Learning Houdini Journal 03: First Steps

Nov 15, 2015 at 10:55 am by -gToon

This is the third entry of what will be a year-long journal on learning the 3D application Houdini, created by Side Effects Software. Houdini is a sophisticated application that is widely used in the production of visual effects for Hollywood films such as Big Hero 6, Mad Max: Fury Road and many others.

In my previous Learning Houdini Journal, I discussed my research on learning methods and went over some of the resources I'm using to get started with Houdini.

First Steps With Houdini
Sitting down to learn a major 3D application is both an exciting and intimidating prospect. On one hand, you have this beautifully designed interface that just begs you to create something cool. On the other hand, that same interface has got all kinds of buttons, text and boxes that you don't know anything about. Plus, the process of working in Houdini is still unknown to me. The fact that these are my first steps in what will be a year long process of learning Houdini is daunting.

I wonder if that's why there is such a plethora of 3D applications that are designed to remove this fear factor; a drop and drag style interface with assets already provided for you. People want to get past the slow learning process and get right to creating something that looks good. I can see this point of view, but there are real benefits to being patient and deliberate in learning a 3D application like Houdini. One is: deeper knowledge that leads to a much better creative experience. Another benefit is that the complexity and professionalism of your work will be higher for having taken the time to properly learn the 3D application.

So, to make my point: Houdini demands a careful, thorough approach to learning. Some of which can be tedious, but you still have to go through it step by step.

Houdini 15 Intro

Learning the Interface
The Houdini 15 interface is similar to many other 3D applications so I feel at home. The relationship between the various "panes", as they are called, is intuitive. The icons remind me a bit of Cinema 4D and are very clear. I like the fact that there are so many helping notes popping up next to your cursor as you move around and touch various buttons and icons.

One of the biggest surprises in getting to know the Houdini 15 interface is that there are traditional methods of creating/manipulating 3D objects in the "Shelf" area of Houdini. For some reason, I had imagined that Houdini was entirely node-based. Quoting from the documentation for Houdini 15:

Houdini has two main complementary ways of interaction:

â—† Using the shelf tools in the scene view. The scripted tools create nodes for you in the background.
â—† Creating nodes directly in the network editor using the tab menu.

New users will probably be most comfortable just using the shelf tools at first, and some users (for example, character animators) will never need to create their own nodes. However, for modeling and effects work, getting the most out of Houdini usually involves shifting back and forth between the two styles. You will often use the shelf tools as easy ways to start or change a network, and also add and edit nodes to make more complex networks. Toolbox

That makes so much sense: Houdini creates the nodes for you in the Network pane if you use the shelf tools. You can then move over and adjust the created node any way you like. This is a relief as I thought I would only be able to work on objects procedurally. Not sure why I thought that, but I'm glad to rid my self of that misconception.

Houdini Pluralsight Course

Pluralsight Training
I mentioned that I was going to use the Lynda.com training course, "Up and Running with Houdini" with Scott Pagano, as my starting point. But pluralsight.com (digitaltutors is now pluralsight) released a fantastic course, "Introduction to Houdini 15" by John Moncrief that really got me excited. It's a project-based introduction course which has you working through Houdini 15 step by step until to create an interesting scene that includes modeling, physics, animation, materials, rendering and effects (all very basic). Plus, I think John Moncrief is a superb teacher who has just the right rhythm in his 10-15 minute learning segments.

The nearly 8 hour course uses Houdini Apprentice and has course materials. I'm working my way through learning the interface, memorizing the keyboard shortcuts and trying to get a handle on the various move tools available. One question that came up during a part of the course where you import an .obj model made in another 3D package: Can you use the shelf tools on the imported model, or do you only have access to changing the model via the nodes? This is a question I'll be asking in the sidefx.com forum for beginners.

Houdini 15 lessons

Just before this journal entry was finished, I was introduced to Chris Maynard at cimiVFX, a professional training company that has very deep learning systems for Houdini. I really like the site, but I'm debating if I really need to work a formal approach to learning the software. Something I'll have to think about.

Note: the "Introduction to Houdini 15" course at pluralsight.com is free for 30 days as are several other Houdini tutorials there.

Next: Getting the Houdini 15 Workflow Down.