A Few Words with Adam Swaab

Make a statement about who you are as an artist, rather than just emulating the people who inspire you.

Adam Swaab

Back in the day before the Twitters, Facebooks, and SnapChats of the world took over, most of us would frequent message boards to mingle and keep up with current events. Many folks just getting into the industry and industry veterans would hang out and talk shop. There was a great deal of knowledge-sharing going on. One these fellows spreading his smarts was Adam Swaab. Needless to say, he is still spreading the knowledge. Some of you may know him from his fantastic Houdini training over at helloluxx.com. What you may not know is he was previously a Cinema 4D user before moving on to Houdini. If you have used the plugin Render Elements for Cinema 4D, then you can thank Adam for creating it.

I was fortunate enough to have Adam lend his time to answer a few questions about himself and what he has been to up since the forum days. Grab yourself a coffee and enjoy.

990 So Adam, I remember you from the mograph.net days and at the time I believe you were working for Blur Studios. Tell us a bit more about yourself and what you have been up to these days.

Adam Yep, I was around when mograph.net was at its peak and was fairly regular on the message boards there. I think you’re right. I was working at Blur at that time in their motion graphics division. I was at Blur for four years, then left and freelanced around LA for another four years, mostly at Prologue, where I worked on a lot of film titles/fx and broadcast packages.

A little over four years ago, I hooked up with Wolf & Crow, where I now serve as a Creative Director and resident FX supervisor. I currently divide my time between directing commercials and helping other directors realize their vision by collaborating with them on VFX and highly stylized design shots.

990  You were first a 3D Max user no?

Adam The first 3D program I ever touched was Maya, back in college, but I was barely proficient in it. I got into Cinema 4D pretty early, around 2001, picked it up pretty quickly, and then learned 3DS Max when I started working at Blur.

QF | FCB Commercial
QF | FCB Commercial

990  I know you mentioned once on the forums that you were trying to develop some C4D tools to help integrate into the Blur pipeline and I believe this is what gave birth to Render Elements and Light Lister?

Adam Seeing Blur’s custom tools for 3DS Max got me interested in creating similar toolsets for C4D. Specifically, Blur had a pretty good render pass manager (Called “Render Elements” in-house) that I felt was desperately needed in C4D.  I didn’t want to write it myself or learn coding at all, but since I had no other options I decided to give it a shot.

I didn’t want to write it myself or learn coding at all, but since I had no other options I decided to give it a shot.

I had never written a line of code at that point, but naively thought I might be able to create something, if I could somehow manage to get a basic “hello world” plugin working. It was a crazy experience, especially with the limited amount of resources out there, but I eventually wrote a tool that did what I needed it to do and didn’t destroy my files or my computers! The light lister tool was never a serious tool for me. I’m not sure I ever used it, but I know some people out there found it helpful.

990 It’s interesting the path some people take when learning to program. I got into it because I wanted to create all those fancy particle simulations as well and they somehow always involved some form of scripting/programming. Houdini is seen as this “TD application” and probably why it scares off a lot of people. Do you think your prior programming experience helped you grasp Houdini much quicker?

Adam I think having a rudimentary background in programming is beneficial to learning Houdini, but not necessary until you start getting into intermediate-level stuff. Without some programming knowledge, you’ll hit a wall pretty quickly.

990 I do agree programming is really beneficial on so many levels. When you started creating your plugins, was Python your first language? Have you learned or tinkered with other languages since then?

Adam I started with C++. I learned a little bit of Python, too, once C4D added a Python module, so I wouldn’t have to deal with compiling for dual platforms. I guess I’d call VEX a language, although it’s very similar to C++.

990 Since you come from a design and animation background, if someone wanted to get learn some simple scripting/programming, what language would you recommend and what tips could you offer to tackle the subject?

Adam I haven’t had much experience with Kahn Academy, but I’ve heard good things about it, especially for learning coding. When I was learning, I bought a book called “Teach Yourself C++ in 21 Days,” which I found to be quite good. I think I only got up to day 8, and knew most of what I needed to write my scripts and plugins.

In terms of advice… I’d say, first, to decide why you are learning coding. Is it to write a plugin? Are you writing software, or just scripts for some simple tools. Houdini, for instance, has four different languages to code in (Python, HScript, VEX, and C++), all used for different purposes. I’d start with the purpose first, and then go from there. To be honest, all of those languages are very similar. There’s formatting differences, but the concepts behind writing code is somewhat language agnostic. I kind of like starting with C++ as a foundation because you have to be very safe there and very disciplined about casting variable and functions. Unlike Python or VEX, there’s not a lot of fallback options if you do something stupid, like divide by zero, write a loop that never exits, or try to access a variable on memory that isn’t there. You just get an instant crash or send your hard drive into meltdown mode.

