A Few Words with Varomix

The more I do, the happier I am. I don’t believe in just doing one thing, seems very limiting to me…

Varomix

I remember glancing at a disintegration tutorial years back done in Houdini but at the time the application was still so foreign to me. Once I began working more with Houdini, the name varomix kept popping up when searching for Houdini training. I was impressed by the disintegration tutorial and a few others he had created at the time so I signed up for some of his training. I was pleasantly surprised at the laid back style of teaching and the cool tools he was creating whether in Houdini or Python. Needless to say, I watched a bunch of his stuff.

Varomix has created a vast library of Houdini training over years. You can find most of his hit titles over at CMIVFX but most recently he has started on his own venture with MIX Training, a training and community resource for Houdini, Unreal Engine, Python and much more. He also, along with a partner, have recently launched a new Visual Effects and Motion Design company with offices in L.A. and Mexico City called Pixels & Coffee offering a broad range of work for clients across broadcast, video games, film and advertising industries. If that alone is not enough, Varomix also find a little escape through his metal band WEYEZ.

I’m glad to have reached out to Varo, as his friends know him, for an interview and learn a little about him. He is one of nicest guys you’ll meet. As always, grab yourself a coffee and enjoy these few words with Varomix.

990 I have so many questions I don’t know where to start so let’s begin with the basics. First off Varo, tells us a bit about yourself, your background and your journey into this business.

Varo I think I’ve been drawing since I started using a pencil, little cartoony characters and things like that. I never thought that making graphics would be something I’d do for a living. As a kid I was really intrigued when I saw Jurassic Park and Toy Story, it was something new and I wanted to know how they did that, I had no idea. Later in life I learned about computers at school and I started programing simple stuff. Then I discovered you could do lines and colors and started coding graphics.

I never finished school. I wanted to be a rock star but that didn’t work out. I met a good friend of mine that was doing 3D graphics at a local TV station and he had a recording studio; music lead me to 3D 🙂

I got married and because I could draw, started working at Ad agencies doing graphics, then doing a bit of 3D and finally just 3D animation. It was a loooong process.

990 Can I ask where the handle varomix comes from?

Varo It comes from my name, Alvaro, at home everyone calls me varo since I was a child. About 20 years ago I was working with very good friend of mine and he started calling me variations of my name, varoflex, varonet, varomix, etc. I liked how varomix sounded so I took it as my artistic name, since mix represents everything that comes into you as a mix and makes you what you are, I like it, most people call me either varo or varomix, I feel like that’s really me.

Light Study
Light Study

990 Where are you based out of currently? You were working in Canada for a while correct?

Varo I live in Juarez, Mexico, I do all my work from here, I worked in Canada for a small company which are still my clients.

990 Do you have any formal training or did you go to school to study 3D/animation/VFX etc? Maybe you studied something else?

Varo I have no formal training in anything I do. I’ve learned everything on my own, Animation, VFX, programming, even english. When I started to get interested in animation, about 18 years ago, there wasn’t really much places you could learn from. Remember that friend that worked at a local TV station? I managed to get him to teach me a few things, I didn’t get paid and I could only use a computer if there was one available but I did learn a few things in 3DS Max 3.0

If you have the drive to learn, you will find a way, if not, you’ll find excuses.

I think then we met Maya 1.5, we really liked it. I started using that for a long time. After that, I was working at small local ad agencies and continued learning by myself, buying books, dial-up internet and reading the manual believe it or not.

 

990 So I know you are a long time Houdini user. Were you using another package prior to Houdini?

Varo I started using 3DS Max back on version 3 and I didn’t like it. Then I jumped to Cinema 4D 5.0. I really liked C4D, it was really nice, but then my friend discovered Maya, he got it from another TV station that wasn’t using it so we started using it on the only SGI workstation we had there and I really got into it. I used Maya from version 1.5 until version 8.

I think by that time, I heard of this very obscure only for high-end guys application called Houdini and they had this new Apprentice version. That was I think 2002,  so I’ve been using it for about 14 years. So I started learning that, there was no way I could use it on jobs because it was like $16K to buy it at the time, but I liked it and I wanted to get a job at a cool studio at the time so I kept learning until today, still learning.

990 What’s your main specialty or focus? I know you’re doing game dev now. Have you transitioned completely to game development?

Varo I don’t like to be a specialist, I guess my speciality is computer graphics, so I do 2D and 3D Animation, VFX, Games, programming, and I plan to keep doing everything. The more I do, the happier I am. I don’t believe in just doing one thing, seems very limiting to me and that’s why I rather work on my own, so I can be doing all that plus music in the same day.

