Houdini for Beginners: Overview from Tyler Bay
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Houdini for Beginners: Overview from Tyler Bay
30 August, 2018
Interview

Tyler Bay talked about the advantages of Houdini and introduced his incredibly useful Houdini for the New Artist tutorials that will help any aspiring artist master the software solution.

Introduction

Hello, my name is Tyler Bay. I just moved to Nashville, TN where I teach 3D and freelance. I’ve found Nashville to be one of those cities that are totally underrated right now and full of awesome, artistic talent. That’s what brought me towards the city in the first place. However, my journey to the 3D world started in Denver, CO. When I was in high school, I enjoyed doing photography for bands, art classes, and working with computers.  Eventually, I met my first mentor – Paul Conner.  He’s the lead professor at the University of Colorado‘s digital animation program, and after trying out 3D for a little while, I found that it was everything I already loved doing. Eventually, I was helping teach students at the University of Colorado, published a few online tutorials, built up a portfolio, worked at Pixar, and had the privilege of being a part of the movie Coco as a Shading TD. Since then, I’ve done many freelance projects for advertisement, biomedical animation, and VR exhibitions.  Now I’m looking forward to teaching folks about Houdini!

Houdini Advantages

One thing that separates Houdini workflows from other applications is that Houdini allows you to easily build and refine entire systems that can do anything you want in 3D.

As an example, let’s say that I want to create up to 3000 spaceship varieties for a video game. In this situation, I have two options: I could somehow find a way to hand-build 3000 spaceships, or I could build one system that enables me to randomly swap out parts and pieces while generating new spaceships variants with a press of a button. By building things procedurally with Houdini’s workflow, we’re able to accomplish things that would be so much harder – if not nearly impossible – to do in other applications.

On top of all that, having all the parts and pieces of a procedural system exposed visually through a node-graph makes it so much easier to troubleshoot. If something goes wrong, you can see exactly where the system is breaking, and you’ll often find informative error messages that can tell you how to fix it. I come from a Maya background, and by now, I imagine that I’ve spent hundreds of hours crashing, re-booting, or trying to troubleshoot things that weren’t developed correctly in the first place. In Houdini, if something isn’t working, it’s usually because of something I’m doing – and I think it’s worth saying that, that degree of reliability within an application will also save you hundreds of hours over time. In short, proceduralism, ease of troubleshooting, and stability make it stand out from the rest in my opinion. 

Useful Houdini Features & Attributes

Houdini tackles some of the most difficult areas of the video game development in a way that makes it much easier to handle. A few examples of that would be the terrain tool-set, LOD features, and baking operations. And, at the heart of it all, attributes are what drive these awesome toolsets & features. Using attributes is nothing new to the world of 3D, but with Houdini, you can visually see where attributes are and what they’re doing much more easily. Since things happen procedurally, we can visualize how something is made with a node graph and that tells us when and where these attributes are being used. If, for example, I wanted to make one control that could alter the number of particles used across 40 separate, magical particle simulations, I can do that by using my own custom-made attribute. More importantly, I can do that while easily seeing where that attribute lives in my node graph and how it’s being used.

Houdini: Materials Workflow

Houdini uses its own render engine called Mantra, and you can also use other render engines such as Redshift, Octane, Renderman, Arnold, and, in the near future – V-Ray as well.  My personal favorite to use is Redshift, but you can do a lot of great things with Mantra, too. Every situation is different, but most of the time I’ll end up using a Substance Painter workflow. If you’re using Mantra, you’ll have the principled shader available to use, and with that, all you need to do is export the standard Metalic/Roughness setup that substance uses by default, and then plug the maps right in. UVing in Houdini used to be a pain, but with the new 16.5 update, there’s been a huge amount of improvement with the workflow, and I find it pretty easy now. If you find yourself UVing things with Houdini, be sure to check out these useful materials:

Houdini: Shaders Workflow

When it comes to shaders, my approach typically involves utilizing what already exists and modifying parts and pieces only if I need to for a given situation. In my opinion, it’s pretty amazing what you can accomplish with just a few bitmap textures or noises that fit the situation really well. Speaking of shaders, I’ve also created my next course – Houdini for the New Artist Part II – and there’s a section in there where I demonstrate how to blend multiple shaders together. If let’s say, you wanted to blend a gold material with a marble material – it’s pretty easy to make custom adjustments because all the parts and pieces that make up a shader are right there in front of you.

Houdini for the New Artist Part 2

Houdini: Lighting Workflow

At first, I didn’t like the way Houdini handled its lighting tool-set. There isn’t really one centralized place to control light linking, contributions, and setting render flags. Plus, there are a few things you’ll have to set up manually – such as light blockers. The saving grace for Houdini’s lighting toolkit though is the viewport. And for artists, it’s a pretty big game-changer in my opinion. The performance is fast, I’m able to get a really accurate gauge of how bright the exposure is, it respects light linking, and it even shows gobos. Once you get used to it, it’s actually a pretty solid toolset, and in general, I like it.

Rig

I think the rig you’ll need depends on what sort of tasks you’re trying to accomplish. If you want to simulate water, for instance, you’ll want as much CPU power & memory as you can get. If you’re just modeling things out though, maximum speed isn’t as important. I built my own machine which has 64 gigs of ram, an overclocked 16 core AMD Threadripper 1950x @ 4.0 GHz, the Geforce GTX 1080 graphics with 8 GB of VRAM, and a 1 TB SSD drive.  You don’t need that much firepower to get good results though. The biggest limitation you’re going to run into is how much memory your machine has, and fortunately, that’s much cheaper to upgrade than replacing a whole CPU and motherboard. Also, when it comes to GPU simulations, from my knowledge you’ll only be getting the best speed improvements with pyro & viscous fluid simulations, so be sure invest in a fast CPU before upping your graphics.

Houdini for the New Artist Part 2

As the Part II has just been released, I wanted to say a couple of words about it.

It aims to help people build a foundation of Houdini skills.  Just like Part I, we go through a project-based scenario while gradually building Houdini concepts along the way. When I first started Houdini, I found it pretty difficult to get the hang of it because there are quite a few paradigms that seemed confusing at first. Eventually, I found bits and pieces of information along the way as I was studying the application… but there was never one solid place to go in order to develop these skills. So that’s why I made this course. It’s all in one place, and after you get through with everything, jumping to other tutorials will way easier because you’ve built a foundation for yourself to start with. And even if you’re not new to the application, I also added many different sections that dealt with artistic development and why I made certain decisions along the way. Be sure to watch the first chapter for free here. And thanks for watching!

Recommendations for the Houdini Learners

In my (totally) biased opinion, if you’re new to Houdini – be sure to check out my Houdini for the New Artist tutorials! I just posted the first course for free last month at www.cgcircuit.com, and within the next couple weeks, I’ll also be releasing part 2 which will help you develop a core foundation of Houdini skills. After that, the path you take depends on what you want to do.

I would also specifically recommend Steven Knipping’s tutorials. He teaches in a way that’s super-clean and is one of the best out there.

On top of that, be sure to check out SideFX’s tutorial section that lets you filter by subject so that you can learn whatever it is you want to do.

Besides tutorials, the fastest way to learn is by going back and forth between studying and trying things out on your own. Houdini has a great community, and I’ve found plenty of folks that are very supportive in helping you get past roadblocks when you hit them. 

Thanks for reading, and good luck with your 3D adventures!  

Tyler Bay, 3D Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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