Blair: My introduction to EI was largely due to Rand Worrell. He and I worked together at Mattel Toys back in 1992. I had heard of Electric Image from a magazine article but my exposure to 3D was limited to the primitive hacks on the Amiga computer. Here was this modest guy working away on really cool imagery. Fortunately for me, he became a mentor of sorts and he let me play with what was then a $7500 piece of software. Back then, 3D was an elitist technology. It tended to be very expensive and the people who had it guarded it and cloistered it in these high-tech temples. Rand started the very first user gathering which included some of the people from EI. This is a classic example of the $20 MBA word "networking". I started conversing with them, working on animations, beta testing, etc.
Brian: Where did the name Northern Lights come from?
Blair: Nothing really exciting here. I just always liked the phenomenon. But I never wanted a name that rigidly defined what the company did because I loath being pigeon-holed. That loathing came from certain working environments where there was a long-established hierarchy and little fiefdoms and anyone who didn't do what they were told was labeled troublemaker or worse.
Brian: How long have you been writing plugins for EIAS?
Blair: I actually started hacking code for EI before EI ever had a plugin architecture. Back then, there was this bit of Pascal software called MiniWarp that did very basic particle systems. It was a stand-alone program that spit out FACT models that you'd set up as a child-cycle model in EI. I played around enough to have the program be able to read in model data and use that as the source points for the particle system and I played that demo at SIGGraph 1993 in Anaheim. I did double duty at Mattel and on plugins for two years before I had enough money saved to do just plugins.
Brian: What's the normal process of creating a new piece of software?
Blair: Contrary to what some college professors or corporate mucky-mucks would believe (or expect), there isn't one normal way to create something. Occasionally you see something and set out to achieve that effect in a linear fashion but that's pretty rare. Usually the end-product is the result of an evolutionary process. You start with something basic, primitive, or not terribly useful and you shape it, mold it, add to it, refine it over and over again. You have to be careful though that the concept doesn't get a fatal case of creeping featuritis. People have asked me why I didn't merge several products into one and my philosophy is to try to keep it simple. Huge monolithic apps are difficult to work with unless you've been working with them from version 1.0 and already know everything
that was new in the last version.
Brian: Out of your software library, which plugin is your favorite?
Blair: That's a tough one. It's really a toss-up between Dante and Blaster. Watching stuff evolving on the screen that you couldn't possibly do by hand is really neat. That sort of made doing the RealFlow plugin worth the effort.
Brian: Does NL have any plans for new plugins in the near future?
Blair: Yes I have some ideas and there are a few things in the works that will hopefully come to fruition. I'm hoping to finish the cloth system and people still ask me for RealPeople. There are a few other things that I can't discuss too.
Brian: Your software has been utilized by hundreds of artists and on dozens of movies. How does that make you feel?
Blair: I used to get really jazzed about hearing that one of my products was used in some movie. Working with the boys at the Rebel Unit on Phantom Menace was really cool because it was all about fulfilling the boyhood fantasy of working on Star Wars. But after a while you start to get jaded because just knowing that your stuff was used doesn't really help propel the business. Hollywood is notorious for making promises that they never intend to keep. I was promised screen credit on a few films as was EI but for one reason or another it never happened.
Brian: Have you written any software for other 3D packages?
Blair: I occasionally tinker w/ APIs for other apps. This often leads to business questions such as "Can I make money doing this?" and you have to be able to answer questions like these because it takes a lot of time and effort to bring a product to market. At the end of the month, those of us who aren't starving students have bills to pay.
Brian: Do you have a favorite example of any of your software in action? Like say in a particular movie?
Blair: Star Wars is a given but I think the most impressive work was the ice asteroid chase sequence in Titan A.E. That whole sequence was done with a pre-release version of Blaster.
Brian: Northern Lights also has some other outside ventures besides plugins. Can you tell us about them?
Blair: Over the last three years, I've been developing a robot product for the law-enforcement industry. As a concept it's been a lot of fun to develop because while it's still engineering, it's completely different from 3D software. It's also frustrating because the business model is completely different. In the commercial off-the-shelf software business, when someone wants to buy your product they just go online, order it, and download it. With these robots, there's a lengthy budget approval process that the customer has to go through so for me there's a lot of "hurry up and wait". There's also manufacturing costs and inventory to buy up front.
Brian: So onto Electric Image. What's your favorite EIAS feature?
Blair: Purely and simply, the speed of things. Since day one, Camera has always left every other renderer in the dust all the while maintaining superior image quality.
Brian: You've been pretty heavily involved in the FBX additions to EIAS. What other systems are you responsible for?
Blair: I did a lot of tinkering in a lot of areas. There were a few features that were sitting on the shelf that I completed such as the image-based illuminators. The contextual menu system was one I did from scratch. Optimizing the drawing engine was probably the most satisfying though. When long-time EI users tell you that it feels like a new program, you know you've done something right.
