Mastering Destruction in Houdini | CG Master Academy

Mastering Destruction in Houdini

An 8-week course on creating feature-film-quality destruction effects for film

Course overview Course overview

Course Overview

Use Houdini and create amazing effects for film

Unleash your inner FX monster, and let's smash some buildings! In this destruction course, students will learn a comprehensive set of skills to develop beautiful work with a high degree of artistic control. This will include fracturing, RBD simulation, dust, debris, and adding details from real-world reference material. However, students will learn more than just the technical setups alone - they'll also learn about production pipeline considerations, and innovative unique workflows for art-directing damage (both with & without simulation). By the end of the class, students will have a feature-film-quality destruction shot for their demo reel! Building asset provided by


Course Format:   Standard
Lecture Type:   Pre-recorded
Feedback:   Individual recordings
Duration:   8 weeks
Assignment:   Due each week. Expect to spend 10-15 hours per week viewing lecture videos, participating in q&a's, and working on assignments.
Q&A:   Once a week
Materials:   Houdini 17.5
Skills level:   Intermediate
Prerequisites:   Basic working knowledge in Houdini or equivalent | Course Prereq: Intro to FX Using Houdini

Mastering Destruction in Houdini WHAT YOU’LL LEARN

What you'll learn

The more you know, the better.

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Over the course of the entire 8 weeks, we'll be building upon the same scene, adding layers of complexity and realism with every step. In week 1, we'll discuss fracturing our 3d geometry to achieve realistic results. We'll cover voronoi and boolean fracturing, debugging common fracture problems, and then create some custom reusable tools (HDAs) to streamline our destruction workflow! While creating our destruction HDAs, you'll also be introduced to VDB volumes and learn why they're so useful for various types of processing.
In week 2, you will learn how to prepare a building asset for destruction, and how to efficiently fracture the geometry. You'll also learn what packed geometry is and how to work with it. We'll even create some additional HDAs to assist in our destruction workflow.
Now that we've fractured our geometry and prepared it for destruction, we can finally start running our rigid body simulations using Houdini's Bullet solver! We will discuss the following: Simulation setup/parameters in detail | Various options for controlling velocity/activation/etc | Working with proxy geometry | Organic/deforming vs rigid colliders | Artistic approach for the first pass at RBD simulation | The most efficient & flexible workflow for caching your simulations
This week you'll learn how to set up constraints to control our simulations. We will focus on Glue constraints, but discuss other constraint types as well. We'll also develop a mixture of manually-created & auto-generated constraints, and learn various clumping techniques for art-directing the simulation.
In a final & finished shot, only a portion of the detail that you see on screen is simulated. Some of that geometric detail is added as a post-simulation process. We'll look at real-world reference and add procedural rebar construction detail to our scene. We'll also add in some procedurally sculpted damage detail to the building geometry itself. As an optional step, we will discuss efficiently adding extra simulated props to the scene for even more realism!
Once we've developed a nice primary rigid body destruction simulation, it's time to add the finer details. We'll look at emitting debris from the RBD sim, and go over both particle-based & RBD-based options for the secondary debris emission. We'll also create custom HDAs to streamline our RBD-emission workflow.
There are various ways to shatter glass, and the best approach is highly dependent on the scenario you're dealing with in your shot. In week 7, we'll discuss glass fracturing, the various options available for you to simulate glass shatters, and how to choose which technique(s) are best for your shot.
A beautiful dust simulation is one of the most important parts of any destruction shot. It's often the most prominent and most visible element, and often the most difficult element to get right! In this final week, we'll discuss my recommended workflows for sourcing/simulating dust, working with collisions, and efficiently caching. The final look is also highly dependent on the shading/rendering of your simulation, and we'll cover that important part of the process as well. Finally, we'll briefly discuss compositing your rendered elements for a beautiful finished reel-worthy piece.

Unleashing your creativity

Keith Kamholz is a Lead FX Technical Director at DNEG, and he has previously worked at Industrial Light & Magic, Blue Sky Studios, Tippett Studio, and Framestore NY. He's worked on more than 15 feature films, with credit highlights including Pacific Rim: Uprising, Venom, Jurassic World, Transformers: Age of Extinction, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, & Ice Age: Continental Drift. Keith has also presented some of his destruction techniques at SIGGRAPH 2018, courtesy of SideFX. He earned a dual-major B.A. in Computer Science & Media Study at SUNY Buffalo, and an M.S. in Digital Imaging and Design at NYU's CADA.

Student interviews


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Feb 8, 2021 - Apr 26, 2021




January 27th!

