Featured Artist: Manuel Casasola, Germany
We’re here with the co-founder of wildly successful Munich based design studio Aixsponza, Manuel Casasola Merkle. Manuel is also supplying the community with the amazing free tutorial series Entagma, alongside with Moritz Schwind.
Manuel, first of all thanks a lot for making time for this interview; we’re thrilled to have you here with us!
Let’s take a quick trip back to your childhood: What inspired you to become an artist?
My father is a fine arts painter who has always created art - he inspired me very early on to do the same. He stayed at home with us to be able to do his art. He painted all day long. It was very natural for us children to consider art a very important part of everyday life and thus I had a very creative childhood. Not only because of my father, but because of my brother, too. We always did projects together: We created a newspaper, we edited magazines and we built stuff out of Legos. I also started drawing at a young age with the help of my father, so basically creativity and the creative process were a very essential part of my day, very early on in my life. And it has stayed that way until today. I did not understand that I wanted to do art as a profession for a long time, but it felt always very natural to me to be creative. Nothing else inspired me as much as the creative process, so from the very beginning it was second nature to me.
You started your career as a freelancer – how did you transition to running and managing your own studio?
After finishing my studies in 2000 I wanted to work as a graphic designer because I had studied communication design with a strong focus on print design and illustration. At that point 3D was something I was only doing on the side. Then a former colleague of mine asked whether I wanted to come to Munich to help out in the studio he was working for. While this was initially only a three month gig, I thought “Why not?”. That’s how I got started doing 3D as a job. Soon I really liked the work and decided to stick with 3D over the next 4 or 5 years. But what bothered me was the divider line that was very apparent between design and technical skills. On one hand we had the designers - and I was one of them - creating the design, that is, coming up with visual ideas. On the other hand we had technical 3D artists that were in charge of creating all the complicated stuff. I had always enjoyed both sides of the equation, which stimulated the idea of creating my own studio, where I could do both. As soon as I met Christian, Tobi and Achim, who were freelancers themselves back then, we consolidated the idea of creating our own studio to combine artistic skills and design quality with technical skills and a high level of technical sophistication. And that’s how Aixsponza was born.
A lot has happened since you co-founded Aixsponza in 2006. Can you describe the highlights of the past 10 years?
There were turbulent times in the beginnings of Aixsponza. It all started with a lot of work and it continued that way. We really worked a lot - every weekend and long hours every day.
The first highlight in the existence of Aixsponza was the BigFM commercial. After we founded the company we directly started to work on commercial projects, because we already had good contacts from our freelancing time which had brought us some good jobs. But then we got the opportunity to create BigFM, a particle driven TV commercial for a radio station here in Germany and that one really turned out very well. People loved it and we even won a CLIO award for it. This really got Aixsponza going. It was a milestone for us because people started to recognise us and after that film, other people knocked on our door and asked us to do work for them. It was a very important project for Aixsponza.
After that we had the opportunity to work with Peter Clausen Film here in Munich. Peter was working for "Red Bull" and wanted to bring the visual communication for "Red Bull Formula One" to the next level. He was looking for a partner to do so. We joined forces and created the first "Red Bull" film “Red Bull Formula One Singapore“ and this again was a big success. It was a very challenging project for us, because it involved a lot of technical difficulties and a lot of design work, but we enjoyed it a lot and I think it showed because it became a big success. After that we did many projects for Red Bull.
After wrapping many commercial projects for several years we decided in 2015 that it was time to do a free project. But free projects are hard to do, because they require time and most importantly money .. Fortunately Maxon, the manufacturer of Cinema4D, one of our main software packages, chose to sponsor us on this one, so we had the chance to do “Seed“, an experimental short film, which was incredibly enjoyable to create. For the first time we did not have a client and so we were able to test new things on the project. We tried a lot of photogrammetry-scanning and even new production processes such as “democratic design“. This entailed not having a director on this film, but doing everything collaboratively, which was a very interesting experiment. It did not turn out too effective in the end, so I would not do it again that way. But for this project it was a good experience. And fortunately "Seed“ was very well received, too. When we put it online it immediately became a Vimeo staff pick and a lot of people watched it.
After that, most recently, a very big milestone in the history of Aixsponza was the collaboration with Nike. One day "Nike“ approached us regarding a project for “Nike - Football“ and we got the chance to do a movie for them. And that really was the next level of work for Aixsponza. And it was the Nike projects that made us use more and more Houdini oriented in our everyday workflow.
