Friday Flashback #167


From Feb 2003, an xsibase interview With The Mill’s Jordi Bares And Stephen Venning about using Softimage|XSI to bring buffalos to life in the Levi’s Stampede Commercial.

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Interview With The Mill’s Jordi Bares And Stephen Venning
The Technical Director and the Producer about bringing the buffalos to life in the Levi’s stampede commercial, using Softimage|XSI.
February, 3rd, 2003, by Raffael Dickreuter

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Jordi Bares was responsible for the crowds.

Technical Director Jordi Bares:

-When working on a commercial like this, where do you basically start?
You start listening the client, having a few long chats and trying to know what he really want and needs, trying to understand the project. From the first conversation with them we (the 3D dept., production, 2D dept.) sit down several times to analyse the project as well as those technical challenges that we are going to find (sometimes doing some internal tests) down the road trying to be very honest with ourselves and putting those effects where really are required. If we think this is not going to work to the very highest quality we just sit down with them and tell them.

How was the production process split up between the different specialists?
Well, in this commercial it was a special case because there was two challenges, first the CG animals close to camera and running along with real animals, then the crowd extension and substitution in some shots. So one TD for the modelling/hair/texturing/lighting and one Character Animator/Character TD for the rigging and animation of individual actions and run cycles. For the crowd one animator doing the crowd rigging, writing custom tools for flocking and animating the shots. After that we have got the help from other two animators, one for one crowd shot and one for one hero guy. Also the Environment of the city has been completely stylised so Russell build a lot of buildings and streets and made LA a futuristic city you can not recognize easily.

In what aspects of the commercial were you involved?
The crowd, I spent the first part of the project researching and developing tools and the second animating it.

What was a big challenge in creating the buffalos?
Everything, from the hair, texturing to animation seamless with real animals in front of the camera, full frame. After the first tests we showed to the agency it was clear we were in the right direction and the director started to push even more the animation side of the hero guys, not only putting them in the back as a filling but in the very front of the shot and acting, not just running.

Can you describe what was the approach to create the buffalos?
I am speaking here for others, but Yann spent the major part working the hair and its behaviour while Dadi built a very clever rig and animate from scratch the animal. Everything was keyframed. All has been a polygonal mesh created from references of real buffalos (obviously the ones of the shoot) and a deep analysis on its musculature, mechanics of walking…
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What techniques were used to make the animation as realistic as possible?
Dadi worked very hard to make it look perfect, he used common techniques but he knows how this animal moves.
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Modeler Yann Mabille (left) and Animator Dadi Einarsson.

To what extent have you used the Animation Mixer?
Dadi used it to animate by layering animation and then “consolidating” those clips that worked well. In the crowd, the mixer was used to offset and randomise the motion as well as the whole library of motion was built around that. Layers of detail for each character.

How much scripting was needed?
I ported an in-house tool developed by Dave Levy some time ago from Softimage3D to XSI, adding some extra things that the bosons would thank…

What unexpected problems did you encounter? And how did you solve them?
It is inherent to the nature of the advertising industry, every time reinventing yourself to catch you for 30 sec. Obviously this is a challenge every time and more than problems you encounter hard decisions, you have to take tough decisions, those that permit you to do it in such a limited time.

It is vital you can solve it and I measure my success on my job by the number of nights I have to stay there.
In this particular project the main problem to me was how to render the crowd in our farm in a way it is fast enough to review/change/review in half a day, so at least I can have 2 full interactions on final quality every day and one extra at the night.
I discarded using any real AI solution just because the import process and the layering of renders would kill the pipeline, and that was a good decision that proved vital as we could render 100 frames with 600 full animals in just 1 hour (using only 40 processors) and our MI files where 100Mb per frame which is nothing.

Personally I have been working in 2 shots for the last part of the job, it was very complex to make it look good as moving procedurally things means that is a trial/error loop.

Are the sets CG or real? If real, where were they shot?
Real and it was shot in downtown LA, apart from that there was a lot of work to add buildings, sky, delete things… lots of flame work.

To what extent have you used post editing to achieve the shots? Was it more a 3D or 2D project?
I would say something close to 50/50… they tweak our CG to make it sit down and I take special care preparing some handy passes in order they can tweak the lights per bison, that is very helpful for the client so they can really tweak things without losing quality plus usually avoids doing another render which is also nice.

