A Few Words with Rohan Dalvi

If you’ve just recently jumped into the Houdini world, you most likely searched around for tutorials to get a handle of the basics. There is no doubt you have come across the name Rohan Dalvi and if you haven’t, I’m here to present to you one of the best trainers out there in Houdini circles.

Rohan is a busy guy but he was gracious enough to lend some time answering a few of my questions. It turned out to be more of a conversation than an interview which is great! We learned a bit about what makes the man tick and his journey into the world of 3D, Houdini, and education. Hope you enjoy it!

Also, make sure to check out Rohan’s both free and premium Houdini Training over at rohandalvi.net and subscribe to his newsletter to receive news and updates about upcoming tutorials and videos.

990 So Rohan, tell us a bit about yourself. Background, education, etc.

Rohan I’m from India. I’m 36 yeas old. I have lived pretty much all across India since my father was in the Army, but now I live in Pune, Maharashtra.

My family loves watching movies and animated films is still a particularly loved genre so I was always interested in animation and my love for computers and technology comes from my mother since she became a computer teacher in 1987.

I have a semi formal education in Graphic design because I dropped out of the course mid-way. So, I’m a half trained artist. )

I got into doing animation when I was 18. I was learning 3D studio R3 and I started doing simple projects but one of the first jobs I picked up was teaching at a small training institute which used to teach 3d animation softwares and over time I realized that I liked teaching so I more or less stuck with that. Teaching also gave me time to hone my skills and just generally do a lot of R&D.

Over the years I got the chance to work on a variety of projects including “Dashaa-Avatar” an animation film, which was made by a Pune based animation studio. I also worked on Design visualization projects, motion graphics projects, industrial animations and also some medical renderings but I always ended up going back to teaching.

990  I can see the attraction to education. I’m currently teaching a couple of courses at the local university and I really enjoy it. First, I feel like a young kid back in college,haha 😉 and second, it definitely sharpens my skills since you still have to prepare and do R&D to make sure you know what you are talking about. Being in education, have you considered returning to school to finish your degree or maybe pursue another degree entirely?

Rohan The point you made about teaching, about constantly preparing for your next lesson, is one of the reasons I love teaching. The thing is you never know what a student might ask and you don’t want to look clueless in front of a student, so if you are genuinely interested in teaching you have to continuously upgrade your skills.

As to going back to college and finishing my degree, I have given it some thought but I don’t think I’m serious enough as yet. Maybe in a few years.

990 It’s interesting you mention your background in Graphic Design because I can see your eye for design in your training and this, at least for me, is what makes them stand out. The work you are showing is something that can be used in production. A great deal of training out there lacks this. I’m a firm believer the final product is a motivating factor in learning the material. Is this something you had planned from the start? Making sure you introduced training that had a polished & finish feel?

Rohan I have been drawing since I was a kid, the graphic design course helped me refine those skills, even though I didn’t finish it. But over time a lot of it just came from observing animations and films and picking up stuff from there and then figuring out how to apply it to my work. I think as an artist you have to be good at noticing things, I think that’s a key skill to be a successful artist.

I think as an artist you have to be good at noticing things…

As regards to my training videos, creating full projects was my primary criteria when I started making them. The reason being that if anyone is trying to learn a new software, it always helps if you have a full project to go through. That helps in two ways, firstly you get go through a majority of the software rather than focusing on just a specific tool and secondly it gives you confidence that you can deliver a full project using the software you are learning.

So you don’t go like, oh so I can do a little bit here and then go back to my primary software to finish the rest,  which can be a pain at times.

I think most people prefer to stay in one software for a majority of the project rather jumping through many different softwares. Of course this applies to software of a similar nature, so if you’re a Max user then you would prefer to finish as much as you can in Max instead of having to jump through 3 or 4 different 3D softwares.

So yeah, training videos that deal with full projects are definitely preferable and something that I always keep in mind when creating my videos.

Tea & Cookies
Tea & Cookies

990 Speaking of multiple applications, are you now primarily a Houdini user for 3D tasks or do you still reach for Max for certain things?

Rohan For the last 2-3 years I’m almost exclusively using Houdini. I used to go back to 3ds Max for rendering but that was because I wasn’t very good at shading in Houdini, but now that I have a better understanding of VOPs I would actually miss that flexibility if I ever went back to max.

990 I still remember Houdini from years ago but then I didn’t quite understand its way of working. Node-based software hadn’t taken off yet and I think it was a combination of the primitive looking UI and seeing how most things had to be built from scratch. It wasn’t until I started doing more development work and wanting to do more with software that I began to understand Houdini’s flexibility and power. What drew you to Houdini? What was the attraction?

