A few months ago, Canadian company SideFX quietly released the 17th "Banshee" version of its bleeding-edge Houdini procedural animation software, which handles all sorts of physics in CGI entertainment. Its stunning capabilities warrant a second look, because they pull back the curtain on the fascinating processes behind so much of today's cinema and gaming.
From Disney/Pixar to Weta Digital to scores of smaller digital effects workshops; in movies from Toy Story to Wonder Woman to Planet of the Apes; in video games from Bethesda, Sega, Gameloft, Xbox and countless others – SideFX's Houdini effects engine underpins an extraordinary amount of the entertainment you consume.
It concentrates on the procedurally generated parts of the action, more than the artists' creations themselves, but that's certainly an art in and of itself, and Houdini touches many more parts of an animated scene than you might realize.
It's the engine behind hair and fur and feathers that react to wind and rain, as well as to a character's movements. It's the engine that lets you drape muscle, skin and clothes onto a model, and have them each react to motion captured animation in realistic ways, with finely tuned material properties that have their own inertia, bounce, stretchiness and tendency to tear.
It handles particle animations, like what might happen if you drop an open bag of marbles or wet sand. It handles flames, smoke, mist, lighting and magical elements that don't follow traditional physics.
It's also responsible for procedurally generated environments, literally simulating the processes of hydro and thermal erosion to turn a wrinkled surface into a set of mountains, valleys and rolling hills that look and feel like they've been there for millions of years. You can then use it to sprinkle trees, rocks, bushes and grass in a manner that adheres to the rules of the natural world – or any rules you choose.
Houdini also handles water effects, from ripples and splashes to a newly-developed module that generates unbelievably realistic surf, complete with foam, spray and backwash patterns.
Houdini gave you the flames, the flinging and dripping lava as Te Fiti crawled through the parted seas to receive her stolen heart back from Moana. It gave you the dust and fracturing concrete where Iron Man slammed down to earth in a busy city, and the fizzing, spinning space/time portals in Dr. Strange. It gave you the tearing sails, the splintering wood, and the explosive destruction as a Game of Thrones dragon destroyed a ship with Houdini-generated fire breath in a crashing Houdini-generated sea.
You get the picture; it's been responsible for many of the most memorable and spectacular CG visuals you've ever seen. Here's a showreel combining some of the shots achieved with previous versions of the software:
To call this software advanced is to understate the matter by a long way. The learning curve to get up to a professional standard using Houdini is one of many Everests in the creative arts. It is all-powerful without much thought for accessibility.
In a perfect world, it would lend its vaunted capabilities to video games in their fullest extent, but single frames can take hours to render even on today's powerful graphics machines – let alone entire scenes, which can take days even using large connected server farms. Where Houdini has been terrific for gaming has been in its terraforming and environment capabilities. The procedural physics stuff has to be severely neutered to run on regular hardware. Mind you, it's Houdini-style physics that tend to make game trailers and pre-rendered cutscenes look so much better than gameplay graphics.
Just knowing that it exists, and seeing some of the capabilities it brings to 3D animation, can give you a richer appreciation for just how much effort, art, intelligence and thought go into today's entertainment. We'd thoroughly encourage you to full-screen the video below and enjoy the details, because the new capabilities you see here are things you'll soon be seeing on the big and small screens.
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