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​Featured Artist: Saber Jlassi, California


My name is Saber Jlassi and I'm a California based VFX artist currently working as a Senior Technical Director at Blizzard Animation (formerly known as Blizzard Cinematics). My current job consists of writing tools and scripts to improve the Lighting, FX and Compositing pipeline, in addition to collaborating with Production to solve challenging tasks. Prior to this, I worked as a Senior Lighting TD at Framestore and as a Generalist TD at MPC in London.


I’m also a Houdini instructor currently teaching “Introduction to FX using Houdini” , an 8 week course with CGMA, and producing various other Houdini and Arnold tutorials.




I have been doing more and more teaching lately and as a result, I’ve had the opportunity to interact with young talents and to mentor a variety of students. I have also become more engaged with the Houdini community in general. In the process of reaching out to my fellow artists I have noticed a few things that I’d like to talk about, while also sharing some advice. In doing so I’m hoping that all CG/FX students and Houdini teachers will benefit from this article.

Saber Jlassi - The vfx art of Saber




Art, Art and Art


At the end of the day we are producing art. Art has rules, and everyone creating CG imagery should have a very good understanding of composition, colors and light physics. What follows is a list of useful guides that can help familiarise everyone with the basics:


  • Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter (James Gurney Art)

  • Light for Visual Artists: Understanding & Using Light in Art & Design

  • Art Fundamentals: Color, Light, Composition, Anatomy, Perspective, and Depth by Gilles Beloeil

  • Matters of Light & Depth 1st Edition by Ross Lowell

  • Lighting for Film and Electronic Cinematography

  • Lighting for Cinematography: A Practical Guide to the Art and Craft of Lighting for the Moving Image

  • Set Lighting Technician's Handbook: Film Lighting Equipment, Practice, and Electrical Distribution

Art has rules, and everyone creating CG imagery should have a very good understanding of composition, colors and light physics.

You don't need a tutor


Every time I see a new release of any software, it is quickly followed with a request for tutorials, along the lines of “Can we get a tutorial to learn this effect?” or  “Can we get a video on to know how to replicate this?” Why the urge? Why are we all suddenly in need of all this training material? I think we may just be getting lazier and lazier and no one wants to put the effort into researching and learning new things by themselves.


One of the main skills that is required in this industry in order to be a good FX artist is problem solving and the mentioned behavior works against developing any problem solving skills. This is very dangerous for your career development, so I highly encourage people to try and learn by themselves and figure out solutions for problems they run into.


Find your sensei


An important motivator is to find someone who is really good and use him/her as your idol. Try to reach the same level as your idol or even improve upon his work. Once the goal is achieved pick a higher goal and keep going.


2D art versus 3D art


When admiring any kind of 2D drawing, people usually don’t ask the question "What kind of pen did you use?". But in 3D, every time you see an image the question that quickly follows is: "What software did you use; what render did you use?". I'd say it has nothing to do with the tool and it's all about the art and what really matters is the idea and the artist behind it.

If you have a vision you should use the tool that will allow you to achieve it. Simple. And this is something we completely ignore: It's not about what the render gives you, It's about what you want the render to give you. You merely have to learn the tool you're using and master it to achieve what you want.

While it is very important that the tool or the render can recreate physically accurate lighting and material behaviors, I think what we should focus on learning how to look at things and finding out what makes certain materials look the way they look.


Let’s take water as an example: It is transparent, reflective and has 1.33 IOR. If you take these exact inputs and apply them to your surface in CG the renderer should give you a good starting point to create realistic water, right? Most likely it will not, and this where it is very important to learn how to look at things and analyse what we see. Water looks very different depending on whether you are looking at waves lapping against a beach, a river, an ocean, antarctic water or water in a glass. If we look at each of these scenarios, we will see that it is the same liquid, yet each situation is visually very different. We need to develop the skills that will allow us to accurately recreate every one of those surfaces and analyse the visual characteristics that make each one of them unique.

The tool or the render can recreate physically accurate lighting and material behaviors.

Copying vs Creativity


I find it fascinating how much creativity we're lacking when it comes to creating interesting art and FX. You see something new and interesting come up online and instantly you’ll see similar ideas popping up all over the web.


My advice for anyone wanting to create visuals is to try and build a big visual library for themselves that will become their own inspiration and source of creativity.  And if the purpose of a creation is to just learn the specific technique that was used in a visual effect, I highly suggest to try and change the effect so that the technique is still the same, but the end result looks different.


Why FX reels are not a proof of mastery


We tend to see these FX reels from FX artists working for big studios and it is just mind blowing. I love watching them and using them as a reference, but what most of us forget - especially new students - is how much work went into creating those shots and how many people were involved to make everything look as good as it appears in the final shot.


