Creature Effects for Whales


So this is inspired by the fact that I can’t really seem to find anything about designing 3D whales on the internet. So here we go. If someones gonna do it, I might as well try.


Whales are the largest animals on the planet. They exist in the oceans and are also the largest mammals in the world. Depending on the species, whales can range from 600 pounds to 200 tons. They can also stretch over 100 feet long. Unlike most creatures in the ocean, whales are warm blooded and care for their young after they are born.

Besides the different species there are two main types of whales. Toothed and baleen. Toothed whales are whales with teeth. Baleen whales don’t have teeth. Rather they use teeth called baleen to filter out food.

Toothed whales include any whale that hunts squid, fish, and seals. Species in this category include: sperm whales, dolphins, porpoises, narwhals, and orcas. Baleen whales eat shrimp, krill, and other small creatures. Species in this category include: blue whales, humpbacks, right whales, and bowhead whales.

All whales have their own unique whale call. These calls can be heard for miles underwater. These “songs” or calls contain complex combinations of moans, howls, and other vocalizations. They can last for longer than an hour. Whales push air around in their heads and then amplify the sounds through a piece of fat in it’s skull.

Even though whales are the largest creatures in the oceans, they still have predators and things that threaten their existence. The main predator of whales of course are humans. Humans are helping lead the hunting of whales, affecting them through global warming, killing whales with ships, and much more. Fishing also has an impact on whales. As we are eating their only food sources, and overfishing the oceans entirely.

Since whales are fully aquatic, they must sleep, breed, and live their entire lives at deep depths. So because of this their anatomy has adapted in a particular way. For most whales their heads make up about 40% of their total body mass. They also have throat pleats that enable them to expand their mouths even more.This allows them to expand the surface area of their mouths to suction in water and food. This is particularly seen in baleen whales.

Tooth whales are not only fierce predators, but they also have very sharp hearing. Their hearing will stay the same if they are beached , above water, or below. Or if they have other disabilities such as blindness. They can also dive to great depths to catch squid and larger deep creatures.

Whales didn’t always swim around in the ocean. They evolved from land living mammals. Because of this, this is one of the reasons they still need to come to the surface to breath air. However some whale species can stay underwater for under 90 minutes. Their “blowholes” are actually their nostrils, and that is how the air is brought into their bodies. Their massive layers of fat surrounding their bodies keep them insulated at the same time. Speedwise, whales are faster than most mammals, they can travel up to a speed of 20 knots.

Most whales prefer the cold water climates of the deep ocean. Mainly in the southern and northern hemispheres. Only during mating seasons do whales travel down to the warm areas of the equator to give birth.

Many whales are critically endangered. For example, almost all North Atlantic Right Whales were hunted to extinction in the 1900s. The North Pacific Grey Whale is also listed as endangered as well. Whales were once used in many household products in North America and Europe. However , several bans went into effect that banned the hunting of the creatures. As well as developing technology helped surface the use of whale products in fashion and equipment. But there are still countries to this day that still allow whale hunting to occur.

Biological Functions and Environment

Whales play a huge role in the environment. They not only play a role in the food chain , but they also help clean Earth’s water, and atmosphere. They also help control climate change, and balance out fish populations. As predators they mainly feed on fish and invertebrates. But they are also hunted by sharks and other whales on top of humans.

The main method whales use to create a healthy ecosystem is by providing nutrients to phytoplankton. Phytoplankton are microscopic organisms that feed off the sun’s energy, water, and carbon dioxide. After consuming this food, they then expel oxygen to the atmosphere. Since they are the base animal of the ocean’s food chain, they are extremely important to keep alive.

You can picture whales as the recycling system of the ocean. They pump dead fish matter they have consumed through their systems and leave large deposits of nitrogen matter on the ocean floor. This matter provides food to hundreds of species.

Because whales are at the top of the food chain, the increase or decrease of their species can be the first signal in a major change in the environment. There has been a direct link between the number of whales in the ocean, and reaching climate change objectives, because of the amount of carbon they sequester. It would be an accurate statement to say that whales consume more carbon than fish in their diet. The ocean has always helped slow climate change, but it can’t do it on it’s own. It is estimated that the oceans have absorbed one third of all greenhouse gases emitted by humans. But where and how the oceans store it is important.