To what extent was the FX Tree a big help?
We used in this project a few times… nothing important just fast comps…

What type of editing suite were used for the post editing?
Flame. It is the best tool for commercials and when in hands of a talented artist it becomes completely incredible… I have seen guys here doing things I could ever dream that was possible to do in a 2D suite.

How well did it work to apply hair to that many buffalos?
That was spectacular, it worked really really well, no crashes at all and the results were impressive. The hair renderer is damn fast and pushed the job forward. In fact nobody could point which one of the bisons was CG in the earlier tests.
For the crowd, it was a “few” number of bisons instantiated with hair, in total 600 instances and 20 different 3D bisons. Some shots have 200 of them with motion blur and many area lights so it was quite impressive to see mental ray deal with such a monster…

What techniques were used to create the big amount of buffalos ?
I tried Softimage|Behaviour and it was great, I really plan to use it in the near future but for this job my concern was to put 600 hairy buffalos together, so I could not go in the AI direction, which I was really excited to try, and I am not crazy so I tried every imaginable combination to manage them thru particles and that was the right tool for this job.

To what extent was Softimage|XSI a big help to complete this project?
Without XSI v3 we could not have done this job with this level of quality and in such a small time. The ability to instantiate things, although still in its infancy proved key, and I only see Houdini as a viable solution to do it, specially the crowd part of it. For the hair I reckon we would have to struggle writing our own tools to have this hair quality which obviously would take too long.

Producer Stephen Venning:

At what time was the Mill involved in creating the commercial?
There was already a detailed treatment and storyboard with a clear idea of the commercial, although there was not a plan of how to do it, here is where a company like The Mill enters and offers its expertise.

Tell us more about the creating the Animation/Effects from the point of view of a producer.
I should point out that my role is as the dedicated Cgi producer on this production. Helen Weil was the sterling producer who oversaw the complete post production process.
It is all about putting together a good team, one with experience and knowledge of how to create these kind of effects, it is crucial to find the very best in modellers, animators, and renders etc. The challenge I think in the early stages of a job like this is to keep cool and not panic. Everyone is asking can you do it, can you make a convincing photoreal white bison, can you make 600 of them? You know in theory it can be all be done, but everyone wants you to say “yep, here’s one”. So it’s a mater of putting the right things in place, the people, the schedule etc., then it’s a case of monitoring the progress, and helping the team out along the way, chasing reference, getting approvals, making the tea, and generally poking your nose in and saying what you thinks working or not.

How many people in the end were involved at The Mill to create this commercial?
Actively working on the job were 6 CG people, a core of 4 which took the production at the very beginning, and from a Flame point of view, led by one main artist, 6 others plus 3 supporting flames, so with 2 producers around 18 people, plus all those people in the background that tend to get forgotten that deserve a mention.

To what extent was Softimage|XSI a big help to complete this project?
Pure and simply the fur/hair. We very quickly got some fantastic results, which made us and very importantly our client very happy, and that was largely due to the fur.

Main 3D Team
Jordi Bares
Dadi Einarsson
Yann Mabille
Russell Tickner

Extra Animators:
Koji Monihiro
Rob van den Bragt

Links
View Levi’s Stampede Commercial

Friday Flashback #161


Along the banks of le fleuve Saint-Laurent…Taarna, Softimage, Discreet Logic, and Alias/Wavefront
A March 1999 article by the late Emru Townsend, a Montreal-based animation and technology writer who worked at Softimage for awhile.

Along the Banks of the St. Lawrence…
ANIMATION WORLD MAGAZINE – ISSUE 3.12 – March 1999
by Emru Townsend

Frédéric Back, in his 1993 film The Mighty River, traced the history of the St. Lawrence River (St-Laurent, to us Quebecers) in eastern Canada, as it flowed from Lake Ontario out to the Gulf of St. Lawrence before emptying into the Atlantic. His majestic film spoke of the aboriginal people who lived off the land, the fur traders, the settlers and the modern-day Canadian inhabitants. But somehow he forgot about the digital animation houses: no less than four significant players in the animation and effects industry straddle Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence itself.

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Tony de Peltrie (1985) can be considered the godfather of all the CG action in the great white North. © Pierre Lachapelle, Philippe Bergeron, Pierre Robidoux, Daniel Langlois.

