…don’t stress out so much because it simply isn’t worth it. It’s very easy to get swallowed up in the work. Especially with looming deadlines, or feeling that you have to prove yourself as a newer artist, or even just liking what you do a little too much – the risk of too much stress and burning out is all too real.
There is a great deal of training out there but finding high quality training is hard. Finding training that makes you feel like you have leveled up your game is even harder. Enter Senior Rigid Body Destruction / FX Technical Director at Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light & Magic Steven Knipping. After watching his Applied Houdini training I had to reach out to him and learn what makes him tick.
I figured being Senior FX TD at ILM, Steven would be too busy but I was stoked when he gladly agreed to answer some of my questions. Grab your coffee because Steven gives us some great advice on staying ahead of the curve in this industry, all the Math you will need, his process at the studio and the importance of taking it easy and breaking away from your work. This is a good one!
990 Steve, really excited to have this chat with you! I watched some of your Houdini training from Applied Houdini and was blown away. Lots of great workflow tips buried in them. However, before we get into the training, tells us a bit about yourself. Where are you based out of, how long you have you been in the industry, etc?
Steven Hey, glad to hear you liked them! I’ve poured a lot of my experience and personality into them, and have been thrilled to hear them being received so well. I live in San Francisco, CA and have been in the industry for almost eight years now. During that time I’ve worked in a mix of animation, commercial, TV, and film vfx.
990 I see you hold an MSE in Computer Graphics from the University of Pennsylvania. Where you heading in a different direction at first and then pivoted to VFX & animation or was the VFX route always the plan? If so, what sparked the interest?
Steven I went through a lot of different ideas of what I might want to do professionally, but on the side since I was a kid I was always programming and modding videogames. Descent, Quake, Unreal, Halflife/Source, you name it. Working in those 3D environments, even the relatively crude ones like in Descent, opened my mind up to thinking about the possibilities of 3D. Even when I was beginning to 3D model and render in high school, it wasn’t something that I seriously considered as a job, though.
990 May I ask what you studied for your undergraduate degree?
Steven Like most people, it was a meandering path that finally brought me to VFX. I was an undergraduate Eastern Studies major at the main public school in my home state of New Jersey, Rutgers University. I think in many ways I chose that major because I was afraid of getting a regular office job – I didn’t like where I thought math and programming people usually ended up, probably because of movies like Office Space. After a few years though, I realized how much more important creativity was to me than a life in academia and that either videogames or CG could be the perfect way of using these skills in a creative way! Fortunately I was able to convince the Comp Sci department to let me sneak into a graphics lab and graduate with a minor in my last year and half there.
990 You’ve worked at some top studios such as The Mill and PDI Dreamworks, have you always done FX work or have you tackled other areas in the pipeline? Any interest to branch out to other areas?
Steven I actually started at PDI/Dreamworks as a Lighting TD, which mostly meant I supported the lighting department pipeline with scripting, rendering/lighting debugging, and my own occasional lighting shot work. What I really thought I wanted was to be a modeler though, and tried unsuccessfully to move into that department while building up a demo reel at home. Which ended up being just as well! I was introduced to real production FX work during this time, and was immediately blown away by how cool it was to design sophisticated systems that used modeling, coding, dynamics, shading, etc at the same time. While I was training at home to be an FX artist, during the day I was instead in the Character FX department where I worked a lot with clothing, hair, and feather dynamics. It was at this time that I started to use Houdini! By the time I left Dreamworks and went to Atomic Fiction and later The Mill, I had become an evangelist for FX with Houdini.
990 Having worked on huge films such as Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Avengers: Age of Ultron, World of Warcraft, and Tomorrowland, can you give us a general day to day as senior rigid body destruction and FX TD at Industrial Light & Magic?
Steven As you can imagine, the feel is different for each movie! But generally speaking, most of it is pushing forward on shots with a combination of techniques I’ve used before while always trying to incorporate new styles and experiments into the mix. If I’m just getting started with a shot, I’ll devote a lot of time to imagining what I can bring to it from a destruction standpoint that will make it better for my having worked on it. Say, how to make a spaceship tumble when it hits the ground instead of just vaporizing or how to make a building lean before collapsing. Outside of all that… it’s super critical to take breaks during the day whenever possible or else you can get burned out, oftentimes without even realizing it.