Rohan I had the same reaction when I first installed Houdini 8. The first time I opened it I had no clue what do with it. There were no toolbars and the help wasn’t very great so I just stared at it for three days before I gave up.

Then I found these free videos from 3DBuzz which were introductory videos for Houdini. Those were excellent and it was then that I finally understood the power of the software and what a procedural toolset actually means. It was just that I’d never seen a software that was as flexible as Houdini. Back in version 8 it definitely wasn’t the most user friendly but it could still do things that almost felt like magic if you were coming from any other 3D software. Most days, even now it can still seem like magic.

I think my biggest attraction was the node based and completely procedural approach to content creation. Even though max has some node based tools like Particle Flow but nothing to the extent of Houdini. So seeing something like that was a real eye opener for me, that something like that was even possible in 3D.

990 Ah yes! I remember those 3DBuzz videos. A lot of great techniques in those DVDs that are still applicable today in my opinion. Let’s face it, Houdini has quite the learning curve. Coming from Cinema 4D, it’s quite a change. However, SideEffects has been making progress towards making Houdini more artist friendly with each release. Great examples are with the new shader presets and improvements in user experience such as the new Visualizers and changes in how existing tools work. Add in your excellent training and Houdini seems more approachable.

Rohan Yeah, those 3DBuzz videos are great, especially the bridge asset and the elevator asset which are really good at explaining procedural modeling and what always impresses me is that this stuff isn’t new, like you could build fully procedural assets in Houdini even before they started to modify the UI in version 9 because that’s the core functionality of the software.

990 You created a fantastic free tutorial titled “Procedural Modeling and Animation and Houdini” that breaks down and explains the Houdini paradigm. What do you think is the hardest concept to wrap your head around in Houdini?

Rohan I think proceduralism is the hardest concept in Houdini to get your head around. The reason being that it forces you to think more logically and plan your steps rather carefully before starting any project.

That and the fear of having to use nodes all the time.

There are other things like VOPS or micro-solvers but those are just technical things that you can eventually figure out. It’s getting into the Houdini way of thinking that takes the longest amount of time.

User Interfaces and Motion Graphics in Houdini
User Interfaces and Motion Graphics in Houdini

990 Where would you say is an area or areas Side Effects can focus on to make it more approachable to artists?

Rohan I think one of the biggest things that attracts an artist to any 3D software is the render output and the render speed. Mantra is a great renderer, and I’ve used it for every single one of my videos, but it has this reputation of being slower than renderers like VRay or corona ( which is a very new renderer but it is exceptionally fast and really easy to setup ). Especially because those two renderers have really efficient secondary GI calculation modes. If Mantra can be made faster for stuff like Architectural Interiors I think it would attract a great number of freelance artists to Houdini, also because Houdini Indie is priced so reasonably.

SideFX should also focus on improving the gallery on their website. There are a lot of really amazing renders I’ve seen on OdForce. They should figure out a way of adding those to their gallery. Good looking renders always attract artists.

Beyond that, SideFX has been doing a lot to make the software user friendly like the shelf tools, improving the modeling tool set, improving the viewport and the new shader system. They have also been providing a lot of amazing master classes which makes the learning process a lot easier.

990 I agree nodes tend to turn people off, especially if they come from a layer based or more traditional way of working. It seems like nodes for most applications is the future though. Were nodes a stumbling block for you when first learning Houdini?

Rohan I don’t think I was ever scared by nodes, at least not at a simple level. If you look at a highly complex node tree that will scare anyone, like the internals of a Pyro Solver or a Flip solver. But mostly I’ve always found nodes to be more easier to decipher. They are easier to trace back and figure out what’s going on in a scene. Also you can turn certain nodes on or off to see how it affects a scene without destroying your entire setup. I think layer based setups are great for certain things like image or animation layering but for more complex stuff it’s better to have a nodal system.

990 In my attempt to impart some basic Houdini knowledge to the masses. I try to tell folks to learn a little scripting because Houdini really shines in this area. I would say this is another area that scares people off. In your training, Islands of Houdini, you make use of several expressions and show how a few lines of code can be so powerful. Tell me a little about the whole expressions deal in Houdini. Did you have prior experience with expressions and programming when you started working with Houdini?

Rohan I had almost no background with expressions or programming before starting Houdini, honestly I still don’t.

I know some stuff about expressions and Math but mostly I’ll just try and get someone else’s files and reverse engineer. I have no knowledge of programming. It’s on my list of things to learn but it’s been on my list for years. I do like working with VOPs. You can still do everything you want but you don’t have to write any code, kinda like ICE. I personally prefer that. Even though in certain cases it’s easier to write code because you can do with one line what might require 10 nodes in VOPS.