Three of these companies happen to share common ancestry, in the form of a melancholy pianist by the name of Tony de Peltrie. De Peltrie, of course, does not exist except virtually. When the eight-minute short film Tony de Peltrie was presented to the world in 1985, the eponymous character was widely considered the first computer-animated character to truly express emotion through his face and body language. Tony de Peltrie was the brainchild of Pierre Lachapelle, Philippe Bergeron, Pierre Robidoux and Daniel Langlois at Université de Montréal.

The irony is that in the short, Tony sadly reminisces about his long gone glory days. As it turns out though, his true legacy was yet to come.

Taarna Studios Swinging Strong
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Taarna’s The Boxer. © Taarna Studios.
Closest to the St. Lawrence, in the area of Montreal known as the Old Port, Taarna Studios — named after the scantily-clad warrior that graces every Heavy Metal poster — goes about the business of giving animators the necessary tools to create life on the screen. As it happens, Taarna was the name given to the software that Philippe Bergeron used to bring Tony de Peltrie to life.

In 1994, their Digits ‘n Art (DnA, for short) subsidiary was born, specifically to market flesh, a 3D paint software application, and LIFEsource, a complete motion capture system. Among their numerous clients are Rhythm & Hues, Bandai, and NHK. flesh is also a recent addition to Mainframe Entertainment’s stable, where it handles the paint and texture-mapping chores on Beast Wars.

Taarna’s playground for beta-testing their software is The Boxer, a CGI film which seems to feature a boxing match between two seemingly mismatched opponents. “Seems to be” is the operative phrase, since production on the short is very secretive, though the impressive one-minute, forty-second trailer to the film has won several awards in recent years. Directed by Pierre Lachapelle, The Boxer was originally to be a 20-minute film slated for film and television outlets; it’s now destined for large-screen IMAX theaters, with a running time of 40 minutes.

Running the Gamut: SoftImage
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Mainframe’s Beast Wars is produced in Canada as well as using Canadian-made software. © Mainframe Entertainment.
Daniel Langlois, another Tony de Peltrie co-creator, founded SoftImage in 1986, but it was 1993′s Jurassic Park that made the world sit up and take notice. Remember the gallimimus herd stampeding as they fled from the hungry tyrannosaurus? That was through judicious use of SoftImage 3D (familiarly referred to as just “SoftImage”).

Microsoft bought SoftImage in 1994, and just last year the Redmond giant sold them to Avid. During that time, the software stable had expanded to include SoftImage DS and Eddie (editing, compositing, and effects), and Toonz (digital ink and paint program for 2D cel animation). The operating platform also grew from being exclusively SGI-based to Windows NT — coincidentally, this last development took place during the time they were owned by Microsoft.

Considering the modest size of the SoftImage product line, the work created with their tools has a surprising breadth across styles and media. The all-new, all-CGI Godzilla was created using SoftImage; the traditionally-animated Anastasia and Balto were inked and painted using Toonz; Hayao Miyazaki’s anime Princess Mononoke, which is second only to Titanic in the history of Japan’s box office revenue, made use of SoftImage 3D’s Toon Shader plug-in; and Mainframe’s ReBoot, War Planets, and Beast Wars all use SoftImage alongside other tools.

Award Winning Discreet Logic
Discreet Logic is a second-generation descendant of Tony de Peltrie; two of its four founders were originally from SoftImage. Literally around the corner from Taarna, Discreet Logic’s products, which feature such colorful names as flint, flame, and inferno, cover considerable ground: their software runs on Silicon Graphics, DEC Alpha, Windows 95, Windows NT and Macintosh platforms. More to the point, their software spans the complete production spectrum. To pick three examples, paint handles 2D animation and rotoscoping; effect is for compositing, effects, and motion tracking; light is a 3D rendering and animation package.
By the time you read this, Discreet will have made industry headlines for winning the Scientific and Engineering Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Hardly a surprise, considering that their products were used to great effect in such special effects extravaganzas as Armageddon, Small Soldiers, Titanic and Godzilla.

