Intro to FX Using Houdini - VFX Online Course | CG Master Academy

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Intro to FX Using Houdini

A 9-week course on understanding Houdini’s common uses in the VFX industry; students will be introduced to a variety of FX capabilities using Houdini

Course overview Course overview

Course Overview

Create Dynamic FX for film & games

Intro to FX using Houdini will give an exciting introduction to a variety of FX capabilities in Houdini. This course is designed to focus on VFX that are commonly called for in the film industry today. We will go over procedural modeling, fluid FX, particles FX, rigid body destruction, smoke, and lighting & rendering. Each week we will focus on a certain procedural aspect, while maintaining a wider perspective of Houdini's incredible capabilities. This course will strengthen your practical knowledge in VFX, and give you a greater understanding of Houdini's common uses in VFX companies. | *Note: Students can still take the course with a computer that has less performance, but the computations will take longer and some simulation won't be as high resolution due to RAM limitations. | Houdini's Apprentice education edition software is available as a free download, and is all you will need to take this course.


Course Format:   Standard
Lecture Type:   Pre-recorded
Feedback:   Individual recordings
Duration:   9 weeks
Assignment:   Due each week. Expect to spend 25-30 hrs/wk viewing lectures, q&a, and time on assignments.
Q&A:   Once a week
Materials:   Houdini 16.0 | 8 core processor and 32gb of RAM | Houdini's Apprentice education edition software is available as a free download, and is all you will need to take this workshop.
Skills level:   Intermediate
Prerequisites:   Class prerequisites: Fundamentals of Houdini for 3D Artists | A general knowledge of Houdini/ Houdini related softwares and 3D concepts. | This class requires Houdini 16.0.

Intro to FX Using Houdini WHAT YOU’LL LEARN

What you'll learn

The more you know, the better.

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Powerful approaches to grouping in SOPs | In depth: COPY SOP / copy stamping techniques | In depth: FOR LOOPS and FOR EACH SOP | Avoiding object intersections with FOR LOOPS, stop condition and intersect SOP | Using FOR EACH blocks to create a multi-threaded COPY SOP | Introduction to compile blocks
An introduction to point cloud procedures in CVEX | Using FOR EACH and COPY SOP approaches to procedurally model a riverbed | Closer look at the Ray SOP, Skin SOP, creating UVs | Unified noise in attribute VOP | Implementing object avoidance for rocks with workflow from Week #1 | Use SOP workflows to model the base of a stone tower using FOR EACH and COPY SOP | Introduction to procedural SOP techniques to create the tower's windows and floors
Exploring different procedural modeling techniques in SOPs | Create the towers battlement geometry | Create a complex system to cut holes into tower for door & windows, a first look into problem solving when working around limitations of Houdini | Setting up a "Master Null" in order to add animation controls to modify the tower's properties | Poly Bevel SOP and how to deal with corrupt geometry | Creating UVs for the tower and UV layout workflow
Creating a complex multi-layer magic particle simulation that includes: Working with noises in VOPs, writing advanced CVEX code in a SOP Solver in order to create secondary lightning branches | Using a SOP Solver for particle generation & distribution | Introducing the primuv() function in VEX for particles to follow splines | Generating impact sparks, energy particles and a very dense silty particle pass
Using Voronoi SOP to create wood splinters for the tower's door | Creating a system to use lightning bolt particles that trigger the RBD activation | Using a volumetric scalar field to activate RBD objects | Setting up constraints in SOPs using Connect Adjacent Pieces SOP and adding constraint attributes | Pre-fracturing the stone tower | Rigid Body Dynamics: destroy the tower asset, while learning about art-directing RBDs | Advanced manipulation of constraints in a SOP Solver | Creating custom forces with Pop Wrangles and CVEX to control RBD objects | Using CVEX to create a custom sleeping system to optimize simulation times
Using CVEX and point clouds functions to define smoke emission areas | Using CVEX to interpolate the emission points for fast moving objects | Creating a smoke source | Setting up a clustering system with dynamic DOPNET start frame | Generate a smoke simulation to enhance the tower destruction effect | Creating and caching of the collider objects| Dynamic container resizing | First look at gas microsolvers such as: Gas Match Field, Gas Field Wrangle, Gas Blur, Gas Calculate | Volume compression and caching wedges to disk | Importing wedges using a FOR LOOP and Python | Custom gas disturbance workflow for fractal-like detail
Setting up a shader for the character using the Principled Shader | Exploring different lights in Houdini, i.e. environment light for HDRI | Using the Material Shader Builder to create a custom displacement material for the tower | Creating shaders for the door and environment | Using the Geometry Light for interactive particle lighting | Setting up particle shaders | First look at Mantra, Houdini's render engine | Rendering the tower scene including particles, RBD and smoke | Bonus content: Using COPs for basic compositing of render passes
Using procedural techniques to create the main flip particle source | Setting up, examining and tweaking the Flip Solver | Adding a 'pre-roll' particle source to decrease simulation times | Setting up an additional emitter to add control over water level | Using gas microsolvers and SOP scalar fields in order to control Gas Turbulence and Gas Vortex Confinement | Creating a complex system for custom splashes around bigger rocks using SOPs, Pop VOP and Pop Wrangle | Using noise functions in CVEX | Setting up colliders for Flip simulations | Caching to disk using Fluid Compress SOP
Detailed look at Particle Fluid Surface SOP for flip meshing & caching | Introduction to the Whitewater Source SOP | Setting up clustering/wedging for whitewater simulation | First look at Whitewater solver & emitter in DOPs | Breaking up foam using a custom POP VOP | Manipulating the Whitewater solver for custom particle classification in SOP Solver | Deleting leaking particles | Importing whitewater wedges | Advanced post-simulation point manipulation techniques for whitewater particles

