Featured Artist: Niels Prayer, Paris

My name is Niels and I am a 25 year old French art director and motion designer based in Paris. 

After graduating from the Georges Mélies School in 2013 with a degree in 3D Animation and Special Effects, I had the chance to work as an FX artist for studios such as Framestore and Illumination MacGuff. From there I transitioned to the role of FX Supervisor at Supamonks Studio. At the beginning of this year I started directing Supamonks’ next cinematic project, a video game trailer scheduled for release in  August 2016.
 
In addition to working on commercial jobs, I’ve always tried to be creative and never stop learning. To that end I regularly produce personal projects, specifically 3D motion design pieces. Fortunately I now have the chance to integrate this personal research into my daytime job.

A PROCEDURAL JOURNEY

Finding the way!
 
In our fast paced modern lives, I think the hardest thing is to define who we are. Who am I as a person and as a professional? The CG industry is the perfect example of how quickly everything changes and evolves in our modern world. Technically, almost everything can be achieved now. The tricky part is to determine what defines our work as an artist. What’s our goal at the end? What tools can be used to achieve that goal?
 
My main creative goal is to experiment and try new things! I see visuals as music, with keys, chords etc…And it’s important for me to prioritize the feeling of a piece; just like when you’re listening to good music. And, the second goal is to have fun - a lot of fun - creating images! 
 
I spent a lot of time exploring different software packages, but every time, I was saying to myself: “Damn, I need more flexibility, more control over my whole process. I want to be able to go back a few steps, recreate something, and add it to my completed setup…” Finally, one day I discovered Houdini!
 
The Journey begins

 
Houdini is a really powerful software package! Once you’ve had the opportunity to work with Houdini, you never go back. It’s now my main tool, and I use it every day. Houdini obviously gives you a lot of control in your fluids, smoke and particle simulations, but I think the most attractive aspect is the procedural way of thinking that comes with using it. You can create such complicated effects without any destructive steps! And you can always recreate things in different ways, with a lot of control and speed. You will never be bored; it’s always an exploration game!
 
All that procedural power allows me to focus on the artistic aspect of creating 3D pieces. Once you understand the basics and the core concepts of this software, you will be able to quickly move on and build what you have in mind. I see Houdini like a colour palette, and it’s up to you to bring all that colors to a final image.
 
When I have some time, I try to create speed images using Houdini, exploring different techniques. Some people draw rough sketches or write an outline for their next story… I fire up Houdini and start to build something. Most of the time, when I start a speed scene as a personal project, I don’t know what I’m going to create. But little by little, when I’m assembling nodes, the final shape emerges! With Houdini, I have the sensation to speedpaint, only I am doing it with FX tools and that’s so exciting! You can start something with a really rough idea, go back and forth within your setup and then, adjust your vision during the creation process. The frontier between the artistic part and the technical part of creating a piece becomes really blurred!

FROM ABSTRACT PROJECTS TO ARTISTIC DIRECTION

​Creating a setup and producing an image as quickly as possible is key to my success as an artist. I often work as a creative director leading teams of people on a project. I’m really bad at drawing, but I need to show and share ideas with people as quickly as a concept artist would. My solution: I practice speed and efficiency by trying to make concept images in a minimum of time with the maximum possible quality. This results in an image being produced in a timeframe of between 30 to 50 minutes  all the way from the initial concept through to compositing!

How can you quickly create great concept images? You can play with simple structures or with FX tools. You can create a really complex setup of custom attributes influencing rendering in Mantra.

​You can just start with a little sphere, scatter some points and give a color attribute to influence their speed and whoosh, spread that in time to get nice trails influenced by color! The possibilities are endless!
 
Put your main points in as spheres with different stamping expressions and you obtain abstract little flowers! This is really quick and really efficient…And if you want to influence the material by adjusting the speed, you can easily create a custom attribute in Mantra for that. It’s just like playing with legos! 

The great thing about Houdini is that you can set up things easily from an FX point of view. I don’t know why people don’t use Houdini more in that way, because that is what makes it a great motion design tool! It’s instinctive, really fast and you can obtain great renders. And given the fact everything is non destructive, you can easily produce retakes or create variations on the same concept.

MOTION AND DESIGN

When I’m creating a motion design piece like “Winter”, I have ideas for each shot and I define in advance what tools I will use for creating each shot. I ask myself questions such as: Can I use some L-systems for the trees? Will I create my frozen effect at render time or at sop level?

Because I create pieces like “Winter” in my free time, I need to stay as procedural as possible, so that I can introduce modifications later if I want to. Staying in a full Houdini pipeline therefore becomes essential.
 
The other thing I need to estimate precisely is the production time! I don’t want to spend too much time creating a personal project, because I don’t know when I will have some free time again. So, when I have free time, I need to be efficient! For instance, “Winter” took me 4 weeks to complete, which was accomplished by working a little bit every evening and a couple of hours on weekends.
 
When tackling a new motion design piece I start by defining an idea for each shot. If the shot has a complicated simulation, I try to find the motion of the whole piece by defining a good camera move and a good motion feeling. When the shots are more render-oriented, I  focus on playing with attributes and materials to obtain the desired look. The first pass has to convey the atmosphere; what the audience needs to feel when they are watching the sequence.
 
For instance, for the shot of the trees in “Winter”, I directly made some final concept images to find the correct look. Conversely, for the shot of the frozen flowers I had to define the correct motion effect first, and then, I found a nice frozen look to go with it!
 
That’s the beauty of Houdini and Mantra. You can really design things, both from an artistic and from a technical standpoint! And thanks to the nodes power, you can easily go back to where you left your design in the first place, from a motion aspect, and then, create the render from that. Conversely, you can also start from your rendering scene and create the correct camera and movement after. When your design part is done, you can quickly and effortlessly move to the production and final steps.

SHARING IS EVERYTHING

I’ve learned and I’m still learning a lot from the Houdini community around the world. Between, Odforce, the SideFX forums and several great people making outstanding tutorials, it’s been a real pleasure to learn and work knowing there’s such a wealth of online resources!
 
I’m also really convinced that the collaborative spirit within the Houdini community is a good way to approach life and work, as there is no need to turn everything into some kind of competition. We always have our clients for that! That’s also why I’m doing some workshops at CGSociety and CG Master Academy, and that’s why I’ve created Scatter, my online Houdini tutorial site. I really wanted to share the discoveries that I made during my journey of experimentation.
 
Publishing some of my work generated a lot of interesting feedback and prompted great discussions with fellow artists, who generously shared their thoughts and artistic vision with me! There’s been a definite progression of my work as a result. Not only have I learned a lot and met really talented people through Scatter, the teaching approach makes me really careful about what I am presenting. I need to really know the ins and outs of what I’m sharing and that forces me to be a better artist! I am now convinced that when people share projects with the community or provide feedback on someone’s research, both parties can progress artistically and technically from that discussion. That’s also why Scatter is free, and I will try to keep it like that! I’m giving a little of my knowledge, but I’m receiving so much back from the community! 

I’ve tried to share some of my Houdini experiences with you. I’m still learning and I have so many things to explore, but that’s why we live - to learn, to explore and to share the insights we have gained with our fellow human beings. Playing with technical aspects, making artistics choices and bringing in the human component is really possible thanks to that procedural way of thinking, which begins within your specific work inside the software and culminates in the sharing and feedback process with teams and the community!
 
Many thanks for your time and for reading through my thoughts!

​A few links . . .
 

Neils Prayer 2016

 

By: Patricia Cornet
GridMarkets marketing

GridMarkets USA
Presidio of San Francisco
P.O. Box 29920
San Francisco, CA  94129

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