The Power of Alias|Wavefront
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Chris Landreth’s The End opened eyes when it came out in 1995. © Alias|Wavefront.
Three hundred miles southwest of Tony de Peltrie’s progeny is Toronto-based Alias|Wavefront, which sits near Lake Ontario. The company has something of a quirky history. Alias Research and Wavefront Technologies were originally two separate companies: Alias focused on modeling, Wavefront in animating models. Both were founded in 1984 and had long histories of providing production tools for film (Alias had been used in Apollo 13, The Abyss and Judge Dredd; Wavefront in Mortal Kombat, Species and Akira). The two companies merged with Silicon Graphics in 1995.

Although Alias|Wavefront’s various software runs on SGI, Windows NT and IBM RS/6000 platforms, the bulk of their product is, unsurprisingly, made for SGI systems, with Windows NT a distant second. The company’s first family of products falls under the banner of Maya, a rendering and animation suite that includes four modules: Artisan, FX, PowerModeler and Live. Two upcoming modules are Fur and Cloth, which, as their names imply, are used to mimic realistic fur and cloth behavior.

Animation festival audiences have probably seen an eyeful of Alias|Wavefront’s software capabilities in Chris Landreth’s The End, and his more recent Bingo. Bingo, created using a combination of Alias|Wavefront software (Maya, StudioPaint 3D and Composer),features a fascinating blend of the real and the unreal; the protagonist is an ordinary-looking fellow, but the people and things that poke and prod at his sanity are deliciously surreal. What’s startling is that the protagonist actually does look ordinary — as in some of Landreth’s other work, there are times when our hero looks a little too human for a CGI creation, inching us a little closer to the idea of a “synthespian,” or digital actor.

Perhaps surprisingly, Landreth doesn’t seem to like the idea of synthespians very much. “I really am not interested in trying to recreatephoto-realistic human beings,” he says. “The characters in Bingo look realistic, but in no way were we trying to `fool’ anyone into believing they were live-action humans. There is always an element of caricature or stylization in all of the characters. That’s the real item of interest to me — using CG to approach realism, but always using the opportunity that CG provides to exaggerate, streamline and create visual metaphors around the characters and environments.”

Share and Share Alike
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NELVANA’s Rolie Polie Olie utilized both Softimage and Alias|Wavefront products to complete the show. © NELVANA.

One of the interesting aspects of the digital animation industry is that unlike most other computer-related markets, it’s hardly a zero-sum game. Studios can and do mix and match, using different tools for different aspects of the job. For example, Centropolis, the studio behind Godzilla, used SoftImage to bring Godzilla to life, and Discreet Logic’s software to composite the big lizard into the film. Mainframe uses SoftImage 3D as their base application, along with Taarna’s flesh and a host of other custom tools.

Sometimes, the division of labor can be a bit fine. Scott Dyer, technical producer of the CGI television series Rolie Polie Olie at Toronto’s Nelvana, is one such practitioner: “Last season, we used [Alias|Wavefront] PowerAnimator for modeling, SoftImage for animation, and then PowerAnimator for lighting and rendering. This year, we’ve essentially replaced PowerAnimator with Maya.” While the decision to use two companies’ packages was partly based on their specific abilities, Dyer adds that it was also a good pragmatic choice. “Rolie Polie Olie is co-produced with Sparx in France. Their expertise was in SoftImage, and ours was in PowerAnimator, and training costs are more expensive than software.”

Really, that’s what it boils down to: like any carpenter or mechanic’s toolbox, you can use what you need, so long as you know your tools are capable of handling the work. And as dozens of clients and audiences worldwide can testify, these digital tools from along the St. Lawrence Seaway can do the job.

Emru Townsend is a freelance writer who won’t stop talking about cinema, animation and computers. He is also the founder and former editor of FPS, a magazine about animation.

Friday Flashback #160


From 2001, a Gamasutra review of Softimage XSI 1.0. First, the verdict:
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And now a few choice quotes:

Softimage. For years those three little syllables rolled off the tongues of 3D artists everywhere with wonder. But then something happened. 3D Studio became 3D Studio Max. PowerAnimator became Maya. And Softimage … well, Softimage remained the same.

From the moment XSI arrives it screams it’s something different.

…Softimage XSI’s largest and nearly fatal flaw…You cannot create polygonal objects of any real use with the program as it now stands.

To most 3D artists, the word “Softimage” is synonymous with animation.

What’s better than having Mental Ray as your renderer?

