Tag Archives: houdini

Lost Cities Revealed – 3D Builds of Past Civilisations

In 2023 I was brought in to Rumble VFX as a lead 3D artist on Raw TV’s documentary series, Lost Cities Revealed.

Each episode covers a different location where up to date archaeological methods have revealed settlements to be larger and of greater importance than previously thought.

The VFX task was to create a big moment at the end of each of the six episodes, the current landscape altering to show how things may have looked in the heyday of each civilisation.

The Scottish episode focussed on Pictic Celts, a civilisation a few of us had experience recreating together for Britannia many moons ago. In a sense that made it easiest to make it look convincingly real. It probably helped I holidayed in the Highlands immediately prior to working on the series too! Little circular huts, wooden fences, fires, smoke, a suggestion of farming all helped to set the scene and give atmosphere.

Oman’s episode focusses on the first ever trade post at an oasis, an area of water-fed rich soil in an otherwise desert landscape. For this one I had to create buildings based on a few drawings and the excellent feedback from the director. The actual archaeologists on the ground had moved on to another project and didn’t have ready access to comms. Having made a generic square hut with a procedural redshift material for the mud walls, I laid out a city based on a map of the area, featuring irrigation and date palms.

Each episode came with a LiDar scan of the site, produced by industry specialists, Visual Skies. The Oman one really helped as the 2nd shot transpired to not be wide enough to fit in the oasis itself during the reveal. I replaced it with an entirely CG shot, recreating the camera move, only higher and wider.

As with all documentary work I’ve undertaken there’s a strong element of artistic license, be that in the layout of the cities, the overall look of buildings compared to each other or colours used by civilisations. In short, research is key when working on scientific or historical stuff, but where evidence is lacking, artistic expression helps.

The video above also contains shots from Sudan and Mexico.

Lost Cities Revealed is on Nat Geo and Disney Plus.
I’ve done a lot of documentary work. To see more, take a look through the Projects page!

The Crown Season 5 at Rumble VFX – Period Set Extensions on Beautiful Plates

Before the late Elizabeth II passed and her son was coronated, I was a CG lead at Rumble VFX on Season 5 of The Crown for Netflix.

See the full breakdown of what Rumble did in the video below and on the Rumble site here The Crown, Season 5 – Rumble VFX:

For me, there was a lot of set extension work to do including a recreation of the famous 90s neon signs at Piccadilly Circus. Naturally, being The Crown, there were also ground level, rooftop and aerial shots of Windsor Castle. I created a dilapidated look for Villa Windsor (Mohamed Al Fayed’s gift to The Queen) and was even called upon to replace an errant non-royal yacht. (How dare the late Steve Jobs leave it in shot!)

Work on the show took lots of hours of research and meticulous attention to detail, creating 3D in Houdini, projections in Photoshop, painting up in Substance Painter, rendering in Redshift.

A challenge for me is that I really enjoy the show and wanted to work on it for years, so ended up treating each shot as if it was my last. At one point I was dreaming of various tones of wall in the shots of Windsor Castle. What helped immensely and stopped me painting myself in to a corner was the exceptional production team whose feedback and documentation of the shoots was on point.

The yacht was a peculiar beast. Yachts are often very smooth, white, shiny, looking like fresh CGI frankly. With this being an HDR project I had to make sure we had details that were matching the plate, even out of the range of the SDR monitors most of us work with daily. When doing my rough comps I knocked the exposure of everything down to check it matched, then brought it up again.

One aspect of this project that really helped is the mountain of photos out there on the web. I’m really grateful for those of you who visited Piccadilly in the 90s with a camera or indeed the millions who’ve documented Windsor and the show’s Windsor, Burghley House over the years!

Set work is just one string to my bow – see other projects here.

Gold Rushing

For the last nine months I’ve been working for Fluid Pictures on graphics for Raw TV’s Gold Rush, a documentary series for Discovery Channel.

There seem to be two responses to the above. One is to ask what the show entails, the other is to ask why on Earth it needs visual effects. I tend to think of the Gold Rush work to be 3D graphics rather than VFX as it clearly isn’t aiming for a photoreal aesthetic. Unfortunately it’s this that keeps the show off my reel as the two styles clash. Luckily for me, Fluid have their own reel of graphics we’ve made!