…it’s super critical to take breaks during the day whenever possible or else you can get burned out, oftentimes without even realizing it.
990 How long have you been using Houdini? Have you always been a Houdini user or were you using other packages prior to Houdini? Is it exclusively Houdini now?
Steven I’ve been using Houdini since just before the H11 launch, so maybe sometime around 2011? Before that, I started modeling with Maya 5 and then switched to 3DS Max and then back again. Even after devoting most of my energy to Houdini though, I’ve still had jobs that required going back to 3DS Max or Maya. More recently however it’s been pretty much Houdini exclusively for my work outside of ILM, and a mixture there.
990 I started with Cinema 4D but once I started coding, I wanted to do more with simulations and have a bit more flexibility and found Houdini to be a perfect fit. Although I still use C4D. Why did you start using Houdini? Considering your background, you must have felt right at home.
Steven You are exactly right! My programming background made picking up Houdini pretty intuitive. I think in graduate school I was using Maya for rigid body stuff, Real Flow for some liquid stuff, and Maya again to do particles and toon shading. Then I was writing python scripts to do some post image processing effects on my rendered images, etc. I had heard whispers on the internet of some Houdini thing that could handle all of that, but that it was more programmy and maybe even tricky to use. I eventually took the dive once I started focusing more on FX and never looked back!
990 What was the hardest concept for you to grasp in Houdini, if any? Working between the different contexts always felt confusing. Even today, some node trees can get a bit crazy.
Steven The DOPs context probably took a little more time than other areas, mostly because trying to set up complex networks of constraints often ended up requiring unwieldy scripting expressions and setups. This has improved dramatically however, and the benefits of having one largely unified simulation environment has proven super useful. Also like coding in general, a well organized/commented network can go a long way towards alleviating confusion.
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?
Steven Ha, first I’d say that TD seems to mean something wildly different at each place that I’ve worked! That said, Houdini definitely lends itself to be used on complex productions and pipelines as its procedural nature allows setups to be passed around and run easily by different members of a team, as well as in different shots.
990 Do you think programming is necessary to reach a high level of proficiency in Houdini or at least a basic understanding? I feel basic coding will always be beneficial, but do you even need it for Houdini?
Steven I’d say yes absolutely – Houdini is pretty technical, and requires a technically minded approach. A user is going to be expected to know at least basic programming principles to get the most out of it. You can run Pyro simulations, build procedural modeling networks, etc without writing any code of course, but you will be limiting yourself to a tiny subset of what Houdini is capable of. VEX and its node based representation, VOPS, alone demand some facility with coding and are cornerstones of most advanced setups. Even the whole attribute based data management approach relies on programming concepts like floats, strings, and integers. Fortunately, you really only need to know relatively basic coding to do most of this!
990 I’m playing catch up learning more in depth computer graphics algorithms, shader writing, etc. I feel like this stuff is a walk in the park for you ha ha 🙂 Do you study and implement SIGGRAPH papers and if you do, how would you even approach something of this nature?
Steven I haven’t implemented any papers since grad school, but I would say that having done so helped my understanding on how cloth, fluid, particle, and rigid body simulations work under the hood. If you’re interested in doing something like that, I’d say learning VEX is your new priority! It’s much faster than Python, made for running lower level kinds of operations where speed is key. But more than that, just reading through some of the papers and abstracts can be exciting enough!
990 What tips and advice can you give artists wanting to try their hand at writing code?
Steven Ha, I hope to release one of my Applied Houdini tutorials on that soon! In the meantime, I would say starting with Python would probably be the most beneficial both regarding its usefulness in Houdini as well as just about every other package! The Python website itself has step by step documentation for learning from scratch.
