Abstract FX in Houdini | CG Master Academy

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Abstract FX in Houdini

An 8-week course using Houdini as a design tool that focuses on abstraction and non-traditional FX

Course overview Course overview

Course Overview

Create abstract effects using Houdini

Virtually every tool in Houdini can be used for abstraction. Houdini is a means to an end, but not the end in itself. This class will focus on using Houdini outside of the traditional FX pipeline. Houdini can do much more than simulations and explosions. Here, we’ll be using Houdini as a design tool, focusing on abstraction and non-traditional FX. We’ll be looking at lots of inspirational forms from nature and architecture and learning how to create procedural networks that capture the essence of them. Rather than completing one large project, we’ll be tackling small tools and concepts that you can use as building blocks for larger ideas and visions. The goal is to get you thinking procedurally, embracing the core concepts of Houdini, and pushing you into new creative territory by expanding your tool set.


Course Format:   Standard
Lecture Type:   Pre-recorded lectures each week
Feedback:   Individually recorded
Duration:   8 weeks
Assignment:   Deadlines each week
Q&A:   Live recorded session
Materials:   Houdini, Nuke
Skills level:   Intermediate
Prerequisites:   Working knowledge of Houdini and some coding experience is recommended.

Abstract FX in Houdini WHAT YOU’LL LEARN

What you'll learn

The more you know, the better.

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We need to start from an understanding of design principles and how they relate to CG image creation. It’s not enough to press random buttons and hope for a good result. We need to know why we are doing something, not just accept that it “feels right.” This week is about establishing our methodology and way of thinking. We’ll also learn some fundamental tools of procedural modeling and create our first abstract image. | CHAPTERS: We discuss the fundamentals of abstract design, using examples. | Discuss the challenge of making tools for abstractions (i.e. automation vs. control, chaos vs/ complexity) | How does procedural modeling work? How can we insure our designs can really be “procedural” and able to change and adapt at any time? | Walk-through of various modeling tools in Houdini | Grouping strategies | Using attributes to control modeling functions | For/Each loops for modeling
What does it mean to make something “more organic?” A lot of times it means we need to add variation into our designs. So, how do we do this? This week, we’ll be discussing ways of adding randomization and subtle variation. We’ll look at the available noise functions, understand their uses and differences, and build upon our knowledge from week 1. | CHAPTERS: Difference between randomness and noise | Understanding of different noise functions and how to use them in each context | Displacing and warping noises | Understanding the different spaces that noises work in | Using noise functions for modeling | Using noise functions to add variation to elements | Using noise functions in channels to create time-based noise
This week is a hard look at all things related to the copy SOP. We’ll dive deep into copy and instancing attributes, stamping expressions, and learn how to harness the full power of the suite of copy operators. We’ll also discuss when and how to instance geometry at render time and do so efficiently. | CHAPTERS: Basic copying | Using attributes to manipulate copies | Understanding rotations and how to align your copies correctly | Inheriting point attributes | Stamp expression fundamentals | Building a controller to animate copy properties | How to instance geometry at render time and control instance properties
Volumes are used all over Houdini, but for the average user, are little understood. This week, we are going to discuss all things related to volumes in Houdini. We’ll specifically discuss VDB workflows, and how we can create forms that would be almost impossible to model by hand or with other processes. | CHAPTERS: Understanding voxels and the data they hold | Difference between Houdini volumes and VDB volumes | Special considerations when using VDBs | Merging and blending volumes | Smoothing volumes | Understanding the Volume VOP and Volume Wrangle | Displacing volumes | Volume analysis tools | Different ways of rendering volumes
Point clouds can be used for all kinds of effects, but can seem intimidating at first. We are going to make them simple and easy to understand, looking at ways of using them in various contexts. We’ll do a small amount of coding here, assuming you have no previous coding experience. | CHAPTERS: What are point clouds and what do they do? | Understanding how to invoke a point cloud lookup in an attribute VOP | Coding primer | Understanding how to invoke a point cloud lookup in an attribute Wrangle | Filtering points | Looping through the points in the point cloud handle | Using point clouds for modeling operations | Using point clouds to direct particle systems | Using point clouds in shader context and generating point clouds from a shader
Fractals: recursive and repetitive forms are a hallmark of a specific genre of abstract effects. We’ll look at different ways of “fractalizing” geometry in Houdini, from implementing simple fractals to L-Systems. | CHAPTERS: What are fractals? | Writing code to make a fractal flame system | L systems - understanding node rewriting and node replacement | Recursive particle systems - creating trees and grid patterns with particles | For-Each Geometry recursion
Emergent and evolving systems give a mathematical approach to mimicking nature. These systems evolve over time to simulate growth processes that are analogous to the real world. We’ll look at a few growth algorithms and learn how to make our own system with our own rules. | CHAPTERS: Understanding the Solver SOP | The Space colonization algorithm | Game of life | Cellular division and evolution
We have assembled a large amount of tools and knowledge. This week, we’ll focus on how to bring that knowledge into a final product. We’ll look at rendering tips, material settings, and how to finish a piece. | CHAPTERS: The principled and classic shader | Lights and cameras | Tips for rendering with Mantra | How to pass geometry attributes to shaders | How to rebuild your beauty pass in Nuke and make tweaks and compositing adjustments

