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Customer Success Story :: Speedshape
Interview with Linden Vennard & James Vecore
15 April 2009
Linden Vennard - VFX Supervisor at Speedshape
James Vecore - Director of Software Engineering at Speedshape
Can you tell us about your experiences working at Speedshape?
Linden: I’ve been with Speedshape since the very beginning. There were just three employees then: Conner Meechan, James Vecore, and myself. We worked in a small office, blasted a lot of techno music, and pulled a lot of all-nighters.
At times, it was more like bolting wings on an airplane in flight than starting up a post house. But we were having fun, and as a result, we ended up creating a culture that people love working in, where everyone can be free and open and share ideas without reservation.
Sort of sounding cheesy, I can actually say that with all the time we've spent together and what we’ve achieved, we’ve become a family. Sometimes dysfunctional family, but who's perfect? We've overcome the seemingly insurmountable by sheer willpower and creativity. I love working with people smarter than me!
It's also gratifying to work at a company that has global reach. Last year, I was in the middle of nowhere in Mexico and actually saw one of the first billboards I ever worked on.
James: Working at Speedshape has been quite an adventure. It’s been really gratifying to see Speedshape transform from just a few people sharing offices with another company to the strong company that it is today. Like Linden said, during that transformation we have truly become a family, and in this world of technology it always comes down to the people that really make the difference. There have been a lot of late nights, but in the end it was all worth it.
Are the projects of Speedshape mostly related to the automotive industry?
Linden: The automotive industry has been driving this city's economy for the past hundred years. and it’s been particularly good to us. We’ve been fortunate enough to have worked on projects for GM, Ford, Chrysler, Audi, and Toyota. However, things have been slowing down with our automotive clients, so we are diversifying. We did a National campaign for Smokey the bear fire prevention—the first use of a fully CG smokey the bear—and are in the process of completing some work for the venerable Jack Daniels brand.
Can you say a few words about yourself?
James: If there’s only one thing to know about me, it’s this: I love programming! Since my first programming class in high school I knew this is what I wanted to do for living, and I can’t imagine having any other job. When I’m not programming, I love to create and play music with my band and enjoy seeing the amazing CG creations other people are coming up with in the video game and movie worlds.
Linden: I'm a peaceful guy, I like trees. I enjoy running, mountain biking, rock climbing and yoga and I'm happiest when I’m out in nature. I try to go backpacking as often as possible.
I have tried many, many careers, including being a blacksmith, tattoo artist, traditional movie FX artist, and even making jewelry. The computer animation field has been the only pursuit that’s been able to really to capture my attention, and it’s constantly evolving and growing, so there’s always something new to learn. It's amazing how our tools have changed over the last 10 or so years.
What influenced you to choose a career in the CG industry?
Linden: My parents are both very artistic and gave me the freedom to express myself creatively. I always wanted to work in the movie industry, so at an early age I got into special effects, and would even go to school with latex prosthetic arms, fake wounds and bloody internal organs.
I was also extremely interested in pyrotechnics. I attended The Center for Creative Studies (CCS) with a scholarship for fine arts, but by graduation time, I had a change of heart. I saw people whom I considered a lot more talented than myself struggling and working as waiters, and realized that I should take another path. Like most of us in this industry, I was inspired by movies like Jurassic Park and Dragon Heart when they were released, and decided to make the switch to computer graphics.
James: My interest in computer graphics has always been driven by my love for video games. Learning to program for computer graphics is a great challenge and was what really helped drive my interest in C++ during my time at college.
How did you start?
Linden: At CCS I got exposed to Alias in the early 90's and a Professor named Dua Xiong allowed me to audit his courses. He took me under his wing, showed me what was possible in Alias, and blew me away with what was possible. Then I switched to 3D Studio (Autodesk 3D Studio Max, and really enjoyed the fact that for the first time, you could have a powerful 3D software program that didn't require a $60,000 SGI machine. I messed around with Max quite a bit, but back then there were very few resources. Then I met Andy Tanguay, a 3D Studio Max guru, and he's been one of my closest friends, best creative confidants, and my most helpful resource.
