Hermanovic: The sound and the vision

For Greg Hermanovic, it started simply with ‘an obsession with things that move.’ Combine this with an academic career in physics and psychology and it’s no surprise that you’d wind up a pool shark. But Hermanovic has also managed to extend his skills beyond the pool hall. He has parlayed his experience, a talent for technical wizardry, a passion for music and live performance, and a proclivity for ‘tinkering’ into the establishment and growth of Side Effects Software, where he now occupies the role of ceo and head of strategic technology.

Hermanovic’s early love of music and live performance have, subtly or directly, informed the direction of his life and the development – even the name – of the company he cofounded.

A native Montrealer, Hermanovic attended McGill University and studied physics and psychology.

Looking back, Hermanovic acknowledges the preoccupation with moving things: he had always loved music, was into athletics and had developed a taste for animation and experimental films early on. Filmmakers like Jordan Belson, John Whitney Sr. and animation pioneer Norman McLaren provided significant early influences.

These interests were accompanied by a predilection for personally discovering how all this audio and visual stimuli was created.

‘I would often see things and think, `How would I do that?’ ‘ says Hermanovic. ‘And years later I would be thinking, `How would I do that with a computer?’ ‘

Real rocket scientist

A career later as an engineer for airplane and then rocket systems development brought the ‘things that move’ theme to a grander scale. Hermanovic worked with Montreal company cae on a flight simulator for training pilots and later on the famous Canuck-patriotism-focal-point, the Canadarm for the u.s. space shuttle project. Hermanovic worked as an engineer on a training simulator for the Canadian robotic arm and on a human factors research facility for the study of man/machine interaction between humans, computers and the robotic arm.

The move to Toronto fell during that project, when Hermanovic began working with Spar Aerospace, which had been subcontracted through nasa. Hermanovic points to that era as a key time in his software development learning curve.

‘It was there that I learned so much about realtime computer systems and realtime simulation,’ he says. ‘I learned a lot about software engineering and software management – nasa is very stringent as to how their software is developed and tested, so my ideas about building products and so on, those foundations were really laid in that project. So the Canadian government’s involvement in the u.s. space program had a good spin-off into my artistic career.’

Hermanovic wrote software for testing control panel and hand control connections to computers and finding ways to hook up with 3D wireframes of the robotic arm. While the field of play was space and politics rather than entertainment, the rocket years meant that Hermanovic had an early hand in programming 3D graphics, well before the official birth of the Canadian animation industry in the early ’80s – before there were established animation packages available on the shelf.

Animation obsession

But there was a recognition at the time that this software engineer was becoming ‘pretty obsessed with animation.’

Before he officially joined the industry via Omnibus in 1984, Hermanovic’s extracurricular activities led him to his first interaction with an sgi box at a technology show at the Ontario Science Centre. The show featured one of the first sgi computers – an SGI 1000 – and Hermanovic was one of the first programmers to get his hands on it.

‘I wanted to try programming things on it like wind blowing through grass – that was my first project,’ says Hermanovic. ‘So it was the combination of using my math background and some really primitive artistic ideas. It was through that interest that I got my first job in animation at Omnibus.’

Hermanovic began running the r&d division of Omnibus, which was created as a content production entity, though the lack of animation products extant provided a foothold and a software development direction for the company, which began creating its own products or buying existing companies with desired technology.

Omnibus, which had offices in Toronto, l.a. and New York, went public and subsequently received a $500,000 government grant to develop an animation tool. With work underway on this new animation package, Omnibus was forced to close its doors in 1987, leaving Hermanovic and coworker Kim Davidson out on their inventive duffs.

But instead of misfortune, the pair saw opportunity: ‘For Kim and I, it was the biggest and best career break. It meant there was a need – for animation and for animation software.’

Since the creation of Side Effects that summer, and the development of the company’s foundation software package prisms, Hermanovic has been a steering force in the technological direction of the company. He has spearheaded the continued development of its software products, including sops (surface operators) and chops (channel operators), which have formed key technical foundations for prisms, and later, Houdini.

Oscar salute

Hermanovic works with Davidson and principals Paul Breslin and Mark Elendt and other key staffers like Director of R&D Paul Salvini who round out the spectrum of creativity and business savvy that guides the shop.

The four partners were recognized for their efforts in 1998 with a Technical Achievement Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the procedural modeling and animation behind prisms.

The success of the relationship between the founding partners comes from dedication to the industry as well as differing yet complementary personalities, says Hermanovic.

‘We are both very different people, it’s been the perfect combination for the kind of company we have. Kim is very well organized; he likes to structure things, he’s very analytical and skeptical at the right time. It’s a good counterpoint to me. I think I have a lot of crazy ideas and I’m obsessed with realizing some of them.’

Music influence

While his love of music never panned out into a living as a musician (he is the self-described world’s worst bass player and the career of his Greg Herman Vegetable Band was clearly going nowhere after the outfit won second prize in a two-band battle of the bands contest and was summarily dismissed from stage by an irate club owner), it has provided a creative touchstone for his life in animation and has affected the development of Side Effects’ products.

In fact, when it came time to name the company, Hermanovic turned to his record collection. ‘Side Effect’, the group name of some background singers, was gleaned from the liner notes.

The idea behind sops came partially from the influence of the music world and from Hermanovic’s experience tinkering with music synthesizers in the ’70s.

‘At the time synthesizers were crude but they were powerful; you were able to plug one music synthesizer module into another and then onward into another and make all kinds of sounds by patching cords into electronic boxes,’ he says. ‘So there’s a strong analogy between that and what sops are – they are a similar thing for building graphics but instead of sound waves traveling through the whole thing it’s actually 3D objects and surfaces traveling through the sop network.’

With exposure to synth-assisted bands and weekly jam sessions with other experimental musicians, Hermanovic indulged in his habit of deconstructing artistic compositions.

‘My dad was a musician so I have no excuse for being a bad performer, but at least I’m a tinkerer,’ he says. ‘Whenever I listen to music, especially complex stuff, I always think, `How was that made?’ Even now I look at animation and ask the same questions: `How would I have made that?’

‘So it’s always that curiosity for how things are made that drove our product. We wouldn’t have got to prisms or our other products without looking at the really advanced stuff and asking, `What if we had to do that?’ `How would our animators do it?’ `What difficulties would they have?’ and `How can we make it easier?’ ‘

The live performance component of animation has also been a major area of interest for Hermanovic and one that he will pursue actively over the next several years. With Houdini’s realtime animation capabilities, the software will be directed at those kinds of projects and Hermanovic will devote his efforts to nurturing that area of the industry.

‘I want to get our tools out to as many artists as possible who are doing live artistic things,’ he says. ‘We’ve done it in the past and will continue to do it. I find the most creative work is sometimes done by single users with crazy ideas. That pushes our technology in ways that complements what our professional users are doing. We have to keep our ear to the ground in both camps.’