SideFX's Houdini program has made movie magic in blockbusters ranging from Moana to The Shape of Water, earning them two Oscars.

You may not be familiar with Ontario's latest Academy Award winners, but without them many of your favourite films would be unrecognizable. Toronto's SideFX Software has won two Scientific and Technical Academy Awards, including a prestigious Academy Award of Merit to honour their groundbreaking software, Houdini, used to animate and develop on-screen effects for countless films including Thor: Ragnarok, Moana, and the 2018 Oscar winner for Best Picture and Production Design, The Shape of Water.

"We've come a long way from animating a dancing hamburger," jokes CEO and co-founder, Kim Davidson. He started SideFX 31 years ago as a team of four people animating logos on mainframe computers. At the time, no animation software existed, so even animating a simple logo required a considerable amount of artistic and technical prowess. "So many things needed improvement. Developing the software to make this easier was a lot more interesting to me than illustrating a hamburger bun."

Houdini's magic

That software is Houdini, a pipeline tool that animators can use to bring their illustrations to the big screen. The program excels in its depiction of movement, allowing animators to realistically depict the flow of water or the flicker of fire, tasks that were previously arduous and time-consuming. Houdini allows animators to view their work in real-time and process large amounts of data – down to individual grains of sand on a beach – enabling the creation of lifelike effects. This development has transformed the industry, as recently as 10 years ago explosions required practical effects to look realistic – today movies like Guardians of the Galaxy blow things up with Houdini.

Houdini is updated daily based on customer feedback in order to provide a continuously improving product. It is used by both major studios and indie productions from Canada to Hollywood and beyond. Houdini has also drawn users from beyond the film industry, a growing contingent of which are video game developers and there have even been applications of the program for medical imaging.

From floppy disks…

30 years is an eternity in the technology industry. From the era of floppy disks to the cloud, SideFX has led the way. Davidson says being located in Toronto allowed not just their company, but an entire industry to thrive. "Toronto is an industry hub. There are great science universities with University of Toronto and Waterloo, animation schools like Sheridan, a big commercial market, and government support through SR&ED credits and NRC grants." Canada has always been an exceptionally fertile environment, that's why four of the six companies producing animation software originated here.

Since the early days, the industry has gone through a transformation. Senior mathematician Mark Elendt remembers the machines he worked on decades ago. "They cost $60,000 and had 30 megabytes of memory, your phone is more powerful than that now." But while many things have changed, some things remain the same. "We're lucky to have a great environment where we can find good people and retain them," Elendt says, noting they still rely on a talent pipeline from local universities and a University of Waterloo co-op program. "Toronto is the place where you have the right mix of engineers and artists," he adds. To foster this talent pipeline, SideFx offers a free learning license called Houdini Apprentice. "We have over 4,000 Houdini Apprentice licenses around the world, they're the next generation of artists growing up with Houdini."

…To Holodecks?

Imagining what the next 30 years may bring for SideFX, Elendt predicts significant growth for Houdini in the areas of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). While Davidson is more bullish on VR and Elendt prefers AR, Houdini is currently being used to build 360 immersive environments in both. “I'm not sure where the future is headed, but I know it will be bigger and faster,” says Elendt.

Unusual for a computer programmer, Elendt is a Luddite when it comes to adapting to technology himself, in fact, he doesn't own a cellphone. "As a programmer I'm a pessimist, I'm very skeptical of new technologies," Elendt says. "Things haven't changed so much, they're just faster. Not every technology is revolutionary. I'd like to live in a world with Holodecks, but I don't know when we'll be there."

While it might not be a Holodeck, Houdini has transformed computer animation – and it's for this contribution to the Hollywood landscape that Elendt and SideFX are being recognized. Elendt, a previous winner, is looking forward to the ceremony where he will get to rub elbows with his Hollywood peers from Pixar in Beverly Hills. "I'm not as recognizable as George Clooney, but this is my fourth Oscar," he laughs.



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