Feb 242015

Let’s talk about fun things.

Houdini is clearly capable of some powerful and pretty stuff when it comes to terrain. I found several examples of that. This looks a lot like what I have in mind for my mountains:

(Source here)

This is more of a closeup, with plenty of detail and nice randomization happening:

Houdini procedural terrain and more from Andreu Lucio on Vimeo.

And here’s a test showing a big chunk of land created, similar to the size of what I’m hoping to make:


I conclude that it’s all doable.

When I looked into methods of building terrain in Houdini, I found several different approaches, ranging in technical level and amount of proceduralism. Go Procedural, Side Effects’ own Vimeo page of demos and tutorials, gives a very thorough outline of how to go about it:


According to this workflow, straight from he software specials, terrain building can be broken down into several simple steps:

  1. Generate procedural base terrain
  2. Customize it with masses, details, and set dressing
  3. Convert the entire scene to polygons for rendering.

The first two steps, in turn, can be done in a variety of ways. Generating the base terrain can start straight from 3D, in the cases of:

  • Sculpting the geometry
  • Creating custom masses (for separate rocks)

Or you can start off with 2D data and convert it to 3D mesh, such as with:

  • 2D topographical curves (height map)
  • 2D DEM maps
  • 2D fractals and other patterns

I tried sculpting first. Sculpting is fun, always. And in Houdini, sculpting is easy. Reminded me of Mudbox. Nondestructive, easily modified on any level, just add a new subdivision node and a new sculpt node on top and keep going.


Houdini also did a good job of reducing the mesh while maintaining detail.


But this can barely count as “procedural.” However, sculpting on top of a preexisting base mesh would be a good way to add custom detail with precision and a lot of control. Note to self.

Next I tried the height map method, which also turned out to be very customizable. Sure, you can go find a real height map online and use that, but you can also draw you own:


I like this idea, because this way I can create my landscape exactly how I want it. Control over everything. The only drawback – it would be fairly time consuming. After converting the 2D curves into a 3D mesh with some attribute coding, this is what I ended up with:


It doesn’t look very detailed because I didn’t have a lot of curves to start with. Still, I liked the results. With some tweaking, extra details, and sculpting on top, this method would work for my project.



One more thing the tutorial I used talked about: the topology curves method separates the input data from the geometry generators. Generators – groups of nodes doing one function in a scene – can become digital assets. Houdini makes good use of “digital assets,” and makes it easy to save them, export them, customize them, and reuse them. Much like your own presets. Digital assets increase productivity through such reuse. Modularity!

The next approach I tried used DEM maps – digital elevation models. They are similar to height maps, but instead of curves, there are gradients. And gradients can be powerful when they drive the right things. Using Houdini’s compositor, which behaves very similar to Nuke, I took a DEM image I found online and made its luminosity drive the height of a grid:


The results of this are most realistic, but least customizable.


Also, better watch the pure white and pure black areas – those will need some exposure adjustments on the 2D composite, or 3D detailing on top.


However, there is a way to change this to a degree. The 2D map can be turned into a composite image with other details on top. For example, this screenshot shows two areas of elevation that were added with curves and assigned heights, and integrated into the rest of the terrain:


In addition to all the terrain building, I tried some procedural set dressing, and learned a new word. “Scree” is a mass of small loose stones that cover the slope of a mountain. And I’ve generated some scree on my landscape.


These points are being driven by a snippet of code that determines the slope of the geometry and places points within a certain range. In other words, the points are being generated where the landmass is the flattest. They are then randomized (scattered) a bit, and assigned a piece of geometry – in this case, just a box.


If the red boxes were rocks, and then if a different slope range controlled bigger (or smaller) rocks, and another slope range controlled more rocks – I’d have a nice, natural-looking rocky landscape. Also, this method would work great for trees, when I need to place them just on the flat areas of a landmass.


In conclusion of this part of terrain building, I have a pretty good idea of how I’ll model my mountains later this week. I’ll use a combination of all three methods – a DEM map with some adjustments for the background mountains, a unique height map for the foreground mountains, and sculpting on top for close up details and camera details. Plus, rocks and trees.


To be continued with more terrain-building methods, soon…

Feb 152015

Having given it a bit more thought and time, here’s what I actually plan to accomplish this semester.

My design challenge is to create a procedurally modeled and shaded landscape with several different effect simulations. It will be a mountain scene: terrain, snow, rocks, and evergreen trees. There will be a bonfire with smoke rising into the sky, and snow – all of this affected by gusts of wind.

To break that down, there will be elements of:

Procedural modeling: terrain, rocks;

Procedural set dressing: trees, rocks;

Shading: snow, ground; and

Effects: fire, smoke, wind, snow.