990 I like that! A specialist in Computer Graphics. I feel the same way. Sometimes I feel I overstretch myself but I’m happier this way and it keeps me motivated. Plus, at the end, it all overlaps so it helps in some form or another. Are you freelancing or working for a studio currently?

Varo The company I worked for is in Canada. That was my last job as an employee after that I decided to start working on my own. Been freelancing for the last 5 years, almost 6 years already. It’s been amazing for me, it’s something I always wanted to do and I kinda had to do it after coming back to Mexico.

990 Finding learning resources were hard to come by back in the day. However, it forced you to stay focused and learn the fundamentals in some way. Today it’s almost overwhelming how much there is. Do you think it may be actually harder to learn these days with so much information floating around?

Varo I think it is way easier than ever actually. If you have the drive to learn, you will find a way, if not, you’ll find excuses. I love having all this information overload. In a way, you just have to be smart to keep focus on what you want to do because anything you want you can just open a browser and find it.

Some people don’t even want to read today. They ask if there’s a video about some topic. In a way, people are getting lazy maybe, but still, having all that info is amazing. I learned most of what I know just by reading whatever came up when you pressed F1, that was the way I started, then a bit off the early internet, then books. Books are still for me one of the best ways to learn, but at the end of the day is up to you.

Animation Book
Animation Book

990 I completely agree with you on reading material to learn. I like videos but I find books work best for me. Like you said, you find what works best for you. You first need to learn how to learn and focus. For newcomers to Houdini, where do you think users should focus their attention?

Varo I think new users to Houdini should NOT focus on thinking Houdini is hard. It’s just as hard as any 3D app out there. It does expose more of the underlying parts but you can live your life never touching that as well as an animator might never know how to rig a character. Just focus on learning what you need, don’t need to know everything.

990 As far as I remember, you were one of the first to start doing Houdini training. I think the only other 3rd party training at the time for Houdini was 3DBuzz. I remember a disintegration effect tutorial you had up on the 3D Tuts website . Was this your initial start creating Houdini training or training in general since I know you have also done some Nuke Python Training? Which by the way, I watched and learned a great deal!

Varo Yeah that was a long time ago haha, at least in computer years. I actually started making Maya tutorials for CGTuts+. That’s what it was called at the time. I made a few Maya tutorials before that for free and in spanish at my blog. After I did the first one with CGTuts+, I asked my project manager there Matt Brealey, which later moved to The Foundry, he is still there I think, if I could do a Houdini tutorial and he said, sure let’s try it.

So I made a Fence tutorial hehe, simple stuff, using the Houdini Apprentice Edition, which actually resulted in one of my first encounters with Side Effects. Someone commented that I couldn’t use the Apprentice Edition to make money and Robert Magee from Side Effects responded that it was OK because I was doing training not commercial work. Man, that comment made me feel so great, someone from Side Effects noticed me! They are amazing and still supporting me ’til today in everything I do.

That tutorial was a hit, people loved it then I did the pulverize effect and later a Pinboard effect that was copied ALL over the internet in ALL applications, that was great.

After that I saw a tweet from Chris Maynard from cmivfx.com. I wrote an email to him, showed him my tutorials and he was interested, I had this crazy idea about Houdini Hip Tricks and that turned into 4 volumes. It was my biggest success at cmivfx as well and I kept doing tutorials there until recently.

990 You and the late Chris Maynard were close friends. I know people, including myself, gripe about the CMI website, but that aside, Chris contributed enormously to the industry. I didn’t know him personally but he was very cordial when communicating with him about the training videos or issues I may have had. Would you care to share your thoughts on Chris and the professional relationship you guys developed.

Varo Chris was a very close friend. We had very similar ideas and we hit it off so well from the start. We had plans to do tons of stuff. He was an amazing person, great friend and really and unstoppable force, he was always thinking 10 steps ahead. Some people didn’t agree with him or some of his ideas but he was very kind.

He gave opportunities to everyone that had a drive to grow and thanks to him, many people like me, grew huge thanks to that. People that work at DNeg, Sony, Weta. etc. are there thanks to the push and opportunity Chris gave them, including myself.

It’s really sad that he is gone and I still can’t believe it. That had a big impact on me and my decision to leave cmivfx.com

Explosion Study
Explosion Study

990 So you are parting ways with CMIVFX. Do you plan to continue making training in any capacity?

Varo Yes, I started a new training community called MIX Training at www.mixtrn.com. There already a few titles in the works, a few might be released already by the time everyone is reading this. It will be very different from cmivfx. I have tons of plans for the site and for the community of course which is the main focus.

