From Soho around the world: the UK software firm dominating Hollywood

Even if you’re not familiar with the name Foundry, the London-based visual effects and computer graphics company, you will certainly know their work. Described on their website as software that “advances the art and technology of visual experience in partnership with creative leaders across the globe”, they have been acclaimed by Director business magazine as “the UK software firm dominating Hollywood”.

From Star Wars to Gravity, Game of Thrones to Paddington, the list includes the magical and awe-inspiring effects featured on Harry Potter, Guardians of the Galaxy, Avatar and a whole host of other Oscar-nominated films. They have worked with companies as diverse as Pixar, Mercedes-Benz, Google, ILM, Weta Digital, The Moving Picture Company and Sony Pictures Imageworks. And from their origins in 1996 – two people working from a desk in Soho – the company has grown to a £40m-revenue global business with over 300 staff in offices in the UK and US.

Foundry was set up by Bruno Nicoletti and Simon Robinson at a time when the UK industry was more about making commercials than making films.

“As we grown from those early days, Soho has changed as well. It has moved from ads to making content for long form films and episodic content and those early start-ups we worked alongside have become multinational visual effects companies. Today it’s still involved in working at the cutting edge of how people think about media and interact with it.”
– Simon Robinson, co-founder and chief scientist, Foundry

Offering a portfolio of technologies to enable, as Simon describes it, “professionals to produce high quality content,” the company has also branched out to offer its technologies to individuals and enthusiasts, with a support portal on its website for those who want to use its tools. And it’s not just about film and TV. Foundry’s technologies are also used in the gaming and automotive industries, product and industrial design, education and virtual reality.

Key technologies

Nuke is the Academy Award winning flagship product that is responsible for the pioneering effects in many of the productions mentioned above, a software tool that stitches layers of film and special effects together in post-production. It has described as a one-stop-shop for VFX artists and is used by a large number of VFX houses around the world, including the big players such as Framestore, ILM and the Moving Picture Company.

“Nuke is the compositing tool of choice for Framestore’s film productions; it is incredibly versatile, customisable and user friendly,” says Patricia Llaguno lead compositor at Framestore. “It enables our creative talent to explore and expand ideas and solve all manner of problems.”

“Traditionally it has been used for flat images, albeit creating stunning effects but those effects were non-immersive,” explains Simon. “Then people wanted to use Nuke with 360 camera rigs, so we created CARA VR, which fits within the Nuke platform to create professional 360-degree VR content.”

The team was an early player in the VR market, starting the project around the time that Facebook bought Oculus. At that time, says Simon, the industry was still exploring what 360-degree film meant and Foundry was keen to support the professional market in a practical way.

The company’s hero product for 3D content creation, which is also the industry’s fastest modelling toolset, is Modo VR, offering modelling, sculpting, texturing, painting and photorealistic rendering in one package, with unlimited network rendering capabilities.

It is in use cross-sector in a range of industries, from VFX to making shoes. The speed at which it allows designers work is vastly improving efficiency and time-to-market, for example cutting product sample creation from 6-8 weeks to 2-3 days, as explained by footwear company New Balance.

“With Modo, we’re also exploring the idea of allowing people to create in an immersive environment instead of working at a computer on a flat screen, exploring what it’s like to create in 3D using a headset,” says Simon.

Research and experimentation

As well as commercial projects that are creating waves in the industry, Foundry also works on collaborative and funded research projects, collaborating with innovative partners to try new ideas. This, reveals Simon, is less about solving people’s immediate needs and more about exploring what’s possible and how the technology might be used.

Two recent projects, ALIVE and FAME, have been funded by Innovate UK and are cross-sector partnerships. ALIVE is a collaboration between Figment Productions and the University of Surrey, an 18-month project exploring a range of different techniques to capture live-action VR. The resulting production by Figment, Kinch & the Double World, incorporated CG and 360-degree video technologies and is currently doing the film festival circuit.

Kinch & the Double World production

“From our point of view, we were interested in the use of camera arrays outside the conventional rigs, to capture ‘volumetric video’, in particular the performances of actors,” says Simon. The aim here wasn’t full body capture but a video capture volume that provided sufficient parallax for limited 6DOF head movement in a VR environment – so that the person experiencing the performance would also have a degree of head movement.

The FAME project, a collaboration with Disney-owned ILM, developed technologies for real-time augmented and mixed reality experiences. The goal was to enable film quality assets to be embedded in the environment around a viewer to create cinematic mixed-reality experiences, as Simon explains.

“With this project, you can walk into a room using a handheld device such as a camera and scan the space. ILM created an experience which could be placed in this space, with a character interacting with you and the room, and you can then watch the experience back on same device you used to scan it.”

Foundry created the life-like effects in the experience, rendering the character and props to scale and creating realistic representations of light and shadow in the space. And from entering to room to interacting with the finished experience took just 10 minutes.

“These projects are about experimentation,” Simon reiterates. “I don’t know if they are commercially viable but at this stage it’s about putting the technology in place and using it to try new ideas.”

Challenges on the journey

The challenges faced by the film industry as a whole affect its service providers explains Simon. “The amount of data that has to be generated is phenomenal and there are substantial hardware costs associated with that – this has been the massive change of the last 20 years. Then take it to the next step, transferring to a world of VR and the change is magnified in terms of the data required to meet the demands of visual perfection.”

Finding the right skills and retaining talent is a long-cited challenge within the sector, and the smaller players in the market are forced to compete with the big players such as Facebook and Google, who both have set up large operations in London. “We have big requirements for software engineers,” says Simon. “But this is a tribe of people so much in demand globally and particularly in London.”

Impact on the sector

Simon believes the 360-degree work that Foundry has done has had a huge effect in terms of the practical impact of their applications. And regarding their experimental work, he feels it’s yet too early to say what the impact will be but it is certainly keeping the conversation running.

What does the future look like?

Simon cites the current issues with virtual and augmented reality hardware as an obstacle to the sector’s development, headsets display visuals in a way that is very far removed from our complex human experience of them. But he testifies that this will improve in the future and is very positive about the role immersive technologies will play in the years to come.

“My guiding idea is that when we watch TV or go to cinema, we’re longing for immersion. We like the fidelity of what we’re seeing, we like the photo-realism of it, the audio – it all has an impact. What we’re looking for is the desire to be there, so I am confident that there is a strong drive towards immersion. But it is impossible to know what the final shape of it will look like. All I can say is that whatever we end up with it won’t be anything like what we have now.”

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Words: Bernadette Fallon
Images: Figment Productions

360 Film, 3D content, Film, Foundry, TV, VFX, Virtual Reality, VR