Five (or So) Questions for The Foundry and Luxology
The Foundry's CEO Bill Collis, CTO Simon Robinson, and Marketing Director Lucy Cooper join Luxology's President Brad Peebler to Discuss the New Joint Venture
The Foundry and Luxology surprised many in September when the two companies announced they would join forces to co-develop future products. During the excitement we got The Foundry's CEO Bill Collis, Simon Robinson, a Foundry co-founder and its chief scientist, Lucy Cooper, The Foundry's head of marketing, and Luxology co-founder Brad Peebler on the phone to respond to the feedback about the news from users and colleagues. While it is very much a collaboration of brands, Peebler will head up the charge here in the states as The Foundry's president of the Americas and will manage both Luxology and The Foundry business in North and South America, reporting to Collis. The Foundry has published an in-depth "Q+A" on its Web site detailing how the two companies will come together and how the joint venture will operate, but we had a few more questions to toss at the group to better understand how this new relationship evolved and where it's headed.
(From left): Collis, Robinson, Peebler and Cooper
Q: Am I reaching you all in London?
Brad Peebler: I somehow convinced them to come to Mountain View, though due to the excitement, I'm just as tired as they are. I guess you could say I have sympathy jet lag.
Simon Robinson: Can you not hear the sunshine right out the window?
Q: This is obviously a very happy match. Even before ILM's John Knoll famously played matchmaker, what's the larger back story of how the two companies began to align?
BP: I think we've been admiring each other from afar for a long time. We of course crossed paths repeatedly in the industry and have a lot of joint customers. John Knoll, specifically, is a real avid modo user both at work and on his own personal time, and he's also very keen on The Foundry's tools. Most of his use of modo at ILM is on individual shots, because of the speed at which he can do an entire shot directly inside of modo. The downside, for him, is that modo is not as pipeline friendly as the rest of the toolset that he uses there, and in terms of scalability, it doesn't support the kind of radical complexity that he needs for his type of projects. The Foundry has KATANA, which solves that problem and much, much more at a very high level. So he was sort of looking at our chocolate and peanut butter and thinking it would be delicious if we could mix it together.
He convinced Bill and Simon to come over to ILM and I drove up and we had this little pow wow. John started it off by saying, "You know what would make me happy? Being able to work in an artist-friendly tool like modo and being able to leverage the complexity management of a system like KATANA, be able to do my look dev inside KATANA through the lens of the modo renderer, and then do the final frames out." We said, "That sounds really interesting and a lot of challenging technical work, though we're always up for a challenge. No promises!" Then we quietly backed out the door, looked at each other, frightened, and ran away. Though we decided to stop at the Starbucks at ILM and started having a conversation about just how to make it happen. Do we move modo guys to Foundry offices? Or since KATANA is on Linux, maybe The Foundry should send some Linux experts over to us in Mountain View? And who owns what after it's done? And while we all like John, we can't essentially do a one-off just for him. How do we scale it for the larger market? Basically, we starting laying out all these little to larger questions to answer and problems to solve on the road to completion.
After a while, we started to realize that all signs were pointing one way and that all these problems wouldn't exist if we were just together, just one company. I don't think anyone here would want to get married after a blind date, so we said, it probably would be prudent to do some dating. Both companies are highly technical and highly engineering driven, so we went ahead and engaged a co-development effort, fully aware that engineering cultures can vary greatly from one company to the next and sometimes those different cultures and personalities don't mix. We also both felt strongly that when your most valuable asset at your company is your engineering team, you don't want to upset that if you can help it. This co-development time let the teams get to know one another to see if they could work together and it also let Bill and Simon and I haggle over ownership of IT and those sort of contractual things. It was a very nice test case because it worked. The engineers got along swimmingly, we had Foundry engineers here in-house at modo; it just started working really, really well.
Q: How long has this co-development been going on?
