Monday, January 5, 2009
Interview with Mike Starkenburg, Image Metrics
Story by Benjamin F. Kuo
Los Angeles-based Image Metrics (www.image-metrics.com) recently landed a $6.5M, Series B funding round for the firm's facial animation products. We spoke with CEO Mike Starkenburg -- a former venture capitalist at the Sprout Group and longtime reader of our newsletter -- about the firm and its technology and how it's revolutionizing facial animation in both computer games and the movies.
Tell us about your facial animation technology and how it's used?
Mike Starkenburg: The company was founded in 2000, and was started in Manchester, UK, by a handful of computer vision specialists. They literally spent a couple of years playing with various computer vision solutions, all over the place--ranging from license plate trackers, golf swing analyzers, healthcare, security, and then they had this animation thing. What happened over the last few years, is they focused more and more on the animation, and spun out their healthcare efforts, and where we are now is we are completely focused on computer vision applied to digital character animation in game and film.
The magic that this technology brings, is that it can analyze--frame-by-frame--a video, and pull out all of these changes happening and map that to a digital character. The hart part of this, is a face moves so subtly. If you look at animation in a game, a lot of the body movement is fairly gross--you have big movements, which add some meaning but not a lot. But, when you look at a face, your mind is subconsciously doing a thousand calculations a second, and trying to figure out what that face is saying to you. That's difficult to get across right now with animation with games and film. Today, most people are doing this by hand. They literally have really talented artists, who do a pixel-by-pixel move of a face. It's painstaking, and expensive, and hard to do right--so most people just don't do it. When you look at some video games, they get around this by putting helmets on a character, or shooting the character over the back of their head to avoid this problem. We're pretty excited, because we think we've solve it.
We have been used in around 40 projects, with about 80 percent of that in games and 20 percent in film. We can now basically prove that we can take an actor's performance, and glue that straight onto a character. We're now waiting to help people learn that they can now do this, and use it to tell a better story.
How did a company started in the UK end up here?
Mike Starkenburg: When they realized that they had to focus on animation, they figured out that there was no animation in Manchester. Around 2006, they opened up a sales office here, with a couple of guys talking to the film and games business. More and more of the company began to move here, and we now have about 45 people total, with 30 of them here in Santa Monica. All of our sales are out here, engineering, and production staff--with researchers and the big brains, along with our financial people in Manchester--where we're still a corporate UK company.
How'd you get involved at the firm?
Mike Starkenburg: Prior to doing this, I was a venture partner at the Sprout Group. After I left Sprout, I worked with a dozen venture capital firms to help them grow their startups and figure out what to do with technology. One of those venture investors was Saffron Hill, which is involved here. I was introduced to Image Metrics a year before I joined, and was helping them along. I fell in love with it. It's very cool, and it's an unsolved problem, with real technology. I was in the right place at the right time.
It seems like you have a fascinating capability in video games--it seems like this also might be applied to film?
Mike Starkenburg: We actually do have some projects--in Mummy 3, we did the faces of Jet Li as the mummy character, and we did the animated movie called Food Fight--it was a fully animated movie with animals and food. We're also doing a bunch of other projects we can't talk about, since we can't talk about the movies until they come out. There's a couple of things you'll see in the next couple of months.
So are we to the point where you can actually reach a fully digital, "real" actor?
Mike Starkenburg: We're very close. We presented at SIGGRAPH this year a demo of a character we called Emily. It's actually Emily O'Brien, who is an Emmy nominated actress--who did a little piece for us, where we completely replaced her face with a CG model--and you can't tell. I can tell, and some of the real experts in the industry can tell--but my mom can't tell. (Editor's note: you can see Image Metrics "Emily" demo on their web site). We're that close. There are the kinds of films you'll see next year, where the CG is not about making shooting lasers--but it's about telling the story better. It's enabling a director to do whatever he wants, because you can't tell it's CG. I think we're there, and it's getting better and better, and in the coming year we'll see stuff that looks even more real.
On the game side, do you run into any issues with the facial animation with processing speeds, or is that no longer a problem?
Mike Starkenburg: There are things in a game that are hard to do with faces. The first thing is processor limits. The face is contending with other aspects of a game, including backgrounds, movement, and where you're making games you really need to think about where to dedicate that processor. That's something we don't control, but processors are getting faster and faster. The second thing is the software. Everyone is using a game engine of some sort, and game engines have varying degrees of capability. That's one thing we're working on with customers--how to make faces look good, and how to make the engines better, so we can drive quality. The third thing is creating faces--you have to figure out how you are going to make really great facial performances, and that's our mission.
Tell us a bit about the latest funding round?
Mike Starkenburg: It was $6.5 million, and our biggest investor came back in, plus we had a couple of small family offices contribute. I really enjoyed raising money in the worst market of my professional career--I literally was raising the round as the market was dropping 20 points, and had to ignore what was going on outside and just tell my story. The fact that we got it done, was really a statement to the market we identified. There are real projects in games and film, and it's now about scaling the business. We're going to add a bunch of management, and sales people, and change things in our technology to make it more attractive. All of that is going to require spending more money than we were needing before. My sense is that this amount of cash is going to get us to cash flow break even. If we go back to the market, it will be to expand our market.
So it sounds like you're one of companies hiring?
Mike Starkenburg: We are hiring. Compared to our plan in June before the market crash we are hiring slower, but we are still hiring. We're actively hiring engineers, researchers, and sales people. The question now is just to hire at a careful rate, and watch what the market does and see how it is going to recover.
Thanks for the interview!