Open-source graphics file format speeds data exchange

The shift toward open standards and open-source software in visual effects and animation took another step forward Tuesday as Industrial Light & Magic and Sony Pictures Imageworks released version 1.0 of Alembic — their open-source interchange format for animation graphics files.

“It allows us to hand data between facilities in an easier way than ever before,” said Imageworks chief technical officer Rob Bredow.

Alembic represents a rare collaboration between the rival visual effects giants, who worked together on it for 18 months.

“We’re providing all of this to the community as a single large open-source project,” Bredow said. “And we’ll see the community develop it from there.”

The announcement came at a press conference Tuesday at the Siggraph conference in Vancouver.

Alembic allows animation graphics files to move between software applications easily and quickly, which was not possible with previous file formats.

Alembic is already supported by major third-party software makers including Autodesk, the Foundry, Nvidia and Pixar.

Compared with the file formats it’s replacing, Alembic uses a fraction of the disk space — as little as 1/500 in some cases. “That actually changes what you can put on the screen,” said Bredow, because artists can see their tweaks and changes faster and can spend more time adjusting images.

Version 1.0 is the first official production-tested version of Alembic, already in use at Imageworks on “Men in Black III” and “The Amazing Spider-Man” and at ILM on “The Avengers.”ILM and Imageworks were working separately on the problem of an interchange format; when they learned of each other’s work, they decided to pool their efforts. They announced Alembic at last year’s Siggraph conference, and with a working version already in hand, they expected to release version 1.0 in just two to three months.

But it actually took another year. Imageworks was ahead of Lucasfilm on some aspects of the project but ILM wanted any interchange format to be extensible. Once they tried to merge the two projects all the code had to be rewritten from scratch, something Bredow said “was not an easy decision.”

Bredow noted that since the project is open source, neither Imageworks nor Lucasfilm will get any direct financial benefit from it. “This is not a small investment,” he said. “Not only do you have to believe in it yourself, you have to convince other people who are responsible for funding our organization. We’re a for-profit entity.”

However the fact that ILM and Imageworks were collaborating reassured other companies, such as software maker Autodesk, that this wasn’t meant to benefit one vfx company over the competition and it was safe to support it.

Tommy Burnette, Lucasfilm’s head of global pipeline, said: “The point for me about open source and about Alembic in particular is there are a lot of problems we have to solve. There a lot of things that we need. If you look at the history of our industry, we’ve all solved those problems for ourselves.”This sort of project enables us to solve a problem once and for all and no one has to worry about it again.” In an ideal world, the ideas will catch on and there will be fewer and fewer things that we have to have these large engineering organizations internally in order to be able to solve.”Imageworks is getting indirect benefits from its several open-source software projects, Bredow said: The quality of computer programmer resumes he’s been getting since taking some software open-source has been stellar.

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