Image courtesy of Spin VFX

Katana: becoming the ultimate digital cinematography platform

Jordan Thistlewood explains why Katana is now the industry standard 

It’s an exciting time for lighting and look development right now, with huge advances being made both technologically and in the sophistication of the industry’s approach to the discipline.

For the team behind Katana, it’s particularly inspiring that their work is some of that at the cutting-edge of this change. 

With file load times slashed and a serious focus on providing best-in-class tools, artists are finally getting the time and resources they need to concentrate on being creative, with obvious benefits for the ROI of the studios they work for. 

We caught up with Group Product Manager Jordan Thistlewood to hear how and why Katana became the industry standard - and where the software is heading next. 

Foundry (F): What are the most common misconceptions about Katana you encounter when speaking to people? 

Jordan Thistlewood (JT) : The biggest misconception by far is that Katana is for big studios only. 

F: And what’s the ‘Aha’ moment when they realize that isn't the case?

JT: It’s when we sit down and have a frank discussion about what Katana does. People often have a preconceived idea that Katana is for highly complex setups, but when we talk about things like how fast Katana loads files (no matter how big they are), the multishot capabilities, the procedural nature, the transparency it offers right through the pipeline - once you start discussing that with people in the context of their current workflows and their current problems, they start to understand how it can help them. 

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F: What's the one thing more than anything else that convinces them to make the investment?

JT: The conversation is always around ROI. When you start getting into the overtime the studio has to pay and the fact that they’re having to expand and shrink all the time for different projects, the ROI benefits of the tool become clear.  

People are always the biggest cost for any studio. Katana gives you that process control and efficiency -  and means you’re not having to swell and contract to get through projects for look development and lighting.

The artists get excited about the prospect of a more lighting-focused workflow, which dovetails with the business’ views of the ROI.

F: What types of companies are using Katana?

JT: Everyone from TV episodic animation, feature film animation and VFX for long-form TV, to episodic Netflix-based VFX and commercials. There’s also a growing number of people looking at it for product rendering.

For the product rendering companies, these people have, say, a gin bottle, and they need to render the gin bottle in the two or three varieties it comes in, with the six different languages for the labels. With its procedural workflow, Katana’s really great at managing the 10-20 different outputs of that one product - along with the lighting and the art direction - without a gigantic cascading impact, in the same way that VFX studios can manage lots of shots and lots revisions.

F: What are you excited about in terms of problems you see in the industry that Katana can address?

JT: Straight off the bat, before we’ve even written a single line of new code, Katana solves industry problems that are already there, and that have been there for a long time. 

It’s kind of shocking that these needs haven’t been addressed before now - things like the load times. The most extreme example that a client has ever discussed with me is that they had someone that had to wait three hours every morning for a file to open.

That was three hours, every day, that they were paying some to sit and wait. Right out the gate, we already solve that problem. The ability to manage large blocks of shots, we already solve.

So the thing I’m really excited about is the direction we’re taking with Katana, which is to make it the ultimate digital cinematography platform. A lot of the feedback from artists is that they love it because they actually get to spend more time being a lighter.  

We want to take that and really run with it, so that the tools available to the artist when they’re lighting allow them to push things even further. 

The rendering engines that are on the market are all doing fantastic work on capitalizing in advances in CPUs and path tracing algorithms: it’s getting close to almost being like you're lighting on set. 

So the cinematography principles can be applied almost directly, and giving lighters a toolset that makes the most of that is exciting. 

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F:  What’s coming up on the roadmap for Katana?

JT: For Katana 3.2, we’re redesigning the shading system UX. There’s a certain amount of code and workflows that have been carried with Katana for a while, and we’re at the really awesome stage of looking at those and questioning how they could be better. 

We replaced the viewer in Katana 3.0. Katana 3.2 is going to replace the shading system, and then the ongoing work will be to create this digital cinematography platform.  

At the same time as we’re doing all this UX-focused work, we have a team of people that are looking at the core engine and making it even faster. Between Katana 2.6 and 3.1, we made a large order of magnitude improvement in performance, and we’re trying to make another big jump with a release that will come out later in the year.

F:  What change have you seen in people’s perception of Katana?

JT: The interesting trend is that instead of having to reach out to people and explain what Katana is, we’re now having people come to us saying that the competitor down the street is using Katana: that they need to know more about it, because the competition is starting to be more efficient than them. 

It’s at the point where studios are even using Katana as a recruiting tool, with the software’s reputation organically spreading through the industry. 

I go to see prospective clients, and if they have people there that have used Katana before at past studios, they get very excited.  So there’s this momentum, where we’re starting to ride a wave of people coming in. We’re having schools let us know that the industry is now telling them, ‘we want you to teach Katana’. 

It all boils down to one thing: we’re making a tool where the impact we can have is to make every single artist’s day more efficient, which means the company is more efficient.

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F: What about competitors?

JT: Everybody is trying to do deferred loading now, everyone is looking at the node graph-based workflows: imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and validation.

But we’ve been in the node-graph, procedural lighting space for over seven years. We’ve been discussing it with clients all that time. We know where the skeletons are and where the speed bumps are.

It’s easy to try and mimic Katana’s headline USPs, but when you get into the more holistic part of it, that’s when things start to fall down. 

Whereas for us, clients feedback that every release of Katana is better, every release adds value, that they can count on what we deliver to build on top of and see a consistent improvement.

I’m confident in our own direction, based on the reaction of our clients to the path and the vision that we’ve laid out and the support of Foundry management to make it happen. 

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