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The Houdini Wizard: A Chat with Simon Holmedal
Simon Holmedal shares the insane power of Houdini in a Motion Design workflow.
A lot of Motion Designers have mastered After Effects, some have a good grip on Cinema 4D, but even fewer use Houdini in their day-to-day workflow. Learning Houdini is a challenge and not for the faint of heart. It takes a special kind of 3D wizard to conquer Houdini. If only we knew of such a wizard…
On today’s podcast episode we sit down with Simon Holmedal, a Motion Designer and Director who spent a big chunk of his career at the legendary studio, Man vs Machine. Simon’s work is insane and there’s a good chance that you’ve drooled over his 3D work in the past few years. Simon recently transitioned from MvM to work with some friends at a studio called Panoply.
On the episode Simon shares the power of Houdini and talks a lot about the importance of understanding the principles of design rather than the trends. He even has some strong words about the state of Motion Design on instagram. It’s a fascinating chat with one of the best in the biz.
Simon Holmedal's Work
Here's a small collection of Simon's work over the last few years. The dude is ridiculous...
Apple iMac Pro - Behind the Scenes
Simon Holmedal Transcript
Simon: If you're a motion designer, you are a generalist, and you're gonna have to be able to execute various amount of tasks. So you just need to be as versatile as possible. There's no point in digging a hole and learning Houdini, the first thing you do, and doing a bunch of toils. It's never gonna have the foundation behind it to start thinking for yourself.
Joey: Have you heard of Simon Holmedal? If you haven't, maybe take a second to head over to his website so you can see what kind of absolute madness he's capable of producing. Simon is a motion designer whose work is mostly in the very high-end 3D realm, and he's made a reputation for himself as a 3D wizard who can bend Cinema 4D or Houdini to his will. His work is extremely technical, but it's also incredibly well designed and thought out. He worked for years at the legendary studio, ManvsMachine, and he recently left to join some friends at a studio called Panoply. In this interview, we dig into how the hell Simon is able to produce such visual craziness, and spoiler alert, it involves hard work. But we also discuss what makes work good in the first place.
You know, in the age of Instagram, it's pretty easy to find neat looking stuff on the internet, but how do you make the viewer feel something with your work, right? How do you tie it back to a brand or sell your vision to a client? Well, Simon's got a lot of wisdom to drop on the subject. So if you're into procedural 3D Houdini set ups, or if you're just trying to figure out how to make your 3D work have more impact, listen up.
Simon, it is awesome to have you on this podcast. I'm a big fan of your work and I'm really excited to talk with you, so thank you so much for coming on, man.
Simon: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Joey: Yeah. Let's start with this. I was doing my research on you, and I found out that you went to school initially for graphic design, but you didn't stay very long. You actually left after a year. So I'm wondering if you could talk about that a little bit. How did you end up deciding to study graphic design and then very quickly saying, "That's not what I want to study"?
Simon: That's not really what happened, but you're absolutely right. I did leave after a year from that school. It all started way back with my older brother. He had a motion graphics studio in Stockholm, where I'm from. And this was in the early 2000s, and I got an internship there when I was in secondary school or maybe even before that. They showed me a bit of aftereffects, and a little bit of simple 3D, and I'd never touched anything like this before. I'd done some music production, but that's all I had been doing up to that point. And I realized that it was really cool, but I also realized that I was terrible, and I couldn't make anything visual ever. I didn't myself as a [inaudible 00:03:25] person. So after school, I took a year to figure out what I wanted to do, so I started working at a grocery store because I didn't know what I was going to do, so I decided to do something that I didn't want to do to encourage me to figure it out. And that worked.
So after about six months, I started getting the itchiness to come do something. I started getting depressed. I was like, "Fuck, I need to do something with my life." So I started studying in an evening course, because obviously I remembered motion graphics things that my brother had shown me and everything. I started an evening course in motion graphics. This was the only one I could find in Sweden at the time, and it was at this school. A school called [inaudible 00:04:14], and it was really great. We met once per week and presented our tasks. We got briefed every occasion and then we worked on it for a week and then presented it, got feedback and did that for six months or so, which was a really good format to learn motion, I think. Short meetings, and we were four students and two teachers, so it was brilliant.
After that, I was hooked. I had decided I'm gonna do this full time. I want to study more and learn everything I can about this. This was back in 2007, 2008. Around that time. And I applied for their full-time, two-year program at that school. Again, it's the only one in Sweden at the time that had any motion graphics program. And I got in. I actually quit my job a little bit earlier than I had to, so I could make sure that I had the best portfolio that I could to apply, and that worked out. I got in, but then unfortunately there was only three people who had applied for it. I was like, "Fuck me. So this is not happening." So basically, that's the reason why I ended up studying graphic design over motion graphics. I figured, it's still useful because a lot of the fundamentals of design and composition type of work and all of this stuff. It's very useful in motion as well. I decided to go there because there was no other option, and I had already decided that I wanted to do this kind of you know.
So that's what happened, and then after a year, I felt like this was a private school, and it was expensive to go to, and I felt like the students in the second year, two classes above us, hadn't really evolved much beyond our class. And I felt like, "Okay, this is pointless. I'm just wasting time here." And at the same time, I heard that Hyper Island was opening up a motion graphics program in another city of Sweden. It was a no brainer for me. I just left because I felt like I got what I needed there, and it was time to move on. So I moved to another city even before I had got accepted to this school. I signed in a contract for an apartment in that city and again, just all or nothing.
