As the visual effects software geniuses behind films from Avatar to Guardians of the Galaxy to recent Star Wars hit Rogue One, London-based Foundry has grown from a start-up to a £40m-revenue global business with over 300 staff. CEO Alex Mahon tells Director why virtual reality has a key role to play, as the firm looks to soar to the next level
The Millennium Falcon skims perilously low over a debris-strewn Star Wars landscape, pursued by enemy fighters; Jon Snow strides purposefully through the ice, flanked by a giant and an army of Game of Thrones wildlings; and Matt Damon cuts a lonely figure on the barren surface of Mars as the castaway astronaut in The Martian. They are some of the most memorable scenes from film and TV in recent times, lauded for their visual effects and ability to transport audiences into seamlessly created new worlds. And they are all on the showreel of a UK firm to whom production behemoths turn when they need new tech to match their ambitious plans.
Foundry is the London-headquartered developer of computer graphics, visual effects and 3D design software for the entertainment industries. Its Oscar-winning flagship product Nuke, a software tool used to stitch together different layers of film and special effects in post-production, was employed to create the aforementioned movie and TV scenes and is behind just about every modern blockbuster you can recall, from James Cameron’s sci-fi epic Avatar to the Harry Potter movies to comic book hit Guardians of the Galaxy. But the scope of the company does not end at the edges of a cinema screen. With recent expansions into product design, revolutionary cloud services and a government-backed place at the vanguard of the UK’s development of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technologies, the business – which brings in 90 per cent of its revenues from overseas – has an ambitious strategy for growth.
Established in 1996 by computer scientists Bruno Nicoletti and Simon Robinson to sell their plug-ins which enhanced existing software packages, Foundry hit upon a winning formula when it was bought by US private investment group Wyndcrest Holdings, which also owned visual effects production company Digital Domain, and took over the development of Nuke from the latter. As head of research Jon Starck tells Director on our visit to Foundry’s Soho HQ, film companies will often create a piece of software in-house to solve a visual effects challenge but not then have the expertise or resources to take it on and develop it into a marketable product: “What we do well at Foundry is take tools that solve real production problems, like Digital Domain faced, and build them as professional software products that can stand up to use by many people,” says Starck. “We added the professional software development value and Nuke was built out as a commercial product – it became the industry standard.”
A similar process brought about the development of another product, Mari, a texture-painting application first conceived by Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital visual effects company while producing his 2005 remake of King Kong – Foundry later took it on and commercialised it, paying Weta a royalty. “The tool was built internally at Weta to solve a very specific problem – they were building massive digital character models that couldn’t really be dealt with by normal software tools at that time, and trying to paint pore-level detail on them,” says Starck. “We have taken that and turned it into a professional software product because we recognised it solved a key problem across the industry, and we rolled it out to many other clients – that’s won an Academy Award as well.”
The company has also worked with Sony Pictures Imageworks to develop its ‘look-development and lighting’ software Katana and visual story development tool Flix. By honing and adding innovative features to these and other products through a process of continual feedback with users, Foundry has enjoyed a period of remarkable growth.
A new reality
Following a management buyout in 2009, the company was purchased by American private equity house the Carlyle Group in 2011 and then, in summer 2015, by London-headquartered private equity firm HgCapital for £200m. At the end of that year, Alex Mahon – former boss of TV production powerhouse Shine Group – was brought in as chief executive. Today the business has over 300 staff, customers in more than 100 countries and offices in the US and China – revenue grew by 11 per cent in 2016 to around £40m with EBITDA increasing by seven per cent. “We are of course focused on growth, like everyone, and that brings its own challenges since we are scaling the number of staff rapidly and that involves constantly pushing for new ways of doing things,” Mahon tells Director. “Personally I like the challenge, as I like dealing with a high degree of change.”
One of the future growth areas being explored by the company right now centres on the fields of virtual and augmented reality. “VR and AR are certainly a focus for us as they have the potential for immense disruption and I challenge anyone to read Ready Player One [Ernest Cline’s future-set novel about an online virtual utopia] and remain neutral about how they could change the world,” says Mahon. To that end Foundry’s R&D work has included participation in a three-year, EU-funded project called Dreamspace, which explores the potential of AR to combine live performances and CGI in real time. Another, with funding from Innovate UK and in conjunction with the University of Surrey, is researching lightfield capture technology to give a much more realistic appearance and sense of immersion than is currently possible in VR. “It’s research focused on getting new concepts that could have a wide impact closer to market,” says Starck.
While Mahon offers a cautionary note about the current state of play for these technologies, she says the market opportunities when they break through will be broad: “We’re very much in a hype cycle with venture capitalists pouring money into virtual, augmented and mixed reality [a hybrid of the two], but what currently exists is very much in its creative infancy. We predict it will take another one to two hardware cycles before this technology reaches the mass market. We are, however, seeing this type of technology expanding into other industries outside of film and gaming. VR/AR is being implemented across architecture, healthcare, education and not-for-profit industries. This breadth will of course help the technology to cement itself in the everyday and our R&D is putting us at the forefront of the field.”
