CGS: Can you tell us a bit about yourself, your background and what it is that you currently do?
AG: Of course. I’m currently a game VFX artist, and that’s all I’ve been doing since my first ever job in 2008. I’ve been doing VFX for different studios in a couple of countries. Last year I shipped Battlefield 1 where I worked as the associate lead VFX artist, so I was responsible for the team who did the FX in all Cinematics and Singleplayer. Right now, I am running my own company with remote real-time VFX stuff.
I’m also trying to get into the whole teaching game/VFX side of things as I feel that’s an under-supported area at the moment.
CGS: Great! What was the first gig you landed in 2008, and how did you come into it?
AG: I was a gamer for ages when I was a kid, and then I got into doing some Photoshop art. In high school, I thought that maybe I would become an engineer or go into economics or do something “responsible” – but in my last year I realized, ‘nope that sucks’ and decided I wanted to do something gaming related. I ended up finding this film/game art school in Southern Sweden. After my first year attending there, I put a project reel on Vimeo since later that year I was going to be applying for internships. Out of the blue, I was contacted by a UK company called Eurocom saying “Hey, I saw your reel! That’s some cool stuff! What’s your work situation like?” I thought it was one of my classmates just messing with me, so I responded saying I was applying for internships just for fun and they responded, “Ok if I fly you over for an interview next week?”
A week or two later, I flew over to the UK and they offered me a job that evening. A month later, I moved over there. I dropped out of school, as it was vocational school and ultimately just setting me up to get a job, which I then had. They never checked my grades. You’re only as good as your reel.
CGS: Absolutely. So what was your first assignment/asset you were responsible for?
AG: The first thing I worked on was Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs video game. First, I started out placing FX that the seniors had already made, then I started to do small gameplay FX like cracking a quick spark burst from a whip. After we finished the project on Ice Age, we went on to work on Dead Space Extraction for the Wii. I got to drop the ‘Junior’ from my title, so I was able to do more stuff on that project. I started progressing with the projects over at Eurocom because they did a lot of movie tie-ins, so we went through projects quickly. I got to work on a lot of very different styles of things. The last project I worked on over there was Disney Universe where I pretty much got to lead the FX team because my lead took more of a managerial role.
CGS: And during your time there, how much did your own workflow and pipeline change?
AG: Oh, completely. I had no idea what I was doing in the beginning. I had absolutely no clue, so that was where I actually learned the craft. And then I had to relearn that at every company.
CGS: What was the first 3D package that you learned in school? What were you using at Eurocom?
AG: Maya 8.5 in school. That’s where it started, that’s where I did all my modeling, but the FX work was always in-engine. It was always in Unreal – Unreal 3 I think it was back then.
CGS: What was the learning curve like when you first learned Maya?
AG: Well, that was class-based. We had classes every day that were very structured so I didn’t have to fumble my way through that. With FX, though, I did have to fumble because there were no classes and there still are no classes. We had this thick book about learning Maya for newbies, and you had to model this huge bear. But everyone hated it because it never worked. It was a weird NURBS bear I think.. horrible thing.
CGS: Note to self, avoid weird NURBS bears, haha. Switching gears, you are currently a SideFX Houdini artist – how did you become acquainted with that software?
AG: During Battlefield 4 at DICE. We hired a couple of people who were Houdini evangelists. Really, really good people who previously worked on TV/films and stuff like that, and they started showing me everything I could do. I thought “well, that’s cool!” so I started experimenting and seeing what I could do with it. I didn’t produce anything for Battlefield 4, but I got the interest for it. So, I started going to all the “Lunch and Learns” that they set up. They are still miles ahead of me. I’m doing all the “stupid stuff” – but it works!
CGS: What is the stupid stuff? What does that entail?
AG: So for example, when some people might do a giant network for terrain generation or similar, I’ll do a simple flip simulation that I convert to a mesh, because I can’t do that anywhere else – and it works beautifully in-game. Simple things - but effective things!
CGS: What is it that makes you want to continue using Houdini?
AG: One thing that’s annoying me right now is that I’m forgetting how to script things because you don’t need to in Houdini! You can script things, but when I was using Maya, I had to script everything that wasn’t normal modeling, and now I can just set up a network for it and it just works. I’m falling out of my Python habits!
CGS: Interesting! It’s making it too easy, haha.