Joey: That's good, you know. Burn your bridges and that way you have to move forward. That's really cool.
Simon: Exactly. Not only that, I had an internship at where I was studying graphic design because I obviously I was doing everything I could to convert as many people in my class to motion. I had workshops with everyone, teaching them aftereffects and stuff, and I managed to convert like six people to convince the school to start a motion class mid-term, which wouldn't happen. And it didn't. Yeah, I did everything I could and then I went an internship during that [inaudible 00:07:37] was during a house right there on Worcester [inaudible 00:07:39] a production company in Stockholm. And I got a bunch of opportunities there to do to work with motion a bit more, but obviously I didn't know enough, so they asked me if I could do this film, this little video, like a 3D motion graphics thing. And I was like, "Dude, I would love to do it, but I have no clue how to operate Cinema 4D or anything." So I was pissed off at myself mostly for not knowing, so once I came to Hyper Island, it was like, "Okay I'm checking out for a year from my actual life. I'm just gonna learn everything I can."
Joey: So Hyper Island, from what I understand, it's not a traditional school. Don't they have an interesting format? Can you talk about what it's like to go there?
Simon: Mm-hmm (affirmative). No, it's true, they don't have any teachers. The whole school is very focused on talking about feelings and group dynamics. It's really bizarre when you first get there. It's cult-like. It's kind of interesting. So the first week, you have this... I don't remember what it's called... but we had a week where we were sitting in a room with strangers, essentially, because we didn't know each other. And we were just talking about traumatic events in our lives and shit and everyone was crying and it was very interesting. Yeah it was weird.
Joey: That is really weird. Alright.
Simon: Yeah, it was strange, but...
Joey: You basically joined a cult. But it's interesting. I taught for one year at the Ringling College of Art and Design, which is an arts school in Florida where I live. And that first year, it's like, for students, from the faculty's point of view were on trying to prepare them for our career, but sometimes it's easy to forget that they're kids, you know? So young and so I think there is kind of a little bit of that. It is helpful to vent and release some of that childhood tension so you can move on. It's interesting the way you described it, though.
Simon: It's true. I actually did a toss at the art school as well. Yeah in Florida, but remotely over Skype. I did a lecture with them.
Joey: Oh, that's funny!
Simon: That was years ago, though, but yeah. Hyper Island is interesting. The main difference I would say is that it's, as I said, there's no teachers. Its' all based in this module. You get a briefing from someone in the industry, and you can work in a small group, and you're operating a small business essentially within the school on that brief, and then you're presenting to them and changing. But as you say, we weren't ready for that, really. A lot of people in my class didn't know why they were even there or what motion graphics was when they joined. Very small group of people that really wanted to do this, that were there for that and had been waiting for this. And as I said, we were the first class. There's been many many classes after, so there was a lot of things that we had to teach the school about what motion graphics was and stuff like that.
Joey: So how did you learn the stuff that you do day to day now? I've looked at a bunch of talks you've given and things like that. You've become very proficient at a lot of different things. Cinema 4D, Houdini, even the inner section of code and 3D animation and rendering and visual effects. Did any of that come from your schooling, or was that all self-taught?
Simon: Like most things, it's kind of self-taught primarily. As I said, Hyper Island didn't actually teach anything. There was no teacher coming in and showing us how the tools work or anything. Everyone there used Cinema 4D so that's what I started with, and I think I didn't even want to get into 3D to be honest when I started studying. This was back in the time when you could still get away with not doing 3D and still being a motion designer, which is not the case anymore, as you might know. No, I mean, it's just a curiosity. I think, for me, I really remembered that internship I had where I really wanted to be able to say, "Yes, I can do this film, or whatever, for you guys." But I couldn't say yes because I didn't know the tools. So, with that in mind, I spent that year just learning everything that I wish I would have known when I went on that first internship. So that was kind of my driving force for pushing through and learning stuff. And I had focused the first year in graphic design, it was more like theoretical and a little bit less technical, so the second year when I came to Hyper, I was like, "Fuck it. I'm just gonna go all in and learn this stuff."
I found myself in the beginning, at least, more interested in the actual tools and the software and how you can break it and connect things together and drives and create procedural level workflows and stuff and send them off. And that was something that I really enjoyed, and it designing and actually making stuff was less interesting to me at the time, but I also knew that that was the end goal, to create something beautiful. So because of that, I just had to do a bit of everything and I promised myself that I would always be able, whatever path I choose in my career, I will make sure that I will be able to do every part of the process because I just wanted to do person projects and stuff like that. And then [inaudible 00:13:37]
Joey: It sounds like you sort of realized at that point that you were kinda cut out to be, I guess you may even have had this title, but a technical director. You know, someone who can figure out the hard thing. When someone has a crazy idea, you can open up Cinema 4D or now Houdini and create these crazy rigs and procedural set-ups to do it. So, did that help you get your foot in the door at ManvsMachine after you graduated?
Simon: So, it's sort of like that. It's interesting what the motion designer is. If I think of a technical director, it is a role I had, it might be, by the way. But that's, to me, a technical director is something different. I don't really know what that means because if you're a motion designer, you have to be a generalist, essentially. But it is true. One of the main things I think where I got the job at Munbe was because they were using Maya at the time, and Maya is a really hard tool to use. And I could do a lot with the mograph module and they were like, "Oh, shit. I don't know what to to do with this." It looked like I was better than I was. I actually got my job there and I only been there for like three months, but as I said, fucking intense. When I was at school, I didn't do anything else. It was night and day, having dinner, watching tutorials, learning stuff every minute of this. And that was kind of my life when I was studying.
