How does a High School Student Learn VFX?
Kavi Dey is a 15-year-old High School student with a love of Visual Effects, and all other things computer related. A lack of money and access to hardware didn't stop her from setting off to create some amazing shots with Houdini Software. So how did she do all this with relatively limited resources learn to create visual effects?
My journey in creating visual effects began in sixth grade. I first learned about digital art in a Photoshop camp I did as a sixth grader. That was a basic introduction to digital art, but it opened my eyes to what computers could create. Over the next few months, I became interested in how I could apply digital art to videos and not just photos.
At first, I had no idea where to start. I had no knowledge of any software other than Photoshop. I discovered Adobe After Effects while browsing Adobe’s website. Adobe has some great beginner tutorials on their website that I used to get an intro to After Effects. When I was first starting I created simple videos. These included videos played backward for comedic effect or short skits.
After that, I spent nearly every waking moment learning about more advanced techniques and projects for After Effects. Video Copilot has some fantastic After Effects tutorials showing how to make more advanced effects. More great resources that I learned from are Surfaced Studio and Film Riot. Over time as my confidence grew, I decided to try and make a movie trailer.
One of my friends put together a short script that I directed, filmed and edited. I’ll be the first person to say that the effects were pretty bad in retrospect, but it was a fantastic learning experience. At that point, I still had no idea what any kind of 3D Visual Effects software was. Everything I created was 2D in After Effects.
Around that time, one of my friends decided that he wanted to start a youtube channel. He asked me to make him an intro for his videos.
This lead me to buy Video Copilot’s element 3D so I could create 3D text inside of After Effects. This was my first experience with 3D software, and it completely blew my mind. The software was so complex and there were so many things that it could do. The kinds of effects that 3D software could create fascinated me and knew I needed to learn more about it.
I had no idea where to start. I had never used any 3D software in my life so I was driving blind. I started to explore 3D software more and more, moving away from After Effects. Around this time was also when I watched Dr. Strange for the first time. That movie is almost single-handedly responsible for my love of VFX. From the effects in the mirror dimension with building manipulation to the time stop and reversal in the third act, the movie’s visual effects blew my mind. I felt inspired to make something. After a bit of research (and googling “free 3d vfx software”, “how to make vfx”, “what vfx software is used in marvel movies”, etc. ), I realized how expensive Autodesk’s software was, and I decided to try Blender. At this point, I had no idea what Houdini was.
When I started I had no idea what I was doing. My only computer was an old mac laptop that was in no way suited for VFX work, but I persisted. I followed a lot of Blender Guru’s and CG Geek’s tutorials to begin learning Blender. At that point, everything I created was a direct copy of one of their tutorials.
I didn’t understand how or why a tutorial did something. Over the next few months, I grew more comfortable. I began to experiment more and more when I followed tutorials. At first, it was just changing the color of an object. Over time, I learned to take the specific pieces of the tutorial that I liked, and turn them into my own art piece. The first non-tutorial piece I created was very simple, but I was very proud of it.
To create it, I had to have an understanding of modeling, particle systems, and materials. The action of figuring out how to use those techniques to create my vision was both inspiring and taught me a great deal about Blender and 3D. Now to anyone who is comfortable in 3D software, that is trivial. But for me at that time, it was the coolest thing in the world.
On my next birthday, my grandparents decided to give computer hardware so I could build my own PC. That was a large upgrade from my old mac laptop. It allowed me to create much more complex and hardware intensive effects. Over the next several months I created many more “non-tutorial” projects. The Blender subreddit has a monthly competition that was a fantastic source of inspiration. That also resulted in me learning a hard lesson. I attempted a project that was much too advanced for my level and utterly failed. I was trying to make a computer motherboard that was on fire, with little robot firefighters putting it out. This is the furthest I got before halting the project:
I learned a lot while working on that piece. The biggest lesson I learned was that not every project someone starts will succeed at their current skill level. To me, that last part “at your current skill level” is important. After what happened to that project, I started a Trello board that I use to keep track of my project ideas. I try to keep track of projects I am, want to, and have worked on. Now anytime I have an idea for something I want to make, but I think that I need to learn more, I can leave it for later in that board. This is not to say that people should only ever do projects that are at your current skill level. If people did that then nobody would ever grow. The challenge and reward of completing a difficult project are great. But if the project is incompletable at someone's skill level, it might be best to put the project on hold and try to learn more.