AG: Yeah! I mean it’s a very different way of doing it, and it’s so much quicker. One of the examples I provide is setting up a camera set up to create imposters, so I take a render from all angles. That took me 3 days of scripting in Maya – plus a Photoshop script that took even longer to execute – then I try to replicate that in Houdini and did it in an hour and a half. I did the texture as well! I didn’t even have to open Photoshop. It’s miles ahead in that department. This was so much easier to iterate on. If I had used it on Battlefield 1, there would have been prettier soldiers in the background. We had wanted death animations and multiple variations; we wanted different armies so that it wasn’t just the same soldier running, but it just took too long for me to get a new soldier in and adjust the script to set the camera in a different place. In Houdini, I could take my camera, scale the circle up and render. Done. It’s a completely different field of play.
CGS: Do you find that the use of Houdini is spilling over into more game studios now?
AG: Yeah, absolutely. There are a lot of “Houdini-curious” people now. Especially now with all of the latest stuff where you’re pushing the boundaries of games. One of the guys I was working with at DICE was interested in trying it out but was scared by the node-based workflow, so as I was leaving he asked for some advice on how to complete a task. He said, I want to do a water simulation and covert it to a flow map. I said “yeah it’s doable but It might not be the easiest to do for your first project!” We didn’t talk for a couple of weeks and then, after the announcement of H16, I reached out to him again telling him that they had just released a bunch of terrain tools, etc and he goes “yeah, I was a beta tester it’s awesome!!!” *laughter* – so total convert there.
CGS: People have a pretty strong loyalty towards Houdini – yet at the same time some people are intimidated by it or see it as a more senior-level, advanced tool. Do you think that there’s truth behind that, or do you think it’s something a Junior artist should know?
AG: I think that juniors should definitely pick it up. Part of the problem is that the people who are teaching it are way too good at what they do, so new users do get scared when they see these massive node networks that are able to do amazing things. The things that I’m showing, the stupid, simple stuff is making people curious about the software. I’m an average Houdini user, making it something that’s more like what they’re used to. It’s changing the mindset, and I think it’s changing at a lot of places already.
CGS: Now that you’re branching off into your own thing and explore educational options, is that something you might tackle? Putting Houdini in more layman’s terms?
AG: Yeah, I’m working on a course right now to do just that: Houdini for Game VFX, starting from scratch. They’ll have a basic setup, and then if they feel like modifying it they’ll be able to go back and do that, but I’ll always start with the simplest way.
CGS: So why is there a hole for Game VFX education specifically do you think?
AG: Because there are no Game VFX artists. I was recently at a roundtable, and one of the questions was “how many people here are looking for a job in game VFX?” and maybe three student hands went up. The next question was “how many people are looking to recruit someone for a job in game VFX?” and something like 30 hands in the room went up. It’s a massive difference.
CGS: Wow! We definitely see almost an oversaturation of modelers, texture artists etc in the industry. What is it about VFX, and specifically for games, that makes people not want to try?
AG: Well, I think it’s two things. First is that there is very little education or people teaching it. Secondly, a modeler can learn a 3D package and then just go anywhere. In VFX, you have to be prepared that every place you land, you’ll have to learn their tools. Sure, Unreal and Unity can help, but not everyone uses them, so you’ll probably have to learn a new tool. At that point, it becomes a bit scary and difficult to find a focus.
CGS: When you’re having to learn at each studio, are people guiding you? Are they offering courses?
AG: Places I’ve been, there’s always been someone who knows the tool who sits near you. I am very much the dive in and poke around kind of guy, and then when I hit a roadblock, I dig deeper into why something isn’t working, which is a great learning tool. The best way to learn is to just dive-in.
CGS: What is it about Houdini that makes it good for VFX for games?
AG: You can do weird things. You can throw data around like nobody’s business. You can do things that would take so much more time in other packages. Using the example of fluid mesh that I use for blood and mud. It’s a 20 min thing if I do it from scratch where I simulate something and then convert it to a mesh and remove all the stuff I don’t want. I raced my old lead in that, he was doing it with Maya Bifrost, and I was doing it Houdini. I was done in 20, and he kept going into the evening. Plus, he didn’t actually get proper results because he couldn’t remove the data he didn’t want anymore. Another one is making a sky and converting it to a mesh and using it as a spawn surface. I couldn’t do that in other places. So, it does what other packages can do, and then all of this as well. Not to mention the cost factor: with freelancing, if I would have gone with the Maya route, I’ll have to pay for what I pay for a year of Houdini Indie, for a month.
CGS: Can you talk about your pipeline for Battlefield and the process you used?
