Monday, April 18th, 2016 Posted by Jim Thacker

Autodesk buys Solid Angle

Solid Angle’s 2013 showreel provides a snapshot of Arnold’s rapid rise to dominance within the VFX industry. Autodesk has just acquired both the groundbreaking raytracing renderer and developer Solid Angle itself.

Autodesk has acquired Solid Angle, developer of the Arnold renderer. Solid Angle founder and chief software architect Marcos Fajardo will join Autodesk along with the rest of the company’s staff.

Financial terms of the deal, which was announced at the start of NAB 2016, were not disclosed.

Arnold: the renderer that rewrote the rules of an industry
A fast, efficient Monte Carlo raytracer, Arnold has shaken up the way the visual effects industry works.

First used in production at Sony Pictures Imageworks, where Fajardo worked until 2010, it quickly became taken up by other large VFX houses on the strength of its ability to handle complex scenes.

As well as conquering much of the high end of the market within a little over five years, Arnold helped establish raytracing as a viable rendering methodology for visual effects.

Instead of relying on traditional methods like those permitted by RenderMan’s original Reyes architecture – put crudely, less computationally intensive, but less realistic – studios rapidly switched to raytracing.

The software is now used by over 500 studios worldwide, on projects ranging from Oscar-winning movies like Ex Machina and Gravity to TV series like Game of Thrones, and numerous ads and cinematics.

It is now so ubiquitous that it’s sometimes hard to believe for how little time Arnold has been publicly available: Solid Angle only started listing prices for the software on its website in 2014.

The near future: no change in price or licence terms
That’s the history, or a potted version of it. So what will change in future, now that Autodesk owns Arnold?

In the short term, not very much: Autodesk has confirmed that there will be no changes in pricing, and that all existing product support contracts remain in place.

The company has also confirmed that it will not be discontinuing perpetual licences for Arnold, despite having just moved to a rental-only model for all of its other software products.

When we asked, Autodesk told us that the business models of the two sets of products were “very different”.

On pressing a bit harder, we were told that one of those differences was that “customers of Side Effects don’t necessarily want to move to subscription”.

Continued support for Houdini and Cinema 4D
That’s important, because Arnold isn’t just compatible with Autodesk software. As well as Maya and Softimage, there are native integrations for Side Effects’ Houdini, Maxon’s Cinema 4D and The Foundry’s Katana.

Autodesk told us that not only does it intend to continue to support third-party applications, but that it “intends to grow that business”.

“We want to make sure the product remains open,” said industry manager Maurice Patel. “[We’re] trying to be as open as we can with technologies that cross multiple product segements and not to disrupt workflows.”

Following the Shotgun model?
Of course, there’s a difference between discontinuing support for non-Autodesk software and simply allowing development resources for those integrations to dwindle over time.

Asked whether users of non-Autodesk tools would be willing to trust that the company would continue to develop Arnold actively for them, Patel pointed to the company’s acquisition of Shotgun.

Two years after the asset-management system was bought out by Autodesk, it remains a staple of visual effects production pipelines, including those incorporating non-Autodesk tools.

“I think Shotgun really showed how this sort of thing could work,” said Patel.

The long term: standalone renderer, or integrated with other Autodesk software?
While Autodesk wouldn’t comment on whether it intends to change the way Arnold is integrated with its other software in future, it did hint that the intention is not simply to build the renderer into Maya.

“It’s not like Naiad [Exotic Matter’s fluid simulation software, which Autodesk bought in 2012, and which now forms the basis of Maya’s Bifrost toolset], where the intention was to integrate,” said Patel.

Autodesk says that it intends to continue to support other renderers, like RenderMan and V-Ray, in its software.

Patel said that he also expected 3ds Max and Maya to continue to ship with Nvidia’s mental ray and Iray renderers – although, as part of the “open rendering policy” the company first implemented with Maya 2016, the integrations will not be enabled by default.

However, Patel noted that he expected the aquisition to accelerate the development of a native version of Arnold for 3ds Max. In its official FAQs document, Autodesk also states that it “now evaluating is making Arnold available with 3ds Max and Maya”.


Driving an ‘aggressive agenda’ for cloud rendering
So if Autodesk doesn’t plan to use the acquisition as a way to reinforce the market dominance of its own 3D software, what does it get out of the deal – beyond a successful and widely talked-about new product?

The answer, it seems, likes in Autodesk’s vision of rendering as an online service.

“Rendering is more and more part of the Autodesk solution,” said Patel. “We see it moving more and more to the cloud over the next several years.”

“Arnold is already cloud-ready, so it’s a natural fit for us,” he continued. “[The acquisition] allows us to drive a more aggressive agenda in terms of the move to the cloud.”

A way to preserve Solid Angle’s engineering focus?
In its own public statements, Solid Angle has presented the deal as both a natural consequence of and a solution to the problems caused by Arnold’s unexpectedly rapid uptake within the visual effects industry.

“I couldn’t have imagined 20 years ago when I developed the early code for Arnold that it would end up being used by thousands of artists,” wrote Marcos Fajardo in a newsletter to Arnold users.

“It is thrilling to see that growth [but] to meet the needs of a user community that big and keep the software on the absolute edge, there’s no way around it. We have to scale.”

While he declined to comment on whether Solid Angle approached Autodesk, or vice versa, Maurice Patel noted that it would enable the company to continue to play to its strengths in research and development.

“Solid Angle joined Autodesk as they were having to spend more and more money on marketing and support and they were primarily an engineering team,” he said. “[Marcos] wanted to focus on engineering.”

Asked whether it would be possible to preserve that focus within a large corporate organisation like Autodesk, Patel hinted that Fajardo might be given a fair degree of autonomy in future.

“It isn’t like he’s got to integrate into Autodesk,” he said. “He’s running a team in Autodesk based on rendering.”

Read Autodesk’s official public statement on its acquisition of Solid Angle

Read Solid Angle’s own public statement on the deal

Read Autodesk’s FAQ document on the future of Arnold