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Companies that hire our students

  • Naughty Dog
  • Luma Pictures
  • Google
  • EA Games
  • DreamWorks Animation
  • Blizzard Entertainment

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Enjoy over 365 days of full course access. This includes all lectures, feedback, and Live Q&A recordings.

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Earn a Certificate of Completion when you complete and turn in 80% of course assignments.

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Simulating Destruction in Houdini

Interview with Hadrien Palanca

Hadrien Palanca studied destruction simulation at CGMA courses Mastering Destruction in Houdini and Intro to FX Using Houdini and shared his experience and knowledge.


Hi, my name is Hadrien Palanca, I am a freelance motion designer and FX artist based in France. I do 3D works for commercials, TV, live events, music videos and all kind of stuff.

For me it all started back in 2000-ish, I loved playing video games but I get bored with every game I play real quick. So I started to play with Cinema 4D. For me, it was like another video game where I could play with balls hitting bricks and physics engine.

When I was in college I studied a lot of things (economics, law, history) but not in art. I learned everything by myself (well, with the help of great online teachers also). At that time, I was also involved in a student association (I had a ton of parties!) and we felt the need for some teasers and animated 3D logo in order to sell more tickets for our parties. So I started to learn everything I could in a more professional way within After Effect and Cinema 4D. I immediately enjoyed it and decided to make a living of it.

I have always been passionate about destroying things, so I kept an eye on Houdini but never dared to take the leap until I saw the VFX breakdown of the movie Attraction from Main Road Post. That was it! Too much for me! I decided to take a leap and learn Houdini whatever it’d cost. And it cost me A LOT of time! But in this journey, CGMA helped me a lot.

CGMA Courses for Houdini

I am kind of extreme when doing things. I bought a lot of Houdini courses available on the internet (RebelwayApplied HoudiniRenascence ProgramPluralsight, and more) and studied them as much as I could (at a given point I was studying Houdini 14 hour a day). I was willing to know everything I could.

At CGMA, I took the 2 Houdini courses for destruction – one with Keith Kamholz, Mastering Destruction in Houdini, and the other with Manuel Tausch, Intro to FX Using Houdini. I am really happy to have taken them in this order because I was still kind of new to Houdini when I took the first one, and Manuel’s course is really tough!

I think by looking at both of my results you can see the progression, especially in the smoke simulation. Those two courses really helped me to learn a lot within Houdini.

Impressive Destructions in Houdini

You want to have a clear idea of what your destruction will look like because you will fracture your geometry according to that. There’s no point to fracture a part of a building which is not supposed to break, right? For this, your geo must be as clean as possible (no intersecting geo or unfolding geo). After that, you fracture it and get it ready for simulation.

Then, you stack multiple sims on top of each other.

The point is not really to build a «physically correct» destruction. Houdini constraints are not aware of weight, for example, a thin paper-like piece of concrete could literally handle the weight of a whole building. The point is rather to build destruction which looks plausible to you and is as pleasing to the eye as possible.

Setting Destructibles

There are multiple technologies allowing to build destructible structures and simulate fracturing. Here, I used the bullet physics engine. It has been designed for games initially and is now widely used in VFX for handling large numbers of rigid body pieces. You work with physics by giving attributes to pieces that the solver will then understand: speedmax, spinmax, gravity, all sort of information that you give to the solver to have the desired look. There are no good or bad settings I believe, there is only what’s working for your project or not working.

If you are interested in the current state of the technology behind destruction, here is a pretty good article exposing the technology that is being used and that will be used in the future.


Dust effect

The dust effect is not that complicated, it is a combination of 3 simulations: particles sim for the dust with grains, smoke sim and a rigid body sim for rocks.

A growing circle around the character (in the Tower Destruction) scatters points on it and according to the center emits more or less smoke/density. Everything is driven by this smoke sim.

Testing Sims

Usually, you want to iterate quite a lot and tweak settings, so it’s necessary to start with fewer pieces, lower collision resolution, fewer sub-steps like that in order to have quick feedback and test which values work best. And then, when you are happy with the behavior of your pieces, you crank everything up.

Advice for a beginner: I would say that no shot will ever be perfect so the most important thing is to try and get better every time. Obviously, if you are a beginner it will not be impressive at first but try, fail, repeat… until your result gets really good.




For me, the most challenging part of Manuel’s course was to combine my daily freelance work with weekly assignments that you have to do. That’s really a lot of work which is not always easy to manage with high demanding projects.

As for the shot itself, I would say that it was the clustered fire sim that I did for torches inside the tower. I had to do multiple clusters for every torch so it was challenging to understand how things work and make the solver understand how to resize dynamically the simulated area for each torch. I ended up with a real mess in my network and some torches actually aren’t very well simulated but, overall, you don’t really notice that.

