Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
And Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
These were some of the most visually spectacular blockbusters of the last 20 years. Hilmar Koch worked on all of them–and more–at the special effects company ILM, where he spent almost 20 years as the technology director of the Advanced Development Group at ILMxLAB.
Koch is an Academy Sci-Tech Award winner who developed some of the foundational technology that makes modern-day computer-generated graphics look as if they’re glowing from sources of actual light. He was also an early pioneer in virtual production that was used in Avatar in the early aughts, which allows a director to look through a screen and see an actor, covered in ping-pong balls, as the virtual creature or monster he will be seen as on screen. Later, he began experimenting in VR, helping create ILM’s first VR production, Jurassic World, released in 2015.
But this April, Koch moved on to start somewhere new: Autodesk, the maker of software like Maya and 3DSMax, which is used by many in the special effects industry. His goal? To completely rethink the way stories are produced.
“I feel I’m a bit of a frontiersman,” he says. “I’m always searching for that area that’s not been explored yet. This will be a thread through my career.”
At Autodesk, Koch runs a newly formed division called Narrativa. For the time being, it’s less of a product development team that’s expected to ship a product than it is a skunkworks lab for Autodesk. As of today, the group is just half a dozen people. “I’m looking for heroes, essentially, willing to try new things,” he says.
And that’s essential to his mission, which is to get ahead of where Hollywood is today, to build the tools they’ll want tomorrow.
“It’s a different team than anything else Autodesk has ever built, because Autodesk is a focused-on-engineering, making-tools-that-work company, very much about getting customers [products] to make them successful day to day,” says Koch. “[That] leaves little time asking, ‘what’s next after tomorrow? How do you actually tell stories now that the industry and all of technology is in a major shift, with machine learning and new interaction methods?'”
This shift is a real problem. The traditional studio is no longer just filming movies that will go to movie theaters, and then maybe a home video. It’s producing brief, sometimes interactive content for mobile. It’s handling endless terabytes of data necessary for creating 360-degree virtual reality shorts. And it’s often blending comic book storylines into films, into video games, into amusement park rides, and back. Hollywood is facing unprecedented challenges of scale and scope, spurred by what they need to produce both technologically and creatively.
“There are stories everywhere that feed one another’s universe,” says Koch. “Toy Story now has many, many more characters than in the beginning . . . Imagine needing to write another Toy Story, and not contradicting something that happened in the past?”
Even a company like Google is just beginning to fathom how a technology like artificial intelligence might affect its business, and Google’s business is, in many ways, specifically AI. Koch speaks broadly, and doesn’t claim to have the answer to how all these disparate technologies will merge for entertainment, but every now and again, he’ll drop a breadcrumb as to where the team is going.
“There’s almost a resurgence of computer-aided design,” says Koch. “The computer just aids you, not as a pesky assistant, but as a tool. And it puts wind under my wings when I’m in search of my story, my purpose, in transcendence.”
Transcendence. It is, like Koch’s own ephemeral vision, a term too broad and vague for most of us to even fathom. Yet, from the tenor of his voice, you can tell: It’s the only sort of word on par with Koch’s wild, if unexplained, ambitions–ambitions that he and just a few other people are attempting to develop within Autodesk right now. The early experiments will be tested through Hollywood partners. But eventually, Koch would like to build those experiences into Autodesk’s own products–products that he would like to see everyone using, not just the creative elite.
“I think I have ideas that will one day really be effective and used by people, not just professionals, but all who are aspiring storytellers,” says Koch. “There’s an aspiring storyteller in each one of us. We’re biologically predisposed for that–it gives us, at the end of the day, transcendence and meaning of life.”