GenArts Inks Major Visual Effects Software Deal with Lucasfilm

6/8/09Follow @wroush

If you’re watching a movie, a commercial, or a TV sports promo and you see a special effect with an especially stunning glow, glint, flash, flare, light ray, starburst, sparkle, explosion, or atmospheric wave, there’s a good chance it was created using software from Cambridge, MA-based GenArts. The venture-backed startup, launched in 1996 by MIT computer scientist Karl Sims, is one of the leading makers of visual-effects plug-ins for mainstream graphics packages such as Adobe’s After Effects and Apple’s Final Cut Pro, with tens of thousands of media customers around the world. Yet it’s a secretive and little-known presence around Boston that won’t reveal how much capital it’s raised or how many employees it has. (“Between 25 and 500″ is all I could get out of chief marketing officer Steve Bannerman.) Even the company’s white-on-white logo seems designed to be invisible.

The low profile is intended partly to keep competitors guessing. But it may get a little harder to maintain, thanks to a major partnership announced today with San Francisco-based Lucasfilm, whose Industrial Light & Magic division is probably the world’s most famous source of high-end special effects sequences for the movie and TV industries.

GenArts LogoLucasfilm has been using GenArts’ technology here and there since 1997′s Titanic. But under the new agreement, LucasFilm will license copies of GenArts’ software for every compositing system in the company, including machines at ILM, Lucasfilm Animation, and most significantly, LucasArts, the firm’s video game development house. In addition, Lucasfilm and GenArts plan to work together to develop advanced visual effects and compositing technologies, in an effort to put ever more intricate effects at digital artists’ fingertips.

Those effects aren’t always designed to blow viewers’ minds. Sometimes, in fact, the glows, reflections, or flares that artists can insert using GenArts’ plug-in packages (which go by the names Sapphire, Monsters, and Raptors) are there mainly to satisfy viewers’ expectations or tug at their emotions—as with the lens flares in computer-generated beauty shots of Star Trek‘s U.S.S. Enterprise, for example. Visual effects plug-ins “are used to create reality almost as often as they are used to create things you would normally think of as ‘special effects,’” says Katherine Hays, GenArts’ CEO.

Indian Jones, visual effects by Lucasfilm and GenArtsSo while it’s “fabulous” to have a customer like ILM, Hays says, “what’s really exciting about this is the validation around our vision of where the industry is going, in terms of how critical visual effects are becoming to storytelling, and the benefits our customers can gain by standardizing and having our technology available to all of their artists.”

Bannerman says getting GenArts’ software into LucasArts is an especially important coup; it will be the startup’s first major step into interactive media. “One of the primary focuses of the agreement is … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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