KATANA’s burgeoning ecosystem

August 25, 2016

Maneki KATANA image
Image from Blame! utilising Maneki from J Cube Inc. ©Tsutomu Nihei, KODANSHA/BLAME! Production Committee

We’re only just over halfway through, and already 2016 has been a standout year for KATANA, with some truly exciting news from all directions. We’ve seen a tidal wave of support for KATANA from our customers and our technology partners—the ecosystem has grown by leaps and bounds since January. And here at The Foundry, the KATANA team labored long and hard to rebuild KATANA and port it to the Windows platform so more teams around the world can make use of the power it gives to companies and their artists.

The KATANA team is driven to achieve a very specific set of goals. One of our key aims is to become the hub of a powerful look development and lighting ecosystem. There is power in having a focus and concentrating on a limited set of things but doing them really well. I firmly believe that the last few months have shown that others believe in that as well.

Pixar has moved all its digital cinematography to a KATANA-based pipeline from Finding Dory onward. ILM, who’ve been working with KATANA for some time, now use it to produce world-class effects for all of its shows, including landmark films like Star Wars: The Force Awakens. And smaller teams like those at LAIKA, Iloura, Atomic Fiction and Tippett are doing remarkable work on VFX and animated films using the same tools as their larger peers.

KATANA does not render an image itself but it really knows how to hand over 3D scene data to the renderer super-efficiently. So, we work with renderer plug-ins to make the images. We started the year with plug-ins for Arnold, RenderMan, and V-Ray. Arnold is shipping on all platforms, RenderMan is finishing their Windows plug-in and Chaos Group is looking for Windows beta testers for V-Ray. In addition, we have two new exciting options coming soon: Redshift and 3Delight.

Everywhere I travel, I meet people who are trying to find a way to balance the pressures to produce “better, faster and cheaper” with the needs of their companies. One way people are chasing that is to investigate and use GPU-based rendering tools like Redshift. Redshift changes the dynamics of rendering by increasing the speed of artist feedback. Anecdotally, I have heard figures in the range of 10x faster than CPU renderers. As a former lighting artist and supervisor, those are exciting numbers. Pair that rendering power with KATANA’s ability to allow an artist to control a whole sequence of shots from one KATANA file, and you have an exciting combination. The Redshift team have some thoughts to share on their upcoming KATANA plug-in and GPU rendering.

No less exciting is the forthcoming 3Delight plug-in for KATANA. Based on their new NSI (Nodal Scene Interface) architecture, this plug-in focuses on power, speed and an artist-friendly presentation of KATANA’s technical power. It is rare that you meet a team of people who are passionately engaged in trying to marry the most modern rendering algorithms with an artist experience that’s as simple as possible; the end result is features like being able to change light intensities by clicking on a highlight in the rendered image and dragging your mouse up and down—all the while feeding these changes live back into the KATANA interface. This is on top of a completely bleeding-edge OSL-based shading pipeline which gives pixel-perfect matching results between Maya and KATANA.

While we’re on the subject of 3Delight, we naturally have a reason to talk about J CUBE Inc.—the software arm of Polygon Pictures—and their exciting work. In simple terms, Multiverse is an extension of the Alembic file format; at its heart, it is so much more. Multiverse allows you to change an asset’s version directly on the Alembic file, making complex scene management much easier. Then there’s the ability to share Maya Hypershade data with other apps. For example, using Multiverse and 3Delight, you can export a scene from Maya to KATANA and recreate it via two nodes—and the results are pixel-perfect identical. This is big news for studios that want to use KATANA but build the simplest pipeline possible.

J CUBE Inc. also just released Maneki, a suite of anime and PBR production tools, and they’re bringing these to KATANA as well. I am personally excited about the possibility of KATANA’s power to help the needs of our clients in the anime production business.

We can’t really talk about scene transport without touching on the open-sourcing of USD (Universal Scene Description) by PIXAR. With the release of v0.7 at SIGGRAPH 2016 that included Maya and KATANA plug-in code, companies around the world now have an industry-standard scene description format to use as the foundation of a pipeline. It’s really exciting to think what studios will be able to accomplish as we all collaborate on this new file format. USD opens up a whole new set of possibilities for passing production data between different DCC applications or different studios. The Foundry has proudly been a partner in these efforts by helping port USD to Windows. A KATANA update in the near future will include the compiled plug-ins for users to deploy out of the box.

That’s not all. Ultimately, KATANA’s purpose is to power the rendering of images. Every medium-to-major studio manages their render resources with a render farm, which means render farm software. Initially, KATANA did not have any out-of-the-box support from render farm software packages, so each client had to do it themselves. Now, Deadline version 8 and onwards ships with built-in support for KATANA. You can submit jobs from within KATANA, or from the monitor. It works with outputs from the renderer plug-ins, the built-in compositing system and the dependencies artists can build into their projects: you can render and composite in the same file with a single click. On top of all of this, you can buy blocks of KATANA render node licenses on the Deadline store.

Many clients have already hooked up render frames to KATANA for a range of dispatchers; having commercial support from those vendors just makes it easier if KATANA is something you want to add to your pipeline. For those of you who are users of Qube! from Pipeline FX, they are looking for beta testers of their new KATANA tools. You can see it in action in this video.

Does that make you want to do the wave …? I know I do! Maybe you want to just do a crowd simulation instead. Good news: the super-smart team over at Golaem are working away on updating their tools with first-class support for KATANA as well.

So there you have it: three existing plug-ins on both platforms; two new renderers coming soon; two new ways to get data from Maya to KATANA; one specific anime production tool; two render farm software packages, and one crowd system all as part of the KATANA ecosystem all in the last few months. You can’t blame an old lighting geek from getting excited. Now if you will pardon me, I think I’ll go light something!


Jordan Thistlewood

Jordan is The Foundry’s Senior Product Manager for Look Development and Lighting. He’s worked in VFX and Animation, and has a BFA in Drama where he studied lighting design.

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