Recommendations for Learners

When it comes to giving advice to the beginners, it’s really personal but I would recommend not to start 3D with Houdini. Perhaps, it’d be better to start first with something easier to have a solid foundation of the principles in 3D and then move on to Houdini.

I started with Cinema 4D and if I had to understand both how 3D works (textures, UV, normals…) and how Houdini itself works I don’t know if I could have made it.

If you already know 3D, then start with a general introduction which explains what every button does and how Houdini works. That’s not as exciting as a fancy tutorial on building destruction, but you if you have a more solid understanding of Houdini you will be able to use it in every situation. That is not always the case for a tutorial on a specific effect. Once you get a good grasp on Houdini, I would then recommend Applied Houdini from Steven Knipping. For me, this is the where you can get the most valuable information out of your money and believe me, I have bought A LOT of Houdini courses!


CGMA courses were both (Manuel’s and Keith’s) really helpful and full of great production-proven techniques. This was gold! Especially for me because I don’t work in a studio environment full of Houdini killer artists ready to share tips and tricks with you.

I have learned so much within those two courses that it is hard to point out a particular thing I have learned. But I would definitely recommend both courses at CGMA!

Hadrien Palanca, FX Artist & 3D Generalist

Interview conducted by Daria Loginova

Destruction in Houdini

Interview with Karan Jaura

Karan Jaura, studied destruction simulations in this CGMA course, Mastering Destruction in Houdini. He shared his experience and knowledge on how he achieved this.

Q: Could you please introduce yourself? What do you do? How did you get into the 3D world? What projects have you worked on? What are you working on currently?

Hi, My name is Karan Jaura and I work in Toei Animation, as a Senior FX Artist. 

Well for me it all began in the summer of 2000 when I finished my schooling. My elder brother who was in New Delhi at that time, taking a course in web designing, saw 3D CG was getting popular in India and convinced me to take 3D CG as profession and that's when I left my home town, Saharanpur at an early age of 19 and went to New Delhi and took a 3 months course in 3ds max.

Soon after finishing my course I got my first job there in a design company, I use to 3D model stalls for exhibitions and that's where I got my first paycheck of $50,while handing over that paycheck the owner of that company said something to me and those lines made a mark on me and became the Motto of my life, he said “Karan, if you want to reach the heights of something then first you have to go into its depths.” 

I left that company after sometime and worked as apprentice in couple of studios in New Delhi doing graphics for TV commercials, Logo Animations and side by side doing a short term course in Maya before going to Dubai for job hunt in late 2003 and that's where the turning point for my career came, I met these guys there who saw my work and said “Karan, Dubai is not the place for you at the moment, if you want to make 3D CG as your profession then go to Mumbai and learn from the Industry professionals”. They gave me a list of people to contact and with a reference letter and early Jan 2004 I was in Mumbai The City of Dreams what people say and from there I never looked back. Worked in Mumbai for 6 years then went to London and now in Tokyo, Japan for last 9 yrs.

The journey was hard and struggling but a joy ride too, had the privilege and honor to work with the industry veterans and clients like BBC, Brown Bag, Mike Young Productions, The Hub Network on the TV shows like Cosmic Quantum Ray, Noddy, Transformers Prime and Tron which bagged Pulcinella Award, Silver Plaque Award, and Emmy Award, and currently working on projects like One Piece and Dragon Ball which are some of the most popular anime characters in Japan.

Q: Why did you decide to take the Mastering Destruction in the Houdini course? What were your goals here? What did you want to learn from it?

One thing which I love doing is watching VFX breakdowns and especially of destructions, those are the inspiration for me to keep learning, pushing the limits and polishing my skills but sadly all these years I restricted myself to 3dsmax and Maya, never dared to take that plunge in Houdini, as I was scared, until one fine day I saw Applied Houdini Course and I said to myself NOW is the time, I immediately took the entire course and started my journey towards Houdini, I was so excited about it that at the beginning I remember spending 14-15hrs of the day studying Houdini.

I myself having passion for breaking stuff wanted to learn and go more deep inside the destruction workflow of Houdini, that's when I saw this information about the seminar on Mastering Destruction in Houdini which Keith was conducting in Tokyo, I attended that seminar which was a good overview of the techniques Keith uses for destruction in the production environment, I was really impressed by it and I decided to take the same course which CGMA was offering on Mastering Destruction in Houdini with Keith Kamholz as our mentor.

