Episode 82 – Edwin Braun of Cebas – Developers of Thinking Particles
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Edwin Braun is the CEO and co-founder of Cebas Visual Technology, the developer of Thinking Particles for 3DS Max, as well as other plugins. Cebas’ software has been used in a number of influential films such as Lost in Space, 2012, Transformers: Age of Extinction, Harry Potter.
In this Episode, Allan McKay talks with Edwin Braun about his co-founding the company with Achim Smailus in 1988, in Heidelberg, Germany; and the journey of Thinking Particles through the decades of change and the new demands of the VFX industry.
Register so you don’t miss the upcoming free 10 video training series at allanmckay.com/fireball/
Cebas’s Website: www.cebas.com.
Thinking Particles Online: https://www.cebas.com/?pid=productinfo&prd_id=187
Thinking Particles on Facebook: www.facebook.com/groups/thinkingparticles/
Episode 82 — Interview with Edwin Braun
NOTES & QUOTES
Welcome to Episode 82. I’m speaking with Edwin Braun, the CEO of Cebas, the developer of Thinking Particles. Here, we get into the history of Cebas, how Cebas has been tied to the production of some groundbreaking films like 2012.
Let’s dive in!
FIRST THINGS FIRST:
[-1:37:08] One big announcement: As this Episode goes live, I am putting out some free 15-hour training series which is going to be really epic. Andrew Kramer and I were talking on my Podcast (allanmckay.com/29) about putting out high-end training. I’m doing a full blown production of an old DVD I’ve done on creating a giant fireball blasting down a cabin of a plane. We’re doing some really cool stuff in this training:
- We’re getting FumeFX to drive the dynamics in this.
- We’re doing Nuke compositing.
- I’m also covering Fusion and AfterEffects.
- We get into some cool Thinking Particle stuff too (which makes this Episode timely).
I’m really proud of this! If you want to check it out, go to allanmckay.com/fireball.
[-[1:32:20] In June, a lot of stuff is happening:
- After a lot of requests, I am putting out some scripting lessons. It is essential for artists to learn how to code.
- I will be doing a lot of Facebook Live sessions at www.facebook.com/allanfmckay.
- I recently did a Portfolio Breakdown with Matt Conway (allanmckay.com/59) and Todd Sheridan Perry (allanmckay.com/9).
- For the first time, I will be doing a live Career Intensive Webinar. In the Mentorship, we do these pretty regularly. This will be my first PUBLIC Career Intensive.
INTERVIEW WITH EDWIN BRAUN, CEO OF CEBAS
[-1:30:05] Edwin: My name is Edwin Braun and I am the CEO of Cebas Visual Technology. Achim Smailus is my business Partner. We founded the company in 1989. We started in Heidelberg, Germany. Eight years ago we moved our Headquarters to British Columbia. Right now, we are located on a Vancouver Island of Victoria.
[-[1:28:43] Allan: How did you, guys, get started? I’d love to hear some of your history.
Edwin: Back then there was no [3D Studio] Max. There were no personal computers yet, but everything was starting out. If you wanted to do graphics, the only thing you could afford was Commodore 20. At around the same time, I built myself a Sinclair which had a whopping one kilobite. And that was your whole operating memory! So that was my first computer. Then there was the Vic 20. The Amiga that had a 68 thousand CPU.
[-[1:26:03] Allan: There is a cool documentary floating around on the Amiga graphics. It went into a lot of the history and the cool tools.
Edwin: The great thing about the Amiga was that it was the first affordable mass computer that had more than 16 colors.
- They managed to get 4,096 colors. It also had the blitter chip. (I was already deep into programming.)
- It had hardware sprites.
- I was trying them out. I was so fascinated by it!
The great thing that it was done in hardware. The blitter chip was really fast and that was my first connection to computer graphics.
What’s interesting that it was such a long time ago. [When] a year passes in the real world, in our industry it’s like a decade! If you look at videos, they bring out a new graphics card every year that’s twice as fast. Same with processors: It’s every 18 months. It’s continuing to accelerate the development. But the idea already started back then, with the very first Amiga and Atari computers, the two competing factions. Even back then, they had all the ideas right. They didn’t have all the technology yet. That was the thing that always attracted me about 3D.
