by Dominick Spina

Everyone knows smoking is bad for you. But smoke – in the form of incredible visual effects enabled by NVIDIA Maximus technology – played an important role in the hugely successful film, Men in Black 3 (MIB3), from Sony Pictures Imageworks (SPI).

Realistic smoke effects are featured in nearly all of the 600 visual effects shots SPI created for MIB3, which has grossed more than half a billion dollars in box office earnings worldwide since it opened in May.

Visual effects (vfx) smoke simulation in the Men In Black 3 rocket launch scene was created using NVIDIA Maximus technology
Incredibly realistic smoke effects in MIB3

Creating computer-generated smoke requires complex simulations that tie up expensive and valuable computer processing power. To dramatically improve the speed of simulations and the quality of smoke generated in MIB3, SPI used Side Effects Software’s Houdini 12 3D animation and visual effects software (with improved GPU optimization) on an NVIDIA Maximus-powered workstation.

This included scenes from the film such as a recreation of the Apollo 11 rocket launch in Cape Canaveral, Fla., that SPI Effects Supervisor Theo Vandernoot described as particularly challenging. “We had to iterate that shot dozens of times – all of the iterations looked great, but the director had a very specific vision in mind. We never would have been able to do that volume in the time allotted without Maximus and Houdini 12,” said Vandernoot.

To achieve this rapid turnaround on extraordinary effects, NVIDIA Maximus technology combines into a single workstation the visualization and interactive design capability of NVIDIA Quadro GPUs with the high performance computing power of NVIDIA Tesla GPUs. The Tesla processors automatically perform the heavy lifting of photorealistic rendering or simulation computation, freeing up CPU resources for the work they are best suited for and allowing the Quadro GPU to power rich, full-performance, interactive operations on the system.

Creating MIB3 smoke simulations on a Maximus system proved to be so efficient and easy to drop into the production pipeline that SPI wound up deploying 10 Maximus-powered workstations on the film. These workstations were put in place to support a variety of visual effects software tools, allowing the creative team to focus on their art.

“Prior to working on a Maximus system, I had to send simulations to the render queue and wait for long periods, which would mentally take me out of a given creative train of thought,” said Vandernoot. “The ability to simulate fast … helped us avoid the kinds of mistakes that in the past would have gobbled up valuable resources like significant processing time and man power.”

SPI is a long-time user of NVIDIA Quadro professional GPUs for visual effects in its films, ranging from Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and Alice in Wonderland to the Spider Man franchise.

So what’s next? SPI is using NVIDIA Maximus technology for visual effects on other films in production, including the upcoming Wizard of Oz prequel, Oz: The Great and Powerful. SPI has just started to scrape the surface of what’s possible with NVIDIA Maximus on this show, and anticipates further GPU pipeline optimizations in the future.