Floating Islands
Floating Islands

990 Do you think someone new to Houdini needs to have prior scripting/programming knowledge to really leverage Houdini’s power and flexibility?

Rohan I think knowledge of programming for any software is helpful because it allows the user to go beyond the limitations of the software. With Houdini I think having some basic knowledge of Math is definitely helpful or at least not have an aversion to it. But I don’t think programming is necessary. Being able to write a few lines of code like me isn’t necessarily programming. I still can’t understand complex code or maybe I don’t try hard enough.

But the thing I always like to promote is that you can do a lot with Houdini without having to know any kind of scripting or coding.

I think it comes from my time with using 3ds Max, I used it for 14 years and I never learnt scripting so when I wanted to shift to Houdini I wanted to do as much as I could without having to depend on coding.

Which is why with a majority of my training videos I’ve stayed away from any kind of complex coding, except Floating Islands where I was using L-systems. It’s to tell the user that look you can do a lot with Houdini as long as you are willing to write one odd line of code here or there, not long paragraphs of it. Like with the rocket ship training, there’s hardly any amount of scripting being used there.

Because at the end of the day, I believe that, Houdini’s flexibility comes from it’s node-based procedural approach so it’s important to focus on that.

990 Like all applications, there is always something new to learn but it seems you are comfortable in all areas of Houdini. Besides the programming aspects of Houdini, is there perhaps an area you are not as familiar with or hope to dive deeper into to gain a better understanding?

Rohan I don’t think I’m comfortable with all aspects of Houdini. I’m most comfortable with SOPs and better versed with shaders. But I can’t write custom shaders since I don’t understand the Maths behind it. I’m ok with dynamics. I can get stuff done , but again I don’t fully understand all the intricacies of it. CHOPs was the one area that was completely alien to me, but I’ve been using it more regularly over my last two training series so I’m more comfortable with it now.

So I think the area where I would love to get a better understanding off would be dynamics.

Outside of Houdini, I’m getting back to sketching again. I’m really rusty at that too.

990 I hate to ask you this because I’m not a hardware guy and really don’t have much interest in computer specs but from your training I assume you run on Windows. Is this your primary OS or perhaps you just use it as a workstation and run a Mac on the side?

Rohan I’m not much of a hardware guy either. I understand what I need but that’s basically it.

As for the OS, I’ve always been a Windows user. I used a Mac once when I was working in a studio a long time back but other than that it’s always been Windows. The thing is , I used to be a 3ds Max user and that’s not available on Mac so I never considered shifting.

990 I know people out there want to know. Can you give us a breakdown of the hardware you use?

Rohan As for my PC, it’s not a very high configuration. I have an i7 5820k, with 16 GB ram and a GTX 780. I think that’s a decent configuration. I don’t need anything very high end because I’m mostly just making training videos, so no deadlines to deliver on to. If it takes a little longer to render it’s perfectly fine.

990 Is there a “dream” setup with would go with?

Rohan Don’t really have a dream setup as such. I like the idea of GPU renderers so maybe sometime in the future I would invest in a multi GPU setup. But as I said before, since I don’t really do live projects, the investment seems frivolous.

990 Any productivity applications you use to organize or make your workflow easier?

Rohan I don’t use any specific productivity apps. I use google docs to breakdown the lessons I’m going to record and I use Camtasia for recording, but that’s essentially it. I write down everything else on paper. So the introduction to the training or the script for the trailer, all of that I write down on paper. I feel more comfortable with that.

990 You recently released a new course titled “Procedural Vehicle Modeling”. I have your site up and ready to purchase it! Can you tell me a bit more about this new training? If you’re a newcomer to Houdini, will this be a good course to start with to learn about procedural modeling in Houdini?

Rohan The new training is aimed at beginners but not absolute beginners. In the sense that they should have a functioning knowledge of Houdini such as the interface and basics of how nodes work, if they are aware of that much they should be able to follow the training without any issues.

The aim of the training was to show how one can use the basic poly modeling tools in Houdini and create a fully parametric model with a full set of animatable controls.

Procedural Vehicle Modeling
Procedural Vehicle Modeling

990 One of the things I enjoy about your training is that you include the shading and rendering portions. A lot of training will leave this out. If someone was looking to learn more about shading and rendering, which of your courses would be best to look at?

Rohan I personally enjoy shading and lighting a lot so I tend to add that to all of my training series and also I think if you add that it makes the whole process seem complete, like you actually created something in the software.

As to which training is good for shading and lighting, I’d say “Tea and Cookies” is a good training for that. Since it’s a full project and goes through a whole variety of materials that you could use in any other project. Otherwise if you want to learn in depth about how the Houdini material system works then I would say “Texture building” is a good training for that.

