Alvaro Moreira (AKA Particle Skull) Shares His Simulation Secrets + Free Project Files

By: Caleb Ward

We sat down with Alvaro Moreira (Particle Skull) to discuss how he creates mind-melting FX simulation work using Houdini.

Every now and then we come across a FX artist whose work truly blows our mind. Alvaro Moreira is one of those artists. In fact, he has actually created a video that highlights what happens every time we watch his videos.

Fans of Rebelway’s FX Friday are probably already familiar with Alvaro’s work. We recently posted his ‘Digital Poo’ project and it was one of our most popular projects ever posted on our Instagram. Here’s the video in case you didn’t see it.

Alvaro is also sharing a Houdini .hip file of this simulation project for you to download and enjoy.

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We’ve been a fan of his work for a while now, so we thought it’d be fun to ask him a few questions about how he became so talented at FX work.

A Simulation Q&A with Alvaro Moreira of Particle Skull

Below is our interview with Alvaro Moreira.

Where did you learn how to do simulation work?

It all started with 3dsMax, PFlow, FumeFX and Realflow… I was learning VFX only with free content since there wasn’t a lot of courses about simulations at that time.

Everything was kinda working fine but, one day, SideFX released Houdini 13! I realized right away how powerful this tool is and, therefore, I should learn it ASAP.

It was a long path. I was studying it just once in a while, during my free time, but I always had that sentence in my mind: “better late than never”.

I ended up changing completely from Max with Houdini’s 15th version. I basically spent 2 years studying it in a slow pace – and that’s where payed courses and workshops really helped.

Some time later I got this amazing work for Honda (see above) with Lightfarm Studios, full of smoke, and I had to get better at smoke simulations fast! I enrolled in the Mastering Pyro FX workshop, with Saber Jlassi, and that made THE difference. I learned everything I need in the most efficient way possible. That leveled me up a lot.

Editor’s Note: Our Mastering Pyro FX course is now Explosion FX in Houdini.

How did you get started in FX?

It all started when FumeFX was released, I got insanely amazed with those smoke and fire simulations. Then I went to RealFlow but things only started to get serious when Autodesk implemented PFlow’s Box2 and 3 on 3ds Max.

In 2012 I quit my job as a generalist to pursue my dream of working as a simulation guy. The plan was simple: Use my free time to develop a super cool FX reel and go get a job in São Paulo, where the biggest studios in Brazil are.

That didn’t work as expected, but it actually ended up better!

I was developing a lot of R&D at that time, but I couldn’t get people to watch it. Over time I realized that I could get followers (on Vimeo) if I developed some tutorials. With this in mind I created a channel called Particle Skull and that worked quite well. People started following me.

At that time I was still developing my “reel” to get a cool job but, suddenly, I started getting some freelance work. This freelance work thing became a snowball, getting bigger with every project and, here I am, I’m still working as a freelancer and loving it.

You post a lot of really cool simulation projects on Instagram, do you find a lot of work coming from that platform?

I do get a lot of work from Instagram! It’s impressive how powerful the tool is.

I always get a lot of followers when I publish personal projects, more than commercial projects somehow, and that’s a good motivation to keep working on my own ideas as much as possible.

What’s your process for approaching complex simulation projects?

A lot of people keep trying to do things in the “right way”, often trying to follow real life physics’ logic. That doesn’t work for me. I always try to keep everything as simple as possible. It will get complex along the way.

For personal projects I always try to find something that motivates me. Something that makes me wake up in the morning excited to get back here and try the ideas I was planning while I should be sleeping.

What advice do you have to people who want to create awesome simulation work like yours? What path should they follow?

Go outside and see real life stuff, especially outside the city. It’s impressive how nature can get visually complex with details you would never think of adding to a CG project.

It’s also good to study things outside the simulation world like color theory and composition.

There’s this great article, from Neil Blevins, about “Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Shapes”. You can totally adapt this to simulations adding primary, secondary and tertiary details to your simulations, with different kinds of setups.

Also, I highly recommend another quick article from Neil Blevins: The Tool May Try And Dictate The Design’’ (This title explains itself)

One last thing that I’d like to add is the philosophy of “Finished not Perfect, it’s one of those things that changed the way I work, especially on personal projects.

What’s your computer setup?

Right now I have a Threadripper 2970, one RTX 2080 TI and 128Gb of Ram.

I wasn’t planning to upgrade to a new machine soon but now I’m really excited about the new RTX 3090 and those better and cheaper Rizen CPUs.

What is your software/render engine setup?

Houdini and Redshift. I’m not a render guy so redshift really saves my life when I need to render stuff.

Do you have any dreams or desires for your career?

I’d love to be able to make my own FX team, with people I can trust.

I don’t know how to achieve that, I’m starting it slowly to understand how I can manage things while I still work on cool stuff. 

Where can people see more of your work?

Instagram is the best place but I also have my vimeo channel, my website and my youtube channel.

A lot of people ask me to make tutorials or share some of  those small scale fluid setups. Unfortunately I don’t have the time to make the tutorial,  but I’d like to share the one people asked me the most, that Eye Poo / Eye Ice Cream thing. You can use the technique to scatter whatever you want on any flip surface (like ice cream sprinkles).

Thanks for your responses Alvaro!

If you’re feeling inspired to create realistic fluid simulation projects, we highly recommend checking out ‘Water FX in Houdini’ here at Rebelway. The course is a deep-dive into the process of creating realistic fluid simulations for high-end VFX projects. Here’s the trailer for the course:

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