Develop takes a look at a studio behind high-end VFX tools
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London-based visual effects studio The Foundry was founded in 1996 by Bruno Nicoletti and Simon Robinson. In September 2012, it merged with animation firm Luxology.
Its portfolio of software has been widely used to create visual effects on major motion pictures, episodic TV work, commercials and, more recently, video games.
One of those tools is Mari, a powerful digital painting technology that was originally developed at Weta Digital for the production of James Cameron’s 3D blockbuster, Avatar.
For Avatar, textures were going to play a critical role in creating a rich and varied set of assets that would draw the audience into all the detail of the characters and environments.
Mari was built from the ground up to deal with an incredible amount of complexity. Its roots are in film, but it’s more versatile than that. It’s now being used in functions from small CG projects and big games cinematics, right through to more niche areas such as cover art design.
“The reason I think we are seeing such wide application is that it simply lets artists get their heads down, get creative and paint,” says Jack Greasley, Mari product manager at The Foundry.
Greasley describes Mari as a tool that was designed to take all the painful, stressful technical operations out of the process. Artists can load it up and start painting directly onto a 3D canvas. It can be easily modified to suit artists’ preferences and workflow. For games specifically, it is possible to use in-game shaders and rendering technology, meaning that creations you texture in Mari will be the same when carried over into the game.
Examples of games the tool has already been used in are LucasArts’ upcoming third-person shooter Star Wars 1313 and Sins of a Solar Empire, where it was harnessed for creating in-game cinematics.
“Modern day audiences expect increasingly film-like visuals in all aspects of the media that they consume,” says Greasley. “The team on 1313 have pulled together technology and experience from games, computer-generated features and visual effects work to get the best possible experience for the player.”
The latest release, Mari 1.5, includes a number of specific developments that were implemented to help LucasArts create Star Wars 1313.
Features include overlapping UV’s, Maya Texture Export to handle textures in Maya with a single click, real-time shadows, DDS Cubemaps in the viewport, mirroring in the paint buffer to paint symmetrical objects easily, normal mapping functionality to paint normal maps on the fly and Photoshop ABR brush import, allowing artists to import their favourite custom brushes from Photoshop to use (See Mari in action).
Mari is under rapid development based on customer feedback, with some new updates to its layering and shading systems coming in a future version of the tool.
As games strive for greater photorealism, Mari is one tool that will bring developers closer to achieving it.
“We are excited about the potential for Mari,” concludes Greasley. “Our aims going forward are simply to stay focused on what our customers want from tools and to keep creating software that’s in demand.”