Interview by Robert Jan Kila (interview by e-mail on 01 June 2004)
Hi Mark. Thank you for letting me ask you some questions. I think most EIAS users will appreciate this.
Robert: How did it all started? Tell us a little bit about your inspiration back then to create 3d software like EIAS?
Mark: My interest in 3d began when I visited the University of California in San Diego's open house in 1979 at the age of 15. They were demonstrating an Evans and Sutherland 3d vector system. The graphics were amazing. It could fly through the rings of Saturn, or fly a formation of jet fighters over a mountainous terrain all in fluid real time. I wanted to do this myself so I purchased a Radio Shack Color Computer and started working on 3d graphics software. By the time I entered the San Diego Science Fair, I was able to display detailed maps of the earth in 3d, and rotate complex 3d hidden line drawings of various objects. At California Polytechnic University in Pomona, I developed a scan line rendering program that was to become the test bed for the rendering software I later developed for Electric Image.
One of my biggest inspirations for creating a photo realistic rendering system was an image in one of my computer graphics text books (Fundamentals of Interactive Computer Graphics by Foley & Van Dam). It showed a detailed X-Wing fighter that was good enough to be used in a movie. The book was published in 1982 long before anyone at Lucasfilm was seriously considering using computer animation to replace traditional motion control effects.
Robert: What did you do when Play took EI over?
Mark: One of the reasons Play wanted to merge with EI was to integrate the rendering system with the Trinity. Trinity could produce amazing real time video effects but it had no way to produce ray traced photo real images. I decided to move north to Sacramento to work with the team of developers that created the Trinity. I much preferred living in Northern California (I think it reminds me of England where I was born) so I elected to stay with Play when EI split to become a separate company once again.
Robert: What is your main drive for the development of EIAS in the past and nowadays?
Mark: EIAS was created to provide professional quality 3d animation tools to both amateur and professional artists with a friendly user interface. When EIAS was first released, 3d animation programs were either very hard to use and extremely expensive or simple toys that could not do anything useful. All of the professional 3d animation systems only ran on high end SGI workstations.
No one was using desktop computers to render motion pictures or broadcast TV graphics. We wanted to put the same tools in the hands of artists that could not afford the high end systems and could not use their clunky command line driven user interfaces.
Today the tables have turned. Virtually all 3d computer animation is done on Macs and PCs. The once expensive high end 3d animation software now costs less than the first version of EIAS did. It is much harder to compete in today's market in which large companies are willing to sell their 3d animation software at a loss. EIAS still serves a need for a powerful 3d animation system with a friendly "Mac like" user interface.
Robert: Why did you decide to develop GrangerFX?
Mark: After EI was spun out, Play continued to founder until its assets were purchased by its better funded daughter company GlobalStreams (named Play Streaming Media Group at the time). I was hired by GlobalStreams to develop something they called the "Star Engine". Star Engine was simply a demonstration of the real time effects of the Trinity implemented in software. Although the Star Engine was just a demonstration, it seemed to me that there could be a market for pre-rendered stock video effects.
Last year GlobalStreams decided to close its office in Sacramento and do all further development in St Louis. The company wanted to maintain a business relationship with me so they agreed to license all of the effects from the Trinity to me. I developed the code in Electric Image to render the effects and a set of plug-ins for video editing programs to play them. I converted all of the effects that I had licensed into my own file format and launched my first product "TrinityFX".
The purpose of TrinityFX is to solve the "chicken and egg" problem that I faced. Who was going to produce effects for the GrangerFX plug-ins if there was no one using them? Why would anyone use GrangerFX if there were no effects that it could play? Hopefully, TrinityFX will prove that there is a market for stock video effects just as there is currently for stock video footage.
Robert: In what way do you participate in de development of EIAS nowadays?
Mark: I mostly help by answering questions from programmers who are adding features to EI and fix bugs that turn up in my code. I also add features like the GrangerFX effect compiler that is included in the latest version of EIAS. I helped develop and document the EIAS for Globecaster. I remain a strong supporter of the product and the company behind it. You can count on my continued support in the future.
Robert: Can you tell us what is in the pipeline in the near future versions for EIAS and GrangerFX?
Mark: I will leave questions about future versions of EIAS to Brad. My near term plans for GrangerFX is support for additional video editing programs and platforms. I am currently working on the Final Cut Pro version of the plug-ins and am waiting to hear back from Apple on some technical issues I ran into with their support for the After Effects API. I plan on being responsive to user feedback about the GrangerFX plug-ins and will implement new features as needed. Version 1.1 of the plug-ins ship with EIAS have a few new features since the first version was released. One of the new features is a scrub preview of the currently selected effect.