James: Ever since I first started to learn how to program in C++, I was reading books about computers graphics and trying to implement everything from ray tracers, real-time shaders, and game engines. Throughout college, I took any opportunity to put a graphics slant on my projects and assignments, including my directed studies course and my senior project (a real-time rendering engine with lua scripting support and real-time shaders using the then-beta CG shader language). After I graduated I was recommended by my graphics professor for a position at a tiny startup company called Speedshape and the rest is history.
What are you favorite tools and techniques?
James: My favorite tool would have to be the Python programming language. I love the dynamic nature of the language and power it gives you. As far as techniques, I would say that agile development has really helped to improve the quality of the code produced and the ease of maintenance for all our tools. I don’t think I could go back to programming without unit-testing, continuous integration, etc.
Linden: My favorite tools are VRay and Max. They're both like me: not too complicated, and serious work horses. I also love going to places where no one else goes and capturing my own HDRIs. I have been playing around with painting abstract high dynamic images in Photoshop CS3 and seeing how they affect my 3d scene .
Can you tell us more about the progress in VFX techniques?
Linden: The easiest way to answer this would be to detail some of the major jumps for us as a company:
• Our hardware went from 32 to 64 bit boxes. Breaking the 4 gig limit imposed by 32-bit and being able to use 8-16 gigs of RAM was a crucial turning point for us. Our data and texture sets are very large, so the 64-bit transition and the use of V-Ray have resulted in the biggest pipeline improvements.
• Cheaper, faster computers have helped with the amount of iterations we can do and gives us the ability to use expensive materials and multiple lighting scenarios.
• Our renders went from 8 bit tgas to 32 bit exrs with hundreds of hidden render passes. (This allows us the freedom to do post-process manipulation on a per-element basis.)
•With the horsepower constantly increasing, we’re currently looking at different real- time rendering solutions like V-Ray RT for our interactive client sessions.
James: I think the maturity of the software packages has really contributed to the continual improvement of Computer Graphics. Some of these packages have been around for almost 15 years and that’s a lot of invested development time that’s hard to duplicate. Siggraph is one thing, but making those techniques available to the general public in software is what I think helps to continually raise the bar in CG. I would also agree with Linden that breaking the 4GB limit with 64-bit has really opened up a lot of doors for us, and I wish more tool vendors would realize the importance of the 64-bit architecture.
Can you tell us about some of the most interesting and challenging projects you have worked on, which have received recognition or have been awarded in some way?
Linden: For the company, I think it was the monumental task of building CG models of every vehicle for the world’s largest car company down to the exact grain and stitch of the seats. A monumental task. We’re talking about 60 models with 300 variants– exterior, interior, powertrains and chassis. When you talk about producing every part for this kind of volume of work you have to start measuring our storage in terabits. The sheer volume of work we produce is hard to believe.
We recently completed a project where we had to freeze time in the middle of a vehicle burnout and figure out how to achieve the look of true, dense volumetric smoke. We were able to pull off realistic “bullet time” so you watched the car burn rubber and change colors right through the smoke layer.
For me personally, it was when I went out to LA and worked with Mark Romanek on a series of national spots for a Ford campaign. It was both interesting and challenging to work in Hollywood with such dynamic people, and just recently, the 2010 Ford Mustang website won the FAV site of the day award.
Another personal favorite was helping to create the 2007/2008 Pontiac catalogs and national print ads. I was working with some really talented people that had a clear idea what they liked and wanted, and as a result, everything just jelled fantastically. When it was all finished, they printed the ads out building-size and hung them in all the major metropolitan areas. You can’t get bigger exposure than that.
What projects are you working on now?
Linden: I'm currently working on a website for Camaro targeted at very high screen resolutions that will feed assets directly into their national broadcast campaign. We are also ramping up our pipeline to handle more film visual effects.
James: We’re currently beta-testing 3ds Max 2010, upgrading our server room and render farm, and further developing our configurator toolset.
