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Cinema 4D vs Houdini: What Motion Designers Need to Know

By Russ Gautier
Cinema 4DAfter Effects

Confused about the difference between Cinema 4D and Houdini? Both are workhorses for a 3D artists, but which one is best for you?

The Motion Design world is pretty familiar with Cinema 4D and its potential to create great 3D projects incredibly fast. On the other hand, Houdini is often viewed as a mysterious and elusive application, with powers that can only be utilized by technical wizards and Python nerds.
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The stigma of a complex learning curve for Houdini does hold some truth, but I often find that MoGraph artists are a little too fearful of the program, which is sad given how robust the application can be.
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What people typically think of when they envision a Houdini artist.
As a Houdini and Cinema 4D artist, I have learned when and where to use both of these applications on MoGraph projects. Through lots of hard work and training, I’ve developed a context to understand why an artist may choose one over the other.
So if you’ve ever wondered about the difference between these two incredible tools, you’ve come to the right place. Let’s take a look at the differences between these fantastic tools.

Cinema 4D

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What Types of Motion Design Projects are Best for Cinema 4D?

Cinema 4D is a very well-rounded application, particularly for design-focused projects. C4D is really fast to get up and running, allowing users to be productive and efficient on each project. As a result, Cinema 4D is a great choice for designing style frames, projects with quick turnaround times, and render styles that range from very graphic to photo-realistic.
All the Things by Toast

Notable Features Inside Cinema 4D for Motion Designers

Typography Tools The typography features inside of Cinema 4D are incredible for Motion Designers. Very few tools give MoGraph artists the ability to craft and stylize 3D type projects like Cinema 4D.
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The MoGraph Toolset The MoGraph toolset inside Cinema 4D has long been considered one of C4D’s most revered features. The tools allow users to create complex projects very quickly.
There are far too many features in Cinema 4D to list them all here. Depending on your own MoGraph style, you may find yourself gravitating towards certain tools and features. However, it should be noted that if you ever want a more detailed overview of all of the features inside of Cinema 4D, Maxon’s C4D page is a great place to gain more insight.

Examples of Cinema 4D Projects for Motion Design

To show you the power of Cinema 4D for Motion Graphics work, here are a few great MoGraph projects that utilize Cinema 4D.
Maniac - Title Sequence
To create the main titles for Maniac, Madison Kelly and Marcelo Meneses put together this brilliant retro-3D sequence. The project utilized Cinema 4D for the 3D models and After Effects for the 2D animation. This is a very common approach to 3D MoGraph projects. 
Maniac Title Sequence, by Madison Kelly and Marcelo Meneses
All We Have is Now
Joshua Galindo and Tyler Mathis developed this 3D project that is simple, yet captivating. The project features the utilization of many of the MoGraph tools that we mentioned above.
All We Have is Now, by Joshua Galindo and Tyler Mathis
Distraction - FITC 2019 Titles
This project directed by Beeple (probably the most famous C4D artist in the world) is a brilliant example of the possibilities of Cinema 4D in a collaborative project context. It features the "toon-shaded" look often seen in C4D projects.
Distraction, by Beeple
These are just a sample of what can be done with C4D, and there are a plethora of incredible projects out there featuring VFX work, Modeling, Concept Art, Environment Rendering, and more.

Types of MoGraph Jobs for Cinema 4D Artists

When people say they are a 3D MoGraph artist, it’s usually safe to say they use Cinema 4D. C4D is ubiquitous in the Motion Design industry and used by designers and animators alike. An artist with proficient knowledge of Cinema 4D and After Effects could definitely get a job as a 3D artist at a MoGraph studio.
Knowing C4D gives you a creative superpower that will equip you to get into 3D and stand out from the crowd, especially as more and more people are learning (and mastering) After Effects.

How Hard is it to Learn Cinema 4D?

Learning any 3D application takes time. However, compared to most 3D applications out there, Cinema 4D is one of the most intuitive options for those looking to learn 3D for the first time. The community that has developed around the tool is truly incredible and between courses like Cinema 4D Basecamp from EJ Hassenfratz and Maxon’s continuous live-streaming and Cineversity program, there is a seemingly endless supply of Cinema 4D education. 
There are also plenty of other great resources out there for learning Cinema 4D. GreyscaleGorilla has been putting out amazing C4D learning materials for years. Sites like Pluralsight or Lynda have good courses to get you up to speed. Tim Clapham at Helloluxx has been teaching C4D for a long time and has some great training as well. I’ve also had good experiences with fxphd in the past. And then there’s always places like YouTube or Vimeo.
In short, if you’re interested in 3D for Motion Design, Cinema 4D is THE easiest way to learn 3D. It is not that hard to learn, and you’ll never run out of Cinema 4D tutorials and training.

Houdini

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What Types of Motion Design Projects are Best for Houdini?

Where Cinema 4D gets up and running quickly, Houdini often takes time to build the tools and things you need. As a result, it’s not usually the best choice for every project and certainly not for every designer. 
Houdini is in its element when handling repetitive tasks—things that would be time-consuming to do manually. For example, projects with high complexity geometry, simulations, huge particle counts, and tool-building are Houdini’s bread and butter. As an artist, you really have a high degree of control over things that can be rather tough to art direct in other applications. 
Tide, by Panoply

Notable Features Inside Houdini

Simulation Tools
Houdini is very well known for having amazing simulation tools. These can be used to create anything from realistic oceans or fire to really abstract, other-worldly simulations.
However, Houdini fits into a motion design pipeline in many other places...
Geometry Creation & Manipulation
The geometry creation/manipulation tools inside Houdini are truly amazing. Houdini has the ability to handle highly complex scenes and large amounts of data, making it a huge asset on highly-detailed MoGraph projects.
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Check out SideFX's website for more!
Multi-Software Integration
Houdini also plays really nicely with C4D via Alembic files or FBX animations too, so it can be used to alter or enhance work from other artists. Houdini files can be easily shared with other programs.
Again, like Cinema 4D there are simply too many features to mention here. But if you want to learn more about all of the features inside Houdini go check out SideFX’s website to learn more. 

