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Ask the Artists - Thomas Heinrich

17.05.2017

Thomas Heinrich is a long-time Ventuz Artist and co-founder of Glare Productions and Glare Technologies. He has gained a reputation as an apt artist and animator, but is also known for creating plug-ins for Ventuz, such as the very popular shader package that Glare Technologies sells via the Ventuz Store. We spoke to Thomas about his early years in the demo scene and how his experiences from those days still affect him today.

Ventuz:
You are a true child of the demo scene. For everyone who is not familiar, could you tell us a little bit about the demo scene and your experiences?

Thomas:
I first came in contact with computers at the age of 15 or 16 and almost instantly became a member of the demo scene. We were basically a bunch of kids who used their Commodore 64s or Ataris to create funky graphics, games and music, all with the goal of pushing the hardware to its limits. Some of us were designers, some were programmers, some were musicians, and we came together in groups, collaborated on our demos and then showed them to each other at meetings and conventions. We were young, so this was mainly non-professional, but we were the pioneers for video games and computer graphics as they exist nowadays. You can look in any games lab today, and you will find someone who started out in the demo scene.

Ventuz:
Does that mean you really started your career at 15?

Thomas:
Sort of. It was briefly interrupted when I tried to pursue a “real job”. I trained as a coal miner, a traditional family occupation. Nonetheless I never stopped being a nerd and designing computer games. It quickly became clear that there was money to be made in this area, so I quit the mine and became a freelance graphic designer at 18.

Ventuz:
What were the projects you were involved in back then?

Thomas:
I went through many different stages of occupation, worked as a freelancer, was hired by companies, founded my own company and sold it again, but throughout the entire time I mainly worked on games. Some were wildly successful, like the first Mission Impossible game for Sony Playstation. Back then, teams were small and the atmosphere was very innovative. I was there when 3D emerged and became popular. We were among the first to use motion capturing for animation. It was a crazy and very inspiring time.

Ventuz:
When did you found Glare Studios?

Thomas:
In 2006. I had been working as a freelancer in Hamburg and had met Christoph Mütze in the demo scene. He introduced me to his group, they called themselves Farbrausch, and I became active in the demo scene again. He was a freelancer as well, and we were encountering the same problems: projects of unmanageable size, downtimes between jobs and problems to find new customers. So, we decided to start Glare Studios as a loose cooperation of freelancers that would enable us to realize larger projects as a team. Everyone brought their customers and we all benefited from everyone’s experience and contacts.

Ventuz:
How and when did you shift from games into the professional events market?

Thomas:
It started out with Glare and through my contact to Christoph. He introduced me to the agency Stereolize for whom he had done a few jobs. I accompanied him for one of the Microsoft CeBit presentations, where our main job was to create 3D models for use in Ventuz. I had never heard of Ventuz before, I had always worked with hand-coded environments. I liked the software, it was perfect for the workflows in the events market. Especially in terms of efficiency, Ventuz was exciting, and both Christoph and I started to specialize in it.

Ventuz:
That must have been quite a change from working with custom code only to a node-based software.

Thomas:
It was, but I managed to combine the two. After I had wrapped my head around the software, I started to have ideas about how to improve Ventuz by adding some of the effects I knew from the demo scene and our own game engines. Together with our programmers (first Bastian Zühlke and later Sebastian Rouaiha) I founded Glare Technologies as a lab for Ventuz plug-ins and add-ons. We started with a particle system, a physics engine and shader packages. Some of them were sold via a small online shop, others were so complicated that they were impossible to sell. But they allowed us to take our content to the next level and add visual value to our projects. We have also programmed tools to simplify our workflow, such as database interfaces, control tools and hardware implementations. This set us apart from other artists then, and I believe it still does today.

Ventuz:
You have recently turned Glare from a loose cooperation of freelancers into a real company. Does that mean you have settled down?

Thomas:
It certainly provides more security. We have grown older, some of us have families now. But we have made sure to avoid a classic hierarchy with one boss and many subordinates. That would have been against our philosophy. Instead, every member of the company is a shareholder and we distribute tasks due to our expertise. Today, we are a team of six and still often rely on the many freelancers we know. We also closely cooperate with other companies from the industry. But we do understand ourselves as a full-service agency and have realized some impressive projects.

