Houdini 6.1
Issue: Volume: 27 Issue: 6 (June 2004)

Houdini 6.1

Houdini is the secret weapon of many top effects and animation houses. Perhaps not as well known as other tools, Houdini is one of the most powerful effects and animation packages on the market. It enables artists and technical directors to create complex scenes easily. Houdini 6.1 builds on the strengths of the software tool with a number of nice, incremental improvements.

Houdini runs on Windows or Linux and comes in several flavors. Houdini Master, the complete suite of tools, has all the Houdini features and, at a cost of $17,000, represents a substantial investment. A subset of Houdini Master geared for modeling, rendering, and animation, Houdini Select is modestly priced at $1299. Side Effects Software will soon release Houdini Escape, with tools geared toward character animation, and Houdini Halo, for compositing and 2D image manipulation. Houdini Apprentice is a free version available to anyone interested.

Houdini's Inflate SOP can create realistic musculature by having virtual muscles deform the mesh of a character.

Installation went off without a hitch. The interface is clean and uncluttered. The user can select from a number of preconfigured desktops specialized for tasks such as modeling, animating, and particles. Houdini's speed of operation was impressive, even on my two-year-old workstation; yet, a powerful system is a must.

Houdini works on a much different paradigm than most 3D applications. It was built from the ground up as a flexible, procedurally based package. Most Houdini experts prefer to work with the tool's many procedural operators—surface operators (SOPs), particle operators (POPs), and so on—that can be connected much like a visual programming language to create custom scenes and effects. You can connect anything to anything: An animated character can trigger particle systems as it steps, which in turn cause other effects and animation.

A new on-line help system and the ability to perform most operations in a standard viewport aid new users in overcoming the learning curve.

Houdini has a large array of features, from modeling to non-linear animation to compositing and special effects. It has fully featured NURBS and subdivision surface modeling, incredible particle systems, non-linear animation, high-end texturing, rendering, and compositing. It can do just about everything, eliminating the need for a lot of third-party offerings to fill in the gaps.

Houdini is most popular for its special effects and particles, but it also has one of the better character animation tool kits on the market. Rigging characters in Houdini is exceptionally easy, thanks to its procedural nature and easy rigging tools that assist you in mirroring skeletons and automatically "capturing" a mesh for easy deformation, for example. Animation is also robust, particularly with CHOPs and a robust non-linear editor.

One of the best new character rigging tools is the Inflate SOP, with which you can deform a surface by pushing it with other surfaces. A wire deform tool allows you to use a simple spline to deform a mesh, which is great for facial animation, particularly eyebrows. Animators will appreciate a new pose tool that helps create character poses quickly. Poses can then be combined to create animation using the CHOPs editor.

Another feature that is useful for character animators is asset control. Houdini allows you to create pre-defined assets, such as characters, that can be dragged into a scene complete with their own user interface. You're not limited to character animation; assets can be used to create "canned" effects, for example. Need an explosion? Just drag it into the scene and adjust the parameters as needed.

Those doing complex texture mapping will appreciate the new UV pelt feature. It lets you unwrap a model's UV texturing coordinates using cut lines determined by an edge selection. The selection is then flattened and stretched automatically to create a UV layout ready for texture application.

Houdini also has a number of innovative brush tools for painting attributes on a model, even in 3D. The new UV brush tool lets you modify UV vertices using a brush paradigm. You can drag, dilate/contract, and relax UVs in the texture viewer.

Houdini has found a home in top studios for a reason. One of the most powerful and robust solutions on the market, it can do virtuallly anything demanded of it.

George Maestri is president of Rubberbug, a Los Angeles-based animation studio specializing in character animation.

Side Effects Software www.sidefx.com
Price: $17,000
Minimum System Requirements: Windows XP or Linux OS, 256mb of RAM per processor, display with a minimum of 1024x768 resolution and 15-bit color depth, accelerated OpenGL support, texture memory, a three-button mouse, a CD-ROM drive, and a sound card with a compatible MIDI port or dedicated MIDI hardware interface (required for CHOPs MIDI input and output capabilities).