All of this will be done in Houdini, which I will learn in the process. In other words, by the end of the semester I would like to be proficient in Houdini modeling, shading, and several different types of effects – in the form of a presentable (hopefully) project. We’ll see how far I can get! Here are some composition ideas I’m playing around with:



The fire in the second concept piece will definitely make its way into the final project. Ideally I would have multiple shots, but I’ll focus on just making one good 10-30 second shot.

Right now we are beginning week 4 out of 15 in our spring semester, and here is my plan of attack for the next three-something months:

Week 4: tutorials (modeling, particle effects), testing

Week 5: modeling the terrain (background), tutorials on shading

Week 6: modeling the terrain (background and foreground), tutorials on lighting

Week 7: modeling and set dressing the rocks and trees

Week 8: modeling and set dressing some more, tutorials on effects

Week 9: shading (terrain)

Week 10: shading (snow)

Week 11: lighting, effects (fire, smoke)

Week 12: effects (fire, smoke, snow, wind) <- in that order of priorities

Week 13: finish effects, render, composit

Week 14: render, composit

Week 15: (buffer week) render, composit

So uh… I start tomorrow.

Feb 102015

I am in the last semester of my undergraduate program. There’s much to be done. There’s the thesis film, there are classes, jobs, freelance projects, and there is more learning and discovering.

And while I still have access to free software on the lab computers, I might as well…

So I’m in this 3D Digital Design class, called Advanced Studio, taught by Shaun Foster. It’s all about research and discussions on technology and design, workflows, and tools. At the core of the class is a semester-long independent study project of our own choosing. Great, I can sit in my comfort zone all I want! But no, not really. Ever since my summer internship at Pixar, I’ve been craving to get to know Houdini better.

Great. So, Houdini is a powerful tool for any kind of effect or simulation, and that’s what it’s mostly used for. However, it has strong procedural capabilities for many stages of the 3D pipeline.

I watched a fellow intern and friend, James Bartolozzi, do amazing things with Houdini during our time at Pixar. He used it for far more than just particles and effects – he used a simulation to drive the motion of a school of fish, and made it interact with interfering objects (sharks). He built this impressive and visually stunning quartz cave environment, using just Houdini for everything but rendering:

After our summer internship, James went on to intern at Side Effects, coincidentally. No surprise that they took him in to make more wonderful things with their software. During his time there, he created this piece, the Hive, entirely in Houdini:

All of this showed me that here, in front of me, is a tool with many possibilities and untapped potential. And I’d like to explore it.

This semester, I’m making it my goal to learn Houdini, and use it to create a scene with a procedural environment and effects.

It won’t be the lofty goal that I wanted to do initially – not the monstrous integration of Houdini, ZBrush, Katana, and Nuke with a renderer that I’ve never used before. That would have been nice, of course. However, there is no way it would be possible for me to complete such a task in a semester when I have so many other things at hand. Therefore, I’ve scaled it down to just Houdini (and perhaps some Nuke for post if I have time), and exploring proceduralism and effect simulation within the software.

I’ve looked into some other 3D programs that could potentially tackle such tasks. For a while, I was set on Vue. Vue looked like my dream come true: making gorgeous painting-worthy sprawling landscapes in 3D. I’ve read reviews, interviews, and random views on Vue (see what I did there?), and it seemed as though most people who’ve used it praise it. It is used in the industry a lot, judging by the number of studios and films implementing it. However, there are some downsides to Vue, and ultimately, personal reasons why I chose not to go with it.

Vue is a tool to make matte paintings in 3D. It is used a lot in conjunction with Photoshop, Nuke, and sometimes Maya. Most of the people saying wonderful things about it are concept artists or matte painters. From this, I deduce that it is more an artistic tool than technical, and that’s why I chose not to use it. As a TD, I find it more worth my time to learn something technical that goes against the grain of my thinking and pushes me further. I can make pretty pictures on my own time. For this opportunity to learn and expand my skill set (and branch out into realms beyond traditional modeling and set dressing), I would rather choose something to challenge me.

Besides, it looked like most terrain-building tools came with lots of presents and required little technical prowess, and frankly, often appeared cheap in the quality of their renders.

So I’ll be using Houdini.

As for what exactly I’ll be doing: mountains. Here are some inspiration images that I’ll be going off of:




Mount Rainier National Park

I can’t promise that I’ll make something as magnificent as Mount Rainier, but I’ll give it my best shot.

Coming up next: concept art for the project and first Houdini tutorials to figure out what’s going on.

Apr 202014

The following images are brought to you from this semester’s various Lighting & Rendering class assignments. As I really wasn’t able to update my page with actual projects, here’s a whole bunch of screenshots of what I’ve been working on from February till now.