I worked on many of these shots, bar the ones at 00:11, 00:17, 00:20, 00:26, 00:31, 00:42, 00:50, 00:53, 00:59, 1:03


I’ve personally been involved with season 10-12 and even a few shots on season 9. Each season is around 24 episodes long, with earlier episodes being broadcast as the later ones are edited. This time constraint, with a delivery every week, means graphics can’t be too fancy or they would continually fall very short of the client’s ideal.

That all being said, we used Houdini as the 3D software of choice, usually used as a straight VFX tool. The node-based methodology, excellent terrain tools and a fairly logical workflow worked in our favour. It was the first time where locations could easily be referenced directly from GIS data. We made tools for drawing out rivers, the cuts in the ground, tree distributions and so on, such that we could concentrate on the shot content. Much of the time the graphics explain how things work or the challenge of moving material from one location to another, but also mechanical things break, especially those with moving parts, so many of the graphics are there to show the problem and how it’s solved.

Oddly there are still technical challenges on this show, with Houdini FX actually being necessary for smoke. Also, although we had simpler Houdini Core solutions for dirt, water and conveyors, we needed to show these things going wrong dynamically or illustrate a point close up.

The show has improved my Redshift 3D skills and made me learn about HDAs, rigging excavators, POP fluids, and machining engine parts using VDBs. That being said, three series is enough for me now. I’m moving on to pastures new with actual VFX work on actual plates.

Gold Rush, at times in its life the most watched show in America on a Friday night, is available on the Discovery network of channels and Discovery+ in the UK.

2020 3D VFX REEL

PDF Shot Breakdown of 2020 3D VFX Reel

After a few more years of pootling about working in London and 2 years of Houdini work, it’s about time I updated my VFX reel! The previous one missed many projects out, so it’s fitting that this one is practically a 2019 one, especially considering the months spent during lockdown working on a personal project or two.

This particular reel contains some of the more effective and impactful shots I worked on for The Planets and the second series of Britannia, both at Lola Post Production in London’s West End. The Planets mainly involved decorative spheres in space, with a strong style that leans heavily on NASA’s archives with inky blacks and no stars. See my preview post from a while back for details!

Towards the end of The Planets I moved on to Britannia Season 2 as the CG shots were ramping up considerably. See my previous blog post for more details on that!

As an aside here, as someone who has switched 3D software to Houdini, if you’re considering learning Houdini, don’t be daunted! Start with the simpler stuff. At Lola, I was given a Houdini Core license which gets used in studios to do the day to day 3D tasks, working on shots, bringing in assets others have made, plus creating shaders, doing layout work etc. If you can handle that, the FX stuff becomes a lot easier to get your head around because you are already thinking Houdini. Looking back, especially now I have my own Houdini license at home, if I had dived into the FX end of things first it would have put me off the software. I can now easily work around problems with wrangles, writing my own nodes in VEX, I understand the logic with which the transforms are put together, the reason why global transforms are hardly ever differentiated from local and so on. If I had to learn that AND how to make a custom destruction sequence I’d be a full time bowl carver by now.

Enjoy the reel! And the drum and bass. Apologies, I needed something with pace and no lace. Feel free to use that last sentence in a conversation today.

Britannia Series 2 VFX

A breakdown of some of the VFX work by Lola Post

A while back, working at Lola Post, as things were winding down on BBC The Planets, I was handed a few things to work on for Sky/Amazon’s Britannia.

Initially this was a case of doing a spot of modelling. Barracks and cranes were needed to pad out the layout of an outdoor set. Aulus’ house had no roof in reality, then had my CG one, then a burnt version as some hooligans set fire to it using firebombs. Those also needed making as visual effects.

Two of the sets, one for the location known as Isca, and one for Oppida (an old name for settlement) were scanned using Lidar. Once that had been wrangled into something usable, it was handed over to us and used alongside many photo references taken on set to aid in all the modelling and set extension work that needed doing.

As there were many shots in both locations, there was a lot of tracking work to be done. I’m a firm believer in not over-engineering things. Whenever I could I pinned stills in to the plate using Nuke and then passed the whole lot onto compositors. However, being an atmospheric kinda show, this wasn’t always sufficient as said compositors usually had extra elements to add and a camera track was handy. Most of the shots tracked fine once we’d figured out lens info. Even when there’s loads of moving people in shot, there’s often enough to track between foreground and background for PFTrack to grab a hold of.