What kind of 3D software are you using most frequently?
Linden: I live and breathe in Max, and have over 10 years of experience with that program. I use Adobe's Creative Suite quite a lot—particularly After Effects—and dip in and out of Maya and Nuke. We also have a whole host of in-house tools that make our lives easier.
James: Like Linden said earlier, our pipeline has been built around 3ds Max and V-Ray since its inception, so those are our primary tools. With V-Ray for Maya getting closer to release, we look forward being able to work in both tools while still being able to use V-Ray.
For how long have you been using V-Ray?
James: It’s been about 5 years now. I still remember Linden going on and on about how great Vray was back in early days. We started using it and never looked back.
Linden: I’ve been working with V-Ray for about 10 years or so. In the beginning, I’d get data from Chrysler on floppy disks, and used the free beta version of V-Ray top produce renders. I tried to get Chrysler to see V-Ray renders as photographically real enough to pass as traditional photography. At that time, Final Render and V-Ray were the only kids on the block. Mental Ray and Pixar's Render Man were too expensive and too complicated for a small shop.
Was it easy to integrate V-Ray in your pipeline?
Linden: Well, we actually went ahead and built our pipeline around V-Ray. Vlado has been my hero from the get go, and has always been there for us. They're small enough to be very accessible, so they listen to us and implement our requests. And of course I'm grateful for the "Linden-Wire Color". They've built a really good community structure and forum around their product.
James: What made integrating V-Ray so easy was having Vlado there to answer questions and implement features. The next release or bug fix always came quickly, unlike other render programs, where we sometimes had to wait 6 months to a year to have our needs met. This has become even easier now that Vlado has implemented the nightly builds.
What is the most difficult thing to do within the V-Ray working process?
James: I would have to say writing shaders for V-Ray, because it requires working with both the V-Ray SDK and also the 3dsmax SDK.
Ideally Someday I would like to be able to write shaders in a shading language and not have deal with setting up a full max material plugin every time.
Linden: Setting up a good V-Ray SSS is difficult maybe linking it up to a tape gismo to get the depth would help, or just having Vlado make a tutorial. Another thing that is difficult is getting caustics without excessive render times. They dont have to be super accurate to be useful. The current implementation just takes too long to render to be used.
How would you compare V-Ray’s performance to that of other renders?
Linden: It takes whatever you can throw at it. It's clean and fast. Simple as that.
James: It’s faster for sure.
How can we improve V-Ray further?
Linden: I think Chaos Group is on the right path to creating the best 3D render out there. All they need is time to implement all their great ideas.
James: I’m looking forward to seeing V-Ray for Maya, V-Ray Standalone and V-RayRT completed. Better distributed rendering error messages would be nice. Other than that, just continue to push the edge of rendering technology and continue to implement new features.
What would you say is the most important task for a VFX Supervisor?
Linden: Stay involved and passionate about the work. You can't do it all so be very organized and trust people enough to delegate. You've got to take the time to research a new project thoroughly. Take input from everyone on the project team or everyone in the studio, you never know what someone is tinkering with at home and the impact it can have on a given project. The smoother you are at bringing these elements together, the smoother your projects will run.
Respectively, for a Director of Software Engineering?
James: For me, I think it’s to stay on top of what’s going in both the Software Engineering field and the Computer Graphics field. It can be a daunting task since there is so much information to digest in both arenas. I think having a strong balance of both is extremely important to have further success in my role at Speedshape.
What are your further ambitions in your professional field?
Linden: To have balance in my life, I want to become a better rock climber as well keep the company growing and branch more into the entertainment industry. I also would like to be able to integrate my fine arts background more into my every day work. Mostly, I want to keep learning from my peers, sharing ideas and having fun.
James: To learn more about everything, because there is never enough time in the day to learn everything I want to. But I will always keep trying.
Special thanks to Linden Vennard and James Vecore about the insights on their work at SPEEDSHAPE. Keep up the great projects and be inspired.