Robot Artists: How Proceduralism is Changing the 3D World

By: Adolfo Reverón

In this article, Adolfo Reverón shares how proceduralism is changing the way artists develop assets for games, television, & film.

If you’ve been in the 3D world for a while, then you’ve probably heard of the term ‘proceduralism’. To some, the term highlights is an exciting snapshot into an optimized 3D future, to others it sounds like rocket-science that has the potential to remove 3D jobs.

No matter what your opinion of Proceduralism is, the truth is, procedural workflows are changing the way 3D artists create and develop their work. From world-generation to asset development, studios are beginning to embrace proceduralism as a way to help raise the overall quality of projects in VFX, TV, and games.

Procedural 3D workflows allow computers to create assets and artwork that would normally have to be created by artists. We’re excited about the potential of these workflows, so we asked Adolfo Reverón, a Procedural Houdini Artist, to share a little more about the potential of procedural asset development for the industry.

Adolfo’s background in traditional 3D workflows has allowed him to get the most out of his procedural skills inside Houdini. With the help of Rebelway courses, he is now a full-fledged procedural artist who is capable of doing the work of dozens of artists with his optimized workflows.

Proceduralism 3D Assets - Cave 2

You’re a big-time advocate of procedural 3D workflows. What is proceduralism? And what makes it so great?

I specialized in Procedural Modeling and Digital Assets for 3d content creation, mainly environment, vehicles, weapons, props…everything required to make a world become alive, so I will focus my answer there. I wasn’t interested in using Houdini for VFX, rather I really desired to use it for world-building.

Proceduralism focuses on creating procedures rather than assets, it provides a way of addressing workloads in a flexible way. With proceduralism, you can approach projects that would normally be too great in complexity or volume to do by hand. You can also address tasks that might require accuracy and lots of testing and iterations.

Proceduralism is especially useful for both outputting finished art and also for dealing with repetitive tasks. This can be either big or small technical tasks so that allow 3D users to focus on art rather than low productivity tasks. As a result, artists spend less time working on tasks that drain your energy.

I have worked on a lot of projects in the past that follow traditional techniques. During these projects I would often have to make big efforts to be able to deliver the artwork on time at the required quality. These traditional workflows are painful and become increasingly complex as clients expectations are growing at a faster rate than time/money budgets.

Procedural techniques are vital for modern productions as they allow for high quality results at a faster pace. A single well-trained procedural artist is able to create a full world, environment or set of assets that would normally require a team of 3D artists in the past (in a destructive fashion, I might add).

For instance, a medium-sized vehicle for a AAA production, might take somewhere between 25 to 40 working days on average, depending on whether it is a hero asset and whether it contains real-world fidelity and complexities.

This process of creation is slow and expensive. You must pay careful attention to the slightest details such as the patterns of your tires. Because the asset is important, it requires a high level of attention to detail.

Here’s an example of a AAA quality asset following traditional techniques (30-ish working days):

However, this slow process is not required in many other cases of asset development. Let’s consider the process of creating a brick wall.

Most times, you don’t need to create an ultra-realistic brick. Rather you probably just need something that resembles a brick enough, according to the project artistic guidelines, budget, and its distance to camera.

By using a procedural workflow, you can create an entire system that generates bricks without having to customize the artwork by hand.

Here’s a great example of a procedural workflow that can output rocks and branches to form a cave.

Proceduralism 3D Assets - Rocks and Sticks
Proceduralism 3D Assets - Cave

What types of projects are best for procedural workflows?

In general terms, you can address many departments and tasks with proceduralism. Here are a few:

  • – Modeling: Props, vehicles, weapons, characters
  • – Level design and generation, worldbuilding, dressing,
  • – Terrain and landscapes
  • – Concept, LookDev, Visual Development
  • – Scan Processing, etc.

However there are more areas, less known, that can benefit from proceduralism. For example, AI training or support stuff for VFX (not actual VFX). Talking to other artists and querying how they address their daily tasks is a great source of inspiration regarding what can be optimized through proceduralism.