Unleashing your creative potential

Matt Taylor is a designer and technical artist based in Leeds, UK. He has worked in 3D and motion design since 2013, beginning his career using Cinema4D before moving on to Houdini. He currently works for a small studio in Leeds, and also freelances on Houdini focused projects. His personal work - as @Emty01 - aims to discover new visual ideas by solving technical problems, particularly using Vex and Python. This and the creation of new tools are his main areas of focus as well as supporting other Houdini learners on their journey.

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Making a Procedural Citadel in Houdini

Interview with Nikola Damjanov

Nikola Damjanov, Lead Game Artist at Nordeus, dissects his approach in building a procedural scene—Citadel—made using Houdini for Abstract FX in Houdini.

Making a Procedural Citadel in Houdini


My name is Nikola Damjanov, born and raised in Belgrade, Serbia, and currently working at this incredible mobile gaming company called Nordeus, which I really consider my second home. I am a Game Artist by day and at the moment I am leading the art efforts on our latest mobile game called Heroic: Magic Duel. I also like to say I am a procedural tinkerer by night because I spend a lot of time experimenting and improving. 

Tech art fits more into my nighttime activities then my daily job but I have a huge passion for it nevertheless. I had a mixed education background – tech and art – so I am always hypnotized by both worlds. My current interests are mostly along the lines of procedural generation. I’m very interested in building systems – trying to deconstruct and reverse engineer content generation is a challenging puzzle.



Citadel: Start of the Scene


After having so much fun with Substance Designer over the years I thought it would be a nice thing to expand the procedural knowledge beyond the world of texturing. Houdini was a perfect choice – I had used it before on occasions but usually just replicating stuff, and not really having a deep understanding of how it works. I wanted to start learning it with something “light” and friendly for experimentation so that is why I chose the Abstract VFX course. On top of that, I heard good things about CGMA from friends and I liked what Adam Swaab (the instructor) was doing – all the right checkboxes were ticked!

During the course, we had weekly assignments and one of them was a task to create an alien planet or an otherworldly landscape. While I was searching for inspiration I came across this nice concept from Miguel Alonso – I really liked the verticality of the composition, scale, and sense of ancient presence. I think you can clearly see my work was inspired by this concept but I wanted more depth, conflict, and extraterrestrialism.




A long time ago I saw a tutorial from Entagma (see the video below) and learned a very simple and effective technique for making crystals. I simplified the process as I had more than one of them in the scene but the core process was the same. I’ve also built three LOD levels so I can optimize the scene and rendering.



For the columns themselves, I was inspired by basalt columns of Iceland but I wanted to grow them higher and very distinct shape variation for eye rest. I actually used the same crystal shape for building the columns – took the lowest LOD, scaled it way up, deformed it to get more with at the base and turned it into a fog volume with varied density. Then I used that density parameter to generate a point cloud and drive the distribution/scale/rotation of the smaller crystals. Simple but flexible and powerful, like everything in Houdini. 



Landscape Generation

My initial idea was to learn a little bit of Houdini’s terrain tools during this project. I knew that there would be a lot of crystals around, and thus minimal landscape, but I needed some underlying structure for distribution at least. I figured learning along the way would be good enough – and it was!

I’m not sure how it compares to World Machine as my experience is limited but it does feel like WM is more powerful – to be fair, it is a specialist tool. On the other hand, Houdini has its entire feature set in its corner. At any point, you can convert the terrain to polygons and unleash the power of Houdini on it, and then convert back to heightfield if needed. It really feels limitless. I’m definitely constrained by my ability at the moment and not the tool. 

I used very simple Heightfield tools for this project, starting from a Worley noise with a very low scale on one axis to get the major valley shapes. Then I overlayed a couple of different noises in medium and small scales to get surface variation and details. I figured it’s important to get nice surface variation before you start eroding because you will get much nicer results. So I added some terracing but masked it only to steep slopes. In the end, I slumped the bottom of the valley to get a smoother surface for scattering crystals. I also came across a happy accident – if you convert your terrain to mesh and then use the Mountain SOP, with large height but scale only on the Y axis, you can get some very nice varied and inflated terracing. That was the final touch on the terrain.



Ground Distribution

Ground distribution was rather simple actually. After slumping and masking off the bottom part of the valley I just did a Heightfield Scatter on that part to get the seed points. Copy SOP did the rest – just enable “Transform Using Template Point Attributes” and things will magically flow over your terrain. If you want to bring it to the next level you could set up the Copy SOP to stamp the scattered objects and then you can get randomness in scale or even control it by height. It’s very fun to play with once you set it up. I’m curious how it will look in motion, it would be a nice thing to try out.



