From Cloud Services To VR: Interview With Alok Sharma, Autodesk

This article first appeared on Digit.

Apart From Adapting To Motion Capture And Hyper-Realist Graphics On Screen, Autodesk’s Adaptation Is Central To The Value Sensitivity Of Customers, Alongside Providing A Platform For International Post-Production Collaboration.

It has happened. Leonardo DiCaprio has won his first Academy Award, known as the Oscar to the common man, and the Internet will never be the same again (Who will we create the memes on from now on?). On a serious note however, the grand narrative remains the same at the 88th annual Academy Awards — an extravaganza of grandeur speckled with Chris Rock’s insightful statements on the variety of mankind’s nuances. The star-strewn floor shows regular attendees like Kate Winslet, Morgan Freeman and Christian Bale in various moods, as we succumb to worshipping of these on-screen geniuses. After all, it is them who bring the most far-fetched fantasies alive on the silver screens.

While the Academy does pay tribute to the (wo)men behind the screens for the myriad small contributions, the focus remains understandably low on the ones who form the base of movies like The Revenant, The Martian, or Mad Max: Fury Road. It is only when you delve deep into the structure of a film that you get to see the core of it, the side that is seldom truly celebrated on magnanimous notes. It is appreciated, without doubt, for without these software, you may not have seen the graphical world like you have.

Sitting in the chambers of Autodesk is Mr. Alok Sharma, Head of Media and Entertainment, India and SAARC region. In our half-hour conversation, he spoke about how the integration of cloud services with Shotgun has simplified post-production graphic designing, how monthly-licensing of Autodesk’s products are helping the independent filmmakers take bolder steps, and how it was so difficult and important to create realistic graphics of water. Towards the end, Mr. Sharma also had an interesting insight on the realm of 3D movies and advent of Virtual Reality. Here are the excerpts.

Digit: In light of the Academy Awards, what are Autodesk’s most crucial tools that contribute to the incredible on-screen graphics of these films?

Alok Sharma: Autodesk Maya and Autodesk 3D Studio Max, these are our flagship products. Then, (adding to these are the) new enhancements which have been made both in Max and Maya this year, and there have been a lot of enhancements within BiFrost including adaptive pumps and guided submissions. It helps you with some very realistic water effects because water and air are few items which are very, very difficult to handle in animation. Talking about Max, there have been new enhancements when it comes to content creation including better tools for collaboration. And then there is obviously the new UI, which has been introduced both in Max and Maya.

But, if I have to really talk about something really disruptive rather than introducing new features in our flagship products, it is Shotgun, about which we have been going aggressive. Shotgun is actually a production pipeline management. If you go to any studio here in India or even elsewhere, handling assets, finding assets in fitting collaborations is very painful. And today, in a distributive work environment, what you have is people working across multiple studios geographically spread, and it’s very difficult for somebody to really coordinate between these portfolios. So, products like Shotgun helps you track, review and do asset management, and improves your overall performance. It’s a cloud-based offering, in fact, and right now is the only software we have for our media and entertainment portfolio.

Shotgun helps if you own a studio here in India that has got a project outsourced by studios in US or UK. It helps when you are creating assets and shots that need a final sign off from your customer sitting in another part of the world. Once you have created it and you post it, it immediately becomes available to him in US. And he can then take a quick look at the shot itself and make notes, and it can immediately be seen by the guy who is working here in India. For one, there is no back and forth, and you can do it at your own pace on your own given timelines. And secondly, it maintains a lot of that (in-studio environment). All changes requested by the outstation studio comes as a list, and hence, it helps you outsource and collaborate.

Digit: How does Autodesk collaborate and involve itself with films?
Alok Sharma: Our involvement typically is that with the studio or with movie makers like James Cameron, for example, we have worked very closely with him on the making of Avatar. We ourselves do not do the job, because we are not a production studio, but we collaborate with the likes of Universal Studios and others on the core tools for the action. To give an example of the guys who were behind Gravity here in India, Prime Focus studios, we worked very closely when it comes to deploying tools to simulate real-life graphics. While we collaborate with them on the tools side, the actual work is left best to these studios, to the best artistes in the world. One thing persists, and I strongly believe it – at the end of the day, it’s the man and his machine that matters.

Digit: From Autodesk’s perspective, how have you seen the company and graphic designing evolve over the last decade?

Alok Sharma: To make it relevant to India, if you have ever seen the old Mahabharata serial, the one that used to be aired almost two decades back, and compare it to the new series which just ended a few weeks back, there has been tremendous investments on how (we) are dealing with graphics now. In olden days, things were quite hands on, people used to rely on drawing of things with hands, and there was hardly pre-visualisation work which was being done. But now, you have tools from Autodesk to do all that.

Today, most of the movies or even TV serials implement these tools, because they actually go on floor for shooting. There is something called pre-roll or pre-visualisation, a tool like Maya. For example, the Red Chillies Studio in Mumbai have heavily relied on our tools to do their studio work. They took the camera and the green screens and shot on location, and nothing was left to guesswork because everything was precisely defined by the pre-visualisation team. This is one major advancement. Over the last 10 years, there has been significant improvement, we have brought Alias Maya. Handling graphic assets in Maya was very difficult, and that is when we acquired a company called Naiad, and created hyper-realistic water simulation within Maya.