Joey: That's a really good. That's a good commercial for Cinema 4D that it does make you look better than you are initially because it is so easy to make really crazy setups that kind of react and have dynamics and stuff like that. So that's cool
Simon: It was true at the time, at least. It's probably still true, but it's fairly easy to pick up and has a lot of high-level tools like you say. That makes you look good.
Joey: Yeah, exactly. So talk about, what was it like when you got to ManvsMachine? Because that is a very high-level shot doing some serious work for big brands and stuff like that, and that was your first real job, right? What was that transition like for you?
Simon: I mean, this was also... they weren't that big then either. They had only been around for like two years when I joined. But it was one of my favorite studios at the time. I remember they had done this rebrand for SyFy, which is a TV channel. And that was something that really stood out to me and was quite slick. It was a great experience. I feel like because I worked so hard, I'm such a workaholic and I always have been. And whenever I decide to do something, I'm just gonna go all in and outwork everyone that I know. So because I did that, whenever I pictured something in my head, this is how I want stuff to be, it kind of ended up being that way. So exactly the way I imagined the studio life to be was what Manv was. It's changed a lot over the years, obviously, it was very small. We were only four or five people there at the time. But yeah, overall it was a good experience. It was very stressful coming in there only having three months of experience in 3D and comparing yourself to people that worked in the industry for ten years and whatever. It was very inspiring and very stressful because I'm such a workaholic, so that was a lot of pressure.
Joey: Well you said earlier, when I said that you sounded like a technical director, you basically said, "Well, when I think of a technical director, I think of something else. That's not how I consider myself." And I think that's a good point because at companies, it's kind of just one of the things you do to try and put titles on people. But I think for a motion designer, it's actually a lot harder to do that. Especially someone like you, because you can direct and entire piece and design and animate it and execute it. And a technical director is really, I think, traditionally a problem solver. But I'm wondering if at a studio like ManvsMachine, you've got multiple artists. Do artists tend to fall under certain roles? Like, "Oh, Simon's the guy you go to if you have some crazy technical thing because he's really good at figuring that out. And this guy over here, he's really good at making beautiful lighting set ups. And then this artist over here, she's really amazing at whatever, modeling or texturing." Do people naturally separate that way?
Simon: Oh yeah. I think that's obvious. People, you're gonna have to play to our strengths, obviously. It's good to have a little bit of a niche, I'll say. And I guess that's true. That's what happened, but as I said, I like to think of myself and most motion designers as generalists because technical directors to me, as you say, problem solvers that work in big v effects houses and all they do is figure out pipelines and various things. And that's not at all what I've been doing. I've been designing an directing stuff as well. It's like you say, but we definitely had people with various skills like, as you said, we had a guy who was really good at lighting so he ended up doing a lot of that, but everyone could essentially finish a shot. And a lot of the work we did in the early days of Manv was items for various TV channels and a lot of times, we needed to make 8 to 10 different items like little bumpers and what not, and they all had their own concepts and designs and animations and we ended up splitting it amongst ourselves and designing them individually. So we all can direct our own little pieces, which was really cool because that was a good learning thing to do.
Joey: I think that's a good segue because I went to talk about the concepts for a lot of the work that you have on your site and that ManvsMachine has done over the years. And I remember those SyFy idents. They were very weird and quirky and alien-feeling and very cool. Most of my experience as a motion designer was doing more literal stuff. We need an explainer video that explains how this thing works, and it's a little bit easier to come up with an idea and a visual metaphor, but when SyFy comes, I'm assuming they don't come to you and say, "Alright, Simon, what we want is we want our logo to explode in a fractal pattern with purple shiny flickering amoebas and then we want them to..." they're not coming up with that. But you are, and then you're executing it, and I'm just curious. How do you sell that to a client and say, "You know what? I had this crazy idea and you just gotta trust me."
Simon: Well, in this case, the SyFy stuff was an entire rebrand of the channel, so it had gone through a pitch process, and obviously one pitch with our... We established the rules and framework that we could operate in, and then we have this OSP, which stands for Onscreen Display, or Onscreen Presentation, where all the little short bumpers and stuff for the TV channel that would show what's on next and all this stuff. That follows a certain framework and then you have the ident that needs to separate itself and kind of encapsulate and it needs to be different enough to be different, but it needs to be able to live within that realm. So because we have that very rigid and controlled and designed framework from the OSP stuff, the client gets a little more relaxed about branching out. And as long as you can conceptualize it and make sure that it fits within the bigger picture, there's no problem going weird. Obviously it's a sci-fi channel so it helps because it's already weird by nature. It's kind of science fiction. [crosstalk 00:22:21] I can kind of explode in a weird way and then collapse into the logo and sit within the brand space which was this white wedding kind of daylight hitting the logo. That was kind of the identity. Its fair again, because it's branded. I think it's the difference from you mentioned explainer videos. I mean, that to me is kind of more of a production ... I guess it's not so much of a design job at that point. Yeah, you're designing how the animation happens, But you're not designing the concept you kind of already have that. And it's just figuring out the style and the visual for the voice more. Correct me if I'm wrong I've never done those type of films.
