A Few Words with Paul Ambrosiussen

Try new things, fail or succeed and move on to the next thing. Making wise decisions is for when you’ve passed the initial learning phase. So be risky and experiment, you might just find a new passion for something.

Paul Ambrosiussen

The young 3D artist, who grew up in the Netherlands, has always been perceived as an innovative thinker, early adopter of technology, and a natural leader. His work, which has won multiple awards from important technology companies and industry leaders can be seen on trade publications including 3DWorld, VentureBeat, 80Level, and CGPress. These include engaging multiplayer video game titles such as BoombaCats, winner of the Excellence in Gameplay award at the 2017 Global Game Jam (USC), Guanta Gnomo, winner of industry leader Epic Games’ Totally Epic Unreal Engine Award at the 2016 Nordic Game Jam competition, Prism Warden, recipient of the 2015 Tobii Hardware Innovation Award for the Best Use of Eye Tracking Technology in combination with Hologram Technology, and Einar, a single-player 3rd person video game which received the Gamelab Achievement Award in 2017.

As someone who has succeeded in the gaming industry, he often spends his time sharing his expertise, whether it be speaking at key trade events such as the Game Developers Conference, providing career advice at the University of Southern California, or consulting on real-time projects for visual effects companies such as The Mill, an award-winning creative technology and VFX studio collaborating on projects for the advertising, gaming and music industries.

990 You have quite an interesting background, so before we get into Houdini talk, tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from, where did you grow up and all that good stuff.

Paul Here we go.. So I was born into a family consisting of a Danish father and an Austrian mother in Vienna, Austria on March 6th 1996. Not too long after that we moved to The Netherlands, where I got my education. That’s also where I got my degree in International Game Architecture and Design at the NHTV University of Applied Sciences in Breda. So that means I grew up learning four languages at once: German, Danish, Dutch and English. This has proven to be quite useful when networking in this international industry. It also helped me look at things from multiple perspectives.

Other than that, I like being stuck on hard problems (which is why I love tool-building in Houdini). In addition to that I like going on adventures in general. It’s important to be exposed to as many new and unique things on a regular basis.

990 You’re currently a Technical Artist Intern at SideFX correct?

Paul Yes, that is correct! And I absolutely love it!! Before I started, I was expecting the internship to be similar to something you would see at a university when following a course on Houdini. The actual internship itself is nothing like that at all. Quite the opposite actually. I think it would be safe to say that it’s similar to an incubator where you can explore and pursue the things you feel are worth diving into. And especially with Houdini, you can’t do wrong there.

I’m more on the technical side compared to what people have in mind when they think of a “Visual Artist”, so I decided to work on the more technical side of things. In my very first week I built the Houdini equivalent of the Epic Games built PivotPainter. That tool is now being used by countless users around the world, including big AAA studio’s of whom I have played their games. So during the internship you don’t really have a limit to what you are “allowed” to do. Are you capable and comfortable pursuing something? Yes? Then do it!

990 That sounds incredible. So jealous! 🙂 Can you give us a description of what your day to day is like in this role?

Paul Of course! My day to day has changed a bit from when I started at SideFX. Initially I was mainly focusing on building new tools and making tutorial videos for them. But that quickly became more complex once people actually started using those tools in their pipelines. I then had to also start doing active support for customers internally through our bug database and publicly on platforms like Discord and Forums.

In addition to that, I sometimes also visit new or existing customers to talk to them about their needs, or resolve any problems they might have. I also do custom workshops like the Epic Games livestream, a Naughty Dog workshop and the recent GDC presentation. It basically comes down to making sure game developers all around the world can do their job as efficiently as possible – which gives a very strong feeling of accomplishment.

990 How long have you been with SideFX?

Paul I have been with SideFX Software since August 1st 2017. The transition of moving to the US from The Netherlands has been quite a big step for me – but I am very happy I decided to do it. At first I didn’t know anyone. I basically moved to the other side of the world to work at a company where I hadn’t met anyone from in person before. Having contact with Ben Mears through Facebook Messenger before moving definitely made everything more enjoyable – knowing someone there was willing to help me out regardless of not having met me before. So here’s a massive shoutout and thanks to you buddy!