Diving into more specific examples, the more you have to match a specific reference, the harder is to implement a tool to get desired results. For instance, if you want a specific rock, use photogrammetry, you’ll match it perfectly, but you’ll get THAT exactly rock, and that’s it.

If you want 100 different rocks for background/dressing purposes, you might benefit from a tool that outputs rocks according to some design guidelines, like the example shown above.The opposite case, which is most comfortable situation for a procedural artist, is receiving a ‘loose/soft’ brief from art direction, where you get the general idea and then implement the technique of your choice. For instance, if I were briefed with something like that:

‘Hey Adolfo, I’m thinking of some kind of mechanical-organic tunnel for the entrance of the main battleship, with lots of tiny details, as if it were a city’

Then I would create a random extrusion tool combined with a simple setup to output something like that:

If art direction is happy with this as a starting point, I could create a sci-fi shape generator tool to process each individual tiny block and output a detailed structure out of it.

To sum up, with traditional sculpting/modeling, you have explicit control over vertices but must do a ton of manual work, suitable for matching very specific references. With procedural modeling, you gain control over design guidelines, with the benefit of being organic, non-destructive, and inviting to explore workflows.

Finally, I found there is a lot of misunderstanding regarding what is ‘procedural modeling’. In my opinion, it is an empty term if you don’t add any further explanation, it might mean a lot or nothing at all. You might say you are modeling procedurally within 3ds Max because you can stack modifiers one on top of each other. The same goes for Maya, Blender, and other packages that support some kind of modifier stack or history. Any experienced 3D artist will tell you this leads to inconsistency sooner or later, though, and you need to collapse the effects eventually. So we can’t take this as true procedural modeling.

Should artists be worried that procedural workflows will take their jobs?

This is something that many friends around me usually say whenever I am demoing a new tool to them: ‘Adolfo, you’ll take away our jobs!’

I don’t think this is happening. History of progress tells us that whenever a role is replaced by some sort of automation, new jobs arise. Imagine the guy lighting street lamps with an actual fire, being fired once lamps became electric. Looks like it destroyed employment, but the truth is that now, electricians are required.

Take a look at this example. With this tool, the level designer is able to create a full game-ready level in seconds, but Modelers still have to make the modules, Lighting Artists need to report the proper vibe, and so on. It is an example of skipping boring, non-artistic manual placement and testing:

The same goes for animation, video games, and 3D in general: it is evolving constantly and, in my opinion, the technical improvements will allow average 3D Artists to focus more on art and less on technical aspects. It will also create new roles. For instance, Substance Designer became industry-standard across the world in a couple of years time.

Textures where done almost exclusively with Photoshop previously, so texturing artists evolved thanks to the new software, and, as a result, they improved their skillset, combining best of both manual and procedural workflows: you can create a base texture procedurally with Designer, but you can add the final tweaks with Photoshop. Same goes for modeling and asset creation: from my experience, it is better to bear in mind a flexible approach where manual/traditional techniques and Houdini procedural workflows combine to output what your project needs.

Why do you think some artists and studios are hesitant to give procedural workflows a try?

The hardest part is not tech-wise, but mindset-wise, in my opinion. I found a surprisingly strong resistance from both artists and managers to implement Houdini, despite its clear benefits. There are several reasons that explain it, but to put it in a simplistic way, I think it is caused by the following:

Fear of Change: People tend to stick to what they know. They know how to solve stuff and this means confidence, regardless if there is a more optimal way to go. 

There are Tech Restrictions: You might implement Houdini if you (or your employer) work for a studio that embraces it. Studios spend a ton of money building up a working pipeline, so improving or changing it requires a willing-to-improve mindset which requires a strong amount of bravery. Companies aiming for continuous improvement are those who succeed in the long run. It requires planning and development departments along with support from management to address changes, which most companies lack. It is sad to say, but most companies don’t evolve till they are absolutely forced to do it.

Houdini is Hard to Master Compared to Other Tools: You can get crazy nice visuals in minutes with little experience, sure, but you’ll probably struggle if you are commanded to match a specific visual target or concept, whilst following technical requirements like polycount and UVs. It is worth mentioning that it is harder to procedurally create assets, environments, or tools for the videogame industry because you need to be confident with AAA requirements beforehand, and then implement this knowledge through Houdini.
Bear in mind that anything you create for a game must run in real-time, which involves lots of tricks and restrictions regarding optimization to display nice results. Other industries like cinema, motion graphics, animation in general don’t have that many restrictions. 

