Democratizing 3D: Ottawa tech firm Exocortex bets on cost-saving animation tool

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Courtney Symons
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Avatar. The Avengers. Harry Potter. Titanic 3D. These movies have two things in common: three-dimensional animation technology was used for the films’ special effects, and some of that technology came from Ottawa.

Ben Houston is founder and chief technology officer of Exocortex.

Exocortex Technologies Inc. was founded in 2005 by Ben Houston, who has grown the company to a staff of 10 with annual revenues of $500,000. The company’s software is used by visual firms contracted by movie producers.

“The odds are that any visual effects-heavy film is using at least one tool that I helped create,” Mr. Houston says.

After finding success providing 3D animation software tools and consulting services, Exocortex is diversifying its offerings and attempting to address a problem Mr. Houston says is plaguing the industry.

Just last month, the visual effects studio that created Life of Pi – Los Angeles-based Rhythm & Hues – filed for bankruptcy. While details of the company’s financial situation are not known, Mr. Houston said many animation studios struggle financially because of technology that is expensive to purchase and hard to maintain.

Exocortex is developing a cloud-based platform that provides various 3D animation tools through downloadable apps.

No installation is required, any computer can be used to access the platform and users have unlimited storage capacities for rendering their 3D imagery. It also means that a physical studio will no longer be necessary, as users can animate from anywhere.

“We’d like to be the platform that enables tens of thousands of budding creators to realize their vision,” Mr. Houston says. “In the future, you’ll only need a couple thousand dollars and enough time, and you’ll be able to make Pixar-quality entertainment from home.”

 

CLOUDY FORECAST

A cloud-based solution for the visual effects industry has become possible only recently due to improved web browser functionality and faster Internet connections. Exocortex wants to grab that opportunity before someone else does, Mr. Houston says. He’s hoping to raise $1 million within the next four months for sales, marketing and the launch of the platform.

“We’ve successfully bootstrapped so far, and we can continue to do that but we believe there is a window around this market opportunity where the rewards can be greater, and we’d like to be within that window,” he says.

Exocortex Studio, as the platform has been tentatively named, will enter beta mode in April with a full launch before the year’s end. Mr. Houston projects the platform will be profitable by the end of 2014. Users will be charged a small fee for basic usage and pay a subscription for regular access.

To accommodate its 70 per cent growth in product revenues year-over-year, along with the platform launch, Exocortex plans to grow its headcount by five this year and at least another five in 2014.

 

TIME CRUNCH

There’s no doubt that many 3D animators are struggling financially, says Bill Werba, president of local animation studio Rumble House Media Group Inc. That’s why most television shows are still rendered in 2D, which is cheaper and easier to create.

But lowering capital costs by offering a cloud-based solution such as Exocortex’s will only solve part of the problem, Mr. Werba says.

Animation is labour-intensive, and 3D imagery takes hours to render – hours for which animators are often not well paid.

“It’s all human brain power,” he says. “A lot of animation jobs are very custom.”

Adding to the issue are developing countries with highly-skilled workers that will do the job for much cheaper than a North American developer. Cloud-based solutions will only make it easier to hire international competitors, Mr. Werba says.

 

DIMENSIONS OF SUCCESS

27Forty Studios, another local animation firm, maintains its competitive advantage by keeping on two core partners while expanding and contracting its supporting staff as workload dictates, says co-founder David Bigelow. The firm has also diversified its offerings to include 3D and 2D content creation, compositing (compiling various visual elements into one image), motion graphics and photography.

“You become a generalist to survive,” he says.

Despite the fact that animation software and hardware is gradually becoming cheaper, Mr. Bigelow says he believes the future of animation will be online and that firms in the industry need to be mindful of that.

Mr. Houston says he agrees, and that’s why Exocortex is pushing hard to rise to the cloud.

“I believe that all of our desktop-based solutions will eventually be made obsolete by cloud-based solutions,” he says. “We can’t rest on our existing success, because there is a major platform shift that we’re pushing to happen.”

Organizations: Exocortex Technologies, Pixar, Rumble House Media Group Inc. That North American

Geographic location: Ottawa

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