Interview Jonas Kluger
It is obvious that you put a lot of thought, know-how and experience into “das element”. Can you tell us a little bit about your background and your industry experience which enabled you to create such a powerful tool?
Starting out as an artist, I have moved to work as an VFX Editor and - becoming more technical - ended in the position as a Pipeline TD. I have worked on feature films such as Marvel’s The Avengers, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Transformers: The Last Knight.
On my journey I discovered the need for a VFX library software. With the focus on the technical side but the passion for the creative, I have always been a fan of smart and easy workflows supported by useful tools. Sadly, I couldn’t find a suitable solution that checked all my boxes. That’s when I decided to roll up my sleeves and build it myself!
It took me 3 years, a brief career change into software development and countless hours of perfecting the software with many beta testers around the world to finally present my own VFX library software. das element.
What is 'das element' and what makes it so special?
The asset library software ‘das element', which is fully cross-platform compatible, is especially designed for VFX. It works great with image sequences and EXR files as well as spherical maps (as of the most recent release) and comes with an AI tagging option. The artists can use the pre-defined tags and categories and even search for synonyms to find the correct category. Everything can be customized to the company's needs. You can keep your existing library structure or use the recommended naming convention and folder structure that the software provides, which is developed by many years of experience building element libraries. You can send the transcoding jobs to the render farm (e.g. Deadline) and use Nuke to do the rendering.
The biggest point that makes ‘das element' so special, is that it is first and foremost built for the VFX community. I have often witnessed VFX studios try to adapt the existing tools out there to the VFX workflows by force. Way too many compromises are made and something always doesn’t quite work in the end. Bigger studios might build their own proprietary solutions, which takes up a lot of time for the TDs and developers to create. Smaller studios often lack such resources and existing tools are their last resort.
So yes, understanding the VFX workflow and building something that is useful for us was very important.
How will it benefit a VFX artist?
Freelance artists often move from one company to another. Each time the artists have to adapt to the studios workflows. Very often, the libraries are “historically grown“, which means that everything is spread over different servers and network shares. Artists that have worked in a company for many years know where to find what they are looking for but freelancers might have a hard time figuring that out. They are often told to “just look it up in the documentation/wiki“ when they have a question.
Very often you need additional elements when you are already in a crunch time and there is no more time to create CG renderings for a shot. Working efficiently can be critical in these cases. Wouldn’t it be great if we had one tool that is the same in each studio for the asset library? That could save a lot of time to even find out where the element library is and how to access it.
An asset library is only as good as the tagging for the elements. That’s why the software makes it very easy to tag and find elements. With the synonyms-search-feature for each category, artists will easily find the correct elements they are looking for. As a supervisor or lead artist you can create collections of elements and share it with your team.
What sets the software apart from other asset management tools?
If you've ever looked for a library software for VFX, you've probably noticed that, unfortunately, there is no perfect solution for our industry's needs. Most of them can't even handle image sequences or OpenEXR files.
The software operates fully offline which makes it perfect when working for TV series and features that have strict NDAs. All the data stays on the companies servers and nothing goes into the Cloud or similar.
There is no need for a special hardware that you need to purchase to even access the media asset management application, like other systems do. It is fairly easy to set up for IT since all licenses are floating (using the RLM license server) and they don’t have to struggle with node-locked licenses for each workstation.
Also, it has an open and pipeline friendly system with a Python API for full flexibility. There are no proprietary formats or encrypted databases. All assets are available at all times and the information in the database and configuration files are also stored in common formats. This ensures that one can continue to access the data even if the license should ever expire. The Pipeline TDs can easily open the config files with a text editor, make changes and include them in a version control system such as Git or Perforce.
It took a great effort to make the configuration of the folder structures and the transcoding task simple and visually appealing. On one hand, it's really fun to create your naming convention with the so-called 'Path Builder'. On the other hand, it reduces a lot of work using the predefined structure. Other applications often make this process too technical and time consuming. Simple and intuitive with the fun factor is my approach.
Settings / Integration
How does it integrate with a VFX Pipeline and can I connect to other software applications like the renderfarm?
The nice thing about 'das element' is that you can actually use it with any other software. It is a stand-alone application and there are no special plug-ins needed.
On the one hand you want to search your library and simply import the elements into another software. To do this, you mark the selected elements in 'das element' and can now drag and drop them into the desired application.
The second situation is the process of adding new elements into the library and that depends strongly on the particular studio's needs. These can include anything from a simple copy from A to B, a "leave my files where they are", to complex operations like custom transcoding processes on the render farm to use Nuke to convert everything to an OpenEXR sequence with ACEScg Colorspace to afterwards sync everything to another facility and then perhaps create an entry in FTrack or Autodesk Shotgrid (formerly Shotgun). With the custom commands you are completely free on what you want to achieve. E.g. use soft/hard links instead of copying files , run your own python scripts as ingest processors etc.
