GenArts is a pivotal player in the image processing plug-in market, but are they happy to stay on the sidelines as a plug-in supplier? With the Foundry's move into full products such as NUKE, could GenArts be looking at some major expansion? It certainly seems so. fxguide spoke to the new company CEO Katherine Hays about her first 100 days at the helm of one of the most successful plug-in and spark companies in the world.
Based in Cambridge, MA, GenArts, Inc. is a key provider of visual effects plug-ins for the film and video industry. Introduced in 1996, Sapphire Plug-ins have become an industry standard for high-end visual effects creation at leading studios, broadcast and post-production facilities around the world.
As of this year, GenArts now has new management and new investors. We spoke to the new CEO of the company, Katherine Hays.
Katherine Hays grew up in an entrepreneurial family in which both parents ran their own small businesses. "I heard about it around the dinner table," she recalls. Katherine studied 1880-1950 American Art with a bias to American Expressionism at Princeton University, not a natural lead into joining Wall Street Finance but that is what she did. She joined Solomon Brothers covering the media industry and then at Goldman Sachs covering the major media players such as Disney and Viacom. While at Goldman Sachs she took an interest in emerging Digital Media.
Some time later she decided to earn her MBA and was accepted into Harvard Business School. She had expected to return to Finance, but she had a gap of 6 months before she was meant to start at BCG consulting group, after being rejected from every art museum she had applied for a job with in Pittsburgh. During this gap period she met Australian Mitch Davies. Now while playing Grand Theft Auto, Davies was struck by the fact that there were billboards in the game advertising fake products. He pondered, what if they could actually have real ads, and not fake ones? Hays stroke of brilliance was saying that this new enterprise should consider itself a media company not a tech company, and together they started Massive (nothing to do with the crowd simulation software).
In the 2008 presidential election when gamers raced under virtual billboards in Burnout Paradise on the Xbox 360 advertising Barack Obama, it was Massive that sold that advertising space, acting as the media buyer between the campaign and publisher Electronic Arts. But by this stage Hays and her partners had built the company into a large operation and sold it to Microsoft for a cool $200 to $400 million dollars. At the time of the buy-out they had 8 offices worldwide with nearly 100 employees. Before Massive you could buy ad placement in a video game but it was baked in. Massive offered electronically controlled ad buys that could be bought based on time and geography.
Their new model allows Massive to "deliver a Dominos meat-lovers pizza 2 for 1 special offer at 10 pm when they (advertisers) wanted to air their campaigns and you could not aggregate the audience," - it turned out that even reaching everyone playing Madden football on a given night was not a large enough audience to be very attractive to the main blue chip advertisers. "Our model and what we built was both the technology, the operation and the business agreement with the game publishers so that we could deliver that 'Meat-lovers 2:1' offer to everyone playing a video game at 10pm at night in the United States in real time... and the back end to know it aired and was seen for 10 sec at that time etc.," clarifies Hays.
This deal also landed Hays a senior director position at Microsoft. Not bad for someone who herself does not play video games. Massive remains today the dominant player in this advertising space. But Hays left to run GenArts. Wall Street, Massive, Microsoft, and now a plug-in company.
So why would a high flier leave the corporate world and go to work for a plug-in company? The answer can only be that they hope to not remain just a 'plug-in' company. Since joining GenArts the staff has doubled. Karl Sims, founder of the company, is still running R&D and is very much still involved.
Today the company covers a wide range of products, but Katherine Hays sees the Autodesk users as a key group. "The Autodesk customer is critical as they are key innovators, they help us drive our thinking about where the creativy of the industry is going, where the need is going and now it is often the Autodesk artist who is working across both the After Effects platform and Autodesk platform on Flame, or working as part of a team on both platforms - so having them help guide our thinking and innovation is critical - but from a business point of view we are pretty diversified."
Hays talks of the elegance of the products that have made the tools so successful, and this elegance is core to the products moving forward. But Hays has a real interest in seeing the company grow. What was attractive to her was the 'quality of the brand' and 'the quality of research' all coupled with a highly enviable client and customer portfolio, but she thinks that there is real room for 'consolidation and growth' in the industry and within GenArts in particular.
Hays sees the current environment as an inflection point in media and its production. "Video is evolving," and as content moves films and TV shows to where video is being used for a whole manner of presentations and communications, she wants to see GenArts help a much wider audience "raise the bar on the quality of content they are creating".
This leads to a need for GenArts to change how it deals with clients possibly moving into a consumer market place. One thing that will not change is the company's base in Cambridge, Massachusetts. One of the things Karl laid out that could not change as the company grows older is being based in Cambridge, the home of MIT and many other high tech firms. "Even though we will expand I keep that commitment to him and our headquarters will be here," she comments from her Cambridge office. Having said that, GenArts has already expanded to the US West Coast where many customers are located and the company is looking to invest in companies, particularly in the UK.
