Killer Mountain VFX

Creating visual effects for SyFy's "Killer Mountain"

In 2010 I was brought on board a project at NorthWest Digital to create a creature rig and some wormy visual effects for a SyFy TV movie. IMDB describes the film as follows:

A group of mountain climbers disappears while climbing the Himalayas in the 1950s. In the present, another group takes the same route and also disappears. A shady rich man hires a professional mountaineer and some scientists to find them.

Not to ruin the plot of the film (SPOILER), but the climbers encounter some vicious beasts in the mountains.

The Baby Druks (Worms)

The creatures start out as little wormy things before they mature into armored dragons. These shots were a lot of fun to work on. Some shots required the replacement of the rubber props, while other shots needed to have these hordes of the babies added in. For this task, I utilized Houdini.

The creature was modeled procedurally, so that the silhouette could be tweaked later, without having to redo animation.

procedural model for baby druk in Houdini

The real beauty was how I was able to have the pulsing animation of the worms effect the speed of their crawling. When we had to speed up or slow down the crawl, this automatically effected the pulsing bulge of the body.

Since the animation was being created procedurally, this did not fit within our usual way of developing estimates. For example, if you had 14 weeks to do 14 shots, you would assume "Ok, so that means we can expect to have 1 shot completed each week." Nope, that's not how things turned out. Instead, it was 12 weeks of development and testing to get the behaviours locked in, then the last 2 weeks finishing all the shots. The beauty of this way of working, is if we had to add more shots, the work would be minimal.Also, changes were done in near real time. Houdini's compositor was also utilized. In some situations, the VFX Supervisor was able to sit next to me, request changes, then see the changes in real-time.

It often went like this: "Darker? Fatter? Slower? click-drag How's that?"

In the shots where the mouth was digitally replaced with one with animated teeth, even the compositing masks were created procedurally, which allowed me to skip hours of tedious rotoscoping. All camera and object racking was made simple using Syntheyes.

baby druk prop compared final render in Houdini baby druk masked using 3D objects

The Adult Druk

The creatures in their adult form appear almost insect like, covered in armor, with some soft squishy pieces exposed. Like most rigs, I started out by digesting the script, taking note of key actions that needed to be performed. The concept art was detailed, so gave me a good feel for what the finished model would look like. Before messing about too much with a mouse, I started with some doodles on paper.

We were looking to get a bit of a snakey motion with them in some shots, so the rig went through some iterations, based on some examples provided by the animators. The Maya rig was relatively simple, as we were limited on time and didn't wish to get too complex. In the end, we had a pseudo-ik rig, avoiding Maya's "spline ik", which is awesome, but can produce funky results if not introduced properly. It proved to work well enough, and we were able to avoid troubleshooting the rig in the midst of animation.

animation rig for adult druk in Maya