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Featured Artist: Serjan Burlak, Vancouver

Serjan Burlak - Geometry of Moons and Orbits

“Geometry of Moons and Orbits”

I once was lost.
Serjan Burlak - Designer, Animator & visual effects Artist - working in film, games and science

In January of 2009, I saw the making of The Matrix.  It was magical, inspiring and infectious.  I was infatuated with the high-quality visual effects and craved a sense of belonging to a group of people passionately dedicated to their craft.


I started taking courses after work, attending master classes, aspiring to become a compositor, a 3D modeler, an animator, a motion designer, a texture painter, an FX TD, a this and a that, studying fluid dynamics in depth at the same time as I was finishing a matte painting course.  Trying to fast track technical skills by consuming tutorials like coffee and accumulating information fat turned me into a crippled 3D generalist with poor storytelling sensibility. Had you sent me to a career fair at that point, I would have been incapable of articulating what position I was seeking at a studio.


In fact, one day after looking at my portfolio a DNeg supervisor asked me "So... are you a jewelry designer, an aspiring architect or a compositor? Who are you and why do you want to work in film?"


No tutorial or a masterclass could answer that question for me.


Who was I as an artist? What was I pursuing? What did that choice say about me?


Bypassing that clarity had resulted in chasing an ambition that was far removed from the idea of mastery and the pursuit of excellence. Worse even - I had completely failed to achieve artistic fulfillment and felt like an impostor at Siggraph, NAB, BlendFest or SparkFX.


I remember sitting at a coffee shop feeling like this table, full of gaps.


Artistic mastery

Admitting the hard truth that I had no idea who I was and where I was going as an artist was shocking and embarrassing at the same time. I desperately wanted to change that. I wanted to define my path towards artistic mastery.

Asking the right questions
Geometry of Abundance

“Geometry of Abundance”​



"What matters is trying to understand the right questions to ask."

~ Elon Musk


Questions are points of navigation to distil, discard and sharpen focus. Prior to embarking on my personal journey towards artistic mastery, I thoughtfully and honestly answered these questions:


  • Who do I look up to?

  • Who inspires me?

  • Who resonates with me?

  • What do I want to be an expert in? Why do I want that? 

  • What do I want my work to be a statement of?

  • What portrait of me will get painted through the work I choose to do?


Understanding my "creative" biology helped me define the core of who I was as an artist. My work is a statement of my taste, reveals my values and what I care about. I am a storyteller, I am a designer.


A sincere desire to produce work that inspires then took me on a journey to understand the anatomy of a masterpiece. I wanted to understand what makes something truly compelling and evocative. Fulfilling this intention altered the trajectory of my evolution as an artist. It also took me one step closer to achieving the goal of artistic excellence that I had set for myself. Let me share some of the discoveries I made along the way.


“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. 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.“

~ Saber Jlassi


I agree 100% with Saber. Watching some random tutorial to learn another Houdini technique and then producing cool, derivative artwork is a path to forgettable mediocrity. There won't be any applause or Oscars. Artists must focus on creative visual storytelling if they want to achieve artistic excellence.


Many aspiring FX artists want to work at Pixar and few are willing to understand that storytelling is at the core of what makes a movie memorable and unique.


Alan Barillaro's story about the making of Piper exemplifies this beautifully.

Piper's immaculate FX poetry - light, color, texture, composition, focus, effects, motion, geometry, ratios, timing, sound, metaphors, storytelling structure

If you carefully deconstruct Piper's immaculate FX poetry piece by piece - light, color, texture, composition, focus, effects, motion, geometry, ratios, timing, sound, metaphors, storytelling structure... you will see remarkable intentionality in cohesion across all those elements that produce a visual symphony that pulls you through the story.


Piper is not just a story about a parent overcoming fear to allow her child to step into the world. What makes Piper so intelligent and special is that art directed bubble bursting on the surface of the wet sand, serving as a metaphor to what's going to happen next to the character. It's that little crab, moving slowly out of the the sand, metaphorically reflecting Piper's inner reluctance to embrace change. It's the reflection of the light on sea foam,  the wet and dry feathers, the drop of water cascading down the shell of a little crab... all these elements, perfectly designed to tell a poetic and original story.

Artistic mastery


Good design is a strong narrative that evokes a feeling and imparts a kernel of wisdom.