If I were reviewing it for a film application, it would be a five-star product, no question. If all you are interested in is creating a prerendered cinematic, then definitely give XSI a good, long look. But its utter lack of polygon tools hurts this product too deeply for me to give it any kind of recommendation.

And now the review itself, with four XSI 1.0 screenshots:

Product Review: Softimage XSI 1.0

Softimage. For years those three little syllables rolled off the tongues of 3D artists everywhere with wonder. But then something happened. 3D Studio became 3D Studio Max. PowerAnimator became Maya. And Softimage … well, Softimage remained the same. Of course, it went through incremental updates, with feature additions and interface enhancements, but the core remained the same solid foundation on which hundreds of games and movies have been produced. While not necessarily a bad thing, the “buzz” was with Max and Maya. But there was this word whispered in quiet corners of studios and art departments around the world: “Sumatra.” And it wasn’t just a request for the intern to pick up some Starbucks. Sumatra was Softimage’s oft-delayed next-generation 3D production tool, and it has finally arrived in a big way. Sumatra, now known by the somewhat less exciting name of Softimage XSI, builds on its strong heritage, and adds exciting new functionality. Drawing on the expertise of Softimage while adding the talents of Avid’s engineers, XSI is definitely going to turn a few heads.

From the moment XSI arrives it screams it’s something different. Rather than the limp cardboard most packages ship in, Softimage XSI arrives in a strong particle board box that will easily stand up to the daily abuse it will take on your desktop. Installation is as simple as any Windows product. SoftImage XSI ships with a full copy of SoftImage 3.9 (more on this later), and comes on a total of 6 separate CDs, including Phoenix Tools ParticleSuite and ClothExtreme. Liscencing is equally as simple, once the license is received. Softimage uses the FlexLM system, and can be serviced via a network server or the ubiquitous parallel port dongle. Happily, it did not balk at being included in a chain of dongles for Maya and Max.

When you first start XSI, you realize it is not your average Windows application. It appears as if Avid’s Macintosh legacy has heavily influenced the interface. Whether it’s a plus or a minus for you, the only standard Windows features I could see were the title and menu bars. Even the file dialogs use Softimage’s Unix/Mac-blended UI design. This unique UI did cause one minor technical problem: as Softimage starts, it sizes itself to your current resolution — ignoring the Windows Taskbar. Setting the Taskbar to Autohide seemed to be the best solution.

The UI itself is divided into five main areas. By default, Softimage gives you the standard top/front/side/perspective that every 3D program offers. Users can also change these to any number of editors and windows, such as the Animation Editor or Schematic View. Taking up the most real estate are the workspace viewports. To the left is the Toolbar area, which is divided into Modeling, Animation, and Rendering tool sets. This is where you readily access most of your commands. The top is the main menu bar, where you access all the general functions of the program, as well as the toolsets of the Model, Animate, and Render menus without having to switch modules. The bottom contains all the timeline and command line functions. Strangely, this is also where you access all the animation editing tools. I say strangely because it was literally the last place I looked for them while going over the program the first time. Finally, the right hand of the screen contains the Main Command Area. This ominous-sounding control panel contains everything from layer controls and selection filtering to transformation and grouping tools.

One very unique feature I have come to love is the concept of “sticky” hotkeys. By quickly tapping a key, you enter into a mode or tool. Tapping the key again returns you from that mode. In addition, if you simply hold a key down, you remain in that tool or mode only as long as that key is depressed. For instance, pressing the “m” key will allow you to quickly grab and move a vertex or CV. Or by simply tapping it, you enter into a true sub-object editing routine. This is much quicker than the standard method of having to enter into a sub-object mode for every little tweak, and I find myself missing it when I’m working outside of XSI.

I can’t say I liked the interface as a whole, though. It obviously tries to retain the feeling of previous versions of Softimage while adding workflow enhancements and access to new tools. Anyone who has become accustomed to the standard Windows interface will most likely have trouble. However, artists who have never ventured outside of Softimage should have no trouble whatsoever.

The other UI element you will encounter most often is the Property editor. The Property editor offers access to every bit of data available on any object. It is organized into “pages” which users can organize in myriad ways, and it is necessary to do so for many objects in order to keep track of the most-used channels on an object. The Property editor is also one of the most convenient ways to access the construction history on an object, called the Operator Stack. Everything you do to an object, from applying a deformer to moving a vertex creates an operator, and can be easily accessed and keyframed through the Property editor.

