New Mari and new Katana: reducing pipeline friction for artists

How interoperability is playing a larger role in Foundry tools.

With the upcoming releases of Katana 5.0 and Mari 5.0, Foundry has continued to update various key features of its lighting, lookdev and texturing toolsets. Part of the larger overall advancements in these tools and others, however, has been the developments in streamlining workflows for artists and studios.

Indeed, Foundry’s mandate is now all about reducing the pipeline friction between Mari and Katana, something heavily enabled by the adoption of Pixar’s Universal Scene Description (USD).

For example, Mari 5.0’s new USD Preview Look Export feature now lets artists craft flat preview looks for DCC software such as Katana. The idea, of course, is that artists can work on preview looks for assets early on in development while still moving forward with final production. Katana 5.0, too, contains several USD workflow improvements, including in terms of importing and exporting lighting information.

Then there’s the Katana to Nuke interoperability coming in Katana 5.0, which will allow artists to see lighting and lookdev progress inside Nuke, where they are updated interactively. Again, the push here is to make the workflows even smoother during production.

New Mari moves

Foundry is looking to make Mari the starting point for artists’ flattened look development needs, and to introduce some new faster workflows, having regard to the current trends in the VFX and animation industries.

“Today there’s so much full CG work going on with a lot of things that have to be made in the digital realm,” states Rory Woodford, Product Manager – Look Development at Foundry. “For some studios, having the lookdev visually approved by a supervisor in the Mari approximation shader viewpoint is sometimes enough for it to go into show, that is, it doesn’t necessarily have to go through a full shading pass.”

USD export in Mari 5.

Woodford goes on to say that what often happens in these pipelines is that Mari artists tend to export the texture maps then send them over to a shading artist. Here what the shading artist usually does is plug those texture maps into a flattened shading network and assign them to the same object that the Mari artist had at the start of the process to package it up into a Look File. Well, says Woodford, the question becomes, why don’t we just do this in Mari?

“We now can because USD has this wonderfully standardized way of describing network’s materials and assignments that all the DCCS are buying into to support. So, once you’re in Mari, we can close that loop and have the texture artists become also a basic shading artist just by using an exporter.”

Future material assignments in Mari.

Foundry is planning to take this even further after Mari 5.0 (which just enables preview look exporting) by working with the render vendors, such as Autodesk’s Arnold and Pixar’s RenderMan, to extend the support for doing render shaders as well as preview shaders. Woodford explains this in more detail.

“In Mari, you can essentially have two targeted shaders in your project, one for your renderer, say a PRman pxrSurface or Arnold standard surface. And then you can also have that preview shader where you can take your various channels and consolidate them, so you can, at the same time, publish a final look and a preview look in one USD look package. which then can be consumed by Katana downstream. It’s not something we have now, but this is where are we going. Prototypes do this pretty well already.”

Future multiple render vendor support in Mari.

Beyond that, Foundry is also planning to be able to hook into Mari’s selection group system where an artist can interact with the model. “Your texture artist is the person who’s directly interacting with a visual representation of what this model or  asset is going to look like when it’s in the shot,” notes Woodford.

“They know what parts are leather and silver metal, say, so why not use our existing selection tools there to then extend the exporting process to allow you to have multiple materials that are pipeline-ready materials? And again, do all that further up the stream and pass it down for everyone to consume. That’s the vision and where are we going with the pipeline fiction reduction for Mari and USD.”

Keeping up with Katana

So, what about Katana 5.0? How is it also improving workflows with more interoperability? Well, for starters, in Katana 4.0, Foundry introduced Foresight. Now in 5.0 comes Foresight+ Rendering which enables artists to live render on multiple shots at the same time, as well as iterate on them. Gary Jones, Production Manager – Lighting at Foundry, describes the process.

“Katana has always had this great strength of shot sequence-based workflows. This ability to be able to have one project where you’ve got 20, 50, 100, 200 shots, all in a single template, and you don’t have to open up lots of different files. You can dart around between lots of shots at the same time, you can make changes that can go to one shot. Foresight allowed you to not just work on those shots, but to view those shots all at the same time.”

“No other application, I believe, enabled you to have lots of preview renders going at the same time,” adds Jones. “But it had some limitations, based around the fact that it was designed from the ground up only for preview rendering with Foresight. So it wasn’t doing interactive renders. If you wanted to make a change to lighting, which could affect multiple shots, you didn’t get to see it correctly across all of those multiple shots.”

What Foundry has done since Katana 4.0 is, as Jones expresses it, removed the ‘shackles’ from that system. “Our live rendering system now enables you to start off 10 renders at the start of the day, all live streaming back to Katana. You could be making changes across the entire sequence, seeing how that affected them or making changes across an individual shot and seeing how it affected that.”

The idea is that every single preview render is an accurate representation of the final image that an artist will ultimately be producing. Jones identifies another use for this, too, which is the existing idea of ‘first, middle, last.’

“When you’re rendering for a shot, you often want to make sure that your lighting works at the beginning of the shots in the middle of the shot, and at the end of the shot, especially if you’ve got something dynamic, like a character moving through light. You can now see things quicker, iterate quicker, have confidence in your lighting and your renders quicker.”

Katana and Nuke, working hand in hand

The interoperability theme continues with Foundry’s new ‘bridge’ between Katana and Nuke coming in Katana 5.0. The intention is that artists working in Nuke will be able to see changes that have been made in Katana update automatically, meaning the images they are working with are interactive and closer to the final result. This goes for both full CG imagery in an animation pipeline and in live-action compositing and VFX work.

“This is all about just making that process totally seamless between one application and the next,” suggests Jones. “Not having to put something on a farm, lose that flow, come back to it the next day or at some other point later on. It’s about building that confidence in having what you need faster without having to wait for dailies.”

Head to the Mari beta page at Foundry’s website here.

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