This is why finding a mentor with strong design and storytelling sensibility is key to becoming better at your craft.


A good mentor helps you see your blind spots, provides a structured path to develop your talent, shares workflows for distilling ideas and getting things done faster and better.

You feel less stupid and significantly more challenged because you have someone who has your back and doesn't let you settle for less! 


A good mentor enhances your ability to bring ideas to life both creatively and technically.

It’s easier to create a digital ocean than to find an original visual metaphor to tell a story.

Your ability to build believable interesting worlds increases your value as an artist.


At a school like LearnSquared (L2)  you get a double shot espresso - two mentors. Their curriculum is structured such that one mentor is an apprentice taking the course with you.

In addition to getting your dosage of mentorship, you witness one master mentoring another master.


In "Design for Production" (DFP), Mike Rigley mentors Ash Thorp. The conversation between the two is magical. Design and storytelling sensibility gets upgraded as you witness them go through dozens of examples and deconstruct what visual elements make something compelling to look at and how to do it technically.


At L2 you also have access to video content of a mentor doing the actual homework. It allows you to witness how a master learns, ideates, what he's paying attention to as he explores and fails. That is like to a portal to his thinking. I highly recommend Main Title Design and DFP.


Whenever I read a book, take a course or attend a masterclass I write out my key takeaways of what made something a masterpiece. I create an “Idea Architecture” mind map that contains sets of principles, criteria and guiding questions to refine an idea, a design or animation at different stages of the creative process.



Learning from a mentor exposes you to a high level of intentionality in design and to rigorous criteria that allow you to judge what makes something truly original. The process pushes you towards artistic excellence. The more you study masters, the more you develop a sensibility to what visual elements, in what order, and in what ratios evoke a feeling and deliver a message beautifully.



I would like to share some of my online explorations of artistic mastery with you. Hopefully, you will find some inspiration for your own journey in what follows:


School of Motion

Studying character animation principles at SOM made me a better storyteller and FX artist. There is a higher level of precision required in art directing the anatomy of a puppet to visually communicate its inner world, thoughts and feelings.


Mograph Mentor

I went through a 6-month mentorship program with Ryan Summers titled "Art Direction & Creative Execution".


Ryan teaches how to pitch visual directions and craft frames that excite people. He also shows you how to think things through, how to evoke a mood and how to compel a client to lean in and ask questions. Every week he shared different pitch-books from his experience working at Imaginary Forces and WeAreRoyale. Tapping into his rich experience of wins and fails helped me bypass hundreds of mistakes I would have otherwise made on my artistic journey.


School of Visual Storytelling

Jake Parker’s "Drawing Comics" is a masterclass in storytelling. He provides stellar examples and a framework of questions to construct believable worlds and characters.​



Carey Smith’s "SnapDragon" is a masterclass worth transcribing. He teaches how to engage curiosity in a viewer and how to push various aspects of the image, its qualities and elements further to support an idea. He also shows how to elevate cohesion between shots. Finally he also shares how to add layers of visual signifiers to add meaning that deepens and benefits the story as a whole. His strategies to step back, recognize and work through your own mediocrity are incredible.


Mike Hill

Mike Hill’s "The Forgotten Art of Blockbuster Cinema" from Industry Workshops covers neuroscience and the power of visual metaphors in storytelling. He also deconstructs James Cameron's storytelling structure for Terminator 2.


The Collective Podcast

Ash Thorp interviews designers, directors and animators. These are real, raw, honest, unfiltered conversations about mastery, struggles, wins and battles. Each story inspires you to keep growing and become better as an artist and as a human.


Rohan Dalvi

Rohan is my favourite Houdini trainer. He is always project based, very well prepared, logical and distilled. He teaches mastery, explains every step and the why behind what he does; he never leaves you confused.



Two brilliant minds, Moritz Schwing and Manuel Casasola Merkle, share the art and science of advanced Houdini research and development. Go VEX!


Saber Jlassi

Saber Jlassi’s GridMarkets article is a must-read for any Houdini artist. He gives solid and clear advice on the dangerous pitfalls to avoid as an artist. He also tells us what it takes to become a good FX TD.


“The Power of Limits” by Gyrgy Doczi

This book significantly upgraded how I go about design. Doczi architecturally deconstructs geometries of sacred temples, plants, butterflies, human anatomy - even airplanes. He then reveals their ratios and grids, which create a visual symphony of complexity. This book is a diamond. It helped me build rigs in Houdini to do my work.