A Few Words With Paul Ambrosiussen
Physics Painter tool

990 Yeah, Ben is a really cool guy. So let me ask you, would you eventually prefer a role doing production on a game for example or do you feel that what you are doing now is something that can be long term? It seems this role allows you to do a little bit of everything.

Paul To be honest, I don’t really mind either. The main reason I’m able to produce cool tools for others is because I enjoy doing so. Working in production definitely has its perks, but so does the role I have right now. Production would be more focused on solving problems people have “now”, which helps a product get to the stage where it is supposed to be within a set timeframe. So the benefit there is that I will actually have directly contributed to a product I could say I helped build. The tools I build right now indirectly help products get built as well, but that all happens behind the scene, often without me even knowing they use the tools.

What I do now allows me to focus on problems people will have in the future without a tight deadline. The benefit of that is that I’m able to tackle more complex problems, and help shape how developers around the world using Houdini build their pipeline.

990 I’m curious to know, how do you apply to be an intern at SideFX?

Paul So to become an intern at SideFX, there’s basically two ways. Either apply for it on our website. (https://www.sidefx.com/education/internships/) Or get your work exposed to the industry out there, and make the people deciding who gets in excited about it. It’s definitely not easy to be accepted as an intern at SideFX, but also not impossible.

You really don’t need a massive portfolio with numerous different examples of work. Make sure you have one or two really impressive pieces that are different from what others are doing and you should be fine. Following a tutorial online and submitting that work as “proof” of you being a capable user won’t cut it. Show something unique and demonstrate you are self driven to explore new innovative things.

…look for inspiration in places not directly related to what you’re trying to achieve.

990 I see you also co-founded a company? Can you give us some details on that endeavor?

Paul Yes! That is correct. My company is called DreamPunks, and it has a rather interesting story on how it all got started. Somewhere at the end of 2014 someone told me about this event called “Nordic Game Jam”, which got me interested in GameJams as a concept. It turned out that people were voluntarily coming together to build a game from scratch within 48 Hours, so I just felt that was something I had to participate in. I flew to Copenhagen Denmark in February 2015, and arrived at Aalborg University without knowing any of the 900 participants from all over the world. I did however recognize some faces I had seen before at my University. So we decided to form a team together and compete in the event.

I found this really cool holographic display called Realfiction Dreamoc, and some new eye-tracking hardware called Tobii EyeX. So we built a game with both of it. Why not? So that turned out to be quite a success giving us the Tobii Hardware Innovation Award, which was quite the achievement. Some time later we found ourselves doing all sorts of business-to-business projects with both the eye-tracking and holographic display. We even did a cool holographic game for the Disney Star Wars IP as part of dsXpress GmbH.

990 Very cool! I worked on a project for a company that used similar technology to Realfiction. It was lots of fun. Are you still working with with the technology or dabbling in it?

Paul No, I’m not actively developing things for that technology anymore. But I am definitely following the development of it to see where it is going. Right now my full focus is on getting Houdini users out there the tools and support they need to build really cool things.

990 You are more involved with the gaming side of things for SideFX. Do you also get involved with other areas such as VFX, motion graphics, etc?

Paul The games segment of SideFX is something that’s brand new compared to the SideFX most of the Houdini users are familiar with. I consider myself “the odd one out” compared to others, since I rarely do any content development using fluids, pyro, particles or rigid bodies. This mainly has to do with me coming from a technical Game Development background, rather than a Film background. This however really proves how good of a playground Houdini is to do whatever you need to achieve.

So to answer your question – yes, in rare occasions, but I prefer staying away from building content that revolves around “Keyframes”, “Simulating”, “Rendering” or “Waiting”. Building tools to make that easier for others however is a different story.

A Few Words With Paul Ambrosiussen
Cluster Cleanup Tool

990 Are you a big gamer? If so, what’s your favorite game currently and favorite of all time? How about your favorite console?

