Interview: Ross Shain, CMO for Imagineer Systems

Interview: Ross Shain, CMO for Imagineer Systems

If you work with video, in post-production or visual effects, or have an interest in it, chances are that you have heard of Imagineer Systems and their products. For those who do not know, Imagineer Systems pioneered the Planar Tracking technology that is used extensively in visual effects in film, television, and, more recently, in home produced video all over the web. Imagineer Systems' mocha products provide everything you may need for tracking, rotoscoping, and object insertion or removal in video editing.

Having worked with mocha for After Effects and now with mocha Pro myself, I can say that there are a lot of reasons you would want - scratch that - need mocha in your toolset. The interface is clean, quick to grasp, and mocha makes the tedious tasks much easier, and the impossible possible. From what Imagineer Systems once offered in several different and specific products, they successfully merged into one product line. Tailored to a much wider range of users, from the home studio, to big production houses, Imagineer Systems' mocha line of products provide a powerful toolset that just can't be beat, at an attainable price.

Recently, I was able to talk with Ross Shain, Chief Marketing Officer for Imagineer Systems. With his own experience in visual effects, Ross was able to provide more information on the history of Imagineer Systems, their product evolution, and the impact of mocha on the industry.

When did you first get involved with Imagineer Systems and can you explain your current role with the company?

I first got involved with Imagineer Systems' Planar Tracking technology about 6 years ago as a user and customer. I was working as a visual effects artist in New York City on a shot that was giving me a lot of difficulty. The seemly simple goal, was to add graphics to a wall as the camera slowly dollied around it, but with no track marks or detail on this solid red wall, the shot was not happening. To accomplish the shot manually would have taken over 3 days of pain. After trying every tracking application on the market, I found mokey, Imagineer's planar tracking application and was able to quickly solve the shot and save the day for the company and client. This started the beginning of my relationship with Imagineer and has grown from freelance product specialist to current role as Chief Marketing Officer. 

As CMO of Imagineer, I am involved in many aspects of product development, sales and marketing. I see this role as being an advocate for the customers, especially the artists that use our software and am constantly trying to improve the products, web site and training tools from this perspective. Imagineer has a small team of very talented engineers, product specialists and sales reps, so we all wear many hats. My role can vary from designing mocha's user interface, to working with customers on feature requests and interfacing with Adobe and other manufacturing business partners in post-production. 

I understand you yourself have had quite a bit of experience in the VFX industry. How many hats have you worn, and what was your most fulfilling work?

Over the years I've had a lot of roles: editor, motion graphics designer, visual effects compositor, on set vfx supervisor, colorist, director and teacher. The most personally fulfilling work for me has been working with strong artists on non-commercial projects. A few examples that come to mind: working on music videos for the Beastie Boys and Lyle Lovett and working closely with the documentary director, Robert Stone on his film "Earth Days".

How has Imagineer Systems impacted the industry? Has accessibility of the mocha line of products helped its growth?

Motion tracking & roto are central to almost every aspect of visual effects projects... and visual effects take time. There is also a growing expectation for almost all film and video content to include "high end" looking visual effects. Because mocha is both easy to learn and more powerful than traditional point tracking methods, thousands of users can now accomplish "high end effects" in shorter time. A great example of this can be seen on these Vimeo & YouTube channels. Artists are using mocha and mocha Pro on all types of projects, from Hollywood features like the "Harry Potter" films all the way to home produced viral videos. Using mocha's planar tracker to reduce the manual labor inherent in tracking and roto is easily the software's biggest impact.

Making mocha more affordable and accessible has also helped our company growth. mocha for After Effects (mocha AE) is licensed to Adobe and included with every new After Effects license. Our growing user base can than upgrade to mocha Pro with more advanced functionality. We also support almost all of the popular effects and editorial systems: After Effects, Avid, Final Cut, Motion, Nuke, Flame, Smoke, Fusion and more. 

The first product that was available was Mokey, for object removal and creating clean plates. And from my understanding, this use was discovered through research into something else. I just find that awesome in itself, but what exactly was being researched that ultimately led to Mokey?