From the start, I planned not to render in Houdini. It was a very big and complex scene that depended a lot on complex shaders and refractions – my Matra knowledge was nowhere near good enough to tackle that problem. That is why I decided to use something I know – 3ds Max and V-Ray. Even though most of my work these days is real-time and engine based, V-Ray is where I feel at home and confident I can do what I want. 

I exported the final scene state via Alembic, which worked effortlessly. For the lighting, I used the V-Ray sun+sky combo because I liked the simplicity of the blue/yellow light colors. What played a big part was the Vray’s aerial perspective atmospheric effect – it really helped to sell the depth of the environment. It took some trial and error finding the best angle for the sun, eventually, I placed some shadow cards off the camera to get the right light/shadow balance I wanted. 

Once I got things set up, rendering is not really a big problem. I do low-resolution test while I’m working on a composition and lighting and occasionally render parts of the image in full resolution to make sure shaders work properly.  When I am confident that render will be good I just send it off to a render farm – they are crazy cheap these days, especially if you are rendering single images. Rebus Farm is my choice, it has a nice automated plugin, very easy to use. 

Initially, I tried to do a render in V-Ray as close as possible to my vision but I couldn’t really make a blend shader to my liking. Additionally, it was very slow to iterate this way. Eventually, I decided to render out shader passes (one for solid and one for crystal) and a bunch of masks (shadow, curvature, AO..) and assemble everything in PS. That assembly was certainly the biggest part of post-production. Other than that I mostly used Photoshop to boost up colors and frame the composition even more. 




This was definitely the biggest procedural set piece I made, and I was surprised how easy it was to manage and organize everything. It’s hard for me to single out one major learning as there were so many things that I tackled.

Houdini is incredible! I just scratched its surface and already it has wowed me countless times. It’s basically an OS for 3D but at the same time, I feel like it couldn’t care less about visuals. It just wants to know what data you are giving it and what to do with data. It flipped my content production workflows upside down. I feel like I am a  bit late to the party, I wish I started learning it some time ago.

Better late than never, I guess!

Finding Your Flow for Abstraction with Houdini

Interview with Akshay Tiwari

Akshay Tiwari gave an interesting talk on the definition of abstract art, Houdini as a means of its exploration, and CGMA’s course Abstract Effects in Houdini led by Adam Swaab.

Finding Your Flow for Abstraction with Houdini




I am Akshay Tiwari, a Houdini designer.   

I love math and art. Both disciplines pursue questions surrounding beauty and truth in their own distinct ways – there have been ‘elegant’ mathematical proofs as well as paintings that challenge contemporary beliefs. Pigments have turned into pixels, but has our artistic inquiry evolved synonymously? With this question in mind, I am searching for these conversations between math and art that can reveal different ways to envision narratives.


“Anvils of Time” was selected for the ‘The Art of Creative Composition’ gallery show by CGMA.


I explored generative art by learning JavaScript and applying it in Processing and p5. I understood programming concepts from there but the visions that I intended to craft had much more complex forms and shapes than what Processing could afford. So the hunt began, from OpenFrameworks through Maya to ZBrush – I understood their workflows but they weren’t exactly as balanced in terms of creating and coding. Soon enough, I discovered Houdini – a powerhouse design tool to fuse art and math for creative expression and experimental explorations. Due to its node-based workflow, the process and the result are always visible alongside each other which is a key factor in designing to get continuous visual feedback even if it is all code-based. I learned the majority of the basics through great tutorials like Rohan Dalvi‘s ones.

In fall 2018, I joined CGMA’s Abstract Effects in Houdini training as it promised a great balance between design and technical execution under the mentorship of Adam Swaab. Since I was also studying at a college during the day, balancing that with the course’s weekly workload was very hard. I had to stretch myself, sometimes not being able to give my best for each of the assignments. But nonetheless, I attended every Q&A session with Adam, paying keen attention to the conversations about design that we had. I was confident about Houdini as a tool but confused and doubtful about how I could gain the same ‘free flow’ of sketching, sculpting, and painting in it. 

Below are my key insights that may help you think more laterally and realize the potential of Houdini for design while helping you navigate it as an aspiring procedural artist. 


1. Understand Proceduralism

Without diving directly into destruction simulations, understanding procedural modelling can help a lot in gaining a good understanding of what proceduralism means. The main idea is to build design-systems that build design-elements rather than a single unique object. What this implies is to understand the hierarchy of structures that make up the object and the dependencies between them. 


Diagram from Designing Buildings Wiki.


As a simple way to understand the hierarchy of structures, observe the structure of columns as shown above. The left image breaks down the structure into more generalized parts while the right image shows unique examples of columns derived from the generalization. Assuming you decide to place a column and start designing it from the ground up, the placement of the capital depends on the height of the shaft. The placement of the architrave, in turn, depends on the height of the capital and so on. Thus, to design a column procedurally would first require having a process of ‘stacking’ these elements. Then within each element, there could be properties or parameters that change them to have a unique shape like a ‘Doric’, ‘Ionic’ and ‘Corinthian’ (which means a change in height too that can affect how other elements around it get stacked). You realize that there are cascading steps to make each element and then further steps to assemble them in relation to each other. 



