Lighting in Katana 4.0: like nothing you’ve seen before

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: it’s an exciting time to be a look development and lighting artist.

Ongoing technological advancements and a renewed appreciation of the work involved in these disciplines mean that artists are taking back more time for themselves to focus on being creative.

Jordan Thistlewood, Foundry’s Director of Product—Pre-production, LookDev and Lighting, and Gary Jones, Katana Associate Product Manager, have both had hands-on experience with the nuances of this shifting industry sentiment, having worked as lighting artists at renowned studios before joining Foundry.

Their experience, regular conversations with studios and artists, and the passion of the Katana product and engineering teams drive the development of the industry’s most powerful lighting tool.

Due later this year, Katana 4.0 is tipped as a game-changer for look development and lighting workflows everywhere. Artists, managers and pipeline developers can expect a cutting-edge lighting UI, scalable rendering capabilities, updated USD technology, and fundamental improvements to look development workflows.

In this fifth and final part of our ‘Lighting in…’ series, we sit down with Jordan and Gary to hear how and why Katana 4.0 may just be the industry’s biggest thing to come out of 2020—and beyond.

Q: We’ve looked at how lighting and cinematography techniques are applied over a range of mediums—from animation, to video games, to vfx. What’s the common underlying thread tying each medium together?

Gary: Well, for all of them, it's about lighting serving the story. It shouldn’t just be about making a pretty picture; it should always be in service to some other vision, some other goal, and usually for most mediums, that's about the story. Some might say that games are slightly different, but even if you're doing anything with cut scenes, all of the same principles apply; like composition, mood, where do you want the person to look, what do you want them to feel, all of those kinds of decisions that a cinematographer would be making in collaboration with the director. 

But it's almost always about, what is the story you're trying to tell as part of those things? And it's exactly the same across all mediums, film, episodic TV, or animation—if all you're thinking about is how can I make this a pretty image, then you're doing your story a disservice. 

Jordan: Agreed. And I also think there’s a technological thread which is; across all disciplines and all industries, there've been big leaps in the abilities and workflows of the rendering technologies that generate the images via Katana, and therefore the variety of the lighting that can be achieved with a given budget and schedule. 

So there's almost an egalitarian opportunity across TV versus feature length projects, to push the boundaries of how lighting is used to support the story. What was previously the domain of feature length projects is now available to smaller-medium sized studios working on a TV episodic projects. 

Q: How does Katana 4.0, due later this year, support this commonality? 

Gary: Part of the process of lighting is thinking about the composition, thinking about how you want the light to fall, how you want to shape the frame. And the tools that we're providing in Katana 4.0 are aimed at enabling lighting artists to think in the same way; how they want the light to fall and where to place the light, seamlessly and at the speed of thought. 

As a result, they're constantly thinking about the art of it, and the cinematography. Katana has always been great at enabling studios to multiply the power of the lighting artists, so they can work across lots of shots simultaneously for an extremely powerful workflow. What we're trying to do with Katana 4.0 is to enable the inner artist, to help them produce the image they want in an art friendly way, by actually sculpting with the light intuitively.

Quote from Gary Jones, Katana Associate Product Manager, on Katana 4.0

Jordan: It's shocking when you think for over 20 years, the process has been, Click a button to make a light, then use multiple different camera angles and transform handles to move a light about, all whilst going, Is this it? "No." Is this it? "No." Ultimately, it's unintuitive, and not inline with how a lighting artist really wants to express their creativity.

I think the thing that Katana 4.0 is adding, like Gary said, is getting artists to think the way that people on-set think about lighting. People have made tools and plugins that do this in smaller degrees for some DCCs, but Katana 4.0 is the first dedicated enterprise lighting-specific tool that has really gone this far in embracing this workflow. And for us, Katana 4.0 Is the culmination of over four years of work and thinking and planning to get to this point.

Q: You touched on tech advancements in rendering above. Can you expand on this a little more—specifically, how have modern lighting and rendering technologies evolved in relation to real-world cinematography principles?

Jordan: Before, cheats were used to emulate the look of light bounces and the appearance of environment illumination. Hardware performance limits and inefficient rendering software workflows resulted in artists spending time trying to mirror physics, manage depth map shadows, point clouds and so on, reducing time spent on creative lighting. Currently, we are well into a generation of rendering technologies that are much closer to light simulation, along with great advances in CPU and GPU hardware performance, allowing a lighting artist to spend more of their time working toward the creative result as they can offload more of the technical steps to the software. 

Q: How has Katana grown and adapted over time to facilitate this?

Jordan: In Katana 2.6, we added the viewer API, originally designed by Chris Beckford and Joao Montenegro. What made the introduction of this so significant is the concept of the viewport with layers, so it allows us to then have multiple layers of information, which is why we could have Hydra inserted into it. Gary was then able to lead the work on getting the Monitor Layer in where we had the rendered pixels on top of GL objects. 

Screengrab of Katana 4.0's Hydra Viewer

In 3.0, introducing the Hydra Viewport was a big deal, followed by the Monitor Layer in 3.5. In 3.6, newly added snapping functionality allowed artists to interact directly with the surface rather than having to think about positions in space.  

