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Why do Artists Use Houdini?


What made Houdini what it is today? I thought that might be a good question to answer, especially if we are digging into all the uses of the software over a period of articles. You can find all of them: HERE. Houdini has played a huge part in my life, and I was so excited for my first Houdini job, I got the SideFx logo tattooed on my arm. So, let's give Houdini a spotlight article and go over her history, the development, and why it is so popular as a VFX software.

A *Brief* History of Houdini

Houdini or PRISMS as it was called back in the day, was created in 1987. PRISMS was a software combination of C programs that a company called Omnibus was using at the time. The creators of SideFx; Kim Davidson and Greg Hermanovic then decided to take this software that they had created using these programs, and throw it into the world of computer graphics. PRISMS had a few versions of development before it was called Houdini. This is a full list of them:

  • 1.0 Published 1987:  A new motion editor and modeler added.

  • 1.5 Published 1988:  SOPs are created as well as the light editor.

  • 2.0 Published 1989:  Patches are made for the software. SOPs can now be deformed.

  • 3.0 Published 1990: Mantra is Born! Ray tracing is now available!

  • 4.5 Published 1991: The heart of all simulations...Particles are here!

  • 5.0 Published 1991:  A rendering engine called crystal2 is taken away.

  • 5.1 Published 1991: A  full blown graph system is completed.

  • 5.2 Published 1992: fpaint, which would be equivalent to your current paint SOP is added. As well as some new C++ and User Interface libraries.

  • 5.3 Published Dec 1993: Meta-balls are created! as well as Mojo a 2D morphing tool. Ice an interactive compositing environment was also added.

  • 5.4 Published Jun 1994: Moca a motion control interface is added. As well as tima. Which is time frame sampling.

  • 5.5 Published Jan 1995: L-systems are now implemented.

  • 6.0 Published Jun 1995: Sage is added. This allowed reflections to be created on logos and shapes that were un-natural.

  • 6.1 Published 1996:  Optimizations are made to the software. Houdini version 1.0 is shown off at SIGGRAPH. Houdini also wins  a CGW Innovation Award.

  • 6.3 Published 1997: The interface for RenderMan is created and ready to use! Around this time Digital Domain is using PRISMS.

  • 6.4 Published 1997: Compatibility for the SGI O2 Unix Workstation is created. Around this time, the first sci-fi tech Oscar was awarded to Greg Hermanovic, Kim Davidson, Mark Elendt, Paul Breslin.

  • 7.0 Published 1998:  PRISMS final release before the new Houdini era.

Now that we have a set time line for PRISMS, let's quickly create one for Houdini before we dive a little deeper. Here is the current(as of March 2020) timeline:

  • 1.0  Published 1996: While PRISMS is still being used in productions, Houdini is presented at SIGGRAPH. The price for one Houdini license around this time is $9,500. Nurbs rock your world. 3D and 2D tools Integration. Scripting and expression language are developed.

  • 2.0  Published August 1997: Four view modeller is here. Fast Motion Blur is a thing. Lens flares are also an option. Animated trim curves, a clay tool, and skeletal capturing and deformation tools are added.

  • 2.5  Published 1998: Windows NT support is added. Pops and CHOPs come into existence and stay forever.

  • 3.0  Published 1999: Subdivision surfaces are possible. Higher Order Rational Curve Networks are a thing. 

  • 4.0  Published 2000: Linux support is added. The price for a license around this time is $17,000. Re-sizable panes are now an option. Mantra updates are made. A Linux port is also here for a while.

  • 5.0  Published March 2002: Mental Ray shows up on the scene. View-port modeling is possible.

  • 5.5  Published May 2002: Deep rastering is made, as well as VOPs. New character tools come into the world. The Houdini Community Section on the Sidefx website is added. COP2 COPs are here, as well as 64-Bit Support.

  • 6.0  Published 2003: UV Pelting is here to make your life easier. Overall character workflow improvements are made.

  • 6.5  Published April 2004: Syflex Plugin is added. Overall character workflow improvements are made.

  • 7.0  Published 2004: IRIX support is no longer available. RenderMan support is added. Character tool improvements are made. RSL VOPs are here. The Channel List and Dope Sheet are added.

  • 8.0  Published 2005: Light Linking and Interactive Photo-realistic Rendering is updated. Character workflow improvements are made. The auto rig is here.

  • 9.0  Published 2007: Houdini now has a new user interface. It is also can be used on a Mac operating system. The Fluid Dynamics Solver can now create liquids and pyro effects. Python support is here.

  • 10.0 Published 2009: Pyro FX are available! You can now crumple and tear cloth with more ease. PBR is now in existence. Progressing Interactive Photo-realistic Rendering is also added. Sticky notes are here for those trying times.Shift/Ctrl movement shortcuts make things a lot easier.

  • 11.0 Published July 2010: FLIP Fluids are created. Dynamic fracturing such as Voronoi is available. The Material Shader Builder is here. The view-port now supports OpenGL Effects for volumes, lights, and normals.