One interesting thing I noticed about the interface is that the actual execution is extremely fast. Flying around fully shaded complex models was a breeze. And playing animations had fully skinned characters updating in all windows, fully shaded, in real time. Whether this is due to the skills of the Softimage engineers or left-over insight from when Microsoft owned Softimage is unknown, but it is impressive.

Modeling

Softimage has an extensive and robust set of tools for modeling NURBS surfaces. This is a welcome change from the days of Softimage 3.x, where the NURBS modeling features were decidedly subpar. In particular, I found the Curve Net and Continuity Manager to be particularly powerful and useful tools in creating seamless, detailed organic surfaces. In addition, surface fillets, surface blends, bi-rail surfaces and four-sided surfaces provide a complete suite of tools for creating anything you may desire — using NURBS.

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Though lacking in polygonal modeling tools, XSI’s NURBS modeling allows for the quick creation of organic forms.

This is where we come to Softimage XSI’s largest and nearly fatal flaw. You cannot create polygonal objects of any real use with the program as it now stands. While you have access to a variety of polygon primitives, the only way to edit them is pulling on vertices or using deformers. This is, without a doubt, unacceptable for in-game model creation. This is the main reason for the inclusion of Softimage 3D, which has a full suite of polygon editing and creation tools. In particular, I found their UV editing tools to be quite excellent. Luckily, Softimage XSI can easily import Softimage 3D scenes completely intact, including any polygonal objects.

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The XSI Interface with an imported polygonal model from Softimage 3D.

While using Softimage 3D is quite a powerful solution to XSI’s polygonal shortcomings, forcing game artists to learn two programs to create assets is a hindrance to Softimage XSI gaining ground with companies dedicated to Max, Maya, Lightwave, or Mirai. To artists already using Softimage 3D, this should be no big deal, and may actually help in the process of switching to Avid’s next-generation offering.

Animation

To most 3D artists, the word “Softimage” is synonymous with animation. Softimage first introduced most of the indispensable tools and techniques for modern computer animation. From IK to constraints, function curves to dope sheets, Softimage’s touch is felt industry-wide in every package. They hope to continue that tradition of innovation and revolution with nonlinear animation.

Nonlinear animation is nothing new to game artists. We’ve been doing it for years without even realizing we were revolutionizing the very process of animating. To the uninitiated, nonlinear animation (NLA) is the process by which different motion assets can be strung together, blended, combined, and generally messed with in every conceivable combination, all in a nondestructive fashion. You access XSI’s NLA features through the Animation Mixer. This interface is similar to nonlinear editors such as Adobe Premiere or (this should come as no surprise) Avid Media Composer. Clips can be created and saved to libraries or simply cut and pasted within an active animation asset. The simplest application of this technology is to use in-game animation assets to string cutscenes together quickly, and to keep the motions “in-character.” But this is missing the true power of NLA.

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The XSI Interface with an imported polygonal model from Softimage 3D.

By overlaying and blending multiple clips, an artist can create seamless transitions between separate actions, or layer animations on top of each other. Once the possibilities of these functions are fully realized, animators will be drooling to get their hands on these tools.

For instance, no longer will animators slave away trying to get all the start and end poses of their animations exactly the same. You can simply save the pose as an Action Clip and bring it in at the beginning and end of your cycles to have perfect match-up. Hand-creating transition animations is also greatly helped by the blending functions. Take your walk cycle and your run cycle, overlay them by the proper amount, and keyframe the influence to get your transition animation.

But wait, there’s more! Because the animation blending only takes into account the transformation channels you want it to and only on the objects you want it to, you can create whole new assets from old ones. For instance, once you have animated and perfected your generic walk cycle, you can simply save out arm poses for various weapons or props and create consistent animations. And then apply those same arm poses to the run cycle. And then to the jump animation, the idle animation, and so on. By keeping these assets non-linear, you can seemingly tweak one animation for an excessive amount of time because you get so many real assets out of it.

NLA is a truly revolutionary tool and will be welcomed by artists everywhere. It will be interesting to see how this technology develops in the coming years. XSI already offers a robust NLA tool suite, and looks to be an industry leader in this exciting technology.