The development of upcoming Katana 4.0 is a combination of a set of steps that we've been orchestrating for a number of years, to put us into a position where we have this very robust foundation that we're then launching.

Katana 4.0 takes all this technology that we’ve been working on for years, wraps it up and presents it to artists in the form of workflows unlike any they’ve seen before. 

Q: Can you expand on that? If something like Katana 4.0 came out when you were both working as lighting artists, what would your response be on booting it up and playing around with it for the first time?

Gary: There's a certain, almost zen-like quality when you're being creative. There’s that point whereby it's just you and the creative process. And time can just slip by; you're just there, you're doing whatever you want to do, and there's a real sense of calm and pleasure. But when you're fighting with the technology, it’s easy for that feeling to be lost. When you're having to jump through hoops or move out of that creative mindset to go and do something technical, it disrupts everything.

I'm one of those people that gets frustrated when something isn’t quite doing what I want it to do. And the goal of Katana 4.0’s lighting set is to remove any danger of that. It’s about making you feel like it's just you and the image, and you're making something pretty. It shouldn't be difficult; you shouldn't have to be thinking about, Oh, how am I going to achieve this? or, How am I going to accomplish that? It should be fast and simple and intuitive. 

I’d be delighted to work in Katana 4.0 as a lighting artist—knowing I can just sit there, play with the image and get that zen-like feeling of making something beautiful and achieving the goal that I set out at the beginning of the two hours, without having to fight with anything or meet any resistance. To me, that’s creativity at its finest, and I can’t wait for Katana artists to experience it.

Q: What are you most excited about in Katana 4.0? What potential does it unlock for artists?

Jordan: Where do I start; there is so much great work in Katana 4! For me, the game changers are the lighting tools mixed with the Katana Foresight workflows. On the one hand, we've got the multiple simultaneous renders, and then we've got the ability to use networked machines to power those multiple simultaneous interactive renders. The result is the ability for an artist to judge their creative choices from many viewpoints at the same time.

Katana 4.0 Multiple Simultaneous Renders feature

Those viewpoints could be shots, frames within a shot(s), multiple assets, multiple camera angles or lighting scenarios. The combination of viewpoints that matter to a look development or lighting artist are up to the individual and their assigned work. In the end, every creative iteration’s value is now multiplied in impact. I really wish I had access to workflows like that in my time in production!

Plus, you've got the lighting tools, which enable you to work more intuitively. They allow you to ‘work the way you think’. You’ll be able to take a lighting tool in Katana 4.0 and say, "I want a warm color area light that hits at a glancing angle to the character’s face, picking out the features of the cheeks, brow and nose with a medium soft light/shadow quality from the left." And instead of it being, I think that's going to be about a 20 degree angle in Y and -30 degree angle in X and iterating over a range of values until it looks right, the light simply goes where you want it to, and then you can respond to it viscerally. As someone that lights as much with my gut/emotions as much as my eyes/brain, that visceral reaction/experience for lighters that use Katana is really important. 

Gary: For me, it's about daily throughput for an artist and the ability to take them to the next level in terms of what they can actually achieve within a day of work. Katana 4.0 makes it a much more pleasurable experience to light and easier for them to light lots and lots of shots. So they can have a nicer day, produce more, and have less surprises in the dailies session the next day.

It's the return on investment for that one artist who's suddenly gone from being under pressure for what they need to achieve, to feeling like they can be the equivalent of five or ten artists. Because not only are they lighting one shot; they're probably lighting one shot and looking at what that looks like in ten other shots. They can make their tweaks with an informed opinion across a much wider range of shots, all while having a nicer, more streamlined experience. 

It's a huge step that leverages the existing power of Katana—and that’s really exciting. I know from experience that artists were working on 20+ shots on projects like The Lion King, and the way that they were doing it, Katana 4.0 would have improved their day-to-day turn around if they'd have had access to a little bit of extra farm space—so they can literally see 25 shots simultaneously as they're actually working on them.

Q: What’s the ultimate aim for Katana?

Jordan:  In Katana 4.1, we want to eliminate any limitations and make the Katana Foresight workflows all about simultaneous live rendering, all the time. Our aim is to enhance Katana with the ability for artists to work with all those live renders in a contact sheet UI that uses meta-data to allow smart organization. The longer term vision is a workflow that is elegant and powerful, where the best setup is something like a Wacom Cintiq for creating, placing and editing lights with a second color calibrated monitor for the contact sheet UI. Meanwhile, all of this is powered by a cluster of machines, empowering an artist to work on large blocks of work, using heavy production assets in near real-time.

Gary: Essentially, it's about moving Katana from being the ‘ultimate pipeline friendly TD tool for multishot workflows’ to being the best artist tool for all of the workflows that Katana is currently the industry leader for. Katana 4.0 aims to streamline a lighting artist's day-to-day job; the next step will be to A) keep improving on that, and B) also looking to do the same thing for a look development artist's workflow. 

Ultimately, we want to make Katana work for the artist, and not the other way around. After all, unbridled creativity is key in lighting and look development, and it’s our job to facilitate this as much as possible.

Watch Jordan and Gary dive into Katana 4.0's most exciting features in this exclusive update.

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