The other thing I’d say is, for your first bit of code, try something very simple. Know your final goal, and then build in pieces. Every big problem is a set of smaller problems, and knowing how to solve the smaller problems first will be a great help to you later. And, also, start with a small achievable project. Don’t just go in there and think you’re going to write a fluid solver from scratch with no coding experience! Try something that can be done in between 5-20 lines of code, total.

990 I took that same approach when learning to program. Just grab some code and start tinkering with it until it works. Learning to program is definitely one of those “hands on“ activities. Do you think it’s necessary to be able to code to be a proficient Houdini user? Or at least some basic familiarity?

Adam Yes. Everyone learning Houdini who wants to be good at it needs to know some programming. I would go further and say anyone who wants to be good at 3d or animation in general should know some programming basics. It is helpful in every aspect of the pipeline. And you can’t always depend on other people to write tools for you.

990 My first encounter with Houdini wasn’t very memorable since I was complete lost and really didn’t understand its workflow. What was the attraction to Houdini?

Adam I got to a point where I felt very limited by what I could accomplish in Cinema 4D. As my skills grew and the level of work I tried to do increased, I found myself hitting more and more walls with the program. I was also becoming highly interested in scripted systems (particles and generative effects) and reproducing natural phenomena (fluids, smoke, fire, etc.), and I had heard Houdini was the gold standard for that type of work. As soon as they released their Apprentice software for Mac, I was ready and eager to play with it. I fell in love, almost immediately, once I learned how the software operates. Also, being able to easily create your own solvers and asset-types is amazing. In a few nodes, I could do in Houdini what I would have to spend days writing a plugin or script in C4D to accomplish.

I agree, the workflow is completely different than every other 3D app that most people are familiar with, and the program has a steep learning curve. That’s one of the reasons why I have been putting tutorials together. Too many tutorials and help documents that I read or watch all tell you how to do something, like an instructional manual or a recipe, but they do not explain the underlying reasoning or logic that goes into each step. I like to explain why you are doing things one way, rather than the other. I hope I am able to pull the curtain away a little bit and make the software easier for people to understand and do great work with.

990 So these days you are more heavily involved in commercial VFX work as opposed to motion design? If so, was the transition from mograph to VFX drastic? I know these days the lines have blurred but does it require a much different workflow, mindset, etc?

Adam Yes. I’d say 80% of the work I do these days is commercial VFX and VFX for films. The transition was not drastic to me at all, as it has happened little by little. And, also, what I do falls in a pretty narrow niche where design andVFX intersect. So, I have kind of have one foot in each of those worlds.

In terms of mindsets and workflows, what I do now requires much greater technical knowledge. A lot of the same tools are used, but the level of depth you have to get to with them is much higher. The work takes a lot longer, too.

990 Do you see yourself moving more into a film director type role in the future?

Adam That’s the goal.

990 Do you use any other 3D applications or is it now just strictly Houdini? I see you also use Nuke. No more After Effects 😉 ?

Adam Mostly just Houdini and Nuke. If I have a graphics job, I’ll use After Effects. For compositing, Nuke is much better, and compare Nuke’s 3D environment to After Effects… Occasionally, I jump into C4D for some quick animation jobs or to build a model. Houdini still is a bit rough to work with for modeling and animation. It’s doable, but not at the pace that I can work at in C4D.

990 I believe a while back when you started using Houdini, you were creating some mograph type tools for Houdini. Did you ever continue with the project?

Adam Yep 🙂 I have pretty much a full suite of mograph tools, plus a few things C4D doesn’t have, like a propagation solver. I rebuilt the entire falloff system in Houdini, so I can have all my little falloff effectors in the scene, just like you would use in C4D. The amazing thing about Houdini, is that you could pretty much build the entire mograph system in a few days, if you knew what you were doing.

990 When I first started using Houdini, the whole context thing, jumping in and out of contexts was confusing to me. What do you think is the hardest concept to grasp in Houdini? Especially for someone new to the program.

Adam Yeah, contexts… That was really confusing. It can really mess up a production, too, when different artists have different conventions about where they put stuff. Going into another artist’s file can be incredibly painful.

I think DOPS was (and still is) the most confusing part for me. The network flows can be strange to understand. The documentation for many DOP operators is missing or incomplete. Lack of example files is really frustrating. I personally think if SideFX put a good deal of time into expanding and improving the documentation of the software, it would be far easier to grasp.

990 I have to say, I find the Houdini docs alright but I know what you mean. What other area or areas do you think Side Effects can improve?

