Lucasfilm CTO Cliff Plumer Talks Technology

Barbara Robertson speaks with Lucasfilm cto Cliff Plumer to find out more about the technology of the future from someone at the forefront of innovation.

Given the opening of the Letterman Digital Arts Center in San Franciscos Presidio, the new home of Lucasfilm, Industrial Light & Magic and LucasArts, along with subsequent announcements such as HP becoming Lucasfilms preferred technology provider and ZBrush being added to the ILM pipeline, VFXWorld invited Barbara Robertson to dig a little deeper with Lucasfilm cto Cliff Plumer.

Barbara Robertson: Weve been hearing a lot about new software that you call Zeno. What does it do?

Cliff Plumer: At the core of Zeno is a scene file; thats our proprietary file. Weve built all our proprietary tools on top of that platform and integrated commercial tools within it.

In the past, the core of ILMs pipeline was based on Softimage, a commercial 3D application, and that created obstacles because once you have to translate between apps, it increases the complexity of the pipeline. Things didnt translate easily and wed be stuck in middle trying to get software programs to support each other. It took a lot of technical administration to manage files and move them between multiple applications.

Now, Zeno is the hub; it handles the file conversion. Thats all transparent to the artists.

If someone is working on a model in Maya, they can click on a button that says copy. And then go into Zeno and paste it. Its literally like a cut and paste function. Once in Zeno, we have full control over all the files. Some people might think that doesnt sound innovative, but in CG, thats huge. It makes everything more efficient. Its at the foundation of what we changed in the CG pipeline.

BR: What else changed in the pipeline?

CP: The other key with Zeno is that the tools are modules and we keep developing modules. With a large 3D application, you load all the controls at once, and thats a lot of overhead. With the Zeno architecture, the artists use only the tool needed for a task, whether theyre doing lighting, creature rigging or animation. These are all modules in Zeno; it adds a lot more efficiency. And, by having all those things integrated in Zeno, there is more collaboration among different types of artists.

BR: How does Zeno allow more collaboration?

CP: We have what we call asset management and production tracking tools integrated within Zeno. The pipe used to be an assembly line. X would hand the project to Y down the pipeline. If something changed, they had to update the pipeline through every single process manually. We used to have problems with renders if someone was not using the current version, it would break.

Now, artists can make changes and they are automatically updated throughout the pipeline. If Im an artist using a number of assets, I dont need a production coordinator to tell me the status of an asset. When an artist works on an asset, its automatically updated and everyone is using the current version. Instead of having an army of PAs with clipboards, everything is all online and automated. We can have artists collaborating on the same file in realtime.

The feature wars ended a long time ago. Now, its about workflow; about getting tools into artists hands that are integrated under one user interface.

BR: Was this made possible because of faster hardware?

CP: Well, were not dependant on particular hardware, but were designing what we want to do to take advantage of fast hardware.

In the past, we were limited by the bandwidth at the old ILM campus. That network was, in general, 100 megabits to the desk and one gigabyte in the backbone. Weve scaled that up by a factor of 10. Every artist has one gig to the desk and 10 gig is the backbone infrastructure.

BR: What difference does that make in the way artists work?

CP: Because we have more bandwidth, we can view high res images efficiently instead of relying on compression techniques. We want to move to a place where we can do more internal videoconferencing so that instead of artists having to meet in the theater, they can view images across the network from different locations. Instead of calling Dennis [Muren] and saying, Lets meet in the theater, they can make a phone call, sit at their own desks, say, Take a look at this, and both view images at the same time.

The other big thing in terms of flexibility is that we can move artists around more easily. If we have artists moving from one show to another, they can just pick up their things and go down to a new assignment, log on and their environment is set up. They can log on from any workstation in the facility and start working. They dont have to move their workstation with them.

When the concept of moving to the Presidio came up, we determined it would have taken two weeks; we would have had to close down. So, we came up with a plan to move the facility without any down time. Weve had a 10 gig pipe between ILM in San Rafael and the Presidio and have been moving the back end infrastructure so there would be no down time. When artists leave for the weekend, they pack their personal belongings and when they show up on Monday morning, theyre working.

