part V. Animation and Final Rendering
Now it's time to finish all the animations (mainly cameras and lights) and render all frames out! Before rendering, I do a rough cut with playblast to make sure the animation length is what I need to match the music. Lastly, render and do the post-processing inside Adobe After Effects. And I am finally done!
When inanimate objects in the traditional definition are given biological characteristics as a hybrid life-form, the line between organic and inorganic species is blurred. Through these metal Chimeras' eyes, I look forward to a closer symbiotic relationship between people and nature, tradition and technology.
Thank you so much to The Rookies for offering me this opportunity to share my personal film! I hope you when you finished reading this breakdown you find something interesting or useful.
Find more of Yutao's work on The Rookies, via her Website or Instagram.