The big brains behind SideFX are sitting around a boardroom table, talking about their Toronto-based company, a world leader in the development of advanced 3-D visual-effect software used in Hollywood's biggest and blastiest blockbusters (and in artsier movies, too). The Academy Award nominations were announced hours ago, and yet these guys haven't bothered to check which films are up for this year's Oscar in the special-effects category.
It's not that they don't care. It's just that they're secure in the knowledge that whatever films are nominated, their software – brand-named Houdini – will have played a role in the making of it. " Blade Runner 2049, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Kong: Skull Island and Star Wars: The Last Jedi," says Cristin Barghiel, the company's vice-president of product development, reading off the nominated movies from his smartphone, when the Oscar subject came up. "Oh, and War for the Planet of the Apes."
Ho hum, then – just another day at the office for SideFX, a small company that is on the speed dials of such animation players as Pixar and Sony Pictures Imageworks, and of the big shots in the gaming industry as well. "It used to be that we'd hope to get one or two movies nominated who used Houdini," Barghiel says. "These days we know that we'll be in every movie up for the visual-effect award at the Oscars."
This year, however, the company knows something else. It was announced in January that SideFX had been selected for two Academy Awards, including the Scientific and Engineering Award (an Academy plaque as opposed to a statuette) and the more prestigious Academy Award of Merit, which is the actual coveted trophy. The latter award will be presented to SideFX's senior mathematician Mark Elendt in Los Angeles, in recognition of his (and the company's) software contributions to the film industry.
"We're super honoured to be getting this," Elendt says of the award, which usually goes to companies such as nine-time recipient Kodak. "Ray Dolby of Dolby Laboratories and Ed Catmull of Pixar have won before, and this year, they picked me. I've been slogging through this for so long."
The Oscars have been around since 1929, with visual razzle dazzle recognized since 1938. (For its flying monkeys, melting witches and dizzying tornado, The Wizard of Oz was nominated, but shockingly did not win, in 1940.)
SideFX was founded in 1987, back when its bread and butter was creating the snazzy station ID logos used by television networks. "That was my roots," says Kim Davidson, president and chief executive. "The television networks had the good budgets, and they were the ones who were able to take the most advantage of us."
The focus for SideFX is media and entertainment, with special emphasis on film. Its Houdini greatest-hits reel includes Thor: Ragnarok, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Lego Ninjago Movie and Disney's Moana.
The company employs 88 people, most of them at its modest downtown headquarters. SideFX has a close working relationship with the University of Waterloo, its main source of engineers and co-op interns.
Beyond the applications of its industry-standard software, the company has gained a solid reputation for its collegiality, customer support and engineering agility.
"SideFX is incredibly responsive and they work closely to support us," says Trey Harrell, of Mr. X Inc., a prominent visual-effects company that has its head office in Toronto. "That kind of relationship is increasingly rare in this business."
According to its website, Mr. X "thrives on crafting creative solutions to seemingly-impossible scripted moments in film and television." Those solutions are more often than not solved with SideFX support and Houdini software.
Harrell was digital-effects supervisor on The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro's artful fantasy, filmed in Hamilton. When presented with a rough cut of the film along with del Toro's demanding visual-effect requirements, Harrell contacted SideFX's Davidson and told him that there were things he wouldn't be able to create using Houdini.
In response, Davidson sent a team of engineers over to the Mr. X office to watch the rough cut of the film. Later, they swiftly built components into the software that solved the challenges Harrell foresaw, including the simulations of water-tank sloshing, water pouring from an opened bathroom door and even the digital creation of actress Sally Hawkins's underwater hair.
"We talk to the guys in the trenches who are stuck," Elendt says, "and we get them out of their problems."
SideFX, then, is literally responsible for the shape of the water in The Shape of the Water, a film nominated for 13 Academy Awards this year.
As important as the visual simulations are to del Toro's elegant film, they are by design relatively invisible to the viewer. What gets more notice are scenes of battle and destruction, often created by the magic of SideFX's Houdini.
"From the beginning, we've been asked to deliver the next big thing," Barghiel says. "They want the money shot – the seminal visual effect. There was a lot of trust placed in us from the start, and there still is today."