The story of Blue Sky’s Academy Award-winning CGI Studio renderer: Why it matters, how it works, why it took 30 years to win

Left to right: Jason Wasserman, SVP of Finance; Maurice van Swaaij, Manager of Software Development; Carl Ludwig, Chief Technology Officer; and Brian Keane, Executive Vice President and COO, at the Sci-Tech Awards at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Los Angeles.

The story of Blue Sky’s Academy Award-winning CGI Studio renderer: Why it matters, how it works, why it took 30 years to win

Film

After 30 years developing, refining and using its proprietary, industry-leading rendering software CGI Studio, 20th Century Fox Animation’s Blue Sky Studios was finally recognized with an Academy Award for scientific and technical achievement last month. To talk about CGI Studio’s significance and why it took so long for Blue Sky to receive this honor, you have to go back to the spring of 1987, when six former employees of the shuttered animation company MAGI pooled their money to purchase some computers, buy a coffeemaker and found Blue Sky.

A renderer of the future
“It was tough. It was really hard in the beginning,” said Carl Ludwig, one of Blue Sky’s founders and its Chief Technology Officer. He engineered equipment used by NASA before joining MAGI to help Disney make the first “Tron” movie. Blue Sky’s early days were dire enough that its founders declined to take any salary so they could pay their employees, Carl recalled.

Amid the hardship, the studio had a gem in the works: its ray-tracing software, which generated photorealistic 3-D scenes by mimicking the behavior of light. “You throw rays from the camera, and when the ray intersects an object, you get the point in space and you also get the normal, which tells you the way the surface is facing. And based on that, you can make lighting calculations and do all kinds of things,” Carl explained.

He had worked on the software since Blue Sky’s inception, along with co-founders Dr. Eugene Troubetzkoy (now Blue Sky’s Chief Scientist) and Michael Ferraro. After about a year, Blue Sky finally booked its first client, a milestone that came thanks to a striking one-frame test image, which took two-and-a-half days to render on the studio’s three computers using the in-house rendering software now known as CGI Studio.


The one-frame test image that got Blue Sky its first client.

“Everybody said we were crazy at the time because it was too slow, but I figured computers were going to get faster,” Carl said. “I said, ‘We're writing the renderer of the future.’ And today, everybody is going toward ray tracing.”

From commercials to feature films
CGI Studio was intended to make computer generated character animation for films, but the software was initially used to make commercials, including one for a Braun electric shaver. Blue Sky submitted that spot for an award but was not considered as a finalist. Carl inquired about the surprising rebuff and learned that the award’s panel mistakenly thought the commercial was a live-action scene with some letters laid on it.

“We explained to them there was no live action in the scene,” Carl recalled. “The razor and everything was computer generated. This was juried by people in computer graphics. They were blown away.”

Blue Sky went on to use CGI Studio to create more than 200 commercial spots, drawing the attention of Madison Avenue and Hollywood. Eventually, the upstart animation studio began using its rendering software for movies, including a musical sequence involving dancing cockroaches in the 1996 film “Joe’s Apartment.”


A still from "Joe's Apartment."

“Back then, nobody could render things that looked that real,” said Maurice van Swaaij, Manager of Software Development at Blue Sky, who joined the studio in 1994. “It was impossible back then, and now everybody's doing it.”

In 1998, CGI Studio was used to create the groundbreaking short “Bunny,” which won the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film. This caught the attention of 20th Century Fox Film, until then one of the animation studio’s major clients. In 1999, 20th Century Fox Film acquired Blue Sky.


A still from "Bunny"

CGI Studio’s ‘secret sauce’
CGI Studio remains the industry’s leading ray-tracing software, producing photorealistic imagery that still fools the human eye. Despite the emergence of other ray-tracing software, Carl and Maurice say there are still plenty of ways CGI Studio has a leg up on its competitors today, including the software’s speed, intuitive interface, ability to produce procedural materials (images partly generated by computers that determine what a material looks like without requiring a human to paint it) and implicit surfaces (ray tracing and procedural materials coming together to create complex features without using millions of tiny polygons).

Then there’s CGI Studio’s voxelization system, which renders lifelike fine geometry like fur, leaves and grass in ways no one else can, evident in films like “Ice Age: Collision Course.”

“We still have some secret sauce,” Maurice said.

The power of feasibility
“CGI Studio’s groundbreaking ray-tracing and adaptive sampling techniques, coupled with streamlined artist controls, demonstrated the feasibility of ray-traced rendering for feature film production,” according to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Maurice hearkened back to “Joe’s Apartment” and how it showed the possibility of rendering such realistic images. “And I think that's why the Academy talks about ‘feasibility,’ because we showed that it was possible with the current hardware, and that if you were smart enough about it, you could do it.”


Carl Ludwig (left) and Maurice van Swaaij (right).

“It feels really good,” Carl said when asked about being recognized with an Academy Award 30 years after starting Blue Sky and building CGI Studio. “I can't tell you how many people have written us and spoken to us and said, ‘It's about time.’ It's unbelievable.”

So, why did it take 30 years to be recognized for CGI Studio? Part of the reason is that Blue Sky wasn’t always aware that you had to apply for consideration. Carl said when he sat on the committee a long time ago, they simply searched the industry for people doing innovative things.

When Blue Sky found out about the application process, it submitted one for an Academy Award for scientific and technical achievement and was rejected. This time, however, it wasn’t because human judges mistook their renders for live-action scenes; it was because the Academy wasn’t considering rendering at the time. Soon afterward, the Academy decided to consider rendering, and Blue Sky saw its chance.

Maurice mentioned another reason why it took Blue Sky so long to take home the well-deserved honor: “I don’t think we’re people who want to toot their own horn.”

But after 30 years of being in business, colleagues at Blue Sky told him it was finally time – and they were right.

“The Academy’s Technical Achievement Award is a testament to both the philosophy behind CGI Studio and Blue Sky’s continuing efforts to raise the bar within the industry,” said Brian Keane, Blue Sky’s Executive Vice President and COO. “We could not be more proud of Carl, Eugene, Maurice and the rest of the Blue Sky team in the acknowledgement of this great achievement.”


The founders of Blue Sky Studios, including Carl Ludwig (top left), director Chris Wedge (top right) and
Chief Scientist Eugene Troubetzkoy (bottom right).

The most important thing
Referencing a line from his acceptance speech last month, Carl explained how he thinks about CGI Studio: “I like to think that we created a Stradivarius, but it's not the Stradivarius that's important – it's not the instrument, it's the music. That's what I'm so pleased about, how the people here are able to use it and really create these wonderful things.”

And while it was software that won Blue Sky’s recent recognition, Carl has always held onto one guiding principle: “The most important thing in any endeavor is the people. I don't care what you're doing; people are the most important thing. If you take care of the people, it'll turn out OK. And that's worked well for us.”