Let's take a look at a simple real production example - let's say an fx artist is working on an explosion at a big studio:

  • All kinds of 2D artists work on designing the art and gathering references for what the explosion should look like, its scale, size and motion and tons of other visual inputs.

  • A big R&D team makes sure that the tech can achieve the result expected. If not, then a custom tool or plugin will be written that will allow artist to do achieve the desired result.

  • The FX artist starts using the tool to create the first iteration.

  • It gets shown in dailies where multiple people are involved to give him/her artistic direction and feedback to improve it. Multiple iterations are done during this process.

  • Next, a highres simulation is run. Again, multiple people are involved to make sure that the job succeeds on the farm and that they have the right hardware for it.

  • Once the sim is done, the R&D team has to make sure that they have all the necessary tools to achieve the desired look, otherwise it’s time to write custom tools.

  • Then Shading and Lighting department takes over the simulation and renders it.

  • At the end the shot gets passed to compositing, where they will continue working on it and showing it in dailies for further improvements.

This is a simplified version of how things are done.


Personal projects as a test of artistic mastery


I personally value a high quality project done by one individual using very minimal hardware over a shot from Avatar. Here is why: The individual had to think of an idea, come up with a design and gather all kinds of visual references.


Then he/she:

  • learned how to utilise the tools available to achieve an artistic vision,

  • iterated the sim to improve it by utilising his/her own artistic skills,

  • solved all the technical issues that come with simulation and rendering,

  • worked on the lighting and shading and compositing.


The work produced this wat will show exactly what the artist is capable of and what he/she knows, rather than seeing a shot from a block buster movie, where hundreds of people were involved and where it's hard to narrow it down to what the individual artist really did.

Close up render of high-res explosion.

You can’t rush mastery


I get a lot of questions and comments like “I need to get a job in 5 months”, “Can I take your workshop and get a job afterwards?” Most of the time the answer is NO.


My recommendation for people who need a job asap, is to find any kind of job (it doesn't have to be Vfx related) that can guarantee a basic income. Once you are stable you can start learning in parallel and progress towards your dream job.There are things that simply cannot be rushed and learning Vfx and becoming good at it SIMPLY needs time and practice.


The importance of iterations

Sometimes the only thing that makes your result stand out is the amount of tweaks and iterations you put into it. Beginners generally ignore the number of iterations that go into creating certain simulations or a specific visual.

I have seen shots with 1600 iterations in production. And it's totally fine if your first simulation or even the tenth does not look AMAZING yet. There is no shortcut  - you have to keep iterating until you get the result that you like, and that simply takes time. Experience will teach you how to make changes quickly to reach the artistic goal that the director is looking for.


Be careful with the time you dedicate to mastering proprietary softwares


Here are some thoughts to consider if you’re planning to work for one specific studio for a long time.


Some of the big places have their own custom software - this can be a piece of software for creating smoke simulation, fluid simulators, lighting or any other field.


Let’s say that while working at this one amazing company you learn their custom software and you master it to become a “great FX artist”, which is a fantastic goal to achieve. You have giant set of tools and a sophisticated setup that can get you anything done very efficiently, which is awesome - until you have to leave that studio and move to a different place that has a completely different set of tools. And now you're not that amazing FX artist anymore... The artistic side and knowledge will definitely still help, but you will not be able to achieve what you could have accomplished with the previous workflow.


My personal philosophy is to invest time into learning commercial products that can be found or installed at any studio, so that I can move between different studios and still be very effective.


What we can learn from anime and 2D animation


FX people create animations, and everyone doing that should have a very good understanding of 2D animation, timing, ease in and ease out, rhythm and tempo.


Unfortunately people get attached to learning Houdini and end up focusing heavily on the technical aspect, while completely ignoring all the artistic and creative aspects. As a result they end up not being able to create interesting visuals or to fully utilise their Houdini knowledge..


I highly encourage people to watch anime and 2D movies in general and to try to analyse motion, timing, and any other visual resource that could help build a bigger visual library. This practice helps to inspire as well as improve our artistic sense.

Anime and 2D animation



Sharing hip files


Let's appreciate all these extraordinary artists who share their amazing files and remember the hard work they put in to produce them! Let's not take their contributions to the community for granted, let's not push to share what isn't willingly given and most importantly, let's take their example and think about what WE can do to give something back to the community.


How to present your work


This is something that is hardly talked about and generally ignored by young talent and students. But I cannot stress how important it is to properly present your work. Here are few things to consider:

  • Try to describe your work and what you are presenting in the shortest possible way.

