If you missed part 1 of our interview with Manuel Tausch, be sure to check it out here, Part 1 then come back for part 2! If you’ve already read part 1, then lets dive right in!
What are your thoughts on FX artists specializing in just Houdini? Is there a
need for them to learn Bifrost or RealFlow or thinkingParticles or whatever it may be to have a
more rounded skillset or is Houdini enough?
That’s actually a really good question. Personally Houdini is obviously my tool of choice
but if you have a close look at what’s out there you either get into Houdini or you use
Autodesk products. Knowing Houdini is definitely the way to go if you want to get a job in
the industry in my opinion, but that’s not to say that 3ds Max is a bad software for
example. Thinking Particles within 3ds Max is still one of the most straightforward tools
in order to achieve very high-level destruction which in Houdini is way more difficult to
do. With Thinking Particles, within a few clicks you can get astoundingly good results.
In Houdini it generally takes artists days to set up a robust, production-ready FX
destruction rig. Since Houdini is a very low-level tool, you have full control over
everything which can be a blessing in disguise.
In some cases this can be the downfall for many novice artists because they usually
attempt to set up complex interfaces and controllers for all kinds of things, which
consumes a lot of time and might not be needed at all for a one-off type of shot.
A typical 3ds Max artist would just go in and animate a few things by hand instead of
trying to automate everything, resulting in finishing the shot 5 times faster than a Houdini
To conclude, it takes people considerably longer to master Houdini compared to
competitive software packages, but once they achieved a high level of competence, the
possibilities are endless.
How do you feel about the direction FX work is moving in, 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 senior technical director that maybe were not as important back when you
were first entering the industry 10 years ago or vice versa where there are skills you had back
then you feel you don’t need now or do you feel it’s all sort of stayed the same?
Right now there’s more money flowing into VFX than ever before. Gigantic public
companies such as Netflix and Amazon Prime are already creating their own feature film
and TV series content independent from the theatrical motion picture industry.
Rumor has it that Netflix alone is going to spend more than 9 billion dollars on new
content in 2019 and there’s still a lot of room for growth since Disney and other
competitors are planning their foray into the market by offering similar platforms as
Netflix. There’s going to be a lot of need for VFX in general, if you disregard negative
aspects of the industry like tax incentives, being a skilled FX artist is certainly not a bad
spot to be in.
So what’s the difference between being an FX artist nowadays to a decade ago when I
was a student of the trade? Back then you didn’t find many pure FX artists. Most people were 3D generalists that had to learn CGI softwares the hard way. With the internet still
being slow high quality tutorials where scarce, often you had to resort to reading a book
on the subject. There certainly weren’t any tutorials or workshops that taught you how to
destroy buildings, how to set stuff on fire or how to simulate a full ocean with waves,
whitewater and spray particles. Most of the time joining a forum was the only way to exchange yourself with peers, for
example 10 years ago Houdini was mainly unknown to CGI professionals in Germany
where I grew up. During that time some of my really good friends and colleagues started
a Houdini User Group meeting in Munich which I was an avid part of once a month. That
sounds super nerdy and it was. Everybody was always super hyped and excited about
new features that were released, node based systems were still a novelty and we had a
great time over burgers and beer.
At this point I’d like to mention again some names, without those guys I wouldn’t be
where I am today: Felix Schaller, Chris Kelch, Martin Matzeder, Oliver Markowski,
Christian Schnellhammer and Felix Hörlein.
Fast forward to 2018. Nowadays people go to schools that specialize just in FX. Let
alone in Vancouver, there are at least three to five different schools that teach Houdini
on a very advanced level. Online, students can fall back on an abundance of free
tutorials or invest a few hundred bucks in a state of the art workshop that will teach them
an array of cool FX. Having the internet, anybody in the world can pick up CGI skills
without having to step a single time into a physical class room. This is awesome.
Considering that SideFX releases new features for Houdini every single year, even I find
myself often tune in to some cool tutorials that my talented fellow Houdini TDs publish
While learning has most definitely become much easier, I see one problem here though.
Information is so easy to access now that some artists almost forget how to use their
own brain. They’re so used to creating some great looking FX using a nifty workflow
outlined by some tutorial that they struggle really hard once a problem arises that they
haven’t been confronted with before.
For that reason I’m such a big proponent for teaching debugging and problem solving
skills in my workshop, because without having this ability you’re going to be lost if your
system breaks. In VFX production hardly ever you will work on a shot where a “out of the
box” solution works right away. You will always have to customize certain aspects of
your workflow, sometimes break open and manipulate solvers or other digital assets in
order to get your FX to work.
Nevertheless, some of the demo reels that are being released by newcomers these days
are off the charts. I’m really impressed. Such a level of complexity and quality would
have been unthinkable 10 years ago.
It is something that is interesting and you see it with a wave of people as Houdini
is becoming more popular and more user friendly where you have a lot of new artists coming in
and thinking like, “Oh, I have done some things in Thinking Particles, where are the three buttons I hit?” It’s like, well it’s not that simple. You do have to understand the core Math and the understanding of how things are working with Houdini rather than just to get results that you want. It’s not as simple as you may expect. Segueing on that into the next question, how important is it would you say for new artists to learn technical skills such as Python or even C++ because I feel, and maybe you could echo this, that as a junior artist, you can come into the industry and actually work, and be on projects, without really understanding Python.
