It was perhaps the most unlikely of places for a trio of computer engineers, but in February 2015, Interactive Data Visualization, Inc. co-founders Michael Sechrest and Chris King and Senior Software Architect Greg Croft found themselves tuxedo clad and standing before film industry elite accepting the coveted Academy Award — a long way from their home office in South Carolina.
“It was a very surreal moment,” Michael says. “There we were giving one of those ‘I would like to thank the Academy’ speeches. It was unbelievable to think that a few engineers from the University of South Carolina could walk away with an Academy Award, something we just didn’t think was possible a few years ago.”
Tree generating software SpeedTree® received an Academy Award from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences for “Technical Achievements.” Since 2002, the IDV product has provided realistic, real-time digital trees and plants for a growing number of real-time projects, high-end animations, motion pictures and architectural fly-through renders.
“The list of people who made this possible is literally in the thousands,” says Michael. “For more than a decade, we have received support, encouragement and invaluable insight from the best artists and engineers in the visual effects and game development industries. These customers, along with the rest of the SpeedTree team, deserve tremendous credit.”
Winning the Oscar was not an easy task for the small Lexington, South Carolina-based firm. When SpeedTree was nominated, it stood alone in the category for digital vegetation. But a call out to the visual effects world for similar work pitted SpeedTree against iconic companies like Disney, DreamWorks and Weta Digital (of the Lord of the Rings series, Planet of the Apes and Hobbit movies), as well as a company similar to SpeedTree.
“We felt a little like David facing Goliath during the intense technical investigations the Academy held,” Chris says. “It came down to DreamWorks and us, and we felt it was a huge honor just to be put up against these other industry leaders. So, to win was a huge validation of our work.”
The Oscars wouldn’t be SpeedTree’s first or last brush with major awards. The software was prominently featured in the 2009 Avatar, which received nine Oscar nominations and three Oscars. Other Oscar-winning and nominated films that added SpeedTree to its special effects include The Great Gatsby and The Wolf of Wall Street. This past November, SpeedTree received another entertainment industry nod via a 2015 Engineering Emmy, administered by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. It also received the Develop Industry Excellence Award in the Design & Creativity Tool category in 2015 for their work in video games.
“Our objective from the start has been to give the best tree and plant tools to as many artists and creators as possible,” Michael says. “Our growing adaptions by the television industry represent major accomplishments in striving toward that goal.”
Greg, who met IDV co-founders Michael and Chris while still an undergraduate student at USC, adds: “We didn’t start out thinking about winning awards. We wanted to make a good, useful product. The awards are showing us we’re on the right track.”
While engineering has long played a role in everything from building sets to special effects in film making, software engineering has only become part of the industry in the past few years.
“Now, every movie is edited on computers. Even television and movie scenes you may not think have any computer generated content may have been put together from numerous other shots in a process called compositing,” Greg says. “Behind every movie star getting an award is a host of designers, artists, editors and engineers using the latest technologies to make movie magic.”
Jurassic World, The Avengers, X-Men, Days of Future Past, Maleficent … all are recent blockbusters among many others that showcase contributions of IDV’s SpeedTree. From the colorful alien landscape of Avatar to the lush palm trees of The Wolf of Wall Street, SpeedTree has become the dominant foliage solution for film — though its major contributions to film and television didn’t start out that way.
Launched in the USC/Columbia Technology Incubator in 1999, IDV initially specialized in digital visualization until an architecture firm came to the firm with an interesting and challenging problem.
“We were told that they were making this upscale community and needed a fly-through of it,” says Chris, adding that IDV was one of the only companies in town creating 3-D animations at the time. “The architect who was leading the CanalSide project, for whatever reason, was really fixated on how the trees would look. He wanted them to blow in the wind and for viewers to be able to recognize all these different species. It created a uniquely difficult problem because it’s hard to recreate organic shapes out of the three-dimensional triangles that are used in building 3-D models. The challenge that we overcame eventually grew into SpeedTree.”
After the CanalSide project, Michael and Chris thought of other applications for the new technology. They went after the gaming market, quickly growing an impressive list that now includes Destiny, The Witcher 3 and Grand Theft Auto IV since 2002.
“We got a call from a graphics company called NVIDIA to make a demo for them using what we had done,” says Greg. “That got us some great press with people doing real-time graphics, namely game companies. So we developed a SpeedTree product for game development, where we created the trees and did wind effects inside their game. That took off quite well, and we have now been in more than 1,000 games.”
Success in the gaming sector led to recognition and a “big break” call from Industrial Light & Magic, which had a need for realistic trees in a new movie it was working on.
“They liked our software, but were having trouble making trees at a level that could be used in movies. We worked with them over the next few months. The movie ILM was working on at the time was James Cameron’s Avatar, a huge blockbuster movie. We didn’t know that at the time, but when the trailer came out and we saw our trees in the opening shots, we were extremely excited,” Greg says.
Avatar special effects further piqued SpeedTree leaders’ interest in the visual effects industry. The engineers started developing a new version, using feedback to make a product that could be a perfect fit for cinema.
“We had assumed that cinema had this covered but nobody wants to have to maintain this any more than they would want to maintain Photoshop. They just want to buy it,” Michael says.
This is where SpeedTree Cinema was born, Greg says. “We have since added other new cinema-level features like growing trees, which was used in Noah.”
After film, SpeedTree branched into television, finding placement in Game of Thrones, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Penny Dreadful, Black Sails, Silicon Valley and many others.
“It’s hard to keep count,” Michael says. “In fact, the best thing about SpeedTree is that you almost never know that it’s in use because they naturally blend. You just assume that they are on set or on location, and then they add trees to it and you never know the difference.”
Since its television debut in Sesame Street in 2011, SpeedTree has seen an exponential growth in broadcast and cable.
“SpeedTree is making its way into documentaries, fantasies and historic fiction as well as real-life dramas and sitcoms,” Chris says. “We’re also getting into a good number of TV commercials, in fact. Our broadcast users are employing the full range of SpeedTree capabilities, including wind effects, growth and precision modeling.”
Seeing the Forest for the Trees
With business deals in more than 60 countries and documented usage in more than 60 movies and 1,000 video games, IDV’s once “long-shot side project” has already proven to be wildly successful. Still, recreating the intricacy and beauty of nature is an ongoing process.
“We’re always improving the SpeedTree tools to make trees faster, easier and more powerful,” Greg says. “Also, we have some exciting stuff coming where we built a special scanner to record information (color, roughness and reflection) about real leaves and barks using a process called photogrammetry. Then we can use that information to make extremely realistic trees and plants on the computer. It will be a big step up in realism.”
There are other movie projects in the works too. “We always have to be careful not to disclose movies that are using SpeedTree where that information hasn’t been made public, including some upcoming superhero films,” Chris says. “Quite a few movies that just came out have SpeedTree in them. Jurassic World used a ton of SpeedTree, and we also recently received confirmation from ILM that SpeedTree was used extensively in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”
What’s next for the Emmy and Oscar-winning South Carolina company? “We get asked all the time ‘Do you want to do clouds or rocks or something?’ but the truth of the matter is that vegetation presents a very unique problem. Look at a shot of Star Wars, and there are probably 50,000 trees in it. Each one is really complicated, and each one needs to be a little different from the other one, and they all have to blow in the wind,” Michael says. “It’s a unique challenge, and a lot of our work is to make the model look better and let our customers be able to get through the task faster. That’s the focus of our next releases — to make SpeedTree better and faster.”