Modular Desktop- and Systems-Based Solutions unites Editing, Compositing, 3D Design and Finishing in Open Architecture

For many years the finishing and VFX realm has been dominated by Autodesk and Quantel. Well, there’s soon to be a new option for high-end work as Imagineer Systems will soon launch mogul, an open, collaborative architecture integrating visual effects systems and desktop applications.

At the core of the mogul architecture is an open platform that connects all the tools in a facility, tracks the workflow, alerts artists of updates and reports the progress of all projects. While Imagineer will roll out new individual products as part of mogul ‘ ranging from a rotoscoping tool to a fully featured, systems-based mastering suite ‘ the open architecture allows facilities to plug existing tools from other manufacturers into this platform to leverage the workflow. And all of the mogul products will be offered solely on by monthly subscription.

We spoke with Allan Jaenicke, chief executive officer of Imagineer Systems about mogul, and why Imagineer Systems ventured on this enormous undertaking that it is betting will be powerful enough to challenge the systems-based finishing systems from Autodesk and Quantel, as well as a variety of popular desktop applications.

What were the reasons to embark on this venture?
ALLAN JAENICKE: A lot of it had to do with changes in the business. If you looked at the last 20 years of post we had these golden days of the 90s where you had these hugely expensive dedicated hardware solutions. Then those were replaced because we needed faster response and more creative tools. So Discreet was able to come into the market with a model of a hero suite but with more commodities in hardware with big Silicon Graphics workstations. What facilities are looking for now is a much more open system. They need this single hero suite but they also need to be able to work better together across various departments.

One thing customers pointed out is there’s a huge gap between the 3D department and the high-end 2D departments and finishing departments. Traditionally, if you have a desktop work group using Maya maybe doing some pre-comps in Shake or Fusion to try out the output on the 3D application, most of these facilities do not bring these raw renders from 3D into a high end system like a Flame. They re-do all the composites because Shake and Flame obviously don’t talk very well to each other. There is a big gap there. Then you have the people in the 3D department who are used to working with 32-bit floating at any resolution, etc. A Flame or Quantel, for example, are not able to handle that bit depth and all those other variables. So that makes the 3D department hesitant to hand work over to the high-end finishing guys because they feel that they don’t have the toolset to deal with the high-end material and the high-end finishing guys don’t trust the 3D guys to do their compositing.

Essentially gaps like that are the gaps that we are looking to bridge where people work with different toolsets and hinder the workflow. At the core of all this is budget pressure on facilities. Now facilities are asked to do more sophisticated work in less time with lower budgets. Having gaps between different departments and miscommunication, files that need to be copied and work that needs to be re-done is really what slows production down.

So mogul is not just a finishing system?
AJ: We decided to step away from the idea of creating a just high-end finishing system and instead we designed a completely new platform that facilities could work off. This platform includes a number of different products that fit onto that platform. One of these products is a high end finishing system (mogul/master) – a combined hardware and software solution that gives you essentially 3D rendering engine for doing compositing, paint, I/O, all the things you would expect in a high end finishing system.

On the other hand, part of the platform is a series of desktop products So what you have is a workflow module that ties all of this together so if you a person doing rotoscoping when he is done the output he creates is immediately shared with the high-end finishing artists. So the high-end finishing artist can have the other artists feed him assets in a very efficient manner without having to copy setups of recreate things and sending emails back and forth with notes. It’s this concept of this platform that not only gives you this tool but also this environment within which you can communicate.

So this platform isn’t just open to the mogul products?
AJ: It’s a very open system. Anything can plug into it. It gives you a server that runs and manages all of the media and all the metadata. One of the issues facilities run into is that if they just have free access to shared storage then it’s just a big free-for-all with no control over how people name things and where the latest version is located. In a mogul setup, at the core you have shared storage but you wrap that shared storage in a storage management system that we call out mogul/serve product. That product is a server that essentially gives different people access to the media and also the metadata and is the hub that allows all this collaboration and sharing. So, for example, you could connect the mogul/roto into mogul/serve but you could also connect and Apple Shake or Eyeon Fusion via another application called mogul/browse, which gives you the ability of hooking third party applications into that system. So it gets you away from having a disk that everyone randomly writes media, and only media, and we are wrapping that storage in a server that gives access privileges and associates the media with the metadata.