Examples of Great Houdini Projects for Motion Design

Order from Chaos
This project is a great example of using Houdini for MoGraph work. Maxime Causeret shows us how organic and complex Houdini can be while still incorporating the graphic and fun aesthetics often found in the MoGraph space. The project showcases the power and beauty of procedural animation in a unique way.
Order from Chaos by Max Cooper, Directed by Maxime Causeret
2016 AICP Sponsor Reel
This project created by Method Studios is one of the most well-known MoGraph/VFX projects that heavily utilized Houdini to achieve the desired effect. Copycats of this project have been seen all around the MoGraph world ever since.
25th AICP Show Sponsor Reel by Method Studios
Oscillate
Created by Daniel Sierra, Oscillate is a beautiful example of the organic simulations that can be achieved inside Houdini. It should be noted that Daniel used Houdini, Nuke, and After Effects to achieve the look outlined in this video.
Oscillate by Daniel Sierra

Types of MoGraph Jobs for Houdini Artists

Depending on the studio, Houdini is still a bit of a specialized tool in Motion Design. That said, Houdini tends to be used on the more complex, high-end side of the industry as it toes the line between Motion Design and VFX with very robust capabilities.
I’ve used Houdini for everything from doing design frames to final execution of shots, support roles, primary roles, tool building, and TD work. I believe the top tier motion design teams in the future will almost always have a Houdini artist on board because in the right hands it can solve so many problems.

How Hard is it to Learn Houdini?

Houdini is not like any software you’ve ever used. It requires a user to think about problem-solving in a very different way from that found in other 3D applications like Cinema 4D. As such, it can be a challenge for people to get their heads around the logic and complexity of the tool.
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Houdini is an extremely technical program that really requires patience and determination to learn which can be daunting to a lot of people. As a result, Houdini has a famously steep learning curve. But very few things worth learning are easy, right? I think the rewards are worth the effort once you understand the way Houdini works.

What are some of the best places to learn Houdini?

There are lots of places out there to learn the basics of Houdini. The SideFX site has really good video demos of some of the basic functionality and user interface of the program. However, unlike Cinema 4D, Motion Design training for Houdini is a bit sparse. You’ll easily find tons of VFX knowledge out there, but not as much for the motion designer.
Entagma is a really good resource as is Rohan Dalvi, both of which have many free learning resources on Vimeo/YouTube.
There’s a great course through Mograph.com that’s geared specifically to motion designers taught by Mark Fancher from Already Been Chewed. And I have a course that released last year through GSG+ introducing Houdini for C4D users to help people get up to speed. 
My new course from Rebelway will be a dive into the world of FUI (Futuristic User Interface) and Motion Design in Houdini. The course uses real-world data to drive a lot of the design and animation procedurally, which is a lot of fun.
FUI Course Trailer!

Houdini vs Cinema 4D: Differences

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Houdini is built around procedural workflows where C4D is a bit more direct, so the differences are in the fundamental way you approach problems. I like to use a slightly long-winded analogy when describing them together. It goes like this…
Imagine you are working with an amazing builder who can craft anything you want, but they’re in the next room and you can only interact with them by writing down step-by-step instructions for what you want them to make. The better and more clear the instructions, the better the product they give back to you. That’s like working with Houdini. In C4D you are the builder.

Houdini vs Cinema 4D: Similarities

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Fields in C4D are a very familiar workflow in Houdini (albeit in a more round-about way). Also, the Mograph toolset in C4D starts to give the control of a procedural system much like you can build in Houdini and offers some amazing flexibility and speed. Maxon’s continuous improvements inside of Cinema 4D have started to bring C4D and Houdini closer together in terms of functionality.

Houdini Artist Salary vs Cinema 4D Artist Salary

The average salary for Houdini artists and Cinema 4D artists is almost identical, about $69,000 a year. It should be noted that the average staff Motion Designer makes about $62K a year, so clearly there is an extra incentive for a Motion Designer to learn a 3D application.

Why Should I Learn Cinema 4D?

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If you’re interested in 3D for Motion Design, Cinema 4D is the place to start. Most of the Motion Design studios out there are C4D shops and are almost always looking for more people to help out on projects. Cinema 4D is an intuitive application and you have a lot of support if you get stuck on a problem.

Why Should I Learn Houdini?

Houdini asks you to solve problems differently. This can be frustrating at first, but ultimately I find the way Houdini works to be very liberating. It’s a tool that builds tools. It does things no other application can and it’s a great asset to the Motion Designer’s arsenal!
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Houdini vs Cinema 4D: A Quick Conclusion

To summarize, if you are serious about 3D work in Motion Design learn Cinema 4D first. Over time, as you desire to unlock more creative control, work on hybrid VFX/MoGraph projects, or explore deeper 3D possibilities, learn Houdini. Once you begin to master both of these applications, you’ll likely use both tools on a regular basis depending on the project.