Adam I think SideFX is doing a great job of listening to their customers, and development cycles take a long time. The discontinuation of XSI has brought a lot of new users to Houdini, and they’ve been very vocal about various needed enhancements to the workflow and UI. I think non-procedural modeling is still a sore spot, but every release has added new and improved tools, and I believe it’s part of SideFX’s roadmap to keep making improvements there.

My fantasy would be to only use Houdini without having to work in another program. So, sculpting tools, better modeling tools, better uv tools… I’m particularly not fond of cloth in Houdini. Cloth seems to get a major rewrite every few versions, and it seems to only get marginally better each time. It’s especially frustrating when features get removed, as did cloth tearing for a few versions. I think FEM is good, and while it was horribly slow at first, it has gotten much faster. But, still, I’d love to have something like nCloth, that just shreds through sims (even if results aren’t super realistic).

Tron
Tron

990 I wanted to ask you, did attend a university for design or animation?

Adam I have BFA in Film/Video/Animation from Rhode Island School of Design. I mostly did live-action filmmaking there, although I painted and drew quite a bit. Only minimal education in graphic design and 3D animation.

990 Considering how this industry has evolved, do you think higher education is essential to pursue a career in this industry?

Adam If you have a great reel and know what you’re doing, it doesn’t matter. No one has ever asked me where I went to school in a job interview. But, I do think if you want to be an artist, and not just a technician, then yes, I would go and get the best education you can. I found mine to be invaluable. A good school will teach you how to think, not how to use a tool.

990 Let’s talk a bit about your training. I remember first seeing your tutorials on cmiVFX which are fantastic. By the way, I’m sure you know Chris Maynard passed away recently. You have now created a whole series that covers pretty much all Houdini’s main areas available at helloluxx.com. Is the training aimed at beginners or more intermediate users who have some experience with another 3D application?

Adam Yes, Chris’s passing was incredibly sad and unexpected. I didn’t know him very well. We only communicated through email, but I could tell how passionate he was about his company and creating a home for 3D and VFX artists all over the world.

So, the idea with the helloluxx series is to take a program from beginning to near-expert level, almost like a course. I start the series assuming no familiarity with the program and build each lesson upon the earlier ones. Lessons 1-10 will be beginner to intermediate. After I complete the first 10, I’ll take a little break and then do some that are more project based, rather than focusing on a specific technique or aspect of the software. I think those will be quite fun, but I need to lay the groundwork first. I really think of this series as a journey.

990 That’s great to hear!. You have a great teaching style and I think the series is a hit. Making training is not as easy as one may think. It takes a great deal of work, especially when teaching more advanced concepts? How do you balance all of this and keep moving forward without getting overwhelmed? Career, training, personal life? Do you go with the flow or follow some sort of “system”?

Adam lol… No I don’t have much of a system or organization to my extracurricular activities. I put tutorials together as I have time and motivation. Some of them, like the pyro tutorial, require a lot of upfront work before sitting down to record. Others, like the VOPS one, are pretty easy to jump into with a minimal amount of preparation.

In terms of work/life balance, I generally try to keep a pretty regimented schedule with my life. I usually turn off work mode during my evenings and make sure that I’m spending quality time with my family. After spending all day in front of a computer, I generally don’t want to spend more time looking at screens.

About continually making progress… I think making small sets of goals for each project helps put things in perspective, rather than getting overwhelmed by the entire thing.

DNA
DNA

990 Are you using Mantra for rendering or have you started to work with any of the third party render engines?

Adam Only Mantra. I tried out Arnold and liked it, but getting site licenses for my company is out of the budget, so I didn’t invest too much time learning it. Octane looks really promising, but I haven’t played with it yet.

990 Any plans in the future for a dedicated training module on Mantra?

Adam Mantra is next on the list!

990 I see you work on a Mac. Is this your main system or have you migrated to Windows? Or just use both. Any preference with one over the other? Personally, I have stuck to OS X because of the dev tools but I think I see myself moving on at least for the graphics related stuff.

Adam Only on a Mac at home. PC at work. I love macs for home use and keeping my life in sync, but for serious 3D work I think PCs are a much better option, especially at the price point of a mac. Houdini has been stable for me on both platforms, but I found that the graphics cards on PCs were more tuned to Houdini and allow for a better viewport experience. I’m not 100% sure, but I think openCL isn’t fully supported on the mac, either…

990 So we know this is one of those fields that requires you to constantly improve or upgrade your skills? I don’t watch as many tutorials these days. I’m very selective. First, because I like to read material. I find it helps me better retain information. Second, is time. I have a large Watch Me Later queue on Vimeo for tutorials. 😉 So these days I like to purchase my video training because it forces me to watch. With so much information being thrown at us, how do you approach your personal development and training? Do you set time aside for training at all?

