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Matrix ministory: FX Battle

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By Reinhard E. Wagner
When Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow Pictures release The Matrix Revolutions at the same moment worldwide on Nov. 5, the thousands of fans flocking to see the film simultaneously at 6 a.m. in L.A., 9 a.m. in New York, 2 p.m. in London and 11 p.m. in Tokyo won’t be thinking much about the software that made its visual effects possible.
But software is always very much on the mind of Rolf Herken, founder of Mental Images, the Berlin-based company that developed the Mental Ray software widely used by the film production community. “When you saw Matrix Reloaded and the truck fight scene, did you realize that Laurence Fishburne was computer-generated?” asks Herken.
Mental Ray is beneath the surface throughout the visual effects industry, working behind the scenes to enhance such products as Alias/Wavefront’s Maya, Softimage XSI and Discreet 3Dmax. “Our product is fully integrated in these tools, which means that the artist may not even know he is using it,” explains Herken. “It’s just creativity that matters, not [the platform]. Artists need to get addicted to utilities in a design environment!”
Mental Ray was initially released in 1989. The software offers artists a way to program customized shaders when needed without spending much time writing complex scripts or even code. On the other hand, with Pixar’s RenderMan, the acknowledged rendering workhorse, artists have to feed the system with scenes and each single frame has to be rendered. With Mental Ray the artist can also send the partial changes into the system and the final product will be generated on the fly.
“They can view what they created interactively inside Maya or XSI immediately,” emphasizes Herken. “This is by far the best ROI and productivity workflow a producer, production facility and even the DP can imagine.”
The Gollum character in Lord of the Rings stands out as an example of how Mental Ray could have shortened a painstaking process, according to Herken. Director Peter Jackson wanted to avoid a “computer-generated look” for Gollum and had him created through a combination of computer animation and motion-capture technology utilizing fluid dynamics. The efforts of hundreds of artists and programmers led finally to his realistic joint movement based on his organic muscle and bone seen rippling under his translucent skin. The computer artists developed new modeling codes, new skin codes, new muscle codes. “All these time-consuming creation processes can be avoided when using Mental Ray and its library of hundreds of patterns and shaders,” says Herken.
Intuitive tool sets, easy creation of shaders without complicated machine code writing, and interactive Windows GUI’s are among Mental Ray’s benefits. “Our customers (Alias, Softimage, Discreet, etc.) do not know who built the engine. They use a powerful engine that fits their needs,” says Herken.
In March 2003, Mental Ray’s developers received an Academy Award for their sophisticated renderer. In addition to The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, Mental Ray has been used in the production of over 100 major motion pictures including Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Spider Man, and Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones.

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