The Academy Earns Accreditation as SideFX Certified Houdini School

From feature films, to music videos, video games and live concerts, special effects artists use software called Houdini to make cinematic magic. This summer, Academy of Art University earned the distinction of becoming an official SideFX Certified Houdini School, joining an elite group of 15 international colleges and universities, which meet the software company’s high standards for certification.

“Becoming a Certified Houdini School is quite significant for the Academy because it lets students know that the Houdini courses meet the standards set by SideFX and teach the skills and techniques that are important in landing a job as a Houdini artist,” said School of Animation and Visual Effects instructor Jonathan Gilbert, who teaches two online Houdini courses (ANM242 and ANM344). “Also, the publicity SideFX provides on their website helps connect people from around the world who are interested in learning Houdini at the Academy.”

One of 10 schools certified this summer, and one of only two in the United States (the other was Texas A&M), the Academy’s Houdini program was evaluated by judges from SideFX, Disney, Pixar and Double Negative. According to Online Associate Director of the School of Animation and Visual Effects Dennis Blakey the judges unanimously called the Academy students’ work “outstanding.”

“They were really impressed,” he said. “We have fantastic students doing amazing things with Houdini.”

The application called for profiles of graduates who used Houdini in their coursework and professional work. After a concerted search, Blakey and his colleagues put together a document featuring former students working in a variety of contexts. Their document included alumni like Hiroaki Narita (M.F.A. ‘10), an effects artist at Walt Disney Animation Studios who worked on films like Zootopia and Frozen; Lalida Karnjanasirirat, an effects artist at the visual effects studio CoSA VFX (M.F.A. ‘14); and two former students who are now Academy instructors in the School of Animation and Visual Effects – Chad Josewski (M.F.A. ‘09), a 3-D artist who worked on the Microsoft HoloLens virtual reality and augmented reality project; and Gilbert (M.F.A. ‘09) who has used the software as a freelance visual effects artist working on projects like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II and The Black Eyed Peas’ music video for “The Time (Dirty Bit),” adding 3-D pixelated effects to dance floor denizens.


While Gilbert first encountered the software, which is known for its procedural, node-based workflow, about a decade ago as a graduate student at the Academy, Blakey started using Houdini’s predecessor Prisms in the 1980s, winning an Emmy for the groundbreaking character morphing effects he implemented on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in 1993. More recently the visual effects artist animated space crystals for a Skrillex set at the 2013 BBC Reading Festival; and before joining the Academy two years ago, he worked as an executive producer at a game development studio, using Houdini to model 3-D aspects of a virtual reality video game. 

In Blakey’s online graduate course (ANM699), students learn how to use Houdini for procedural modeling and procedural animation by creating a rocket based on NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS), which they drop into a scene file Blakey created of the launch pad. 

“It’s something that’s doable in a semester for someone just learning Houdini, and they come out with a really nice looking, high quality scene,” the instructor explained. “It also gives them an idea of what it’s like to work in production and how a Houdini file is organized.”

Blakey and Gilbert both agree that the demand for Houdini artists is growing. And while Blakey has worked on films created entirely with Houdini, most of the large studios, such as Disney and Dreamworks, use a variety of different software based on personal preference, expertise, and the specific abilities of certain products. He said that while programs like Maya, Zbrush and Nuke are commonly used in the industry for animating, modeling and compositing, he’s seeing more and more artists turning to Houdini for visual effects that feature elements like clouds, water, fire and smoke, or destruction scenes with buildings breaking up.

“My recommendation is people learn both Houdini and Maya so they’re really diverse in being able to pick up jobs at the studios,” he said. “For those folks who are Maya based, if you can add Houdini to your skill set you’ll have something which is so specialized it’s almost always in demand.”