AG: The pipeline wasn’t really there. Frostbite (EA’s proprietary engine) is heavily built with Maya. A lot of EA studios use it now, and it was developed by DICE originally, but for Maya. So, to export something out of it you need a certain group structure in Maya. I’d create my assets in Houdini, then export the FBX to Maya, get it into groups and then export it. So, the pipe wasn’t really there.
CGS: What were some of the things that you used Houdini for in Battlefield 1?
AG: Simple. Björn Henriksson did some cool simulations, and I stuck to my simple things with special mesh particles and all of that stuff. The cloud, spawn surface thing.
CGS: How long was your stint on Battlefield 1?
AG: 2-3 years.
CGS: What were some other ways that your technique shifted within that period of time?
AG: I started doing more experimental things, not just the same that I’d always been doing. I experimented with imposters and all that stuff. Fluid meshes, I first saw that in an old Unreal presentation from Tim Elek – I thought how did you model that, it must have taken ages! And now I do it in my presentation in minutes.
CGS: Do you find that the more you gain as an artist, the more confidence you have in learning new things?
AG: Yeah, absolutely. And I don’t have to know exactly where I’m going with something to just dive in because I’ll figure it out along the way usually.
CGS: What is your workaround when you do have an obstacle?
AG: I used to be able to ask the guys at DICE, but now I tap into the Houdini community on Discord. Just the few months that that has been up, I think I bumped up one level.
CGS: We will for sure link our users, what a great resource. Where can people find your classes?
AG: Well, I’ll be posting a series of tutorials on SideFX.com but I’m just getting started so haven’t put much up yet. I also have a Vimeo site where I have been doing some Houdini Engine stuff for Unreal. That was probably the first implementation of Houdini that I used for production at DICE. I just used the scatter tool and collapsed that into an OTL and started scattering stuff in Maya, and people were like “wow, we can do moss now!” The second time was when we created a floppy cloth effect for stretched canvas inside of a zeppelin. Animated normal maps are really hard to generate normally, but with Houdini you can just take the normal and store that as a color. So no new, super advanced things. Just simple but effective stuff.
CGS: It’s amazing that there weren’t more converts. It must have been hard to see you go from DICE!
AG: Yes, my lead was going between “I want to strangle you” and “I’m going to miss you so much”!
That was one of the hardest decisions I’ve made because DICE was the best place to work, no doubt. There was no bad blood, I just needed to do something else for a while. But they told me I could come back when I was tired of school – they betted on me lasting 6 months, and I think I’ve outlasted that now.
CGS: If you could call out 2-3 concrete reasons why Houdini, as an end-note, is such a sought-after software amidst the studios.
AG: First one, obviously, you can iterate on things. When I first started poking around Houdini, I just did some tests. If there is anything that needs to be adjusted, you can just adjust that one node, and you’re finished. Whereas in Maya, you have to start the project all over again. That’s the procedural nature of it. I was used to having to start things completely over, so not having to is huge.
The second thing is that you can do these things that you can’t do in other places. Attributes are just values in Houdini, they aren’t magic numbers like they are in many other places. You can just throw them around. If you want to take a normal and store it as a color, that’s just one node and half a line of code.
CGS: How should someone get started if they’re really interested. Are their some good online info sources?
AG: First, get in, poke around, and have a look at examples and the getting started tutorials. Step 2, get on the Houdini Discord discussion group, because it’s a great resource. You can post something there and have a detailed file that explains exactly how to do something within minutes. Some of the best people in the world are in there and are super helpful.
There are the forums which are great, but this is a completely different level. With forums, you don’t know when you’ll get an answer, but with Discord the answer is there for you almost right away. Right now, that’s the absolute best place. For tutorials, I’m partial to Pluralsight because I’m working with them, but I also like Peter Quint on Vimeo. They might be getting a bit old, but all the stuff is still relevant.
CGS: Great – thanks, for that, Andreas. To end, what prompted your transition out of DICE?
AG: Well, partly, I needed a break as I had been working on Battlefield for two projects and wanted a break from that. I also wanted to learn to build stuff with my hands and am currently studying mechanical engineering. But now, my own company’s projects are exploding, with people in search of help. So, I’m thinking I might put studies aside for now and focus on freelance for game VFX.
We'd like to thank Andreas and SideFX for taking the time to meet with us for this interview! Don't forget to check out Andreas' Vimeo page. We hope this inspires some of you to pursue a career in VFX for games!