Wednesday, January 17th, 2018 Posted by Jim Thacker

Q&A: Atoms Crowd co-creator Daniele Federico

Toolchefs has announced the first client wins for Atoms Crowd, its new crowd-simulation system.

The software, a standalone application that integrates with Maya, Houdini and Katana, is now in use at Emmy Award-winning effects house Base FX and Taiwanese studio Moonshine Animation.

We didn’t manage to cover Atoms Crowd on its release late last year, so this seems a good time to revisit an interesting new tool.

Below, you can find a mini Q&A with Toolchefs co-founder and CEO Daniele Federico – but first, a bit of background about what Atoms Crowd is, and how it compares to other crowd-simulation software.

A customisable, software-agnostic crowd simulation tool created by VFX industry veterans
Atoms Crowd enters what, for a specialised tool, is already a competitive market, veteran AI-driven crowd system Massive having been joined in recent years by newer rivals Golaem and Miarmy.

Its potential selling points include its status as a standalone application, helping it slot into mixed effects pipelines: as well as Maya, Atoms Crowd integrates with Houdini and, as of earlier this month, Katana.

Moonshine Animation cites this as a key factor, with pipeline TD David Lai noting the “loss of detail” that used to occur when the studio passed data from Maya – its primary tool for crowd simulation – to Houdini in order to add interactions between crowd agents and the ground, such as dust clouds.

Atoms Crowd is also purely skeleton-based, rather than piggybacking on the particle system of its host app: something that can make the placement of agents more intuitive, but that can lead to animation artefacts.

And perhaps most significantly, its creators have hands-on experience of this kind of work: although not its orginal creator, CTO Alan Stanzione was the main developer of ALICE, MPC’s in-house crowd simulation tool, used on movies like World War Z, while Daniele Federico used to be core pipeline developer at Framestore.

CG Channel: Crowd simulation isn’t a big market. Why create another new application for it?

Daniele Federico: We think that Atoms Crowd has the right foundation for becoming one of the leading solutions for VFX. As we worked for in the industry we know exactly what major studios need. For that reason, we focused on animation quality and having customisable software: we have a C++ and Python API; our system is totally open.

Also, as Atoms Crowd doesn’t rely on any [individual] 3D package, we can integrate it in any application. We are only targeting Houdini, Maya and Katana at the moment, but [will support] more software soon.

Finally, Atoms Crowd is completely user-driven: the artist decides everything about the simulation. There’s very little AI at the moment, even though we are planning to add more this year.

CGC: How come? Many people would assume that AI is important for realistic crowd behaviour.

DF: In our experience, AI should be avoided as much as possible in a crowd show. You never know what a director is going to want in a shot, so you cannot have the software taking decisions for you. You need to able to tweak every single crowd agent.

CGC: Do you expect your users to be running both Maya and Houdini in production?

DF: We think that most will use both, like Moonshine. We know that studios do not stick to a single software [package] nowadays. They might do FX in Houdini and animation/crowd [simulation] in Maya.

Also, they use different renderers [so] having a shared solution does simplify their lives.

CGC: Why make the software a purely skeleton-based system?

DF: It’s easier to achieve [good] animation quality. Our crowd has a foot-locking system (which also rebuilds the skeleton pose), preventing the ‘sliding feet’ issue you often get with a particle-based solution.

CGC: Most of your demos show flat terrain. Can Atoms Crowd handle more complex 3D geometry?

DF: No other crowd software can handle complex 3D terrains as Atoms does. This is because of the concept of gravity we use. [Atoms Crowd uses a gravity field to determine the up vector for crowd agents.]

We’ve done several tests with 3D height fields and all of them worked fine [including] tests with more complex meshes. We’re also releasing a new flocking behaviour this month.

CGC: Who do you expect to use the software? Is it purely for final effects?

DF: We have also been talking with previz studios, some of [which] have never used a crowd solution before. They always found them too hard to use.

Atoms is very easy to use once your project is set up (character definitions, animation clips, and so on), which means that non-technical artists can do crowd shots. [That’s also] a great advantage if you are in crunch time and need to scale your team. It’s quite hard to find skilled artists in a short period of time.

Pricing and Availability
Atoms Crowd is available for Windows and Linux. The software is rental-only.

Prices start at €350/month or €3,000/year (around $430/month to $3,670/year) for one licence of Atoms Crowd and five of Atoms Procedurals, required for rendering or to use viewport proxies.

The core software integrates with Maya 2015-2017, Houdini 15+ and Katana 2.6, and is compatible with Arnold 4+, RenderMan 20+ and V-Ray 3.5+. The integration plugins are free.

There is also a free, feature-limited PLE edition intended for non-commercial use.

Read more about Atoms Crowd on Toolchefs’ website

See videos of Atoms Crowd in action on Toolchefs’ YouTube channel

Read Toolchefs’ Q&A with Moonshine Animation about its use of Atoms Crowd