Render layers exercise, mimicking an art movement (fauvism):


Same scene, caustics exercise:


Maya Software render:


Interior scene, render passes and GI:



This is my favorite class of the semester, and definitely a very dense class in terms of new information and skills. I get to do the things I like best: concept art, modeling, texturing, and lighting.

Although, I must say, GI and Final Gathering and caustics can be evil. One time, I checked the “emit photons” box on an environment image map in my scene, and Maya promptly and saucily told me to save the scene and quit the program. Just like this:

“Error: fatal. The system may have become unstable. Please save the scene and exit Maya.”

At least it gave me a chance.

Apr 072014

Straight from Wikipedia: one of the nicknames for a helicopter in the English language is “whirlybird.”

I made a whirlybird! Specifically, a Sikorsky Blackhawk, for my friend Mark Logan. His film ARC will premiere at Rochester Institute of Technology, during spring screenings, in May. Check out the film’s Facebook page!

The task was to create a 10-second shot of a realistic helicopter moving into the frame and hovering in mid-air. Mark approached me at the beginning of last fall, asking if I would be up for the job. At that time, after a summer of working at RIT Production Services, I was very comfortable with Blender’s Cycles rendering system, and made the decision to tackle this project in Blender. I also still prefer Blender’s tools for hard-surface modeling over Maya’s (I love Maya for just about anything else, except caustics).

So many months later, here it is, from modeling to compositing, created in Blender and AfterEffects.




Mark’s film is intense. Check it out. I can’t wait to see it finished. And I really hope that my part in it works with the rest.

Mar 292014

Last winter, I was hired by RIT Production Services. One of the luckiest things to happen to me in college. I am so very fortunate to be getting a production studio experience while taking classes.

At Production Services, I do a variety of tasks, ranging from concept art and design to 3D animation to visual effects. Every once in a while, have to track a camera. But for the most part, it’s a lot of fun! I work directly with the graphics manager and my student coworkers – graphic designers, motion graphics artists, video editors, and visual effects specialists. I also interact with the directors and sometimes contribute to meetings.

For 3D graphics, we primarily use Blender and AfterEffects. We just got Cinema 4D, and for my most current project I am learning the ropes of that!

Disclaimers: None of this material belongs to me. I do not own SportsZone, SZ Live HD, or any other name mentioned in the reel. I merely do the graphics. Not everything in the reel was done by me. For a breakdown with roles and contributors, go to the YouTube page of the reel. The music is “Wolf Like Me” by TV on the Radio. I do not own that either, using for non-commercial purposes only.

In other news, I finally caught up with culture and watched Frozen last night. Oh, man… So pretty. Such acting. So much work. Such hope for getting hired in the future.

Mar 272014

I don’t think I remembered to eat dinner today, I was too excited about lights and colors and more lights. I’m working on a lighting project for my class, and it is turning into a modeling/texturing/lighting experiment.

The hard lines of the environment model are intentional. Different lights in the scene affect different geometry groups and sometimes individual meshes. The final scene will be a combination of multiple passes and render layers, but today I was working on the toon shader/outline layer. It has the bright, flat colors that I wanted, harsh shadows, and prominent outlines.

Original concept art:


Finished model:


Toon shader and outline layer rendered with Maya software:


Of course, I would love to achieve the “brush stroke” look of the original painting, and, more importantly, the splattered shadows. I plan on using flat image planes with a painted texture and alpha for the trees in the background.

Other than that, I’m fairly happy with how my colors are turning out, especially considering I’m not picking them directly from the concept painting.

Mar 162014

Ever heard of Eyvind Earle?

I haven’t, either, until my mom showed me some amazing artwork in a style I never previously knew existed – magic realism. It was primarily a literary style, but evolved to encompass art, too. The art movement began in the first two decades of the 20th century. It is all about putting magical elements amidst an otherwise ordinary surrounding. The film The Green Mile, and basically anything by Hayao Miyazaki, are good examples of magic realism in film.

Back to Eyvind. He was an American illustrator and author, best known for his painted backgrounds and concept art for mid-century Disney films. He worked on Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, and Sleeping Beauty.

I looked at his art and thought that the “magic” part of magic realism is well-earned here. His brave use of color and strong shapes is phenomenal, and the freedom he took with composition and stretching reality is admirable.

However, Earle worked in a variety of styles and media, going from watercolors, to oils, to drawings, to scratchboard, to serigraphs (silk screen printing).

Earle was a prolific artist. The amount of work he produced over his lifetime is staggering. He worked almost until his death in 2000, holding exhibitions as late as 1998. I wasn’t able to find an exact number of his works, but I’m sure it is a large number.

This is the kind of art that makes me want to explore 3D further. This is another challenge – another new 2D discovery that has yet to be replicated in 3D. Or maybe it has. I don’t know, but I would love to figure out how to do it.

In the meantime, if anyone wants to buy me this book, please feel free!