BP: The engineering part has been going on now for actively for about six or seven months, but we pretty much started hashing out the business part immediately, especially because we knew we might not make it out as one company on the other side. We had to figure out who owns what—all that pre-nup stuff—up front in case we decided, despite the effort, to go our separate ways. You learn a lot about future business partners when you have those kinds of controversial conversations right away.
Simon Robinson: We were all really optimistic but I think you never really know if something is going to work until the final moment when everything gets signed. The process of doing all the paper work at the end is a very stressful time when you uncover all the things that you need to uncover and everyone argues through what might go wrong in the future. I think we are all very pragmatic people, so it got to the point where it was all done and dusted and we said, "Hey, this is going to work after all!" We're just really thrilled by the whole thing. It's just been a surprisingly brilliant match.
Q: What are some of the other things that put you on this path?
SR: There were clearly a lot of other influences but we like to think of John as the catalyst. Unfortunately, my brain is friend to the point where I can't remember everyone else at the moment, but it has helped that a lot of them have come out of the woodwork since we launched the story, saying, "Hey, I was involved, too, don't forget me!"
BP: Yea, there is a bit of this weird chicken and egg thing, where people have been coming to us for a long time saying, "Gosh I use modo and Nuke together. Could you guys just look at both and make sure our camera data is always one-to-one?" There have long been those types of anecdotal requests, and also a lot of crossover between the two companies' tools, so now all those folks are coming back to us and saying, "This is wonderful—thanks so much for listening to us." But there is also a lot of opportunity here for where we don't have crossover for both companies to expand into each other's markets, so we're thinking a lot about that as well.
Q: You've already said publicly that the two company names and distinct brands will remain as they are—for now. What's the first step in the process of cross-pollination you plan to start internally?
SR: The first thing we decided to start with was to do nothing and change nothing. The thing that we're spending the most effort on is making sure business as usual continues for everybody and particularly thinking about how customers interact with the software, and interact with the people they've dealt with for many years, and the key part of that really is just making sure we keep all of that running and ticking the way it always has done. Ultimately, it's all about the product and it's all about the customers. And damaging either one of those is stupid. Everything we have done and want to do is incremental on top of that. For example, we have product ideas which we'd love to talk about but know we can't until a few more months go past. We're also putting additional effort in, hiring on both sides of the company in sales and engineering and we'll use those additional resources to make those new product ideas happen.
I think probably the thing we'd like to get done in the short term is to make sure that as Foundry customers get interested in modo and vice versa, that those customers can get the right information and training about the new tools through their original contacts. We really need to make sure we get those kinds of connections right so we at least remain swift and efficient as an organization. That's really important. I'm hoping that after six months have elapsed, it will be nice to be able to share some of the fruits of additional engineering work that's been going on.
Q: That's great that you'll be hiring but also that you'll also be removing pipeline stress points for VFX artists at a time when overwork and the fear of losing one's job has become commonplace. What's your take on where the VFX industry is headed?
SR: Yea, nothing can compensate for the loss of DD [Digital Domain] and a closure of that scale but I guess it's encouraging that there is clearly innovation in the tools space and clearly we're in this business because we think we're building new and exciting stuff. Again, this is the best kind of merger, one that is building and not a merger that is consolidating and shrinking something for efficiency. The key point to make is that, from the Luxology side, this will be their most revenue-generating and profitable year ever and ditto on The Foundry side. So there is no need for either side to retrench and consolidate to survive. This is very much a growth story and it's great to be able to get that out there.
Q: It certainly is, but let me just introduce what may be an elephant in the room: With Luxology's increasing inroads in CAD and both of your companies' hold in film and entertainment, are you guys combining forces to go after Autodesk?
SR: Not in any overt way, no. There are so many different tool providers of so many different kinds of scales. I think the trick here is not to focus on Autodesk as being the largest company of this type out there but to focus on the customers and building the toolkit. We all know that the shape of the industry changes so rapidly and it's a good thing it does. It is virtually impossible to predict what it will look like in five years time. The only thing we can guarantee will be that it will be radically different. I don't what we're doing is plodding a corporate path and figuring out how to compete and hit targets in a very mechanical way. It makes more sense to approach the whole thing by dealing with all the details of what customers actually want, and then you can make sure that happens, then the big picture will pan out. But yea, we're not predicting what the big picture is.
