Tuesday, September 25th, 2012 Posted by Jim Thacker

‘We have the opportunity here to change everything’

Learning to grow together: The Foundry and Luxology have merged. Image: Clive Biley.

Earlier today, The Foundry announced that it has merged with Luxology, bringing together two of the visual effects industry’s leading independent developers under a single organisation.

Both companies retain their respective names and all existing staff, with Foundry CEO Bill Collis heading up the new organisation and Luxology boss Brad Peebler reporting to him in a new role as ‘President of the Americas’.

Existing tool development unaffected
According to the companies’ joint press statement, pricing and future development plans of all of their existing tools – including The Foundry’s Nuke, Katana and Mari, and Luxology’s modo – remain unchanged.

Both partners have stressed the complementary nature of both their products – modo for asset creation, and The Foundry’s tools largely at the opposite end of the production pipeline – and their core markets.

While The Foundry is known for its ‘robust, industrial-scale’ visual effects toolsets, Luxology has a strong presence in the design world, with key technology licensing deals with Dassault Systèmes and Bentley.

So what can we expect from the combined companies? What was legendary VFX house Industrial Light & Magic’s role in ‘matchmaking’ the merger? And what impact will their combined weight have on the market?

We spoke to Bill Collis, Brad Peebler and Foundry Chief Scientist Simon Robinson to find out.

The Foundry’s 2012 showreel. The company stresses the fit between its robust, large-scale visual effects tools and Luxology’s skill in designing user-friendly applications, plus its strength in industrial design.

CG Channel: Given that The Foundry has 160 staff to Luxology’s 30, and that Bill will be overall CEO, why is this a merger rather than a straight takeover?

Bill Collis: Because Luxology is such a large force. There’s a great effort to make sure we keep the brands distinct and the customers happy with the idea that things continue as normal.

[Our customers can still call the same people] they were dealing with at Luxology and The Foundry yesterday, just as they can tomorrow and the day after.

CGC: How will Brad’s role within the larger organisation change?

BC: In reality, the vast majority of his time is going to be carrying on running Luxology in just the way he’s always done, but he gets this larger remit of being the most senior Foundry person in America, looking after our US office and hopefully spending more time with our customers where they overlap with his.

We’re leaving everything else as it is. We have a very small board at The Foundry, and that’s going to remain. [Alongside the chairman and non-executive directors] the only Foundry employee on the board is myself.

CGC: ILM acted as ‘matchmakers’ in the merger. How did that come about?

Simon Robinson: It all seems a terribly long time ago now… ILM are one of those companies who are always calling us in to share where they think we should go next, and it was just one of those meetings.

[ILM VFX Supervisor] John Knoll laid out this idea of how he would like our products to work together, picking the best things from each company. He was very much in love with modo’s artist-friendliness; its speed; the fast iterations towards beautiful results in the renderer. He wanted to combine that with what The Foundry could offer with industrial-strength pipeline tools like Katana and Nuke.

After the meeting, [we got] together in Starbucks out behind ILM’s offices, and the more we talked, it became clearer and clearer that the way to make this kind of stuff work was somehow to bring the companies together.

CGC: So what did John Knoll suggest that you couldn’t do as separate companies?

SR: It wasn’t so much the specifics of his suggestions: it was the conversations that those suggestions sparked off.

Brad Peebler: The more we talked, the more we felt we were effectively going down the same path. We thought how much more profound it could be being one company.

CGC: So John Knoll’s suggestion wasn’t literally that you should form one organisation?

SR: No, he didn’t present a business plan for the combined companies. [Laughs]

[ILM’s] suggestion wasn’t ‘can you guys go away and merge’ – it was ‘can you collaborate’. That isn’t unusual: the industry these days is highly collaborative on many levels.

If you look at [The Foundry’s products], they’re born out of partnerships with VFX companies. So it wasn’t a particularly unusual interaction: it just turned out to be a particularly game-changing one.

