How CTO Stu Maschwitz Grows Business While Sticking to Principles

Stu Maschwitz, CTO at The Orphanage, joined the then-fledgling studio immediately after its launch in 1999. His goal, along with the other founders, was to maintain a creative “one person, one shot” philosophy. The plan was to implement off-the-shelf software rather than create complex proprietary solutions. But then success happened. The Orphanage created effects for Spy Kids and then Hellboy, Hero, and The Day After Tomorrow, and was rewarded with a contract for the “That Yellow Bastard” sequence in Sin City. The team won awards for PlayStation 2, Motorola, and BMW/Sprint commercials. Recently, the studio completed shots for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and began work on Superman Returns and a leading CG character for the Korean action-horror film The Host.
So what happened when practical considerations met idealism?
“We had an identity crisis,” says Maschwitz. “If you were to walk through the halls now, you’d see a workflow and structure that’s more like ILM or Tippett Studios. Creature shows demand that. And Sin City demanded a more rigid pipeline. But, that one shot, one person philosophy stays alive in commercial production. Whenever a new one comes in, I look for a small crew of jack-of-all-trades people who can reliably work miracles.” A core staff of 150 artists moves between commercials and films; the studio doesn’t have separate divisions.
Betting the Farm
The Orphanage built its Windows-based pipeline around Maya, 3ds max, After Effects, and Brazil, and folded Houdini into the pipe for Sin City. The studio uses Maya for character modeling and animation and moves geometry into 3ds max via a proprietary caching system to do look dev and lighting for rendering in Brazil. Compositors use After Effects and digital fusion, while match movers use Boujou and Maya. For Sin City, Houdini handled the snow. The software runs on Boxx hardware.
“We solidified a lot of pipeline issues with Sin City,” Maschwitz says. “We bet the farm on a pipeline that had been brewing and used in small portions on other shows.”
When it comes to commercials, however, 3ds max stars. “For us, 3ds max is the go-to tool when we’re bidding commercials, which is what I do,” says Maschwitz, himself a jack-of-all-trades. “On the first week of production, we’ll download 10 plug-ins to find the one that does the best job on an esoteric thing we’ll do once and never again. That’s the advantage of being on Windows. We develop a new technique by going to Turbo Squid and downloading a new plug-in.”
One key to using off-the-shelf technology has been in finding ways to incorporate it seamlessly into the pipeline. At last year’s SIGGRAPH, for example, The Orphanage had an early version of Brazil 2 working inside Maya: Scenes created in Maya could be rendered in Brazil by “hitting the render button,” according to Maschwitz. “We’ll transition from Brazil 1 to 2 on The Host,” he says. “The fundamental difference is how it handles motion blur, pixel displacement, and polygon displacements – things we had been working around.”
In addition to solidifying the pipeline’s technology, Sin City helped the studio refine its techniques. “On shows such as Sin City and Shark Boy and Lava Girl, where the actors are on green screen, it’s like working with a digital feature,” says Ryan Tudhope, VFX supervisor. “You have to go a step beyond match move. So, we developed a strong layout phase where we blended what were two separate aspects, animatics and match moving, into one process.”
The Orphanage has also refined its digital matte painting pipeline to accommodate complex environments and wilder camera moves. “We developed a pipeline to handle compound camera moves,” says Tudhope. “Given a good layout and design, we can take a render of a frame into Photoshop, re-project it through the same camera that took the render in the first place, and move the camera a certain amount before it breaks.” Custom tools created for 3ds max streamline the process by calculating required resolution on the fly based on the camera’s focal length.
“We always set out to be a shop where our eyeballs are in front of our brains,” Maschwitz says. “We didn’t want technical considerations to prohibit artists from doing their work. When we went through a change where we needed to have high tech stuff, we tried to do it in a way that allowed people to be artists first.”
In addition to creating tools for its own pipeline, The Orphanage’s Magic Bullet software, which manipulates video footage to have the characteristics of film, is bundled into Adobe, Sony and Panasonic products, and sold by Red Giant Software.
Maschwitz developed the tool to convert his own short film. Now, he’s excited about a new, real-time version scheduled for preview at NAB that takes advantage of Nvidia’s GPU.
“What used to take 10 seconds per frame will render at 30 frames per second,” he predicts. “So, we’re interested in finding a way to have a live version where you could preview on set what you’ll get with subsequent processing. Hardware acceleration makes that possible.”
Color Space and Beyond
These days, though, Maschwitz spends time dealing with color management issues. “The Host is being shot on several varieties of Fuji film and Superman is being shot with a Panavision Genesis HD Camera, so I’m trying to figure out relevant color issues for these formats,” he says. “Both of these films will go through DI, so we need a highly robust color-management system that’s application agnostic to work throughout the facility.”
Maschwitz is actively involved with groups working on color management systems and standards. “The next big sea change is color-managed floating-point color,” he says, “and no one can claim to provide that now, so it’s an interesting topsy-turvy world where new versions of important applications are coming out with nods toward color space. Facilities are figuring this out internally, so it is seeping into off-the-shelf solutions.”
Despite Maschwitz’s technical credentials, he considers himself an accidental CTO. “I try to do creative work, and that spurs me to invent new things. Right now, I’m working to get a feature film into production.”
That film will likely happen through the company’s original production division, which began production on its first feature during the last quarter of 2005. The studio has also announced a feature animation division to be headed Genndy Tartakovsky, a former classmate of Maschwitz at CalArts who created the Cartoon Networks animated series Star Wars: Clone Wars.
So, even though the one-person, one-shot philosophy may not always be feasible at The Orphanage these days, the studio has, in exchange, offered its artists plenty of room to grow.