990 For those joining or purchasing your Houdini videos through CMIVFX, which ones would you recommend for beginners?

Varo Anyone of my tutorials will help actually, why? Well, I think that even if you don’t really understand why something is been done in a tutorial, just do it, repeat what the instructor is doing, even for the super extra hard tutorials. I think that you might not understand it today, but as you continue your education it will make sense eventually, and suddenly you have this HUGE jump, all that stuff you followed makes sense, if you don’t have that advanced knowledge, you’ll just have this linear curve. That’s how I learn stuff. Don’t be afraid of the hard stuff or you’ll always see it as this unreachable thing.

990 I first started to experiment with Houdini because I wanted to get more into particle effects and had started to become more comfortable with code so I figured why not give Houdini a try. I wanted to put those code skills to use. What was the attraction to Houdini for you?

Varo For me at first, Houdini was an opportunity to get into the big leagues. I wanted a job at a big studio. It might sound horrible but at the time I was already married and had a 2 years old daughter so wanted a better job than what I had, so I figured that if I learned this software that people said was really hard and only a few people knew I would get a nice job and I did.

Then I started loving the way those nodes really resembled the way I think. Now I can see a Houdini network and it’s kinda like a sentence of what I’m doing. I can say what I need to do and translate that to nodes, is weird.

I don’t think Houdini is hard I think is actually simpler than other apps, it’s just that people like me that come from other apps have these weird preconceptions that you HAVE to overcome first before you really start to really take advantage of the way Houdini does things.

Now, the main attraction for me is that I can do anything in Houdini, there’s no real limit. It depends on you to make what you need. I often say that Houdini is not a 3D application, it’s a framework you can build anything on top of that.

990 I have to agree that Houdini is like a framework. Anything is possible if you know what you are doing. What was the hardest concept in Houdini for you to grasp? Mine was working between the different contexts.

Varo For me, Houdini works like the way I think actually or maybe I think in Houdini nodes now hehe.
When I learned Houdini actually a lot of possibilities opened up, I felt like a veil was removed or a huge blanket actually, so it wasn’t that hard for me to get into, the hardest part for me was that I couldn’t use it in production, the place I worked for only had Maya and Houdini was super expensive so I only used the Apprentice edition.

990 Many people who try learning Houdini feel it’s too complex and you have to be a programmer to use it. Do you think programming or any type of scripting is necessary to be proficient with Houdini?

Varo You need zero knowledge of programming to use Houdini and I’ve tested this. In a project I needed animators and I only had 2D animators available at the studio, they wanted to learn 3D animation so I made a Character asset. I told them how to add keyframes and move stuff around and they animated shots the same day. I’ve done tools for other people like that and they don’t even need to know the name of the application hehe.

Don’t be afraid of the hard stuff or you’ll always see it as this unreachable thing.

Programming knowledge is good for many things and of course you will find a way to use it in Houdini but is by no means necessary or required. If you want to pursue something like a Technical Director role, then you’ll need at least scripting for ANY application not just Houdini.

 

990 What tips and advice can you give artists wanting to try their hand at writing code?

Varo Write it! Sounds silly but that’s what you need to do. The more you write the better you get. Get other people’s scripts and modify something small. Again, don’t be afraid to break stuff, programming is, break it till it works, at least that’s how I see it. Every programming language will try to help you to make it work.

If you’re an artist, drawing is way harder than code. A Wacom tablet or a notebook doesn’t tell you, “Oh I think the proportions of the body are off, try measuring the head height”, and code does tries to tell you, “You missed a colon.” Again, it’s only as hard as you make it and if you start today you’ll be one day ahead tomorrow.

990 How is the community or scene for computer graphics/animation/VFX etc. in Mexico? Is there a Houdini community?

Varo There’s is a big community of CG artist in Mexico, amazing studios and world class animation is being done every day. The thing is, that is not paid well here, so a lot of the great artists look for work outside. I know people that work or worked before at ILM, Blur, Sony Pictures, etc. About Houdini, the artists that use Houdini are a few but it is growing.

Kraken Destruction
Kraken Destruction

990 You are big Open Source advocate. It even spills over to your music. You use Houdini on Linux correct? I think Open Source is great despite some of its drawbacks and the market I’m in makes it difficult working with clients. Tell me what attracts you to Open Source and how do you manage the situations, if any, with clients who work on different platforms? (Hope this question made sense)

Varo Yes I use Houdini on Linux. It’s simply more stable. I still use Windows for stuff like Unreal Engine, but everything else I do on Linux, specially the hardcore stuff like sims, rendering, etc.

