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Carsten Baars

By: Rebelway

FX Artist Carsten Baars talks about studying VFX and shares a detailed breakdown of his latest Houdini simulation.

Today we’ve invited Rebelway alumnus Carsten Baars on the blog to talk about making the first steps in digital art, studying VFX, and working on Houdini projects for his first demo reel.

When and how did your artistic journey begin? How did you get into 3D art and what was the first tool you used to create your artworks? How has your style evolved since then?

I think becoming an artist is a complex process and for a lot of people, the artistic journey begins a long time before they actually decide to work or train as an artist. I have a background in mechanical engineering and have often looked for opportunities to express my creativity in my spare time by drawing and painting, creating small 2D games for PC, or playing the drums. 

But I decided to focus entirely on VFX and work on my skills as an FX artist about only two years ago. I always enjoyed creating images and simulations, and VFX gave me the opportunity to combine my creativity and technical skills. And so I started studying VFX at the beginning of 2020, which covered many areas and gave me a solid foundation. The first DCC tool I learned was Maya for modeling, animation, and rigging tasks. For render tasks, I used V-Ray or Arnold. And that was a really great start. 

environment art by Carsten Baars

But even before I got into all that VFX stuff I knew that I was going to learn Houdini and that it would be my main tool since I realized that it would give me the flexibility and efficiency I needed. And with every update, I get more and more impressed by how much this application can do. So for me, it was only a matter of time when I would dive into Houdini. To me, it feels like a perfectly thought-out tool and I really love working with it.

Can you tell us a bit about your professional journey as a 3D artist? Where do you currently work?

I recently graduated and am still working on my first FX reel. So far, I have not been able to gain any professional experience in this area. I am confident this will change soon and I am already looking forward to my first job in the VFX industry.

Right now, there are many VFX schools, short courses, and tutorials, both free and paid, both online and in-person. In your opinion, how does Rebelway compare and what are its advantages?

Nowadays you can find a huge amount of educational content or tutorials on the Internet. When I started learning Houdini, I watched countless YouTube videos and purchased some tutorials and online courses, as this was not taught at the academy I was studying at.

I think the first paid tutorial I bought was by Steven Knipping. It was well-explained and thought-out, which makes it great for beginners. And when it comes to getting really deep into the subject matter in terms of FX, for me, there is no way around Rebelway.

The first course I took was the Explosion FX in Houdini course. I have never learned so much in such a short time in any other FX course. The course videos are like a compressed bundle of knowledge where you don’t have a lot of information thrown at you randomly, instead, you go step by step as the complexity of the lessons increases. And that makes it quite efficient in my opinion.

Another great advantage is the knowledge exchange on the Rebelway course-specific Discord channels where you can get feedback or support from the technical assistants or the lecturers themselves very quickly. Or you get help from other students. So if you are stuck or have any issues, you can be quite sure that you will be able to solve them with the help of others. And this is what makes the community great.

As far as we know, at present, you are working on building your FX reel. Can you tell us more about your latest work, River Walk: how did you choose this scene, where did you look for inspiration and references, what software did you use to create it, and what were the things you found the most challenging about River Walk?

River Walk is the second project I created for my first FX reel. After my previous project, Wastelander, which depicts destruction and a hostile environment, I wanted to create a scene that would represent a contrary mood – I wanted it to be something lively, inspired by nature. Finally, I got the idea with the river when I was out for a walk in the forest by a small waterfall. The best references always come from nature. Originally, I had not planned to integrate a leopard into the scene. But my classmate who specializes in animation was working on walk cycles for his character and was looking for an environment for his animated cat. I was glad for the opportunity to fill my scene with more life and so it came to an unexpected collaboration. We just had to think about how the shot would fit both of us since we had two key characters we wanted to present: the cat and the river.