History of GenArts
Karl Sims starts GenArts, Inc. and is one of the first suppliers of Discreet Spark plug-ins. Sims, at the time having already worked as artist-in-residence at the Thinking Machines supercomputer project at the beginning of the 1990s, received a B.S. from MIT in 1984, and an M.S. from the MIT Media Lab in 1987. He had also worked for Whitney-Demos Production as a researcher, and co-founded Optomystic. That company had developed software for the Connection Machine 2 (CM-2) that animated the water from drawings of a deluge by Leonardo da Vinci.
GenArts, and the Foundry were two of the original Spark developers, many others would follow and many would also fail. GenArts will go on to become the #1 Spark plug-in developer in the industry, with an estimated 90% market penetration.
Karl Sims appears in Wired Magazine playing god with machines. In a story unrelated to GenArts, but one that served as an insight into its founder, Wired Magazine profiled Galapagos, an installation Sims created for Tokyo's InterCommunication Center, which let visitors evolve virtual life-forms, complete with three-dimensional bodies and unique behaviors.
"The 36-year-old Cambridge, Massachusetts-based computer scientist, artist, and recent recipient of a MacArthur "genius grant" has taken on the guise of a behind-the-scenes God. His project: artificial evolution." - wired 6.10.
The MacArthur Fellowship was awarded in 1998. It is typically awarded to 20 to 40 Americans or residents, of any age and working in any field, who "show exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work."
According to the Foundation website, "the fellowship is not a reward for past accomplishment, but rather an investment in a person's originality, insight, and potential." Karl has also won two Golden Nicas at the Ars Electronica Festival, in 1991 and in 1992, and received honors from Imagina, the National Computer Graphics Association, the Berlin Video Festival, NICOGRAPH, Images du Futur, and other festivals.
"In Sims's version of natural history, computer algorithms provide the parade of new life-forms, multiplying and mutating faster than a jarful of fruit flies. But instead of environmental challenges and competition, it's human beings - Sims or anyone else using one of his programs - who, by whatever criteria they choose, select the winners and losers....In Sims's virtual biosphere, boredom equals death. It's survival of the aesthetically fittest."
One must remember that this was years before the 'Sims' video games or 'Spore'.
"Did transferring evolution into a computer diminish Sims's appreciation for the wonders of biological life? Sims says that the projects have actually increased his respect for living things: "Exposing more details about life and how it might have occurred makes it even more amazing. You can't help but appreciate the extreme unlikeliness that any given organism or species ever evolved at all.""
By 1999 the Spark market had grown to include a whole roster of companies, such as
GenArts - Sapphire
Foundry - Tinder tools
Bird & Dragon
In an interview with fxguide Karl Sims discussed how all the software was still being written by a very small team. "There are just two of us writing code. Gary Oberbrunner and myself."
Sapphire Plug-ins 1.0 for AE plug-in compatible products was released on January 28, 2004. This is a significant turning point for the company as it allows their products running on Discreet systems and other platforms to reach a far wider market. Sapphire now runs on Discreet, Avid, Shake, and After Effects compatible products (which include: After Effects, FCP, Combustion, Premiere, Digital Fusion, Quantel with Synapse, and 844/X). And in April of 2004 that was extended to the new Apple Motion.
In August, 2005. GenArts, Inc. unveiling at IBC their next version of Sapphire Plug-ins for Avid AVX 2.0, the availability of Sapphire Plug-ins v3.07 for 64-bit Discreet systems, and the introduction of new managing director, Anish Dhanda. The conference takes place in Amsterdam from September 9-13.
June 2006 - Sapphire 2 for Shake is released.
Around this time there is a market push back on pricing. The price for the entire package of Sapphire Plug-ins on Flame is around US$10,000, the same as its been for many years, including 4 cpu rendering, 12 bit image processing, batch support, and 64 bit support. Sapphire is starting to be considered very expensive. While the $10,000 price tag is only 5% of the price of a Flame, the After Effects version sells for just $1,000. GenArts issues a statement:
"The economics dictates a lower price, and we hope to make that up with higher volume to still cover the development, support, sales, efforts etc. for that. Still our price for AE ($1699) is higher than AE itself."
This is indicative of the entire cost restructure that is happening in visual effects industry across the board. Lower cost systems are displacing high cost and suppliers are looking for volume to make up the difference.
On August 2nd the 10th Anniversary party of the start of GenArts is held at the Saint, in Boston.
Even with the move to lower cost systems, GenArts still leads among the high end systems. A quarter of the estimated 900 shots, on X-Men: The Last Stand goes to Hydraulx, in LA. The 80-person visual effects and design company uses GenArts for many of the key effects. Co-Owner and VFX Supervisor Greg Strause asserts, "Our company has been built around two primary goals: hire the best artists in the industry and arm them with the latest and greatest in tools and processing power." Among these premiere tools are multiple Discreet Inferno and Flame systems, the world's largest 64-bit Burn installation, and GenArts Sapphire Plug-ins loaded across the board.