How is this helpful in terms of design? Since this way of designing something procedurally requires a set of rules and constraints with parameters attached to them, it is very easy to create iterations. It might happen that you wish to create a particular unique hero element and you make a procedure for it. But with the addition of PDG, Houdini can become a tool that actually collaborates with you to do the heavy lifting and show the other forms that your procedure might be capable of. PDG (Procedural dependency graphs) is a system of managing and automating relations between the procedures that you make. Instead of manually tweaking parameters and seed values continuously in the hope of getting a good form, you can outsource this to PDG which will help in outputting most permutations. It is your way of giving Houdini a ‘to-do’ list that it can keep working upon by itself.  As a designer, you are not subordinating it as a push-button tool but instead coordinating with it which is a huge shift from traditional ways of digital design.



Here you can see around 2592 iterations of a procedure (inspired by sculptor David Umemoto’s process) that I had made. For automating the iterations in PDG, I referred to Entagma’s PDG for Design tutorials. This helped me understand the larger categories of silhouettes that my procedure was capable of and within each, there were minor variations to the arrangement of secondary elements. The blank spaces are not blanks but iterations that would take more than an hour to be calculated. So I can go into the PDG network to see what particular values of parameters result in those longer computation times and maybe tweak the procedure or avoid those values. You get to decide the fittest numbers for your procedure while helping it adapt and evolve by making use of certain values more frequently.



2. Define ‘Abstract’

The word ‘abstract’ is thrown around every now and then when an image does not have a human, an environment or a natural effect which kind of slips a huge amount of art history under the carpet. The first week of Adam’s class began with a primer on abstraction while covering art movements and styles like fauvism, futurism, cubism and many more. In contemporary and traditional forms, the abstraction is very much the artist’s reaction or way of challenging a particular form of thought whereas, in CG art, some pieces would come across more as ‘product demos’ or challenging a tool’s capabilities. While viewing the many reaction-diffusion-inspired ‘abstract’ artworks that I came across, I couldn’t help but think if it was Houdini’s capability that made the artist want to make it and present it as an ‘artwork’ or the artist really intended to communicate something with it. On the contrary, a Magritte or a Kandinsky piece had that weight and gravitas of the artist either proposing a question in a new manner or answering a question with his own beliefs. These artists would have created the same image in dust gathered on a windshield. It wasn’t the paint or canvas that directed their intention, these tools just enabled them. This is what led me to a question: 

“You will because you can or you can because you will?” 

As much as I would pride myself to part only with the latter, in generative art it is the collaboration and balance between the medium’s (Houdini) capabilities and the artist’s intent that can create good work. This meant that I had to rid myself of a few bad Houdini habits like:


  • Abusing the ‘rand($FF)’ expression – I am guilty of creating a lot of possibly seizure-inducing animations using this expression.
  • Making one lonely sphere with just subdivide, polyextrude and noise displacement for getting a stylish render. 
  • Looking at Simon Holmedal’s work a bit too many times. It is brilliant, but I needed to realize that it isn’t the voice or the way I could think and attain right off the bat as a beginner.

I was introduced to the non-representational art of Wassily Kandinsky a few years ago by a great and unique teacher at my college. Kandinsky’s book ‘Concerning the Spiritual in Art’ contains some very valuable thoughts about abstraction like:

“Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with its many chords. The artist is the hand that, by touching this or that key, sets the soul vibrating automatically.”

Observe how this quote is already hinting at a hierarchy of dependencies through metaphors to actually make a profound statement. Also, it is evident that he had a code of sorts to his visual language and was procedural in his approach towards making compositions inspired from music. He would create a correspondence between colors, shapes, and emotions, make his own laws like “circles deserve to be blue” and then use these rules to drive all his decisions towards the intended emotion for a composition. It made me understand the value of having my own rules (or axioms) that attach meaning to forms to make the ‘letters’ of my visual language which then come together in peculiar ways to form the ‘grammar’ in Houdini. With all the algorithms that you can implement in Houdini, it is easy to let scientific temper get the better of you and lose out on opportunities to communicate symbols, associations, and designs that are essential ingredients to having your own unique definition of abstraction. Also, it is quite engaging to think of what these algorithms signify – chaos, order, unity, destruction. For example, Voronoi divisions are found not only in cracked walls but also when a layer of bubbles coalesces together. It is something that can break concrete but can also build a wall of thin soap – does it symbolize integrity and destruction at the same time? Laying down these concepts as groundwork can help you build an internal logic (which might be only understood by yourself) to inform the choices you make with forms and procedures to define your own method of abstraction. 