Can you give us a brief overview of your design process and specifically, how Houdini fits into your workflow?
The design process is an iterative one. Especially with clients like Nike. That means we meet a lot, we talk to each other, we brainstorm, we come up with a first round of ideas, and then we sit down and just create stuff. We do a lot of style-frames, we iterate, we create stuff, look at it again, throw it away, rethink it, start over. So it’s basically really a long process of iteration. The good thing about Houdini in this context is that it is so procedural. That means, once you build something you never lose the ability to alter it. You don’t have to start over again; instead, just stay inside of your setup and try different things quickly. And that is the sort of power that fits perfectly into our design pipeline. We use Houdini as an environment for building tools to explore different things. Especially with generative geometry, interesting abstract effects or stuff like that, it’s very beneficial to have a powerhouse software like Houdini that enables us to do quick iterations.
Each software tool has its strengths and weaknesses. What do you think makes Houdini powerful? Conversely, where would you like to see enhancements in upcoming Houdini releases?
Oh, that’s very true. I think that Houdini is really the most powerful 3D software on the market. Of course, the strength of Houdini lies in its procedural nature. That means being able to create setups that are not destructive, but can be changed over and over again all the time. There are endless possibilities of combinations at your fingertips. I really see Houdini more as a development environment, more like an IDE like Visual Studio than a standard 3D program. And that is its huge strength. It sets no limit on your work. If you don’t know how to do it in Houdini it is often your fault, not the fault of the software. On the other hand sometimes I have the feeling that I am a little bit far away from my data. In programs such as Cinema 4D or 3DCoat your interaction with the data is more straightforward. It is as if you could touch your polygons. In Houdini you are one step further away, because you always have these nodes between you and your data. Everything is procedural, so it’s not that easy to just work like an artist, to just do something with the matter in your hands. It’s more like - think about it, come up with an algorithm to do a specific thing and then follow this recipe. On one hand this is Houdini’s big strength, on the other hand you can see it as a weakness, because the process is not that instantaneous. I would like to see this direct, destructive component of working with 3D data expanded in the future, inside of Houdini.
An important part of Houdini is open for modification. How do you take advantage of that in your work? Are there some examples of useful customizations that you may have built for recent projects?
Oh absolutely. The digital asset architecture of "Houdini“ is just the one big thing that Houdini offers, that is so unique and so powerful. And we use it all the time. Although Houdini really offers a lot, it, of course, does not offer everything. Especially as we are coming from Cinema 4D and thus are used to certain ways of working that are not present in Houdini. Take for example the "Spline Wrap Deformer“ or the "UV Deformer“ - useful tools in Cinema 4D. We have to rebuild most of these tools from scratch as Digital Assets in Houdini to then use them on a daily basis. This possibility for customisations is something that makes me think of Houdini more like a development environment. It is built for customisation. It gives you the granular, basic, building blocks and then it’s up to you to come up with the specific tools you need and touse them. Of course, Houdini has a lot of useful tools already, but the real power comes from its ability to be customised. Because I am a coder at heart and Moritz is too, we are developing a lot of VEX. And this is just awesome. Because you can throw your code into a wrangle and it just compiles immediately and is multi-threaded. It’s like a dream come true! Before I had to fire up my C++ IDE to do something like this and it was very complicated; iteration times were long. Houdini is just so customisable, you can make it into exactly the software you dream of.
Houdini is known for its steep learning curve – what should beginners focus on to quickly grasp the basics and avoid getting frustrated?
Yes, Houdini is vast and huge. And it feels overwhelming when you first look at it. But the good news is, I really don’t think the learning curve is that steep. Of course, mastering everything that is in there requires a lot of learning. But to get started and to get useful results out of Houdini doesn’t take that long. I always have the feeling that everything in Houdini is very well structured; it’s a very logical program. The same concepts are everywhere. If you get the concept in SOPs, you can take this knowledge and apply it to other contexts in Houdini.
