Seated at a high-powered computer terminal in the bunker-like ground floor of Vancouver Island Technical Park, Edwin Braun rolls a clip of his company’s latest project, a hyper-realistic disaster scene from a German documentary about the crash of the Hindenburg.
Like a proud parent, he watches the ill-fated Zeppelin buckle and collapse in an orange wall of flames behind a group of terrified passengers fleeing the wreckage. In vivid detail, sections of the Hindenburg’s cloth exterior flutter as they burn, stripping the crumpled frame bare as it falls to earth in a cloud of computer-generated smoke and debris.
“The challenging part is recreating the natural look of the steel frames breaking and bending. It’s even more impressive when it hits the ground and compresses the frame,” says Mr. Braun, owner of Cebas Visual Technologies, a Victoria-based company that makes 3-D special effects software used by a growing roster of major studios.
“The cloth falling down, the smoke, the flames… it’s all done with the physics engine in our software.”
Originally based in Germany, Mr. Braun relocated the company’s headquarters to Victoria three years ago – partly for the lifestyle and partly for the city’s proximity to a growing number of Hollywood producers who were expressing interest in the company’s software “solutions.”
With a list of movie credits that now includes Lost in Space, Black Hawk Down, Spiderman 3, Transformers 3, Green Lantern and 2012, Cebas has emerged as an industry leader in the art of digital destruction.
In the past, major studios had to design separate pieces of software to control individual effects. Thinking Particles, by contrast, is programmed to automatically apply multiple effects, an idea that Mr. Braun and his business partner Achim Smailus began developing when they founded Cebas 20 years ago.
“Back then everything was linear and two dimensional; for every effect, they were writing a tool, and I wanted one tool that would work for every effect,” Mr. Braun said. “My idea was to give every particle a brain, in the form of a little program, and back then, that was really revolutionary.”
The company’s most popular products, Final Render and Thinking Particles, are often used in tandem to create realistic crash or explosion sequences for big-budget blockbusters.
Images are created and sectioned off into “particles” with Final Render, while Thinking Particles is “the tool that blows stuff up stuff and creates the images with lights and shadows and special effects,” Mr. Braun says.
The programmers of games such as Tomb Raider, Need for Speed and Command & Conquer were among the first to use Cebas technology.
Earlier this month in Vancouver, Mr. Braun and his staff celebrated the 10th anniversary of Thinking Particles at Siggraph 2011, a meeting of the world’s biggest names in computer graphic design.
“Ten years is a long time in this industry, so it’s a miracle we have this product and are still strong on the market,” he said. “I’m really proud of that.”
Wearing a pair of faded jeans and weathered mesh slip-on shoes, with a picture ID card clipped to his T-shirt, Mr. Braun’s low-key computer geek image seems at odds with the mind-blowing and often violent realism of the special effects that have become his calling card.
Born and raised in Heidelberg, Germany, Mr. Braun was “crazy about movies as a teenager,” and took special delight in the cheesy special effects of the Godzilla series.
He crafted his first computer-generated special effect at age 14, not long after seeing Star Wars for the first time.
“I actually programmed the Death Star on a Commodore 64. It was only 100 points, or 200 dots or something, but it was the Death Star and it was in 3D,” he recalled.
After high school, Mr. Braun purchased a motor scooter and started running a mobile computer repair service out of his parents’ basement. One of his first customers was Mr. Smailus, who needed his monitor cable replaced. The two self-described “geeks” started a business selling hardware and began developing their 3-D software on the side.
“We were just doing it for the challenge,” Mr. Braun said. “We never thought the big studios would be interested or that it would be used on all of these major blockbuster movies.”
Always pushing the frontiers of 3-D imagery, Cebas formed a partnership with the Hollywood studio Pixel Magic earlier this year to pioneer the development of software that simplifies the conversion of movies from 2-D to 3-D.
While the major studios are clamouring for a program that will automatically convert conventional movies to 3-D, Mr. Braun said no software could replace the human element needed to “reproduce missing bits that weren’t in the original image,” a vital part of 3-D production.
“Their dream is to just have a button-pressing program that converts a 2-D [movie]to a 3-D. That doesn’t exist and it will never exist,” he says.
However, the solution Cebas came up with “worked surprisingly [well]right from the start,” cutting the amount of time spent on each image and reducing the amount of money the studio has to spend on 3-D conversions.
The new software – it’s still under development, and has yet to be named – was successfully tested on The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the latest Chronicles of Narnia offering, and is now being used to convert the entire Harry Potter series of films.