Indeed it’s a year this month since Foundry first released its VR toolset, Cara VR – a new plug-in to help film-makers create high-quality VR content, stitching together film of the real world from eight or more cameras to create a 360-degree experience for the viewer in the VR headset. “Talking to our clients four years ago, it was really interesting to see how excited they were even then, before it took off, of the potential of VR as a new type of video medium,” says Starck. “Because they can do so much more creatively, they can change the type of stories, they can change the content, they can change the connection between the viewer and what they’re watching – there’s so much more that they can do with it compared to that standard 2D view you’ve got at the end of your living room.” It’s tech that has already been seized upon by advertisers with BMW employing creative studio Framestore to produce virtual reality campaign Eyes on Gigi using Foundry’s Cara VR software.
Democratisation of tech
But while their tools have already been used to attention-grabbing effect by big brands and major film studios, Foundry is now on a mission to put the creation of high-quality, visual-effects-packed content into the hands of small businesses too. Until now the sheer number of people required to work in post-production, and the expensive hardware needed to process the vast data files, has kept high-end visual effects out of the reach of all but the wealthiest studios. “One of the big challenges in the industry is, if you want to make a movie like Avatar, you need thousands of artists and machines, which is why it’s only the Weta Digitals and Digital Domains of this world that can ever do those high-end movies – it’s never open to the smaller players to ramp up to that scale,” says Starck. “But if this pipeline was in the cloud, you could scale up on demand. So one of our R&D projects is looking at how cloud processing can support artists.”
“We’re trying to democratise the technology,” says Foundry head of marketing Jodie Anderson, who adds that it will also allow larger studios to work more flexibly. “We’re seeing a shift in the industry where it’s gone from 200 people in a single facility to distributed development around the globe. Big studios are outsourcing to Asia, to smaller studios, they have set up branch locations – and the technology we’re developing which is cloud-based enables that… We’ve previewed it a number of times and we’re heading to the NAB [trade show in Las Vegas] in April to show off some of the early versions.” Mahon adds that the move could help nurture new ventures: “Currently the capex associated with hardware and software set-up can be a serious barrier to starting a company. We hope that the impact of this will result in new opportunities for customers.”
The firm is hoping to make a similar impact in the world of product design – its merger with California software business Luxology in 2012 brought access to the US firm’s 3D modelling application Modo, which it is now developing, along with a new tool called Jia, to help streamline the processes involved in designing apparel like footwear. “Decades ago in film, before they widely adopted visual tools, they were using things like clay models to develop characters,” says Anderson. “It’s interesting to see that in the product and industrial design world today, in many cases, they are also using traditional media – pen and paper and clay models. The process is incredibly inefficient because if the designer doesn’t like an element of that clay model, it’s back to starting from scratch – so they’re looking for ways to go from traditional media to digital tools to help reduce costs.”
While Foundry is yet to encounter issues with finding the people to support its growth (“we work in a creative and passionate industry where you might pop on set to see clients making Star Wars or get to have a meeting in the stunning San Francisco Pixar offices – that’s hard to beat and plays a huge part in attracting and keeping talent,” says Mahon) the firm is focusing on the next generation of software engineers: “We aim to make a Stem career path accessible for young people,” she says. “We will start graduate schemes this year as we are recruiting 60 or more software engineers and need to start training even more early-stage talent. We also recently ran a competition for students to produce their best VFX work, for the opportunity to win our entire collective software. For us it’s important that we offer alternative avenues to those who may have the interest, but lack
On the impact of Brexit on the firm’s ability to hire the best people, she adds: “Foundry employs talent in Silicon Valley, LA, Shanghai and London and we are very open with how much we rely on overseas talent – in London alone we have 23 different nationalities working in our building. The UK is a global hub for film and television production and post-production and I believe people will continue to come here to make the most of those opportunities. With Brexit we must really push to ensure the UK remains at the forefront of the world’s creative industries and for us that will mean we need continued access to tech visas so that we can access the specialist engineers we require.”
Wherever Foundry’s next generation of talent hails from, it’s clear their mission will be the same: “It’s about advancing the art and the technology of the visual experience, it’s about innovating technology and engineering to allow designers and artists to solve complex visual challenges and turn their ideas into reality,” says Mahon. “That applies to us when we are helping our design clients create the latest trainers in 3D or working on the detailed paintwork of the Millennium Falcon.” And, given all that spaceship goes through, it’s a good thing Foundry’s software remains on hand to provide a new lick of virtual paint.
Foundry: Vital stats
Founded 1996 by computer scientists Simon Robinson and Bruno Nicoletti. Robinson remains on the board today and is Foundry’s chief scientist.
HQ Soho, London
Revenue Around £40m
Staff More than 300
Key products Nuke, a software tool used in film post-production to weave together different layers of footage and effects; Mari, a texture-painting application; and Katana, used in look and lighting. All three have won Sci-Tech Oscars.
International Makes up 90 per cent of revenue, led by the US. Foundry also has a Shanghai office.
Did you know? Foundry software has been used in some of the biggest films of recent times. The CEO’s favourite? “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.”
To see Foundry’s latest showreel visit