At the end of the day it’s your ability, drive & passion that will dictate the quality of your work, good tools will only get you so far.
If you’ve seen the Nike Air 1 Max spot by Aixsponza Studio, I’m sure you want to know who the wizards are behind the spot. One of these individuals behind the magic is Ben Watts. You probably know Ben from his excellent Cinema 4D and Houdini tutorials. Originally a Cinema 4D artist, Ben is now a full on heavyweight freelance Houdini VFX artist. I was able to steal a bit of time away from Ben to answer some of my questions. Folks, I present to you Mr. Ben Watts and his journey into the Houdini artistry.
990 Ben, give us a little background about yourself and your journey into this field.
Ben My journey into the industry started in 2006 when I became interested using a video camera & wanted to become more creative with the footage I had shot, that’s when I began to learn After Effects. I spent the next year or so watching After Effects tutorials & experimenting on my own until I approached a local business that was fairly active with TV advertising. I asked If I could create and ad for them in order to gain experience in the field. After that I continued on for years creating TV commercials for people in the area. In 2007 I left my day job to work in the industry full time.
In the years following I became a lot more interested in motion design & 3d. I eventually gave up shooting to work in motion design as a freelancer. It wasn’t until 2009 I picked up 3ds Max and started to learn the basics. I continued to create with 3ds Max and After Effects for the next few years. At this point – 3d was still just a hobby you could say, all of my paid work came from motion design.
It wasn’t until 2013 I got in Cinema 4D. I liked the tight integration with After Effects which was still my main tool at the time. This is where I began creating Cinema 4D tutorials in my free time. I had actually created some After Effects tutorials in years prior for (AEtuts+ at the time) They weren’t something I ever planned on doing, one day I just decided to give it a try, now here we are a couple of years later & I’m a full time Freelance Houdini VFX artist working with some of the most talented people in the industry.
990 So initially you were working with Cinema 4D and creating tutorials and training. Now it seems you are exclusively working in Houdini. Why the jump?
Ben That’s right. I only used Cinema 4D for a couple of years before I was drawn to the dark side forever. I planned on making the move into effects and Houdini seemed like the perfect tool for someone transitioning into the VFX world. It was the technical side of Houdini that had me very interested.
I had no prior programming experience but I saw this as the turning point in my career & great opportunity to throw myself in.
990 I remember you mentioning on Twitter that you had originally started working in Houdini but then decided to work with Cinema 4D. Can you explain that a bit and why you decided to go with C4D at the beginning?
Ben Well, as mentioned I started with 3ds Max. Whilst using Max and probably like most other 3d artists I wondered if the grass was greener. I think I installed every demo or trial for most of the popular 3d applications at the time (Maya, Houdini, Softimage etc.) and had a play around for a couple of days then decided to stick with Max.
In the case of Houdini, I don’t think I even learned how to fracture a sphere before I had decided it wasn’t for me at that time, funny how things come full circle. I think trying other 3d software to see what fits best is an important. At the end of the day it’s your ability, drive & passion that will dictate the quality of your work, good tools will only get you so far.
990 Amazing! Goes to show if you are driven and put in the work, great things will happen. It shows in your work. Let me ask you, did you attend school for design or animation/VFX?
Ben No. Unfortunately I don’t have a formal education regarding CG, I learned the hard way – through my own experimentation & the internet. Looking back it would have been nice to know my career path straight out of school but things aren’t always clear until later in life.
990 What are your thoughts on school and pursuing an education to enter this industry?
Ben I think having a formal education in computer science or design is great for anyone interested in this industry. Making sure you get enough hands on experience can be equally important in my opinion. You need to make plenty of mistakes to grow.
990 So you have slowly evolving your skills and moving into different roles which I think is really important not only in this industry but any industry. Considering the way the industry has evolved, do you think growing not only your skill set but your role is important in this industry?
If you don’t evolve and enhance your skillset you’ll probably get left behind.
990 You started doing tutorials way back and you continue to do so, what made you start creating training material? Let me tell you, it’s tough to create tutorials!
Ben Tutorials are a ton of work, It’s hard to understand how much until you’ve produced one. I honestly have no idea why I began creating tutorials, I think it’s just that passion to share something with people & hopefully they’re interested and learn something cool. Now days it’s much harder due to time constraints but it’s rewarding once the edit is done and I can put it up online.
990 Being a full-time VFX Houdini artist, do you travel to different locations to work on-site or work remotely?
Ben My preference is to work remotely, I have travelled for work but with a young family it’s tricky and some of these projects can last 6 months or more.
990 I agree with you on finding the application that you are comfortable with. I remember starting with Maya back in the day but I could never quite grasp it. I was constantly fighting with it. Cinema 4D was much more my style. How was the transition from Cinema 4D to Houdini considering they have very different workflows?
