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Pixar sets RenderMan free

Disney-owned animation studio talks with 3dtotal as they single-handedly prepare to save the VFX industry with RenderMan, Pixar's bespoke renderer

Disney-owned animation studio talks with 3dtotal as they single-handedly prepare to save the VFX industry with RenderMan, Pixar's bespoke renderer

See RenderMan 19 in action in this video
© Pixar


Pixar's short film 'Tin Toy', released in 1988, was nothing short of revolutionary. It gave us a photorealistic world created with then state-of-the-art hardware and software. More importantly, it established Pixar as a cutting-edge animation studio well-versed in the language of filmmaking.

Behind the scenes, 'Tin Toy' introduced RenderMan, Pixar's bespoke renderer. It forms the backbone of the company, realizing everything from 1995's Toy Story to this year's Inside Out, and it's been utilized in live-action non-Pixar movies such as Titanic, The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars.

While both RenderMan and Pixar have grown a great deal in the years since its release, its most recent change is also its most significant: it's now completely free for non-commercial use. We sat down with Pixar's business director Chris Ford to discuss this hugely exciting move for the software.

Pixar's teapot is a cult phenomenon unto itself, with the company releasing a new one at each year's SIGGRAPH
© Pixar

We wanted to make a big statement, to throw a rock into the rendering waters and make some ripples. I think we've done that

3dtotal: What inspired you to make RenderMan free for non-commercial use?
Chris Ford: Most people who use RenderMan don't have a home licence - they're tied into their employer's networks. We thought: what if we were to put a licence on everyone who uses RenderMan at home, so they could try out ideas? Then we thought: why don't we just go all the way and make RenderMan freely available for non-commercial use? It's in our interests to make the technology that we're developing accessible, and it's not as if there's a huge potential audience for the type of technology that we have.

Given that the technological trends over the years have made the technology a lot easier, particularly with this move to physically-based ray-tracing, all of these technologies converged to a point where it just made sense for us to make the software freely available. It can be used by anyone to generate pixels, as long as they're not making money. That includes students, people who might want to test out ideas at home, anyone who wants to do evaluations. It also includes development, those who want to develop plug-ins or tools around the new RIS rendering architecture. They can actually sell those tools as well - that's permitted. Obviously they need to work with RenderMan, so it's kind of a win-win all round.

We wanted to make a big statement, to throw a rock into the rendering waters and make some ripples. I think we've done that.

A lot of time and effort has gone into RenderMan's community site
© Pixar

3dt: What sort of reception has the announcement had?
CF: Overwhelming. We are releasing a little later than we originally intended, but part of that is due to building the infrastructure for the impact we knew we'd receive. We made the announcement about free non-commercial RenderMan last year, and we invited people to register. And registrations went way out of our expectations - we hit 6 figures. The size of the film industry is, what, a few hundred studios? So when you hit 6 figures you know you're in a different volume area, so we had to put in place the technical infrastructure to allow that number of downloads.

Familiarity with basic CG concepts is helpful, and if you know Maya generally you're okay with RenderMan

3dt: Presumably you've had a lot of interest from the general public. How have you dealt with this?
CF: We've had to be careful here not to overset expectations, not to oversell what we're doing. Pixar is giving away a free technology, and a lot of people might paint their idea of what that is. But we've been very careful on our website, in our FAQs, to explain what we're doing. We are talking about a renderer, something that sits on the backend of the process. You need an application like Maya to create the assets and the content. We say that familiarity with basic CG concepts is helpful, and if you know Maya generally you're okay with RenderMan.

Unified points, beams and paths (UPBP) is a technology bought by Pixar and integrated into RenderMan's RIS renderer for accurate light scattering from just about any volume
© Pixar

3dt: How is free software changing the industry?
CF: There's still cost of development. There's still a very large development group going on inside Pixar - it's not just RenderMan, but it's the combined resources of the Disney organization - over 100 people whose research talents we have to draw on here. RenderMan will continue as a commercial solution - it is priced very competitively, and deliberately so. We put it at a point that would enable render farms to grow faster than they are at the moment. We all know that VFX is a tough business, the margins are very small. The cost of infrastructure, particularly render farms,
is very large.

In the end, we aren't actually selling licences of RenderMan software - we're providing the ability to manufacture pixels in certain ways. And they can be delivered in different ways - from software licences, but also through the cloud, through different ways of providing the software. So our intention is to continue developing RenderMan as a commercial solution, albeit one which is extremely cost-effective and one that can be employed in a way that encourages the growth of the VFX industry. RenderMan has always been a standard in film rendering, and it's imperative for us
that it continues.

RenderMan version 19's RIS framework has been created for efficiently ray tracing scenes with heavy geometry and irradiance Disney's denoiser does its job
© Pixar

3dt: How geared up are you guys for the cloud?
CF: This is an enormous subject in the industry. The economics of production are pushing everyone that way, it's not only us - companies like Adobe and Autodesk are employing it too. Rendering's a little different because it's not just a seat an artist uses, it's a batch computing capacity. It's extremely adaptable to the cloud, and rendering being highly parallel even more so. So this is absolutely part of our technology and business planning as well.

We've run a prototype cloud service for years called RenderMan On Demand, and part of the reason for doing that was to understand how cloud rendering might work, and to force out the questions we weren't anticipating. We learned a huge amount. Our plans are to announce interesting collaborations in the cloud in the near future, which will enable people to access rendering and RenderMan specifically in more cost-effectively than has been possible to date.

We're the group that has the technology to channel that expertise in a usable form to the community, and to the broader film production and media market. Our expertise is in the interface between the user and the technology.

Examples of RenderMan's new Layered Material shaders
© Pixar

RenderMan essentially created the modern visual effects revolution

3dt: What puts you ahead of your competitors?
CF: It's a simple word: confidence. We've been doing this a long time. RenderMan essentially created the modern visual effects revolution. I'm not disparaging Maya or Houdini, but ultimately if one couldn't render images at photorealistic quality then the revolution would have never occurred. So we've acquired huge expertise in development, and more importantly relating to the expertise of directors, artists, and users in the industry. The fact that 19 out of the last 21 VFX Oscars used RenderMan speaks for itself. We're providing the confidence to hang a $200-million movie off a renderer, and the promise that the film can be delivered at the levels of quality which win awards.

RenderMan version 19's RIS framework has been created for efficiently ray tracing scenes with heavy geometry and irradiance
© Pixar

The Home of the Brave
Retrospectively, 'Tin Toy' feels eerily prescient. The titular metal plaything is terrorized by a tyrannical baby, forcing him to hide under the bed, where he finds many other quivering toys lying low from the demonic child. When the baby falls and starts crying, the Tin Toy is the only refugee willing to go and help cheer the baby up – but others soon emerge from under the bed, inspired by this act of bravery.

It's an apt analogy for what Pixar is doing with RenderMan. If the baby represents the formidable-but-troubled VFX industry, the tin toy stands for Pixar's brave intervention. Now it's up to other software vendors to follow Pixar's lead, and potentially put a smile on that lovable VFX baby's face!

Community shaders are available for download from Pixar's site, and users can contribute their own too
© Pixar

Related links:

Pixar's official website
Learn more about RenderMan
Follow PixarsRenderMan on YouTube
Beginner's Guide to Character Creation in Maya

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