990 Agree on knowing the basics. I began learning by writing UNIX scripts and it definitely made things easier when starting with Houdini. I also think Python is a great language to start with if you are diving into programming for the first time. I always steer people in that direction. Excited to hear Python training is on the way! So on the topic of training, you have built up a library of training quite quickly over at Applied Houdini. Why the jump into creating video training? Creating video training is hard. I don’t think I’m cut out for it ha ha
Steven I started making video tutorials because I was really dissatisfied with most of the ones I had come across online. Most of them seem to only teach the most basic aspects of Houdini, without any real idea how to apply a concept on a complicated asset in a production setting. On the flip side, tutorials that speak more to advanced usage tend to be hard to follow, or take too long to explain a concept, or are just kind of a meandering talk that is not well organized. Ha, I hope that doesn’t sound too harsh!
I’ve often (and still do) training for professionals at the studios I work at, in addition to some in-person classes around San Francisco in the past. I guess it just made sense after a while to jump into it myself!
990 You have this natural way of teaching. Very relaxed and your pace is great. The thing I like the most besides the overall main concepts of your training are the small workflow tips you go through. Do you go through a lot of takes and edits? How long does it take you to produce a course?
Steven Yes, I always hope that people appreciate the workflow tips, as that lets you iterate faster. And if you iterate faster, you can respond to notes faster, which in turn makes your work better. So much of a good looking simulation really comes down to art direction, and having a good workflow is critical to that.
I do go through many takes, despite having my outline pretty well organized in advance. Sometimes it’s computer problems or a mistake I’ve made, but the vast majority of the time I’ll start a chapter over because I feel like I can make it “tighter”. I will re-record most chapters 2-3 times in order to get it to be more concise. Because of this, I have somewhat less editing to do later, though that still takes a chunk of time. Even before recording, I’ll practice via a “dry run” where I do the whole lesson myself first. I’d say for a given 2 hour course, it probably takes upwards of 15-20 hours to plan, practice, record, edit, and distribute.
990 I have gone through a few of your Dynamics courses. The Volumes IV: Interaction is fantastic. However, I think my favorite are the new Rigids lessons. Which has been your favorite to work on?
Steve I think the Rigids ones have been my favorites too, as these are the classes I really hope are opening up doors for people. There is very little advanced fracture and rigid body training out there – most of it deals with basic examples, never complicated vehicle, building, or terrain destruction. Plus it looks cool, and has always been one of the most requested topics I get since starting Applied Houdini. If I had to choose one in particular, I think just working on the Rigids II was the most fun for me personally. Something about taking advantage of instancing in simulations to get complicated results I think is really cool.
990 I think Houdini users at all levels will learn a great deal from your training but would you say your training is geared more towards the intermediate user and above?
Steven My hope is that the free intro lessons (so far, Volumes I and Rigids I) are accessible to beginners. Beginners in this case would still have to know the basics of how to use Houdini itself, in terms of the interface, geometry, etc works. But they can start by knowing absolutely nothing about volumes and rigids and end as an expert!
So much of a good looking simulation really comes down to art direction, and having a good workflow is critical to that.
990 For people who are jumping into Houdini for the first time, where do you think they should focus their attention to better understand Houdini?
Steven SideFX’s own Go Procedurals are pretty great in terms of a video based approach. I think even better though is the way I learned – just go to Help ▸ Contents in Houdini itself, and read! The manual is truly excellent, and is aimed at beginners.
990 One other thing that scares folks besides programming is Mathematics. I’m not a Math wiz by any stretch of the imagination but since diving into Houdini I find myself wanting to learn more about different Math concepts and it actually makes sense now 😀. Linear Algebra at a basic level is a must I feel. What other areas of math do you think would be beneficial not only to working in Houdini but working in 3D overall?
Steven It is true that having a strong knowledge of math concepts will help you go a lot farther, but fortunately you don’t have to actually perform any of the math yourself! You’re definitely right that a lot of it is linear algebra, in terms of displacement vectors, matrix transformations, cross and dot products, etc. But again, instead of performing the math like you might on a test in school, you just need to know abstractly that 1) points can move along vectors like arrows 2) matricies are a set of instructions to move/spin things 3) cross products help you find the direction at a right angle to something 4) dot products help you determine if two things are facing the same direction. Just the concepts. Other than that, trigonometry concepts like sine and cosine, as well as how exponents work. That’s about it for 99% of what you’re ever going to get into for shot work. R&D on the other hand…
990 Do you think it’s harder to learn these days considering the vast amount of information out there. The knowledge is there. It’s just sorting everything out and focusing. Learning how to learn is really important. How do you manage that? How do you approach learning new material?
