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Tiger Lily: Using Houdini in Character Art Workflows

Camilo Franco has walked us through the process of creating the Tiger Lily project, detailing the modeling and texturing pipelines and explaining how Houdini was used in production.


Hello there! I'm Camilo Franco, an Artist from Brazil, living in Sydney, Australia. I'm currently working as a Senior Surfacing Artist at Animal Logic.

My journey with 3D art started in 2007 when I was a Junior Art Director at a small advertising agency back in Brazil. It's a tale I often recount with a touch of nostalgia because my journey as a self-taught artist was born out of necessity. Back then, I couldn't afford expensive courses, prompting me to chart my own course of learning.

My first 3D project in Maya was with Mental Ray. I have always had a passion for learning new things and exploring various aspects of 3D. I guess, this stems from my background as a CG Generalist, where I have had the opportunity to work on diverse projects within Brazil's creative industry. This experience has honed my ability to find solutions to a wide range of challenges.

Personal projects have served as my favorite learning playground. Prior to the Tiger Lily project, alongside my professional work, I embarked on other endeavors such as creating a likeness of Martin Scorsese and developing a full-body character from the Spider-Man universe, named Silk. Each of these projects involved a distinct approach, and I drew inspiration from talented Brazilian artist Kris Costa, from whom I learned a lot. Concurrently, while finalizing the Martin Scorsese likeness, I was also gaining experience at Animal Logic, contributing to a movie titled "Magician's Elephant". This marked my initial foray into the film industry and left a lasting impact.

That's the essence of my journey – one filled with constant learning, experimentation, and an unwavering enjoyment of every step along the way.

My Story With Houdini

You know, I often remind myself that "difficulties are just different ways of thinking". Okay, I must admit, it's a bit of a fib. However, maintaining this perspective has proven to be a secret weapon when facing new challenges.

My introduction to Houdini was a combination of curiosity and opportunity. I had been fascinated by Houdini for some time, it was during my time at Animal Logic, where Houdini reigned supreme, that I truly delved into it. The environment was incredibly supportive, with amazing colleagues who provided invaluable assistance along the way.

Simultaneously, I embarked on nightly tutorial sessions from the comfort of my own home. One of the fantastic aspects of Houdini is the wealth of free tutorials available. For those contemplating embarking on this journey, I highly recommend starting with the SideFX learn page.

Here you can find some of my primary resources:


General Learning:

The Tiger Lily project

This project is a funny story that starts with my love for drawing, even though I'm terrible at it.

When I became more excited about drawing, I started searching for tutorials and other concepts to either replicate or draw inspiration from. During one of these moments of enthusiasm, I came across an incredible tutorial by Maria Dimova.

After having worked hard and feeling hopeful, I finally realized that I couldn't draw like this at all. So, like a good and humble artist, I accepted my defeat and returned to my 3D work.

However, this adventure sparked a new idea: why not transform Maria Dimova's artwork into a 3D creation? To help me visualize the character from different angles, I gathered additional references to imagine the model as a real person.

Making the hair was tough, requiring extra attention and care to bring it to life.

To be honest, I found working in Houdini to be pretty good. I was worried that I'd waste too much time getting lost by making mistakes. However, in the end, it turned out to be pretty chill and straightforward.

The best part for me was the software's stability (especially for handling hair) and the non-destructive workflows.

One crucial detail everyone should pay attention to before starting any project in Houdini is the unit scale. While Maya works in centimeters, Houdini works in meters, which means an object can end up being 100 times smaller. With that in mind, what I usually do is import my object and scale it down to match the size of the head template provided by Houdini.

Another great aspect of Houdini is that it pushes you to be more organized.

Here you can have a look at the scale comparison in Houdini:

The LookDev Pipeline And Grooming

In all my projects, I prefer to keep things as simple as possible, and it was no different this time in Houdini.

When I did modeling in ZBrush, I sent everything to Substance 3D Designer.

I also work with Mari, but in this particular case, I utilized Substance 3D Designer as my primary tool because I wanted to incorporate an eye shader I had created within that software.

When it comes to color, I always utilize Aces 1.2. As for other tasks like modeling or grooming, I'm not particularly inclined towards plugins in general. Therefore, I strive to achieve everything using native tools.

Setting up the shaders wasn't very difficult. The only annoying aspect was the process of going back and forth between different contexts and nodes.

The grooming was achieved using Houdini's native tools, and this was the most challenging thing of the project. As you can see, the hair is quite intricate with various shapes. Houdini has, let's say, a not-so-artist-friendly group system for guides. However, once you understand it, working with the guides themselves becomes much easier.


Creating textures turned out to be surprisingly straightforward, largely due to the incredible textures I obtained from the 3D Scan Store. You can find them here.

Most of the work involved painting the desired changes and blending the provided Displacement Map with my own sculpted details. Additionally, I incorporated multiple layers for makeup and color adjustments.

The flowers were a completely hands-on process. I sculpted and painted each flower individually to make them look just right.

Substance 3D Designer is one of my all-time favorite tools. I had so much fun working on a procedural eye shader there. It's still a work in progress but I've decided to share the Substance 3D Designer shader and files for free on my Google Drive. You're welcome to use and modify them as you please. If you have any questions or need help, don't hesitate to reach out. My goal is to provide a solid base for the iris and sclera that all artists can benefit from.

Rendering And Lighting

When it comes to rendering, my go-to choice is Arnold because it's really easy to work with. I find it very user-friendly and efficient.

Speaking of lighting, I keep things simple yet effective. In this project, I used HDRI (High Dynamic Range Image) and a few area lights to make things look great.

The main trick is that I like to apply Houdini’s Classic Shader to the hair. It helps me see the hair better in the viewport. Once I'm happy with how it looks, I switch to Arnold's Shader. This way, I can catch any hair issues or overlaps.

The Post-Production Work

I tend to keep my post-production work minimal. In this project, the only post-production I did was adding the background in After Effects. It was quicker to do it this way instead of rendering it directly in Houdini.

The Final Words And Pieces Of Advice

It's a bit tough to give an exact time frame because I was working on this during my free time, but I can give you a rough idea. Learning while I was working with the grooming in Houdini took me around 3 weeks. Modeling took maybe 1 or 2 weeks, and the lookdev 3 to 4 days.

As advice, the main focus of personal projects should be the learning process. Take your time, enjoy the process, and strive to keep everything as simple as possible, otherwise, frustration can easily set in. 

Houdini isn't as intimidating as it may seem. If you're genuinely keen on learning it, start by searching for the basics across all areas. Begin with simple shapes like spheres, and then gradually raise the level of complexity.

Camilo Franco, Senior Surfacing Artist at Animal Logic

Interview conducted by Theodore McKenzie

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