Refining the CG pipeline, the Core of MentalCore

Interview with CoreCG on MentalCore

Oktobor Animation, Auckland, New Zealand's largest animation studio, responsible for the likes of Nickelodeon's series' "Kung Fu Panda" and "The Penguins of Madagascar," found the need to tighten up their CG pipeline in response to an increasing workload. It was in 2010 that Corey Frew joined Oktobor Animation as technical director, developing tools and helping in refining Oktobor Animation's pipeline, which led directly to the creation of research and development group, CoreCG, and its flagship product MentalCore.

MentalCore, starting from an idea conceived by Corey to improve the usage of mental ray and Autodesk's Maya, quickly found favorable response through its beta release. Now, with MentalCore seeing official release, I decided to find out a bit more about MentalCore directly from the founders of CoreCG: Jason Adams, Pipeline Director, Corey Frew, Supervising Technical Director, and Chris Waters, Director of Business Development.

In a nutshell, what is MentalCore?

MentalCore is a cross-platform, shading, lighting and rendering plugin designed to help artists work more efficiently between NVIDIA® mental ray® and Autodesk® Maya®.  It was developed in R&D at Oktobor Animation to eliminate common CG pipeline bottlenecks and complicated workarounds, and allows artists to devote more of their time to the quality of their work and spend less time troubleshooting.

Who is MentalCore aimed for?

It’s for anyone looking for an efficient and affordable solution to optimize the Maya and mental ray workflow. Our user base is expansive – ranging from the independent animation artist to small, midsize and even large studios.

Of course, in a production environment, getting up-to-speed quickly on the software in use is ideal. How easy is it to learn and use Mental Core?

If you’re familiar with Maya and mental ray, there isn’t a huge learning curve, because the MentalCore interface is similar, but it offers an easier workflow. Even a beginner could quickly learn to create great renders. We also have a YouTube channel that hosts multiple video tutorials to help get you started, and our tech team offers great support.

How did it all start? What initially sparked the idea to develop what is now Mental Core?

The driving force behind MentalCore came from the challenges we faced in setting up render passes with our former toolset. On a number of projects using conventional tools, we constantly struggled to achieve the aesthetic we wanted in a quick and easy fashion. Rather than adopt a new renderer, our Supervising Technical Director Corey Frew conceived the idea to construct a new pipeline that would solve some of these problems. With help from the New Zealand Ministry of Science and Innovation, Corey and our R&D team, overseen by Creative and Technical Director Jason Adams, began to develop a render pass system with advanced shaders to accelerate the creation of quality renders. Eventually we continued to evolve the pipeline further, adding lighting tools and other features, until it grew into the comprehensive solution as you know it today – MentalCore.

After seeing measurable, favorable results in-house, we knew this breakthrough plugin could deliver the same results we were seeing in house to other artists working with Maya and mental ray, so we made MentalCore available to artists, studios and educational institutions around the world.

After a year-long beta phase and now seeing official release, how has Mental Core been received so far?

Feedback has been fantastic; we’ve received rave reviews from our user base and outlets like Renderosity and 3D World Magazine. In terms of features, our surveys indicate that the render pass system has been the biggest draw for users; they appreciate the clean layout in the render settings, ease of use for setting up render passes, and the access of render parameters that are obfuscated in mental ray.

How much improvement are we talking about in the production pipeline, with the use of Mental Core?

MentalCore fills so many holes in a studio’s pipeline that would otherwise require scripting and advanced programming knowledge (E.g something simple like outputting sss front/mid/back pass).  It’s not just a matter of saving time, but it also adds new capabilities to a studio that might not have the time or resource to achieve the look they require.

Certainly, there is a great need for tools that solve production issues and allow for more concentration on creativity. Are there any specific examples you could provide on Mental Core in use, or where it has really 'saved the day'?

Just last week we heard from a team from Filmakademie Baden Wuerttemberg, Germany, who produced a series of short films and had a limited amount of time and resources for the project. They planned to have Ambient Occlusion and some kind of GI for a realistic-look, but needed to ensure their renderer supported transparency without requiring too much effort. MentalRay for Maya doesn’t handle transparency very well out-of-the-box when combiend with pass and ambient occlusion, so they researched solutions and ultimately found MentalCore. They downloaded the trial, ran a few tests and were instantly impressed with the seamless integration of MentalCore and how quickly it resolved their problems.

In shading, they found the core_material much simpler to use than any mental ray material and were impressed with the results incorporating subsurface scattering, custom specular shaders (which were a key aspect to the furry look of their characters) as well as displacement, bump and normal maps. In lighting, they were even tempted to render without any GI whatsoever, because the environment lights produced such nice results. Finally, they found the render pass system to be simple and powerful when compared to standard Maya passes. Setting up a light pass for separate lights is a matter of about 4 to 5 clicks.  Ultimately, the combination of shaders, which perfectly and easily handled cutout opacity, and the renderer/render passes (including AO and FG), which respect the cutouts, were both game savers for the project’s ambitious scale, as well as a key to creating the furry look of the characters.

What are key features of Mental Core?

Mental Core has a number of features designed to help artists create great renders fast and efficiently. Key features include: 

  • Render Globals Interface – Quickly access all of your global settings and render passes
  • Node Based Render Pass System – You can link to objects, materials and lights seamlessly with our reliable and predictable render pass system.
  • Shader Library – Achieve desired looks with a whole range of new material, texture, light and utility shaders
  • Color Management System – Easily adopt a linear color workflow
  • Preview Render Passes – Preview render passes in the renderview without the memory overhead of rendering all other passes in one go
  • Ambient Occlusion Transparency – Support for ambient occlusion with multiple levels of transparency
  • Python API – Easily integrate MentalCore into any pipeline
  • mental ray Standalone Compatibility – Compatible with mental ray standalone renderer

For a full list of features you can visit: http://core-cg.com/products/mentalcore/features/

I imagine you're already getting feedback on what folks would like to see in future versions. Is there anything you could talk about that is being worked on for a future release?

We continue to receive great feedback from our customer base. Last week we released version 1.3.  In addition to new features for Maya 2011 and 2012, the updated MentalCore now supports Maya 2013, along with a range of new features and shaders only available in 2013.  You can read more about the update on our documentation page:  http://core-cg.com/support/mental-core-documentation/.

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