Steven I don’t think it’s harder at all, I think it’s much much easier in fact. There is a lot of information out there to sift through, but ultimately it’s at least out there. Not too long ago a lot of this was word of mouth, or even almost entirely unknown outside of the major studios. For myself, I’m lucky to work with some of the knowledgeable people out there when it comes to this. Besides that, I like the odForce and SideFX forums – I’ve learned quite a bit from people on there too.
990 I enjoyed my time in school and feel I learned a great deal from my time in graduate school that goes beyond just learning Computer Science concepts or learning how to use applications. Considering how the industry has evolved, do you feel it’s necessary to attend an institution of higher learning if you want to get into this industry?
Steven It’s definitely not absolutely necessary to go to college to do any of this, and I’ve worked with several people over the years who have not. Studios might feel safer hiring someone with a degree just because many people do, but ultimately it always comes down to your experience in the industry, or failing that, the quality of your demo reel. Whether you learned computer science and/or visual effects techniques in school vs learning them online is really only the first step to making an impressive demo reel.
990 You mentioned burnout? I feel many people overlook this but it’s very real. How do you avoid burning yourself out? You’re into metal casting and archery. Is this your escape from being in front of the computer? What other interest do you have besides VFX/Animation?
Steven The main thing is to force yourself to stop from time to time and take real breaks, not just a walk to the bathroom where you’re still thinking about a problem you have. I try not to go more than two hours without taking a short walk, or four hours before taking a bigger break. That could be going to a store, walking somewhere far, etc – just so long as my mind is occupied by something else entirely (or nothing at all!).
Metal casting and archery are both pretty great, I’d recommend at least archery to anyone who’s near a range (or knows of somewhere else they can practice). It’s very meditative when you’re alone, and a lot of fun when you’re with friends (or a date!). Metal casting kind of evolved naturally from the whole CG thing. I had modeled some cool stuff (in Houdini actually!), and had it 3D printed. That inspired me to get into sculpting, and ultimately metal casting of my works. You can make a pretty serious furnace and kiln setup, even in your friends’ tiny backyard in San Francisco!
990 I’m into interior design and architecture and usually look for inspiration outside my field. Where do you go for inspiration on your projects these days?
Steven There’s lots of great museums, art galleries, public art, and general artistic mindset in the Bay Area here in California. I’m pretty lucky that I’m inspired by things I see all the time, though you still have to have your eyes open to be receptive to it. Of course the internet has not shortage of these things either! Some of my favorites include http://www.thisiscolossal.com/, http://liartownusa.tumblr.com/, or whatever friends send me. Then when I’m in the mood, I’ll go across the street to the cafe and then just scribble down some ideas for hours over coffee.
990 Tell me a bit about the board games. What are your favorites?
Steven Oh man, so many. One of my friends in particular is always getting new ones so we’re always scrambling to learn the latest one he’s brought home. My favorites that come to mind are mostly map-based skirmishing games like Ciclaedes (ancient greece themed), Kemet (ancient Egypt themed), Merchants and Marauders (pirate themed), and the best of all Game Of Thrones. If you like complicated strategy games, any of these will do!
990 Do you still find time to play video games? Are you still modding them or maybe have plans to maybe create your own video game?