Ventuz:
What kind of projects do you focus on today?

Thomas:
Ventuz is our main software tool, so basically anything that can be done with Ventuz. We try to be as diverse as possible. Our portfolio ranges from showrooms to presentations and broadcast projects. We have both small and large projects, both familiar environments and complete novelties. I enjoy a good balance of challenges and easier jobs. Variety is important to me.

Ventuz:
What does your pipeline look like?

Thomas:
That really differs from project to project. What I can say for all of them: we have mostly turned away from scribbles or storyboard drawings. Instead, we conceptualize directly inside Ventuz. Some customers find that odd and expect a storyboard, but they quickly understand that Ventuz allows us to work faster and we don’t need to translate anything from an external tool into Ventuz later. So, Ventuz serves as our previz tool. Our next step would be to evaluate whether we can simplify our workflow by programming certain elements of the project. From there, we distribute tasks and get going.

Ventuz:
What is your personal position in the Glare pipeline?

Thomas:
I often take a major role in planning a project, coming up with a concept and pitching it to the client. But I am also involved in content creation. My background as a freelancer has left me with many skills, so I see myself as an allrounder, but my favorite task would be animation. Back in the day, I did a lot of motion capturing for character animation. It left me with a good sense for timing, which might be the single most important asset for creating good animations. Even if you just want to move something across a screen or make a button react, you need to have a feeling for speed, especially in regard to the size of your screen.

Ventuz:
You have been very active in VR technology. In February, Glare accompanied us to ISE in Amsterdam, where you showed a few VR demos in Ventuz. Tell us about your experiences with this technology.

Thomas:
VR has become an important part of our workload, but it is not yet dominating our days. With Ventuz, creating VR content is quite simple, and I do enjoy it, although you need to approach a project very differently when you are working in the virtual reality. We have recently designed an entire VR game, which gave us very important insight into the technology and taught us a lot about what is possible and what should be avoided, what makes people fall on their faces or what nauseates them. But most of the VR projects we have done were smaller installations for trade shows. Not quite big business yet.

Ventuz:
What other technologies are you excited about?

Thomas:
Transparent displays are certainly a huge topic everywhere, but I am not sure that they excite me. I am eager to see what VR will bring, especially in the demo scene. 360 degree films will also be interesting, I am sure some innovative filmmakers are coming up with some amazing ideas right now. But to be honest, new gadgets are nice, but not all that important. The demo scene boy in me gets excited when he produces something where people say: That is impossible, how did you do that? I love it when I can let my creative juices flow.

Ventuz:
What are your plans for Glare Productions?

Thomas:
We don’t have a ten-year business plan. But I would like to dabble more in the broadcast market, mainly because it is new to me. Processes are much more structured than in the events market. There is more time for preparations and concepts. Plus, I am very interested in the technological surroundings, system integrations – a broadcast station is a whole new, highly sophisticated environment. We have been involved in the production of an election show with dynamic data integration and interactive technology. It was a very challenging project, I would love to do more of that. But I am also eager to see what will happen in our core market – interactive installations for exhibitions, shows and events. With every technological improvement, our job becomes a little more exciting.

Ventuz:
Are you still active in the demo scene?

Thomas:
I am. The Farbrausch Team is currently working on a new custom engine, with which we plan to create demos in the future. In the meantime, I follow what other people are doing. It is always an inspiring experience for me to see how people push the envelope of visual technology. Plus, the atmosphere in the demo scene is always great. Everyone is open and likes to share their ideas, and everything you learn helps you make your own content better. I enjoy this collaborative spirit, and I wish there was more of it around Ventuz. Don’t get me wrong, I love working with Ventuz, but in my opinion more plug-in developers would liven up the industry. But I do understand that Ventuz is not created for this. Nonetheless, I am always happy when I can work with Ventuz, and I hope our develop-ments help others to make great content.

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