Paul Well… I used to love games a lot more than I do right now. I spent countless hours on games such as RuneScape, Call of Duty and Warcraft, before I got into the actual development of games itself. But once I found a way of putting my passion for architecture and drawing into practice, I started spending more and more time on that rather than enjoying interactive media such as games. That however doesn’t mean I don’t play games anymore, but it definitely means I play less than before.

The only time I play games is when some really cool narrative or exploration-based game such as The Last of Us (my favourite game) gets released, or when my friends want to play something together. I guess I’m rather lucky I consider my “work” my hobby as well. As for my favourite console, definitely PlayStation. Not because of any hardware differences compared to others, but simply because they have some exclusives I really appreciate. But the few games I play during the weekends nowadays are usually all on PC.

990 The Houdini Game Development toolset is fantastic. How much have you contributed to this toolset?

Paul Yes! The Game Development Toolset is definitely fantastic. I’m not saying that because I feel obligated to (ha-ha), but because the SideFX games team regularly gets praise and compliments from customers once they find out about its existence. Its goal is to make the tasks of typical Game Developers much easier – and considering how widely it is being used in the Games Industry I think it’s been quite successful so far.

As for how big my contribution has been so far? That’s hard to say due to us not having hard data on which specific tools are being used how often. We only know how often the toolset as a whole is being used. But some of my contributions have definitely been received very positively by the worldwide community. It is however worth noting that the tools are usually not just being made by one developer. It really is a team effort together with Luiz Kruel and Mike Lyndon.

990 What are some of the most useful game dev tools in Houdini? I find myself using auto UV, soften normals, and thicken all the time.

Paul I refuse to answer that question 😉 They all are very useful. Jokes aside, the tools I use most are the simple ones like Axis-Align. They are literally just something simple like two other nodes packed together, but they save you from so many repetitive and boring tasks. And that’s exactly what the toolset is designed to do best.

Bigger tools such as Auto-UV and Physics Painter are also extremely useful, but will be used less on a daily basis due to performing a less “generic” task. Don’t forget that the toolset features over 60 tools by now, meaning that it pretty much has tools required to cover the most common workflows for Games.

It’s important to be exposed to as many new and unique things on a regular basis.

990 Yes! Axis-Align is such a time saver. I recently switched to the dev branch of the toolset and found some new goodies. 😉 I do a great deal of work in the commercial segment of the industry (motion design, vfx, etc) and the Game toolset is still invaluable. So I would say to people out there, it’s not just for game developers. Would you say that is true?

Paul Absolutely! The Game Development Toolset might be labeled a bit wrong. It definitely has a branding issue in my opinion. We had a conversation once about calling it something like “SideFX Labs Toolset” (or something similar), since it contains a lot of tools that originally were intended for GameDevs, but turned out to be useful for any Houdini users.

The toolset could be considered an “incubator” for tools that will eventually be natively integrated into Houdini. R&D is constantly following our developments, and has some great input as well. Some of the tools currently found in the toolset are already being evaluated for release by R&D.

990 If someone was interested in using Houdini for game development, what are the main benefits?

Paul Great question! At the heart of Houdini is the concept of proceduralism. The quick summary of proceduralism is that it allows developers to create a ‘recipe’ in Houdini’s network editor – with assets and processes as parts of the recipes – which allows for creative iterations at any point in the process. The key benefit for small teams or individual artists is being able to create a lot of game art with very few people. Indie game developer Luis Garcia is a really great example of that. He built this really impressive Unity game really fast due to him using both Houdini and Houdini Engine in a clever way. I highly recommend watching his presentations on his findings.

As for the bigger teams in AAA studios, it’s the ability to build procedural tools, which can be integrated into game engines, and used by the wider teams of game artists – who might not even know that those tools were built using Houdini. A good example is what multiple Ubisoft teams have been doing for world generation. They are capable of generating these massive games in a relatively short amount of time due to their smart use of Houdini.

The SideFX website has a story about the Ghost Recon project. So to summarize: Houdini is capable of reducing the amount of time developers (not just artists!!!) would need to spend on things that could easily be automated.

