Issue: Volume: 25 Issue: 7 (July 2002)

Houdini Version 5

By George Maestri

Houdini has been around for a number of years, and has earned wide acclaim from technical directors the world over who use the modeling and animation software to create a broad range of stunning effects. With Version 5, Side Effects Soft ware has given Houdini a major overhaul to simplify the interface and broaden its appeal.

The software comes in two versions. Houdini Select starts at $1,299, and has most of the tools an average artist will need to create excellent animation and effects. For $17,000, Houdini Master includes advanced particle effects, character setup tools, compositing, motion capture, and RenderMan support.

I did have some problems getting Houdini up and running. After a few days of troubleshooting, Side Effects traced the difficulty to my ancient Antex audio card. Turning off the card allowed the program to boot, and replacing it with a Sound Blaster card got everything working well. A minor issue is that, with the standard install, Houdini makes itself the default application for a huge variety of file types, including common image files such as JPG and TGA and geometry files such as DXF and OBJ. Like many people, I like JPGs to open in my browser. It would be nice if Houdini weren't quite so presumptuous in this area.

Houdini operates much like a visual programming language, making it fairly easy for users to create amazingly complex effects. Each operation in the pro cess is represented as an operator, and wiring together different operators allows artists to create robust effects. This paradigm has been influential, and most of the high-end 3D and compositing applications have some form of visual programming.
A new, simplified interface represents the major enhancement in the latest version of Houdini.

In some respects, however, this paradigm has also been Houdini's Achilles' heel. The visual programming metaphor has made it off-putting to some users. Wiring together the various operators in Houdini is very much a left-brain activity, as opposed to the right-brain tasks involved in creating visually appealing content.

In Version 5, Side Effects has resolved this issue with a new and updated interface that enables you to work as before, but also allows you to work entirely in a standard viewport, much as other 3D applications do. As the objects in a scene are built, Houdini automatically wires together the network of operators, giving users the best of both worlds.

Side Effects has also updated Houdini's feature set. Modeling has been improved as well. The software has always supported a wide variety of geometry types, such as NURBS and subdivision surfaces, among others. Now, the polygonal modeling toolkit has been updated significantly with a wealth of options, including new deformation, surfacing, and attribute painting tools. To further assist artists, Houdini 5 allows you to define interactive 'handles' for any of the modeling tools. This allows you to grab the handles at any time to animate shapes by affecting the underlying parameters of the model.

Character setup has also been made much easier, because all setup now happens in the viewport. For skinning characters, the proximity capture option allows those vertices closest to the bone to be skinned. Mirroring is also included, so skinning operations on the right arm can be immediately applied to the left, cutting the workload in half.

On the rendering side, there have been a number of enhancements. The software comes with Mantra, Side Effects' own renderer, which looks great and has a robust shading language called VEX, which can also be used to create custom modeling operators for surface deformations, particle effects, and compositing within Houdini.

Texturing using VEX has been made a lot more interactive. VEX shaders now show up in an OpenGL viewport, and the software allows multiple shaders to be applied as well. Rendering speed has been improved, particularly in the area of particles. The software also supports Render Man compliant renderers through the standard shader interface.

Overall, I think this upgrade is an absolute must-have for anyone currently using Houdini. The package has been streamlined and is much easier to use than ever. This ease of use, plus the wealth of new features, makes Houdini a highly useful package for anyone working in 3D.

George Maestri is a writer and animator living in Los Angeles.

Houdini Version 5
Price: Houdini Master, $17,000. Houdini Select, $1,299.
Minimum System Requirements: Windows NT/2000, Linux, Irix, Solaris; 256MB of RAM; accelerated OpenGL support highly recommended
Side Effects Software
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