  • if you have multiple images, put them into one pdf that is not too large to download.

  • If you have multiple videos, choose the best ones and put them into a single edit. Then add text describing your work.

  • Never record a video with your phone to show your work, NEVER.

  • If a professional is on Facebook, don’t drop your information into his messenger app. Instead, send a professional email to start a proper discussion.

  • It is very important to work on leaving the right impact when sharing your work with professionals and with the community. Even if you are still a beginner, presenting your work properly will definitely get you the attention you need.

High res fire and smoke sims

Sharing work


We have tons of new Houdini users who are very excited to learn Houdini and destroy things. But unfortunately the side effect is that whenever new users manage to drop and fracture a sphere, they get too excited and post that on Vimeo. The result: We end up with hundreds of videos that start with "First test", but which really do not show anything interesting about the creator or the visual. I totally understand why people share these experiments, but unfortunately there is no real value in doing so.


I have two simple questions I ask myself before posting anything:


  • Will this show people a new skill that I'm proud of?

  • Will this show people something that they may be interested in?


If I can answer both question with YES, then I post, otherwise I can help reduce the visual noise.  Here are two examples of high res fire and smoke sims:



Learning Houdini has changed


A while back Houdini was really hard to learn and only very few people got the chance to learn and use it. But nowadays there are tons of training materials and it is much easier to learn Houdini. I'm looking forward to seeing more and more talented artists get into Houdini and using it to create interesting visuals.


How to go about learning Houdini


Houdini is a very challenging package, most likely the hardest of all. The best way to learn it is to develop a very good CG background in all the required fields (modeling, rigging, basic animation, shading, texturing, lighting and compositing) but to do so by using a different 3D package. Once the student has a good CG background they can then start learning Houdini.


For instance my introduction to creating FX in Houdini is an intro to Houdini, but in no way is it an intro to CG. The student therefore has to have a very good CG background to fully understand the course material and follow along.


My advice to anyone new to the field is to first develop a very good generalist background.


Which courses to pick


This gets very tricky, because nowadays many schools have adopted new and somewhat misleading marketing techniques. They will for example use the artist’s profile and his work from blockbuster movies or triple A games to brand the course.


Unfortunately you may fall under the illusion that you will be able to magically achieve a similar result by enrolling in the course. The truth is, you will NOT, and those images are the collaboration of hundreds of artists working on a triple A game or a high-end movie.


My recommendation for anyone shopping for courses is to ask for a detailed info about the course content, what the end result will look like and the total number of hours. It is also very important to make sure that the instructor is a good teacher, since being a great FX artist does not necessarily equate to being a great teacher.


For my courses I’ve created a video HERE showing a detailed description of what the course will look like and what the student will able to achieve during the workshop. I am hopeful that more instructors and schools will produce this kind of overview more often, not just for Houdini courses.

Rendering Using Houdini



Advice for Houdini Teachers


Houdini is a very challenging package and it is very tricky to teach. Here are a few rules that I always follow. I believe that they should be the norm when teaching Houdini.

  • Always have a big space that shows the network view and multiple nodes at a time.

  • Never start with an existing setup, and always create everything live and from scratch.

  • Minimise coding.

  • Explain why you are solving certain problems with solution A and not solution B and mention the existence of alternative solutions.

  • Try to have a goal that should be achieved at the end of the lesson.

  • Try to to design the course so that each student can end up with a different result.


Online workshops and tutorials


Online learning is a great way of acquiring knowledge nowadays, but it has a big downside, which I have tried to solve and avoid in all my courses. Most of the FX courses out there aim at creating one specific effect.


This is very problematic and what happens most of the time is that by the end of the course you will have all the students with the same shot in their reels.


This makes a skill evaluation very hard for an interviewer. When I see multiple reels from different students with the same shot that looks exactly like the instructor shot, It is very hard and confusing to isolate the student’s skills. My recommendation for all online teachers is to try and make the course as flexible as possible so that each student can have their own unique result and experience.


HERE is some of the best student work created during my Introduction to Fx in Houdini workshop - you can see the variety in the work produced.





I would like to leave you with a few key ideas that have guided my professional development:


  • I cannot stress enough how important it is to build and develop a very good artistic sense.

  • Mastering the tool and the technical side only does NOT make you a great artist.

  • It is crucial to have a good math background and to be very comfortable working with vectors.

  • It is very important to have a deep understanding of what makes things in real life behave or look the way they do.

  • Repetition is a key factor in becoming a great artist.

  • Always have a goal.

Saber Jlassi 2017


By: Patricia Cornet
GridMarkets marketing

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