A whale’s size and swimming motion are so large that they increase the ocean’s ability to absorb CO2. They create carbon sinks in their bodies, and the carbon stays in their bodies until several years after they die. Blue and humpback whales can store up to 30,000 tonnes of carbon in their bodies. It is estimated that if all blue and humpback whale populations were to increase to their full population sizes, the carbon sinks into the ocean would increase by 160,000 tonnes a year.

In return, the cleaner atmosphere creates a calmer and cooler ocean for more species to develop. Then this encourages more whale populations to grow.

Whales also feed in a very unique way, They have multiple ways of trapping food, and each way can vary per species.

Bubble Netting:

This feeding method is mainly practiced by humpback whales. In order to use this feeding method, they dive below a group of creatures they would like to feed on. Then they slowly swim up towards the surface of the water in a spiral. As they do this they breath out bubbles to confuse the shoal of fish into one area. Then the whale opens its mouth.

Lunge Feeding:

This method is where the whale lunges at a group of closely knit prey with its jaw open. Then it pushes the water over its baleen plates and filters out only the food.

Whales also migrate. Whales usually migrate to the polar regions during the summer months and migrate away from the poles during summer months. Which as you can see is the opposite of most species. For every whale species there is a certain area of the south and north poles that they migrate to every year. The same with their breeding grounds.

Whales need to constantly adapt to the colder climates that they live in, and there are many different ways that they do this. Their blubber is one way that they protect themselves from the cold, but they also need to maintain this blubber over time.

Whales have extremely large appetites. On average they need to consume over 6.3 million kilocalories a day. This is around 3.6 tons of krill. Their metabolism from their food helps them retain heat in their body and stay warm. It is also able to withstand long periods of starvation if the whale is unable to find food. In order to dive into deep depths of the ocean their muscles contain a molecule called myoglobin. This protein contains high amounts of iron, and is extremely good at carrying and storing oxygen.

Scientific Simulations and Studies

Studying whales has led to numerous discoveries. Several pieces of technology have also been developed from studying them. Such as watercraft sonar and wind turbine blades.But there is so much more we can learn from them. So let’s dive into some current studies on them.

There are many different simulations of whales out there. However, scientists are also making simulations of the secondary effects whales create in the ocean. In 2020, some scientists were able to create simulations of humpback whales and the bubbles they produce when they feed. Humpback whales can create intricate packs of bubbles through their blowholes called bubble nets. They can also move these bubbles around by using their vocalizations. In order to model the flow of these bubble dynamics, as well as how their sound was traveling through the oceans, some researchers set to work analyzing the wavelengths and frequencies of this phenomena.

They took into account the number of whales that could be creating a bubble net, as well as singular whales. As well as how the vibrations from the sound waves impacted the bubbles, and caused them to spread. As well as the impact these frequencies have on the trapped fish inside the bubble nets.

It's not generally known what these nets do other than catch fish, so it is important to find out if they have another function besides catching prey. As well as to create a reusable simulation to observe them, because they are often not seen in the wild. It is thought that whales might use their sounds in a combination with these bubbles as a way to echolate the prey around them. Or scare the prey with large vibrations into a tight area. The results of these simulations were mixed, but they overall provided more insight into this natural phenomena.

Scientists are also modeling the systems of killer whales and how they catch and eat their prey. Killer whales are a bit more aggressive than other whale species, and they are also the most common whale on the planet. Prey modeling can help showcase how the dynamics of a predator's ecosystem can change, and how that can affect a predator's species.

In response to this, some scientists have created agent based models of killer whales to map their behavior in hunting scenarios. They mapped their consumption rates, and energy levels while hunting. As well as their hunting ranges.They found that large prey like seals can have a direct impact on how killer whales hunt seasonally. The larger the prey, and the more a killer whale can take down, the more nutrients they can consume. But also the more energy they will consume killing the creature as well.

