Companies declassify some of their secrets

Since the digital revolution in vfx and animation, much of what has set the top shops apart has been their “special sauce” — proprietary, inhouse software tools that let them create images their competitors couldn’t match.

Today, however, there’s a clear trend toward taking some of that special sauce and turning it into commercial products that any shop can buy.

This move away from proprietary tools and toward commercial solutions, at least for the unglamorous parts of CG production, is changing the way companies — and the artists they employ — do business.

Vfx shops have been able to shrink their R&D departments, and some of their experienced software writers have moved out to form their own companies.

Artists can now move more freely between facilities with less retraining. Companies can ramp up more quickly when filmmakers add shots. Sony Imageworks, to take one major example, is shifting to a “production crew” model and away from keeping artists on staff.

The trend is also self-reinforcing: With as many as a dozen vfx shops each working on a studio tentpole, they must be able to share their efforts seamlessly. That forces them to work on common platforms at least part of the time.

For movie studios, standardization means they can pursue tax incentives and other financial advantages wherever they can find them, be it Massachusetts or Bangalore, with some confidence that artists will follow the work.

“Companies were very protective of the stuff they’d invented. There was this culture of secrecy, and it was very esoteric,” said former Industrial Light & Magic staffer Seth Rosenthal.

Rosenthal, now president of Tweak Software, says that unlike the days when he started at ILM, in the late 1990s, “There’s a much more pragmatic, businesslike approach to deciding what are the secret-sauce things that we need to protect and what is just plumbing, where there’s no real value in wasting time or effort protecting it.”

The “plumbing” Tweak builds includes software for playing back vfx shots still in progress because consumer media players like QuickTime aren’t up to the job.

“All the companies had built their own inhouse playback systems,” he said. “But ILM isn’t going to land a new movie because they have an inhouse playback tool. So now it’s becoming clear to companies that it’s not worth the time and effort to maintain these legacy programs. They’d rather just buy them.”

Simon Robinson, chief scientist at the Foundry, which took over distribution of compositing program Nuke, points out that this trend has been building for some time.

“When I started, everybody was writing their own stuff. The number of people around now implementing their own components is fairly small. Software has become a commodity rather than special item,” he said.

Some software, such as Autodesk’s Maya and Pixar’s Renderman, has long been ubiquitous, but the replacement of special sauce with commercial software appears to be accelerating.

ILM and Weta Digital have both purchased Nuke, which was originally developed at Digital Domain and is still used there. ILM has also bought GenArts’ Sapphire plug-ins.

Another indie software maker, Shotgun, is selling production-tracking software, replacing the custom databases every vfx shop needed to follow the progress of their shots.

Sony Imageworks is taking some of its software open source, making it free to anyone who wants it. Imageworks potentially stands to benefit by creating a pool of artists who know how to use the software and by outsourcing development on the software to anyone who cares to work on it, at no cost to Sony.

The animation biz is feeling the effects, too, at least for such Warner Bros. projects as “Happy Feet 2″ and “Guardians of G’hoole,” which aren’t being made by a traditional animation studio like Blue Sky, DreamWorks or Pixar.

“If I as an executive want to continue to support the paradigm for animation production that benefits this studio, then I’m supporting two things: one, a fluid and trained international work force capable of moving from one project to the next; and the standardization of tools and techniques so they can, in fact, work on our projects,” said Chris deFaria, Warner Bros.’ exec veep of digital production, animation and visual effects.

This philosophical shift does raise a paradox: When the top shops are using more or less the same software, what really sets one apart from another is the people. Yet it’s also easier for those people to leave and work elsewhere.

That’s why some vfx studios, notably Technicolor’s Moving Picture Co., reject the “production crew” model and are making a point of holding onto their artists, even as it’s become easier to hire new ones.

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