Joey: Well, good for you. And may you never have to Simon. Well, you brought up a really good point that I want to call out. When you look at ... And honestly, this is kind of points to a difference between the really abstract crazy work that exists on your real and on Man vs machines. And now on I'm assuming your new company which we'll talk about in a minute. When you look at this kind of stuff, it feels right. But when you look at someone's Instagram feed with just a bunch of experiments, there's less meat to it. And I think it's because you know what may look like a random Houdini experiment actually ties back to a concept and a set of rules and you've explained it to the client so that it makes sense.
I'm assuming in that case that you pitched it to them as this logo is an organism, or it's a living thing, or something like that. So that then cool. Well, what are living things have? Well, they're filled with fluids and they duplicate and they expand and things like that. And now it makes sense to do this crazy shit, right?
Simon: Yeah, exactly. You have to be able to explain everything about your designs. And it's all motivated by a problem that you're trying to solve. And I agree with you Instagram is a place of madness right now. Where people are just dropping pointless stuff and I'm guilty of that too, to a certain degree. I'm really bad. I post stuff every now and then. But now I haven't really posted since January. I'm really terrible at that. But I agree it has to have ... I mean, I think of myself as a problem solver. And I think that's what I don't understand how you could get paid to just make random stuff without any purpose. That doesn't really make sense.
You have to think ... I think of it as a graphic designer solves graphical identities and I'm just doing the same but in motion to sell a product, or a brand. Whatever it might be. So, a lot of the films we did at [inaudible 00:25:30] was obviously night films and stuff like that where the type of tasks that we had to show was like, Okay, this shoe has this new kind of soul or like upper technology that is really good for breathe ability or strength or whatever. And then we have to visualize stuff that are abstract that can represent that in a meaningful way and relate to the attitude of the shoe and the branding around it. Yeah, I don't know. That makes sense, right?
Joey: Yeah. When you would ... Let's use that as an example. If you know the concept was this shoe has a new material on it that lets the shoe breathe, and in your head you may be thinking, "Okay. Well breathe." What imagery does that bring into my head? And you imagine some abstract craziness. What's the next step? How do you get the client on board with the design and actually what it's going to look like?
Simon: Well, it's like anything. It's an intuitive process like usually when we had a one stilled case I guess. But whenever we have a briefing we looked at the problems and we take we think about it and like I say, we create visual metaphors and stuff that we think are relevant either abstract ones or more literal ones. It doesn't really matter it's just depends on whatever inspires you. And I think a combination of them can be helpful because it is somewhat scary in a way to present something that is very abstract.
So it's good to kind of show it together with other routes that are covered in more literal stuff and then you can weave it into the concept. So we will go away and take a couple of days of exploring different ideas and do style of friends and then present them. And it's like anything like most of the most of the tests and stuff they never see the light of day. It's only have a handful of them that makes it through. But then you save those tests for another day and you can present that in another project later on and change it a bit or just put it on Instagram.
Joey: I was gonna say that it seems that's the real purpose of something like Instagram, which I think that some artists don't really realize that it's a great place to put up your experiments in your R&D. But then there's not .... Those things aren't satisfying because there's not really much of a point to a lot of it. I mean you can't say that about everything but you know when you watch something that has meaning behind it even if it's really abstract it feels different. And I think, yeah.
Simon: Otherwise, it's just eye candy. And eye candy can be good, but it's so saturated at this level now. They used to be almost nothing of this before Instagram but now you just see it all the time is just so tiring. So please stop doing it people. [crosstalk 00:28:35] rewind it then you post it. [crosstalk 00:28:39] it's his fault.
Joey: Yeah, lets blame him. Let's talk about your new venture. I actually didn't know this until we were talking right before the interview started that you are no longer at man versus machine. And I'm wonder if you can talk about that a little bit. What made you decide that it was time to move on and what are you doing now?
Simon: Yeah, so I mean, first of all, I'd been at man v for a very long time. So it was kind of time for me to move on. I felt like, I had done what I could do there. And, I was almost on autopilot at this point. It wasn't challenging anymore. I had to find a new challenge to expose myself to other things, kind of, force myself into uncomfortable situations again and I wasn't sure what I was going to do, but I did in my notice last year in the end of last year. And I did this project that I ... As a title sequence that I did for us by night, which is an event in Antwerp. I took a month off and just did and then kind of like, try to feel about what I was thinking about kind of going freelance and just figuring out my next move.
But then I also considered if I should start a studio, and I was talking to a couple of friends about potentially doing that, and then one of my buddies who started to do this three years ago, together with another one of my friends who are old freelancers from Man V. Mark and Reno. They have been running their studio Panoply for three years. And Randall was starting to feel like he wanted to start doing more illustration and stop doing motion graphics. Basically I joined in his place and joined up with [inaudible 00:30:42] who is the other guy who started it. And then there's a couple of other people that have been working there over the years.
But yeah, it's basically just a small design studio here in London. Very similar to the early days of Man V which is just kinda what I wanted to recreate. Because as a company grows the politics of stuff changes and becomes a little bit more corporate and you're less involved with the creative and you become more of that guy that solves a problem. And that's why I felt I couldn't stay there any longer. I needed a change. So yeah, it was just a natural progression and I felt like I really believed that in order for me to start a studio I needed someone that ... Started with someone that had the polar opposite of me. That had like the kind of business side of things because I'm not the best at that side [inaudible 00:31:41]. I'm a little bit messy and stuff like that. So, Mark [inaudible 00:31:49] the perfect partner for me to join with. He offered it and I just decided to do it basically.
Joey: Well, that's great. I want to talk about something you said about .... You said you wanted to recreate the early days at Man versus Machine because it was a smaller company. And I want to dig into that a little bit. What was it about the small company feel that you liked so much? Were you just able to have your hands in more parts of the process? Do you have to specialize as a company grows? And that's kind of not as satisfying?
Simon: It's basically that. I mean, it was just a more creative environment in my opinion like, because when you grow you need to put in more structure into the workflow, into the pipeline. And it becomes a little bit more like a factory. Not really, but you know, that's a bit harsh to call Man V factory. It's not true, it's still a great place to be. I definitely wouldn't say it's a bad place to be, but I could definitely see how it changed over time and there was a lot of people leaving Man V during last year. That didn't help either because a lot of my friends left and it just felt like a good time to move on. And I always thought that when I started school and stuff and then when I pictured how I want my work to be in the studio environment that I wanted to work in, the way I imagined it was like a very open environment where everyone can chip in with ideas and there's no heir achy or anything and very flat structure where everyone's voice matter.
And that's the way you can get the most other people because people feel invested in their work. And it's not like they're just trying to come up with someone else's idea or try to force something that doesn't come natural. It's more of a team effort which is harder to do when you're big and that's what I wanted to capture with Panoply. And I also liked the idea of being an underdog. So, you have somewhere to climb to instead of being on the top and just doing another film after another, after another. It becomes repetitive and boring when you don't have anywhere to go you know after that. If that makes sense. Obviously still to do and pursue. But I don't know. The underdog thing is really interesting to me and like this kind of SEAL Team mentality where you like really small but you're still competing with a bigger studios. That's something I've always been interested in.
Joey: Well that's kind of the new model. Is to be small and have low overhead. But of course if you have the kind of experience and the kind of technical chops and creative chops that you have, and I'm assuming your partners have, you still can compete with bigger shops and let me ask about that. The work that you're doing in the work you've done for most of your career. I mean, it's very, very technical. I've worked with a lot of motion designers and a lot of 3D artists and there's not like this gigantic number of 3D artists out there that actually have the chops to do what you're doing. It seems it's kind of ... I don't know it takes a lot of dedication to get your Houdini chops to that level. Is it difficult for you to find people to work with? Was it difficult for Man Versus Machine to hire 3D artists at that level?
Simon: Absolutely, I mean, it's always hard and I found that really annoying. And so that was another reason why I felt like I wanted to leave. A lot of the people in this ... I mean, they're great people at their own skill level. There was no one really that I could communicate with and talk about my systems and whatnot. And it is a tricky because I know how much time I put in like, I'm pretty sure I'm out working most people. I feel like I'm always the last one leaving the office building. Its always dark in all the corridors and shit.
Simon: But it's one of those things. It's tricky but it's not about the technical ... I do and kind of have a curiosity towards those sort of areas. But someone who's very un technical and really good at animating can be way more efficient in some levels. So it's about finding people that can compliment you rather than people that are like a copy of you. That's what I find most interesting.
Joey: I like that, I like that. And so what are some of the mistakes that you've seen a new hire or someone who's trying to get into this world of motion design of this sort of high end 3D. What are some of the things that you feel they don't understand or that they're not getting initially?
Simon: I think the most important thing you should question were asked yourself if you're first starting out is like, just making sure that you're learning the stuff that you're going to be using on a day to day basis first, covered up so you have a really good foundation, and then build upon it based on whatever you're interested in. But it's important to know that if your emotion designer, you are generalists, and you're going to have to be able to execute a various amount of tasks. So you just need to be as versatile as possible. There's no point in digging a hole and learning Houdini.
The first thing you do and like, doing a bunch of tutorials, and then just ... Because you're never going to have the foundation behind it, to kind of start thinking for yourself. Because I see a lot of people now applying for work at Panoply [inaudible 00:37:43] whatever, that are literally just making tutorials and just repackaging them as their own work. And I have no respect for that whatsoever. I mean, that's a big no no.
So, what you should be doing is how the curiosity ... Be honest with yourself like what do you actually enjoy? What do you find yourself doing more? What do you actually do and just drill it. Does make that you put your mark on that and make that your thing. Yeah. All right, double down on it. I don't know, it's hard to say, but being versatile is super key because if someone is ... Houdini guy is applying for work and they have never done an entire piece, or a personal prioritized beyond an RD like, VFX effects explosion or something. There's no point you're not going to get a job. Not in the motion ... But you'd be surprised how much of those type of people that applied though, because Houdini is only recently become kind of accepted as a motion graphics tool in a way.
Joey: That was some really good advice Simon. And that's the same advice that I give our students is, learning a new tool or a new trick, It's nice and it's kind of like candy for motion designers. But if you can get a little bit better at lighting, or at just basic design and typography. That's going to serve you lot better than learning Houdini.
Simon: Absolutely. But also the reason why I learned Houdini was because I ... And that was after half a year or a year where I've been considering doing it but couldn't convince myself to do it because it was a big commitment in time. You should only learn something like that when you feel like the current tool you're using isn't good enough for what you need to do, or you spend more time fighting the tool than actually executing what you want to execute, which is the point.
When I was using a cinema, I spent weeks and weeks trying to solve technical issues and work around the program, and I had to do a bunch of programming and stuff to kind of get around things. And it was really inefficient because the tool wasn't meant to do those things. So if I would have just spent those weeks learning the basics of Houdini, I could have dropped down like two nodes and done the same thing. And you have no idea how annoying it is for me to look back in my old cinema files now. Because I'm like, "Why did I waste all this time? It's so dumb."
Joey: Yeah. Well, I'm curious about Houdini and I know a lot of our listeners like say in their heads, "I want to learn Houdini," and I think that's because they see the kind of work that you're doing and other really good Houdini artists out there. You know, Albert Omoss guys like that. What specifically are the things Houdini does that cinema 4D couldn't do for you? Because I personally I've never gotten to the point with cinema where it couldn't do something that I needed, but I never did the type of work you do. What are the things that you need Houdini for that it's a good enough reason to put in the time to learn it?
Simon: I mean there's a lot of reasons but I think ... Good for you first of all that you haven't ha that problem. And I think a lot of it comes down to the fact that cinema 4D is built with the real world in mind. As in like you're meant to kind of design a little character, you put little joints in it, it is a defined path that you're supposed to take in order to create the real world. What else I was always interested in was the abstracts exploring, you know this kind of coming up with my own particle system. So whatever it might be, or like my own rule sets that then generate a visual from that. And what I found with cinema is that it's a really, really, really good tool if you want to visualize something quickly and you want to kind of just hack something together, but all the different components of how it's built up does not communicate together.
So yeah, not having to do a lot of manual labor because you can't drive one parameter with another. There's certain things you can drive in Expressor, but you'd be surprised like just being able to read out the position of some points on a mesh as it's being deformed by [inaudible 00:42:19], you have to copy the entire setup, you have to put it in a connector, you have to link it with a ... what's it called that. Either with express or with like ... [inaudible 00:42:31] tool and then you need to plug in another Express Network Derrida and there's a lot of overhead that slows down the system when you do that, because you're essentially tripling up your geometry just to be able to read out the point information, whereas in Houdini, you have something animating. All the information is there. You just store any information on points or primitives, as in polygons, or objects and use it for whatever you can think of.
And that's the kind of power that I needed for the type of work I was doing. I found myself abusing various little ... You know the x-ray checkbox on the objects in cinema? I used that to store information about my objects. Like if this x-ray checkbox is on, that means that this event has happened to this object and then connected ... As I started hacking it [inaudible 00:43:23] the way you should do it and it was really inefficient
But the moment came when I did ... we were doing a kind of medical kind of company film about some cell division or whatever. And we were doing this thing, which was quite based on subdividing geometry in a smooth matter, which I just figured out how to do that, because you can subdivide something, but it's like ... It's a fast move, it happens from one frame to next because you're just like changing the [inaudible 00:43:59] level.
Simon: I don't know if that makes sense.
So, I was trying to figure out a way to kind of do a smooth transition from a low-res to a hi-res mesh in the seamless animation. That was my task, so that was something I had clipped on my table like this is what I want to figure out. And I managed to build something in Cinema, but it was just crazy. It was like so many expressor set ups, and I was running like ... It was just stupid. You feel like a jackass working like that when you look at the scene while you work.
This is not how you should be using this software, and I had a friend, Mark, who is actually the guy who got me into Houdini; he's the guy who is my partner at Panoply. He's the guy who got me into Houdini. He had started learning it six months or a year before me, and I sat down with him and showed him what I had built in Cinema, and we kind of went step by step in Houdini trying to figure out how you would do the same thing in there. And I just saw how much cleaner that work flow was. And every time I wanted to apply it to a new mesh in Cinema it would take me 20 minutes of manual labor linking up stuff, dropping stuff into link fields, and whatnot whereas in Houdini it was just like it takes one second. And I was like 'Pf ft,' I was convinced at that moment like fuck this, I'm leaving this behind basically. It was just a no brainer at that point.
But I needed that moment because before that I was intrigued by Houdini, but every time it was like 'I know how to do this in Cinema.' Cause I was really good at hacking it, and making it do stuff it shouldn't do as I spent the first five years just trying to break Cinema. Anyway.
Joey: So, we've actually had an interview with a Houdini artist on this podcast, and he works for Disney and he worked on like ... He's like an effects animator for Disney doing stuff on Frozen, and Wreck it Ralph, and stuff like that, and he said that 'The toughest thing about learning Houdini was actually not the Houdini part, because you learn how it works and you learn what the tools do and this and that. But then a lot of it ...' It seems to me a lot of the stuff you do is driven by some code, and math and stuff like that, and I'm curious how you learned that part of it. Like if you want some interesting algorithm to drive a particle simulation, how did you learn to actually do that part, and not just know what button in Houdini to link it to?
Simon: Yeah. I mean, again, it comes from curiosity and I was really bad at math in school. I never really understood why it was important I was like, and I'm sure a lot of people can recognize this, 'Why do I have to know this linear? I'll go brush it.' Because I would never imagine myself like needing that when I go to the store and buying apples, or whatever in real life. So, I couldn't really justify or pay attention to it when I was growing up, but then over time I realized 'Oh, this is what this is useful for.' And it's always this little one thing. You start with one thing, like how can I get that points information? Cause I had the idea I want this ...
Like I said, I wanted to animate this subdivision patterns, so I was like 'Okay. In order for this to happen I know where I'm starting. I'm starting with one triangle, polygon, or whatever, and I know I end up with this pattern. Now how can I figure out where those corner points, or the new points will have to end up?' And I decided 'Okay. I have three points in this triangle so let's kind of try to reshape their position.' How do we do this? We add all of their positions together and divide it by three, or whatever.
You start figuring out one thing at a time, and I just Googled it. How do I do this? I went onto like math YouTube channels, and looked at stuff, and I wasn't interested in the math. I'm never interested the actual how coding or anything. I'm not interested. I'm just interested in what it can do for you, and I kind of see something in my head, and I know there's something there if I just figure out this one little problem, this stance in my way, and you just do that over, and over, and over.
That's kind of how the work kind of comes about, if that makes sense.
Joey: Yeah. Yeah. It does, and I think that there's probably just no easy way to become a Houdini expert. It's probably very painful, right?
Simon: Oh, it's not painful if you enjoy it, and I agree with what you said as well. It's not hard to learn it, you just need to ... It's just hard to justify the commitment to learn it, and putting away the time, because you're going to have ... Like when I started learning it I went up like six in the morning, or five in the morning just before work to just learn stuff outside of work. So, I had cut, like I said much like I did when I studied in school, I'm just going to take a couple of months now when I have no life, and just break the ice. Make sure I can replace my old tools with Houdini. Like all the stuff I needed to do on a daily basis let's get that out of the way first, and then I can build upon that during work hours later. But that commitment is something you kind of have to take onto yourself if you're serious about it, cause otherwise you're going to just ... It's going to take years for you to convert if that's something you're interested in doing.
Joey: Yeah. It definitely takes the discipline to do that.
So, let's talk a little bit about the sort of non technical side of this-
Joey: You're looking at you're work even though there's a lot of crazy abstract, technical visuals going on there's always ... It always feels like there's sort of a specific mood, I guess would be the right word. Like the Scifi stuff being a good example where even though it was very abstract, the way it was lit, the way the camera was ... where the camera was put; things like that it kind of had this sense of wonder to it. Some of the stuff you do, actually a lot of the stuff you do, is pretty dark, and it's kind of hi contrast, and lit kind of that way.
So, I'm curious when you're ... Cause we talked about earlier that doing all of this technical animation it looks very pretty sometimes, but it's kind of pointless unless you actually have a concept to tie it back to. How do you sort of balance those two things, where you've got this crazy technical execution but it also needs to feel like Nike, and it needs to feel like aggressive and energetic? What are the creative tools, and maybe like cinematography tools, and other things that you use to tell the stories you want to tell?
Simon: Well, in terms of actual tools I do everything directly in Houdini nowadays. That's probably not what you're referring to.
I think it's just awareness, an analytical eye, to just always analyze whatever you're doing, and making sure that you're doing the thing that is important. Cause it all comes down to, yeah, you can make this super complex intricate systems, but it needs to be a contrast in detail as well as saturation, lightness; all of these other things that you mentioned. I usually try to make sure that I have a large portion of the visual being quite calm and simple so that you can contrast it against something else. Like having shapes on the screen that can be recognizable either with lighting, or just in the actual design of the objects. That can be read on different levels where if something looks good from far, we have a nice silhouette, and you can get to mid-shot and still have some other shapes that you can read, and then also at the same time read the fine detail where that balance between the levels in detail are in a good harmony.
That's kind of the key to kind of make it feel designed and not just like 'Oh, you just cloned a bunch of little pieces of shit over circles, and it just looks detailed.' I mean, like it's all designed. That's what it comes to down to. The fact that it's a technical execution is kind of irrelevant. It could be anything like even ... So, I don't really think of it way, and I don't really think of it as technical. It's just like 'Oh, I have this idea, and this is my paintbrush. This is how I do it.' So, it's not really something I'm conscious of, but I'm always looking at my stuff and critiquing it myself, and looking at: Why does this not look good? Or why does this look good? Why do I like this over this?
A lot of reason why I tend to do the more darker aesthetics is because I'm really a fan of the more cinematic type of mood, and in order to create a pleasing image it helps to have it like a dynamic range where you have like shadow areas, and highlights, and everything in between. You can kind of play with how you define your shapes and forms, and that's why I like working darker environments a lot, if possible. Obviously, that's not suitable for every client, so sometimes that's not ...
Joey: Right. Well, I like that you brought it back to just the basic principles of design. Cause one of the things that I found when I would ... I used to teach Cinema 4D at the art school I was at, and one of the things I would always try to drill into the student's head is that 'This may change in the future, but right now you're actually not making a 3D thing, you're making a 2D image with 3D software. So, you still need to consider the composition and like what the light does in terms of the contrast, and the value structure of the image.' And I love that you said the contrast of detail, cause that's a really good ... I won't say trick, but that's a good concept to keep in mind when you're doing stuff.
Simon: It's not just that, it's also like the contrast in time, and motion, and everything. It just needs to be a flow to it, otherwise it becomes rigid and boring, and that doesn't stop with just a contrast of light, of scale, or detail. Like it's everything, because we're motion of science we're working in time and space basically as well. As long as we have kind of a frame where it's like a rendered 2D image, like you say, we have to kind of consider how it looks from that angle. Everything that's behind the camera doesn't matter.
Joey: Exactly. I know. It's kind of sad to think that sometimes you put all of this work into your scene, and really you only see like the pixels that are on the screen. But that's really good advice, and something to keep in mind.
I want to ask you about your Instagram page, because there's a lot of experiments on there, and you talked a little bit earlier about how if that's all you do that's not very useful. You need to be able to do that so you have this, I guess, toolbox that you can pull from. I'm curious like how often these experiments that you do, where you're just playing around, actually turn into a client work. A client asks for something, and you think 'Oh, this thing I did with like this ... I don't know, these weird little particle simulation, that would work perfectly for this Apple job, or this Nike job.'
