Professional Services
Order outsourcing

V-Ray Developer Chaos on the Present & the Future of Rendering

At VIEW Conference 2023, Chaos' Christopher Nichols and Cláudio Meireles talked about the company's current project, explained who their target audience is, and spoke about the present and the future of rendering.

Could you please give a little intro?

Christopher Nichols: My name is Chris Nichols and I am the Director of Special Projects at Chaos Innovation Lab. This is our most ambitious R&D wing, so I spend a lot of time ideating on next-gen tech. I also run a podcast called CG Garage, which is a great window into how the community creates and adapts to evolving trends.

Cláudio Meireles: My name is Cláudio Meireles and I’m the Head of Communities at Chaos. We are on a mission to inspire, support, and nurture artists in our community programs, and we work closely with Chris to support artists. One of our 10 community programs is the Partners in Art that aims to help independent artists to realize their projects.

Tell us a little bit about some of the recent projects you've been doing. How do you work with the community? Maybe there are some highlights?

Christopher Nichols: You know, a lot of what I’m doing now is a continuation of what I’ve been working on for 10 years. Like many artists, I’ve been very interested in real-time and what it means, especially when it comes to ray tracing. That pairing is really driving what we're doing in the Innovation Lab, as we work to prep Vantage – our real-time ray tracer – for M&E projects.

Ever since CONSTRUCT – which was one of our first major community projects and an early testing ground for ray-traced virtual production – we've seen what instantaneous feedback can bring to a filmmaker. Especially an ambitious one like Kevin Margo. The Partners in Art project ended up being a great way to get Kevin free licenses/hardware (via us, NVIDIA, and others), as well as a personal prototype of V-Ray for MotionBuilder that let us all really start running wild with ray-traced VP back in 2014.

At the time, the GPUs could get us close enough to start making essential decisions about our tech and production. And that was exciting and inspiring for the community at large. But I also think it ultimately made us hungry for more. Fully ray-traced VP is still the dream for most artists, so we’re actively pursuing ways to give them what they want. 

Tell us a little bit more about the kind of tech that you are building right now. What is Chaos up to? What are the latest projects?

Christopher Nichols: Right now, Vantage is one of the biggest projects I'm working on inside the lab. It's a real-time ray tracer built on NVIDIA’s RTX technology. In the latest version of Vantage, we included DLSS 3.5 with ray reconstruction, which works seamlessly with our real-time ray tracing architecture. This is great because it enables us to render things with an Al denoiser, specifically designed for path tracers like Vantage, which are extraordinarily fast. And when we pair this denoiser with an Al upscaler, we can get performance rates that I've never seen before. For instance, HD frames at well over 24 or even over 100 frames a second,  with completely clean renders on production scenes with billions of polygons.

With that kind of performance, we can truly revolutionize the entire digital workflow from pre-production and virtual production to post-production, with no visual compromises. You’ll get full ray tracing the whole way through. Right now, our R&D and Vantage product team are working to make that happen.

Is virtual production the main focus right now, or is it just one of the areas?

Christopher Nichols: It's one of the areas. For the Lab to make an impact, we have to stay attuned to the full breadth of the CG community. Different people have different needs. It’s never been one-size-fits-all.

Honestly, some of our best leads start with the Partners in Art program. When you have a creative person come to you with a great idea and a desire to push a technical boundary somewhere, just going through that process tends to illuminate gaps or opportunities that benefit the entire community.

Cláudio Meireles: There are many ways to get into our Partners in Art program, too. One of them is that they apply on our website. Accepted projects often get supported with free licenses to our software. We also tend to connect creators to a helpful network of mentors and partners that they can collaborate with. Sometimes we even provide them with financial grants to be able to realize these projects, especially when they might impact the rest of the community.

Christopher Nichols: A lot of times Partners in Art is about connecting with people who’re trying to do something a little bit outside the box and then helping them figure out ways to make that happen. And you never know where that’s going to lead. For instance, take The Ningyo:  Miguel Ortega transformed his house into a giant hall and then augmented it with our tools, just to make his vision come to life. It was just like, how did you turn your apartment into a movie set of this caliber? It's an incredible story. 

And like I said before, a lot of times someone’s initial idea inspires us to either rethink our tech or make something new. On CONSTRUCT, Kevin wanted to explore real-time ray tracing, so we created a version of V-Ray that worked inside MotionBuilder using our AppSDK. Sometimes you have to also ask yourself, “What do we have cooking on the backburner that could elevate this idea?” Which, in turn, helps us figure out where we should be pushing next. Plus, it’s always great when you’re innovating with a creative. The feedback, the real-world constraints, something concrete to direct your energy at. It’s great to be a part of and win-win for both us and the artists.

