In Wondertouch Acquisition, GenArts Adds Fizz to its FX

11/3/09Follow @wroush

GenArts, the Cambridge, MA-based visual special effects startup, has added sparkles to its glints.

Which is to say, it has acquired a small St. Louis, MO-based company called Wondertouch that specializes in software that generates so-called “particle-based” special effects—think fireworks, explosions, smoke, clouds, comets, and pixie dust. Executives at GenArts say the technology nicely complements Sapphire, its own library of special effects, which is strong in area like flashes, lens flares, lightning, and glowing auras.

Along with Wondertouch’s technology, the Cambridge firm is acquiring its founding visionary, Alan Lorence, who will become a full-time developer at GenArts. Financial terms of the acquisition aren’t being disclosed.

Alan Lorence, Founder of Wondertouch“We’re really excited about this acquisition, as it fits GenArts from a number of angles,” GenArts CEO Katherine Hays told Xconomy. “First, particle technology has been a gap in our technology portfolio, and one our customers have been asking for. Second, Wondertouch has over 10,000 customers, and it’s a quite different group from the GenArts customer base in many ways, so it allows us to reach a broader set of customers. Finally, it allows us to bring Alan onto the team, which we couldn’t be more excited about.”

Increasingly these days, the special effects seen in movies and TV shows aren’t generated from scratch, but are built from customizable components provided by companies like GenArts and Wondertouch; these companies are in some ways the modern-day equivalents of manufacturers of fine-art oil paints such as Winsor & Newton. The Wondertouch acquisition will give GenArts customers single-stop shopping for a larger variety of special effects, Hays says. After some planned integration work—and the coming launch of a version of Wondertouch’s Particleillusions effects library that is compatible with Adobe’s widely used After Effects software—effects artists will have a consistent interface for choosing and potentially combining Sapphire and Particleillusions effects, Hays said.

Wondertouch’s particle effects differ from most of GenArts’ effects, according to Lorence, in that they are largely automated. “When you talk about a glint or a glow, there are a number of parameters you can adjust to animate them over time, but you have to set up the change,” Lorence says. “A particle system also has a number of parameters, but at a certain point, you no longer have individual control. They are free to go. You are able to create a wide variety of natural-type effects—smoke and fires and explosions—without having to worry about animating every single little of it.”

Wondertouch Particleillusions screen shotBecause they’re so powerful and relatively affordable, particle-based systems like Particleillusions have appealed so far mainly to effects artists on limited budgets, such as local TV stations or small video game development companies, Lorence says. The GenArts user base, on the other hand, consists of “more high-end users—a lot of feature film work and big budget productions.” But the leading high-end tool for particle effects, Autodesk’s Maya 3D, is difficult to use, he says. “Maya particles can do anything, but you really need a programmer to get it working, because they have a whole programming language built into them. What we are focused on is taking [the effects] away from a few particle wizards and putting those tools into the hands of as many people as possible, regardless of their level of experience.”

This is the second acquisition for GenArts this year—in January the company acquired UK-based SpeedSix, maker of two effects packages called Monsters and Raptors. Lorence, who will remain in St. Louis, is the only person joining GenArts as part of the Wondertouch acquisition; the company’s small support staff is being let go, Lorence says.

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

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