When I finished school, I signed up at a technical university. I wanted to learn programming. There, they had these huge IMB machines with programing languages. I wanted to learn something on an Amiga computer. I decided [the university] wasn’t for me. That’s when I created my first company, on my own. I was selling graphics computers. I was always into programing and learning how all this stuff works.
Then, I met my Partner Achim Smailus, and he was also into 3D computer graphics and an avid gamer. We always had the feeling that this thing will always get better, and we will get to a point where we don’t have to program our own stuff. We will just use advanced stuff, and it will get easier over time. That’s how our company worked out.
[-[1:19:52] In the very beginning, we were selling hardware with processing power. It was just an illusion to be able to make movie effects. We started looking into workstations. Freaking expensive! We had a few Unix machine. We even had an SGI (Silicon Graphics, Inc.) We had these indigo blue boxes. But what SGI was always good at is using the hardware to accelerate the graphics. That where we always wanted to go!
[-[1:18:17] Allan: How old were you then?
Edwin: As I said, I started my company when I came out of school. So I was 17-18. From then on, I always had a company. Achim and I started Cebas together (which was, what, 20 years ago?).
[-[1:17:36] Allan: For someone being 17, that’s a really big feat. These days you can start it online. For you, [back then], did you get a resistance from your parents?
Edwin: I got shit hell, I tell you! They thought I was losing my mind. It was the end of the world, especially for my mother.
Allan: This is Germany in the 80s. It was much more traditional.
Edwin: When you’re young, you know everything. I knew the route I wanted to take. When you stick to it, I think it always works out in the long run! You just have to stick with it. But no one else saw it that way. And it gets tough. Achim is much more experienced at running a business. He had these skills and we were a great match.
You wouldn’t believe the kind of resistance we had! It starts with your bank account. Back then we couldn’t get an account because the status wasn’t clear. When we went to a bank, they would say, “You have to open an private account”. When we went to a private back, they would tell us to open a business account. We were just running circles. I wanted to work on my dream instead! We had to do so many tricks, so that everyone on the legal side was happy. Over 10 years, we couldn’t get a loan.
We tried to open an office with space with a physical address, a telephone line, even a fax (if you remember what that was). Now you can just open a business online. We had to explain to a potential landlord that we wanted to sell computer games and hardware. They wanted to see a few of the games, and the landlord would refuse us. There was no knowledge back then! The majority of the older generation couldn’t understand it. It was a struggle.
We were always looking for processing power. We had the Sparc workstation, mixed processors. We grew along with the hardware. Until there was a changing moment: When we saw — on the standard 286, I think — the 3D Studio Version 1!
[-[1:09:43] Allan: Was that a game changer?
Edwin: Yes, for us, it was eye opening! We saw the very first version that worked. We had to see about this company Autodesk. We followed it. We got the Version 2, with these huge floppies. It had only 360 kilobites! Do you remember the trick how to make [more memory]?
Allan: Oh, yeah. You drilled a hole! I totally forgot about that!
Edwin: Yes, and you flipped it over! Those were fun times!
[-[1:07:29] Allan: That’s cool! So you were doing the IPAS routines? You were developing back then already?
Edwin: Yes! That was our first 3D product we offered. It was a scalpel which we sell (https://www.cebas.com/?pid=productinfo&prd_id=6). It’s a clean cutting tool.
[-[1:06:37] Allan: Did you, guys, release that solo?
Edwin: We released it on our own.
[-[1:05:45] Allan: Were there any other tools you were developing?
Edwin: No. When they introduced the IPAS, they were already working in 3DS Max. What did they call it back then? 3D Studio Max! We brought out our first IPAS plugin with Dos Version 3 or 4. Then they started developing for Windows. That was 3D Studio Max (back then) for Windows 3.1 NT (New Technology).
We started with our hugely successful product, RealLensFlares. Back then, there were the times of Babylon 5. It was a lens flare overkill show. We met these programmers and added them to our team and created a lens flare product, Max Version 1. I was on my own first SIGGRAPH show, in New Orleans. (It was my first time in the U.S.) I was showing our LensFlare in a 3DS Max scene. And the flares were reacting to the sound wave, and the sound wave was driving the intensity of the flare. I told Autodesk to give me a speaker on my workstation. Gary Yost walks by and he was amazed with what we had done with this SDP, he [dragged] people to our booth. Back then, Gary Yost was the god of the industry!
