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Thanks for sitting down with us, Ben. Starting out, tell us a bit about yourself – How long have you been in the industry? Where did you first get your foot in the door with being an FX Artist?

I started using After Effects in 2007 so I suppose you’d say that’s where it all began. I didn’t get into FX work until many years later. I took a 3 week job with a Sydney studio in late 2015, this would be my first in house experience and my first real Houdini job. I’d created a couple of Houdini tutorials prior to the job and was beginning to get project enquiries as a result. The next job project came very soon after and happened to be a Nike job with a studio called Aixsponza. This is where things really kicked off because after we completed this job, I had a lot more confidence using Houdini and work started to roll in fast.

How are you enjoying the freelance life vs working in a studio? Any challenges you have had to overcome?

I love working as a Freelancer. The variety of work is amazing. One minute you’re blowing things up and the next you’re building some intricate procedural system that flows over a surface in an organic way. I’ve always been very focused on my work so the distractions of a home office environment never bothered me. I love being around my kids as they grow up. I can’t imagine working away in a studio and doing things any other way.

You have a lot of very cool looking projects on your website – do you have a favorite project you’ve worked on? And if so why?

They’ve been some really fun projects over the last few years. The Nike jobs with Aixsponza will always feel special because I was rapidly developing my skills and learning so much at that time. It was just a great vibe working with those guys.

There’s definitely other jobs that were fun for different reasons. The ‘American Horror Story’ Season 8 teaser with Tendril was really cool because I’ve always been a huge fan of the show and again, a really great team of people to work with. Honestly most projects I’ve been involved with, bring back very positive memories.



You’ve contributed to the FX community quite a bit over the years through your vimeo page, and different tutorials you’ve done. I’ve definitely benefited from them. How did that come about? Was it a goal of yours to be an educator/mentor to people or was it something you sort of just picked up?

The whole tutorial thing was not something I’d ever intended on doing, it kind of just happened and I can’t recall why I felt the urge to do it. Looking back though, I’m really glad I created some content and put it out there because I feel this really contributed to the beginning of my FX career and it put my name in the ring as a potential artist for hire.

How do you feel about Houdini 17, and the addition of Vellum? Any thoughts on things you’d like to see in Houdini 17.5?

Houdini 17 is fantastic. Vellum has really created a lot of buzz and shows the power of a unified solver. It would be amazing if we eventually see all the solvers operate together. I’d really love to see SideFX focus on a solver for small scale fluids so we can achieve results that look/feel closer to that of typical SPH solvers.

What are your thoughts on FX Artists specializing in just Houdini? Is there a need for them to learn Bi-frost or Realflow or whatever it may be to have a more rounded skillset or is Houdini enough?

Before Houdini I used a few different programs at once. I think I’ve probably had a play with most of the software out there but currently Houdini/After Effects allow me to get everything done. It really depends on the type work you’re doing. For example if you’re into small scale fluid sims.. right now it probably makes sense to know some Realflow.

I’m fairly sure many artists use multiple packages simultaneously, there’s something I like about the simplicity of keeping everything in Houdini and there’s so much to learn in such a massive program, I could probably keep busy forever trying to improve my Houdini skills.



How do you feel about the direction fx work is moving towards in regards to new technology and the possible future for fx artists. Are there any skills you feel you’ve had to develop now as a technical director that maybe were not as important back when you were first entering the industry, or vice versa where there are skills you had back then, that you feel you don’t need now?

It’s an exciting time to be in FX, there’s a lot of work available with all the new TV Series/Films constantly being produced. In addition to that you’ve got VR/AR content and Games being created a rapid rate. I think all of the skills I’ve gained over the years are still relevant but the most recent addition would definitely be diving into coding with Houdini.

How important is it would you say for new artists to learn technical skills such as Python or even C++?

The only languages I’ve used are VEX in Houdini and a little Java Script whilst learning coding fundamentals. In Houdini, there’s two main ways of getting things done – you can drop down nodes and wire them together or drop down a wrangle and implement your ideas by writing VEX code.

You can definitely go a long way inside the program without knowing code BUT there’s times when it’s just painfully apparent that even knowing the VEX basics would go a long way. Right now I use snippets of code in every setup I create but overall my node/code split is probably 80/20 in favor of using Nodes to get the majority of my work done.

With the schedule demands of being an FX artist, how do you manage that with life outside of work?

I try to keep a healthy work/family balance. Keeping it to a max of 8 work hours a day is my goal but we all know with deadlines and other factors this just isn’t possible sometimes. I do have the
advantage of being close to my family most of the time so I see them a lot more than if I were working in house so that definitely helps when the hours get long.



Some artists come home and work on their personal projects, but sometimes that can be difficult with family or other demands. Are you able to find time to work on personal projects? If so is  there anything recently you’ve been working on that you’d like to share?

It was much easier to find the time for personal projects in the past. In the last couple of years it’s almost been impossible to find a spare moment to do anything for myself. I really do miss being less hectic sometimes. Personal projects are a fantastic way of taking things to a level you’re not usually able to. Generally due to budgetary or brief restrictions. Unfortunately the only outlet I’ve really had in recent years is posting a random RnD shot here and there on social media.

If you could give your younger self career advice, what would that be?

If I could go back and study computer science and pay more attention in Math class that would definitely go a long way right now.. Maybe even get into a course that’s design related. Any of that
would’ve been helpful. There’s nothing wrong with being self-taught but having solid fundamentals is extremely valuable in my opinion.

More generically do you have any advice for aspiring fx artists?

As mentioned I tried several 3d packages but nothing really had me excited and curious like Houdini. My advice is to watch and try everything until you find something that inspires you. Something
you’re very passionate about. I remember continually seeing great work created using Houdini until I decided I’d had enough watching and it was time to dig in and start learning.
If I didn’t have an extreme passion for FX and Design, I’d go and do something else. The hours can be long and the work load can feel brutal at times.. so if you don’t love what you do – it’s going be that much harder. Make sure you love what you do!

 

Thank you, Ben for doing this interview with us! If you’re curious to find out more about Ben you can check out his website at Benwattsdesign.com you can also follow him on Facebook or Vimeo.

Thank you!

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