Local Software Developer Can’t See the Forest for the (digital) Trees
Jun 01, 2017 09:47PM ● Published by Makayla Gay
By AnnaMarie Koehler-Shepley
Photos and Renderings Provided by Interactive Data Visualization
When you think of the visual effects in your favorite movies, what comes to mind? You might think of insane action shots, larger-than-life beasts, or impressive costumes. You might not remember the thousands of trees lining the shot, let alone notice the fact that they aren’t real.
If you ask Interactive Data Visualization co-founders Michael Sechrest and Chris King, that’s exactly the point of their SpeedTree software.
SpeedTree, a software product that helps create realistic digital foliage, was originally created to make more realistic architectural fly-through renderings. It’s been featured in hundreds of video games, television shows and movies combined, and has won both an Academy Award and a Primetime Engineering Emmy.
Even the creators of the program have trouble determining which trees are real or not.
“We can’t watch a movie or TV show and spot it,” said Sechrest.
“When ‘Avatar’ came out, we played a game called ‘Spot the SpeedTree,’” King said. “One of our artists was able to pinpoint one tree he knew he worked on, and we had to wait for the company to come back and tell us where they did and didn’t for the rest.”
SpeedTree made its debut into the feature film industry in 2009 with James Cameron’s “Avatar,” the highest grossing film of all time. Since then, SpeedTree has been featured in 80 confirmed movies, including “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “Jurassic World,” “The Avengers,” and “The Jungle Book,” which recently won an Oscar for best visual effects.
SpeedTree was also heavily used in both of the new “Star Wars” movies, which was a pretty big deal for a pair of self-proclaimed engineering nerds like King and Sechrest.
“‘The Force Awakens’ was kind of our geek dream come true,” King said.
“It’s gratifying to come back and see your work being used in something that was so important to you as a kid,” Sechrest said. “And there was nothing more important to me as a kid than ‘Star Wars.’ It’s very humbling.”
Realistic trees might not seem like a crucial element of a video game or a movie scene, but a convincing environment goes a long way towards helping the audience suspend reality and buy into a story. Each tree must be unique to be believable, and it takes a lot of work to make them look real.
“Trees are organic, windy – they twist. Even if you spend a lot of time manually making one really good tree model, you’ve got to make 10,000 more just like it but just a little bit different,” said Sechrest. “You need so many, and they’re very complex. You need a system that lets you get to the good tree model faster than you can do it by hand.”
King says that SpeedTree works a lot like Adobe Photoshop, but for trees.
“Once people started seeing how easy it was to use and how it could generate high quality models very, very quickly, it finally start taking off. Now we’re moving at a clip of about 20-25 movies a year,” said King.
The next step for Lexington-based IDV is to release SpeedTree 8, which will be the eighth updated version of the software. This new revision of the software, which features a physically based rendering system, has been in the works for two years.
“It’s making the quality of our models jump sky high,” King said.
“As technology gets better and better, people expect to see better things in their games and movies,” Sechrest said. “You have to keep becoming more and more lifelike. It’s always a challenge. What was a really good model three years ago isn’t a good model anymore.”
But the challenge of making the software more sophisticated and adding new improvements is their favorite part.
“We’re still geeks at heart,” King said. “Our favorite thing is to sit down at the computer and make a software do something it has never done before or make it better than it was before.”
It’s been 17 years since the pair founded IDV out of the University of South Carolina’s Innovation and Technology Incubator, and they say that they never imagined that this is where the company would end up.
“I never thought that I would brush up against the film industry,” said King. “When we started the company, we had no idea we’d even be doing trees. SpeedTree happened so gradually, we never said, ‘This is going to be the tree center of the universe,” King said. “It just sort of happened that way.”