Brian: Where could EIAS improve?
Blair: Marketing. In theory, marketing leads to sales which leads to more money for more development which results in a better product. But I'll never claim to know what the best way to do this is. It's a tough nut to crack.
Brian: Where would you like to see EITG head next?
Blair: I've said it many times over the years that the key to any product's success is effective marketing. Without it, nobody knows about your product. 3D is a bizarre type of product to sell because the prospective customers usually already have an opinion of your product even though they've never used it. EI's competitors have done well because they've been able to capitalize on product placement. For example, during Lightwave's heyday, their users were so enamored with the product that they practically believed it could cure cancer. That mentality is still unfortunately prevalent even though the product names may have changed. Even in 1992, there were app flame wars going on. Rand used to compare them to small bands of pigmies standing on their respective piles of dirt shaking spears at each other. If EITG were to get acquired, I think that could be a good thing. The next big step is going to be getting everything current with the development environments such as Xcode, Mach-O and MacTel. I'd also like to see real volumetric rendering and perhaps integrated dynamics.
Brian: Do you think EITG should take on the "big guys" or remain more of a niche software package?
Blair: The "big guys" (or is it just one big guy now) have the advantage of so-called rich parents. It's a really big challenge to compete against a company that can throw gobs of money at the product without flinching. Autodesk's market cap is over 9 billion dollars. That's billion with a really big B. It means that acquiring Alias was practically pocket change to them. It also means that they could acquire EITG which would be interesting. On the other hand, EI can continue to be the bread and butter workhorse app for the small and medium effects houses.
Brian: What's your take on the whole modeler situation? Do you think EI will embrace an internal modeler to Animator?
Blair: That would be great but again time and money are essential to making this happen. Even so, there are so many excellent modeling solutions out there. One question is why you need to merge the two. Saying that such-and-such app has it doesn't make it right. Hard-surface models almost never need an individual vertex animating around. Soft-surface models are usually animated by a bone system and a skinning engine and that's not a modeling function. So one can make the point that it's more of a convenience than necessity. Having said that, a much more robust model asset handler would be a good idea so you could do things like "re-import" a model even though significant changes have been made.
Brian: What's your dream EIAS feature?
Blair: The "John Knoll" button. I actually found the code for it. It's written in an obscure language that nobody understands anymore. But I did unearth a sandstone tablet that tells you how to read it. But as you can see, the top portion is missing.
Brian: Do you have any secret little functions or favorite tips you can
share with us on any piece of your software?
Blair: Well, if you add Ubershape to a project while holding down command-option-= with one hand on the second full moon in the month in the fall while standing on your head and whistling the theme song to Bridge on the River Kwai backwards in four-part harmony, it generates the most amazing space ships and character animation that would make all other 3D app users chartreuse with envy.
Brian: Do you plan to continue writing software 10 years from now? What do you see yourself doing?
Blair: 10 years from now I plan to be living on a 30,000 acre ranch in Wyoming. Seriously, technology has come so far in the last 10 years that it's hard to fathom what we're going to be able to do. Case in point, developing these robots required a great deal of searching for special parts such as motors, electronics, batteries, etc. I can't imagine how companies were able to design stuff without the internet and it wasn't that long ago that you had to do all the legwork by hand. Now you can pretty much design anything and find a place online that will make it for you.
Brian: Tell us a little about your personal life.
Blair: The details of my life are in..con..se..quen..tial. I grew up in fairly rural New Jersey but was fortunate to attend a private school in New York. They had computers which back in the late 70s was pretty unusual. They also had a pretty sophisticated theatre for a school so I got a taste for that. Who knew that I would combine the two later in life. I went on to Boston University and got a Bachelor of Science in Computer Engineering and Master of Science in Software Engineering. Eventually I ended up in L.A. working for Mattel Toys and subsequently out on my own. Now I'm attempting to combine engineering w/ a love for radio-control vehicles and make a living off of it. If there's a life-lesson there it's to try doing something that you love.
Brian: What do you think the future of CG is?
Blair: We'll see a lot more real-time stuff coming down the pike. The display card companies are constantly pushing the envelop and now we have a dedicated physics chip. Multi-processor machines are quickly becoming standard equipment so in many ways the hardware has caught up to and surpassed the software. Still, doing 3D is hard. I doubt there will ever be an i3D tool from Apple because it's not something every new father needs to do like editing home videos of the kids. That's not to say that Apple isn't going to have a professional level offering. Consolidation is also happening as we've seen with Autodesk buying Alias.
Brian: Any particularly fond moments you'd like to share about you and EI?
Blair: The old days of SIGGraph when the field was wide open before everything was commonplace. Also the first time I got to go to Skywalker Ranch was an experience I'll never forget.
Thanks for the interview Blair. Checkout Blair's website at: