A brief history of NUKE

December 1, 2015

With the recent announcement of NUKE 10, it seems a fitting time to look back at where it all started, and at the journey we’ve taken down the years. We caught up with Bill Spitzak, the original author of NUKE at Digital Domain, and Simon Robinson, co-founder of The Foundry, to get the scoop.

A graduate of both the Computer Science program at MIT and USC film school, and with several years of software development already under his belt, Bill was perfectly placed in the early 90s to become one of the pioneers of the still adolescent CG industry. At DD, the creative team were using a command-line script-based compositor to handle the donkey work, alongside their expensive and—at the time—fixed-resolution Flame and Inferno systems. In 1993, Bill started to develop a visual, node-based version of the system, and NUKE as we know it today was born; it was quickly put to use on films such as True Lies, Apollo 13 and Titanic.

Meanwhile, in a garage somewhere in deepest Middle Earth (oh sorry, England), Simon Robinson and Bruno Nicoletti (each with an equally impressive pedigree) were forming The Foundry, and pouring their love of post-production and visual effects into creating plug-ins for Flame and Inferno. Simon remembers, “Being software people in London just when digital effects really started to take off was great; all we wanted to do was get together to do ‘more stuff’!”. The year was 1996.


For the next five years or so, The Foundry and Digital Domain marched on in parallel as the industry matured, and special visual effects became increasingly essential to the success of films at the box office. In 2002, NUKE was honored with an Academy Award for technical achievement. “I think everybody was pretty happy about that,” says Bill, although he adds that having to make a speech “caused some panic.” 
In 2007, The Foundry took over development of NUKE from Digital Domain. The Foundry were looking for a software platform of their own, having reached the technical limits of what they could achieve purely through plug-ins. “We'd all been aware of it for a while, and knew it was highly regarded,” recalls Simon. “It looked like a fun way to expand what we did, and to further our interest in continuing to do ‘more stuff’.” 
Throughout the next few years, NUKE improved in leaps and bounds, as The Foundry added hundreds of new features—including a built-in camera tracker, denoise, deep compositing and stereo tools—and extended its core with Python, Qt, 64-bit and multi-platform support. It was soon a standard fixture in film pipelines across the globe.
In 2010, Jon Wadelton became NUKE’s product manager. (Jon had joined The Foundry in 2007, having been tempted over from his native Australia, and had been working as lead software engineer—today he’s the company’s CTO). That same year, NUKE expanded its range to include NUKEX, which combined the core functionality of NUKE with an out-of-the-box toolkit of exclusive features; many of these drew on The Foundry's core image-processing expertise which had proven so valuable in the plug-in market, including The Foundry’s own Academy Award winner, FURNACE. 
Under Jon’s guidance, the NUKE family continued to grow, with the addition in 2012 of HIERO, HIEROPLAYER and NUKE Assist. Last year, in 2014, in tandem with our NUKE 9 release, The Foundry introduced NUKE STUDIO—a collaborative VFX, editorial and finishing solution which sits at the top of the NUKE range. NUKE STUDIO was the result of countless hours of work from the unstoppable NUKE team. They’re still at it, as you can see from our NUKE 10 announcement.
Simon has been present for many huge changes throughout NUKE’s lifetime. “So many people have contributed to NUKE since The Foundry took it on that it is largely unrecognisable as the same product, either internally or on the surface,” he says. “The breadth of the feature set and the polish now make the original versions seem decidedly retro,” he continues. “But the core ideas that made it such a great starting platform still persist in its DNA.”
And what does the future hold for NUKE? The world is its oyster, and as The Foundry’s chief scientist, Simon is ready for new challenges. “We're now taking the first steps into VR, where both we and our customers have just started scratching the surface,” he muses. “I'm excited to see how this field evolves over the next few years and to see the NUKE that emerges to deal with it.” He gets a faraway look in his eyes, and for a moment you might think he’s back in that garage, still looking to do “more stuff”. 
Just one more thing: ever wondered where the name came from? Step right back in time to that original command-line compositor. It was known as the ‘New Compositor’, or ‘Nuke’ for short—and it just happened to be a fitting moniker for a product about the enter the world of Flames and Infernos. You learn something new everyday. 


Liz Kyneur

Works with customers and content for The Foundry, creating case studies, visiting clients, hearing their stories and seeing their amazing work. Owns a cactus named Pete.

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