A few hours ago, GenArts announced that it had purchased wondertouch, makers of the particleIllusion particles emitter plug-in. The news won’t come as a surprise to Sapphire users who have long wished that particles technology would become part of the GenArts suite. But what does it mean for wondertouch customers, who typically work in smaller shops with tighter budgets and production schedules than the average GenArts effects artist? I had a chance to talk earlier today with GenArts CEO Katherine Hays, GenArts CMO Steve Bannerman and wondertouch founder and former CEO Alan Lorence, about the acquisition.

Initially, says Bannerman, not much will change. “Our intention right now is to let the wondertouch brand and particleIllusion product stand alone,” he says. That means Lorence’s particleIllusion for After Effects, now in beta, will arrive in mid-December as planned, with the same price ($299, or $179 for those who already own particleIllusion 3.0) and promised feature set. But since Lorence will join GenArts as a full-time developer—his first passion, he says—the possibility for merging his core particles engine technology with the multi-host range of GenArts technology is definitely in the cards. “We are really excited about taking the core particles engine technology and seeing what we can do by combining that with the great technology and resources that we have at GenArts to build great next-generation products,” says Bannerman. “We’re hoping those next-gen products will serve a broader audience that will include both Alan’s customers and the current GenArts customers.”

I mentioned the 800-pound gorilla in the room, Trapcode Particular, which enjoys a very healthy and loyal following, and asked how a GenArts-owned particle emitter can set itself apart. “Obviously, our customers highly value that type of functionality,” says Bannerman. “Yet one of the things they’ve consistently struggled with is the fact that Trapcode Particular is only really available as an After Effects plug-in. For customers that don’t have After Effects in their pipeline or don’t need After Effects in their pipeline, they have very limited choices: they can insert After Effects into the process and move out of something like a Flame, or even an Avid, and then back again, but they lose a lot of efficiency that way. Or they could just hand it over to the 3D guys and let them figure our how to do it in Maya, which is also really complicated. You almost have to be a programmer to figure out how to do particles in Maya. Alan can tell you that his strategy for the core particles engine technology is different from Peder [Norrby]’s strategy at Trapcode for bringing particles to life. The big difference is that GenArts has the reputation and the advantage of being available across all of the different host platforms.” The goal, Bannerman says, is to “take particles technology and integrate it into a pipeline and/or workflow so you don’t lose any efficiency, which of course is what you do when you move out of one environment to render it or wait for it to render, and then move it back. GenArts brings a lot of resources and cross-platform expertise to bear. We’re really, really strong on After Effects with our general-purpose plug-ins, but guess what? We’re also really strong in the Autodesk environment and on the Avid and in Shake—we’re everywhere. And that’s where customers want particles to be: everywhere.”

Lorence says he’s long expected, based on customer feedback, that his After Effects version will be successful once it’s released. But he also often wondered, before the acquisition, how his team would go about choosing the next logical host platform for a subsequent plug-in. “The nice thing about becoming part of the GenArts family,” he says, “is they already know how to handle all those other platforms and can say, ‘OK, you know what? The obvious next step is X. We can go with that host next because it will be easiest, and it will give us time to solve some other problems on some other hosts.’ Future products still may be based on particleIllusion but they also may end up being very different. It’s going to be really fun to play around with both technologies and see what we can swirl together.” According to Hays, Lorence and GenArts Chief Scientist/VP of Engineering Gary Oberbrunner have been coming out of their R&D meetings both “smiling from ear to ear.”

The larger storyline for GenArts, says Hays, is about the evolving visual effects industry. “All of this—our strategy of accelerating growth through internal innovation and through acquisitions and strategic partnerships—ties into our bigger vision,” she says. “And that vision is driven toward changes we’re seeing in the industry. There’s an increased need for visual effects now, both because they’re used more or as often for creating reality as they are for creating fantasy, or simply a stylized look with effects, and because so much of the work is shifting to post production, vs. being done on set. But the business models haven’t changed yet and we’re finding for both big and small customers that the need for a standard set of tools from a trusted vendor that will let them share jobs over multiple artists, multiple locations and among ramped up, temporary staff, is increasingly important. They want to move away from the 80/20 rule of proprietary tools vs. off-the-shelf tools, and they want to flip that.” There will always be certain tools that studios build in-house and continue to tweak, she says, but “there’s a real need to standardize on a good 80% of the rest of the tools they use, so with constrained timelines and budgets, they can still deliver what audiences want.”