3. Fractals Beyond and Before Mandelbrot

Fractals are a popular topic in generative art and computational design but very often, the only depiction that gets the most attention is the Mandelbrot set or its 3D counterpart – the Mandelbulb. The Mandelbrot set is not a sine-wave like a graph or a curved shape, it is a set of complex numbers that satisfy a particular condition of convergence. The coloration in most images of this set signifies the rate at which a complex number escapes from the origin with consecutive iterations. These concepts can be internalized well by trying to perform the calculations for a few iterations and manually plotting the points on paper. These mathematical fractals do require an understanding of complex numbers, convergence, and divergence but there is much more to the infinite nature and history of fractal art. The rhythm of these patterns can be achieved without much mathematical rigor, provided there is a lot of intent invested in simply arranging, iterating and scaling the elements that make up the fractal-esque pattern or object. As Ron Eglash rightfully states in his book about African fractal art:

Fractals produced by unconscious activity, or as the unintentional by-product from some other purpose, cannot be attributed to indigenous concepts. But some artistic activities, such as the creation of stylized representations of nature or purely aesthetic designs, do show intentional activity focused on fractals. Such examples may be restricted in terms of geometric thinking- the artisans may only report that the design suddenly came to them in a flash of intuition – but these are clearly distinguished from those which are unconscious or accidental.”


A very simple way of repeating, scaling and arranging a curve to make forms while keeping the placement procedural.

If you are to analyze African tribal art or even Indian temples’ architecture, they have the embedded notions of a fractal but are made completely manually which is their strength and not their shortcoming. Similar to my point about abstraction, Indian temples have an overarching theme of transitioning from a square that symbolizes earth and space to a circle that symbolizes time. The temple structures are a thousand ways to go from a square to a circle. All of them were designed without computers, the main reason being that the root laws are simple: repetition with intentional variation in the scale of elements – and a part being morphologically similar to the whole. Translating this into Houdini would be to have procedures and not just elements that repeat at various scales while answering these questions through techniques:

  • How do the procedures and placements of elements repeat?
  • Do the procedures work on the previous iteration or work on one overarching rule without the iteration number?
  • When do they stop iterating?
  • What amount of randomness is allowed?
  • What errors can you introduce by yourself to make it imperfect?

Other people who have touched upon such concepts and more inspiring thoughts are Anders Hoff and Michael Hansmeyer. I had discussed similar thoughts with the wise artist and designer Serjan Burlakand we seemed to concur upon the opinion that there needs to be more awareness about how artists, designers understand the mathematical fractals and abstract them to suit their intention while gathering inspiration from earlier craftsmen.



“Y=kx^(1-kx)”. This image was inspired by a synesthetic interpretation of the same equation.


4. Explore, Emulate and Distill

Until this point, there has already been the mention of an architect, a creative coder, a sculptor, and an abstract painter. Suffice to say, learning Houdini to achieve your own designs will require you to get out of its echo chamber every now and then. This will not only help improve your conceptual understanding but will also inspire you to emulate and create your own assets for different techniques. 

Once you are through with getting your feet wet in Houdini by knowing the most common SOPs and a few expressions, you could explore a few more areas and applications of generative art as a larger domain (such as installation art, projection mapping, interactive art). I myself realized the need for the Solver SOP to exist when I wanted a frame by frame updating functionality like Processing. I realized there were other forms of subdivision algorithms that could be implemented in Houdini when playing around with TopMod, leading to understanding the Knife, PolyExtrude and Divide SOP in a much better way. Reading through The Book of Shaders motivated me to become more comfortable with VOPs in order to create parametric curves that I used for creating complete models. VOPs are Vex Operators and a visual way of coding in VEX. I can put nodes in VOPS in a way which is similar to how I actually read an equation while cutting through any syntax gymnastics and the inputs of every VOP are assistance too. The point of these anecdotes is that tutorials made for Houdini would rarely cover why other ways to get the same result were not used or were not as efficient. So exploring other tools which are specialized in a bit more niche ways can help you figure out what style of approach suits your use of Houdini. You need to gain that breadth and variety of experiences that will make clear why a particular node is necessary and sufficient for what is achieved. These are the moments when particular techniques just ‘click’ and form that connection in your mind.



The same design was given different artistic treatments. The one on right has a more textbook yet high contrast dynamic feel to it which is absent in the left images.


As a designer and artist, it is also important to think of the final visual’s art direction and not being trapped in just technically elegant methods. This is where I was encouraged by Adam to study photography, lighting, learn about composition, think about shapes, understand chiaroscuro and have a method to the way I handled references. Houdini’s technically intensive requirements might overshadow these artistic considerations, but these are the decisions that will give the most technically elegant form the aesthetic care it deserves.




I am aware that this article has not been so enlightening in terms of Houdini tactics. But as a student (and I still consider myself a beginner), I feel that these points of navigation and thinking laterally while learning Houdini can save designers huge amount of time in the long run which could otherwise be wasted trying to lose bad habits formed by just learning techniques and then suddenly shifting to a new mindset for finding that authentic voice in one’s work. I myself am years away from being able to walk my talk with Houdini, but I believe it is a good start to have questions that I strongly care for to guide my journey. 