Robert: What do you think are the major mile stones of EIAS?
Mark: I will let Brad answer this one too.
Robert: Is there any kind of support from Apple for companies who develop high end software like EIAS?
Mark: Support from Apple is a bit hit-and-miss. EI has received some co-marketing support in the past but I always felt that they could do a lot more to talk about the feature films and broadcast graphics that have been produced with their computers. Apple's high end computers sell rather well but you almost never see real marketing behind them.
Robert: EIAS originally was developed in a time where computers had a different OS structure compared to today. Do you think the structure of EIAS needs to be rewritten in depth? What is the core of EIAS nowadays?
Mark: As it stands today, EIAS supports MacOS X and Windows XP APIs. It takes full advantage of the modern memory management on these operating systems. The latest version of EIAS even supports 64 bit files. I can see that 64 bit memory management will be needed in the future as well.
I think the only area where EIAS could use improvement is with multi-processor support. Macs have had dual processors for years and by next year most new Intel processors will be dual core. I would like to Camera to be able to cast more than one ray at a time on multiple processor computers.
Robert: Many features are provided as plug-ins. Shouldn't those basic items like environment, terrains, dynamics and more, be included in the standard EIAS structure??
Mark: This is the same question that plagues Microsoft about its operating system: Which features do you build in and which do you depend on third party developers to add? Traditionally EI has leaned towards adding most features to the core of the product. Other products, such as Max, have gone the other direction placing most of the rendering and animation burden on its plug-in developers. I think that some features just feel more "core" and others seem better as plug-ins. I implemented all of the shaders as plug-ins for example but the motion blur was added to the core of the rendering engine.
Robert: What markets are you currently aiming on with the GrangerFX and EIAS?
Did EI company once misjudged the market concerning animation but not fully character animation?
Mark: GrangerFX is a product that is designed to bridge two different markets. It allows 3d computer animators to create effects that can be used by video editors. It reminds me of Mr. Font in that respect. Mr. Font was the first program to bridge the gap between 3d animation and 2d desktop publishing by allowing any Type 1 font to be converted into 3d model files. I see GrangerFX being used to create a consistent look or style for a television show or series of DVDs. An animator could create an opening title, transitions, overlay effects, and closing credits which incorporate video elements. These would be used to edit each TV show or DVD in the series.
Some 3d animators may choose to develop packages of stock effects for sale to video editors. The effect packs could be targeted at vertical markets like wedding videos. There could be a good market for military themed video effects for example.
In answer to the other part of your question, yes I wish we had done more with character animation earlier in the development of EIAS. I remember going to the Siggraph video screenings year after year and wishing there was more EIAS animation being presented. Most of what was shown in later years was character animation but EIAS was really targeted at rigid body animation. EI was forced to place catch up for many years before it was actively used for character animation.
Robert: The support outside the US for EIAS is seems poor. I think of a missing website, all documentation is English, I hardly see any advertising in the European web stores and magazines. Do you think it is time EIAS needs to be more delocalized?
Mark: I know that for many years we had trouble finding good international software distributors. Localization is best done by someone who is native to the language. I know that EIAS is localizable in that all of the strings displayed on the screen are in resource files. I would encourage you to continue to make these suggestions to EI. Perhaps if you know people who would be willing to localize the software, you could put them in contact with the company.
Robert: What are your plans for the future? What direction will EI company and EIAS go? More character-animation, more modeling, more Rendering (let's say Camera as a standalone application, and can be used with different 3D applications?) How is EI company placing itself in the market, where 3d app. compete fiercely?
Mark: My plans are to continue to develop and market GrangerFX plug-ins and video effects packages. I will continue to support and help EI in any way I can.
Robert: Who and how many people are (still) working at EI Technology Group today?
Mark: Ask Brad please. I do not know the exact size of the company.
Robert: At some point EIAS users where shouting your name all over the EI forums for help. Do you read any EI Forum threads?
Mark: I do read the EIAS forums from time to time. I admit that I miss most of what is posted. You may think this means I do not care about EIAS. The truth is just the opposite. I care so much about the product and company that I created that it is hard for me to read a lot of what is posted on the forums.
I frequently visit the EIAS web page to see what users have produced with the product. I am constantly astonished at the creativity of EIAS users. From my own brief experience at production work, I recognize the time and care it takes to produce the work I see on the web site. Your hard work and creativity is what motivates me to produce new products like GrangerFX and to continue to support EIAS.
Thank you Mark Granger for your time and effort.
Below: Mark Granger in his backyard at Placerville, CA, testing some new plug-ins with EIAS :-)