A Few Words With Paul Ambrosiussen
Destruction Cleanup Tool

990 Can you explain Houdini Engine a bit for those who are not familiar with it? Do you find it’s gaining traction with users?

Paul Houdini Engine is really powerful. It brings the power of Houdini into other applications such as Maya, 3dsMax, Unity, Unreal, distributed farms – and even proprietary applications using our API. You can build a cool tool inside Houdini, and Houdini Engine will make it work the same way in all those different applications. Imagine if you were to use Unity for your project, and have built a lot of custom Unity tools using C#. What if one day your studio will only use Unreal from now on? Then all the tools you had made specifically for Unity become somewhat useless, since they don’t work in Unreal. If you had made those tools using Houdini and Houdini Engine, they would still work regardless of what application you are going to use in the future (assuming HEngine works there).

Secondly, HEngine allows you to keep your content “live” and procedural all the way until distributing your product. An example would be generating a road on a game landscape. A typical non-procedural workflow would look like this: Level-Design builds a blockout, and sends it to the Art-Department to make it look pretty. Once that’s done it goes to the QA-Department for testing. If it then turns out the road needs to be moved somewhere else, the Art-Department might need to completely redo it. After which it goes back to QA again. And that cycle keeps repeating until its either perfect, or time is up.

The procedural approach using HEngine would allow the Level-Designer to build this road using a spline in their game engine, and HEngine would generate the art for it using the rulesets the artists have defined. Once that spline moves, the art gets automatically adjusted to fit that change. This gets rid of the artist step after the initial art pass, reducing the amount of time required to iterate on a design. But if you want to know more, check out the HEngine page describing it in full detail here: https://www.sidefx.com/products/houdini-engine/

990 Houdini has this reputation for being a TD’s application. Being that you work in large and complex pipelines, do you agree with that?

Paul It does indeed have that reputation, but personally I don’t fully agree with that. A lot of people build technical things in Houdini, and that’s because it’s so easy to do so. However, a lot of the tools in Houdini have been built with consideratation for the less technical people. A good example is building terrains in Houdini. Really technical people could build their own solution for an erosion solver, but people that just want to use the tools provided by SideFX are just as fast in achieving their goal. Comparing it with a painter, you could say that some people prefer using paint they mixed by themselves, and other just like using paint they buy in the store. It’s really up to the users themselves.

To put that into Houdini context again, you could have a team that just builds tools with easy to use interfaces – only exposing what the end user needs. But the great thing there is that you can once again make it as difficult as you’d like. If you don’t want to dive inside the tools you’re using, you don’t need to. If you want to know how it works – or perhaps even modify it – feel free to go through the unlocked tools.

990 Ha ha, very well put. SideFX has definitely improved the UX and made Houdini more approachable. What is one area you think can be improved in your opinion or based on your interaction with users. I feel the cloth system needs some work.

Paul I think we can do a lot more in terms of building high level tools. Mike Lyndon has been working on something called “Fire Presets”, which is essentially just an HDA you drop down and tweak to get a result you need. There is no need to constantly keep rebuilding the same network over and over again. Same goes for other workflows as well.

We recently wrapped a network people keep building over and over for converting High Poly > Low Poly + Baked maps into one HDA that does all of that for you called “GameRez”. So to answer your question: More ready to use high-level tools and workflows. We plan on releasing some videos and tutorials for those high-level things too.

990 Expanding on this, do you think programming is necessary to reach a high level of proficiency in Houdini or at least a basic understanding?

Paul No, definitely not. People keep thinking that Houdini is really difficult to get started with, due to that being the case in the past. But the awesome development team at SideFX has made that a lot easier over the past few years. Substance Designer is essentially the same in terms of workflow and required skill and is being used by all artists regardless if they are technical or not. As for becoming a “pro / power user” at Houdini, knowing the basics of programming will help you write more optimized and efficient tools, but is not a requirement.