Lucy Cooper: Lots and lots of our customers use Autodesk software, as well as all sorts of other different software. At The Foundry and I know it's also true at Luxology, we've always felt the need to make our software as open as possible to let our customers work the way they want. We don't tell them what to feed their dog; they can decide which builds they want to use and we can make sure our software lets them do exactly what they want. All of our competitors are often our friends and colleagues, and in the plug-in business as well. We like our garden without walls.
SR: That's a very good point. We're very interested in the pipeline and providing more and more tools into the pipeline but there are no completely homogenous pipelines any more supplied from only one vendor. So playing nice with others continues to be really important to us.
BP: Competition is a good thing, but when it becomes a company's only focus, it can become toxic, and what we have to remember and try to remind the industry is that the problems we're trying to solve for our customers are bigger than any of the individual companies. We have to focus on the fact that we are all partners in trying to solve those problems for end users. The very first version of modo didn't even have its own file format; we've always wanted to play well with others and we want to continue that. We have also encouraged companies like Next Limit and V-Ray's Chaos Group to support modo with their render engines, even though we have our own render engines. Again, our aim with this new venture is to open those doors even wider. We did get some of our customers who are also After Effects users telling us they were worried they would now have to use Nuke. In fact, they forgot that The Foundry also sells After Effects plug-ins so we actually have more After Effects expertise at our disposal after this merger than before. So playing well with others is not just in the best interest of our customers, it's in the best interest of our company.
Q: And how well do you stay in touch with one another on a regular basis?
BP: We've done a pretty good job of it thus far. I wake up early and go out in my garage and we have conference calls and I keep them up late at night across the pond. Luxology has always had a distributed workforce. Mountain View is our home base but we have people all across the states and also in Bordeaux, in Germany, in Tokyo. We're accustomed to traveling time zones and we make it work. The key is to have passionate people who are self-directed. That is what Luxology is made up of and it is clear to me that also is what The Foundry is made of. They have a similar distributed workforce, in addition to the huge London office; both cultures are already used to it. More important, we both know the benefits and challenges of it and we know how to manage both.
Q: What's the customer feedback been so far?
SR: The feedback's been overwhelmingly positive, which is really good, so we just have to make the most of it and start delivering on the promise of what we've done here. In that respect, it's just business as usual.
LC: We also just want to reassure customers, because both companies have both big and small customers in lots of different industries. We just want to reaffirm that we value each and every one of them and we're not planning on doing anything crazy any time soon. If modo users new to The Foundry assume from our public face that we are only into big project film work, that's certainly not the intention. The recruitment we're doing is in order to bolster the teams so we can put additional effort into new, exciting plans while also maintaining the roadmaps of all the products at The Foundry and at Luxology at well.
BP: You mentioned the CAD market earlier, and we do have a lot of customers in the design segment, including automotive design, and some of them asked after the announcement, "Does this mean Luxology is going to only focus on VFX from now on?" In fact, the opposite is going to happen. We've always served multiple markets, from games companies, visual effects and television production to photographers and architects—we're all over the map. This is going to give us a 160-person and growing group that can continue to focus on VFX and then the core Luxology group that has been spread across multiple markets will be able to double down on those other markets and hopefully we'll be able to carry some of The Foundry technology there together. For example, I'm already seeing some really interesting things happening with Mari, which has grown organically and gotten quite a bit of traction, at purely the artist level, in the games industry. The Foundry hasn't been able to focus on that aspect of our wider industry as pointedly before and now we'll have an opportunity to actually serve it directly and grow the company on all sides.
[Lead illustration by Clive Biley of ParkerBiley.]