Mental Ray’s Struggle for Relevance in VFX
In case you haven’t been paying attention, Mental Ray is a sinking ship. The announcement by nVidia last year that Mental Images was being reformed as the Advanced Rendering Center was not the death rattle that many depicted it as, but the break in continuity came at a time when confidence in Mental Ray was at an all time low. Users were already greedily eying the competition and the news set off a growing avalanche of defectors. Luma Pictures was among them: last year we made the switch to Solid Angle’s Arnold and it’s been a refreshing experience (more on that to come in future posts). Prior to the switch, I used Mental Ray in production as both a lighter and a developer for over 8 years and it helped us produce some beautiful imagery, most recently in Marvel’s Thor, our last show using it as our primary renderer. Since then, I’ve thought a lot about what went wrong and a bit about what could be done to fix things, and I’ve come to a somewhat counter-intuitive conclusion: the best way to save a limb may be to cut it off.
Even employees of Mental Images that I’ve spoken to have admitted that something has gone astray, but they pin the blame on Autodesk and its failure to provide a quality Mental Ray plugin for Maya. While it is true that the Mayatomr plugin is bloated, crippled bugware, Mental Images must shoulder part of the blame for this: they opted to outsource this crucial task in the first place. While other renderers offer a complete package — renderer, integration, and support — Mental Images defined itself through an isolationist approach, licensing their tech en masse and outsourcing the 3rd party integration and support.
On paper, the plan seems quite convenient: Mental Images relieves itself of dealing with pesky clients and focuses on writing Mental Ray, while the developers of 3d packages like Maya and 3dsmax get an out-of-box renderer far beyond their manpower and capability to write. Unfortunately, the upshot is that the arrangement isolated Mental Images from user feedback and thus it often produced features that strayed from the mark, while Autodesk provided support and integration for a renderer that it never seemed to fully comprehend. The “man-in-the-middle” support that Autodesk provided has been the source of many headaches for end users trying to get straight answers, cut off from the actual developers of Mental Ray. Did Autodesk drop the ball? Yes. But Mental Images should have heeded the age-old adage: “if you want it done right, do it yourself”. (do they have this one in germany?)
Recently, Mental Images, now ARC, has finally recognized their flagging reputation in VFX (funny how competition does that) and has been more active about reaching out to their customers directly. As we were extricating ourselves from Mental Ray, Mental Images was pushing a new python toolset as a way to tack on functionality missing in Mayatomr. Frankly, this is just polish on a rotten apple, and it stinks of desperation. The new toolset may be gravely needed, but it manages to further the fragmentation of this already woefully fragmented renderer. Mental Ray has a bewildering array of rendering modes — ray trace, scanline, rasterizer, unified sampler, iray — each with its own look, limitations, and knobs to dial. Knowing which attributes and optimizations work for which rendering mode is an unfortunate necessity, and few lighters can claim anything close to mastery over the subject. As renderers go, Mental Ray is old, and with that age comes some serious baggage. Among other things, what newer renderers like Arnold offer is a clean slate, free of cancerous knobs and liver-spotted rasterizers. And while the news that Mental Ray guru Zap Anderson is heading to Autodesk to work on 3dsmax is good for that camp, it does little to ease industry-wide fears about Maya.
I have little doubt that the Company Formally Known as Mental Images plans to return with conviction in several years with new technology, possibly even a clean break from MR 3.x, that will attempt to leap-frog everyone else. With the current promise of IRay and the GPU expertise of nVidia, the new entry could be quite impressive. In the meantime, they can do little to stem the flow of refugees to V-Ray, Arnold, 3delight and even Maxwell. Once it finally ships, how good will the new Ray technology have to be to convince customers to switch back, so soon after leaving? I have not heard a single story of a company that switched from Mental Ray to V-Ray or Arnold and came to regret it. So where will the new customer base come from? Probably not VFX and animation, and judging from my early experience with IRay (have they added render layers yet?) and Mental Images’ previous cloud-based archviz initiatives, I don’t think we’re going to be the target market anyway. In contrast, Solid Angle has made clear that VFX and animation are Arnold’s sole market, so every bit of their development is immediately relevant to production.
I’ve heard a few users clamoring for a cheaper version of Maya sans Mental Ray. My first reaction to this was “that will never happen”. But, then again, could it? One of the biggest changes in Maya 2013 is that Mayatomr is finally a proper Maya plugin that uses all of the same hooks as other 3rd party renderers — it is no longer mashed directly into the core of Maya. While the features that were added to achieve this will benefit all 3rd party integrators, the fact that Autodesk finally made this a priority after almost a decade of Mental Ray being fused at the hip plainly shows their desire to make Maya a more fertile grounds for alternatives to Mental Ray, and technically, it does mean that Mental Ray could be completely removed from Maya.
Now that the foundations for the move are finally here, it’s a lot less crazy to consider what a Maya without Mental Ray would look like, and when you do, you begin to realize everyone would be better off. For the user it’s an obvious win. There is a healthy rendering ecosystem surrounding Maya now, so there are plenty of options to choose from. Those in favor of an alternate renderer could get a Maya at a reduced base price and put the difference toward a renderer that fits their needs and price range, while those who want Mental Ray can continue to pay the extra cash for the Mayatomr bundle. And believe it or not, this plan could benefit the developers of Mental Ray as well. As long as Mental Ray remains inseparable from Maya (and 3dsmax and XSi, for that matter) Mental Images / ARC has no clear metric of success: how many of those studios buying Maya licenses are actually using Mental Ray? If the co-licensing umbilical were severed, the company formally known as Mental Images would be forced into direct competition with other renderers, which would drive them to provide better support and produce a better product (ideally taking over control of, or rewriting, Mayatomr). That’s a big win for everyone. And Autodesk, well, they get happier customers.
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