I wanted to use Linux many years ago because I like computers and I like to tinker with them so I had a Linux partition on my workstation a while ago. I didn’t use it much because everything was on Windows. I had this huge project I had to render and it was crashing and crashing, nothing seemed to work. I tried to make it work for 2 weeks but nothing. For some reason I tried on Linux and it worked like butter, so it literally saved my butt. From that moment on I knew that I had to be using it, and that is true still today. Any computer with Windows WILL work better on Linux, it’s just a better OS and I don’t have to pay to use it, makes sense.

990 What are your top Linux applications?

Varo There a lot of stuff I like, starting with KDE, the desktop environment, is great and fast and pretty, Gimp is really nice, Krita, Blender is great, of course Houdini on linux works great, GPU rendering in Houdini using Redshift works way better than Windows, even windows apps work better on Linux.

990 Any advice for those who want to migrate over to Linux?

Varo If you mainly use Adobe apps stay where you are. There are similar apps but people are just so familiar with some stuff that is really hard to use anything else, if not then download Ubuntu or Linux Mint, put it in a USB and play with it, you can use it without even installing it, I’m sure you’ll notice a difference in performance even running it from a USB. It is free so you can test it, install it into an old drive you have laying around, do small things with it, have fun.

Actually, most of the big studios use Linux, so knowing your way around it would be a nice skill to have, although is not that harder or different to use then OSX or Windows.

990 It’s interesting that many of us get into this industry by the way of music, skating, bmx, etc. I Started with BMX flatland, then that introduced me to music, and eventually into animation. I know you are in a band. Tell me a bit more about the band?

Varo My Band is called WEYEZ. I love music as much as I love CG. We play metal, it’ss the band I have been wanting to make since I started playing guitar. I’ve been in bands for over 20 years and I feel like I’m finally doing the band I wanted when I was 15. I love it! We also have a really defined ideology around the band, we want people to unite and we will never sell our music, it will always be free.

990 Nice! I use to play in a Hardcore band back in the day. Such an incredible experience. Met many cool people playing shows. Is the music in Spanish, English or both? Where can we listen to some of it?

Varo The lyrics are both in English and Spanish because we live in the border with the US and we have a huge American influence. We have both English and Spanish TV and Radio stations, so I wanted to bring that to the band. You can listen to a few demos we have here https://soundcloud.com/weyezband

990 Do you have any interest or have experimented with VR/AR or any other emerging technologies?

Varo I’ve actually done a VR project and will do an AR project soon as well, nothing major but yeah I like to play with technology, it’s fun.

Rocky River
Rocky River

990 Where do you go for inspiration these days?

Varo Recently, I’ve been visiting ArtStation.com a lot, there’s so much cool stuff to see there. It’s amazing how much amazing and talented people is out there. Also, Vimeo is amazing, tons of Houdini stuff there.

990 Where do you see the industry going in the future? How do you think the roles we do now will change?

Varo I don’t think much will change as a business, but I do think that more and more people will work remotely in all sort of jobs, going to the studio just seems outdated these days, more cloud stuff please hehe.

990 Any advice for keeping ahead of the curve and keeping up with the industry?

Varo Just keep learning. Everything you’ll learn you’ll use in a job one day, I guarantee it and stay passionate. We need more people that do VFX, animation etc, for passion and not just for a credit at the end of a film.

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

Varo Loose the guitar kid, hehehe, not really. I’ll say, study, learn everything you can, I do believe that knowledge is power and I love to learn.

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

Varo I’m doing what I like, I do it all, VFX, Games, Music, Programming, teaching, no reason to just choose one, specializing is not my thing. I just do anything that I’m passionate about and I don’t think I’ll ever stop.

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

Varo Again, be passionate about it, why? Well, because it’s HARD WORK, doing explosions and dinosaurs and all that stuff is freaking HARD, and you have to do stuff you never knew you can do to finish. So if you are passionate about it, then you’ll study more, put the time and at the end of the day you’ll be happy. To me that the best thing you can do, be happy. Thank you.

Fire Flower
Fire Flower

Thank you Varo for giving us some words of wisdom! This one took a while but I’m glad it came together. You can visit Varomix’s new training website over at http://mixtrn.com Also, definitely check out his band WEYEZ if you like some heavy riffs. You can also find him on Twitter (@varomix) or his YouTube channel where he hosts LearnDay, a webinar series done every Wednesday with different topics and you can ask questions and he’ll help you live.

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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.