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Foundry making vfx portable

Tech firm features tools that translate

If companies like Sony Imageworks, Weta Digital and Framestore are the creative divas of the effects world, Los Angeles and London-based outfit the Foundry is fast becoming the conductor.

Already one of the leading vfx toolmakers, its business represents part of a bigger-picture trend that sees film companies shifting toward an effects and animation standard that ensures everyone in the biz is using compatible software.

Essentially, the Foundry provides a platform for film companies to speak the same vfx language. That’s becoming more critical as vfx studios working on tentpoles often have to ramp up staff quickly under severe deadline pressure, and don’t have time to train experienced artists in proprietary software. With the industry using standardized tools, new hires can step in and work immediately.

And with multiple vfx studios often collaborating on shots on tentpole pics, it’s become urgent that companies be able to share image files easily. That’s easier when they’re using the same software.

“The industry wants tools to be able to interact,” says Simon Robinson, founder and chief scientist at the Foundry. “So everything we do has to play nice with everything our customers use so that they can plug them together like Lego pieces.”

Increasingly, the Foundry is proving to be the go-to destination when it comes time to turn proprietary software into commercial product. While big companies such as Imageworks, Weta and Framestore increasingly push the edge in visual effects and build new tools, existing ones are being outsourced to companies such as the Foundry.

“We are an organizer and harbor of development of companies who are willing to share,” Robinson says. “We have very few secrets, and we work hard to be collaborative.”

Major effects-driven tentpoles like “The Avengers” and “Battleship” tend to be big users of proprietary systems created by the prominent vfx studios, but lower-budget projects like Marek Polgar’s sci-fier “Exit,” docs such as “Flying Monsters 3D With David Attenborough” and even big-scale TV dramas like HBO’s “Game of Thrones” have been drawn by the cost and convenience of the Foundry’s off-the-shelf software.

“There is a growing need for standardization,” Robinson says. “It’s a very organic process.”

But the Foundry is not just riding the wave; it is accelerating it and making computer tools for vfx more commercial by improving and updating them (as well as creating some programs of its own).

Robinson established the Foundry with Bruno Nicoletti in 1996. The two had been freelancers in the London post-production community before changing course to write plug-in tools that slotted into playing systems, essentially adding a set of enhancements to those systems.

They pioneered the Tinder plug-ins for the Flame systems offered by Discreet (later Autodesk Media and Entertainment), making the first set of plug-ins to be commercially available.

“We were basically riding off the back of the fact that Flame was an extraordinary product,” Robinson says. “And then we began selling tools and fun stuff in the market, and eventually branched into more and more exotic and complicated systems.”

Eighteen years later, the company boasts a raft of cutting edge software that provides services to leading f/x companies such as Weta, Imageworks, Digital Domain, Framestore and the Moving Picture Co.

Popular programs include Foundry’s Nuke compositing software, originally developed by Digital Domain. The product is becoming a de-facto vfx industry standard and is used at ILM, for instance, which handled work for “Battleship” and “The Avengers.” In its purest sense, Nuke layers film clips, composing a visual analogue of shots and computer graphics.

Then there’s Ocula, an add-in that Foundry wrote as the stereo 3D market was emerging in 2008. “Ocula is all the extra bits of wizardry that you need to make stereo 3D look good,” Robinson says. “Put simply, it is used by artists to turn unwatchable 3D into watchable 3D.”

The Foundry collaborated with Weta during the making of “Avatar” to develop Ocula, which has since been used in “Hugo” and “Tron: Legacy,” among other films.

The Foundry began collaborating with Imageworks in 2009, and took on Imageworks’ proprietary lighting software, Katana, which was licensed by Reliance MediaWorks in April. It also offers Mari, a Photoshop replacement 3D paint tool originally conceived at Weta.

In 2007, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded a sci-tech award to the Foundry’s development team for the Furnace image processing suite, a plug-in that integrates with many compositing and editing systems, including Autodesk, Nuke and Shake.

All of this software, which staffers at the Foundry are constantly updating, coupled with homegrown product like Heiro (a pipeline scriptable shot-management tool), makes the company’s portfolio a hefty one.

“We’re ultimately engineers,” Robinson says. “We’re making software tools for all parts of the business. We’re now looking at a world where production is no longer a linear process. There’s lots of loops involved.”

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