My friends and I got together that next summer to create a second movie trailer. For this trailer, I tried to create some more advanced visual effects.
I blew up a hallway in slow motion
I also 3d tracked a sword into someone’s hand,
blew up a planet,
and simulated a full smoke portal.
None of those effects are particularly stunning, as is the case with many beginner VFX shots. Even so, I learned an insane amount from creating them.
That brings me to Houdini, one of the hardest and most powerful pieces of software (for VFX) that I’ve tried to learn. I started by trying to watch some of the tutorials on Houdini’s website. While those tutorials are high quality, they did not explain concepts in a way that I could understand. Due to my difficulty learning and an increase in school work, I actually stopped using Houdini (and other VFX software) for around half a year.
When I started Houdini again, two things allowed me to more easily pick it up. First, I had gained a lot of background in procedural workflows, nodes, and the math and computer science behind them. Second, I found a set of tutorials that taught in a style that worked very well for me. A lot of the background I got was from my growing interest in programming. My exploration of programming introduced me to many features that Houdini has, but in a different context. I was also very lucky to be able to attend SIGGRAPH 2018, where I went to every Houdini seminar that I could and learned an immense amount about Houdini.
The tutorials I found were very high quality. I stumbled upon Applied Houdini and Live Action Houdini while browsing CGCircuit. They teach different aspects of Houdini. Applied Houdini focuses on creating high-quality simulations. Live Action Houdini focuses on integrating simpler simulations with live action footage. I thoroughly watched both sets of tutorials I jumped straight into my latest project, Ice Blast.
After explaining to my sister what she needed to do as the main actor, I just went outside and started filming. From there I camera tracked using Syntheyes.
I used Blender to extract the concrete texture and model of the ground. The camera track and ground model were exported as an Alembic for Houdini. In Houdini, I created the ice on its own and added that to a rigid body simulation with the fractured ground. I also added some smoke and particles for extra detail, though I don’t know if you can see them in the final render.
After triple checking that all my render settings were correct, I began rendering.
As this was my first project in Houdini, I ran into a slew of issues that I had no idea how to fix. I was able to figure out a few myself (which always feels really fantastic), but many I had no idea where to even start. That is where forums really came in handy. The Houdini and OdForce forums were both invaluable resources for problem-solving. Even if someone is too nervous to ask their own question or doesn’t have time or want to wait for a response, there is a decent chance that someone else has already run into a similar issue and asked about it.
After the long wait for rendering to finish, came compositing. I rotoscoped, color corrected, and tried to combine all my passes into one cohesive effect. Last but not least, I put together a breakdown of the entire project, and submitted it to the competition!
The biggest thing that I learned from creating Ice Blast was that the best way to learn is to just work on a project. The internet provides a constant stream of new tutorials. That makes it easy to become dependent on them and feel like you need a tutorial to show you how to do everything. If you can break out of that dependency and start projects without tutorials, only using tutorials when you need help completing a specific task, you will learn much more. It can be a really good learning experience to work on a project above your level.
I don’t want to sound like a broken record so I’ll recap with these 3 things. First, try to balance the difficulty of projects so you can succeed while also learning a lot. Second, try to branch out from tutorials in the projects that you take on. Third, everyone and everything around you is a resource. For me, this was my friends who wrote scripts and acted for me, to my parents and grandparents helped me get the software and hardware I needed. It was also people all over the internet in forums and videos who have taught me all about visual effects. But most of all, and I know it's cliche, have fun! Look forward to the excitement and happiness you feel when just creating art!