Back in 2016 my old friend Nicki Morris called me from The Foundry and asked if I’d be interested in representing my company, Blue Sky Studios, as a guest speaker at Bournemouth, England’s BFX Festival. I jumped at the opportunity as we had just finished the film “Ice Age : Collision Course”, (the 5th in the Ice Age series), and was proud of some compositing tools a colleague and I had developed for the film, whose inspiration had come from tech I’d used at Xaos Inc. nearly 2 decades earlier.

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Back in 1996 I moved from the Washington DC region (my home) to San Francisco to work at Xaos Inc., an early pioneer in particle systems and image processing technology. Xaos was a dream job for me as I, like many others in those early days of CGI, learned from and played around with Xaos tools and techniques they shared with the then burgeoning industry. What many didn’t realize was that Xaos Tools was an offshoot of Xaos Inc., ‘Tools’ being a separate group marketed their tech as plugins for various software platforms, yet born from the development work done at the production company Xaos Inc.

Xaos Inc. was an award winning highly respected company, who was doing high-profile IMAX films, music videos for the likes of The Grateful Dead, commercials and tv-series spots for MTV, theme park rides and more. What blew me away though was the visionary inspiration of the founders who looked to find ways to evolve computer graphics from the then recti:linear designs that the technology seemed to limited to. Xaos was about creating more organic art, much like the psychedelic visions of the bay area artists whose music they’d grown up with. Stir in a little LSD, some Chaos Theory and fractal algorithms, and a wild array of ruthlessly independent thinkers and artists, and out comes some inspired imagery… Xaos Inc.

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Their proprietary tools enabled a lot of experimentation between FX and Compositing which nowadays, I’m sad to say, seems to be a rare, if not, lost art. So while working on Ice Age 5 (actually on a prior film which never got produced), I saw challenges to visuals shown in the concept art paintings of Blue Sky and recognized we had no real tech nor technique with which to approach them. What I saw in these designs were potential aesthetics using tools combined with compositing technique I had employed at Xaos two decades earlier which could do all that was needed here. As my stock was high at Blue Sky (having just pulled off some considerably difficult work on Epic), I asked if a strong programmer could be teamed with me to develop some new particle technology in Nuke to emulate this (in computer graphics terms) ancient tech.

Enter Thierry Dervieux-Lecocq (Global Technology at Pixar), an inspired craftsman who partnered with me for over half a year in the development of tools I eventually presented at the BFX Festival. The first tool I was interested in creating, or rather, re-creating, would hopefully be able to do what I saw often at Xaos, where we could dis-assemble characters or objects into particles (via a variety of artistic treatments), then re-assemble them back into their original forms. Or, to put another way “Out of order comes chaos, and from chaos we comes order”.

This first and hallmark tool is called the “BSS_Strange Attractor”, a term coined by Edward Lorenz, a mathematician who through his study of weather models in the 1960’s (cloud formations), he subsequently developed equations which reflected the patterns he found in the chaos. And much like watching clouds forming and dispersing, artists at Blue Sky are now able to bring in animated creatures or characters and have them shape shift into other ones, and then back into their original forms… and

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many other visual effects of like kind. For example, on Ice Age 5 I used the BSS_Strange Attractor to have clusters of stars blow apart and reform into an animated constellation of Scrat and a Centaur.

Thierry and I developed several tools which extended and enhanced the VFX work we were able to pull off for Ice Age : Collision Course. However, the opportunity to go to this beautiful seaside town that is Bournemouth, England and meet an amazing group of people who run the BFX Festival, was a wonderful and unexpected reward for all the work we put into it. And the solo trip into London was quite the treat as well, including fish and chips on the Thames, a stroll across London Bridge and a tour of the Tower of London… I had a great time !

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