Chris Anderson

Chris Anderson VFX Artist Image

How did you start in 3D and how did you discover Houdini?

I started my 3D learning with Maya during my undergrad degree. It was sort of by accident really. I was an art major and just took traditional animation for the credits. In the class another student told me about a 3D animation class. So, I signed up and after the first class I was hooked. I knew this was what I had been searching for at school. I progressed through school and then professional work, using Maya and C4D mostly. I was always frustrated by their limitations when it came to FX.

I had heard about Houdini and its capabilities, but its learning curve was so daunting. Finally the right job came in at my work. I needed to make this strange cloud world with these massive tornadoes, and I finally had enough lead time to experiment a little. I downloaded Houdini and went for it. After about a week I was in love. I haven’t stopped using it since.

What do you currently do for work?

I am an Art Director at Possible Productions. I do a huge range of things from live events to broadcast, concert visuals, architectural installations and most recently XR/AR virtual production.

How is the process of approaching live-event FX different from a ‘typical’ project designed for screens?

The biggest difference in live events is scale. The large scale LED or projection surfaces we build for have native resolutions that are often over 10K. The cloud world I first experimented with Houdini on, for example, had a delivery raster that was 60K. And our lead times are typically measured in weeks, not months or years. So we have to be efficient with how we approach everything in the scene, from geometry to lighting to FX.

Still, I can work within Houdini and set up my shots, or usually loops, in a very traditional vfx pipeline when it comes to live event screen content like concerts or installations. It just depends on what the project needs. With live virtual production events however, it requires many more steps to get from Houdini to a finished product within a real-time rendering engine like Unreal. And now we’re also optimizing for frame rate.

For some effects I build out sims and just create sprite sheets with RGB lighting so I can relight in the scene, however I need and the setup is fairly straightforward. There are other effects, like anything magical for example, that I will only use Houdini to create geometry to run materials across. In some cases I create pyro/smoke loops that I will use as sprite textures to layer into particles and other stylizations that I come up with within the shader straight in Unreal.

The material builder paired with Niagara has a ton of flexibility. Then it’s just dialing it in to whatever looks right for the project, checking performance and hoping you can get away with post effects like bloom, which doesn’t always work with XR/AR. While the optimization can take a ton of work, the ability to have things run realtime after years of waiting in Houdini or for a render to finish baking on the render farm is rather amazing

Tell us about your favorite project accomplished in Houdini. What made it interesting? What were the challenges you faced?

It is hard to pick a specific one, but most recently I worked on the opening ceremonies for League of Legends. There were 5 weeks of tournaments finished off with Finals. Which ended up with 5 different shows to make. What made this job so different was its need to be realtime. We were not only building in an (at the time) unreleased dev branch of UE 4.26, but we also needed several different types of effects.

In my original concept design frames I had made a stage floating in clouds and was able to create and use volumes in Houdini to fill out my landscape, but once we got into UE4 I had to come up with different types of sprite sheets and techniques to get similar looks. That was the interesting part, figuring out how to utilize Houdini to drive the effects I was creating with Niagara in UE4.

What are your goals as an artist?

Professionally, I am exactly where I want to be, but my goal as an artist is to keep growing and learning. My life drawing instructor, Glenn Vilppu, once told my class that you need to spend at least 3hrs a day working on your art and in 10 years you’ll be ok, not great, just kind of good. He was in his 70s and said he was just hitting his stride. I try to remember that to keep myself motivated and pushing forward, knowing there’s a better version of myself as long as I keep focused.

League of Legends Project

Have you learned any helpful VFX tips or tricks recently?

I would say optimization is key, whether it’s Houdini or another platform. Also, one thing I wasn’t great about when I first started Houdini was checking my geometry spreadsheet and getting lost with errors. It’s extremely necessary to reference.

My favorite shortcut is holding Y to cut wires. If you don’t know about it, it saves a lot of time. Then lastly, use that manual mode, don’t waste time waiting when you’re jumping around your network and things have to recache a bit just so you can change some parameters.

Who inspires you as an artist? Why do they inspire you?

One of my greatest inspirations is Jack Kirby. Just a simple sketch of lines would crackle with power. His colorful drawings have this dynamic energy, filled with action and movement. I look at his art regularly for inspiration. You never know what you will find.

Additionally, Eyvind Earle, who is a master of nature. His colorful landscapes, illustrations, graphic design and portraits are so intense and detailed. I always go to him when I need to work a landscape for ideas.

Then there’s Frank Frazetta, Hayao Miyazaki, Mike Del Mundo, Killian Eng, Katsuhiro Otomo, Maurice Noble, Heinrich Kley, Kentaro Miura…So many.

What online resources keep you motivated to grow as an artist?

Rebelway! And I do really mean that. I have always loved the learning aspect of 3D, it has taken me to Speedtree, Substance, World Machine, Maya, C4D and now Houdini. Your school has kept me motivated for over a year now.

Also, I have to mention Entagama and Steven Knippings courses. Their content has been truly helpful.

There are many VFX schools & tutorial websites. In your opinion how does Rebelway compare?

For Houdini there is no comparison. I have used many others, but you have a system that keeps me involved and interested.There’s a great range of classes with talented instructors that know what they’re doing. There are so many ways to attack something in Houdini so it’s really great seeing the instructors’ thought processes. Also, I love having Discord to speak with others and see everyone’s progress.

Chris Anderson VFX Artist Image

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