Maya was hell to develop! Maya was always so closed up. It never gave you an insight on how things work. 3DX Max showed you the code! It was the first time you didn’t spend 99% of your time learning how this damn system worked. You could just start developing your own ideas.
[-[56:27] Allan: That’s so cool! And from there, RealLensFlares ended up getting used on Lost in Space, right? Frank Delise was working on that sequence.
Edwin: That was our first contact in a Hollywood blockbuster. I was working with Alan Marques. He used 3D Studio Max which was a huge risk. Everyone was using the Alias Wavefront. And it was used for prominent scenes! They used our RealLensFlares for the opening space battle: for all the laser beams, explosions, lights! We had to optimize and work hard on it. It was amazing to go where we always dreamt we would go! They had all the latest technology, too.
[-[53:00] Allan: [Autodesk’s] Discreet Logic was doing these amazing effects. Phenomenal stuff! (For anyone who’s not aware 3D Studio was Autodesk.)
Edwin: Now, we are at 3DS Max.
Allan: I love Max! I use whatever is the best software package. It is more financially feasible. If you’re in production, you have to buy a lot. In the long run, it’s a lot cheaper. The highest quality of shots is in Max. Every studio that buys a new package and start hiring new artists, always goes back to the original. It ends up costing way more to get the same results! And there are other packages, like Houdini, if you want to go more complex. I’m all about getting shit done faster. For me, it’s bank to the buck.
Edwin: How do you think the 3D market would look like if 3D Max never existed? You would have maybe ILM who can program their own stuff, and few others. But there would be no open freelancer market of users.
[-[48:42] Allan: When Tim Miller started Blur, you couldn’t go start a visual effects studio with a $20,000 loan without PC’s. There is a certain amount of capital that’s needed.
Edwin: So, 3D Studio Max crushed everyone in the market. It forced everyone’s hand. Autodesk owns everyone of relevance. The key thing that 3DS Max delivers is the freedom for a one-man shop to do Hollywood-level production work. It frees and empowers people to do this. When we were working on 2012, I was at ImageWorks in LA. I was there for months. They had a small team (10-16 people) [working with] Thinking Particles and they crushed the big names. The big names were handing in their dailies, and Roland Emmerich, the director, was happy with the TP work that came from the small team.
3D Studio Max and a collection of tools that you decide as an artist you want to use empowered them so [much] that they could do the work on 2012, with skyscrapers coming down! It got to a point that one of the big name studios asked, “How do you do that?” They were using a thousand people. And they were not understanding how this little team was outdoing them on the hero shots. I think the answer is: We can implement stuff in 3D Studio Max like in no other application. It gives the power to the artist to choose what he wants.
[-[45:11] Allan: I’m with you on that. Even in the early 2000s, ILM had the rebel unit. They were the guys that were using on Apple Mac’s and working on 3D Studio Max. Pixar has jumped on the 3Ds Max wagon. Just in general, I think Max came as a cowboy solution, but overtime became a serious player. I look at Lost in Space, for example. I was excited [because] a lot of the stuff was done in the same software I was using. I do think a huge part that made Max so integrated now is all the renderers. For me, personally, I use Max because of FumeFX and TP — and you’re pretty limitless with those two pieces of software!
Edwin: And that was always the idea we had with Thinking Particles. The brain behind TP is our chief programer Markus. Back then, I had the feeling that particles were so bad in 3D Studio that I always felt something was missing. Then I started brainstorming with Markus. Slowly, the idea grew that we wanted something procedural. How would you use key frames with Particles? You just drag the box, but you never had control over the particles.
[-[41:41] Allan: You initially did Matter Waves. It was a huge step up. It gave you a lot of freedom.
Edwin: That was out first Thinking Particle. That was our test on how we can better Thinking Particles.
[-[41:20] Allan: What’s your opinion on SandBlaster? Did you think it was headed in the right direction.