Simon: I mean, it's always the way. I mean, it's kind of my life when you look at ... My work life anyway. But when you look at the mindset that you're in when you're kind of designing these things. It's like you're always thinking of ways of using it for something useful, and I've never actually done any experiment unless it was kind of to just learn a tool, or like experiment with some particle system just for fun, but I've never done anything exclusively to put it up on Instagram. All of my experiments have been like this is something that I kind of designed for a project in mind. Or maybe I decided that, that project maybe it feels a personal project I decided I wanted to take a different route with it, and I didn't want to use that for that then I might put it up there.
I find that more often than not that, especially, when working ... And maybe that's a Houdini specific way, or just the way I work, but I find all the time, like literally, everything that I've recently been experimenting with finds itself into the next job that I do. It's like in one way or another. And tools can be very, and systems can be, very granular where it's almost like instead of inventing an end result you might be inventing a new sort of hammer, or whatever that you can use to build other things. So, it's kind of like you might just build smaller building blocks that then you can build upon to create new systems and new designs.
So, it's a wide range of experiments on every level, and it's always like every system I build, I build with tools that I built prior. So, it's kind of this weird, mad machine that I'm building. I have like 60 assets that I'm maintaining, which are essentially my whole graph module in a way.
Joey: I mean, it sounds like as a Houdini artist it's just a really valuable thing to have, because its so open. I'm assuming you don't want to start from scratch every single time if you need something that looks kind of like a crystal, or a rock, and you've made six different versions of that you could grab one and tweak it, and stuff like that, right?
Simon: That's the thing is the openness of it. How it's kind of like cooking in a way. I think it's ... That's a pretty good comparison actually, cause you might use a potato, or an aubergine, or something but you can make so many dishes with that thing. I mean, I'm not a good chef so I shouldn't be talking about this, cause I don't know what I'm talking about, but its different elements depending on how you combine them you build a recipe. That's kind of what Houdini is, its just a series of tools plugged together and it creates a recipe that then creates a file. When you actually save in Houdini scene file it's like only a few kilobytes, but it can generate data that are gigabytes and gigabytes, because it actually just stored the recipe. It doesn't store the geometry itself. So, its a very interesting program.
Joey: Yeah. I think the last thing I want to ask you about is I'm on your Instagram page right now, as we're talking I'm looking at all this stuff, and it's beautiful, and it's all very different. There's a lot of different looking things. There's things that look stringy, and things that look sort of like the Borg ship from Star Trek, and things that look like crystals, and they're all treated differently. There's this weird light bulb thing. Where does your inspiration for this stuff come from? Like do these images just pop into your head, or are there artists out there that you kind of are inspired by? Where does this come from?
Simon: I find it very hard to get inspired by, especially nowadays, with all this kind of Instagram stuff that is going on. As you say, there's a lot of saturation of stuff. I get really uninspired by looking at that, so I'm trying to stay away from that as much as possible.
I think it's just like, for me, it's always been a curiosity like in trying to ... I go to different fields like people in the concept art industry, cause I have old friends who are working in films and games, and I look at their kind of stuff and their references, and kind of like combining that with what I am enjoying about the more scientific simulation side of things. And you just kind of form a mood board that kind of represents your path. That's kind of how I think of it in a way. I don't necessarily have a physical mood board like that, but I'm creating a reality in my own world that ... Like this is my world. This is where I like to operate.
It's all about just exploring combinations of the things that you like, and then that creates a visual. So, all you need to do, really, is looking at four or five different images that you like for different reasons, and try to figure out what would happen if you combine this into something and create something new that way instead of like looking at stuff that people are doing and trying to replicate that. Cause that's pointless, that's what we have established. You're just going to be ... I don't know. A drone.
Joey: Yeah. It-
Simon: I don't know.
Joey: Would just be a copy, of a copy, of a copy and then nobody wins. Nobody wins, except Instagram in that case, right?
Simon: Exactly. I don't know. It's a trick, because inspiration comes from anything. If you love what you do you find a way to like get inspired by anything you see in a way. It could be, just as I said, looking at an old video log 'Oh, I like the composition of these shapes, and this form that make up this object. I like the kind of silhouette of this, or the lighting of that, or the surface color, or this material, or whatever it might be.' And then thinking how could you ... What would happen if this kind of transformed in this way? And you start thinking about these things, and that just takes you on a journey. Then you just have to tag along basically, and just keep exploring it. That's where it goes. But like it's a lot of time.
It takes a lot of time to explore these things as well, so you need to kind of get your priorities in order cause it's very easy to just like when you get a job in finish it in the fastest possible time, and just tick the boxes. But that way you're never going to create something new. You need to kind of take the detour sometimes to kind of allow yourself to explore these things.
Joey: Well, I think everyone listening is probably inspired now to go and find some weird reference and try to make something new, cause looking at your work it's really easy to get kind of sucked into it.
And we're going to link to Simon's work in Man Versus Machine, and Panoply's, and anything else we talked about in this episode.
Simon, thank you so much for coming on man. Your work ethic, and your point of view, and just how much effort and love you've clearly put into this it's really inspiring, man. And I just want to say thanks for coming on.
Simon: Thank you. Thank you.
Joey: You can find Simon's work at Simonholmedal.com, and you can see his new venture Panoply's work at Panoply.co.uk. Everything we've talked about in this episode will be posted in the show notes of schoolofmotion.com, so go check that out.
And I'd like to take this moment to say thank you so much for listening to this podcast it really means a lot that you've given us a little bit of your attention, and I hope that you're learning from and enjoying these episodes as much as I am, for realz.
That's it for this one. See you next time.