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Making First Steps in VFX with Procedural Tools

Manuel Tausch talked about some of the interesting things he teaches during his amazing courses, including “Intro to FX using Houdini” at CGMA.

Manuel Tausch talked about some of the interesting things he teaches during his amazing courses, including “Intro to FX using Houdini” at CGMA.


My name is Manuel Tausch. I’m a senior FX technical director and the co-owner of Stormborn Studios in Vancouver, Canada. I also teach an online workshop called “Intro to FX using Houdini” at CGMA. Furthermore, together with one of my business partners Goran Pavles and a few other talented artists, I’m involved in an FX-centric forum called effectiveTDs.com.

I grew up in Germany where I began my career as a 3D generalist/motion graphics artist in 2007 after graduating with a diploma in digital film and animation from the SAE Institute in Munich. Once I learned about the existence of tools like Houdini and Thinking Particles, I became fascinated by visual effects and was instantly drawn to those node-based applications and their procedural architecture.

By that time I had already figured out that I was an autodidact at heart.

In 2009 I spent roughly a year studying particle- and rigid body systems in my spare time and created a demo reel that was focused on FX.
A dozen applications later I got hired by Prime Focus in Vancouver to destroy the Lions Gate Bridge for my first feature film “Final Destination 5”.
That was a huge step for me and an incredible experience. Suddenly I had a huge pool of amazing artists to learn from, which made my learning curve go parabolic and drove my need for picking up new skills even further.

I started to take advantage of free online learning resources like KhanAcademy.com and Coursera.com where I immersed myself in programming courses for VEX and Python and also brushed up on my math skills.

I even took a semester at the University of Michigan where I studied mathematics related to finance.

Over the next 7 years, I contributed to more than 20 feature films while working for some of the most prestigious VFX studios in the world. I spent some time in the UK creating effects for Double Negative and had a fantastic experience joining forces with the amazing FX team at Weta Digital in New Zealand to work on “The Hobbit 3: Battle of the 5 armies”. In 2015 I briefly moved to Australia in order to create some FX with some of the most talented Houdini TDs I’ve ever met at Rising Sun Pictures in Adelaide.

Needless to say that I picked up tons of knowledge at every single one of those places and I want to take the opportunity to deeply thank every artist and friend that I met along the way who was willing to share their knowledge with me.

Some of the movies I worked on are Dr. Strange, Captain America: Civil War, The Avengers 2, Transformers: Age of Extinction and many more.

The studio

In summer 2017, I cofounded Stormborn Studios, together with my dear friends Goran Pavles and Alexander Lombardi. It’s been an exciting run since then, we had the chance to work on the movie “12 Strong”, starring Chris Hemsworth and on a Netflix episode for the second season of “Dirk Gently’s”. On top of that, we completed a bunch of complex volumetric shots for a documentary, created some fire FX for an animated feature and completed a full sequence of FX shots for an animated short.

We’re currently working on our 3rd feature and are also venturing into the world of automotive VFX and 3D projections.

With Stormborn we decided to do things a little different from your typical run-off-the-mill VFX studios and became one of the first modular FX houses in North America. Rather than being comprised of many different departments, Stormborn specializes only in FX.

This allows us to keep a relatively small overhead while avoiding the huge turnaround in artists, which is very common for bigger studios.

A big problem I see in the industry is that people are being hired on a “per project” basis and thus FX teams have to constantly reinvent the wheel rather than keeping efficient tools alive, which isn’t very cost effective.

For that reason, we focus on maintaining a strong core team of senior artists which enables us to grow and optimize our pipeline and FX tools over time.

Furthermore, this company mindset promotes the reuse of FX setups and digital assets as well as benefitting from FX libraries and presets in order to streamline our workflow.

Being modular permits us to team up with other studios that complement us and share a similar vision. This way we can scale up very quickly if needed with much less risk involved.

Our partner studios like to collaborate with us because they do not have a FX department due to factors such as lack of senior artists and/or pipeline integration, or high license/maintenance costs.

Another way of looking at Stormborn is that we’re essentially an external FX department coming with our own pipeline and resources, ready to plug into and adapt to the pipeline of our clients.

To find out more, feel free to visit us here.

