Interview: Stewart McSherry on the roots of Xfrog

Oct 08, 2015 at 08:53 pm by -gToon

Xfrog's organic modeling system has been a key part of the visual effects industry for almost 20 years now. We spoke to co-creator Stewart McSherry about this incredible software.

How did you get into 3D Art?

I started programming at 17 on the very first PCs - Radio Shack machines, which came before Apple and IBM! At 18 I started studying computer science, and dove in very deep.

After a few years I decided I needed to do something with my programming skills, so I took an art and design class, along with media studies.

That changed my life. I found that I could use programming to make amazing color studies. I learned what people were doing with color and design, and in media studies I found out about experimental filmmakers - and I've been obsessed ever since.

I gave up programming after university and started using whatever 3D software I could find. Back then that was Cubicomp, AKA Powertracer, and a few others. I could not afford a machine so I taught computer graphics classes and helped small companies get started, so I could get access to SGI machines and PC-based Cubicomp machines. By 1986 I had keys to five different small facilities, each with one SGI or Cubicomp!

I went from that to showing my artwork to folks and getting access to the San Diego supercomputer center. Those same images got me into the SGI Briefing Center in Mountain View, where I did a large body of work.

How did you get involved with Xfrog?

By the 90s , I was heavily involved in creating art with computers, especially abstract raytraced glass-like structures impossible to make by hand.

I was always looking for new tools and I ran across Xfrog for SGI computers. I tried to use it but ran into several problems and I could not get any customer support so I gave up. But I didn't forget the software.

I moved to France to make art with Alias|Wavefront Paris, who were working on Maya 1.0. Then I moved to Berlin for a residency at ART+COM, a well known VR company. I contacted the author of Xfrog, Bernd Lintermann, and finally heard something back.

He came to Berlin and gave a demo that blew my mind. He had invented a totally unique approach to 3D modeling and animation. I decided to switch from using Xfrog to making what he was doing into a company effort. I moved to a small town where he worked, and built a company with Bernd and his professor, Oliver Deussen, who had also seen the light.

I ported the software to PC, and hired a team of people who knew nothing about computers. They were tree folks, botanists, fresh out of university, and we taught them how to use Xfrog and let them go. They've created the 3000 plants of Xfrog over the past 19 years. Plants which have been "refreshed" four times now, and each time they've become more complex.

How do people use Xfrog?

The average user likes to purchase our plants and use them as-is. They are available in 12 formats and the shaders are setup to simply drag and drop, render the scene.

We have a subset of users who like to edit the tree branching to their needs. All 3,000 trees come in 12 formats, but also have procedural files that can be easily edited in Xfrog standalone software for Windows. The main use is ready to render plants for nearly all formats of 3D software, and ability to edit the plants.

The primary users are film effects companies and architectural firms. But we do have Cinema4D and Maya users who create content with our software from scratch, or animate our plants.

What is it about art that you love?

Occasionally, all the ideas and randomness flow, and software lines it up together and it creates beauty.

What does art mean to you?

It is the outlet that keeps me young. I obsessively seek out great artists and their work. I stopped creating art 20 years ago - but I am finally starting again.

How did you become so passionate about art and why?

I think it was just the polar opposite to programming classes and I really loved the challenge of trying to combine the two fields.

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