The film industry has its own way of doing things—mostly because it has had to. There is a relative dearth of off-the-shelf software used in the day-to-day work of special effects and filmmaking.
The film industry has its own way of doing things—mostly because it has had to. There is a relative dearth of off-the-shelf software used in the day-to-day work of special effects and filmmaking. That’s because you can’t sell a heck of a lot of it and because studios may have unique requirements for specific projects.
The Foundry, however, has been able to find places for its software. The Foundry was established in the late 1990s and has offered various postproduction tools. Of late, though, its focus has been formed around Nuke, a compositor developed by Digital Domain. The creators of Nuke carried on with its development at The Foundry, and they have successfully taken it to market.
Software engineers and content creators from the movie business run the company, and the barrier between vendor and customer is very fluid. This has always been true: Software vendors selling to the film industry are a lot like those selling to any high-end, enterprise customer—customized service is expected. The film industry is unique in that a movie is a small conglomerate that is formed by smaller companies using contractors who come together for the job and then disperse. The different groups and individuals often work together. The Foundry, with its team of industry veterans, snuggles into this model comfortably.
Like Nuke, much of the Foundry’s technology has been developed in the field. They’ve been working for a year or so product-izing Mari, a 3D texture-painting technology developed by a team led by Jack Greasley at Weta Digital during the production of Avatar. Greasley has moved to The Foundry to continue development of Mari. Weta Digital also used Mari on District 9 and The Lovely Bones. In addition, The Foundry mentions Framestore, Double Negative, Method Studios, Animal Logic, and Digital Domain as companies putting Mari through its paces.
And, right around the SIGGRAPH time frame, The Foundry announced a cooperative deal with Disney to integrate Disney’s proprietary Paint3D technology into future versions of Mari, and, in return, Disney engineers will sit on a Mari steering committee to advise on the development of Mari.
Among Mari’s unique virtues is that the software can handle very large 3D model sets—scaling to over one million polygons. It supports textures up to 32K x 32K pixels, layers and layers, and hundreds and thousands of textures per model, and can handle animated geometry and textures. All this means that the software doesn’t slow the artist down while the person is working.
The Foundry claims that end users like Mari because it’s easy to use. The current leader for texture painting among packaged products is Pixologic’s ZBrush—a powerful tool that is, it’s generally agreed, difficult to use. Pixologic, ZBrush’s developer, has evolved its own interface that many have charitably called idiosyncratic, some find difficult to learn, and, of course, others have mastered and love. However, Zbrush also includes sculpting tools. Mari is purely a paint tool.
The company is hoping to expand Mari’s base to the game industry and to product design. The company promises a consistent schedule of product releases and feature updates.
Mari is a 64-bit product. It takes advantage of the Nvidia GPUs. In the company’s requirements/suggestions for Mari is for an Nvidia board with at least 1GB of RAM and OpenGL 3.0 support. However, The Foundry suggests systems with at least a quad-core processor, 250G of disk space for caching and temp files, 4GB RAM, and at least a 1680x1050 display.
According to online reports, Mari will be priced at around 500 Euros (approximately $660).
A visit to The Foundry site shows a price of £600 (a little more than $950) for Mari and a year’s worth of support. However, the company says it is revamping its licensing strategy.
The Foundry As Team Player
While Mari is mentioned as a competitor to ZBrush, its lack of sculpting capabilities means that companies will use a combination of tools like ZBrush, Autodesk Mudbox, and Mari. Mari has a fairly low price tag, so we don’t see that as much of a problem given The Foundry’s claims to speed and ease of use. It never hurts to have the Weta seal of approval, either.
We see The Foundry as becoming something like a technology clearing house. The deal with Disney for their 3D Paint technology is one example, but The Foundry is also working with Sony on the Katana software. Katana is both a look development and lighting tool. It, too, works on a massive scale.
The Foundry is also working closely with Nvidia to take advantage of GPUs in other products besides Mari. For instance, GPU support greatly improves the performance of The Foundry’s Kronos timing technology, which was developed out of The Foundry’s Furnace algorithms. It allows video editors to slow down or speed up a clip, and it can process the information faster than real time with the new Fermi processors. (Kronos is sold as a plug-in for Adobe’s CS5.)
The Foundry has also announced a deal with Industrial Light & Magic for its Ocula Stereo 3D editing tool that works with Nuke. As evidence of just how valuable stereographic editing can be, Ocula is priced at $10,000. Nuke 6.1 is priced at $3500.
Kathleen Maher is a contributing editor to CGW, a senior analyst at Jon Peddie Research, a Tiburon, California-based consultancy specializing in graphics and multimedia, and editor in chief of JPR’s “TechWatch.” She can be reached at Kathleen@jonpeddie.com.