Your journey starts here

Timothy is currently an FX TD at Goodbye Kansas, having worked at Framestore, MPC, Electric Theatre Collective, and as ATD at Double Negative. Before transferring to VFX he worked as an environment artist. Timothy has worked on the cities for the Yorktown sequence for Star Trek: Beyond, did a variety of FX on Pirates of The Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, and has worked on a number of commercial projects, both doing FX and building procedural modelling tools. He studied digital effects at Bournemouth University and game art at the Utrecht School of Art and Technology. Timothy has also taught in different capacities, such as a Pluralsight course author (City Generation with Python in Houdini), as (substitute) Houdini tutor for MOPA (Supinfocom Arles, France) and thas also done a number of Master Classes, for Bournemouth University and Staffordshire University.

Student interviews


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Simulating Tower Destruction

Interview with Greg Oleśniewicz

Greg Oleśniewicz shared his experience of taking CGMA course Introduction to FX in Houdini led by Manuel Tausch


Hello, my name is Greg. I’m from Warsaw, Poland. I work as a Senior Motion Designer in the advertising industry. I’ve always liked watching massive effects in movies or games and I decided that I wanted to know how to do that kind of stuff, so here I am. As for now, I’m focusing on learning as much as I can. I don’t know if it will take me to the games or film industry, but I’m kind of open to that as I love both the same way.

CGMA Course Goals

My goal was to get a grasp of Houdini in general. Before I was watching many tutorials and managed to get through them but without understanding what was really going on. I wanted to start to understand Houdini, not just to learn a few tricks. And I can say I’m 100% satisfied with this course.

It took me a long time to decide on taking it since it does cost a few bucks, but it’s really worth every dollar. Having a mentor like Manuel Tausch who’s actually there for you not just to get by but to help you to improve is what makes the difference. If you can’t decide whether it is worth it and if you should take it – it is and you should. Do it, it’s awesome!



Destruction Simulation

To correctly describe in detail how the simulation works I should write a book about it, but I’ll try to keep it short.

The main word for every aspect of this sim is proceduralism. The tower is built procedurally, the way it’s fractured is procedural, the way it collapses is procedural and so on. In practice, it means that anytime I want I can go back and change anything. It takes more time in the beginning to build all the complex systems, but after that, I don’t have to remodel anything. For example, if I want to change the number of floors in the tower to 5, I can just move the slider to 5 and everything automatically updates. I think in production it is crucial to be able to go back to any step you want and make a quick change.



