Experimenting with VFX in Houdini

Experimenting with VFX in Houdini

Terry Sanger talked about the experiments with web simulation and water FX in Houdini and the process of learning the software in general.


Hello, my name is Terry Sanger, I am a freelance Visual Effects Artist/Designer. I live in the UK, and I have always loved visual effects in films, from the liquid metal in Terminator 2 to the latest blockbusters. It's amazing how far they have come in such a short time.

My love for VFX started after the films 2012, Avatar, and District 9 films came out (around 2009). I realized that these things could be done at home, so I purchased a small PC and started using Caligari trueSpace, Cinema 4D, and 3ds Max. It wasn't until 2016 that I found a course on visual effects in 3ds Max/TP/FumeFX, and I jumped at it (I was tired of the limited tutorials available at the time and no real courses). Then, Houdini Apprentice came to my attention – many times I just opened it, pressed the shelf tools, looked at it, and closed the application, but slowly over time I started to scratch the surface. Eventually, I reached the point where I began doing freelance work and decided to start my own small studio (it's only been running for the last few months).

Studying Houdini at Rebelway

There are lots of good courses and tutorials online from SideFX and on YouTube, but I was looking for a structured course and so I joined Rebelway. Although I would have liked a longer duration (they last 8-10 weeks), they have great and well-structured courses. Houdini is difficult to grasp (I am still learning it and probably always will) but when you understand the data you're moving around, it becomes slightly easier.

Generating Ideas

I guess I see something on TV and try to recreate it, like these horses:

I saw them on TV and decided to try and create them running through water. I guess when I have an idea, I build on it and decide what's doable (in the frame of experience and time), then do a previs shot and always try to stick to the base idea. Here's another example:

This was after I completed a Rebelway course. I wanted to apply what I've learned to my own scene, and I instantly thought of Predator. I searched for the animated model, then made the effect and tied it to the animation.

Why Houdini?

I guess I choose Houdini because there is nothing you can't do in it, as there are not many limitations (only caused by the user knowledge). While other DCC apps can do things a lot faster and easier, sooner or later you will hit a limitation and will have to come up with a workaround.

All DCC apps have strengths and weaknesses, Houdini is the same. Most effects require lots of scripting or plugins (I have used Maya, 3ds Max, TP, FumeFX, Tyflow, Pflow, Cinema 4D, Blender); Houdini's strength is that it's almost limitless and requires no plugins. Weakness – it's hard in the beginning to grasp the logic and nodes. My base workflow would be to get a basic idea of what you want to create, try it with basic geometry, then set up you base scene (in Houdini or any app), apply the same idea to new geometry (prepare the geo if needed), then start to crank up the details stage by stage as there's nothing worse than running a sim for hours to find out it looks wrong or needs some changes. It's better to do that when it's fast and easy to iterate.

Experimenting with the Web Simulation

The Web project was interesting, it evolved in stages as I kept pushing myself. It started off as a lightning effect:

Then I decided to try to turn it into a web with electricity:

I liked the web so I tried to make it stick to an object:

Then a stretchy web:
After that, I decided to see if I could make it stick to walls and catch basic geometry:
I was amazed by how easy I could simulate all the web using the Vellum system. The final stage was to see if I could catch broken Voronoi pieces falling down:

Although not perfect, it was a nice proof of concept. The main thing for anyone who is trying this would be to do it in small chunks one step at a time. If you rush it and try to do it all, you'll end up with a mess. First, get the basic splines and web, then the shooting part, then form the base web spreading to the walls, then finally the simulation and making it sticky.

Water FX

Water is fascinating and it's the one area I still have a lot to learn about in Houdini. Usually, I create water effects with a mix of Houdini and PheonixFD, as they both are great at sims. To change the waves and general look, you can use the Ocean Spectrum, and for the whitewater, the shelf tools really help set up the base effect. It still needs a lot of fine-tuning to get the feel and the cell patterns in the foam correct; then you increase the resolution with more fine-tuning to get the desired result.


I came across many challenges, from learning Houdini in general to the latest shot I'm working on but at the same time, it's been fun. If I got stuck, a did lots of searching on the internet and reading forums, anything to find an idea I could use to change the way I was looking at the problem. Look for something that will make you think "ahh, I haven't tried that yet..."

My next challenge is a large destruction shot with a dragon, this will involve RBD, Pyro, Particles, Vellum, and Agents. I am also working on a boat crashing into a pier shot. And I am still studying Houdini and getting my studio up and running. For anyone interested, I will keep updating my YouTube channel with the latest shots I'm working on.

Terry Sanger, VFX Artist

Interview conducted by Ellie Harisova

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