Steven I don’t play any video games on my own anymore, but I still love multiplayer games when I’m with friends. Super Smash brothers in particular, even though I’m a lot worse at it in practice than I think I am in my head. It’s wasn’t even a conscious decision really, I just kind of drifted away from them for now. I was experimenting with an old Xbox Kinect sensor a couple of years ago to do some real time gesture based effects, but I don’t think that actually counts as video game modding! I don’t suppose I have any plans to make a video game these days, though I did make a sailboat/pirate racing game back in grad school with some friends…
990 Any advice for keeping ahead of the curve?
Steven As silly as it sounds, even just reading the What’s New sections of a new Houdini release is a great way! There are often a lot of powerful, less flashy, lower level nodes included in new releases that can help out in places you didn’t even know you needed help. Besides that, it doesn’t hurt to work at one of the bigger studios – these places often have their own R&D teams that actively implement methods developed in academia. Even if you don’t work at one, the academic papers themselves are often super interesting too, and can be implemented by a particularly savvy Houdini artist. Off the top of my head, check out the Material Point Method UCLA/Disney research into representing snow that was used in Frozen (and is now more or less the grain solver: https://www.math.ucla.edu/~jteran/papers/SSCTS13.pdf)
Whether you learned computer science and/or visual effects techniques in school vs learning them online is really only the first step to making an impressive demo reel.
990 Do you have any interest or have experimented with VR/AR or any other emerging technologies?
Steven Not too long ago I was having some fun with the old Microsoft XBox Kinect depth sensing technology – it was pretty cheap to pick up a used one, and you could write programs around the depth data it would collect. I have a lot of video game modding background and like magical effects so I thought making a realtime hand-waving magic sim might be fun! (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dRrgqOwINUo) AR in particular is very attractive to me, and I can’t wait to see how we can integrate some cutting edge FX into our environments.
990 So much has changed in the creative industries. We now see cross pollination of industries and creative disciplines. Where do you see the industry going in the next few years?
Steven I think there’s a lot of interest in seeing how we can tell great stories in VR/AR. Whether fully interactive realtime experiences or pre-rendered photoreal ones, it is still such an untapped space. Going the other way, we are even seeing AR/VR helping particularly in the previsualization department for film. Directors are able to guide virtual cameras through scenes, replace fake cars with real ones on the fly, or even entirely render some characters in real time.
990 If you could give your younger self some advice. What would that be?
Steven This one is easy. Basically, don’t stress out so much because it simply isn’t worth it. It’s very easy to get swallowed up in the work. Especially with looming deadlines, or feeling that you have to prove yourself as a newer artist, or even just liking what you do a little too much – the risk of too much stress and burning out is all too real. At the very least, take time to go for a walk every few hours and take lunch and dinner away from your desk. It’s amazing how just breaking away even for 15 minutes will dramatically improve your mental health in the long run (and benefit your work as well when you return to it!)
990 What other profession would you see yourself in if you were to move on or maybe had chosen another path?
Steven I really like working with my hands – sometimes with woodworking, and a lot more recently with metal casting. Maybe getting a warehouse space and doing casting full time? Or doing underwater welding on ships? Or building a wooden boat? There’s so many things that interest me and I wish I had time to master them all. I think in the past it would have been easy for me to go down the videogame route, but these days when I think about alternate careers, they tend to be more physically grounded.
990 Any last piece of life or career advice you can give to those just starting out?
Steven Sure – take the time to learn and build up your demo reel to stand out. There’s so many people that just do the bare minimum when it comes to learning in a school setting, and hope for the best. It’s amazing that these days we are able to use a program like Houdini for free on our own computers at home, and in order to stand out from the crowd one really must take advantage of this. As always, don’t let it consume your life either, but setting aside some time every week to work on your next project will help you get ahead. As a shameless plug, I would mention that my Applied Houdini (http://www.appliedhoudini.com) lessons are a great way to kickstart an FX project. It’s incredible seeing what people have gone on to make after taking these lessons, and it inspires me to make even more. Also even after you get your first job, you’ll still have a lot more to learn too so don’t stop there! I didn’t stop doing projects at home to beef up my demo reel until my reel was almost entirely professional work. Good luck!
Thank you so much Steve! Such great advice on many fronts. I can tell you that Steve’s training is some of the best out there. His years of experience working at major studios comes through in his training. Check out the free lessons to get a taste. You will not be disappointed. Make sure to also check out Steve’s reel.
Also, keep an eye out for soon to be released Rigids IV where Steven will show you how to create an epic earthquake ground destruction effect using Houdini’s 16’s new Boolean SOP.