Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Imageworks

How to get new starters up to speed in Katana

Foundry’s look development and lighting tool Katana was originally developed at Sony Pictures Imageworks (SPI), acting as a boon for studios large and small by offering an unmatched level of power and scalability over projects.

In order to make these benefits bear fruit, new hires—particularly those unfamiliar with Katana—gain from a robust groundwork by which they can successfully get started in the tool. Done right, artists can be trained up quickly and efficiently to bring the ROI benefits of Katana to a studio as soon as possible.

This is something that SPI recognised and implemented via a streamlined training course offered to new hires that gets them trained up in Katana in just one week. With a unique pipeline whereby Katana is used not only for lighting, but also for effects and environments, SPI have honed the art of Katana training to ensure all artists are familiar with the tool and its multiple touchpoints. 

We were delighted to host Maribeth Glass, Senior Trainer at SPI and Greg Berridge, SPI’s Manager of Training, Artistic Development and Outreach as part of our Virtual Events series as they dove into the nuances of this training process.

Scroll for highlights of the session Laying the Groundwork for Success in Katana and top tips on how to level-up your Katana training.

Starting out and setting up

During the early phases of Katana training, SPI conducts evaluations to assess how well new hires know Katana—both across lighting, and less commonly environment and effects. The training that follows is based on individual comfort levels that arise from this initial evaluation. 

At this point, training begins in earnest. Speaking on Laying the Groundwork for Success in Katana, Maribeth explains: “If they've never used Katana before, we do take them through the Katana basics where they'll learn the interface and how to interact with the software in general.”

Once the basics are covered, trainees jump into a template that's related to the department—whether that’s lighting, environment or effects. “At this point, we'll take them step-by-step through each part of the template to get them familiar with what they're going to be doing once they join the show,” Maribeth continues.

The whole training process typically takes about one week, with artists receiving training both in Katana in general and proprietary Sony tools. Not only does this get artists up to speed technically, but aligns all involved and makes them feel more comfortable in the face of project deadlines and client deliverables.

The training course has also proved invaluable amidst the new remote working environment accelerated by COVID-19. Since there are less chances for trainees to ask immediate questions in an office environment, providing them with a structured ‘safe space’ to ask questions and explore Katana makes them feel welcome rather than overwhelmed.

UI grab of Katana on Hotel Transylvania

Talking templates

Diving into the details, Maribeth described a lighting template that SPI takes new hires through, particularly if they’re familiar with Katana for lighting.

Taken from a Hotel Transylvania short, the template is a simplified version of what artists might see when they join an animated show, as part of which sequence lighting is typically used. Since most sequences have a significant amount of variations and variables to think about, SPI find it best to start simple with the Shot Boss node.

“In order to manage multiple shots in one Katana script, we can go into Shot Boss, and this is where we can right click and add shots from a sequence or add individual shots,” Maribeth explains. “This is how we can load multiple shots into one Katana script. From here, we can control what shot we want to look at, and when we right click and say set current shot, that's going to bring in the appropriate assets for that particular shot. It's also going to change our frame range, our camera, and bring in everything that we need.”

Further down the template tree, SPI use Switch Nodes to control the above. “When we right click and say set current shot, any switch nodes that are based on what shot we're looking at will switch and then look at our particular lighting scenario for that shot as well.”

“As we go down our tree, we train artists on how everything comes together,” Maribeth continues. “So our typical flow of information or order of operations [...]

would be: this is where we bring in our geometry and our materials, [and] if we add any additional cameras, we want to do that here.”

Katana UI grab from Hotel Translyvania

A look at Live Groups

SPI also makes extensive use of LiveGroups as part of its training template for new hires.

A LiveGroup node provides a way for artists to import another Katana project into the current project, and reload it every time the current project is updated, either automatically or manually. There are two primary cases for using LiveGroups: collaborative work between departments, and collaborative work within a department. 

“We can never say that something is going to be the same for every show, or every shot,” Maribeth explains, “so we do utilize live groups within our templates.”

“These live groups end up being controlled by our key lighter or our leads, and should anything change midway through the sequence or midway through the shot that needs to make its way to our artist, they will put those changes in these live groups and the artists should get those changes automatically. That makes it much easier to organize things in the long run.”