There is a GitHub repository with helpful examples-scripts for job-submissions for AWS Deadline. You can use them as a starting point for sending transcoding tasks to the renderfarm. (https://github.com/das-element/resources)
If you need even more advanced configuration, you can always use hooks or the API (supporting both Python 2 & 3) of the software with your own custom scripts. This makes it possible to use the APIs of another product and allows you to create very powerful setups!
Can I use it with my existing library structure and how flexible is the tool?
Absolutely! You can bring your own existing library and proxy files! The naming convention, folder structure and transcoding templates are freely configurable to the companies needs. You can even use your own custom pipeline scripts for rendering proxy files. An existing library can be imported with all the existing tags and categories.
A minimum requirement of the software ist that there are thumbnails for each element. All the information is saved in a database which increases performance when browsing the library. For movie clips and image sequences it's recommended to render a so-called 'filmstrip'. The entire clip gets reduced to 24 frames for a quick preview of the element. You are probably used to other software applications to hover over an item and get a quick preview when scrubbing through the element.
What exactly happens during the ingest?
A core feature of the software is the process of ingesting new elements. With the ingest view, you can easily add new elements into an organized file system. With its complex yet user-friendly interface, 'das element' offers you maximum control on how to set up your library structure.
Simply drag & drop the files you want to add to your library into the ingest-view. The software automatically takes care of all validation of the media files for your. Detecting first and last frames for file sequences, getting the resolution and so on. You will get a preview for each element that allows you to quickly do the tagging. Most of the time, it is the hardest part to tag all your elements in order to keep your library organized. With ‘das element’, this process is now super easy!
During the ingest phase of an new element, it will be registered to the database and depending on the transcoding tasks, the main element and the proxy files will be generated. With custom transcoding commands, you are completely free on how to convert your files. Using Nuke on the renderfarm is probably a good approach and you have full control over the colorspace conversions if you like.
Tags, Categories & Hierarchy Tree
Each company has to reinvent the wheel when dealing with tags and categories for the assets. How can the software help with that issue?
The beauty of the creative industry is that we come together from all over the world. Evolving on this union, the software will focus on finding a common dictionary that unites all our languages and preferences and will propose a workflow and smart way to deal with tags and categories for artists to quickly find the right elements for the shot.
The software comes with a huge set of predefined tags, categories and their synonyms that are most commonly used in VFX. Since most category names like smoke, fire and debris are commonly known to all artists around the world, we built a system that underlines the importance of the understanding of this terminology. On one hand, there is a hierarchy tree that is structured on the actual order of categories, on the other hand it is optimized for the commonly used vocabulary in the VFX industry.
The software uses descriptions and synonyms for each category from a publicly domain knowledge base. Wikidata IDs play an important role here. Behind every Wikipedia page is a specific Wikidata entry. The advantages of using data from this publicly domain knowledge base are description texts, synonyms and translations in different languages.
The software ships with its own machine learning model to automatically tag VFX elements. What’s that all about?
While most machine learning models on the market are qualified to recognize common objects, it is not very practical in a visual effects’ day to day workflow. However, we can use the custom machine learning model from 'das element' that is specifically trained on thousands of VFX elements. Not only does it pinpoint main categories like smoke, but also its child categories such as fume, wisp or steam by using the previously mentioned categories and hierarchy tree.
I quickly realized that I have to come up with my own dataset of VFX elements. For three years I continuously tried to grow the inhouse element library. Finding enough elements for certain categories is not that simple. For ‘fire' or ’flame' you get tons of data. The footage for nuclear explosions or VFX portals is however very limited. For machine learning it's important that you have a well distributed set of samples for each category.
Sometimes I can’t find enough elements on the internet. Taking pictures at a family BBQ party or photos of a container with debris while walking down the street, helps to collect more data.
What is planned for the future and how can I make feature requests or suggestions?
There is lots of stuff planned for the future. The community will play a big part in this. Nobody knows the requirements for a library software better than the artist using it on a daily basis. Feedback and ways to improve the tool are highly welcome.
Adding the support for OCIO for example is already on the roadmap. I have also seen a huge demand for 3D assets and finding a way to organize them efficiently. That’s definitely something to be integrated in the future.
On the website you will find a sidebar-menu that gives you a sneak peak into the roadmap, the developments that are currently in progress and what’s planned to come next. You can also submit your own ideas and suggestions on how to improve the software.
If someone wants to give it a try, what's the best place to start?
For those who want to know more about 'das element' and want to see how it works in action can schedule a live demo on the website (www.das-element.com). To do this, simply select an available date and time from the calendar. With the confirmation mail you will receive a Zoom link.
I personally take a lot of time to present the software and discuss all questions and use cases during the live demo call. If you want to try out the software, you will find an email address on the website where you can request a 30-day trial version. The trial version offers the full scope, you can test the software extensively and learn to love it.