The sim structure is kind of layered. As I’ve mentioned the tower is built procedurally. As for the fracture of the tower, it’s made with custom-made HDA which uses Voronoi Fracture and looks up the geometry to specify how much and where the cuts should be made. The geometry for the cuts is manually placed as it is more of an artistic choice where they should appear.

The fracturing is divided into two parts: the lower tower part and upper. The lower part gets some initial velocity so it explodes at the beginning of the sim. Then the fractures get constrained with some attributes telling them when they should break.

The bolt is just 2 curves that emit particles, no physics here just vex and some custom attributes. There are a few layers of small effects added to make it look pretty.



The simulation gets triggered with the distance threshold from the bolt and when the lower part explodes the upper part follows.

The collapsing is a physics-based simulation. The only custom additions are limits for the speed of collapsing parts so that they don’t go too crazy.



Smoke & Debris

When the collapsing is done and cached, it’s turned into points which are the source of the smoke and the debris. They share the same source but these two elements are done independently from each other because at this camera angle there’s no need for the debris to interact with the smoke.



First the smoke. This is something that took most of the time to make it look as it looks now. It’s mainly physics-driven with some custom fields here and there to enhance it a bit. The way to make it look good is going back and forth and adding one effect at a time. I’ve added the turbulence, tweaked it until I was satisfied, then added some disturbance and so on. For the sake of the optimization, it’s divided into wedges. The calculation took a LOT of time.



The debris is something Manuel suggested I should add after the course, – and here I want to thank Manuel for staying in touch after the course was finished and helping me to take this scene to the next level. There’s a lot of debris but only a small percent is visible because of the smoke. Nothing fancy with this sim. They re-emitted from the points with some custom initial velocity and rotation. The emission also fades out until the end.



And that’s about it. It just took a crazy amount of time and constantly going back and forth, but is totally worth it.

The start was pretty simple: a few pieces, a small liquid container with big resolution, a few points. With every iteration it’s all growing bigger and bigger, the calculation takes more and more time. It’s really important to start simple and build on top of that.


During the course, I’ve learned a few lessons. The first would be to divide everything into smaller parts and not to try to simulate everything at once. The second – cache everything. It really makes your life easier especially when you are building one effect on top of another.  

But the most important thing is that I started to understand the logic behind it all, not just Houdini but also math behind VFX, coding and so on. And I’ve learned it thanks to how Manuel build this course. The materials are really hard, and there are so many topics in the course that I can’t imagine getting all this knowledge in such a short period of time by just watching tutorials online. And trust me, there’s also a lot of things you won’t find in the online tutorials.

I’m really happy that I’ve decided to enroll in this course and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to learn Houdini. Thanks to CGMA and to Manuel Tausch!

Simulating Destruction in Houdini

Interview with Hadrien Palanca

Hadrien Palanca studied destruction simulation at CGMA courses Mastering Destruction in Houdini and Intro to FX Using Houdini and shared his experience and knowledge.


Hi, my name is Hadrien Palanca, I am a freelance motion designer and FX artist based in France. I do 3D works for commercials, TV, live events, music videos and all kind of stuff.

For me it all started back in 2000-ish, I loved playing video games but I get bored with every game I play real quick. So I started to play with Cinema 4D. For me, it was like another video game where I could play with balls hitting bricks and physics engine.

When I was in college I studied a lot of things (economics, law, history) but not in art. I learned everything by myself (well, with the help of great online teachers also). At that time, I was also involved in a student association (I had a ton of parties!) and we felt the need for some teasers and animated 3D logo in order to sell more tickets for our parties. So I started to learn everything I could in a more professional way within After Effect and Cinema 4D. I immediately enjoyed it and decided to make a living of it.

I have always been passionate about destroying things, so I kept an eye on Houdini but never dared to take the leap until I saw the VFX breakdown of the movie Attraction from Main Road Post. That was it! Too much for me! I decided to take a leap and learn Houdini whatever it’d cost. And it cost me A LOT of time! But in this journey, CGMA helped me a lot.

CGMA Courses for Houdini

I am kind of extreme when doing things. I bought a lot of Houdini courses available on the internet (RebelwayApplied HoudiniRenascence ProgramPluralsight, and more) and studied them as much as I could (at a given point I was studying Houdini 14 hour a day). I was willing to know everything I could.