Talk about mogul/review.

AJ: The producer sits down with the client, the client decides to make a comment about frame 5 in clip 10, he can make notes about that frame and hits Save. When he saves it that information is immediately sorted on the server and the person on the mogul/master system immediately gets that not popping up. So rather than notes and email to the artists who then has to go onto the system, find clip 10, the system deals with the collaboration so the artist can simply see the notes, open it and make the adjustment.

Explain the mogul/master system. What products can it be compared to and what is different about it?
AJ: It’s similar to an Autodesk Flame, Inferno or Quantel iQ. High performance, complete finishing system, composting, editing, grading, etc. One of the interesting things about the mogul/master system is the way we’ve been able to very closely integrate editing compositing and grading so you can seamlessly transition between those toolsets without ever having to render to go out to another tool. Other tools out have tried to bring those things together but are not truly integrated, you can’t switch between them without encountering some sort of roadblock.

The desktop tools are completely new applications? mogul/roto is not Motor?
AJ: They are completely new apps. We started with a completely new technology behind these products. So we’re giving ourselves a fresh start with all of this technology written from the ground up, building on what we’ve learned over the years.

What are Imagineer’s plans for existing products?
AJ: We’re looking at an attractive way of transitioning for existing customers from the Imagineer tools they are using now over to the new ones. We’re not discontinuing the other products but we are offering these new products with better functionality.

All the modules described in the mogul platform, whether it is the mogul/server which gives you particular workflow or the individual tools like mogul/paint, you can buy at any time. You can enhance your existing workflow and setup as you need and in the timeframe you want. Obviously we want to give facilities flexibility to grow with us over time.

One of the nice things is that if you hire a junior artist out of college to do rotoscoping, you can teach them that interface and once they know that that they probably know 50 percent of the interface for doing the tracking. Once they learn that they probably know 50 percent of the mogul/paint application. Then he learns that and he knows about 50 percent of the mogul/comp application and once he’s mastered that he knows 50 percent of the mogul/master system. So there’s a nice career path to follow through that system and will save companies a lot of money on training.


AJ: These systems will not be for sale, they will only be available on a subscription basis. For a monthly subscription fee you can get the hardware, the hardware maintenance, the software and the software maintenance, everything is included. One thing we found is that big capital expenses are difficult especially for the small- and medium-sized facilities.

Another issue is unpredictability of what costs will occur in the future. Many times when a new software version comes out it no longer supports the old hardware because that old hardware just doesn’t cut it. So the customer is faced with a large upgrade bill for hardware. So in our subscription model we are planning on giving facilities hardware upgrades every year and probably every three years completely switching out the systems. So there’s no big capital expense to get in and customers can predict exactly what their expenses will be.

While that also has benefits for the customers it benefits us as well in terms of developing the products because we can constantly focus on the latest versions of the software and not have to support the last three versions of the software. Typically you have to have a team of engineers on staff dedicated to software we designed years ago. So we can focus on being innovative. Same goes for the hardware. We don’t have to maintain backwards compatibility when we come out with new software and hardware updates. So we can manage that whole hardware and software upgrade for them so they don’t have to worry about having their own engineers trying out different combinations of hardware and software.

Some people have looked forward to software-only versions of products, but often that just shifts what that company’s software and hardware integrators off onto the customers with no significant cost benefit. At the end of the day I don’t think that is what creatives want. They just want to be storytellers and not be reliant on engineers to solve their problems. I think the days are number where facilities can afford to do their own engineering departments. That’s probably one of the things they will realize they have to scale back on to remain competitive.

Do you have any specifics on the prices?
AJ: Nothing final. Basically we looked at the cost of ownership, including upgrades and maintenance to similar products on the market and divided those figures to come up with the pricing. So the roto tool may be as little as $25 a month and the master system may be $10,000 a month. mogul/review will be around $1,200 a month, mogul/serve and browse starts at around $3,500 a month [for 10 mogul/browse licenses].

What will be shipping at NAB and what is the timeline for release of the other products?
AJ: At NAB, that will be shipping at NAB will be mogul/serve and browse and review. Every five months we are planning to release a new set of products. The order of release is yet to be determined. Over the next year to 18 months we will have a fully featured platform in terms of all the products