I created the basic environment over a weekend since what you can see of the environment is mainly Megascans or SpeedTree. Only the riverbed/ground and the hanging rope bridge were made procedurally in Houdini. All render layers were rendered in Arnold. I used textures from Megascans and SpeedTree and tweaked shaders a bit, then I added some color variation with Jitter nodes using some parameters on the geo. For lighting, I just used an HDRI. So I kept it quite simple since my main focus was on the FX work and overall motion in this scene.

I have even simulated the rope bridge, which you can hardly notice. In the beginning, the movement of the bridge was way too strong and looked quite unrealistic for this kind of scene, so I had to reduce it a lot. A swinging rope bridge is cool… but only if its motion fits the scene. The rope bridge sim is a combination of an RBD sim for the planks and a wire sim for the ropes, both advected by a velocity field. The following clip shows the simulated bridge with exaggerated velocities for demonstration purposes:

The animation of the trees was generated in SpeedTree itself. I simply cached the first three seconds of the animation and used it to create a looping animation in Houdini by overlaying the same animation multiple times with a specific phase shift. This allowed me to save a significant amount of storage space.

The biggest challenge of this project was certainly the tweaking and shaping of the fluid itself while keeping the iterative process manageable as it is a relatively long and curved section of the river. The previous proxy sim helped to get the initial motion of the fluid. To get a good foundation for the overall motion, the riverbed was carved out using two guide curves that defined the main shape of the bed and which were used to guide the ground noise along these paths for a natural-looking surface. 

To have better control over the sim, additional curves that defined pump guides all along the way were created. Finally, the flow speed was tweaked by the boundary velocities and modified gravity force simulating the slope of the terrain, since the inclination is not considered in the geo itself. A few velocity fields behind the rocks surrounded by water provided additional splashes. 

riverbed for an environment scene in Houdini

The whitewater sim had by far the highest RAM consumption. But I was still lucky that after a few adjustments I could do it in a single simulation and not have to do multiple layers of whitewater. Only the splashes at the rocks needed some extra particles.

whitewater in Houdini

Doing this project was another great experience. By creating some more complex scenes and larger simulations, you learn how to optimize your scene to get better simulation and render times and less consumption of storage space. And with every project, you get better. I had already learned how to optimize a lot of things in my previous project, which was much more complex. Switching to slow-motion caused some problems that led to a longer project duration than expected. The procedural destructible wall was also a big task and it was good training for me. I think it was definitely worth it.

How did Rebelway help you grow as an artist? What was your favorite part about being a Rebelway student?

I learned a lot of useful methods from Rebelway’s instructors. The fact that I learned about workflows that are also used in actual big-scale production makes me feel better prepared for working in the industry. It is a very solid base to build on and it helps me understand how everything is working under the hood (e.g. Pyro solver, Flip solver, etc.) My favorite part about being a Rebelway student is the possibility to have a discourse with other students or lecturers.

Who inspires you as an artist? Who do you look up to and why?

It is difficult to mention just a few artists since it is the entire community that acts as a source of inspiration. Anyone who puts enough passion and love into their work inspires me. It is diversity that creates inspiration.

final shots of the Houdini scene

Have you ever experienced an art block? How do you find the motivation to keep going and continue working on your artistic skills?

Sure. A change of scenery helps to gather new impressions. One option would be to go for a walk and observe nature. When working on long-term projects, it can sometimes be hard to maintain motivation. Especially if you get stuck on a problem or do a lot of repetitions until you reach the desired result. In this case, I like to take small breaks when working on a project where I do smaller projects that can be successfully completed in a very short time. This way you always have little celebrations of success. Watching YouTube videos of other Houdini artists also helps me to get new ideas. It’s always interesting to see what workflows other artists come up with.

What are you planning to do in the future as an artist?

I am eager to increase the quality of my artwork and the efficiency of my workflows. Therefore I always try to learn new things to have a wide range of skills, which would give me more opportunities. And of course, I hope I get the opportunity to work on a blockbuster, be part of a great team, and create compelling images.

More art from Carsten: 

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