Chris Bond started a VFX company called Frantic Films in 1997, and initially built a R&D team to create technology for a feature-film project they were working on. Existing off-the-shelf products weren’t quite right for their needs, and we wanted more control over how the tools were integrated into their pipeline. Thus began Frantic Film’s road to developing products not only for their own usage, but for others as well by selling the tools commercially through Bond’s Thinkbox Software. At one point, some of those tools were sold off, and recently Bond set out to reacquire them.
In this Q&A, Bond relays this unusual story.
Tell us about the launch of Thinkbox, the software company.
We developed Deadline for our own renderfarm management, but then we started getting requests for the product from peers at other facilities. After some deliberation, we started selling Deadline. In 2010, I launched Thinkbox Software to focus exclusively on commercializing our VFX tools that we had developed over the past 13 years.
What other software has Thinkbox created?
The technology we developed internally was designed to assist with actual production needs on films such as Avatar, GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Sucker Punch, and going back to X-Men 2 and earlier! Our goal is to take these production-honed technologies and produce robust tools that deliver fantastic imagery and work seamlessly with each other. We create artist-driven products, such as Krakatoa for particle management and rendering, Frost for fast meshing of particles and point clouds, Genome for geometry modification, and, recently, we announced Ember for simulation modification and creation. We also developed XMESH, which is the glue to move cached data between the tools, and of course we have Deadline – the render and process management tool that supports all of them out of the box.
You developed and released some Thinkbox products before the company was officially formed. How did you go about reacquiring your products?
Krakatoa and Deadline were commercially available before the launch of Thinkbox Software, but those are only two of our seven products currently in the lineup. We have released several new versions of Deadline and Krakatoa, and are constantly refining and advancing our core technologies.
Thinkbox is a completely different company than any of its previous iterations. We focus on creating high-performance software and technology for our clients, and are no longer involved in production. In the past, we had built technology based on client needs, so we had been focused solely on creating tools for [Autodesk] 3ds Max and Windows. With the upcoming releases of Krakatoa, XMESH, and others, our tools are crossing platforms and operating systems. We are excited about getting these tools in the hands of more artists!
What does the reacquisition mean for the products, users, and the company as a whole?
At Thinkbox, we create technology born out of production needs. We’ve been on the other side of over 40 feature projects and hundreds of commercials, so we understand the stress and deadlines artists are up against and how important it is for their tools to be stable and perform extremely well. When we were in production, we didn’t feel that vendors truly understood our needs, so when we formed Thinkbox, we unanimously decided that our core mission statement was to offer remarkable support to our clients.
We get that urgency of production and we want to support our clients like they support their commercial or feature-film clients. We understand short turnarounds in broadcast and everything that goes along with that, and we strive to ensure we can deploy our products quickly and develop technology rapidly. We want to continue to work with facilities to really understand their needs and make sure everything interconnects and remains flexible for their unique pipelines. Rather than have each product operate on its own, we want our tools to have the option to connect to each other whereby they have an expanded scope and usability, whether it be from support for common formats such as PRT or XMESH, or through a Python or C++ API.
How have the Thinkbox products evolved?
When developing new products, we try to be proactive and identify what is missing in the marketplace and figure out how we can benefit those niches. We want to innovate and predict clients’ production needs so they never run into a dilemma that we haven’t already developed a solution for. One of our in-house initiatives is a yearly R&D contest with our developers, whereby our entire team gets together to brainstorm ideas. We are also branching out to different platforms and operating systems, and making sure our tools are interconnected. Currently, XMESH and Deadline support all of our other products and formats right out of the box. We want everything to connect in a way that is as strong as it can be and that the people who have our tools will benefit from a complete solution.
What is your involvement in the Autodesk Maya community?
Behind the scenes, we are making all our products more accessible across operating systems. We took the rendering portion of Krakatoa and built Krakatoa SR — this allowed us to render with Krakatoa across different operating systems while maintaining exactly the same look. This was a great first step, but we realized our clients wanted a complete out-of-the-box solution, so we developed Krakatoa for Maya, which is just about ready for release. The Krakatoa integration inside Maya will be completely compatible with Krakatoa for 3ds Max and is already being used on a variety of productions. We also have XMESH for Maya, which has already been used on The Avengers, and Frost will be made available in the near future as well.
What types of companies use your products?
Our clients are very diverse and range in size from individual freelancers to giant feature-film companies. They work in film, broadcast, news, commercials, art, medical imaging, architecture, CAD, video games, military, scientific imaging, and even accident reconstruction. Pretty much anyone who requires the visualization of images can benefit in some way from our products. Even though we try to create fast, efficient tools that solve specific problems, our products are often useful in a completely different context than our original intent. Frost was designed to mesh fluids and has been very successful for 3ds Max, but we’ve found some of our clients are using Frost with LIDAR scans to re-create vehicles and environments quickly and cost-effectively. It’s great to see the new uses they come up with for Thinkbox products.
What sorts of projects might we have seen Thinkbox Software plug-ins in action in? Any high-profile film shots you can mention?
Our products have been used on tons of projects, from TV shows, feature films, and Super Bowl commercials, to small, independent films. Hydraulx used a bunch of our tools on The Avengers, and so did Blur for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo opening titles. Thinkbox software has been used on Avatar, G.I. Joe: The Rise of the Cobra, A-Team, Sucker Punch, Tron, the Twilight franchise, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Thor, Green Lantern, Snow White and the Huntsman, Hugo, and The Amazing Spider-Man. This list doesn’t even include all of the amazing prime-time television work, or award-winning commercials! At this point, our reel is quite extensive and growing everyday.
Tell us about the annual in-house R&D competition.
I know how important R&D is, so I set aside a portion of our revenue each year for the R&D budget. We get the entire company together in the boardroom and patch in anyone who isn’t available locally for the yearly R&D contest. Everyone has five minutes to pitch as many ideas as they want, and we throw them all up on our board. Everyone gets two votes during each round, and as we go, we vote to hone in on the top idea. The winning idea gets development time paid for by Thinkbox. All our employees participate – from development to sales – so whomever comes up with the idea isn’t necessarily responsible for the development. It’s a great way for everyone to contribute and come up with new research projects. Some of the ideas are completely out of our company’s scope but are serious contenders – for example, in the first year it was down to a field manipulation tool vs. a social media tool. The final winner of our R&D competition became Ember, which we demoed at SIGGRAPH and will be going into beta soon. I can only imagine what we would have if the social media tool had been developed!
What's next for Thinkbox?
We are just putting the final touches on number of products – Draft, Krakatoa for Maya, XMESH for Maya, which are all very close to release. Once those hit, it will free up our resources to create new versions of our existing products as well as new tools and some R&D time for the second year’s contest. Our team has tripled in less than two years, and every single one of our tools is seeing amazing growth year over year. As you can imagine, we have lots of irons in the fire and a lot of ideas for what to do next! The core plan is to keep focusing on performance, support, and creating tools to solve all the problems artists didn’t even know they had.