Using Houdini for Unusual Portraits
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Using Houdini for Unusual Portraits
13 December, 2016
Interview
VFX specialist Georgios Cherouvim recreated an amazing project, which combines the modern procedural tools and old-school craftsmanship. With Houdini he created a portrait of Pietà by Michelangelo Buonarroti and drew it in on a wooden board with a laser. In this interview he talked about this amazing project in detail.

Introduction

I grew up in Athens, where at my early teens I started experimenting with computer graphics and animation. In the early 2000, I moved to Uk to study computer animation at the NCCA of Bournemouth University, a course with a good mixture of art and science subjects. It wasn’t my initial intention but the course led me into the Visual Effects industry, where I’ve been working as an Effects TD since 2005, doing dynamic simulations and procedural animation. I’ve worked for MPC in London and Vancouver and I am currently based in NY where I work for Framestore. The work ranges from feature films like Harry Potter, X-Men and Superman, to commercials for big brand, as well as some recent VR projects. In parallel to work at the studio, I always manage to find time to develop my personal practice, experimenting and producing work in a variety of mediums. I like mixing digital processes with physical materials and I always try to find way and apply the knowledge I’ve gained from computer animation into other mediums.

Pieta Project

I’ve had an artwork laser cut in the past, but I did that at a fabrication factory in Athens, where I just emailed a digital file and two days later I picked up the cut steel plate. I really like how it came out, but somehow I felt a little disconnected from the process. My friend Gabriel happened to have one in his studio in Brooklyn, so I thought I needed take the opportunity and do something with it. Gabriel mostly works the laser with acrylics, but he showed me a bunch of his experiments on various materials which gave me a good idea of what is possible. I decided to make the print on a hand painted panel, in an attempt to take away the sterile nature of a machine made object. Imperfections help create visual interest in any type of work and they tend to come for free on physical materials. On the other hand in the digital world, we tend to introduce them deliberately and that’s something I’ve done on the current series too.

Process

I a big fan of the low poly aesthetic and generally anything that doesn’t try to hide the true nature of CGI. Since the laser cutting machine works better with vector files, I started looking into how I can render my 3D models with just lines. Curved lines can work well too, but straight ones seamed to be a good limitation to set at the time. I put together an algorithm in Houdini using VEX to reconstructs the model in such a way. At the top of the network, a diffuse value is calculated for each point of the geometry. Then for each triangle of the model, the algorithm generates lines parallel to its brightest side. The lower the diffuse value, the more lines are generated, taking in consideration the triangle’s height as well as the angle between the triangle and the camera view. Right after, a few more VEX spinets filter and randomize some of the lines to give some energy to the illustration. As a base I used the highly detailed 3D scan of Michelangelo’s Pieta sculpture by Cosmo Wenman. I reduced its polygons and deleted the back faces to make it more readable.

How did the whole laser thing work with the painting? What served as the source of the painting and what technology did you use for putting the image on the board?

The background is simply painted with acrylics on a wood panel, a good opportunity to attempt some painting techniques I wanted to try for some time. After I rendered the lines from Houdini as a vector file, I send it for printing to the laser plotter. The slower the laser head moves, the deeper it burns the wood. I run several passes, where some groups of lines were etched thicker. That can be achieved by slower speeds and having the laser beam slightly out of focus to hit a wide area of the surface.

Time Costs

I think the first piece of the series took about 2 to 3 days spread across a couple of weeks. But after setting up the entire process, the next two came in half the time. There wasn’t really any particular difficulty other than the enjoyable process of experimentation to establish an interesting look. 

Georgios Cherouvim, FX-Technical Director

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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