In June 2000, researchers at the University of Surrey in Guildford, UK were applying computer vision research to the problem of image registration - the stitching together of different still images. During some trial video sequences it was discovered that the algorithms developed had a different and more useful aspect... When analyzing a panning shot of Stefan Edberg playing tennis, the algorithms quickly removed Stefan from the shot, computing a clean background shot with no manual work. Some discussions with a manufacturer in the post production space revealed that there was a need for a dedicated product to perform wire & rig removal, and so mokey, the company's first product was born. 

Then came monet, which was first used in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban for insertion of animated paintings into picture frames?

Yes, Imagineer worked closely with the London effects house, Cinesite while they were working on "Prisoner of Azkaban" to develop monet, a product designed specifically to track and composite screen inserts. Cinesite helped provide feedback directly from their experience on tracking the paintings at Hogwarts. For example, tracking a painting that is obscured by foreground actors was a common challenge and monet's layering and "Adjust Track" module were created to solve the issue of tracking planes instead of objects to deal with shots when there is little viewable detail. 

How widespread was the use of these early products?

mokey and monet were certainly used by companies working on feature films and high end vfx projects, but with a high cost price and difficult user interface, the products never caught on to the mainstream market.

When was it decided to re-imagine the products that have now become the mocha line for Imagineer?

Even before the success of mocha for After Effects, we knew there was product confusion with too many "mo-named" products and that customers were very interested in having all of Imagineer's technology in one product at an affordable price point. In 2009, Imagineer's first CEO stepped down, allowing the new management the go ahead to implement our plans to merge all of the technology into one, 64 bit enabled product and offer it at an affordable price point. This product, mocha Pro, was released 1 year ago in November of 2010. Now we offer 3 simple products with an upgrade path to go from entry level to mocha Pro.

mocha AE - planar tracking and roto After Effects users. 
mocha - planar tracking and roto utility for all VFX artists. (adds support for high end systems like Nuke, Flame, Smoke, etc)
mocha Pro - adds advanced features for object removal, clean plating, image stabilization, lens distortion and screen insert compositing.

Could you give us a couple extreme examples of mocha in use today?

There are many examples of mocha saving the day on difficult shots. The transformation effects work that Look Effects accomplished on Black Swan was very challenging and it is great to see that mocha integrated so well into their workflow. You can see some examples of this here.

Another very recent extreme example was done on this commercial, "Watch Anywhere" for the Conan O'Brien show on TBS. There is a huge number of challenging obscured tracks in this spot and I don't really see a more efficient way to complete the work than with mocha.

Imagineer Systems has done an incredible job offering a streamlined product line with mocha, incorporating the functionality of earlier products, with a more accessible pricing structure and a much easier to learn interface. Not only that, but the website has plenty of fantastic tutorials explaining planar tracking and rotoscoping, as well as making it easy to get up and running with mocha. So, what's next for Imagineer and mocha?

Imagineer is hard at work on our v3 release for mocha AE, mocha and mocha Pro. One area that we are focusing on is roto features and management of layers and projects. With the introduction of 2D-3D conversion projects and more large scale roto customers, we have seen a large need for improved roto functions and more features for merging projects and folding layers. The v3 release will address these issues. Another area we have been researching is using the planar tracker to solve caemra motion to export to After Effects projects. This should be a popular feature among the AE community. Beyond this, we will continue to listen to our customer base and improve mocha based on their feedback. 

With your past experience, as well as from your perspective in your position with Imagineer Systems and the impact of mocha, I'm sure our readers would like to know if you have any advice for finding work in the industry?

I meet a lot of college graduates that list themselves as guru level in many software products but do not have solid demo reels. Beyond connections, the number one way to get a job in the post-industry is to have a good demo reel that shows specific examples of work. If you are looking for roto or tracking work, showing shot breakdowns and before/after examples can really help a potential employer understand your level of proficiency.  A glaring no-no is using footage from classes or product training on your demo reel. If you don't have good examples, make some original work and share it. We've seen amazing amateur work shared on social media sites and if the work is good enough, someone will take notice.

For more information:


Nick C. Sorbin is a digital artist, sculptor, writer, and Managing Editor for Renderosity's CG Industry News.
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