Isca had its own challenge. Being a hill fort inspired by some very old principles indeed, the actual set was tiny compared to the one that needed to be seen in wider shots. I was tasked with adding details in to aid its scale and believability. A quick fence creation setup in Houdini allowed me to draw in fences around the various huts dotted about. A series of particle distributions were used to scatter rocks, piles of logs and grasses around. Water troughs, buckets and other accoutrements were hand placed on to the set.

On the subject of technical work and Houdini, this was the second project where a large chunk of my work was done in Houdini, even layout and some of the modelling. This allowed me to continue learning an enigmatic software at a generalist level, only opening Houdini FX right at the end to set up a rigid body system. The project I’m on now (a story for another day) has seen me create particle systems, pyro smoke and even water, while all the time fitting that in within what many would consider the staple tasks of a 3d generalist, in one 3d package.

I even had an opportunity (much in the same way as my Latin homework at school was a ‘learning experience’ according to our teacher) to learn the basics of crowd setup in Houdini. When Aulus’ army arrive at Isca and indeed are en route, they didn’t have the decency to be real people. Luckily for me, much of the leg work of rigging soldiers and sourcing motion capture data had already been done, but setting up new shots based on others necessitated pulling things apart to understand how they worked, then making new setups from scratch. Much of VFX work is this and asking colleagues how to do things. Asking questions isn’t a weakness. Pretending to know everything is.

Preview – The Planets

On my longest stint working for one client, 14 months at Lola Post, I was lucky enough to be working on The Planets, first airing on BBC 2 on Tuesday May 28th, a decade after the previous BBC show of the same title aired.

A lot has happened in the last ten years – scientific advances and space exploration has led to us having unprecedented imagery and data from our solar system which has altered the theories as to how Earth and its sisters came into being, why we have life and other planets currently don’t, inspiring future voyages into the unknown. Down here on our little blue marble, technology has marched on apace, supporting space exploration and indeed driving it, but it has another positive outcome too – a huge improvement in visual effects.

This series has hundreds of VFX shots in it, many of them involving visualising locations we can’t possibly send a film crew to and times so far in the past it’s hard to imagine. With so many shots, and so many different terrains and planetary destinations to represent, I was brought in early to do look development and some research into how things may appear. Once the series was underway this was supported by the Open University who informed of correct details and current theories regarding how a landscape looks, the colour of the sky, the variety of tones on the ground and so on.

Helping all this was the fact that NASA and ESA put a lot of their data out in to the public domain, so written information, photographs, global textures and even elevation data, are available to you and I for free. There’s a lot to wade through but it was well worth the trouble.

Much of my terrain work and planetary imagery was pieced together in Terragen, though some of the wider planet shots including contemporary Earth, Jupiter and Neptune, are made in Houdini, that also being the 3D software of choice for laying out camera moves, adding asteroids, dust clouds and so on. The probes, asteroids, meteors and landers were mostly tackled by a team of talented artists and operators, some being hired for their lighting skills, modelling, others for more challenging Houdini simulation and destruction work.

Many were working for several months, a few of us well over a year, with production itself taking 2 years in total! That’s a lot of people putting in a lot of effort, and if my recent viewing of an episode is anything to go by, it’s all been worthwile!

For more info, check out the BBC Earth site at https://www.bbcearth.com/theplanets

2017 Showreel

After many years of work I’ve finally built up enough new shots to replace much of my old reel. It served me well, bringing in many projects, and indeed some of the better shots still remain, but now with spangly new work alongside!

My contribution to each shot is shown briefly in the bottom left of the screen, with a much more detailed explanation written shot by shot in the PDF breakdown.

In the past few years I’ve been fortunate enough to work on some very interesting projects that have been subject to watertight NDAs. Now that they’ve been broadcast and the dust has settled, it’s a real bonus for me to finally be able to share some of these with you.

The MARS series and Teletubbies were two such projects. MARS was seven months of my time and if I recall correctly, Teletubbies was significantly longer. This left two large projects missing from my reel and consequently any updates to it felt kinda pointless as I’d only be adding one or two shots and labelling it a new reel. The thing with working in TV or film is not all shots that I work on are actually showreel-worthy. Many are similar to each other or shots I’ve made previously, or they may be created using other people’s systems, to the point that putting them in a reel of my own work feels disingenuous.

This reel has been a long time coming, so I hope you enjoy it!