You’re totally right about that. I think that goes back to what we discussed earlier which
begs to ask the question, which direction do you want to take as an artist? Are you
striving to become somebody who’s very good at art directing shots, having a good eye
for image composition, with a great feel for how things behave in nature? Are you happy
using the FX rigs and tools that the senior FX TDs or leads create for you? Or would you
rather complement these skills with a deep technical understanding of solvers, an ability
to develop robust digital assets, the expertise to write powerful VEX code to
create/manipulate procedural geometry or the prowess of being able to write Python
code that can facilitate actions that would take forever if you would have to do them
Do you want to steer into the direction of becoming a leader that others can rely on when
seeking support for complex problems that might be of mathematical or programming
For obvious reason most people can’t learn all of this stuff at once. I myself started out
as an artist with little technical understanding, but quickly realized that not only can I
solve problems much easier by knowing some of the above, but also was entrusted with
bigger and more challenging hero shots that would make my demo reel look stellar. If
you’re looking for recognition and climbing the ranks, developing some of those skills is
going to be crucial for your career path.
Some artists prefer to stay less technical because they enjoy creating beautiful images
without having to bother with complex problem solving, which is perfectly fine.
To quickly talk about the different programming languages here, in my view every artist
should at least take a good look at VEX because it’s so fundamental for geometry
manipulations and procedural stuff. It doesn’t matter if you’re looking at shaders,
procedural modeling or executing simulations in the DOP context of Houdini, VEX is
ubiquitous in all of those different contexts.
C++ on the other hand is not a key skill to have unless you want to take the R&D route
where you become a very specialized technical director who, based on a computer
science background, is able to write full-fleshed solvers, shaders or contrive new tools
using Houdini’s HDK (Houdini Development Toolkit).
Then you have Python, which comes with a very easy and digestible syntax to learn,
especially compared to complex low-level languages like C++. As mentioned previously,
it is my go-to language for any pipeline related task, task automation or digital asset
Yeah, that’s very helpful. Cool. I wanna switch gears to the job side of being an
FX artist. With the demands of being an FX artist, how do you manage that with family?
Well, for me that’s easy. I don’t have a big family. I’ve got a lovely girlfriend and a little
dog therefore I don’t have to worry about kids that keep me up during the night. Besides,
having my own company enables me to have somewhat flexible hours.
But I do get where your question is coming from.
In my time at the big studios I’ve seen plenty of people working an exhausting amount of
hours, 6-7 times a week, sometimes for months without getting to enjoy a break. I myself
was part of several projects where hours were incredibly demanding, taking a toll on
both physical and mental health.
At some point everybody needs to muster up the confidence to step in and say “No” to
management. Of course you want to play by the rules, I get it, it’s a tough situation.
What it comes down to is that you have to ask yourself if all that juicy overtime money is
worth it. Sometimes I see people that barely spend time with their kids because they’re
so involved in projects. They come home at 11pm or later at night and get up early in the
morning to spend the entire day in front of the computer.
I personally had an injury in the past where I developed carpal tunnel syndrome from
working too much and that’s definitely something that you want to avoid.
In the end, the movie that you work on is just going be one more among hundreds of
other flicks that are being released annually.
There’s really no point of injuring yourself physically just because some producer thinks
you absolutely have to stay late because something needs to get out of the door. There’s
always another day.
Yeah, absolutely. Some artists come home and work on their personal projects but
sometimes that can be difficult with family or I guess in your case other demands, are you able
to find time to work on personal projects? Also is there a personal project that you’re working on
now that you’d want to share?
Currently I’m not working on any specific personal project, but since I’m not a fan of
stagnation I’m incessantly learning and improving whenever I can. You might catch me
brushing up on my Spanish vocabulary, acquiring new Houdini techniques or refining my
In the past I constantly juxtaposed working full-time and studying subjects of interest on
the side, which can be very taxing especially if your project requires you to work some
More recently I’m trying to make a point of making sure that I have a good work and life
balance, but as you can imagine, running a company and a Houdini workshop
simultaneously leaves little time for putting up your feet.
If you could give your younger self career advice, what would that be?
During my time at school, I was one of the worst students when it came to mathematics.
If I could go back in time and tell myself, “Listen, there are a few things that you could do
better.”, I would definitely pay much more attention to my math professors.
Things like trigonometry and vector mathematics are a great skill to have if you want to be a well-
rounded FX TD.
On that premise, before wrapping this up I’d like to mention this funny idiom that we use
in Germany: “Nur die harten kommen in den Garten.”. Literally it means that only if
you’re tough they’re going to let you into the garden. Naturally this doesn’t make a ton of
sense, but the deeper meaning here is that if you aspire to achieve something in life, you
can absolutely do it as long as you work hard and put in your 100%. Don’t let anybody
talk you down!
Thanks for the intriguing talk David, it was a true pleasure!
Thank you, Manuel for doing this interview with us! If you’re curious to find out more about
Manuel or his company you can check him out here – Stormborn Studios Website and If you’d
like to learn from Manuel he is teaching an Intro to FX Using Houdini course over at CGMA –