CGC: But is the game changer that you can make your technologies work together, or that as a combined organisation you have more weight in the market?

SR: It’s both. We’re both excited by what we can do with each other’s technology. On The Foundry’s internal forums this morning, everyone’s crying out for copies of modo to play with, which is really sweet. But combined weight is a nice part of making this happen. It makes it a lot less risky to make exciting choices.

Luxology’s own demo reel. “We both have amazing communities, amazing user bases, amazing technology,” says Luxology President Brad Peebler. “We have an opportunity here to change everything.”

CGC: In the announcement, you say your engineers have already been working together for several months. What have they been working on?

SR: We can’t say at this point. It’s a nice surprise we’re holding back. All we can say is that it would be disappointing if we couldn’t show something in the next six months [or so].

CGC: Can you say what product they’ve been working on? I assume it isn’t a new one.

I think it would be dangerous, because then we’re going to be plagued with conspiracy theories. Clearly, in the time available, we probably haven’t reinvented the wheel.

CGC: And how many new staff are you now looking to hire?

SR: About eight engineers and a handful of marketing and sales people: say 10 to 15 [in total]. Most of those engineers are going to be working on modo.

BP: That’s nearly doubling [Luxology’s existing] engineering staff.

CGC: From the outside, both The Foundry and Luxology seem to have very similar work cultures. How do you all get on as people?

BP: There was an interesting dating period through our initial collaborative work: not just the process of getting the engineers together, but us as execs talking about what the contract [for that collaboration] would look like. We structured it as if we would always be two separate companies.

Going through legal is a really great way to test how you will last in a relationship, because everybody is looking to cover their own bases. But it turned out to be very friendly, which was very encouraging. Throughout the merger, the only people we got annoyed with were our lawyers.

Mari 1.5 in action. Although one of the few toolsets in which The Foundry’s software overlaps with that Luxology’s, Brad Peebler says he regards Mari’s texturing capabilities as complementary to modo’s.

CGC: One of the few areas in which the two companies’ products overlap is texturing. How do you see the relationship between modo and Mari evolving?

BP: I consider Mari in much the same way I do ZBrush: it’s complementary. The painting system in modo is very capable, but its strength is being integrated into the host application, [not] painting an unlimited number of [4k or 8k] textures. Mari is a very focused tool and can use all the available system resources in a way that would be very hard in an integrated application.

It’s a very exciting thing when you have a tight bridge between a host application with integrated tools, and another dedicated application that goes beyond what anything else accomplish.

We will continue to develop modo’s painting tools internally. One of the first things that came up on our side was: ‘Great, can I talk to the guys who work on Mari?’ And that’s going to happen, just as Nuke has geometry tools and I’m sure [their developers] are keen to get their hands dirty in what we do. That’s not a commitment to a development path, but these are the things we’re talking about.

CGC: Will we see new products from the merged company?

SR: ‘Yes’ is the easy answer – but exactly when is the hard answer.

BP: We get excited, and there are 105 things we could do, but the most important thing is to talk to our users and set a path for what we should do first.

SR: We’ve held this in our own heads for so long, but now that it’s public we can actually go out to users and work out which of our madcap ideas can be turned into real things – and at the same time make sure that none of this distracts from our existing development work.

BP: At a high level, there is the concept that the pipeline needs to become more artist-friendly. Mari is a great example of that, modo is a great example of that. When you put the two companies together, we really understand how to make artist-friendly tools, but we also have a deep core competency with pipeline [tools]. And that’s where the rubber hits the road.

CGC: What impact do you think the merger will have on the visual effects market?

BP: We need to be diligent and change nothing – while at the same time changing the world. We both have something very precious: we’ve built amazing communities, amazing user bases, amazing chunks of technology. We have to be very careful not to upset that momentum, or our staff. But we have to work hard because we do have an opportunity here to change everything.

Read more about the merger on The Foundry’s website
(Includes a Q&A section)

Read more about the merger on Luxology’s website
(Includes a Q&A section)