King Ludd #9 : The Debt Montreal Owes to Softimage

How one company can create a whole ecosystem

Hapuna Cabin Hapuna Cabin

Almost 30 years ago, in 1986, a then young filmmaker at the National Film Board of Canada, Daniel Langlois, formed a company called Softimage. This company produced animation software which enabled everything from Jurassic Park to Princess Mononoke. Had it not happened Montreal would probably not be the multimedia production machine it is today.

Softimage was used by ILM to animate the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, and Studio Ghibli created the demon tentacles using the tool, later also for effects in subsequent films such as Spirited Away.

Softimage was used by ILM to animate the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, and Studio Ghibli created the demon tentacles from Princess Mononoke using the tool, later using it for effects in subsequent films such as Spirited Away.

The use of the past tense is appropriate as the current owners of Softimage, Autodesk, have announced that the version released this year will be the last in that product line. A full description of those events is:  here

In 1991 ex-sales director of Softimage, Richard Szalwinski (curiously also involved with founding large local independent games studio Behaviour Interactive), formed what would become the second major computer graphics company in Montreal: Discreet Logic, or simply Discreet. Discreet started by selling software licensed from some Australians, but the products were incredible, and spawned the series including Flame and Inferno. These were by far the most comprehensive compositing systems on the market during the 90s, effectively displacing Quantel (famous for their Paintbox) by actually listening to their customers. A killer feature was that given a powerful enough computer you could work in real time, particularly good for TV commercial production. For reference, a powerful computer there would be in hundreds of thousands of dollars, and it wasn’t uncommon to hear that the operators would have to work on rotation 24/7 to justify the overall system expense.

A typical Discreet Inferno installation. Notice the size of the computer on the right.

A typical Discreet Inferno installation. Notice the size of the computer on the right.

Discreet Logic beat Softimage to the global Autodesk fold, and actually became “Autodesk Media and Entertainment” which absorbed Softimage after that company had been owned by Microsoft, then Avid, and led slowly but inevitably to the current situation. The current building inhabited by Ubisoft was previously used by Discreet before moving to their location as Autodesk M&E. Autodesk have subsequently produced tools crucial to the development of some of the key games from Ubisoft Montreal, notably the animation systems of Assassin’s Creed.

The major consequence of this activity was Montreal had a critical mass of people operating in the multimedia and technology space. This was not a consequence of government support, though that certainly did help with growth of the games industry, but if you removed Softimage from the equation the entire subsequent ecosystem would never have evolved.

Ubisoft Montreal's Assassin's Creed uses animation technology from Autodesk

Ubisoft Montreal’s Assassin’s Creed uses animation technology from Autodesk

Through most of this I was on the other side of the Atlantic, and you could summarise my knowledge of Montreal as:

  1. They speak French (according to French lessons at school)
  2. It snows a lot (those French lessons again)
  3. The Montreal Screwjob
  4. Ninjatune North America is there
  5. The amazingly futuristic products of Softimage and Discreet come from there

Whenever hearing from people I knew that had actually met French Canadians it had been in their capacity as representatives of those two companies, and almost always about notorious antics at conferences in Amsterdam, but no one had a bad word to say about them. While the likes of Ubisoft are very visible in the games community, Softimage and Discreet were interacting with professionals around the world helping them to get their jobs done and making Montreal look very good in the process.

The thing is the world has moved on, and my home town is now slightly ahead of Montreal in this respect. Where Montreal had Softimage, Guildford – a horrifically boring small town in south east England with an insanely high cost of living, has this character:

Peter Molyneux, founder of Bullfrog and later Lionhead

Peter Molyneux, founder of Bullfrog and later Lionhead

Hard as it may be for some to believe, but Molyneux wasn’t always known for spouting shit. (Sorry!) He was responsible for founding Bullfrog, makers of games such as Populous, Theme Park, Magic Carpet and Dungeon Keeper. In the process Bullfrog grew, and was acquired by Electronic Arts. As an ex-EA employee I need to tread carefully, but it’s widely appreciated that it didn’t take too long after the acquisition for Bullfrog to essentially explode, which led to a host of new game studios popping up you haven’t heard of because most of them went bankrupt after one or two games.