SPI’s Katana workflow consists of a pre-overrides group, which is anything that needs to be done before the LookFileManager. Anything that needs to happen before shaders get assigned is put into the pre-overrides group.

Below this comes the post-override section, consisting of anything that needs to happen after the LookFileManager. Once shaders get assigned, anything that needs to be done sequence-wise gets put in the post-overrides group, providing a very easy way for SPI’s key lighters and leads to push updates to its artists.

“Then we get to our lighting section,” Maribeth explains. “This varies quite a lot, depending on the show and depending on who might be key lighting. Sometimes in these groups, there's a lot happening—we do all of our lighting in there. [...] We do have the live group, but we also have a section for each one of our shots that we have in this template.”

“Controlling all of that is a Switch node at the bottom. We have a variable switch node [...] that is based on what shot we are currently looking at. We also have sections for shot tweaks in a view down below. This is typically anything that needs a material edit or a material override. Quite often, these are managed by the key lighters mostly, and then the shot lighters, who finalize our shots and will go in and change anything as needed.”

Shot from Hotel Transylvania short

As training wraps, there are several key things that SPI are looking for new hires to have learned: how to bring in assets, how to organize assets with collections, how the relationship between the LookFileManager and SPI’s shaders work, and how Katana’s LookFIle operates.

As part of the week-long training, SPI also takes new hires through all of the Arnold lights that the studio creates in-house. “We do have a particular gaffer node that we use here,” Maribeth explains. “We don't use the standard GafferThree—we use GafFour. [This] is our Sony special node that we have and it allows us to have some more flexibility with our Arnold shading. We can still manipulate materials, [...] inherit the incoming scene and edit our lighting that way, but we do go through each individual light and the material parameters with all of our new hires and talk about some of the very specific things that we have.”

Extracurricular activities

To support Sony’s Katana training initiative, new hires are given additional tasks outside of the above to reinforce their learning. “Every day, there’s a little bit of homework I might ask artists to do—add lights, or change materials,” Maribeth comments. “Sometimes we come up with some really fun materials for Dracula or the zombie, and we play around a little bit.”

At the end of the week, new hires have typically worked through the Hotel Transylvania template—loading shots, organizing shots with collections, material edits, navigating the lighting process and various live groups, and what they would control as a shot lighter and how they would control those switches. 

The focus then shifts to Sony’s Arnold specifics, as Maribeth explains: “We have this render quality selector where [artists] can choose either low, medium and high, and that will work a significant amount of the time, but there are always occasions where something's going to be a little bit noisier than you prefer. The artists do go through Arnold training as well just so they can learn how to troubleshoot their samples and what parameters to change in order to make their Arnold renders more efficient and less noisy. [We also] go through organizing all of their passes at the end as well.”

Training wraps with a walk-through of the rendering process. “For animated shows, we use something called Shot Butler,” Maribeth tells us. “So if I add a new panel called Shot Butler, this is how we can render multiple shots from one Katana script.”

Various layers are created at this point, from environment and character to highlight and effects passes. Each are individual shots that are listed in the Shot Boss node. 

That’s a wrap

What results from SPI’s Katana training sessions is a contingent of comfortable lighting artists armed with all the tools and tips to tackle new projects with confidence.

Yet getting artists to this point requires some savvy project management from SPI’s training department.

“Maintaining up-to-date information and templates for every department does come with its challenges,” Maribeth explains. “Our training team is in constant communication with our environments, effects and lighting teams, and with our shows—even the development team to make sure our new hires are as aware and as up-to-date as possible.”

“With such a diverse slate of shows each having their unique technology needs—both live action and animation—we even occasionally create specific Katana training catering towards each of those shows and towards each of their individual technology needs.”

Given the time and effort Sony Pictures Imageworks pour into their new hires, it’s no wonder the studio is producing some of today’s most compelling live action and animation projects, supported by lighting powerhouse Katana.

Watch the full session Laying the Groundwork for Success in Katana, including an exclusive Q&A with Greg Berridge, Manager of Training, Artistic Development and Outreach

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