Simulating Reality on Film

Artistry and Coding in Effects Animation


I worked in the US Film Industry after graduate school in 1996. For the first 8 years I was lighting and compositing. In 2004 I moved to effects animation, a more technical but generalist role that handles the visual elements that don't fit in the standard animation pipeline. The role was called Technical Director, Animator or Artist in different places and the people I worked with spanned a wide spectrum of artistic talent and technical know-how that defies easy categorization.


  • Houdini
  • Nuke
  • Katana
  • C-Shell
  • Python


Effects TD



[Fig01] My visual effects work from Percy Jackson, Men In Black 3, Green Lantern, How to Train Your Dragon, Monsters Vs Aliens, Beowulf, Surfs Up, GhostRider, Stealth, and Spider-Man 2.


An effects demo reel is usually sent along with a cv and a hard copy breakdown of the work.

It's pretty straightforward and devoid of the overt salesmanship of a design pitch meeting. Execution at a high standard is a given focusing on almost subliminal details that most people barely notice. The interview verifies if the candidate did the work they are presenting and if there are any personality issues that would make them a poor fit in a production context characterized by:

Raft going whirlpool.
[Fig02] Percy Jackson: Rafting down whirlpool ocean simulation.
2 fighter planes in low clouds over Lake Baikal at sunset.
[Fig03] Stealth: Simulating cloud, contrails and air effects at Mach 5.

Art Directed

We are simulating natural phenomena that would be too dangerous, difficult, or expensive to film in real life. Or it maybe it's at a scale that's never been seen before or in a context that only exists in a concept illustration. The key to success was not straying too far from the natural results of the physics based simulation while meeting the needs of art direction that's focused on telling the story from the camera point of view.

Exploding debris as prisoners attempt jailbreak.
[Fig02] Men In Black 3: Rigid Body Simulation of blast fragments with ancillary particle sims of dust.
Penguin falls into the sand behind another penguin.
[Fig03] Surfs Up: Sand impact simulation and ambient foliage movement.

Simulation vs Keyframe Animation

As an effects animator I primarily worked with SideFX Houdini. It's a node based visual programming package used to animate physically based simulations of fire, water, destruction and other natural and manmade phenomena.

Unlike keyframe based animation, simulations are a scaled down version of a physical event where I would set parameters of forces, materials, boundaries and other conditions that could affect the simulation. Once the parameters are set the simulation has to run sequentially from the starting point through the most of the shot length before we could see the entire results. The workflow can be compared as baking to stir frying.

The simulations generate volume data, geometry, or particles that are lit then rendered into final 2D frames.

The frames are composited with plate photography and other CGI elements into a seamless whole with Nuke, a node based analogue to Photoshop. Depending on the type of movie and the complexity of the shot I might be responsible for the final composite.

Fiery blue tornado lighting up viking banquet hall.
[Fig02] Beowulf: Fire tornado fluid simulation with animated dissipation through roof following Grendel.
Motion blurred characters and scenery with flying dust.
[Fig03] How to Train Your Dragon: Fast camera dolly motion blur with distortion created by dragon's roar.


Simulations are computationally intensive ie take up lots of computer resources. As artists we were responsible for being economical with our resources so we could get feedback on our work in a reasonable amount of time.

We worked in a command line environment that allowed us to chain processes with scripting languages like c-shell, perl and python.

Asteroid flies toward large space station surrounded by asteroid field.
[Fig02] Monsters Vs Aliens: Keyframe hero animation with large scale asteroid background layout.
Cartoon trolley car with jet engines rocketing down San Francisco street.
[Fig03] Monsters Vs Aliens: Jets simulated with particles instead of fluids.

Leading Edge

These effects were pushing the envelope when they were done in the aughts and we were working for some of the pioneers of the field.

A Hollywood effects film is big investment that's intended to wow an audience with spectacle and story. Other projects have long lead and gestation times but it is a unique experience to work on projects that aim to be culturally significant and spectacular in 2-3 years.

Cover of CineFex 109 showing GhostRider on motorcycle and original GhostRider on horse.
[Fig02] GhostRider: Innovative Maya Fluids with SideFx Houdini process for custom fire featured on the cover of CineFex 109 in 2007.