What it will help you with, however, is the way of thinking. But once again this all depends on what you want to do with Houdini. If you want to do modeling, you don’t need to understand how to do a polar decomposition of a matrix. But if you plan on writing a skinning converter tool based on technical white papers, well…

990 From your experience using Houdini, what would you say is the biggest hurdle users face with Houdini?

Paul The biggest hurdle some new Houdini users run into happens when they don’t actively reach out to bounce ideas off of other Houdini users. I notice some users being unsure if they are doing it “right”. This could be a potential hurdle that makes them feel uncomfortable continuing with their work. There really is no “wrong” way of doing things in Houdini as long as you reach your desired end result.

There are always hundreds of smarter and more efficient ways of doing it. But you often don’t need those for your purpose. And the only way to realize that is by talking to others. So I highly recommend all users to be active in participating on platforms such as the SideFX website and unofficial places like the Think Procedural Discord server, where there are hundreds of helpful Houdini artists who are happy to share their knowledge.

990 Where do you see the industry going in the next few years?

Paul That’s hard to say, but definitely procedural/automated. Especially interactive media is expected to become of higher quality by the consumer. And increasing quality most of the times mainly has to do with spending more time on the creative aspects of developing something. Studios will either have to hire more developers, which require higher budgets, therefore increasing the retail prices of games in general. Or developing content has to become easier and more automated.

Since consumers expect prices to remain the same, and some even refuse to pay for games at all, it will have to become automated in some way. Proceduralism gets a bad rap with some people because they think it’s a ‘lazy’ way to create content. They’re wrong. It’s the smart way. Instead of spending time on repetitive ‘dumb’ tasks like creating and placing rocks, game companies can invest their artists’ time in concepting, iterating, and polishing – beautifying the game, improving game play etc.

990 Are there any other technologies you are interested in or looking to learn more about?

Paul Yes…too many! I do however have one particular piece of tech I’d like to learn more about – Machine Learning. A primitive approach of it has been around since 1959, but we now finally have the tools and hardware to make it more accessible to a lot more developers. For those who don’t know what it entails, here’s a very simplified explanation: machine learning provides computers with the ability to learn without being explicitly programmed. So instead of telling the computer how to react to something in order to deliver the desired end result, you show the computer what you would like to achieve and what controls it is allowed to use to get there, and have the computer figure out the details on how to get there.

So what is it I’d like to do with it in Houdini? Imagine this: You first build a simple tree generation HDA with several exposed parameters to tweak that allow the user to get the desired end result. What if you could just show an algorithm an image of a tree, and give it the HDA with the exposed parameters and tell it to find the right values to produce that result? That’s where things could get really interesting.

I often notice users being unsure if they are doing it “right”. This could be a potential hurdle that makes them feel uncomfortable continuing with their work. There really is no “wrong” way of doing things in Houdini as long as you reach your desired end result.

990 Yes! ML is an area I’m exploring as well and taking baby steps but I see so many possibilities with it. Unity is already making use of it in their engine. Any resources you can share for those interested in exploring this area?

Paul Yes! There’s a lot of great resources on YouTube I can highly recommend. The one everyone should start with is by Daniel Shiffman in his series called “The Coding Train”. He doesn’t just prepare content and then teaches you the steps required to achieve a result. But actually builds it live in a stream that can take up to three hours. So it’s actually making mistakes and solving them together with him. Once you’ve done that, it really depends on what you want to do with ML.

A Few Words With Paul Ambrosiussen
Houdini Game Dev Toolset (https://github.com/sideeffects/GameDevelopmentToolset)

990 How do you approach learning new technologies, applications, etc. Do you have a method to grasp the information?

Paul I usually try to avoid tutorials on learning new technologies. Tutorials are a great way of brushing up your knowledge on certain topics, but shouldn’t be your main source of knowledge. What I usually do is just set a goal for myself. To explain, I’ll briefly go through how I started learning Unity: the first thing I did was set a goal for myself. Let’s say for some reason I want to build a very simple cookie clicker app. Great, so my goal is building that application from scratch. I could just follow a 10-video YouTube series going through the entire process – but then you’ll learn how to follow instructions, and not how and why certain things work. So what I did is break the entire application down into core components, and figure out how to do those individually. I had to learn how to import graphics, how to create a button, how to attach logic to that button and so forth.

