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 to extend the reach [of GenArts' plug-ins] beyond film and TV into games,” he says. “You can apply our visual effects to 3-D worlds, the same way you would to photography—a great example of that is the Clone Wars series on TV, where they use Sapphire to add visual effects to animated footage.” Thanks to the growing power of the graphics processing units inside many computers and game consoles, the same kinds of effects that used to require expensive compositing systems can now be rendered on the fly in games.

Hays, the co-founder and former COO of Massive Incorporated, an in-game advertising network for video games bought by Microsoft in 2006, was brought into GenArts last summer, shortly after the company received a capital infusion from Insight Venture Partners of New York.

“Although GenArts has been extremely well known and a strong brand in the industry, there is an opportunity to grow the company given a couple of trends,” Hays says. “The first one being that visual special effects have become essential to modern-day storytelling—they aren’t just used for creating explosions or futuristic scenes, but they really touch almost every frame of most productions today. The second is this sense of expanding beyond film and TV to video games and online media. We’ve traditionally been associated with film, but this notion of taking a character or an emotion and translating that from film into video games is the direction the industry is going.”

Revenge of the Sith, visual effects by Lucasfilm and GenArtsWhile GenArts won’t disclose the size of its staff, Hays does say that the Cambridge office has grown by about 50 percent in the last year. The company recently opened an office on the West Coast, headed by Bannerman, who previously founded and led Caststream, a streaming media company that’s now part of Sun Microsystems. And with the acquisition in January of SpeedSix, a small Surrey, England-based software firm that brought with it the Monsters and Raptors plug-ins, it also has a UK presence.

But as strategic as the company’s move into video game effects may be, the Lucasfilm agreement represents, at its core, the cementing of a lucrative supplier relationship. Bannerman says it’s the equivalent of a big company where many divisions are buying their own copies of Microsoft Office becoming a regular corporate customer and buying seat licenses en masse.

And that could ultimately help all of Lucasfilm’s digital artists do their jobs faster, better, and cheaper. Says Hays: “The chief technology officer at Lucasfilm [Richard Kerris] likes to say that the dreams aren’t getting any smaller, but the budget and time pressures are growing. So the opportunity is to help companies push the envelope of creativity and productivity. Standardizing on our set of tools enables them to do that.”

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

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