Proceduralism is about making procedures that make the object, so the mentality of studying an artwork to directly replicate the final result/model is sort of at odds with the premise of Houdini (you might as well pursue that as a sculpting exercise). Try to interpret and guess the process first before jumping to any tutorials for support, try implementing your first sketchy ideas into Houdini and then refer tutorials for smaller improvements. After making this a habit, the gap between your attempt and the ‘right’ way is frequently going to be something factual (like not knowing about the Polyframe SOP’s existence). When the gap is conceptual, then you would not only learn that concept but also learn why it exists and the right times for you to use it. Pick your goals or ‘true north’ references from outside of the Houdini-based artworks while learning. This gives you newer problems to which you need to jigsaw together your own solution. Otherwise, rote learning someone’s techniques just for getting that same look can add up to your knowledge-bloat. This way you are borrowing the process and not the product itself from references which will synchronize well with how you operate in Houdini. As you repeat these practices, you will start filtering out what you really need from what you have learned as knowledge and that is where you will become wiser at Houdini- not all great ideas will need to be followed up by complex VEX wrangles!


Structures inspired by the concept of ‘quantization’.


As far as your personal portfolio projects are considered, try to centralize or derive your works from the questions that make up your curiosity. Always remember that your message is not a polygon, it is a statement of your taste that can pull a viewer into a zone of contemplation or awareness. 

From Earth: Abstract Liquid Vase Simulation in Houdini

Interview with James Tupper

James Tupper broke down the abstract artwork created at CGMA during the course Abstract FX in Houdini and gave a lot of useful tips.

From Earth: Abstract Liquid Vase Simulation in Houdini




My name is James Tupper. I’m a multidisciplinary designer and filmmaker originally from the coast of North Carolina and currently based in Raleigh, NC. I studied creative writing at North Carolina State University but left school to pursue a path in visual design. I’ve worked as a self-taught designer throughout my career with a strong focus on 3D motion graphics. Most of my projects are short films or commercials for various global brands. 

Joining CGMA

Adam Swaab’s course Abstract FX in Houdini* was on my radar for about a year before I actually made the time to participate in it. There were a lot of interesting options for learning Houdini at CGMA, but I chose this one because of its strong focus on art and abstraction. It definitely blew away my expectations. I enrolled to learn the basics of a new tool but left discovering a completely new passion in Houdini and visual effects. It turned out to be much more challenging than I had expected and I absolutely loved it.

*At the moment, Abstract FX in Houdini is led by Maxime Hacquard.


From Earth: Idea of the Project

The assignment was to make a still image or animation based on the idea of  “order and chaos”. I knew I wanted to make an animation of a subject that started complex and resolved into something simple. My dad is an artist and I used one of his acrylic paintings as a starting point for my inspiration as it contained a variety of visual elements that translated nicely into the theme. I loved the smokey fluid-like substance that swirled around the vase as well as the overall emotion of the piece.


I wanted the piece to have an organic feel, so I ended up using a lot of particle simulations to generate the motion of the geometry. The color palette was inspired by the original painting and I introduced my own visual elements such as metallic and glassy materials. 




Houdini is amazing for defining the core elements of a project and then allowing you to elaborate and blend them together in the future.  If you are able to clearly describe a scene or visual, then you can create in Houdini. The way in which you describe the scene just depends on what you are trying to accomplish and that can vary depending on the project or artist.

I broke this project down in a way that made sense with the course materials. It began during a lesson on point clouds, so I actually started with the fluid simulation as I was already working on that. 



Once I got comfortable directing the particle motion, I moved on to the vase animation and finally the grain simulation. I broke the project up based on the individual simulations and converted them into collision volumes when I needed them to interact with each other.

Simulation Breakdown



The entire project was a series of simulations interacting with each other. The basic vase geometry was created with basic hard-surface modeling techniques. I used the curve, revolve, and polyextrude tools in this case.

For the swirling fluid effect, I drew the exact path I wanted the particles to travel using the curve tool.  The particles were emitted and pushed along the curve by setting their velocity relative to the tangent of the curve in a particle VOP. Building off of the class lesson on point clouds, I set up a number of parameters in a particle VOP such as noise, offset, and attraction force to the curve.  As the particles get closer to the small neck of the vase, their attraction to the curve increases gradually so they can enter smoothly.  




The grains were the most challenging part of the project for me. They required a lot of trial and error to get right and there weren’t many shortcuts for notably faster results. I found that increasing the simulation substeps and collision volume density was needed for good results.  I isolated the simulation to as small of an area as possible and then instanced large patches of sand grains around it to fill in the void around the main sim.



The large details of the vase were taken care of by initial particle simulation converted to a volume. I added noise to the y-axis of the volume to make sure the edges felt uneven and organic. Using a VDB Combine node, I used the original vase model as a mask for the blobby particle simulation. This created the basic vase animation which I repeated and layered several times to get the final result.