According to Strause, "I couldn't imagine having any compositing system without Sapphire installed. It's a bread-and-butter, go-to tool over here for all of the artists." For X-Men: The Last Stand, Strause relied upon on his Discreet systems pipeline and Sapphire Plug-ins to handle everything from ground-breaking vanity work to photorealistic special effects.
In X-Men: The Last Stand, Storm meets her match in the form of Callisto, a malevolent, Magneto-aligned mutant whose enhanced reflexes and super-human strength are among her many formidable talents. Storm and Callisto face off in the final battle sequence; after a good old fashioned cat fight, Storm summons an impressive electrical show, ultimately directing a deadly fistful of lightning at the vanquished Callisto.
For this shot, Strause and his team relied on the Sapphire Zap effects to create organic, credible lightning bolts.
"Our Inferno artist Maribeth (Emigh) built this entire special effect with Sapphire's Zap and ZapTo effects--laying it out and easily animating where the bolts were coming from and going to. Then she applied different variations of the Glow spark, and then various Sapphire Lens Flares on top of that. So by layering these three effects and then animating the flares on and off, we created a cool, believable sequence in the movie--with convincing lightning bolts that everyone was very happy with."
Strause stresses that GenArts Sapphire Plug-ins allows him to easily create essential optic effects, and he appreciates that each plug-in is highly customizable. "Sapphire is the only way to achieve certain vital effects on our Inferno. We pound on them pretty hard over here. Really, I can think rarely of a Hydraulx shot where Sapphire Plug-ins weren't used."
NAB 2007 and attendees get their first glimpse of Sapphire Plug-ins 4 for Autodesk Compositing & Editing Systems, to be released later in that year. The new version features over 40 new effects, as well as many enhancements and new parameters for existing effects in the package. This is a welcome release as the company had not moved past release 3.0 for several years and many users were wondering if they would abandon the Autodesk systems products. The release proves very popular amongst users.
Insight Venture Partners, a leading private equity and venture capital firm which invests in GenArts, cites the appointment of Katherine Hays as part of a strategy to build GenArts and broaden the "opportunity in the industry for growth". Insight Venture Partners in New York are online and content investors. One of their more recent efforts involved Ziff Davis Enterprises, a top business-to-business publisher. ZDE is a business with strong core assets, and Insight aims to build the company. In 2007 when that deal was finalized, Deven Parekh, managing director of Insight Venture Partners is quoted as saying, "We view ZDE as a strong growth platform for organic and acquisitive growth."
Talking about GenArts, Ben Levin, managing director at Insight said, "We invested in GenArts because of its market-leading technology, loyal customers and tremendous growth potential. We believe that we can further the company's historical success through continued product innovation, market development and partnerships, and the investment in world-class talent. " A new CEO is said be going to join the team, -" to bring outside experience that can fuel growth of the company and this industry, while leveraging GenArts' core culture of quality and existing understanding of its customers."
GenArts Founder Karl Sims continues to play a leading role in the company, focusing on building new software and heading the company's R&D. "GenArts is clearly ready to enter a new chapter, which comes at a time when the broader market is poised for exciting change," said Sims.
GenArts releases the Sapphire Plug-ins for Apple FxPlug products, including Final Cut Pro, Final Cut Express and Motion. The Sapphire Plug-ins now contain over 200 image processing and synthesis effects, including FilmDamage, ZDefocus, Cartoon, BleachBypass, GradientMulti, SwishPan, Deband and Vignette.
Katherine Hays starts at GenArts as CEO.
As CEO, Hays sends out a press release saying that her immediate objectives for the company include expanding its share of the high-growth video content creation market and providing digital artists the solutions they need to reach audiences with even higher quality aesthetic content.
GenArts hires Steve Bannerman to its executive team as Chief Marketing Officer. Bannerman has 20 years previous experience working with companies such as Apple, CastStream and UGOBE. Bannerman was formerly the Director of Marketing for Apple's QuickTime TV network (QTV) featuring more than 100 top-tier content providers, including Disney, CNN, MTV, BBC, ESPN and Warner Music. Bannerman was also the founder and CEO of Caststream, Inc. a streaming media company focused on distance learning applications (acquired by Tarantella, Inc). Bannerman holds a B.S. in Industrial Management from Georgia Tech.
Films continue to use GenArts around the world from Star Wars 3 in the scene where the emperor is fighting ( GenArts: Zap) to Lord of the Rings – when the sword glows blue, (GenArts: Glow) to Ironman – and the glow of his suit, created with GenArts effects. And in literally countless commercials, music videos and clips, Sapphire remains a cornerstone of visual effects and a key tool in the bag of tricks of any artist.
At a corporate level, GenArts has already been investigating buying major companies and expanding the operation. In the months and years ahead it will be interesting to see if the current economic downturn is a buying opportunity for the company or a major impediment. Katherine Hays seems confident they are extremely well placed moving forward. Commenting on where the company is within the current recession, "There is an opportunity to continue investing in the company, there is a real opportunity to acquire some great assets, possibly at a better price than we might have gotten them for in a different economy... and position GenArts as the clear leader not only in this space but in a bigger space, longer term."
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