A Houdini workshop 

Introduction to FX using Houdini” is a very technical fast-track workshop designed for beginners to intermediate users of Houdini. Within 9 weeks and over 33+ hours of tutorials the students take a deep dive into the procedural world of effects. The content ranges from scripting and procedural modeling, to particle-, RBD-, volumetric- & fluid simulations, and also introduces lighting, shading and rendering techniques.

Each week the content builds upon concepts outlined in the previous week. In the first week, for instance, the students start to familiarize themselves with simple VEX snippets, while at the end of week #9 they will already be comfortably executing some really advanced VEX code.

What makes this workshop different from typical tutorials is that I am personally mentoring the students throughout the workshop. There’s a forum section for the students to ask me questions. Each week we have a live Q&A session in which I’m demonstrating workflows and answer even more questions.

On top of that, my students have to complete an assignment every week which ensures that they can apply the newly acquired workflows to production oriented projects. This includes destroying a procedurally modeled tower or creating a complex river simulation with whitewater and splashes in a procedurally modeled riverbed.

Once the students submit their assignments, they hand in their Houdini “.hip” files for review. Then I record a bespoke video for each student to elucidate technical questions, debug problems that surfaced during the assignment and give artistic feedback.

While I’m trying to convey a broad knowledge of Houdini by teaching a little bit of everything, the content is always intricate and challenging. I made sure to teach lots of custom workflows that I use frequently in production, such as:

  • object intersection avoidance in for-loops
  • using VEX in a SOP Solver to create unique secondary lightning branches
  • using VEX & point clouds to trigger dust emission for destroyed assets
  • creating a custom splash system for Flip-fluids
  • wedging/clustering of volumetric & whitewater simulations

Here’s a link if you want to check out the complete course syllabus.

The VFX market 

Without question, Houdini is my tool of choice when it comes to creating procedural FX. Unlike the competition of Autodesk products, Houdini doesn’t rely on costly 3rd party plug-ins and shines as a full-featured 3D package that can even be ported with Houdini Engine into other applications such as Maya, Unity or the Unreal Engine. For that reason, I don’t see any reason to stray away from Houdini at this point.

In Houdini, all the different contexts and solvers are interconnected and it’s a no-brainer to use procedural approaches to trigger various simulations, post-modify those and then send off to Houdini’s integrated shading & rendering pipeline.

The software ships with a very powerful Python API for pipeline development as well as its HDK (Houdini Development Kit) for c++ enthusiasts. Along with that, the VEX scripting language is constantly getting more versatile in areas like geometry manipulation and shader writing.
Another big reason for me to stay loyal to the software is the company behind it, https://www.sidefx.com/. Even after the success of becoming the industry standard for FX, the company remains trustworthy, provides excellent support and cares a lot about its huge user base. SideFX is constantly pushing the boundaries in new releases.

There are 3 areas in which I want to see more development though. 

The first would be GPU accelerated simulations. With OpenCL there is already some limited functionality in that regard, however, this doesn’t even come close to powerful in-house GPU solvers like Plume from Industrial Light and Magic.

The second field that I have in mind is GPU rendering. GPU accelerated render engines like Redshift and Octane are making leaps when it comes to gaining popularity and even Arnold is allegedly close to releasing their new GPU renderer. By joining this race, SideFX would remain at the top of the food chain by eliminating the need for a 3rd party solution.

Last but not least most Houdini FX TDs usually make a big circle around Houdini’s cumbersome cloth solver which is in many ways inferior to Maya’s nCloth or 3rd party plug-ins such as Carbon. In my opinion, SideFX should concentrate on giving their solver a complete revamp, so we can finally enjoy speedy and reliable cloth simulations within the software. GPU acceleration might be the way to go here as well.

Procedural modeling

Procedural modeling in Houdini could also be called non-destructive modeling.

Rather than manipulating vertices, edges and polygons in the viewport, the user takes advantage of a node based system in order to create geometry from scratch or modify existing assets. These nodes, along with algorithms, mathematics and scripting allow for the creation of beautiful geometry, such as L-systems, fractal shapes, but also real-life assets like vegetation, architecture, and vehicles. The only limit to what’s possible is your own imagination.

By changing simple sliders, the user is able to instantly change any characteristic of an asset, such as the number of windows of a building or the amount, size, orientation and physical features of multiple buildings of an entire city.