I then introduced some angular and rigid properties to the glass portion and outer structure of the vase.  This look was based on images of faceted clay pottery. This look has a hand-made feel that I felt added a bit of lore and mystery to the final piece.  The faceting was created by using a Voronoi noise formula to displace the geometry along its normals.



I then created an attribute ramp along the y-axis of the vase to limit the displaced areas of the geometry.




I chose Octane as my render engine for this because I like the way it handles light refractions and I also had experience using instancing with Octane so I knew it would handle the grains well.  I used different colored key lights to add some subtle variance in the sand grains and vase reflections. 



The main tip I’d give to anybody handling a multi-part project like this is to test your render times regularly throughout the process. When working with grains, be sure to account for the amount of time it takes for your GPUs to load all of the instances into VRAM.  When you are just rendering single frames, it can be easy to overlook basic things like network and GPU bandwidth.

Working on Abstract Art

A lot of my work begins by deciding on what emotion I want to convey to the viewer. How I go about telling a story is mostly influenced by my personal life experiences. My background growing up at the beach influences a lot of the artistic decisions I make. 

Since becoming more comfortable with Houdini, most of my experimenting is now done by doodling in a notebook. I never have to worry about if I’ll be able to make something with Houdini so I spend a lot more time focusing on the core concept. 

For anybody who is getting started with abstraction, I would just recommend to cherish their own personal life experiences and use them to inspire their creativity.  Your environment, relationships, hobbies, and interests all provide a wealth of details to pull from. 



Time Management

From Earth was a project with a lot of moving parts in a short period of time. I had to work as efficiently as possible so I was forced to define a clear creative vision and plan of action ahead of time. My time was split between ‘learning’ and ‘making’ and the weekly deadlines kept me from getting hung up with the learning portion.

When working on personal art projects like this, it’s important to remember that it will never really be finished. You will always be able to experiment and tweak endlessly, usually until you can’t stand the project anymore. Give yourself deadlines and creative constraints so you don’t wander too far from your original vision.


Abstract art can be overwhelming when we’re constantly surrounded by amazing work from talented artists. It can sometimes be easy to over-indulge in learning new tools or enjoying other people’s art.  We are all learning from the same pool of resources, so the most important elements of your art are those that stem from your own life experiences. Every idea has value so pick one that is personal and bring it to life.

James Tupper, Designer & Filmmaker

Interview conducted by Daria Loginova via 80.Lvl

The Captive: Tips on Creating Monsters in Houdini

Interview with Wolfram Neuer

Wolfram Neuer discussed the project he worked on during the Abstract Effects in Houdini at CGMA, shared his approach to texturing in Houdini and talked about the biggest challenges he faced while working on the project.

The Captive: Tips on Creating Monsters in Houdini

My name is Wolfram Neuer, I am from Vienna and have been working in the games industry for about 16 years. Early in my career, I got the chance to join the company RABCAT,  where I worked on AAA console titles like Test Drive Unlimited, Split Second, Forza Horizon, The Crew, and Overwatch. 

Over time, my responsibilities moved away from 3D asset production to more administrative tasks though. After several years of being away from any kind of art creation, I realized that it was time for a change again. Therefore, I decided in mid-2018 to restart my career as an artist.

In my current position as Lead Artist at Rabcat, I am working on online slot productions, where I enjoy the creative freedom and variety that comes with small productions and small development teams. 

About the Abstract Effects in the Houdini course at CGMA

I discovered Houdini in August 2019  and was immediately hooked. However, after the first sense of achievement with a bunch of beginner tutorials, I got a bit lost. The flood of different learning materials with various and sometimes contradictory techniques slowed down my progress. 

After my long retirement from 3D Art creation, I didn't want to lose any more time, so I decided to look for a course that would quickly boost my Houdini knowledge. 

The course should cover SOPs in detail, be suitable for my rudimentary Houdini knowledge, not explain the Houdini UI in detail again, and still show a wide range of techniques. The CGMA promotion video and the diverse student gallery convinced me to sign up for this course.

About the Idea of the Project

Since this work was the final project of the course, we were given a bit more time for it than for the previous submissions. I wanted to use this opportunity to further explore a few ideas from the 1st weeks' homework and use the Houdini knowledge I gathered during the course to create a creature again. Because at that time, it really surprised me how well the procedural possibilities of Houdini could be used for designing organic objects. 


I also wanted to create a scene full of contrasts, so I compiled a list of opposing keywords that I wanted to outline in the picture:

  • Chaos | Order
  • Large | Small
  • Light | Dark
  • Twisted | Angular
  • Hideous | Aesthetic

I was listening to a few H.P. Lovecraft audiobooks during the course. This was probably one of the main reasons why I decided to model a tentacle alien. During my search for inspiration, I discovered a concept by an artist called Lordigan on Deviant Art which I used as the main reference. 


The scene layout was influenced by the movie Arrival, which I’m a big fan of.

The Workflow
I created the beast’s Blockout in ZBrush, and the first Environment pass was done in Maya. 

The human figures came from 3d Scan Store, which I later bent into the pose with Soft Selections. 