  • 12.0 Published March 2012: Bullet RBDs are now available to use. Updates are given to Pyro, Cloth, FLIP, and Hair/Fur systems to make them faster. FLIP viscosity is updated. PBR for volumes is developed. The pyro shader and clustering are added as tools. 

  • 12.1 Published August 2012: Edge grouping is created. Tetra primitives are here. OpenVDB initial integration is developed. Alembic update is added.

  • 12.5 Published March 2013: VDBs are added as a function. Poly-soups now exist. Wrangles are here to save the day! Cloud FX and Ocean FX are here as well. The Re-mesh SOP is developed. Group visualization is available.  FLIP Animated Densities, Viscosity & Timescales are developed more.

  • 13.0 Published October 2013: FEM Solver is added. You now have the ability to pack primitives. Particle systems now exist as DOPs. The Debris Shelf Tool is here! OpenSubdiv is available. 

  • 14.0 Published: January 2015: Crowd solvers are now available. The PBD Grain Solver is also added. New Color Picker is added. Material Style-sheets are a thing. Attributes can now hold arrays. Hair Grooming is available.

  • 15.0 Published October 2015: Poly-bridge is added. As well as a Character Picker Pane and Pose Library Pane. Rag Doll States for crowds are made. The Disney Principled Shader is added. View-port normals are available.

  • 15.5 Published May 2016: Advanced locomotion controls added.  Curvature support for UV Bake. Third Party Rendering Support in Houdini Indie is added. Hair and fur grooming enhancements are made. OpenVDB 3.1 is added. Many Alembic enhancements are made.

  • 16.0 Published February 2017: You can change and customize the shapes of nodes. A new network editor is created. New architecture for procedural terrain generation is a thing. Extensive OpenCL support added. Enhancements to the Animation Editor. A Complete overhaul of hair and fur creation, grooming and rendering is made. (There is much more...)

  • 16.5 Published November 2017: You can now use air incompressibility tools to create realistic movement of air within a fluid simulation. Updates to the Narrow Band fluid sim tools are made. Grooming tools are enhanced. A rounded edge shader is added. A lot of UV enhancements are made. 

  • 17.0 Published October 2018: Vellum is created! The whitewater solver is here so your water looks better. Advanced tools are added to terrain creation. UV workflow tools are expanded. The retime SOP is here. Updates to the Houdini engine are made and character animation tools.

  • 17.5 Published March 2019: A procedural dependency graph is added. TOPs are added. Vellum constraints have more control. Volumes are accelerated by the GPU. The measure SOP is added. Interactive RBD Constraints are also an option.

  • 18.0 Published November 2019: Solaris is created! Upgrades to the FEM system. Sparse Pyro is available. SOP-based tools for configuring Destruction and Pyro FX shots are added. 

Wow. That is a lot of milestones. Now let's talk about the developers. As well as some moments that helped SideFx form it's Houdini community as a whole.

Kim Davidson is the co-founder, current president,and CEO of SideFX software since 1987. If you ever go to a SideFX meetup in Toronto , you can often find him smiling and leaning into the presentations that interns are giving. As well as greeting people at the door to the elevator at VES events. I made the joyous exclamation "Houdini!" when I first and only met him in the front lobby at 123 Front St. I think he replied along the lines of: "Yeah, that's what some people call us." But I'll digress. :) Kim Davidson has worked as a developer since 1982. He graduated from Waterloo University in 1981 with a Bachelors of Math and English. If you listen to a great interview linked below with him. He talks about how back in the day you couldn't buy commercial software. That Omnibus, the company he worked for at the time, would produce most of them. He talks about the experience quite fondly, and I recommend giving it a good listen. He also recalls the moment where Omnibus Computer Graphics closed their doors. Which was months before SideFX would form, and he would re-invent work for himself and his crew. He's worked pretty tirelessly since then to help focus and direct the growth of Houdini. 

Greg Hermanovic is the second co-founder of SideFX Software. He and Kim Davidson were the co-recipients of the the 2015 Canadian Digital Media Pioneer Award. Greg has been quoted with saying that he always wanted to make real-time graphics tools for artists. Before starting SideFX with Kim Davidson, Greg  worked on visualization for UN weather research projects. As well as developing the simulator for the CanadArm and other aeronautic vehicles. After that, he met Kim Davidson at Omnibus Computer Graphics, and became their lead R&D developer. In 2000, Greg stepped down as the CEO of SideFX to pursue and create a company that could create music and sounds with Houdini. Currently, he develops and leads the Touch-designer Software team.

Mark Elendt also deserves a lot of credit. He was the main developer of Mantra. Without Mantra, we probably wouldn't have a lot of the rendering capabilities we now have. When researching for this article, I came across a fun story of how he was hired at SideFx. Looking for a job, Mr Elendt showed up at the office in 1988 in a big poofy woolen sweater. He was straight off the job from working at an insurance firm. He then showed the owners Kim Davidson and Greg Hermanovic pictures of a sphere he had rendered with his own custom ray-tracer. He was hired instantly. Mark Elendt has gone on to win three awards from The Academy for his work with micro-voxels invention and integration. He has also given numerous presentations at SIGGRAPH. 

