Oscar-worthy education

Teaching the digital artists who create memorable Hollywood moments

How does a 3D visual-effects software company stay relevant in the hyper-competitive industry of Hollywood blockbusters? How does it continue to support the creation of memorable scenes from the likes of The Shape of WaterBlade Runner 2049, Star Wars: The Last Jedi and every movie nominated for a visual effects Academy Award in 2018?

It gets very serious about educating its clients — the digital artists who use its Houdini software.

“It is the premier software used in the industry for visual effects, bar none,” says Kim Davidson (BMath ’81), CEO of SideFX, a Toronto-based company he heads with fellow University of Waterloo alumnus Cristin Barghiel (MMath ’94), vice-president of product development.

SideFX was honoured with two Academy Awards in 2018 – an Academy Award of Merit (Oscar statuette) and a Scientific Engineering Award – that named Barghiel and two other Waterloo alumni who are developers at the Toronto-based company: Jeff Lait (BMath ’99) and Mark Tucker (BASc ’97).

Watch the SideFX team accept their Oscar

From the blazing inferno that engulfs a giant skyscraper in the recently released Skyscraper to the visualization of a black hole in Interstellar (2014), Davidson and Barghiel are proud to say that SideFX’s Houdini software products are behind almost every dramatic visual effect you see on the screen.

Gaming industry also uses Houdini software

Digital artists love Houdini software because it gives artists more control and freedom. But the world-leading company, founded in 1987, doesn’t just depend on technology for its success.

Kim DavidsonWith increasing demands for more complex, sophisticated visual effects from the gaming industry and the likes of Pixar and Sony Pictures Imageworks, Davidson says education and training are critical to SideFX customers based in more than 70 countries.

“To create a great work of art, you need not only Houdini but a person who knows the software and can work with it,” says Davidson.

“We have taken a passionate stance on education to support our customers in developing high-quality skills that are industry-ready,” adds Julie Lottering, education and training manager at SideFX. Her role is to provide learning resources and support for professors and artists as they learn and teach others on the Houdini software.

SideFX hires Waterloo co-op talent

SideFX employees are constantly learning at the intersection of computer science, mathematics, physics and art. The company gets its talent by making extensive use of co-op programs at Waterloo and other post-secondary institutions. Davidson says the company has had more than 100 co-op students over the years, and although they didn’t all come from Waterloo, many did.

Wayne Wu, a systems design engineering student at Waterloo, completed two co-op placements at SideFX. He says the experience has made him more interested in the film industry as a career path and that his goal is to “excel in both technology and art.”

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