Scientists have also used acoustic assisted tracking of whales . They have attempted these methods because whales are often hard to track and they don’t respond well to having manual trackers installed on them. Acoustic trackers can help narrow down densities of whale populations, and where they are. This method can also expand the search for whales beyond visual detection. This method is extremely useful when trying to gather accurate information on whale populations.

Computer models can also help prevent certain species of whales from becoming entangled in fishing gear. Right whales are extremely unlucky in the sense that they trap themselves in fishing gear quite easily. It is estimated that over 59% of the right whale population has been trapped in fishing gear at least once in its life. Because this species is critically endangered, it is important to figure out why they are trapping themselves.

Meet the Virtual Whale Entanglement Simulator (VWES). A collaboration between Bellequant Engineering, Duke University, and the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium. This simulator is designed to create models to control a whale’s movement and simulate how the animal reacts once it is trapped. As well as how it tries to escape. There are many studies on this simulator. The first one was released in November of 2018.

This simulator also lets scientists reverse engineer entanglements, so anyone coming across a tangled whale can help free it. When whales become trapped in something, they usually try to roll it off. However, when they get stuck in large nets, this only makes the net wrap around them more.

This simulator works in real time, and is accurate enough to use in scientific models for any creature.

Muscle and Skeletal System

A whale’s skeletal and muscle structure is very different from most mammals.

Their skeletons are lightweight and are not very rigid. As whales swim in the ocean, their bones no longer have to support their entire body mass, so they are very spongy. Their outer layers are covered in a thin layer of compact bone to contain the sponge material. Their bone marrow also contains high amounts of fatty material. Inside this marrow, is where traditional whale hunters would collect whale oil to use in products.

A whale’s skull is not shaped the same way that our skulls are. Their nasal passages are pushed to the tops of their skulls to form their blowholes. Some whales only have one hole, while others such as baleen whales have two. All whale skulls are elongated so that their faces can form in a beak-like way. Most toothed whales have cone shaped teeth to tear apart their prey. The rostrum (beak area) of their mouths is bumpy. Each bump has hair sticking out of it called vibrissa. These function as sensors so the whale can get a better idea of the food and objects it is consuming.

On either side of the whale’s head are the eyes. These eyes are designed to withstand high pressure from the ocean, and see in low light conditions. The white parts of their eyes are designed to keep the eye compact and not crush under the weight of the water. The muscles surrounding the eyes can bend them to focus on objects.

Their vertebrae are also very interesting as well. Most cetacean animals have developed shorter necks, and lost their mobility for them in the process. Whales generally have around seven pieces of vertebrae in their necks.

Whales also have limbs. These limbs are left over from when they were land animals millions of years ago. The bones no longer help the creature move, and they are more of leftover body parts. The fins that they are attached to on the animal only assist in stabilization of the creature. The bones of the fins are embedded in a rigid tissue to hold them in place, and keep them under the skin. Whales do not have any remaining hind leg structures other than their pelvic bones. The pelvis is made up of two small free floating bones, and only helps to support the whale’s reproductive organs.

Inside the tongue there are several arteries and veins that help keep the whale warm when it has its mouth open. The overall blubber on a whale is also 10 inches thick to help in the process. The blubber is made up of fibrous and other connective tissues. It also stores food and other nutrients when the whale is unable to feed.

Some whales, such as the Grey whale, have flexible rib cages. This prevents their chest from caving in when they dive to deep depths. Their tails are also made up of two large bones with notches in between them. These bones are called flukes, and they are controlled by muscle systems in the peduncle. These large tail muscles make up for about one third of the whale’s total mass.

The front lower flippers on a whale are called the pectoral flippers. They are paddle shaped and pointed on the ends. These flippers are made of soft tissue that are encased on manus and act as hydrofoils. These generate lift for the animal. Flipper curvature changes per animal and species.

Whales have at least two different layers of circular muscle layers that are distinct from their orbital muscles. There isn’t much known about whale muscle systems other than that they have many different specializations that are adapted from extreme environments. They are also very confusing to scientists because they have evolved over time in a way that is nontraditional from other mammals.