Passion Project


"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."

~ Saber Jlassi


I agree 100% with Saber. Your passion projects reflect your evolution as an artist because you set the bar and not your client.


Two of my personal projects got me connections, work and exposure as an artist I could not have predicted. Both projects were driven by a pure desire to craft an original masterpiece that would challenge me and represent me.



"Temples of Houdini"

SideFX Houdini: TEMPLES OF HOUDINI - 1st prize in the best image category at Side Effects’ “Marvelous Machines” design contest - destruction and fluid simulation.

“The Transform Node of Houdini”


I was awarded the 1st prize in the best image category at Side Effects “Marvelous Machines” design contest. This project was my homage to this software, driven by the intention to elevate how artists think of Houdini. Many either fear it or look at it as a glorified plugin for destruction and fluid simulation.


I see Houdini as the most intelligent software on the market. It equips your imagination with powerful tools and provides surgical control over art directing ideas.


For “Marvelous Machines” my intention was to make every element of the design feel like it was crafted by mathematicians, architects and biochemists. Everything would be digital and soulful, nothing abstract. I wanted to have complete control over every part of the artwork and made it fully procedural.


Before the design phase, I created a story:


“Because imagination is not bound by the laws of physics, Houdini nodes are designed to manifest any idea. Masqueraded as a small box, a node is a massive digital temple. If you dive inside, you will find yourself in Tesla’s lab, a modern Hogwarts’ library, or Einstein’s study, a place that contains a wealth of leading edge research in alchemy, mathematics, physics and biology.


Pipe an idea into a node and it travels through a tapestry of carefully crafted mathematical equations, refined lines of code woven elaborately like a Persian rug, to evolve the geometry of an idea further. An idea exists a node completely transformed, enhanced with new attributes, ready for further evolution. Networks of nodes look like constellations of stars forming a galaxy, a digital nervous system that is giving an idea its shape, motion, character, life.”



To support my vision, I designed over 20 different layers of detail to communicate nature, personality, mechanics, craftsmanship and charisma of the node. It was a challenge to design a singular frame that accomplishes fluidity, structure and complexity. My intention was to give each layer a distinction, yet make them feel unified.

TEMPLES OF HOUDINI Side Effects Software: Houdini nodes are designed to manifest any idea - DIGITAL VEINS OF HOUDINI

“The Veins of Houdini”

The full project breakdown and the making-of can be found here:

“HEX: Leonardo Da Vinci of Saturn”
HEX: Leonardo Da Vinci of Saturn: Future. Innovation. Technology. Creativity

“HEX: Technical Drawings” ~ Designed in Houdini


This project had me featured by Ash Thorp during his keynote at FITC (Future. Innovation. Technology. Creativity.) conference in Toronto. I remember standing all the way in the back, in the corner of the room.  My jaw dropped. It was very unexpected, surprising and rewarding.

Design process


Dissecting a creative brief is like solving a mystery that needs a visual solution.


A brief is a doorway to the mind and heart of the director, outlining engineering requirements that the design needs to fulfill.


Every word is a world. When I dissect a script I massage every clue. We have many adjectives and nouns that give ideas about shape, color, texture, function and motion.


I will demonstrate the analytical process I followed using a brief from LearnSquared that outlines the design of a specific object, the “HEX object”.


I will show how the design exploration of HEX led me to create a series of artworks I called “Leonardo Da Vinci of Saturn”.



In my process I take each word and explore its meaning, synonyms and find visual references that fulfill either one or several requirements.


This phase is crucial to craft something original, fulfilling the director's vision and avoiding derivative, recycled work. I was 100% certain I did not want to design anything that would visually resemble Tron, Prometheus or Ender’s Game.


My initial in-depth exploration typically takes about a day and manifests key production references that will support every design decision.


For example, because we know that HEX can warp time, it means it needs to have knowledge of the fabric of cosmos inside it and have the chemical capacity to explode and implode. That's why I am including into my design the color Red, as the color of explosion, and Blue - the color of implosion, and Yellowish silver, because it is the primordial color of the creation of the universe.


The "Earth seen from the space station ISS" reference looks like brain neurons firing up. I incorporated that into the design to visually communicate HEX's thinking patterns.