At CGMA, I took the 2 Houdini courses for destruction – one with Keith Kamholz, Mastering Destruction in Houdini, and the other with Manuel Tausch, Intro to FX Using Houdini. I am really happy to have taken them in this order because I was still kind of new to Houdini when I took the first one, and Manuel’s course is really tough!

I think by looking at both of my results you can see the progression, especially in the smoke simulation. Those two courses really helped me to learn a lot within Houdini.

Impressive Destructions in Houdini

You want to have a clear idea of what your destruction will look like because you will fracture your geometry according to that. There’s no point to fracture a part of a building which is not supposed to break, right? For this, your geo must be as clean as possible (no intersecting geo or unfolding geo). After that, you fracture it and get it ready for simulation.

Then, you stack multiple sims on top of each other.

The point is not really to build a «physically correct» destruction. Houdini constraints are not aware of weight, for example, a thin paper-like piece of concrete could literally handle the weight of a whole building. The point is rather to build destruction which looks plausible to you and is as pleasing to the eye as possible.

Setting Destructibles

There are multiple technologies allowing to build destructible structures and simulate fracturing. Here, I used the bullet physics engine. It has been designed for games initially and is now widely used in VFX for handling large numbers of rigid body pieces. You work with physics by giving attributes to pieces that the solver will then understand: speedmax, spinmax, gravity, all sort of information that you give to the solver to have the desired look. There are no good or bad settings I believe, there is only what’s working for your project or not working.

If you are interested in the current state of the technology behind destruction, here is a pretty good article exposing the technology that is being used and that will be used in the future.



Dust effect

The dust effect is not that complicated, it is a combination of 3 simulations: particles sim for the dust with grains, smoke sim and a rigid body sim for rocks.

A growing circle around the character (in the Tower Destruction) scatters points on it and according to the center emits more or less smoke/density. Everything is driven by this smoke sim.

Testing Sims

Usually, you want to iterate quite a lot and tweak settings, so it’s necessary to start with fewer pieces, lower collision resolution, fewer sub-steps like that in order to have quick feedback and test which values work best. And then, when you are happy with the behavior of your pieces, you crank everything up.

Advice for a beginner: I would say that no shot will ever be perfect so the most important thing is to try and get better every time. Obviously, if you are a beginner it will not be impressive at first but try, fail, repeat… until your result gets really good.




For me, the most challenging part of Manuel’s course was to combine my daily freelance work with weekly assignments that you have to do. That’s really a lot of work which is not always easy to manage with high demanding projects.

As for the shot itself, I would say that it was the clustered fire sim that I did for torches inside the tower. I had to do multiple clusters for every torch so it was challenging to understand how things work and make the solver understand how to resize dynamically the simulated area for each torch. I ended up with a real mess in my network and some torches actually aren’t very well simulated but, overall, you don’t really notice that.

Recommendations for Learners

When it comes to giving advice to the beginners, it’s really personal but I would recommend not to start 3D with Houdini. Perhaps, it’d be better to start first with something easier to have a solid foundation of the principles in 3D and then move on to Houdini.

I started with Cinema 4D and if I had to understand both how 3D works (textures, UV, normals…) and how Houdini itself works I don’t know if I could have made it.

If you already know 3D, then start with a general introduction which explains what every button does and how Houdini works. That’s not as exciting as a fancy tutorial on building destruction, but you if you have a more solid understanding of Houdini you will be able to use it in every situation. That is not always the case for a tutorial on a specific effect. Once you get a good grasp on Houdini, I would then recommend Applied Houdini from Steven Knipping. For me, this is the where you can get the most valuable information out of your money and believe me, I have bought A LOT of Houdini courses!


CGMA courses were both (Manuel’s and Keith’s) really helpful and full of great production-proven techniques. This was gold! Especially for me because I don’t work in a studio environment full of Houdini killer artists ready to share tips and tricks with you.

I have learned so much within those two courses that it is hard to point out a particular thing I have learned. But I would definitely recommend both courses at CGMA!

Hadrien Palanca, FX Artist & 3D Generalist

Interview conducted by Daria Loginova