For all the undoubted benefits that computer graphics have brought to animated filmmaking, for many the concept art is often more visually appealing than the final film. So it was intriguing to see Dylan Sisson’s presentation at Pixar’s annual “Art+Science” Fair at SIGGRAPH 2017, in which he debuted a set of custom RenderMan shading plug-ins, enabling non-photoreal rendering (NPR). Essentially, the suite promises a range of solutions to the generic “CG look”.
A couple of months later, the software reappeared in a case study for 9to3animation, a Dutch studio making short films for children. 9to3animation tasked the software’s developers, LollipopShaders, with recreating children’s book artwork as faithfully as possible in CG. The results were pretty impressive.
I contacted Lumnance Software (the business that owns LollipopShaders) to find out more, to which company founder Christos Obretenov promptly replied with an invitation to a Pixar User Group event in Vancouver in late 2017. After the show, he and I sat down to talk about the shader and its potential implications.
CC: What is your background?
CO: I started out working on Disney’s animated movie The Wild in Toronto, writing custom software for the fur shading and lighting of the creatures and ocean simulations. I then went over to Sydney where they were filming and doing the visual effects for Superman Returns. I developed the shading system for the sequences of young Superman learning to fly in the cornfields. From there I went to Los Angeles for Sony Pictures to work on Spider-Man 3 and Beowulf, and then to San Francisco at Disney and Robert Zemeckis’ studio, ImageMoversDigital, to working on Christmas Carol and Mars Needs Moms. I started my own software development and training company, LollipopShaders, in 2015.
CC: Why did you start LollipopShaders?
CO: After working at the big studios for the better part of a decade, we realized that the wheel was being re-invented every time, for every project. There was a demand and need for a lot of the lighting and shading tools we were developing at the studios, but made available for everybody to use for rendering. We started developing big libraries of customized shading plugins, primarily for Pixar’s RenderMan technology, since that’s the one we had used at all the studios and was the primary “gold standard” of rendering software for feature films.
CC: So that’s when the NPR technology was born?
CO: That’s right. We were fascinated by Disney and Pixar’s “Art Of” books because oftentimes the art in the book was more interesting than the final movies. And, working on various animated feature films at different studios, we always thought the pre-production art designs for the characters and environments looked amazing. Every production says they want to hit that look, but ultimately the final movie always looks too “CG” and generic.
CC: Can you sum up the key boons of the software in a nutshell?
Our unique shading system is fully art directible and driven by artists’ brushes, but also has a procedural algorithm that handles the non-photoreal response to light with custom textures. This system is totally customizable by the artist, who can just draw a suite of their own brushes with different looks – watercolor, ink, sketch, pencil, oil and so on – and feed them into the custom plugins to get their own look.
Note: Lollipop Shaders is the name for the suite of RenderMan shading plug-ins. Painterly is the name of one of the plug-ins
CC: Is it only for RenderMan? Why not other renderers?
CO: RenderMan is the most open renderer right now to do custom development with, so we found it best to initially develop the suite of NPR technology for it, we are definitely open to and looking at expanding it into other renderers. The more accessible it is to everyone, the better.
CC: Do studios know how to implement and work with the shaders?
CO: They often need some support to begin with, which is why our course content covers all grounds: from beginner to intermediate students who are interested in rendering for feature film production, commercials, and any other story-telling medium, to more advanced artists, technical directors, and supervisors who perhaps need to upgrade their skills using the latest in rendering technology that is really at the bleeding edge. I work closely with Pixar in making sure the course content is always very up to date, not only in the latest stuff that’s out there, but what’s coming up in the next year that hasn’t been released yet. The training we provide is now officially endorsed by Pixar, the first external training program that Pixar has given that kind of backing to.
CC: How are you spending your time currently? What’s next for you?
CO: I’m busy doing projects with the NPR system for specific studio clients, custom developing the software to fit their needs and training their teams in how it works. We’re also working on integrating parts of the toon and sketch NPR system right into RenderMan for all users to have access to it.
Pixar User Group event panel (from l-r): Wayne Wooten (RenderMan team), Will Earl (MPC studios), David Hackett (RenderMan team), Christos Obretenov.
Pixar User Group event