Ben I didn’t find the transition that bad. Initially you don’t have that ‘Houdini’ way of thinking yet so things seems very strange but within 3 months I found myself creating some decent content.
990 You approached Houdini with no prior programming experience, did you feel that was obstacle at first or it really didn’t make a difference in learning the application?
Ben Well at the start, most of the things I was creating in Houdini weren’t really tasks that I needed VEX for. It’s only recently that I’ve found myself creating more technical effects & knowing how to program is a massive advantage. It has been tough learning from scratch but I’ll get there eventually.
990 What was the most difficult aspect of Houdini for you to grasp if any?
Ben Houdini is such a deep application in so many areas. VEX is something that challenges me every day and probably micro solvers in DOPS, things can get quite technical with a larger with networks.
990 As far as keeping your skills sharp, do you set aside a block of time for training or do you “learn as you need” or maybe when something calls your attention?
Ben I’m usually scouting Vimeo at some point through the day, these days I just have to watch videos when I can. It would be nice to have time set aside but that’s unlikely to happen these days.
990 Houdini is definitely a more technically oriented application. What do you think Side Effects can do to make Houdini more approachable to an audience who may not have a “TD” background?
Ben That’s a hard one, personally I really love their Master Class videos which often show a bit more of the technical stuff but in a way that most people should be able to follow. I’d just like to see more content from them in general, would be great.
990 What specific areas in Houdini do you think need improvement?
Ben I don’t have many requests but it would be awesome if some of the existing tools were updated to multithread equivalents & more nodes operated on a per point basis with attributes.
990 For those starting off with Houdini and coming from a Cinema 4D background, what tips can you give them to help with the learning curve?
Ben I’d say if you’re making the jump be prepared to approach your work in a totally different way, you need to be patient and realize that Houdini can take some time to grasp. Watch plenty of tutorials, get on the OD Force forums & read the help – it’s your best friend.
990 You have some great free Cinema 4D as well Houdini tutorials. Any plans for maybe premium Houdini content?
Ben Thanks. No plans for any paid Houdini courses right now, I just don’t have the free time. Any tutorials I produce from now on are likely to be free quick tips.
Ben Mantra & Octane are completely different. Mantra can do it all – it’s just slooowww. On the other hand Octane is super quick but when you’re creating technical effects – It’s extremely limited. As of now there’s no “real” attribute support so you can make stuff look fantastic but when you need technical functionality it’s just not there yet. I’m really looking forward to checking out Redshift once it’s out, looks very cool!
990 You work mainly on a PC correct?
Ben Yep, always worked on a PC.
990 What additional applications do you use for your work? Do you use any workflow, mind-mapping or scheduling applications?
Ben These days I pretty much work in Houdini exclusively with the occasional visit to AE for some grading or comping etc. The way I work is very simple & stripped back, I really don’t miss the days of using 4 different apps with plugins everywhere. Simple is awesome!
990 I totally agree with you on keeping things simple! I remember the time I had five computers at home. No more of that. Outside of the industry, do you have any other interests or hobbies? How do you keep energized?
Ben I’ve played drums for over half of my life so I’ll still have a bash whilst I’m waiting for renders. I’m into eating healthy and go to the gym 6 days a week with my brother, it really helps balance things with sitting down in front on a screen all day and I think it’s important to just catch up and chat.
990 Nice! We share some things in common besides Houdini 🙂 I use to play drums and played in a hardcore band back in the day. Really been wanting to get back into it. What’s next on the horizon for Ben Watts? Any future technologies you would like to experiment with?
Ben Man, I really don’t know. I’d like to create some more Houdini learning content and just continue work great people on interesting projects. I just purchased a Redshift license so I’m digging into that at the moment too.
990 What words of wisdom can you give those just starting out or hoping to jump to the next level?
Ben I know I’ve probably mentioned this – but for the aspiring Houdini guys, try to develop some coding skills. Just take it slow and create some nice personal projects that you can show online. This is something that may seem like a waste of time initially but studios are always scouting sites such as Vimeo for talent.
990 Where do you see the industry going in the next few years?
Ben I imagine the GPU rendering scene will become even more dominant and I think we’ll see a lot more worldwide collaboration via freelancing.
990 Any feature requests you would like to see for the next iteration of Houdini?
Ben I’d love to see Mantra GPU rendering, it’s such a great engine allowing you to pretty much do anything but I’m not sure this will happen any time soon. I can’t think of much else right now but I’m very keen to see the next release.
990 I know Houdini is more of a VFX heavy application but I wish Houdini had better type tools. Maybe similar to Cinema 4D. Having been a Cinema 4D user, what if any features would you take from C4D and added to Houdini?
Ben With my day to day I honestly don’t come across any situation where I think “I wish we had this feature like C4D” I think most of what I need is there, I just need to get better at using what’s available.