In the end I had a lot of individual components that all worked individually, but then you need to integrate everything into the main application – and that’s the hardest part. That is how you will learn how to think ahead and do preparation for what’s next. If I had just followed the tutorial, I would have had components that already worked together because the mentor already did the thinking for me.

990 Do you have any other interest that have nothing to do with technology?

Paul Since I live in Santa Monica near the beach, I like to just sit at the beach and do nothing. A lot of people always seem to have the urge to constantly be doing new things or be busy with something, but I also enjoy just relaxing and doing nothing. I like putting on some music, which most of the times is either Drum and Bass, or Deep House, but can be pretty much anything.

I also really like to go and explore things. It’s amazing to see how different, yet similar, various countries are. Europe especially is fascinating as everything is so close to each other, yet so different. There are a lot of tiny countries that still have a very unique culture.

990 I’m with you on just sitting there and doing nothing. So what other professions would you see yourself in if you were to move on or maybe had chosen another path?

Paul There’s a lot actually. When I was younger I always wanted to be an architect (which I kind of am in a way). Either that, or something with robotics. I’m always so fascinated by what Boston Dynamics is doing. Seeing their robots grow in terms of “evolution” every time they release a new video is pretty astonishing. Some of my friends back home are studying to get into that field, so that makes me kinda jealous.

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

Paul Honestly, I wouldn’t want to give my younger self advice. There are countless things I could have done better, but I am a firm believer of making mistakes and learning from them. But mistakes shouldn’t be something you should focus on when just getting started with something.

Definitely listen to advice from people more experienced than you, but don’t follow what others do at the start of your career. Try new things, fail or succeed and move on to the next thing. Making wise decisions is for when you’ve passed the initial learning phase. So be risky and experiment, you might just find a new passion for something.

A Few Words With Paul Ambrosiussen
Mesh Tiler Tool

990 Any advice for keeping ahead of the curve?

Paul Not really. A lot of what people who are “leading” the new tech are just doing what they enjoy by pushing the idea of what’s possible. Make sure to talk to a lot of people in the industry and brainstorm some cool ideas. The best ideas often come from teamwork. Secondly, look for inspiration in places not directly related to what you’re trying to achieve. We see this happening a lot in engineering. A lot of solutions and ideas come from animals or nature we study.

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

Paul Talk to as many people as possible, and don’t be afraid of showing your work and ask critical questions. Most opportunities I have had in my life so far have been from meeting people at events and forums. It might sound cliche, but this industry is all about knowing people. If you don’t talk to people they won’t know you, and you won’t know them.

Think about it this way: Let’s say you need some sort of shot or tool to be developed, and you cannot do it yourself for some reason. Would you either 1. Call the person you’ve spoken to before, and have seen his/her work. Or would you 2. Call the person that you neither have the contact details for, and nor have you seen his or her work before. I’m pretty sure that most, if not everyone, would pick number 1. Obviously this is a simplified and exaggerated example, but you get the point. Secondly, dare to approach the big guys. Send an email to the people you respect and whose work you admire. They’re just humans, and love to talk about their experience and passion with others. That’s what made them successful after all.

990 I’ve taken plenty of your time Paul, but can you give us a quick Houdini tip?

Paul Sure. If you have a complex object – and need a simple geometry representation of that – just drop down one of the simple primitives (Box, Sphere, Tube) and connect your complex geometry to the top connector of those simple primitives. The simple geometry will then function as the bounds for your geometry. Very useful for collision.

Thank you Paul for your time and wise words. I’ve learned a great deal and taken so much from this interview. Make sure you follow Paul on Twitter or check out his website at http://www.ambrosiussen.com. In addition, check out his fantastic 2018 GDC presentation, Game Development Made Easy Using Houdini and GameDev toolset tutorials over at the SideFX website.

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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.