990 If someone is looking for a broad overview of Houdini, which of your course titles would you say will help them to get up and running?

Rohan For a broad overview I can suggest two of them, “Houdini Rocketship” and “Floating Islands”. Both those trainings cover a large of amount of Houdini. “Rocketship” is good for beginners since it doesn’t get into too much scripting and it also covers animation and CHOPs. Floating islands, even though it doesn’t have any animation in it, it does cover L-systems, Fluids and building custom RBD forces beyond the procedural modeling stuff. So either of those, depending upon the level of the users knowledge is a good one to have.

990 If someone is looking to learn Houdini coming from another package, what advice would you give them in order to learn Houdini? Is there a particular area they should first concentrate on?

Rohan If you’re coming for any other 3D software and you’re interested in learning Houdini then firstly you should be comfortable or at least willing to learn and use maths on a fairly regular basis because that’s one of the first things I noticed when I started to learn Houdini. Even though the level of maths wasn’t complex, I was using a lot of basic addition and multiplication in the first month of using Houdini than I’d ever used when I was working with 3ds Max. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or bad but it definitely good to be comfortable with that notion. But I think because Houdini lets you write code so easily it actually makes it fun to use maths.

As far as which area to concentrate on first, I would say SOPs. I think the procedural modeling nature of the software is what makes it so unique and I think it’s a good idea to a get a hang of that first before you dive into more complex areas like dynamics and also because eventually everything moves through SOPs , whether it is fluids, particles or RBD, so it better to learn that first.

990 I see you also like to cook! I was watching some of your videos on Vimeo. I’m just starting to learn myself. Is this one of your other interests or passions?

Rohan I love to cook, thanks to my mom. But I also love to shoot videos, so making recipe videos allows me to combine both those hobbies, even though in the videos it’s my mother who’s cooking. I want to try and make it a regular thing but I’m not a very organized person. Like I have another recipe video that I’ve shot and edited but I keep forgetting to upload it. )

990 I find that looking towards other mediums that have nothing to do with 3D, motion graphics, etc really helps me look at things in a different light. For instance, I’m really into interior design. First thing I check in the morning are sites like Fresh Home and Apartment Therapy. Recently I’ve been visiting cooking sites if not for the recipes but for the photography. Where do you find inspiration?

Rohan For inspiration I mostly hunt thorough Pinterest. I find it’s a great resource for image search of almost any sort. Beyond that it’s mostly movies and TV. I love to look at films to understand composition and lighting and try and apply that to my work.

990 We’re living in a time where there is great deal of information being thrown at us. All new software titles popping up. Ten or fifteen years ago, the specialist was stressed. Being a jack of all trades was a bad thing. These day, it’s almost the opposite. How do you manage all this information, all the new software? Is there a methodology you have for deciding if you are going to invest time in learning something new? After all, in this field you have to keep learning and evolving if you want to stay relevant.

Rohan I fully agree with you that we are living in an age of information overload. It’s so easy to waste time now a days. Open YouTube and boom, you’ve lost three hours of your day )

As far as learning new stuff is concerned, I keep experimenting constantly but I don’t have a very focused approach. I just go with whatever catches my fancy at that particular time. Like right now I’m learning Octane standalone because I think it would be a great companion to Houdini Indie. I am planning to look into Unreal, but sometimes it all gets a bit much especially since Houdini itself is such a complex beast to master and there are areas of Houdini itself that I still haven’t fully explored.

I think as far as my training is concerned I’m going to keep things focused on Houdini and add softwares and tools that can complement that. On a personal level,  I just focus on my art skills. I’m very sure we are not going to get a new version of the pencil anytime soon. )

Texture Building in Houdini
Texture Building in Houdini

990 Do you have any interest in other emerging technologies such as Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality, etc?

Rohan I have experimented with AR a little. I had made a small AR project for my friend’s studio. My friend’s studio is already experimenting with VR but I haven’t gotten into it as yet. Maybe some time this year I’ll start looking into that.

990 If you can go back and give your younger self some advice, what would that be?

Rohan I think the only advice I would give my younger self would be to finish my college education,since I dropped out and never went back. I don’t know if I would listen to myself since I’m not very convincing. )

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

Rohan Don’t really have any life advice to give, but on the career front I’d say practice and patience are the two things every artist should have. It takes a lot of practice to get good at anything and to practice a lot you need a lot of patience.

Again, thank you Rohan for your time and letting us learn a bit about you.

I now leave you here with a sneak peak at new training Rohan is currently working on. Keep an eye out for it! Sure to be another must have!





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.