Outlook: Creating a robust material interchange for next-gen media
Jonathan Stone
Issue: November/December 2022

Outlook: Creating a robust material interchange for next-gen media

As a longtime rendering engineer at the Lucasfilm Advanced Development Group (ADG), I’ve had the chance to work on shows across a wide variety of platforms and media, including The Mandalorian, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run. One of the most exciting developments in recent years has been the evolution of the industry towards open standards that can connect all of these platforms, with the MaterialX project at the Academy Software Foundation being a central example.

Originally developed at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) and now hosted by the Academy Software Foundation, the simplest definition of MaterialX is that it’s a way to express materials independently of any one application or renderer so that materials can be accurately expressed and transferred between different environments. At a studio like Lucasfilm, this is critical for maintaining the look of a material as it travels between applications in a content pipeline, for transferring materials between different rendering environments, and for archiving materials in a digital backlot for reuse far into the future. MaterialX helps to ensure that the definition of a material asset is clear and unambiguous, including important details such as physically based shading behaviors, color space interpretations, and backwards compatibility as the field of computer graphics evolves.

One key standard that’s closely aligned with MaterialX is Pixar’s USD, which can be used for robust interchange of geometry, animation and lighting in content pipelines, but which lacked a full material representation until its integration of MaterialX. We’ve long been working with our colleagues at Pixar to make the pairing of USD and MaterialX a strong combination of standards for the future, and we’re excited to see support for this ecosystem rapidly progressing in tools such as Maya, Houdini, Clarisse, Omniverse and Unreal Engine. 

A second standard that we believe will be important going forward is glTF from the Khronos Group, which is focused on efficient delivery of 3D scenes for the web. We think there’s a great future for MaterialX materials to be combined with glTF geometry where both standards can be leveraged in 3D web frameworks.

In 2021, MaterialX became a hosted project of the Academy Software Foundation, and this has provided huge benefits to the level of community discussion and focus on the project. The Technical Steering Committee for MaterialX now includes representatives from Autodesk, SideFX, Epic Games, Sony Pictures, ILM, Pixar, Apple, Nvidia and AMD, with a robust discussion of new ideas on the MaterialX channel of the Academy Software Foundation Slack. We’re very excited to see how this project evolves in the future, and you can stay up to date or propose new contributions at https://materialx.org/ or https://github.com/AcademySoftwareFoundation/MaterialX.

Jonathan Stone is the Lead Rendering Engineer at the Lucasfilm Advanced Development Group, and Lead Developer for MaterialX at the Academy Software Foundation. The mission of the ASWF is to increase the quality and quantity of open source contributions by developing a governance model, legal framework and community infrastructure that lowers the barrier to entry for developing and using open source software.