VFX Firsts: What was the first film to use Houdini?

The surprising VFX breakthroughs of this Arnold Schwarzenegger film.

Many readers and listeners of befores & afters will know the history of SideFX’s Houdini, how it started out as PRISMS and has become one of the main procedural tools in the industry, used for effects sims, lighting and many other VFX tasks.

In this latest episode of VFX Firsts, RYOT senior Houdini artist Matt Estela and befores & afters editor Ian Failes discuss the first time Houdini was used on a film.

Matt Estela and Ian Failes.

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Show notes

The first film to use Houdini was Jingle All The Way, featuring visual effects by VIFX. The sequence involved Arnold Schwarzenegger as ‘Turbo Man’ flying around a flag pole. You’ve got a CG Arnold, a CG banner — cloth — and CG smoke from the jetpack. See 1.25min in this video:

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So, how did we get there?

SideFX’s CEO Kim Davidson advised us about the early incarnations and development of Houdini, which started out as PRISMS:

PRISMS started at Omnibus as a name for a collection of software programs during mid-80s. So Houdini has its roots in PRISMS which had its roots as Omnibus’ proprietary CG software. Houdini released in 1996 was essentially a rewrite of “Action”, a component of PRISMS, but in C++ code with a ton more bells and whistles to take advantage of faster graphics cards. (i.e. by providing a visual representation of the node network versus what looked like a stack (but was not) in Action.

But, which film was the first to use Houdini? Well, to begin, here’s a bunch of films that had relied on PRISMS:

1986: Flight of the Navigator — VFX by Omnibus LA: a morphing chrome alien space craft
1993: Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice — VFX by Commotion: a microscopic arterial environment
1994: Timecop — VFX by VIFX: a time travel effect
1994: True Lies — VFX by Digital Domain: missile contrails (and other effects).

As you can see, right around now — the mid 90s — SideFX was adapting PRISMS into Houdini. And one of the first studios to adopt a beta version of Houdini was VIFX. It had already been using PRISMS in a big way.

OK, so we’re now around 1995/96, and the film that hits the sweet spot for VIFX, which still used PRISMS but was also where the studio tried out Houdini was, Jingle All The Way, for that flagpole scene.

We started reaching out to some VIFX employees at the time. One of them, Michael LaFave, told us the studio adopted a beta version of Houdini that he thought may have been called Odin at some point. There was also something called Sage. Kim Davidson noted, in relation to Sage:

“Sage stood for Stand Alone Geometry Editor released in June 1995 and was the last of several new programs written in C++ that shipped with PRISMS. Sage made the PRISMS procedural modelling network more visible with interactive connecting of the nodes (SOPs).”

Another artist who worked at VIFX at the time, Ha Roda, worked directly on that sequence. She was a 3D animator / FX artist at VIFX, and a sequence supervisor for Jingle. She told us:

“I was in charge of a sequence of shots. I also helped the R&D and created a pipeline for shots that has the jetpack in action. The jetpack needed flames, smoke, and heat distortion. We lit and tracked 3D elements and then have them comped in to the scene.”

I remember that we were pretty excited with Houdini transitioning from Prism. It has all the new bells and whistles. I think it was our first attempt with fabric and deformation using Houdini. I don’t remember exactly what I did. I think we may used an equation to plug in for the simulated animation of the banner spinning around the pole and preventing the penetration of the banner on itself. We also used texture mapping for the banner. This FX was needed only for one scene.

The flame, smoke, and distortion were needed for multiple sequences so it made sense to generate it procedurally using POPs / SOPs particles and textures. We made it into a procedural pipeline so that those elements are consistent in animation, color, and texture in every scene.

An FX animator then used that pipeline and plug it into their scenes to generate those 3 elements. They then light the scene and track those elements into the scene so when it was rendered and comped, it would fit right in. That was a cool process.”

Ha Roda also mentioned Stu Mintz and her were in charge of the banner FX with Arnold rotating around the pole. So we spoke to Stu Mintz, as well. What he remembers was that, “the transition from PRISMS to Sage (Houdini Beta) and then to Houdini was awesome. There were a lot of node based software packages emerging back then like, Chalice, Shake, Cineon, so that was all really cool.”

Antoine Durr was another important part of the PRISMS/Houdini history at VIFX, and he noted that the studio’s next show after Jingle, Volcano, was a big foray into Houdini.

“We were on the bleeding edge, trying to make lava rolling down the street. I had a very complex setup (at the time) that was consistently making Houdini crash, and kept doing it over and over. I ended up flying out to Toronto for two weeks and worked with the devs directly (there were only 5 or 6 of them), continually jamming my production setup through Houdini, finding the next place it crashed or ran out of memory, they’d fix it and I’d try again, repeat, repeat. In the span of two weeks SESI developed Houdini from version 1.0.2 to version 1.0.8c and I went home with a working setup!

The next show I was on, Alien Resurrection, was not nearly as r&d intense as Volcano, but we definitely used Houdini. However, the following one — Blade — was another major Houdini push-it-to-the-limits-and-beyond show where we wrote custom blobby surfaces code to handle the blood flying around a cylindrical miniature set. That sequence ended up on the cutting room floor, unfortunately. You can catch it on the DVD extras, but it cemented Houdini’s place in our pipeline. And by then Maya came out so now we had two modern tools to work with.”

So, there you have it. Thanks to all the people at SideFX and the former VIFX artists who helped with research for this episode. Of course, if you feel that there was an earlier film with a Houdini sequence in it, please let us know!

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