Expanding Our Understanding of Houdini: Most artists and managers, even 3D veterans, still think of Houdini as a VFX software only. This is false. We need to evolve beyond this myth.

How is proceduralism going to evolve? Do you have any predictions for the future?

I usually think it will allow 3D Artists to focus more on art, which it will do combined with artificial intelligence, eventually. I think this will be revolutionary.

Outstanding developments like SideFx’s PDG (Procedural Dependency Graphs) represent a sneaky view of what is coming: seamless workflows from early art designs through final quality renders. Another example are recent tests done by Unreal regarding real-time productions, involving real image capture integration with 3d environments. One day, there will be productions done on the fly: early design decisions, like photography direction and camera movements will be made at the same time as final post-processing actions like color grading. Blender’s Eevee example, already shown this is coming.

However, thinking of someone making art decisions only is pretty naive thought. There will always be technical aspects involved, because tech morphs outstandingly fast and it is not unified, so it requires you to be ‘aware’ of the status of things to get the most out of each technique and software, which necessarily leads to artists forced to hold technical knowledge.

In this context, proceduralism will play a key role, allowing amazing results in minutes, like dressing ultra-detailed worlds in no time or animating characters automatically.

You’re branding yourself as a Procedural Artist. Why did you decide to go with that title? Do you think we will see more ‘Procedural Artists’ in the future?

I never felt passionate about VFX, but about asset creation and world building. I started my 3D journey with modeling, as many 3D Artists do.

However, after trying many other departments and tasks, modeling continued to be my favorite artistic passion. Years passed and I kept enjoying the process of developing detailed assets and environments. Once I bumped into Houdini, I felt instantly interested in what it had to offer regarding those topics. 

I really love to create tools so that other users can unleash their imagination which keeps on being hindered by technical limitations.

For instance, addressing a full cathedral is a project that would require a team of experienced 3d artists working together (in a stiff and destructive workflow, if a change would be requested, it would mean a ton of work wasted).

Nowadays a single procedural artist is able to address this, in a flexible, organic fashion, with more possibilities.

I am totally convinced that we will see more ‘Procedural Artists’ in the future. The reason is simple… money.

Profit is what companies care more about and, in my opinion, AAA games are reaching some kind of boundary, where investment required to develop the production vs expected benefits is getting narrower and narrower. The same goes for the film and animation industry.

Audience’s expect outstanding open worlds and ultra detailed assets, which is getting extremely expensive to be done by hand with traditional techniques. As far as I know, many studios are looking for a switch to proceduralism.

How can someone learn procedural techniques?

The first step to understanding how to implement procedural techniques is to get used to 3D production via the traditional way first. Sculpt a rock, retopo-it, UV and texture it by hand.

Do the same with a variety of assets and levels: trees, houses, vehicles, a forest, a spaceship…anything at your reach. This training taught me how much effort is required at every stage of the modeling process.

It might not look evident, but you need to be confident within the 3D world first to be able to get the most out of Houdini proceduralism. Otherwise, I reckon it’s like pretending to drive a new Porsche without a driver’s license.

Assuming you are already confident with 3D procedures already, the best thing to do is simply try to replicate these tasks through Houdini’s toolset. It helps to attend a highly-focused course like the one’s found on Rebelway and also learn from Sidefx’s tutorials. Do as much as you can.

If you keep learning and practicing on a daily basis, if you persist, one day, all of that confusing stuff about nodes, contexts and programming languages in Houdini will make sense…and they will serve your purposes.

I usually think of Houdini as a powerful mighty beast that needs to be tamed to do what I need it to do. The more love you give to it, the harder you try to understand its language, the quicker you’ll get results.

Where can people see more of your work?

You can visit my website to see plenty of procedural techniques and artworks. I specially put a lot of love regarding in-deep breakdowns like the ones shown below, including code snippets and detailed images.

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