At work : proprietary or commercial softwares

At work : proprietary or commercial softwares

Here is a first post about my different experiences of production.

It ‘s been 7 years since I started working in the CG field . From commercials , to feature film via music videos and cinematic video games. Throughout this journey I was able to observe the structure of each of these companies, their pipeline , what was working, or not. I will therefore try to make a synthesis through several posts. This might give students a better idea of what could be their future experience once in the industry . And those who are already working might get a glimpse of what happen in other companies.  I encourage you to write comments showing off your own experiences in order to enrich the debate.

Dreamworks Logo Blur Logo Partizan

A series of topics will be addressed in future tickets:

  • Size of the company
  • Projects
  • Technical Structure
  • Human Structure
  • Pre-production
  • Production, tools, techniques
  • Finalization of the project, approval process

Let’s talk about the subject that matters today :

Proprietary Softwares / Commercial Software.

Whether at Partizan Midi Minuit or Blur studio, we were using commercial software in this case 3dsmax, lightwave, brazil, photoshop, combustion, digital fusion with a Windows environment. A notable difference being that Blur had built around 3ds Max an original pipeline made of a multitude of scripting tools, and external plugins. Each of those tools offered us more flexibility and efficiency. I describe a little our workflow with Fusion on Gentlemen’s duel in this interview for Eyeon ( English, sorry). This gives you an glimpse of the logic of productivity at Blur.

But seeking to grow my resume, I postulated at Dreamworks and was hired. I knew that this company, as many other big studios was using proprietary softwares (developed in-house) under Linux. I was preparing myself.

Probably not enough.Thinking that the choice of tools were necessarily tied to requirement for efficiency and quality, I anticipated that I would experience another great workflow, and I expected to receive great satisfaction from that. It turns out that this was not really the case.
The transition was a little tough, I had to lost many habits . Much less use of compositing, a number of technical limitations which I was not used to and many simple tasks have become very complicated when they were automated in commercial packages. But after a few months it felt a lot better, and I find more and more interests in the use of in-house software (I can not go into the details at this level). I am confident that the 4 / 5 pages of suggestions I wrote about the interfaces for our lighting and compositing softwares are taken into account (a good amount were already in the todo list of programmers and my queries were greatly received).

Here are some general informations on proprietary software:


  • The technology is often based on an architecture that dates back to the early days of the studio, which lags behind the competition.
  • Numerous functions that are considered basic in software are not present (ie, raytracing or subsurface scattering and photon mapping …  have just been recently available in the big studios)
  • The interfaces are often very austere and fall over the vision of programmers rather than of the user.
  • Despite the possibility of direct communication with developers, it’s difficult to quickly obtain important changes (other than bug fixes ) in software, it requires a lot of testing prior to the distribution of those upgrades Studio wide
  • The render times are very long which is frustrating, but mostly destroyed the interaction between an artist and an art director for example.
  • The creators of software owners can leave the company which is never without consequence for future development of the tools.
  • Request a long time to adapt to the workflow, as well as the learning curve being much slower than with commercial softwares

But there are also some advantages:

  • Generally more stable than commercial softwares.
  • In the case of a major bug responsiveness is far faster than with commercial software
  • For the larger enterprise it is more cost effective. I will balance this point anyway, because we must take into account the possible increase in productivity offered by the commercial software today, without mentionning the negotiable price for the major studios when purchasing licenses in bulk.
  • No need to review the entire pipeline or half rewrite scripts when a new version of the software is released and is no longer compatible with previous versions. Compatibility becoming a constraint in the development of proprietary softwares.
  • It is possible to adapt completely proprietary software to the specific needs of a project at the pre-production stage.
  • Your colleagues are your best source of information regarding your tools, so you will need to socialize rather than seek solutions on the Internet :).
  • your production is not relying on many companies producing each plugins you’re using. Ie : Hair, cloth, fx tools, fluid simulations are developped inside house and it makes easy to update, debug those tools which need really frequent tweaks and adjustments to meet show requirements

To summarize, I think proprietary softwares were required to complete and coordinate animated feature so far, but it is now possible to produce high-quality feature films on commercial software, while using methods providing faster and more advanced techniques. It would be a good idea for the studios using proprietary software to monitor more closely the development of commercial software, in order to pick up ideas, develop new technologies from there and stay in the technical race.

My favorite workflow was from far the use of hybrid platform ( commercial softwares with huge amount of tools correcting the flaws and bringing maximum efficiency). This requires the studio to integrate the technological advances of software in its pipeline constantly. Creating a permanent link between an internal pipeline and external innovations.

Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE working at Dreamworks !!! But there is always a few down sides working at any company.

What about you? what was your best experiences ?
Software owners or commercial?

4 Responses to At work : proprietary or commercial softwares

  • Mako

    Hi Zeb ! Just to add my contribution. I’ve been using:
    – commercial software at school (3DS, 3DSMax)
    – commercial software at Darkworks (3DSMax)
    – proprietary softwares at Buf
    – back to commercial softwares at TheMill (Xsi, Maya) So: commercial, proprietary and commercial softwares again. Now I think I miss some of the very nice features that proprietary softwares can give you. Of course, one could hire a developer and try to redo them in a commercial software, but sometimes it’s just not possible at all, ’cause it needs a big tweak in the kernel of Maya or XSI. Or because MentalRay doesn’t allow you to do that… etc. If I could, I would try to have both. Not only tools like scripts for the commercial softwares, but stand alone home made tools, running linux, for very precise and specialized stuff.

  • Zeb

    Hey Mako
    I hope you’re doing well :)
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts in the english version of this post , I definetely need more english readers to comment in order to balance out the high count of comments from the french readers :).
    Anyway I think you’re totally right, the best option possible would be to have a mutliplaftorm using proprietary softwares, commercial softwares and scripts for both. But the main issue there is the compatibility between all those softwares, maybe one day a standard will come up that could be use widely, but that’s really a dream :)

  • thiagocosta

    I’ve friends working at blur and I heard that half of the pipeline had switched to XSI… do you have any comment about that?
    I don’t see you say anything about it… so I thought I would ask.

  • Zeb

    That’s right most of the animation is being done with XSI. Actually the first project Blur experimented with this hybrid pipeline was A Gentlemen’s Duel ( which I supervised). I was just trying to be very general in this article. But that’s show really that a studio working with a hybrid pipeline as Blur ( commercial softwares , in house software to tie the pipeline together) offer a lot of flexibility. Basically a lot of tools were developped to create the crossing platform, and it worked pretty well. Only thing I heard about the usage of XSI in Blur pipeline since I left is that it’s not as great to use for mocap than for keyframe animation.
    But the rest of the pipeline ( modeling, scene assembly, lighting) is still being done with 3dsMax. My experience working on the XSI+Max pipeline while on Gentlemen’s duel ( from a supervisor / lighting artist point of view) was pretty good. BUt again I was way less impacted than the animators.