Edwin: I always had this feeling: I don’t like how it works! I never liked the complexity you felt. It was not procedural [enough] for us. I wanted something that freed us. I wanted the Particle to decide what to do. I wanted to be an outsider saying, “I want you to go to this corner” — but the Particle decides how it goes there.
[-[39:54] Allan: I love the naming you’ve always had. With moskitoRender, was it your decision to spell “mosquito” with a “k” more for branding, or what was the reason?
Edwin: That’s an interesting question. I was [deciding] between English and German. “Moskito” was a German spelling. Because Americans are fascinated by interesting spelling, but this still resembles the English spelling.
[-[38:33] Allan: With TP, obviously, it has gone through a huge evolution. Did you picture that you would implement a lot of solvers.
Edwin: It’s in constant development, with constant feedback from our beta testers. Even if we hate our [beta testers], they do important work. It’s a love / hate relationship. Most of the time, they have a point. But the problem is there are restrictions. You cannot overcome everything in the first run. While beta testers don’t care about our problems. We just can’t fix things because the issue is buried in 3D Studio Max. You have to live with it and work around it.
It’s also what I’ve learned in Hollywood (and you have more experience in that than I do): The really good [visual effects] artists are not afraid of crashes and things that keep them back. They find workarounds. They don’t whine for weeks and weeks. They find a way to work around it and deliver the shot.
[-[35:55] Allan: It’s problem solving. It’s 100% of what we do! I remember when TP1 first came out, I contacted you for a copy. You would send me a copy but it would only work for 3 months, but it would take 2 months to get to Australia. With TP 2, working in the U.S. on Blade, Digital Dimension and Cebas had an integrated relationship. It was really amazing! You guys were able to come up with solutions. It wasn’t a one-way street. That opened my eyes. That’s how it should be!
Edwin: It’s a great relationship [which is the same with our beta testers]. We get the brutal truth about our shortcomings. But that makes it fun to develop a product. We want listen:
- What is needed?
- How can we implement it?
- How can we help the artist?
[-[32:42] Allan: That’s great! Do you want to talk a bit about 2012? That was such a great relationship again. You guys got hired to help custom develop solutions [which] took things to a new level.
Edwin: Just to set the record straight, we started with 2012 in 2011. But the important part was that Ronald asked for tests of skyscrapers falling down and crumbling. He couldn’t believe this could be done with computer graphics. He was the guy with lots of miniatures, in his other movies. His first approach was to have real cars dropping down. Then, they found that the simulations in TP could do the same. The tests looked great.
In 2012, there were so many challenges. They wanted to deform the cars as they were falling out of the garage. With the crumbling of the skyscrapers, they had full art direction. Joe Scarr was there.
[-[28:52] Allan: I remember being at SIGGRAPH that year, and Sam was telling me what they were doing.
Edwin: Joe could move the lights. It was fully procedural. He got to decide which side the building fell and how it fell. He had this whole thing set up. He could easily create any effect. That’s exactly the idea I had: Once you set up your procedural rules, you just decide — and the rest will still work. It was amazing to see!
[-[27:25] Allan: How was the relationship with Uncharted?
Edwin: We had fast requests from other studios afterward. “We need the tools Uncharted is using!” They were able to get involved in our development as well. It was amazing to see.
[-[25:53] Allan: I’ve always obsessed over what makes companies successful. Digital Dimension, everything had to be pipeline driven. I found that counterintuitive. Blur in 2004 had a total cowboy approach, but there is no elegance to the pipeline. Frantic Films had a great combination between artists and developers. Obviously, that’s really expensive. To have access to a software company to work in your best interest, that you don’t hear very often. Not only does the studio get to grow, but it enriches the software too. It’s driven by the needs of the movie production.
Edwin: That’s our goal: To deliver the best tools for the artists, so he can develop exactly what he wants.
[-[23:11] Allan: Your decision to move to Victoria, how did that come to be? Vancouver was just on the cusp of having an industry.
Edwin: The main reason for the move was to finally get some sleep. In Germany, I had to burn through the night hours, to be on LA time. That was getting more complicated, and you can do it just for so long. And we wanted to get closer to our customers. In Vancouver, we are in the same timezone with LA. It’s closer too. [It’s a 2-hour flight.] There are many reasons that prevented us with moving to LA. Coming from Europe, adjusting to the U.S. culture is difficult. For a European, Canada is a bit [easier].
