Houdini Overview: VFX and 3D Modeling Software

Houdini FX overview of the vfx and 3d modeling software used by major motion pictures companies.

Houdini is a 3D animation software that includes some powerful tools – powerful enough to be used in top-selling animated movies! In this article, we will take a look at some of the features of Houdini, and what sort of big-budget projects it has been used in.

SideFX Company Background



via SideFX

Houdini is produced by SideFX (sometimes written as Side Effects) Software, which is based in Toronto, Canada. The company was started in 1987, with the aim to bring 3D graphics to a wider audience. Their first software was called PRISMS, and was a 3D graphics program based in procedural generation. This software laid the groundwork for Houdini, which released in 1996, being updated regularly ever since.

What is Procedural Generation?


The Houdini Node System, via SideFX

Houdini takes a unique approach to 3D production. Unlike other software, which lets you create something, this package allows you to create a system for creating that thing. With proceduralism, you are able to create a model and then have a system in place for controlling aspects of that model. This is especially useful for a simulation. Rather than having to restart from scratch if you decide to do a simulation differently, Houdini uses nodes that let you edit just one aspect of the simulation. These nodes then let you apply their effect to as many other nodes as you want.

That’s where the “system” comes in. With this node-based architecture, all of your projects function as one machine. This differs from other programs that may just keep a log of changes that you have made, but that history is usually temporarily stored. The history and nodes in Houdini become a part of your workflow, and allow for flexible production.

The Mantra Render Engine


By Paul Corfiled on the SideFX Gallery

For rendering, this software uses a render engine called Mantra. Like most render engines, it can render illumination, shadows, volume, ambient occlusion, subsurface scattering, and more. It even supports depth of field and motion blur.

The recommended setting is physically based rendering/raytracing (PBR) which is perfect for simulating light. This method means that you don’t have to spend extra time worrying about shaders or other workarounds. It’s all right there in one place! Mantra can handle a lot of data.

This is not something you would want to use for a simple render, as a complex scene is where it really shines. You will notice the software is rarely used to render a single model, but excels at things like massive crowds of people, which may require thousands of individual models.

Where Has Houdini Been Used?

A better question is “where has it NOT been used?”. This powerful 3D software has been used in some big-budget films that you have definitely seen. Disney is one of the biggest users, having used Houdini in the animation of Frozen, Moana, Finding Dory, and Zootopia, among others. Spiderman: Homecoming, Game of Thrones, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Power Rangers, and many more have a bit of Houdini in them.

Even some video game studios have used Houdini to make cinematics. The widely popular League of Legends is one such game. World of Tanks, Call of Duty, and Dawn of War III have done the same.

Brands like Kia, Lexus, Nissan, Nike, and Jose Cuervo have produced commercials that utilize Houdini. This shows that the platform works great for so many different mediums and applications!

Of course not 100% of the effects or animations in these projects were done with Houdini. Studios generally use numerous applications that each have a dedicated purpose. This software is particularly useful for clouds, smoke, and fire animations, other dynamics such as fluids and cloth, and lighting. That is why in the highlight reel below, you will notice a lot of fluid or fluid-like effects, as well as an absolute ton of explosions, smoke, and fire. These are things that the program does great, in addition to more traditional 3D modeling and animations. It is capable of rendering extremely complex scenes, which is why it was chosen to create many of these clips.

Why Do 3D Artists Love Houdini?


By Tian Qiu on the SideFX Gallery

One of the most appealing aspects of this VFX software is the fact that there are no plugins to worry about. Other popular software like Maya and 3DS Max require you to write or purchase additional plugins to achieve certain effects. With Houdini, you get the full package. All of the simulations you will ever need to use are included in the core of the program’s functionality. This will save time, money, and a lot of frustration. Instead of seeking out the best plugins and learning them, you can just focus on learning the ins and outs of the program that you bought! This also means that everyone is on the same page. If multiple VFX artists use the software, they will each understand the tools that the others are utilizing.

The Houdini Engine


By LD YUNR5 on the SideFX Gallery

In addition to the main software, you can also purchase the Houdini Engine. This is an extra plugin that can be used with Maya, Cinema 4D, Unity, and Unreal. This lets you use assets from Houdini in any of these other systems, if you need to.

Unity and Unreal are game engines, and generally a designer would want to use those engines to work with models. This plugin allows an asset to be used in these game engines but controlled with Houdini functionality. These plugins were designed to be proof of concept, and SideFX has made it easy for big game studios with a custom engine to build their own plugin using the Engine API.

How Can I Buy Houdini?


The Houdini Product Comparison Page

You can purchase Houdini FX from the SideFX website. The product page offers a variety of packages aimed at different customers.

Houdini Packages

  • Houdini Apprentice, a free version with limited features, intended for learning the program. (FREE)
  • Houdini Indie, aimed at small studios with under $100k in annual revenue. ($269 for 1 year rental / $399 for 2 year rental)
  • Houdini FX for artists is a workstation license that is good forever. ($4495 for perpetual license)
  • Houdini FX for studios is for larger studios that may require multiple licenses. ($6995 for perpetual license / $4995 for annual rental / $1875 for 90 day rental / $1250 for 60 day rental / $625 for 30 day rental)
  • Houdini Education is a full-feature version of the software for use in classrooms and schools. ($75 annual rental)

The Bottom Line: Should I Buy Houdini?

It’s nearly impossible to answer this question. When it comes to 3D modeling and rendering software, a lot of it comes down to personal preference. Maya and 3DS Max are very well-known competitors, so test out free trials before committing to one of these packages.

Houdini excels at complicated simulations that have to work with massive amounts of data. These are going to be huge special effects systems. If you are only looking to create 3D models or more simple simulations, Houdini might not be the right choice for you. If that is what you’re looking for, check out our Blender overview for a free alternative.

Whether you go with Houdini or another package, just remember that the tool is only as strong as its user. Being comfortable with the software is a huge boon, and being able to learn in its interface will make your work so much more efficient. Be sure to let us know your favorite 3D modeling and simulation package in the comments below!

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