However, all later steps were done inside of Houdini. 


My Creature Workflow in a nutshell
I took a few simple primitives, colored them differently using point colors, so I could later create masks from them. Then I applied noise deformers and turned the objects into VDBs to blend them organically into each other. During the VDB conversion, the previously assigned masks got lost, so I had to transfer them back again with attribute transfer. These techniques were also applied while working on my “Porpema Medusa”, which is easily obtainable here:

In this project, the head consisted of a modified sphere, the mouth of a torus, and the rest of the spline objects.

As for the teeth, I used the Paint Tool to define an area on the torus, where I scattered points to which the teeth were later copied. The orientation of the teeth was controlled by a small VOP network and the sockets for the teeth were accomplished with a combination of VDB Reshape and VDB Combine Nodes. 

The eyes setup was a bit more complex. A particle system was utilized to randomly distribute the eyes on previously defined areas. Particles that spawned in other areas were deleted immediately. I never intended to animate this creature, but I really liked the idea to implement a modified geoboil setup into my project.

As with the teeth, I used various VDB tools to embed them properly into the head. 

The tentacle setup was pretty straightforward. These were just extrusion objects, which size and twist attributes I controlled via ramps. The colored masks were then used again to control different attributes in the Shading Network.

The blocking and conceptual design possibilities that resulted from this workflow immediately fascinated me. It was very handy to be able to modify the head shape, number, and alignment of teeth on the finished model. However, if this had not been a Houdini practice, I would have finished most of the beast in ZBrush. Nevertheless, the little journey into the world of Creature FX will be very helpful for future projects, when I need to evaluate, which step can be implemented in which software in the most efficient way.

Since this was a Houdini exercise, I obviously wanted to do as much as possible procedurally. A manual texturing approach was out of the question, due to lack of time anyway. However, after I couldn't get the desired results with the beast’s skin fast enough, I went to texturing.xyz and got a rhino texture. I integrated this texture into my existing procedural shading network, which worked quite well. 

For the eyes, teeth, and tongue I used a very simple shader setup with a repeatedly used stretched noise texture. All creature shaders feature high Glossiness and Sub Surface Scattering values.

My plan from the beginning was to show the humans as silhouettes only and make them stand out with a bit of rim light. I achieved this with high SubSurfaceScattering Settings, which allowed me to control the size of the rim light without having to adjust the lighting.

The materials of the rest of the environment all used barely modified shader presets with simple textures.

The subtle splashes on the windshield have been added in post-production.

To achieve the intended mood for this setting, I made use of lighting situations known from museums or sci-fi labs. The diffuse lighting from above and the illuminated glass floor from below were created by using Area Lights. The light strip under the base was a light geometry, which gave the base a higher quality appearance and helped with the readability of the scene. I also used a very low-energy HDRI and a small spotlight in the mouth area of the creature to provoke a highlight on the tongue. The look of the panels in the background results from a mixture of self-illumination and reflections.

Glow has played a big role in the lighting of the location. The whole ceiling window area benefits from a large-scale Glow that appears almost volumetric. The glow of the light strip at the lower base of the glass cube ensures that the persons in the foreground still stand out well enough in the fairly dark environment.

The illuminated fog not only underlines the importance of the creature, but it was also necessary to ensure its readability despite the many tentacles. The fog was placed mainly in the back of the cube to ensure that the head stands out from the background well enough.

The Presentation
For the composition of the scene, I defined in advance which elements I considered more important than others. It was obvious that the creature had to be in focus, but in the next step, I wanted to emphasize the contrast between the chaotic appearance of the beast (wild tentacles, eyes randomly scattered over the head, rampant teeth, ...) and the organized, rectangular shapes of the hall. I wanted the visual weight of the people to be below or at most equal to the rest of the environment.

The readability of the picture was very important to me as well. The scene should also look appealing as a small thumbnail. Therefore, I regularly zoomed out of it while working on it.

No matter what kind of subject it is, the same rules of image composition apply. Maybe these rules are a bit more important for abstract elements to compensate for the missing relation to real objects. However, only a few of my pictures qualify for the category of abstract effects. But this could change in the future because this is an interesting subject to me.

The Biggest Challenges
The biggest challenge as a family man with a full-time job was the time-management. But with a little bit of planning in advance and an understanding from my family, it was nevertheless possible to put the time into the course that I thought was necessary. 

I liked the fact that, in addition to the technical aspects, a lot of emphasis was put on the artistic side and the presentation of the students' work. This applies both to Adam Swaab's lessons as well as the support and feedback from Maxime Hacquard.

Apart from the improved Houdini knowledge, I learned that I need to set deadlines for my private projects as well. When I signed up for the course, I certainly did not expect to be able to show acceptable pictures at the end. But the strict deadlines and the appropriately defined scope of the assignments allowed me to do more and better work than I had anticipated.

Next, I will focus my efforts on SOP animations before I move on to the dynamic areas of Houdini.

Wolfram Neuer, 3D Artist
Interview conducted by Ellie Harisova