Andrew Clinton is also an important figure. He's worked closely with Mark Elendt to develop mantra. He's helped in a huge part to develop the way voxels, and volumes are rendered with the software. Anything that involves rendering Micro-polygons, he most likely worked on. He also gone on to win an award from The Academy for his work with Mark Elendt developing rendering technology. 

A lot of Houdini's tools were first developed by SideFx interns and employees. Coen Closters, a Dutch intern developed what came to be known as the pyro tools in the software. Nick Van Zutphen also had the personal joy of wanting to learn more about the program, and ended up developing a new FLIP fluid solver. Interns have always played an important role at SideFx, and always will. 

There are so many others who work tiredly at SideFX to make our lives in VFX easier. I'd love to mention all of them here, be it might be impossible to document all of them at once. But to all of them, let's give them a huge hug.


Sidefx has also received the Academy Award of Merit four different times. Once in 1997, 2002, 2011, and 2018.

Fun fact, If you go to the SideFx site on the Wayback Machine to February 5th, 1997, they are hiring. The description reads:

Side Effects Software is looking for individuals to expand our team. All positions require strong C++ and Unix development skills and experience. A background in 3D graphics development or production is desirable.

If you feel that your qualifications are a match please apply by mail or fax with your resume.

Why Use Houdini for Visual Effects and Development?

When Houdini was first released in 1996, it was marketed as the "first non-linear 3D animation environment". Which basically meant; if you need a different structure to build something in, we've got the tool for you. It was also advertised as such: "Houdini's procedural networks relieve animators from having to remember the construction steps, allowing them to devote more energy towards creative thinking and refinement." Which was 100% true. It's marketing helped grow it's potential to an enormous degree. Which is why a lot of people turned to help them feed more creativity into their work.

Houdini also showed very quickly it could surpass its founding program PRISMS. PRISMS was limited to the hardware limitations at the time. Houdini was able to be adapted from the procedural systems of PRISMS, and as well introducing its own rendering system that would feed off concepts from Render-man. Houdini was able to grow from just a SOP based program like PRISMS, and develop more variations of DOPs and combinations of nodes.

The software is quicker developing effects. You have options of how you'd like to save out variations of work, and geometry. Which is essential for any 3D artist. It's particle systems, fluid, pyro, hair, vellum dynamics are so streamlined to use, that it makes it an easier option to use in R&D.

Overall, it also a really fun software. 

What Does Houdini Do Differently From Other Softwares? 

I'll use Maya for comparison. Simply because it's the most used software in the industry for animation and development. 

Maya's first release was in 1998, and Houdini's in 1996. They were generally released around the same time. But one arguably took off quicker than the other. Why? Many could argue that because Maya was bought out in 2005 by Auto-desk,and  it was marketed more heavily. Whereas Houdini has been property of SideFX from the very beginning, which was a smaller company. But does this make one better than the other?

No. Each software does their job differently , and quicker depending on the task. It really comes down to how the artist uses the software to their advantage, and adjusts to the UI. 

So putting that aside, let's dive into the overall differences.

Maya and Houdini run off of two different scripting languages. Maya runs off of RSL(Render-man Shading Language), and Houdini runs off VEX. Maya is fairly more straightforward to learn than Houdini. Whereas Houdini has multiple different approaches to learning the software. This is very dependent on what you would like to use Houdini for. 

You can also customize Maya more than Houdini. This is because Houdini's workflow is very different from most animation softwares. Because Houdini is built around the idea of proceduralization, the software expects you to keep that idea in mind while working with it. With Maya, the software works with every project being different, and you'll need flexibility to make them completely different. For example, Houdini has flexibility in copying and replicating environmental models, but sculpting a character is a harder task than modeling it in Maya or Zbrush.

Maya is also more built around the concepts of animation, modeling, and texturing. Houdini's is built around visual effects, rigging,  lighting, and compositing.

In conclusion, these are both amazing softwares. No need to start a software war. Enjoy what we have, and keep exploring the options you have as a VFX artist.


Houdini History:

Leaders in Procedural Software since 1987:

history of houdini:

Houdini (software):

A history lesson at SideFX today.:

At SideFX, 'we know that we'll be in every movie up for the visual-effect award at the Oscars':

Difference Between Maya vs Houdini:

What is Houdini & What Does It Do?:

Mojo (Prisms suite) - Side Effects - 2d morphing:

Side Effects Software – 25 years on:

original meeting note:


Houdini 1.0, the next-generation animation technology, is shipping:

Houdini Sales:

Side Effects Software Ports Houdini To Windows NT:

Job Opportunities:

Kim Davidson and Greg Hermanovic:

Greg Hermanovic:

Side Effects CEO steps down to start Houdini Internet company:

Maya workflow/hotkeys in Houdini:

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