Do you have any examples of how these projects eventually turned into some commercial products, like a show for Netflix or something like that?

Christopher Nichols: Yeah, a while ago we worked with Ruairi Robinson when he was creating a teaser for a short film idea called The Leviathan. That teaser went viral on the internet, got optioned by Fox, and even got Neill Blomkamp on as the executive producer. Unfortunately, that show never happened. But yeah, we've had different successes. The Ningyo is another example. It won many awards. CONSTRUCT won many awards.

You also mentioned that you provide financial support, is that correct?

Cláudio Meireles: Yes; it varies from project to project, but it can be versatile, such as providing hardware or other resources the artists might need to bring these projects to life. We also partner with others to provide even more financial support to artists.

The Ningyo is an example here too. It started as a Kickstarter campaign that was looking for $50,000, but after more than a thousand contributors supported them, they surpassed that and hit over $80,000. Chaos was one of the biggest supporters of that campaign.

Who are your customers in terms of their professions?

Christopher Nichols: VFX artists, generalists, ad teams, automotive companies, architects, industrial designers — any industry that is visualizing something at this point is represented. That’s one of the reasons why we have so many integrations with industry tools, like 3ds Max for archviz and M&E, Houdini and Maya for VFX. We even have V-Ray for Unreal, for those who want to continue using V-Ray and ray tracing while still benefiting from Unreal’s other real-time toolsets. We really try to be wherever people want to work.

So, I had a conversation, I think it was Digital Dragons, not that long ago. And I'm not going to name the company, but I basically talked to a rendering engineer. My question to him was, 'What's next?' and his opinion was that it is so developed at this point that there are very few things that we can actually go and improve.

Christopher Nichols: Rendering in many ways is a solved thing. The only thing that hasn't been solved is how fast it can be and how easy it can be set up.

We know how light works; but each year, new technical advancements come up that make the output a little bit better. For example, when researchers introduced a new way to understand hair color, Chaos put melanin into our hair shader, as opposed to an RGB color; the hair started looking so much more natural, and was much easier to adjust artistically. But that's just one little detail. In regards to how light bounces around, we've solved that problem. I always say that real-time rendering will eventually replace offline rendering, but rasterized rendering will never replace ray tracing. So, ray tracing is the only lighting solution that needs to be considered as the ultimate goal.

How do you see this develop in the future?

Christopher Nichols: I mean, think about it from the artist's perspective. We used to be in a version system where you clicked “render”, thought “Wait, that's not right,” and proceeded to the next version. When you can make decisions as you're moving the mouse around, then the artist can really interact with things at the moment. This is a much more natural and intuitive way to work. You want to make final decisions as soon as possible, without having to create numerous versions to get there. I think that's the experience that people want.

Whom do you compete with? Do you see a lot of pressure coming from companies like Unreal Engine 5 or Unity?

Christopher Nichols: Technically, any platform that enables visualization is both a competitor and a partner. But I think our focus is more on where artists and designers congregate, regardless of whether those platforms have an onboard renderer or not. For instance, V-Ray is integrated into numerous applications (including Unreal). We aren’t trying to isolate users into a walled garden. We want to meet people where they are. So it’s less about seeing this as pressure and more about collaboration. And it’s not a bad thing when companies innovate. That just gives us new ideas. Our industry needs that to thrive.

Those customers are in very different areas, and when we started with 80 Level, we worked a lot with architecture, but we slowly shifted to do more entertainment. Do they have similar needs in terms of production, or are they different? 

Christopher Nichols: Well, there’s both overlap and differences. In the end, this is all about a photograph: fashion is about photography; architecture is about photography; media and entertainment are about photography. And V-Ray is a camera, in the sense that rendering creates a realistic picture. And when you have that ability, you can apply it to anything that uses a camera (architecture, fashion, etc.). That's where they all share the common ground. So, while there are features that speak more to different markets, the basic needs tend to be the same.

How do you see the AI technology influencing rendering and overall computer graphics? What do you expect to see in the next five years?

Christopher Nichols: There are many ways it could. We're working with AI right now, and the denoising produced with it is so good it's disruptive to real-time. So, AI-powered rendering is something I can say is going to be very, very impressive, and it’s going to make us wonder how far real-time will take us in the future. 

Christopher Nichols, Director of Special Projects at Chaos Innovation Labs

Cláudio Meireles, Head of Community at Chaos Group

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev during VIEW Conference 2023

Join discussion

Comments 0

    You might also like

    We need your consent

    We use cookies on this website to make your browsing experience better. By using the site you agree to our use of cookies.Learn more