[-[20:08] Allan: How big is your team now?
Edwin: Worldwide, there are about 10 people. It changes based on our projects. We have some freelancers working for us. But our core team is the same when we started.
[-[19:35] Allan: What are some of the challenges in running a software company today?
Edwin: The challenges are as with any business is creating new business, especially when you’re not Autodesk. That’s why I think the only survival mode [for the smaller guys] is to go with a subscription model. There are people who hate it and I understand that. I also know the other side of it. We want to continue developing new stuff. We always try to fight our way through. From the old times of old developers, there’ve been so many developers and plugins that have flared up and went away. Even the stuff that Autodesk has had for some time. We’ve seen them all! You have to be careful with the business model because it’s a highly specialized industry. The market is a confined size. You have to find a way to keep delivering every year.
[-16:01] Allan: I also find that people like owning something. Every year, twice a year, I put out free training (allanmckay.com/fireball). And I don’t make it downloadable. Most people want to download it [but then they would] never use it. Suddenly, if you offer it for a limited time, those same people are actually learning and taking action. With subscription, it’s great. If you look at from all the Drops you’ve been doing, you’re accessing all the stuff now [instead of waiting for the next version of TP to come out]. On your end, you’re getting more features, more support — to develop new tools.
Edwin: The main problem that people don’t work like businessmen, and they should! If you look at it from the business side, it’s your business. That means you have business expenses. Having a subscription is so much better for you [as a business]: Every time you pay your subscription, you can write it off as a business expense. You can’t do that with software! (It depends on which country you’re based, of course.)
[-[10:56] Allan: I’m actually doing a talk on this. Artists need to learn to take ownership of being a business. All you have to do — is work it into a bid. On every job, add $100 to pay for the subscription. [Having] five clients will pay that off.
Edwin: When people are making a living at what they do, they need to think like a business. It’s a business expense. If the expense is too high, then the business model is not working. If you can’t afford a $500 subscription, then what are you doing in this business?
[-07:56] Allan: I’m actually doing a Webinar about money (www.facebook.com/allanfmckay). You have to start rethinking where your money is going. What are some of the new features that just came out with Drop 5?
Edwin: For Drop 5:
- The main thing is that we split up the shape noise note out of the volume break operator. So you can use the shape noise on any Particle you want now.
- We did a lot of back fixing behind the doors. (Your students had some issues with the volume breaker.) You get a clean, visible mesh now.
- We had many optimizations. What I’m proud of: We created a new Particle generator, the flow emit-or. It meant to simulate a flow in a bottle [or a bucket, ect]. Now, you don’t have to worry about when the fluid runs out. We control the density of the flow. There is nothing like that on the market. The density of the Particle remains the same with fluid [or gas] simulations.
[-[3:23] Allan: Where can people go to find you?
- There is our website: www.cebas.com.
- We have a very strong community that is not controlled by us. It’s user content. It’s on Facebook.
Allan: Thanks for doing this!
Edwin: Thanks, Allan!
Next Episode: If you’re interested in working in Canada, I have an interview with the best attorney in Vancouver. That way you can start to plan ahead. This is really powerful.
- For the time being, go to allanmckay.com/fireball.
- Stay in the know re: my Facebook Live Sessions: www.facebook.com/allanfmckay.
Back next week. Rock on!
When you stick to it, I think it always works out in the long run! You just have to stick with it.
The key thing that 3DS Max delivers is the freedom for a one-man shop to do Hollywood-level production work. It frees and empowers people to do this. We can implement stuff in 3D Studio Max like in no other application. It gives the power to the artist to choose what he wants.
I wanted to be an outsider saying, “I want you to go to this corner” — but the Particle decides how it goes there.
It’s also what I’ve learned in Hollywood: The really good visual effects artists are not afraid of crashes and things that keep them back. They find workarounds. They don’t whine for weeks and weeks. They find a way to work around it and deliver the shot.
The main problem that people don’t work like businessmen, and they should! If you look at it from the business side, it’s your business. That means you have business expenses. If the expense is too high, then the business model is not working.
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