Digit: Hyper-realistic graphics in the nature of The Avengers or Life of Pi are becoming the standard for the discerning audience. What is the next step for films to become the stand-out feature in the Oscars and elsewhere, in future?

Alok Sharma: We got a preview of the future with Gravity, where the majority of the movie was shot in the studio. The kind of subject it dealt with had hardly anything that was shot outside the studio. So if you really ask me, the (next step in) media and entertainment will be where you are able to create everything indoors, to set a degree of realism where you really do not have to step out of your studio, and virtually everything can be done inside. Whether it’s Gravity, or Life of Pi, there is still a bit shot outside the studio, but we are very close to feature that end-to-end production status on your computer operating within a studio, and we can move on with the tape once the movie is finished. I think this is something which will change depending on the way we do it today.

Digit: Let’s talk about 3D films in context of the advent of Virtual Reality. Where do you see the future of 3D filmmaking, in terms of present interest and future enthusiasm?

Alok Sharma: Stereoscopic 3D, frankly, has not been a game changer if you look at movies or television. A few years back, there were lots of dollars spent by television manufacturing companies where they really promoted a lot of these stereoscopic 3D television sets. So, I think there will be a niche for them in home entertainment, if you look at movies. There is still much more that can happen in the next few years, I don’t think it is going to die out, but I don’t think that every significant film will go the stereoscopic way. I don’t think that is going to happen either in television or in movies.

Digit: Talk us through Autodesk’s tools for 3D animation.

Alok Sharma: It’s exactly the same set of tools, with Autodesk Maya and Motion Builder. Motion Builder is actually used for 3D motion capture used during 3D character animation. What has really changed there is the 3D Realtime bit – in the good old days it used to take a lot of time to render on whatever products you worked on your assets with. With advanced technology, you can use the GPU for rendering. There have been a lot of enhancements then and now, and even our notion of 3D. Apart from that, there have been some productivity enhancements which have been made, and there are things like Motion Capture, Data Fill-up, and those things become very important.

Digit: How is Autodesk adapting to the changing paradigm of filmmaking in India?

Alok Sharma: We have done one thing very specific to India, and it might be true for other developing countries. We have opened the availability of our software on subscription only to our end-customers. I used to work for one company called Tata Elxsi and they were distributors for Alias. Maya came as a product from Alias before it was bought by Autodesk, and we used to sell Maya at something like Rs. 10-11 lacs, which was not affordable, at least in developing countries like us or elsewhere in China. That led to a lot of piracy of these products. So we decided to come out with what we call a subscription-based model, where studios here in India can actually buy these softwares for a month, or a quarter, or half-year, or even a year.

Be it a small studio for a single project, or for someone who is just starting off, we are not selling Maya’s subscription for Rs. 11 lacs now. Now, the license is for close to Rs. 2 lacs. That is not a small amount either, so we decided to come out with a subscription-based model. Even large studios like Prime Focus or Red Chillies of the world found that useful, because these guys have what they call as Peak Time Load when they are working on a movie. They need a time in a movie when they have to work 24/7, and get a lot of people from outside to work and finish the project. For this, they really wanted to use a short term license for a month or so. From our side, apart from all the enhancements in terms of features, something that really is helping is making it more affordable and available to the studios.

This is being done to encourage (original software) – in India, the piracy is high, which means 8 out of 10 aren’t paying us for our software. But by making it available at almost one-third the cost, we are making sure people buys the software and do not have to hide. One creative challenge is when somebody starts using a pirated software, and cannot really talk or demonstrate what they are using or what they are creating using those tools. Once they start using genuine software there is nothing to hide, and the work becomes worthy of distribution and official presentations. And we are seeing acceptance. This year, the number of licenses our distributors sold in India were more on the subscription than the perpetual license. It is only a one-year-old business model, but people are beginning to accept it and try it.

One creative challenge is when somebody starts using a pirated software, and cannot really talk or demonstrate what they are using or what they are creating using those tools. Once they start using genuine software there is nothing to hide, and the work becomes worthy of distribution and official presentations.

Digit: Your take on Virtual Reality and its acceptance, and the timeframe you see it to get mainstream application.

Alok Sharma: It is going to pick up, and AR and VR are going to see more and more usage both in films and home entertainment in televisions. Even if you look at this year’s Academy nominations for VFX, there are quite a few movies which are implementing these on a scale. There is good use of VR in The Martian. I believe virtual reality is probably already there, and you are going to find that becoming more and more relevant across many formats.

As for the timeframe, it is not that people are not aware of Virtual Reality or there are no studios that are not already using it, but if you really talk about us getting to see it on a regular basis, I think it should be in the mix in a couple of years. And the reason why I said that is because of the enhancements we have seen on the software and on the hardware side. There was a time, when to do something very similar to a virtual reality, you would have to buy very expensive hardware with very heavy workstations. But today, similar stuff can be done on a workstation which will not cost you more than Rs. 2 lacs or so, or maybe even lesser. Software tools are also becoming more affordable. So it’s a good mix, there are lots of enhancements on the hardware side. We are basically playing on Cloud, so I think we are going to cover the mainstream for AR and VR in a couple of years, it shouldn’t take too long.

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