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Oscar-Winning Software

The folks at the Foundry didn't need a pretty face to win an Academy Award

3 min read

Harry Potter is a poseur. His magic powers come ­courtesy of the Foundry, a London-based software house whose products enhance visual effects in films. When a superhero flies past a backdrop, this firm’s software probably trimmed away the wires holding him up.

The development work is done in a nondescript third-floor office in the center of the city. There, 37 ­staffers huddle cheek by jowl ­facing banks of ­computer ­monitors, an ­adjacent ­storage room with its two faded red couches offering the group their only respite from the flickering screens. The ­company has been just too busy to spruce things up. In the past year it opened a Los Angeles sales office, ­doubled its staff, and ramped up product development.

Hollywood took notice last year, awarding the firm a technical Oscar, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Scientific and Technical Award (for this year’s winners, see the 17 January entry in our blog at https://blogs.spectrum.ieee.org/tech_talk). Still, any Tinseltown ­glamour is checked at the door.

”Getting an Academy Award was recognition for how well we were doing, so it has to have had an impact on the marketability of the company,” says chief ­scientist Simon Robinson. ”It’s really hard to know exactly what, since we’ve really just had our heads down before then, during then, and ever since then.”

The Foundry team won its award for a ­program called Furnace, a six-year-old package that has seen service in such image-editing-nightmare ­assignments as the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Harry Potter franchise, and the various Matrix films.

”Where we’ve excelled is not only in making a very good estimation algorithm but actually making it usable”
­—Bill Collis, CEO of the Foundry

Furnace tracks the motion of objects from one frame to the next ­during postproduction, ­saving time, freeing artists from ­monotonous manual work, and helping them to ­maintain better continuity. The software license sells for about US $5000, but the product can pay for itself in a matter of weeks by cutting up to 40 percent of the labor needed in postproduction.

Other motion-­estimation packages exist, but they’re generally not as ­flexible, says the Foundry’s CEO, Bill Collis. ”Where we’ve excelled is not only in ­making a very good ­estimation ­algorithm but actually making it usable,” he says. Collis accepted the award with Robinson, senior ­software engineer Ben Kent, and consultant Anil Kokaram, a lecturer in electrical engineering at Trinity College, Dublin.

Furnace subserves ­several dozen functions. One tracks particular patterns of ­pixels as they move over a ­background—say, wires ­suspending a superhero—so that editors can change their color or wipe them away.

Another function, called global motion ­estimation, tracks an entire background. If you want to excise a blurry item, the program will find you the right bit of background to cut and paste over the object. Still another function, called ­retiming, enables filmmakers to extend an image sequence by inserting artificial frames between real ones.

Robinson, a ­computer ­scientist, and Bruno Nicoletti, a software ­engineer, formed the Foundry in 1996 to tackle special-effects plug-ins. Their goal was ­compositing—the ­digital combination of many images into one. They began ­developing Furnace after joining forces with Collis, an electrical ­engineer who suggested ways to ­combine motion-estimation and image-processing ­algorithms. Kent, an ­electrical and ­information sciences ­engineer, arrived in 2000 to help translate those ideas into a commercial product.

Half of the employees are developing new products or new versions of older ones. Some are ­rewriting Keylight, a program acquired from London-based Framestore CFC, so that it can work with new applications while ­performing its main job of ­manipulating ­elements from footage shot on green or blue screens. The firm also has a deal to enhance and market Nuke, a digital-­compositing program from Digital Domain, in Venice, Calif.

”For a company of our size, we devote a huge amount of manpower and money to research,” says Robinson. ”Luckily, customers don’t come here, so they don’t know that we’re living in a shoebox. When we do move, the decor will improve.”

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