Another thing that is fundamentally different from traditional modeling is the following: Imagine your task is to fracture a house for a shot so it can later on be destroyed in an RBD simulation. Many years ago when I worked with 3DS Max It was common to use Rayfire in order to pre-fracture assets. Each time modeling or layout would alter an asset, for instance, the modeling department switched the wall properties from wooden beams to bricks I had to re-fracture the entire asset from scratch, a very manual process which often took hours.

In this case, when pre-fracturing the house in Houdini, this workflow is completely automated. Once the fracturing setup is in place, the user can simply swap the previously imported asset for the new version and can instantaneously view the updated results since the node based system will adapt and apply the same rules that were set in place prior to switching the asset.

By using Houdini’s procedural approach, the user can spend a minimal amount of time on re-fracturing and concentrate on more important aspects of the shot, such as the rigid body simulation of the asset.

For anybody who is eager to find out more, I strongly suggest downloading Houdini’s free apprentice version.


Acquiring the skills to become a proficient Houdini FX TD on your own is not going to be easy, but it’s certainly possible. In my opinion, due to an abundance of high-quality tutorials and information on the internet, there is no need to spend tens of thousands of dollars on an expensive private school these days.
If I had to study in this field right now, I’d rather purchase a powerful workstation and some cutting-edge online courses or tutorials.
The key is to be very motivated and persistent when it comes to studying.

The way I see it, there are 2 types of students: The ones that need a lot of guidance along the way and the ones that are able to study independently. You have to find out for yourself which group you belong to.

I suggest adhering to a strict work schedule at all times. Make it a habit of spending several hours per day studying while sticking to a consistent agenda. Mastering Houdini is going take time, depending on how much effort you are going to put in, it will take you at least 1-2 years.

To get started, go to Vimeo.com, search for something like “Houdini student reel” and sort the results by popularity or relevance. Have a look at the niveau of work that other students present and set the bar for the quality of your demo reel at a similar level. These students are going to be your competition, so it is important to reach or exceed their skill level in order for you to stand out to recruiters.

The following step would be to plan out your portfolio. Have a look at your favorite VFX movies or demo reels and choose a handful of challenging shots that you want to replicate. Select shots that are very common in feature films, such as explosions, destruction, magical or water effects, etc.

Ideally, those shots would consist of multiple FX elements, for example, if you decide to blow up a car, you would not only simulate an explosion but also demolish the car and the environment that surrounds it. In order to present the shots nicely in your portfolio, I recommend learning Nuke so you can make a composition of your FX passes or even integrate your effects into some video footage.

Once you have a clear idea of the shots you want to create, set yourself a timeline for each shot. Since you are a beginner, allow several months for the completion of the first shot, then tighten the deadlines progressively as your skill level advances.

Next, it’s time to start watching tutorials relevant to the shot that you’re trying to accomplish. Once you have a clear understanding of the workflow you should scour the internet for reference footage. It’s paramount that you attempt to make your shot as photo-real as possible and it will take time to train your eye in order to understand what looks physically accurate and what doesn’t. References will be your best friend for this undertaking.

Finally, you’re ready to begin working on the shot.

Naturally, you are going to run into plenty of problems

You won’t be able to solve every problem on your own so sign up on forums like effectiveTDs.com or Odforce.net. Aim to interact and post on these forums frequently. If you are displaying a polite etiquette, people will help you out. Additionally, spend a lot of time on these platforms trying to solve other people’s issues. Debugging and problem-solving is one of the most important skills of a solid FX TD so make a real endeavor.
You will soon realize that there are many different approaches to achieving an effect in Houdini. Some are very quick and efficient to compute whereas some are the opposite. Only by opening other people’s “hip” files which you can unearth on these forums, you will gain insight into alternative strategies when it comes to tackling a certain effect.

On top of that, you will make new friends that share your passion. You could even consider teaming up with others in order to make a combined effort at creating a portfolio shot. Maybe you can find somebody who is great at animating or shading, lighting and rendering.

Apart from learning Houdini, you should simultaneously aspire to become more technical by improving your math and programming skills. I endorse Python for OTL/digital asset creations or any pipeline-related coding tasks and VEX for any geometry manipulation within Houdini.

Here are some valuable learning resources that helped me a lot along the way:

Manuel Tausch, VFX Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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Comments 1

  • Johny Jo Jo

    Dont forget CGWiki as an incredible resource:  http://www.tokeru.com/cgwiki/?title=Houdini
    And the guys over at Entagma http://www.entagma.com/


    Johny Jo Jo

    ·5 years ago·

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