When you have this constellation, this nervous system of the brief available on a canvas,

you see where things connect and influence each other. A design language and art direction start to emerge.

Mystery of HEX: design language and art direction
Creation of 200 different elements using both Houdini and Cinema 4D

The creative brief and the subsequent exploration of references give me ideas on design elements I need to craft in order to fulfill director’s requirements. I created around 200 different elements using both Houdini and Cinema 4D.


I developed 3 art directions for my project.


The first one was inspired by Da Vinci’s drawings. I wanted to create a book that told a story about the genesis of HEX and its blueprints.

The second art direction was a photorealistic 3D render of HEX and its birthplace Saturn 2.

Photorealistic 3D render of HEX
Birthplace Saturn 2

The third revolved around the idea of a star map, made of Saturnian marble and star-dust, telling a story about the geometry and mathematics of Saturn, the birthplace of HEX.

Geometry and mathematics of Saturn
Birthplace of HEX

“Digital Neuron”

Because Houdini offers a 100% procedural non destructive workflow, your designs are like digital recipes. You can see the entire sequence of steps that produces a specific shape.


The amount of generative designs and versions you can produce is remarkable. You can iterate with relative ease when you have developed a library of designs to experiment with during the look development or compositing phases. 

Digital Brain - Remarkable amount  of generative designs and versions can be produced.

“Digital Brain”


In order to have a large library of shapes available to me without having to open Houdini and re-compute each node, I have my system of collecting screenshots of different designs into one canvas on a Mindnode.


This way I can see the filename, the name of the output node and subnetwork that contains it. 

You just click on an image, hit “Spacebar” and Mindnode gives you a full-screen view.

I always create a bunch of different designs first and later go through the harvest in a Mindnode and look through what shapes are good candidates to marry together in a composition.


Art that has meaning

“Data Visualization: distribution of precious metals”


I believe artistic mastery does not have to apply to rendering imagination only. Using real world data to drive design results in meaningful design.


Looking at a colossal spreadsheet of numbers does not paint a picture that gives a satisfying answer to an important question. In any field, be it medicine or finance, algorithms are developed to visualize relationships between large data sets.


Geometry is a language that translates numbers into patterns to reveal which data creates flow, bottlenecks, gravity, viscosity, distribution, hierarchy, connection, grouping, reallocation, alignment, cohesion, separation, or a crash.


Visualising and studying these geometrical patterns helps to make better decisions. There is geometry to cancer and there is geometry to abundance and flow.


In that sense, I see Houdini as not just my design studio, but also as my research lab. Houdini speaks Python, which enables you to read data and give it shape using Houdini’s tools. Below you can see some recent examples of my work.



As I further my Houdini mastery, I am using it even for graphic design. Adobe Illustrator doesn’t even come close to the power Houdini gives in bending splines and creating generative designs.


Profound responsibility


I believe designers are responsible for the psychology of the future. The pursuit of artistic mastery is not just about crafting pretty images. The quality of the impact of your images on others is what truly matters.


There is too much toxic visual garbage, destruction, pain and unnecessary emotive coercion in film, games, advertising and VR. I want to change that.


We consume thousands of images on a daily basis through advertising, media, movies and games. In doing so, thousands of metabolic changes occur in a chainlike reaction on a chemical, cellular, organ, and ultimately behavioural level.


Most filmmakers and designers do not understand the body is not just a vessel to process random imagery without traces of biological impact. The body trusts its eyes to inform its cells how to behave optimally. What is life threatening and painful should not be designed as entertaining. It is detrimental to health to confuse cells.


I am on a mission to demystify the biomechanics of how the nervous system processes and stores information. I am distilling neuroscience, acoustics and epigenetics (the science of how to alter genes through perception) into a digestible guidebook and a grid system for designers to craft to craft the next frontier masterpieces that forward the human collective.


I am discovering there is geometry to the electricity of thought. Hormones that the body generates when we consume an experience form an intricate architecture of bio-electrical patterns, essentially encoding the biology of our behaviour, forming the tapestry of our personal worldview.


I see film, virtual reality, augmented reality and design as the vehicles to forward evolution. They can disrupt old thinking, instill new awareness, and strengthen the heart and mind of the individual and the human collective.


~ Serjan

Serjan Burlak 2017



By: Patricia Cornet
GridMarkets marketing

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