Adam I used to really like reading the manuals and reading written tutorials, but over the last few years, I’ve come to love video tutorials. Mostly, I can learn faster in a video tutorial. If I know what the tutorial author is doing, I can skip ahead easily until we get to the harder stuff. Reading, I have to digest everything before I can determine if it is worthwhile or not.

I wouldn’t say I specifically set time aside for development and training. It’s always going on with me, either in the background, or by pushing myself into new territory with my projects. Often, I’ll find something new that I’m interested in and push that into a project, to further my skills at it and get more opportunity to learn.

990 Where do you go for inspiration these days?

Adam Vimeo, Behance, Pinterest, and Stash would be my big ones. Every few months I’ll take a trip to one of the museums out here in LA, which always inspires me. My wife is a fantastic designer, and she buys lots of art books, which expose me to a lot of new work, as well.

990 Do you have any other interest besides VFX/Animation?

Adam I love reading about and listening to podcasts about science (love love love Radiolab and Freakonomics). I love reading blogs and articles about personal development and growth. Over the last three years, I developed a passion for physical fitness and nutrition. Going to the gym has become part of my regimen, and I find it a great stress relief and a healthy activity in so many ways.

990 Yeah, I’m also into Freakonomics. Also gym time is important. I start to get grouchy if I don’t exercise for several day ha ha. Do you have any interest or have experimented with VR/AR or any other emerging technologies?

Adam I have an interest but have not experimented yet or even had a chance to try on VR goggles. I think VR is an exciting new technology and we’re going to see some really creative ways to tells stories with this technology in the future.

Birth
Birth

990 It’s no secret the industry has evolved. Years ago it was blasphemy to be a jack of all trades. Now it seems you are almost forced to be one. A great deal of professionals are going into UI design and animation, interactive, gaming, etc. Where do you see the industry going?

Adam Wow, tough question! I’m really not good at predicting… Seems like the VFX industry as a whole is in trouble, with more work needing to be done for less money and shops closing up pretty regularly over the last few years. I don’t know if being a jack of all trades is the answer there, because you’re still screwed if your company goes under. Hopefully, the vfx houses will be able to negotiate better deals with studios in the future and pass the money to their workforce. Something is going to have to give in the next few years, though. I’ve seen a bunch of friends and coworkers give up on the film industry because of all of the chaos there. A lot of my old film contacts are now working on games and loving it. Looks like that’s where things are heading. At least, that’s where the money and stability are.

Simply performing your job with a good attitude and professionalism goes a long way.

We’re seeing the same thing in advertising, as well, in terms of shrinking budgets and low profit margins. But it’s not as bad as film because the stakes aren’t as high. In advertising, jack-of-all-trades is definitely beneficial. If we can hire one guy to do the work of three, fantastic, right? It’s very hard in commercials to keep specialists booked or constantly on payroll, as jobs are very diverse. Positioning yourself for the industry you want to be in is certainly beneficial.

990 Any advice for keeping ahead of the curve?

Adam In terms of staying ahead of the curve… I don’t know how much of that is about developing your reel, to be honest. A great reel is a great reel and will get you in the door, but more than that, you’ll stay employed if your are a good, competent worker who is a pleasure to be around. Simply performing your job with a good attitude and professionalism goes a long way.

990 If you could give your younger self some advice. What would that be?

Adam lol. Do something better with your hair? Invest in Google? I don’t think I’d give too much advice other than to say to relax a bit and everything will be fine. I’m happy with where I am now, so everything that happened to get here is all part of the journey and necessary for development.

990 What other profession would you see yourself in if you were to move on or maybe had chosen another path?

Adam I ask myself this question pretty regularly, and I don’t have a good answer. I’ll be pretty old soon, and I have no idea what old guys do in this industry. I’d really like to start making films, and eventually put a television show together. That’s kind of the long term plan.

990 Any last piece of life or career advice you can give to those just starting out?

Adam Make something personal. Make a statement about who you are as an artist, rather than just emulating the people who inspire you. Everyone has a unique perspective, and getting that on the screen or page is what being an artist is all about.

DNA
DNA

Thank you Adam for your time! You can visit Adam’s website over at http://adamswaab.com or check out his Houdini SOP tools over at Orbolt Asset Store. Make sure you keep an eye out for his future Houdini training. Highly recommended!

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990adjustments

990adjustments

I am a motion designer & developer based out of South Florida.
When not designing or animating pixels, I wrangle some code. If all else fails, I watch Twilight Zone, I Love Lucy, or Three’s Company reruns.