Here are some references of whale anatomy:

Anatomy of a Skeleton:

Anatomy and Physiology:

Whale Simulations in Houdini

So there isn’t too much information out there regarding whales and how to specifically build them in vfx. Rather there is more information out there regarding the secondary effects they generate. So we are going to cover a mix of both. Stick with me, this information was hard to dig up.

So rigging wise I found this great blender example of Joseph Ayyad’s work. Using blender he successfully rigs a whale, and creates a great 3D example of how to create the creatures:

The best whale reference I’d argue you’d find on the internet is from the film: The Heart of the Sea. Post magazine did an amazing VFX breakdown on the film, but here are some of the highlights.

The Heart of the Sea is a 2015 film based on Nathaniel Philbrick's 2000 non-fiction book of the same name. It is a book about the sinking of the American whaling ship Essex in 1820. This ship also helped inspire the novel Moby Dick.

So naturally, the VFX team had to troubleshoot a ton of water simulations, interactions, and character effects. These effects were done with a mix of practical effects and VFX in post production.

They first used hydraulic rigs to shoot close ups of the “sleigh rides” when the small whaling boats were launching themselves across the water. Just so when the sequences where the characters harpooned whales, the scenes would be more realistic.

The majority of the water interaction was captured on film for the movie. So that reduced their cost in post, but whenever an animal breached the water, they had to simulate it in fx. Sometimes they would have to do full water replacement shots where they would replace it with CG inorder to make sure the whales were moving with the same speed as the ships.

They also did replacements for whale/dolphin interaction, underwater effects, overall realism, choppier seas, and whale blowholes. As well as creating CG for the creatures.The VFX team created a series of libraries for generic whale movements and animation. Just for proceduralism.

They also created localized fluid simulations for underwater sequences. These simulations helped mimik water currents and deep water interaction between the characters. They also used the same approach for animals such as krill.

All of the simulations were accomplished inside of Houdini, and most were attempted to mimic a realistic scale of the ocean.
Now onto The Boys. As some of you might know. The Boys season two has a small place in my heart. I got to work on the second season, and have tattoos of it. And now, I can finally talk about it . :) As well as some of our other wonderful vendors work.

In the second season, there is a full sequence where a boat slams into a whale and bursts it open. ILM created this sequence, and they did a fantastic job. For the moments where the whale leaps out of the water, those shots were completely CG. However, for the on land shots, the crew used a giant puppet.

In the beach scenes , the whale is completely destroyed by the boat. So the VFX team created some custom pulsating organs, blood squirts, and other gory details. The puppet itself was created so the actors could rest inside the whale's corpse, and interact with the animatronic mouth and tail. They also created canons to shower the actors in blood on the boat’s impact.

If you’d like to take a look at some examples of whales breaching the water here are some excellent examples by Cosimo Orban.

Fish School & Whale VFX:
Whale Breach VFX - WaterFX 2019

So as you could probably presume, fx for whales revolves a lot more around character effects, than just your regular simulations. Character effects often involve a lot of muscle and tissue systems. So let’s cover some of the basics of those systems in Houdini.

Muscle systems can deform the skin of a character. The most basic workflow you can do to achieve this is by adding muscles to an animated character, then use them as a skin deformer. You will need to have a premade animated and rigged system to apply these muscles to. You can create muscles by drawing them on the character with the stroke muscle tool, and selecting the skin on the object you are working with.

You can continue to restroke the muscles on your character until they fit with your model. With the tool you can also “accept and create a new stroke” . This creates a new muscle to layer on your character.

When you play your animation after you create a muscle system. You’ll notice that the muscles will not move with the character. You’ll need to wire up the inputs of the muscle system to the anchors you’d like to constrain them to.

You can attach the muscles to the bones of the character with the Attach to Bones shelf tool.

After this, you can then use them as displacement deformers. You can once again use the shelf tools while selecting the muscles. Click Muscle displace, select the skin object, and then the muscles. After this, you should see the displacement under the skin.

Keep in mind that the skin is a separate system from your muscles. It is affected by their movement, but it can hang and twist away from them.