With Nvidia’s announcement about ending its support for Mental Ray, we will be witnessing the end of the entertainment industry’s most exceptional renders and undisputedly, the most undervalued renderer.
For most 3D artists and render farms, it was considered as the default render engine. If you have been consistent in the visual effect or animation industry, you would have noticed that every VFX or Animation app came with a built-in Mental ray addon.
Although other renderers came with advanced features as well as increasing artistic cachet, they cost a fortune to maintain and consumed a considerable amount of time during setup.
Mental Ray was always the first choice to come to mind until it became an option. And with the rate at which renderers evolved, it couldn’t stand the test of time.
When it was firstly launched in 1989 the same year RenderMan launched its commercial edition, Mental Ray took the entertainment industry by storm as it was the first renderer made available to the public.
In the year 1990, it saw a vast increase in its usage as a fundamental production tool. It was widely used in studios, and its recognition made the original developers (mental images) to partner with DCC software developers.
Among these early developers who adopted Mental Ray, were, Autodesk, Alias, Wavefront. Other early Mental Ray 3D integrators were Avid. Max, Maya, and Softimage as well as other top VFX pioneers such as Industrial Light and Magic, and ESC Entertainment.
Fast forwarding to 2003, the Mental Ray development team was honored with a Scientific and technical academy award. Mental Ray was also used to produce two high box office movies – the matrix trilogy and Star Wars prequels.
During the 2000s and inline with the celebration of the recent Academy Awards and acquisition won, Mental Ray gained so much recognition in different sectors of the industry. It also got licensed for top applications like CAD software. It also launched a reality server and went further to unveil a real-time visualization system.
Even though Mental Ray gained so much ground in VFX production as well as on render farms, and also featured with animation production especially on movies with lower capital, it slowly lost its grounds to third-party renders with RenderMan topping the competition then. This became so evident with newly developed ray tracing engines such as Arnold and V-Ray.
Before the year 2007 came to an end, Mental Images was bought by its partner (Nvidia), and there was a considerable shift in developmental focus. This change brought about the emergence of a GPU-focused rendering.
This shift also so Thomas Driemeyer (Mental Images Academy Award-winning director of engineering) parting ways with Nvidia in 2009. And two years ahead, Rolf Herken (CEO and founder of Mental Images) left Nvidia too.
In the midst of all the hiccups, Mental Ray still struggled to gain its ground with DCC developers especially with 3ds Max users, render farms and cloud render farms. These users also saw a limited amount of network rendering nodes from Autodesk.
By this time, all three of its essential products that were integrated with Mental Ray was owned by the firm. During the 2000s the company also went ahead to buy Maya and Softimage. Aside from that, Autodesk’s support for Mental Ray grew sour as it announced in 2015 that Mental Ray will no longer come as a preinstalled renderer on Maya.
Everything started to crumble the following year as Autodesk also bought Arnold developer Solid Angle. And the 2017 version of Maya released was void of Mental Ray to incorporate Arnold. This gesture was also witnessed in the 2018 version of 3ds Max.
Even though Nvidia struggled to maintain its clientele by putting outs its own plugin for Mental Ray, as well as giving off pocket-friendly discounts to users of its workstation GPUs, its sales were nothing to write home about.
The release of Mental Ray for Maya 1.2 in September was a major hit as it was compatible with the 2018 version of Maya and also the last major update Mental Ray has experienced on any platform and render farm.
If the CG Channel’s inbox is not pointing towards this death, the extinction of Mental Ray will leave many artists in their wake.
If you mastered Autodesk during the 2000s or at the beginning of the 2010s Mental Ray was probably the render engine you were using – It was referred to as the “reference renderer” by Autodesk itself.
Its extinction will not only make the entertainment industry experienced a loss of its most widely used application but also a damage to one of the remaining connection to its pioneering past.