While this was going on another studio, Criterion, was growing locally. Criterion really became famous for their Burnout games, and also because they were about the only people in the industry capable of programming the PS2, and applying that expertise in the very popular Renderware middleware system (used in games as diverse as Pro Evo Soccer and Grand Theft Auto 3), with the hilarious consequence that EA decided to buy them too.

Just two of the notable games from Guildford: Lionhead's Black and White and Media Molecule's Tearaway

Just two of the notable games from Guildford: Lionhead’s Black and White and Media Molecule’s Tearaway

Today how much of EA is in Guildford? “Not much”. A token presence is still there, but much was either pushed or left of their own accord. Mr. Molyneux has famously been through Microsoft via them acquiring his post-EA company Lionhead, and Media Molecule, a company with mixed heritage through Lionhead and Criterion, went on to create Little Big Planet and Tearaway, while getting bought by Sony.

Ex-Criterionites are also responsible for the game, still in production, which should send shivers down the spine of every Montreal policy maker attached to the games industry:

This is the work of four people at Hello Games. Four. Much of the understandable justification for investment in multimedia by government is to create jobs, but imagine if that is no longer the case: what do you do? Guildford has higher pressures on cost of living, which provides an intense motivating factor for such extremes of development, and any “low cost” functions are likely to be outsourced from there to other regions. Montreal must be prepared to compete for the high value part of the work, but the dominant local attitude of throwing people at things to get them done is now more damaging than it is useful, as is the history of having emphasised cost advantages over other factors. Rumours have persisted for years of studios driven to the wall, or close, thanks to committing to unsustainable hiring plans to secure government support. This results in the government spending more to prop up companies that aren’t going anywhere as opposed to helping companies which can be self sufficient get off the ground in the first place.

It’s clear that Montreal needs a new spark, a new Softimage, but it’s not clear what it should involve. It is unlikely to be in videogames, as this is such a widely explored space globally at this time, and Montreal’s position near the top means it’s much more likely to go down than up. Diversifying is a good idea.

As a foreigner, my personal bugbear with Canadian business, especially in Quebec, is the tendency to go large in all situations. Bureaucracy creates a hurdle over which large (probably foreign) companies can step easily (often with the help of local investment groups) while small local companies struggle to claim the credits they are entitled to. This creates a system of perverse incentives, and is related to the rent seeking mentality that caused the collapse at Nortel, and the spiralling decline at Blackberry. One of the strengths of the by no means perfect UK system is that having lots of small companies is dealt with remarkably efficiently by comparison, and companies have to justify their existence through creating actual value, which leads to better long term viability.

Today Montreal is not short of empty space, and soon the Hotel Dieu on the Plateau will be vacated leaving a large ex-hospital with next to no good ideas of what to do with it all. One proposal involves 40% being maintained for providing ongoing community health services, but this leaves 60% of a large building to deal with. My slightly out there idea would be for the remaining space to be converted to office and lab space that the government rents out to companies meeting the following criteria at a greatly reduced rate:

  • Creating technology products or services in the health space
  • At least 70% owned by people residing in Quebec
  • No investors invested in more than two companies in the scheme concurrently
  • Younger than three years old
  • Fewer than 20 employees

This way you could create an on-site community of companies that could compete or co-operate with each other as needed in the same sector, all developing a significant amount of high value expertise. If any takes off it will grow, leave, and create a space for someone new. Having a critical mass of well paid employees will create a market for  other services in the immediate area, not tied to the fate of any single enterprise.

I’m not saying that’s the exact thing the government should do, but it’s the right kind of thing in the current situation. But as individuals we need to work in a world regardless of the machinations of government, and hopefully by at least trying, one of the founders in this city might find that Softimage magic again.

Nigel Birkenshaw runs Atomirex.