Given the opening of the Letterman Digital Arts Center in San Franciscos Presidio, the new home of Lucasfilm, Industrial Light & Magic and LucasArts, along with subsequent announcements such as HP becoming Lucasfilms preferred technology provider and ZBrush being added to the ILM pipeline, VFXWorld invited Barbara Robertson to dig a little deeper with Lucasfilm cto Cliff Plumer.

Barbara Robertson: Weve been hearing a lot about new software that you call Zeno. What does it do?

Cliff Plumer: At the core of Zeno is a scene file; thats our proprietary file. Weve built all our proprietary tools on top of that platform and integrated commercial tools within it.

In the past, the core of ILMs pipeline was based on Softimage, a commercial 3D application, and that created obstacles because once you have to translate between apps, it increases the complexity of the pipeline. Things didnt translate easily and wed be stuck in middle trying to get software programs to support each other. It took a lot of technical administration to manage files and move them between multiple applications.

Now, Zeno is the hub; it handles the file conversion. Thats all transparent to the artists.

If someone is working on a model in Maya, they can click on a button that says copy. And then go into Zeno and paste it. Its literally like a cut and paste function. Once in Zeno, we have full control over all the files. Some people might think that doesnt sound innovative, but in CG, thats huge. It makes everything more efficient. Its at the foundation of what we changed in the CG pipeline.

BR: What else changed in the pipeline?

CP: The other key with Zeno is that the tools are modules and we keep developing modules. With a large 3D application, you load all the controls at once, and thats a lot of overhead. With the Zeno architecture, the artists use only the tool needed for a task, whether theyre doing lighting, creature rigging or animation. These are all modules in Zeno; it adds a lot more efficiency. And, by having all those things integrated in Zeno, there is more collaboration among different types of artists.

BR: How does Zeno allow more collaboration?

CP: We have what we call asset management and production tracking tools integrated within Zeno. The pipe used to be an assembly line. X would hand the project to Y down the pipeline. If something changed, they had to update the pipeline through every single process manually. We used to have problems with renders if someone was not using the current version, it would break.

Now, artists can make changes and they are automatically updated throughout the pipeline. If Im an artist using a number of assets, I dont need a production coordinator to tell me the status of an asset. When an artist works on an asset, its automatically updated and everyone is using the current version. Instead of having an army of PAs with clipboards, everything is all online and automated. We can have artists collaborating on the same file in realtime.

The feature wars ended a long time ago. Now, its about workflow; about getting tools into artists hands that are integrated under one user interface.

BR: Was this made possible because of faster hardware?

CP: Well, were not dependant on particular hardware, but were designing what we want to do to take advantage of fast hardware.

In the past, we were limited by the bandwidth at the old ILM campus. That network was, in general, 100 megabits to the desk and one gigabyte in the backbone. Weve scaled that up by a factor of 10. Every artist has one gig to the desk and 10 gig is the backbone infrastructure.

BR: What difference does that make in the way artists work?

CP: Because we have more bandwidth, we can view high res images efficiently instead of relying on compression techniques. We want to move to a place where we can do more internal videoconferencing so that instead of artists having to meet in the theater, they can view images across the network from different locations. Instead of calling Dennis [Muren] and saying, Lets meet in the theater, they can make a phone call, sit at their own desks, say, Take a look at this, and both view images at the same time.

The other big thing in terms of flexibility is that we can move artists around more easily. If we have artists moving from one show to another, they can just pick up their things and go down to a new assignment, log on and their environment is set up. They can log on from any workstation in the facility and start working. They dont have to move their workstation with them.

When the concept of moving to the Presidio came up, we determined it would have taken two weeks; we would have had to close down. So, we came up with a plan to move the facility without any down time. Weve had a 10 gig pipe between ILM in San Rafael and the Presidio and have been moving the back end infrastructure so there would be no down time. When artists leave for the weekend, they pack their personal belongings and when they show up on Monday morning, theyre working.

Tags 
randomness