For beginners I would highly recommend to focus just on one context, probably SOPs first, and really try to understand what’s going on there. And once you get the idea, then you can dive into DOPs and CHOPs and all the other stuff that is available. If you try to learn all the stuff at the same time, it becomes overwhelming very quickly. The biggest issue when learning Houdini is that you have to familiarise yourself with all the concepts that are specific to just Houdini. I am referring to concepts that aren’t related to math or to an algorithm from a paper, but just Houdini conventions invented by SESI. Examples would be the op: syntax , the VEX syntax or the structure of a .hip file or the .env file. I compare the whole process to learning a foreign language. You have to learn the vocabulary first. So before starting to lean Houdini you first have to understand the language that SESI is using to talk to you. And once you understand that, it’s not that hard anymore to make progress.
Can coding make you a better Houdini artist and if so, what are the key coding skills that any Houdini artist should master?
Absolutely. I think coding is a very vital part of every 3D artist’s career. Art is such a diverse field, so to really be able to create all the stuff that is in your head you need very specific tools. And there cannot be a software that offers them all. You have to somehow be able to come up with new solutions, that do exactly what you imagine. The only way to do so is by coding. If you decide to learn coding, you’ve come to the right place with Houdini, because SESI makes it as easy as it gets. For me it’s a very big "Yes“. You should look into coding if you are working with Houdini. It makes your life so much easier. You can do stuff you never dreamed of before. The most important thing to learn is VEX in my opinion. Others would say it’s Hscript, but i don’t think so, because VEX is just so fast and flexible. You can implement pretty much everything you like quickly. And it’s easy to learn if you have some experience with C-based languages like C++, Java or even Java Script. Once you got that in place, a little bit of Python will be beneficial, too, because with Python you can pretty much do everything else in Houdini. All the organisational tasks, creating nodes and deleting nodes and connecting nodes and coming up with networks and workflow related stuff is so much easier with Python. So I really think you should dive into both, VEX and Python.
What are the big trends you are currently observing within the Houdini community and where do you see the software going in the next 10 years?
When I first worked in Houdini I used Version 8, which was pretty much a FX tool. It was mainly used for visual FX in big features. That has changed a lot recently. The big trend I see is that "Houdini“ is used by designers more and more. It’s used for stuff that is not exactly "Houdini“ territory. More and more people who do abstract and arty stuff, like for example Entagma, are using Houdini. Architects and people doing fine arts are embracing "Houdini“. And the games industry is using it a lot, too. And that’s because more and more people get how beneficial the procedural workflow is. It’s a big paradigm shift at the moment. I think SESI feels that too, as they make the software more user friendly with every release. They work on the interface and on the underlying interaction concepts. It gets easier and easier to use Houdini and I think this trend will continue. SESI will probably also include more tools for a classical, straightforward 3D workflow, like the recent focus on modelling shows.
What key skills are you looking for when hiring a Houdini artist?
I am looking for artistic talent paired with a profound technical understanding. That is the basic idea that I talked about when explaining the founding phase of Aixsponza. The initial requirement has never changed. The combination of artistic and technical skills is what is interesting for me, because I am convinced that good art is a combination of both. Thus, when we are looking for Houdini artists they should offer both. People with programming skills that are not scared away easily by VEX but at the same time have a good eye, understand design and artistic principles. Real generalists. People who are able to imagine something beautiful, but then are able to implement it and make it work.
Have you ever considered rendering Houdini projects or Houdini simulations in the cloud?
Of course. Although Mantra is really one of the most powerful render engines I have ever encountered, unfortunately it’s a little slow. So rendering stuff in the cloud is the one solution. To have your renders finished in a fraction of the usual time really changes everything. With clients like Audi, BMW and such, sometimes it’s tricky to use the cloud due to security reasons, though. These companies restrict very much what you are allowed to do with the sensitive data they pass on. But basically rendering in the cloud is something we absolutely consider.
We’re big fans of the Entagma Houdini tutorials – can you give us an idea on what to expect from Entagma in the future?
Thanks a lot. I am glad to hear that you like Entagma. Basically everything will continue as before with Entagma. It’s so much fun! We love doing this. We love teaching people. So we will just continue doing it. A big motivation for running Entagma is that we are learning ourselves while we prepare the content. Entagma motivates us to look into new areas of Houdini to really understand the concepts and then pass the key ideas on to our audience in the form of an easy to understand tutorial. That being said we're actively looking into growing and improving Entagma, chiefly by offering new tutorial formats or different types of content. Suggestions on new Entagma tutorial topics are most welcome by the way; just send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Currently we are also considering to get on Patreon as well, so expect some interesting things to come in the near future!
Manuel Casasola, 2017
By: Patricia Cornet