What I learned from writing SW for professional digital artists

Posted by on Mar 4, 2013 in Blog | No Comments

My Master’s thesis in CS was “Painterly Rendering with a Painter’s Perspective”, a rendering algorithm that created a “painting” out of an image. As a student, I believed my goal as a SWE was to create algorithms that did everything and didn’t need user input.


Image from my thesis.

After Brown, I went to work for Rhythm & Hues Studios, one of the main VFX houses, where I quickly learned that artists want control over algorithms – they don’t want a black box.

When I was writing a subsurface scattering render, based on Jensen’s paper, I exposed all the levers to the algorithm. The algorithm simulates how light bounces around below the surface of objects and has many non-linear inputs.

diana_brdf copy

Without(L) and with(R) subsurface scattering. image via Jensen. 

By giving the artist all the levers, I overwhelmed them and took away their control. I went back and hid most of the inputs and the render is now constantly being used to add the right look to translucent materials.

We want to make users feel in control but not overwhelmed. The key is to find the right balance.

Apple is an expert at finding the right balance and Instagram is a great example of an app that gives us just enough control to make it fun to use.

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