Plantec's POV: Houdini ‘ The Roots of Magic
I’m usually ticked off about something when I write, but I wanted to start this column on a positive note. I looked around for something nice to write about, and I found it. There is a client centric company with a great product, and that cares about its employees. This won’t be a habit, but this first column is about a man and a company that have grown from the deepest roots of this industry, and have survived where much of their competition has been bought out, died or been killed. The Man is Kim Davidson and the Company is Side Effects Software.
With backgrounds in both art and technology, Davidson has always been trying to find ways to use technology to enhance his artistic capabilities. He got side tracked in the early 80′s when he spent several years honing his coding skills by porting the Unix operating system onto several platforms I never heard of, like PERQ computer and the Prime Computer.
But in 1985, Davidson was at the right place at the right time and landed the job of Programmer and Animation Director at Omnibus Computer Graphics. Canada-based Omnibus had already gobbled up both Digital Productions (Last Star Fighter) and Robert Abel and Associates through acquisition. That left them with big plans and a heavily leveraged position.
Back in those days there was no off-the-shelf software for doing any kind of complex animation and each company had to develop their own proprietary applications. Omnibus inherited a lot of good stuff including a Cray XMP and some good software, but each new challenge required a major development effort, thus Kim’s title of programmer/animation director.
As an aside, Omnibus had just purchased a Foonley F! Comuter System from Triple-I (Information International Inc.) in Culver City, CA, and kludged it to a modified PFR-80 film recorder to create one of the very first direct video printers in the industry. While at Omnibus, Kim contributed to both “Flight of the Navigator” and “Explorers.” Omnibus had great vision, but inept management and lousy timing. They closed their doors in October of 1987 dumping 150 people out of work.
While at Omnibus, Davidson worked on a project funded by the forward-looking Canadian Government. It was the development of PRISMS software for creating 3D digital film. After the demise, Davidson and his partner, Greg Hermanovic purchased the rights to PRISMS and started Side Effects Software in 1987. Side Effects developed PRISMS until the early 90′s when they evolved it into their core product, Houdini.
Built with impeccable coder’s logic, PRISMS was clever and powerful and flexible, just not a bit intuitive for the new breed of computer animatorsÃ¢Â€Â¦ ones with virtually no computer background. Although Davidson was comfortable with the technical interface, he realized that the influx of non-technical animators would not be. Thus Houdini was born.
All that was way back in 1987. If you count the time it was PRISMS, Houdini has been under constant development and refinement for more than 21 years and it shows. Side Effects introduced many, now-standard concepts and tools to the industry because of their courage to find a better way. Perhaps the most important of which is their approach to procedural animation design: animation using operators (functions or tool processes) that are connected together in one’s own clever networks to create a near infinite variety of procedural modeling, texturing, animation and compositing processes. The operators are linked together into what are called networks. These networks can get very complex, but follow a clear logic, and they’re relatively easy to trouble shoot. In the shot, various elements of the network work together creating a dynamic output.
Designing these networks is art. This approach is particularly powerful in VFX because you can literally build whatever you can think of, and if there isn’t an operator that you need, you can script one on the spot.
Although this workflow paradigm is unique (but becoming less so with many imitators) it is remarkably efficient and is applied uniformly throughout the Houdini application. From textures to modeling to particles to animation to rendering and compositing; once you learn the flow, it rapidly becomes intuitive, with each module built on the same paradigm and interfacing approach. Scanline LA CG Supervisor Danielle Plantec (also my daughter), told me: “Although it takes some time to learn Houdini, it’s worth the effort because once you understand how it works, you can get results really fast.”
It’s true. I remember being shocked at how fast and easy it was to create the very complex rotational motion of the great mechanism in movie “Contact” even though it involved writing a script. I didn’t think I could to thatÃ¢Â€Â¦but I did, and it worked! I’d taken a course with Ray Corbett, one of Side Effects talented trainers. By the end of the day, I was already comfortable with this clever and logical new workflow.
Developed for the industry rather than home use, Houdini is pipeline oriented. It’s expensive by most standards because its licensees get the support and personal attention that is almost like having your own Houdini development squad in house. All the major studios use Houdini for the really tough jobs. For many years it’s been a fact that if you’re skilled at Houdini, you’re likely to find an elite position.
His ability to grasp concepts on both sides of that technology fence has helped Side Effects to be highly responsive to their users. And their users are a unique and vocal group of mostly top professionals. Their online user forums are mega-active and extremely helpful to new users. I’m re-learning Houdini after many years of not using itÃ¢Â€Â¦so I know.
It’s Davidson’s unique ability to feel what the artists need and both visualize and explain the technology needed to meet those needs that has kept the company on the forefront of our industry in spite of enormous competition from much bigger and wealthier companies. He told me: “We’re artists and love to work with other artists. We’re here to build the best tools that we can and serve our growing population of artist users.” Their motto is: “We’re passionate about production.” And that’s not hype.
Some major software houses have a tendency to get a little arrogant with users. (I won’t mention them at this time, but I may in the future as I have in the past.) Side Effects is not one of them. Most users I know have enormous affection for the company, and those who know him, have affection for Davidson as well. Here’s what VFX Supervisor Kevin Mack had to say: “Houdini is and has always been the most powerful and flexible 3D software available. Many people don’t realize the extent to which it has been at the center of cutting edge effects since the beginning of the digital revolution. I started using it back in 1990 when it was still PRISMS. I have always been amazed at how patient and helpful the Side Effects people were with me as I learned this new technology.”
I think I’ll end on that note. I agree with Kevin and it’s nice to know our industry isn’t all cut-throat, there are wonderful islands of light and good will here and there. I’ll keep my eye out for more while I’m also looking for the bad spots that need polishing.
new column, “Plantec’s POV “. Not just a journalist, Plantec is deeply
involved in many aspects of the film and VFX industry. He sits on a
number of film event advisory boards from Istanbuhl to Stuttgart to
Beijing. He also hosts a number of international film events, and will
be hosting the new 5D Conference in Long Beach, CA this October. In
addition, Plantec authored “Virtual Humans – Creating the illusion of
personality,” which has changed the way we look at virtual characters.
Plantec looks at things from his own unique perspective. Since he also
spent time as a clinical psychologist, his view of our industry can be
about the people as well as the technology. He’ll be looking at people
and trends in our industry that you’ll want to know about. In his usual
considered approach; he’ll tell it like he sees it – like it or not.
He’s always open to your opinion about what he’s said, and has even been
known to be enlightened by reader comments. In his first column he takes
a look at Side Effects Software and its CEO Kim Davidson, a popular and
true pioneer in our field. He’ll also talk a bit about Houdini, you’ve
heard about it, but do you know why it’s such an important part of VFX
past and future?
In upcoming columns he’ll be talking about such things as the dangers in
downloading cracked software, The Break-through Emily Project, and The
Curse of Perpetual New Versions, and the solution to working crazy hours
months on end.” You won’t want to miss his monthly missives.
Post your feedback below or you can email Peter directly at: firstname.lastname@example.org