PIXAR RenderMan Presentation

On a rainy and cold London evening (is there any kind?) I decided to add a bit more colour to my day and went to see Pixar’s RenderMan presentation at BAFTA. Being a big fan of animated movies and knowing a bit about rendering myself, I was obviously excited. Especially since not long before the event, a non-commercial version of RenderMan became available to the public for free. I was interested to find out what the catch was, but apparently there wasn’t any.


RenderMan is software produced by Pixar and has been used to render all their in-house 3D work for 25 years. It has helped bring to the screen such beloved animations as Finding Nemo and Toy Story. The software is not only used to create ‘cartoony’ animations, but is crucial for a lot of special effects in movies. From as early as The  Mummy and Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, to its latest reiteration in Guardians of The Galaxy and the upcoming Ant-Man, RenderMan was used to create believable environments and special effects. This presentation focused on the latest iteration of RenderMan and its newest capabilities. So beware, a few technical worlds are ahead.

RenderMan has been known for using the REYES algorithm, but now also has a brand new ray tracing RIS framework which… well, in non-complicated non-technical words means it is much better and faster at rendering. For the initiated, RIS is ‘RIX Integrated Subsystems’, but for the rest of us it means ‘Renders Interesting Stuff’. The hope is to establish RIS as a standard and make it as user friendly as possible to the artists, which is the main reason why there a free non-commercial version of RenderMan available.
The presentation started with an adorable and touching short animation Lava directed by James Ford Murphy about the love story that happens for over a million years between two volcanoes. This was a nice snippet of the capabilities of RenderMan as well as Pixar’s general aesthetic and approach to the style of animation. Personally, I have been a big fan of Pixar’s small animations, For the Birds being one of my favorites. This was followed by several presenters, some who worked for Pixar and helped to develop the newest software but also those who used RenderMan in their animations. There were also other studios that had also used the latest version of the program for their work.
Among them was Fabio Zangla, CG Sequence Supervisor at Double Negative, who came to speak about the use of the latest RenderMan and RIS in the upcoming Ant-Man. When they have adopted the software it was still in its beta stage, so they took on some risk, but thankfully, it worked out for the better. Before they had began the actual work on re-creating the CGI micro-world for Ant-man, they have tested the software on some already existing models and compared the scenes. It was very interesting to see the variety of films, environments and shots they tested, ranging from heavy vegetation in Catching Fire, to the office scenes in Man of Steel and finally to heavily illuminated shots in Jupiter Ascending. As the new RenderMan RIS performed better than their previous software, they have been reassured and we will see that for ourselves in cinema in July.
There were other aspects of new RenderMan discussed like improved noise reduction, vast library of shaders, various lighting improvements, more realistic looking fur and hair, and the ability to produce an image while the rendering is still going. The latter one is especially useful, considering some scenes can render for as long as 50 hours and more. Having an image to review after several hours, although maybe not fully complete, but with enough information to know if its going the right way or needs to go back to the drawing board. This helps to save a lot of time during the production stage.
In terms of improvements, the example that I found particularly interesting was rendering the water for upcoming Finding Dory. Previously, when making the ‘foamy’ part of the breaking wave, the artists used just a slightly different tint in their renders. While this looked believable from the distance, the close up shots looked like the white soapy foam broke on top of the green-blue sea water. This way mainly came about because no software was powerful enough to render all the light reflections that happen when the actual waves break. Which, again, is no longer true because of RIS, and we will see some very realistic looking waves in Finding Dory.
Overall new RenderMan sounds like an incredibly exciting new rendering software that has a lot to offer to the industry. However, even without a large company budget there a variety of ways to get RenderMan for commercial use. There is a custom package option, where users can choose just the features that are most relevant for them, or even daily licence rentals. Finally, there is, of course, a non-commercial option which is completely free and there over 50 hours of tutorials and libraries of textures available on the official RenderMan site.
Work on the software is still in progress and there are many upcoming improvements coming in a near future. For those who are itching to try RenderMan, there are also several assets available online, including a 3D model of a Stirling car that can be downloaded for free. Today the software can be downloaded to work with Autodesk’s Maya and The Foundry’s KATANA, and later with Maxon’s Cinema 4D and Side Effects Houdini as well.
Overall I had a very educational and fun evening. Knowing a little bit more about the work on CGI and animation behind the scenes, has definitely made me even more excited about the upcoming Pixar’s animations and Disney’s movies. Moreover, I am excited to keep an eye on the RenderMan community and see what work they will come up with, now that the software is widely more available.

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