Well I must say that this course has done complete justice to its title  “Mastering Destruction” and it's worth every single penny, it's a gold mine of tips and techniques, I have learned so much about the destruction workflow for production, starting from developing custom tools (HDAs) inside Houdini for fracturing to fixing the assets and making them destruction ready, to combining your technical and creative skills and make simulations which look believable to the eyes.

Q: What would you say is essential in terms of the production of the destruction scene? What should be looked after from the very beginning? Reference? Key concepts? Key elements

The key aspect for any destruction shot I would say is pre production, which includes proper planning right from the very beginning, you need to have clear image in your mind of what your destruction shot should look like, you just can’t take the building for instance from the modeling department and start doing your RnD on it, there are so many things to consider way before the actual production for destruction begins, here are some crucial things to keep in mind before you start working on a destruction shot.
What kind of shot is it? Generic or Hero.

  • How far is it from the camera? Which part of geo is visible from camera?
  • How much detailing is required in a shot, based on camera?
  • What all elements are required in a particular shot? For e.g. dust, fine dust, POP debris or RBD debris, rebar, glass shatter, sparks, explosions.
  • Is there any character interaction taking part in destruction? 
  • How can we make the destruction workflow art direct able?
  • Is there any reference or concept art to follow?

Those being some of the things to consider before the shot begins, there are few important things you have to take care of when the actual shots begins, you need to make sure that your geometry is water tight, meaning it should not have any open edges or else your fracturing process will fail and secondly if the geometry you receive is from some other native 3D software, most likely it will be having name and shading group attributes on it, we have to preserve these attributes till the very end and while exporting the final SIM for the lighters we have to write these attributes as these attributes will be used for the shading but if you are rendering the geo in Houdini itself then you don't have to worry about it.

Q: What tools did you use here? What way did you work on building?

The first 2-weeks of our class were mainly focused on developing custom tools (HDAs) for destruction and various modeling techniques to fix the asset. Our mentor, Keith Kamholz, stressed how important it was to have such tools (HDAs) handy, which not only makes the production process faster but are also an integral part of any destruction workflow.

The first tool we made was cutter geometry and we added various parameters on it so that we can easily and quickly make our cutters, which would help fracture our building geometry. The parameters category were broadly divided in 4 sections, first being the number of cutters and its resolution and whether the user want to promote its id attribute, second and third was for adding 2 layers of noise, low frequency and high frequency with some standard scale and amplitude parameters and last was for optimizing cutters which would help trim out areas which are not required for fracturing and avoid unnecessary cooking time during shattering.

The second tool was shatter geometry, which was just a wrapper around the standard Boolean fracture sop.

The last one was the measure fracture tool, this was really handy in filtering out tiny pieces, which were not required to go in for simulation and thus helped in optimizing the fractured geometry. The parameters added were to measure geometry based on area, volume or bounding box and filter those out based on the size threshold.

The building asset, which we got as a part of course material, had some modeling issues in it, so after making our HDAs in 1st week our next task was to fix those modeling issues in 2nd week. Fixing asset is not a fun process of the destruction workflow but a very important one to get use to some of the basic modeling techniques inside Houdini. It’s quite common to get this kind of unfixed geometry in production, which is not well suited for fracture and needs a whole lot of work to make it destruction ready.

The first thing we did was separated the geometry which we wont be fracturing whatsoever, then we split up the geometry which we would be fracturing and went ahead to fix those sections that required those fixes, first one being the planar interior walls which we converted into 3D and then boolean fractured the floors with the walls and the walls with the floors, this way we got separated walls and floors for the entire building. Next we converted the planar rings into 3D by simply poly extruding them along there normals. The window frames needed a bit of work, since there were over 500 window frames in the entire building we first isolated one frame and did all the fixes it required using poly sops like polybridge, polyfill and polyextrude, once all the fixes were done we then used for each loop to run this fixing process on all the window frames. 

Lastly we did some attribute fixes and clean up before chopping out area we would be running detailed fracture on, it would be such a waste to run detailed fracture on the entire building when the monster is only destroying a specific portion of it.


Q: How did you work on the destruction effect itself? What are the key elements of it? It would be awesome to learn more about the process! 

When you talk about destruction effect the first thing which pops in your mind is the RBD (Rigid Body Dynamics) simulation which is considered as the backbone of the destruction process but often the backbone alone is not sufficient for a shot, it needs multiple elements or layers like debris, fine particles, dust which are triggered from that base RBD simulation to make your shot look complete. So basically you end up stacking multiple simulations on top of each other, which become a destruction effect and in this shot apart from the base RBD sim we added key elements like POP debris, RBD glass shatter debris and PYRO dust.

