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Assembling an Arnold Rendering Pipeline for Norm of the North

Startup CGI animation and VFX studio Assemblage Entertainment brings new meaning to the word "launch." Founded just two years ago by aka "Mad Max" Madhavan, the Mumbai-based full-service 3D animation and VFX studio launched into the industry by completing two full length animated feature films in two years; the Australian release Blinky Bill and most recently, Norm of the North, a Lionsgate co-production that released in the US on January 15, in addition to two direct-to-DVD productions.

"The opportunity to work on global feature films so early on in our evolution was extremely exciting," said Assemblage Head of Strategy and New Business Development Arjun Madhavan. "We knew this was going to be a Herculean task and that we would need the support of a large number of partners, including artists and software providers, to pull this through. We're thrilled that we delivered a great product and are already looking forward to our next big project."

For Co-Founder, CTO and Chief Creative Officer Upen N Desai, the opportunity meant building a feature film pipeline quickly with limited resources. "Alpha & Omega DVD was done on 3Delight, but for a high quality feature we needed something more robust, with setup passes that were simpler," he said. The studio started creating assets in Maya, then switched to another software, then back to Maya when they found that the package's built-in renderer, while ideal for short form work, was unable to handle complex exterior sequences and long-format production.

"As a young studio we hadn't built an elaborate pipeline. Everything was very basic, and done manually," Upen explained. "We realized mid-way through that we would have to switch back to Maya, which meant re-doing the entire shading."

Images courtesy of Splash Entertainment

At that point the studio brought in Solid Angle's Arnold renderer and its Maya-to-Arnold plug-in. "Arnold simplified the whole process. Setup passes were a walk in the park; you don't have to be a developer to understand how it works. And we found that the talent we had hired from big studios all had Arnold experience.

To stay on schedule Assemblage had no time to develop custom shaders. "The standard shaders deliver high quality and a ton of render power," Upen said. "It handled even the most challenging sequences, like one of the Brooklyn Bridge with a wide shot of New York City, lots of cars, human's, action, water simulation, reflections and lights with no problem at all."

Assemblage outsourced a large part of rendering to China's Rayvision, which ran the production on a farm of 800 Intel Xeon X5650 systems with 64GB of RAM and processed frames on average between 8-12 hours each. The entire feature production including all asset and shot production took about 14 months, a challenging feat that the entrepreneurial team at the studio could pull off.

Images courtesy of Splash Entertainment

After delivering Norm, Assemblage has jumped right into its third global feature production, which will be using a Maya-centric pipeline and Arnold as a key production renderer. "All renderers have their own set of pluses and minuses," said Upen. "We find Arnold really easy to use, and we didn't even begin to tap its full power. We did a lot of analysis and are starting to explore and experiment with more shaders and custom tools. Our next film will have a lot of that."

(Arjun) Madhavan added, "Arnold reflects the philosophy of our studio; it's adaptable and flexible. We started with the basics and now we're upscaling our pipeline and team. Arnold is the perfect partner. It's simple when you need it to be and high performance when you want that."

Images courtesy of Splash Entertainment