What you need to know
'Years ago, people didn’t understand why we wanted to do this. Now everyone wants to do it and we have it. Animators can render their images in real time and they are in high quality.'
If you’re an architect, designer, animator, or anyone who has experience with animation and modeling software, you probably understand the pain of waiting for your work to render.
But a Taiwan startup is aiming to save your time by rendering your animations or models in real-time, as you create them.
“We’re taking advantage of the rendering power of game engines to render animations so it’s much faster than the current pipeline,” says Spock Yao (姚裕勝), 46, co-founder of Pi Square.
The team of six are all veterans of the animation, movie and video game industries, including Alberto Menache, 55, who has years of experience working for companies like Sony Pictures and PDI, which is now DreamWorks Animation.
Pi Square is one of the 12 Taiwan startups showcased at TechCrunch Disrupt NY earlier this month, and The News Lens spoke with Yao and Menache to learn more about developing Pi Square and its future plans.
The News Lens: Tell me a bit about yourselves and what inspired you to start Pi Square?
Spock Yao: I have always liked animation ever since I was a child. My first job was at a company that developed animation software. It’s one of the few of its kind in Taiwan, and I was there for 13 years. I went on to another animation studio after that, and then to Next Media Animation, which is now Next Animation Studio. That’s where I met Alberto, who was working as the consultant for Next Media. He brought up the idea of using game engines to produce animations, and that’s where everything started.
Alberto Menache: I was brought in by Next Media’s current CEO to revamp their animation pipeline. I had been doing video games and computer graphics for many years. I started in the 80s doing motion capture. I had the first motion capture studio and developed the first motion capture for animations which got me involved in the video game industry. I was also doing computer graphics, so I know both worlds.
TNL: How does Pi Square work?
Menache: There’s the software that is used for animation and visual effects; and then there’s the software that is used to make video games. In visual effects, the software is developed to generate very high-quality images, so they take very long to render and they don’t think much of video games. But the truth is the software of video games is getting better and better, so a few years ago, I decided to connect the two.
You control the software for games, using the software for animations. The animator doesn’t need to know the software for games. It’s all happening through the software for animations. Years ago, people didn’t understand why we wanted to do this. Now everyone wants to do it and we have it. Animators can render their images in real time and they are in high quality. That is the essence of what we are doing.
TNL: What is the current status of the product?
Yao: We are in beta now, but some studios are already using our technology to produce animations or video games.
Menache: The Third Floor, one of the biggest companies for previs [previsualization] in the world, is also using it. They saw it and were very happy and impressed.
TNL: What has the feedback from the companies that are testing the beta version been like?
Menache: It’s very stable, and it’s only in beta. They feel that it saves them a tremendous amount of money. As an animator, people like it because they can see visually what they would normally have to wait for hours or overnight.
The other thing is, when you do animation, the lighting process usually takes one day at a time. Lighting a three-second shot would take a week; whereas now, I can see the results immediately.
TNL: How long did it take for the pipeline to be developed?
Yao: Because we had already developed an earlier version with a previous generation of the engine, so when the latest generation of the engine came out it took less time, around eight to nine months.
Menache: We had already learned all the problems by then, but the first time around it took three years. So if any other companies want to do the same thing, they have a learning process to go through because a game engine is totally different than an animation software. You have to make the engine behave properly, and I have been learning how to do so for almost ten years.
TNL: It sounds like you aren’t really worried about competitors.
Menache: Nope. I don’t think so.
Yao: But we should always keep an eye out.
Menache: We’re not worried. We like to know what’s out there. Every company that I have talked to wants to do this, but I haven’t seen any of them doing it. Someone’s going to do it eventually, we just need to keep ahead with all the features and always keep improving the product.
TNL: What are the main challenges you have seen so far?
Menache: Technically the main challenge was making the engine behave properly with the timing of the animation software.
Yao: On the other hand, it’s not easy to persuade customers to accept the pipeline because they are concerned about flexibility. But the thing is, it’s real-time. You don’t need to do any post-production or post-processing.
Menache: But once they see it, they love it. I have been showing it in Los Angeles to many companies, and they are all asking me, “When can I get it?” People are excited about it.
TNL: How have you been funding Pi Square?
Menache: Up to this point we have been funding it ourselves, but we are looking for funding.
TNL: Is that one of your expectations for TechCrunch Disrupt NY? And what else are you hoping to find?
Menache: Yeah. We want to get it out there and attract investors.
Yao: I thought we could meet some people in the media industry that produce animation, virtual reality, or even 3D live shows.
TNL: What future plans do you have?
Menache: We have a long list of features, and we want to support different engines. Right now we only support the Unreal engine, but there’s another engine called Unity which a lot of people use, so we want to support that. On the animation side, we support Maya, but we also want to support other software.
TNL: Can you share a bit about your observations of the startup scene in the U.S. and Taiwan?
Yao: I think it’s not easy for startups in Taiwan to find investors. They are more conservative.
Menache: I think it’s smarter though. One investor was saying the other day that they invest in ten things, hoping that one of them will make money. That reminded me of when the video game industry was like that. Then the whole industry collapsed, and very few remain. So that is still the thinking in Silicon Valley but it is going to lead to a meltdown, and only the ones that invested wisely are going to survive.
The News Lens was sponsored by Taiwan Startup Stadium to attend TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2017.
Editor: Edward White