How to Win an Academy Award for Planting Trees in Video Games

Meet SpeedTree, the former Defense Department contractor that created trees for 'The Elder Scrolls' and 'Avatar.'

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Jan 20 2015, 3:30pm

​SpeedTree's work in this year's Dragon Age: Inquisition. Image: Electronic Arts

If you've seen a tree in a video game, there's a good chance it was created with SpeedTree, a "virtual vegetation software" by Interactive Data Visualization (IDV), a small, eight-person firm in South Carolina.

"Nobody here can really understand what we do," IDV co-founder Chris King told me. "You tell a grown man you make trees for video games for a living, they think you're pulling their leg."

King, co-founder Michael Sechrest, and Senior Software Architect Greg Croft will get a Technical Achievement Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for its innovative SpeedTree Cinema, which was first used in James Cameron's Avatar. The Academy told them to make "absolutely clear" this is not the same thing as an Oscar.

A sizzle reel of SpeedTree's film work. 

The Scientific and Technical awards ceremony, which King described as "the Winter Olympics for geeks," will take place two weeks before the globally-televised Oscars on February 22. King and his partners will get a certificate, not a statuette, but there'll be plenty of statuettes there. "The tactic is to get your picture taken in front of one, and they'll let you use that," he said.

Weta Digital, the New Zealand-based company that won an Academy Award for its work on The Lord of the Rings trilogy, was the lead for digital effects on Avatar, but as it neared the film's Christmas 2009 deadline, it called George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) for additional support.

Avatar, which made over $2 billion, is set on a lush jungle planet where trees play a vital role in the blue aliens' culture, so ILM needed to create a lot of trees quickly to meet its deadline.

"ILM called and said 'help us get through this, we can't tell you what film it's for, but here's a bunch of concept art,'" King said.

​SpeedTree has been used in over 40 films since, including The Avengers, Super 8, and Pirates of the Caribbean. Before Avatar, SpeedTree was used exclusively by game developers, but the company's roots (one of many puns King said he hears regularly but lets slide) go back to the US Navy.

King and his co-founders attended the University of South Carolina in the mid-90s, where they learned to program 3D graphics on Silicon Grap​hics computers paid for by grants from the Navy.

They founded IDV in 2000. With funding from the Small Business Innovation Research program, they worked for the Department of Defense on everything from electric ship power systems visualization to ​Eye-Sys, a system that visualized global supply chains, dependencies, and how to disrupt them for the Joint Wa​rfare Analysis Center.

"In 2001, we were one of the few games in town that could create these 3D animations," King said. "An architecture firm came to us and said they're going to make this 26-acre, upscale community, and that they need a fly-through of it. For whatever reason, the architect who was leading it was just really fixated on how the trees would look. He needed them to blow in the wind, to be able to recognize all these different species."

Trees, King told me, are uniquely difficult to tackle in computer graphics because it's hard to recreate their organic shapes out of the three-dimensional triangles (polygons) that are used to build all 3D models.

IDV surveyed the available software on the market at the time and found only solutions that let it build trees that were 1 million to 2 million triangles each. It'd be impossible for a small firm to produce that many models at that scale, and extremely taxing for computers to render, so IDV "threw together some code" that it tentatively called SpeedTree. It created trees using a proprietary approach that didn't use so many triangles, but did have a wind algorithm. It also allowed them to design a single tree that could then procedurally spawn variations of the same species.

In 2002, the graphics card manufacturer Nvidia launched a demo that heavily featured SpeedTree. "We started getting calls from AAA game developers the very next day," King said. One of those calls was from Bethesda Game Studios' Todd Howard, who needed to populate The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion's land of Tamriel with vegetation. "He was our very first AAA customer and the ball just started rolling from there."

Plenty of developers still create their own trees, but nobody's competing with SpeedTree. Image: IDV

IDV took a huge risk by going to its first Game Developers Conference, the largest game developer conference in the world, in 2003. "We didn't have any money and I remember it cost an arm and a leg," King said. But they got lucky. A company that was supposed to take up a big booth canceled its appearance, so IDV was able to pay $20,000 for a 10-by-10 foot booth, which just so happened to be across the corridor from Nvidia, a big draw at the convention.

"None of us had even attended GDC before, much less exhibited there, and then they opened the gates and within 15 minutes we could not see out of our booth, there were so many people looking at it," King said.

Tim Sweeney, co-founder of Epic Games, the company that makes the Unreal Engine used to create a huge number of p​opular games, was also there. The meeting led to SpeedTree being integrated with Unreal Engine 2.5, and every version that followed, including the most recent Unreal Engine 4.

SpeedTree was used exclusively in games between 2002 and 2009, when ILM called again with a different set of requirements. The procedural stuff wasn't good enough. Artists needed more control, to move individual branches by hand.

Now even the Tornado Twins can afford to use SpeedTree.

"We pretty much lit our software on fire and started again," King said. "SpeedTree's claim to fame is that unique blend of procedural modeling combined with art directibility and hand drawing, and that's one of the reasons we've had success in the film industry."

The first thing James Cameron wanted to know was 'how are you doing your trees?'

ILM Digital Matte department Supervisor Richard Bluff said that when they showed James Cameron the first 23-second test shot using SpeedTree a hush fell over the screening room. "The first thing Mr. Cameron wanted to know was 'how are you doing your trees?'" Bluff​ said. Those 23 seconds ended up being the opening shot of the movie.

SpeedTree licenses used to cost $10,000 to $15,000. Today, it's spreading from a few hundred users with well-lined pockets to hundred of thousands of indie developers with virtually no budgets. They can pay a $19 monthly fee to use it with Unreal Engine 4 and Unity, another hugely popular cross-platform game engine. "They'll finally have access to SpeedTree for next to nothing," King said. "That's a big part of our future that we're very excited to see."