Open Standards in Media & Entertainment
Watching a creative animated film or a special effects sequence in a favorite show can be magical. It may feel like you’re witnessing the work of a single brilliant imagination. But in reality, these kinds of projects require the collaboration of dozens or even hundreds of technicians and artists from separate teams using a range of skills, crafts, and technologies to produce every frame.
Modeling. Rigging. Surfaces. Layout. Animation. Lighting. Color. Effects. Each of these tasks has its own team — sometimes a department within the production company, sometimes an outside vendor. The process of integrating their disparate work products into a cohesive experience for the viewer — that’s the production pipeline. And the pipeline for every production company is unique.
“When you think about creating a movie and putting it together, it’s really a matter of combining the work coming from different crafts,” Fabrice Macagno said during the AU 2021 panel discussion Driving Open Standards in Film and TV Production. He’s a technical lead at Animal Logic, the independent digital studio behind projects like Peter Rabbit and The LEGO Movie. The goal for every production company, he says, is “to put that together in a very efficient way and to create new pathways for artists to collaborate with new creative workflows.”
Production pipelines aren’t homogenous, according to Will Telford, who spoke at AU 2021 when he was a senior product owner at Autodesk. “There’s software from all different vendors throughout a production pipeline,” he says. “Until now, it’s been the responsibility of the individual studios to glue that together and figure out how to pass data from one piece of software to another. As you tried to move data from tool to tool, you had to conform that data in a way that the other software could ingest it.”
Today, production companies have another option: open-source software with source code and implementation documentation that’s freely available online. Whether created by individual studios or through industry consortiums, they allow each user to download and use the software for free and modify and customize the tools for their own needs, often sharing their improvements back with the industry.
The Power of Open Source
In 2016, Pixar made their Universal Scene Description (USD) available as open source. “It lets you represent all types of 3D data, the props in a room or the room [itself] — it’s all contained within this one data format,” says Telford. “It is now a common language for 3D that everybody’s tools can speak.”
MaterialX — open-source software for describing materials, surfaces, and shading — also became available in 2016. And Open Color IO (OCIO), a color management solution for motion picture production, has been in development for decades through the Academy Software Foundation.
All these open-source solutions save time and energy for both developers and studios. “It means that our studio customers don’t have to invest engineering resources into supporting some proprietary data format that they have within their studio,” says Telford. “They can leverage our engineering resources and focus their engineering resources on something else.”
In an industry as global and interconnected as media and entertainment, open-source solutions enable companies to outsource tasks more efficiently and vendors to compete more effectively — even when they’re just getting started. “You know you’ll fit in with the industry,” Carol Payne said during the panel discussion Driving Open Standards in Film and TV Production. She’s an imaging technologist at Netflix and a contributor in the development of Open Color IO. “I only have to write this config once, then all applications can use it and read it.”
Using open-source solutions also becomes a way to future-proof your work product and your workflow. “Once you’ve exported something as MaterialX or constructed it as a MaterialX graph, it can be brought into any application that supports the standard today or in the future,” says Jonathan Stone, lead rendering engineer for Materials and Shading at Lucasfilm Advanced Development Group, and a key contributor to the creation of MaterialX. “And it’s not tied to the application that authored it, or even the shading language in which it was originally rendered, or even the medium for which it was first constructed.”
“The main benefit of using USD for us is to bring all the departments closer and to allow us to have faster iterations,” says Macagno. “At the end of the day, what we’re aiming for is to provide maximum efficiency, maximum throughput through the pipeline. And at the same time, allow more flexibility for technical directors to configure their show the way they wish.”
You can think of open-source solutions as a kind of “infrastructure for production,” according to Payne. “It helps the industry unify around one approach, rather than everyone doing their own.” If widely accepted, these tools then become the de facto standard, mutually agreed on by key players. They win on their merits, rather than through enforcement.
Integration and Evolution
A key to adoption for open-source tools is to make sure that integration is as easy as possible, which is why Autodesk made the pxrUSDMaya plug-in available as open source.
“Autodesk has worked hard to deeply integrate USD into Maya,” Telford says. “Our goal is to make Maya the best editor of USD data there is. We didn’t want to invent a new way of working in order for you to work with USD; we wanted to enable a user to continue to do the same thing they’ve always done but work on top of this more efficient data model.”
The next step is to get these open-source solutions to integrate with each other. “These tools are very mature on their own, but they aren’t yet interacting with each other fully in an ecosystem of assets,” says Stone. “I think that’s one of the most interesting areas for future growth — for these to be more tightly integrated, and for them to become more synergistic in the ways that they express assets.”
Related: From In-House to Off-the-Shelf: USD in Production at Animal Logic with Fabrice Macagno
Open Source across Industries
The value of these open-source tools extends beyond the media and entertainment industry. Apple has woven USD into its Macintosh desktop operating system, for example. A new model tag in HTML for 3D models is being considered that would allow 3D models to be rendered in the same way on all browsers, and USD could be a key part of that. And in addition to being used in movies, shows, and games, the surface depictions of MaterialX can also be used in architectural visualizations, which Stone says was part of the plan from the beginning.
“We live in a world now where everybody is beginning to use 3D whether they know it or not,” says Telford. “We’re enabling a ton of creators to bring their visions to life.”