Setting up the base RBD simulation is the most crucial and time consuming process, which needs to go through various stages like optimizing fracture, updating constraints, creating proxy geometry, generating procedural and manual clumps or clusters on constraints, setting up the RBD sim properties and finally doing post sim tweaks.

Let’s briefly walk you through all stages, once you have your fracture cached you need to call out tiny pieces which will not take part in the RBD sim what so ever because we will add those tiny pieces later as debris in a separate element. After you lock on the fracture, you need to update the constraints, you do that by running a per primitive loop on constraints to check if the fracture piece name exist on it, after that you make proxy geometry of the high res fracture pieces cause you will be doing your RBD sim on these proxy geos for faster feedback.

The biggest part of art directing your destruction workflow comes from defining clusters or clumps, a building would never break into millions of tiny pieces, there would be some big or small chunks of pieces staying intact when falling or often the supervisor or the director would want you to keep a portion of the building intact for story purpose and that's where setting up clusters or clumps comes into play.

The last but not the least thing that you need before you start testing your sim is setting up the RBD sim properties on the fracture pieces, it's the stage where you can control or set parameters like speedmin,speedmax,spinmin,spinmax which are understood by the rigid body solver. Once you are happy with your RBD sim you cache it out as points and attach your high-resolution pieces to it.

Post sim tweaks helped in refining the sim at sop level, like fixing cluster pops or adding crack details or floor sagging. The idea is that you work directly on the raw cached sim points do all your fixes on it and then extract it transforms and put it back on the raw sim points.

Q: How did you render the scene? How did you work on lighting? What values did you use? How many sources of light are there? 

Rendering this shot took me long, as this whole project was done on my home computer which is an old iMac running on just 24GB RAM and I am happy that my poor machine pulled it through LOL. Altogether it took me around 1 week to render all the layers, 7 layers to be precise and those were the hero building, debris, glass shatter debris, dust, monster, background buildings and the sky, the hero building and dust took most of the time to render.

I had a clear picture in my mind of the look I wanted for this shot as I didn't want to copy what Keith did, so I used 1 environment light with a HDRI map that I got from this excellent site HDRI Haven for pretty much all the layers except for the monster in which I added 1 extra key light and to have that GI feel I used PBR (Physically Based Rendering) render engine for this shot. So basically lighting it self was pretty much straightforward. 
Q: What challenges did you face when working on this project? How did you overcome them? What lessons did you learn during the course? How did mentors’ advice help to make this project better? 

Talking about challenges well to be honest there were a lot, but as its said life without challenges would be so dull and boring. I will categorize them in 3. Time Challenge, Hardware Challenge, The Technical Challenge.

Having a full time job, that too with tight deadlines and top of it enrolling for a course like this, which really demands your time and effort, it was a bit of challenge to manage, I use to work till late night everyday to be able to submit my weekly assignments right on time so that I could get feedback from our mentor Keith Kamholz, because those feedbacks were really important for me to know my mistakes or area where I could improve and that's how you learn, polish your skills and grow as an artist.

When I enrolled for this course I was bit scared as my hands were tied to a specific hardware and that was my home computer, I was not sure that it could handle such a FX heavy shot, so I had to constantly keep an eye on the performance monitor to check how much processing power and RAM its using and then optimize the workflow accordingly like not going too much crazy on the cutter geometries for fracture or unnecessarily adding too much voxels in pyro dust sim, to going ahead and removing portion of the sims outside camera’s frustum but I am glad that all the settings worked out pretty well for me and my computer was able to handle it nicely throughout the course.

To be honest this is not an easy course, for me personally setting up the procedural and manual clusters for constraints was the most challenging part. This was something completely new for me and it took me a while to understand the process. Often, I used to get stuck in some technical problems which I was not aware of, but thanks to our mentor Keith Kamholz who was always there to support us throughout the course.
Well if I have to make a list of things that I learnt during this course it’ll end up being a long long one, in short all I can say is Keith has opened his treasure trove of Houdini tips and techniques in this course, not only he shared his production quality techniques for destruction but he went beyond that during live sessions and on the forum guiding us and shared his enormous wealth of knowledge he has in Houdini and that's the characteristic of a good mentor.

The best part about Keith, was that he kept insisting us through out the course to try and play around with different settings and parameters so that you just don't end up copying what he did, and I guess that really made a huge difference in my shot, you learn the techniques and then try putting your own character to the shot, so that your version stands apart from others and that's exactly what I did.

In the end I would like to thank CGMA and Keith Kamholz for helping me in setting up this milestone in my journey towards Houdini, still it's a long way ahead but as its said “A Journey Of Thousand Miles Beings With A Single Step.”

Karan Jaura
Senior FX Artist Toei Animation

Interview by 80.LV