GenArts Bringing Boston to Special Effects Fore with Tinder Purchase from Britain’s The Foundry

Gradually, Cambridge, MA, is emerging as one of the world capitals of a highly specialized industry: digital effects plugins for film and video post-production. These are small software packages that production companies such as Lucasfilm or Sony Pictures buy to extend the capabilities of commercial digital compositing programs like Adobe’s After Effects, Autodesk’s Combustion, Avid’s Avid DS, or The Foundry’s Nuke. One company at a time, plugin collections from companies small and large are being rolled up by Cambridge-based GenArts, which has a clear ambition to become the country’s leading plugin vendor.

We reported on GenArts’ acquisition of UK-based SpeedSix in January 2009 and Missouri-based Wondertouch in November. Today GenArts is announcing that it has acquired two more widely used plugin collections, called Tinder and Tinderbox, from The Foundry, a London-based special effects house that’s most famous today for its Nuke compositing platform. GenArts also says that it’s inked an agreement with The Foundry to make sure that new GenArts plugins work well with Nuke, and to make it easier for customers to buy Nuke and GenArts’ plugins as a bundle.

The Foundry and GenArts are rivals and exact contemporaries (both companies were founded in 1996), and Tinder competes directly with GenArts’ Sapphire plugin collection. So the transfer of Tinder and Tinderbox from The Foundry to GenArts is the rough equivalent in the plugin industry of EMI selling its music catalog to Sony BMG or Lowe’s converting a bunch of its stores into Home Depots. A pretty big deal, in other words.

Lighting effects made with GenArts Sapphire on The Foundry's Nuke

GenArts executive say their buying spree, which began shortly after Katherine Hays joined as CEO in 2008, represents the company’s effort to exploit a strategic opportunity in the special effects industry. Major film and TV production companies such as Lucasfilm are shifting away from creating most of their digital special effects in-house to using the commercial compositing programs for most effects, a changeover made possible by the growing power of graphics workstations and the growing sophistication of the commercial platforms. But for economy’s sake, says Hays, these companies don’t want to have to buy platforms and plugins from a dozen different vendors—they want to standardize on just a few platforms such as After Effects, Combustion, and Nuke, and on a common set of plugins that work on all of them.

“By building out our portfolio of products, we can offer this standardization to key customers,” Hays says. “There’s also a strong need for plugins that work effectively across multiple host platforms, so that you can take a job that was created using GenArts Sapphire on Nuke and transfer it over to After Effects or Autodesk.”

For its part, The Foundry will get some cash (though neither side is saying how much) and a new marketing partner for Nuke. Selling Tinder is “in the best interest of our customers and an important step for future development at The Foundry,” the British firm said in a statement.

Sapphire plugins already “run quite happily” on Nuke, according to Steve Bannerman, GenArts’ chief marketing officer. But as a result of the new cooperating agreement between GenArts and The Foundry, the two companies will be able to collaborate to solve technical problems faster. Bannerman gives the example of Hydraulx Visual Effects, a Santa Monica company that used Sapphire to create many of the special effects for James Cameron’s 3-D blockbuster Avatar.

“In stereoscopic movies, you apply an effect for one eye, and then you manually recreate it for the other eye,” says Bannerman. “The guys at Hydraulx would really like to apply an effect to the second eye automatically. But some of the information required to make that happen lives in Sapphire and some of it is provided by the platform. If we can work closely together [with platform vendors], we can create a solution that makes creating these stereoscopic scenes a lot less time-consuming.”

The Foundry, which acquired Nuke in 2007 from Digital Domain (the Los Angeles digital effects company founded by Cameron), plans to concentrate on that platform going forward—along with its own specialty plugins such as Ocula, for stereoscopic effects.

Bannerman says GenArts plans to invest in “revitalizing” Tinder and Tinderbox, which include scores of plugins for effects like blurs and sparkles. “It’s a venerable brand with a lot of equity in the market,” Bannerman says. GenArts won’t fold Tinder or Tinderbox into its existing plugin collections, but will continue to sell it as a separate product, he says.

Ultimately, Hays and Bannerman hope that GenArts’ expansion will lead to more deals like the one they announced last June, in which Lucasfilm got a blanket license to GenArts’ plugins for all its compositing systems and entered into a joint R&D agreement with the Cambridge firm.

“This is a competitive industry that is populated by a lot of very talented but small companies,” says Bannerman. “If you are a Sony or an Industrial Light & Magic, you want to be able to place your bets on companies that have not only a full portfolio [of plugins] but the scale and reliability to become a trusted vendor.”

It’s not clear how deep GenArts’ pockets go right now, though it may be a clue to the company’s long-term intentions that it hired a CEO with a background in the investment banking industry. (Hays researched media and communications firms for Salomon Smith Barney and Goldman Sachs before founding video game advertising company Massive, which was acquired by Microsoft in 2006 for an estimated $200 million to $400 million.) At any rate, rival plugin makers like San Francisco-based Red Giant or Wilmington, NC-based DigiEffects shouldn’t be too surprised if GenArts comes knocking at their doors.

Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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