Other than the NLA tools, XSI offers nothing too revolutionary to its animation tool set. This is not a complaint by any means. The NLA tools are truly amazing, and Softimage already had a robust tool set. Noticeably lacking, however, was the dope sheet. A frequently (and obviously) overlooked tool, this holdover from the days of traditional animation will be sorely missed, and will hopefully make a return in a later release.

Softimage XSI uses very solid IK routines. What’s amazing is that XSI builds the IK directly into the skeletal chains, which makes rigging skeletons quick and simple. I’m a control freak, and don’t like being removed from the rigging process, but I can see the appeal for many artists.

Because the IK is built into the skeletal chains, an animator can use forward kinematic techniques to pose the skeleton without having to do any wacky constraint tricks. Simply select the bone and rotate it. If you’re an animator, I know you’re smiling with glee right now.

SoftImage XSI does contain some very useful curve reduction tools. Combine these motion curve reduction abilities with the Animation Mixer, and you have an extremely powerful tool for editing motion capture. Imagine bringing in a captured motion, smoothing out the kinks and pops, and then adding in new motions to the captured data in a nondestructive fashion.

In addition to its inherited IK skeletal chains, character setup is aided by a brush motif suspiciously similar to Artisan in Alias|Wavefront’s Maya. Here, however, bone assignment is clearer with a full-color interface. I did find XSI’s brush tool to be a lot less refined than Maya’s, however, and it definitely takes some getting used to. I’m excited to see this interface spreading, as it is the most artist-friendly innovation in years.

Scripting

Like 3D Studio Max and Maya, Softimage XSI incorporates scripting into its core operations. Unlike 3D Studio Max and Maya, XSI does not rely on a proprietary language. Instead, it relies on ActiveX so anything supporting ActiveX will work, including VBScript, Jscript, PerlScript, and Python. The significant implications of this, in addition to being able to call on the expertise of programmers who are likely already fluent in ActiveX scripting, is its integration with Windows. Imagine a script that can e-mail you when it finishes rendering, or if something goes wrong. The simplest actions unavailable in other packages can be accomplished easily through these Windows tie-ins, such as playing a sound when a function is complete. Since almost all functions in XSI are accessible through scripting. it will surely become as useful to XSI users as it has to Maya and 3D Studio Max users.

Rendering

Softimage has deeply incorporated Mental Images’ Mental Ray renderer into XSI. While I know that to many games artists rendering is completely pointless, I would be not do this program justice without mentioning this aspect. After all, for many games today, a major selling point is their prerendered video sequences. For those who do not know, Mental Ray is a very powerful shader-based renderer, with full raytracing support. Softimage XSI allows you to create and render shaders visually through the Render Tree. A daunting and expansive tool, the Render Tree allows the user to create powerful surfaces based on any number of shading models, from Phong and Blinn to anisotropic and Strauss.

Of course, no mention of XSI’s implementation of Mental Ray would be complete without mentioning Render Region, XSI’s interactive rendering tool. By simply dragging a rectangle in any viewport, you create a variable-resolution rendering that updates interactively as you adjust material properties. This is an amazing tool that allows you to experiment and tweak lights and shaders and all their associated properties to perfection.

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What’s better than having Mental Ray as your renderer? Having it be interactive, which XSI offers.

The images produced with Mental Ray are of astounding quality. It is renowned in the film industry for its crisp, clear raytracing, beautiful shadowing, and wonderful volumetric effects. Any company relying on rendered cutscenes or images for their game will find the possibilities that Mental Ray offers them intriguing

The Verdict

This is the hard part. I now have to give Softimage XSI a star rating. My problem is I really liked it. And If I were reviewing it for a film application, it would be a five-star product, no question. If all you are interested in is creating a prerendered cinematic, then definitely give XSI a good, long look. But its utter lack of polygon tools hurts this product too deeply for me to give it any kind of recommendation. It has enormous potential, but there really is no excuse for offering a product without polygon tools at this stage in time to the game development market. I sincerely look forward to seeing where Avid takes Softimage in the near future; they have a great history, and XSI provides a solid foundation. Now it’s time for them to build.

Softimage XSI 1.0

Price
Softimage XSI Essentials: $7,995
Softimage XSI Advanced: $11,995

System Requirements
For Windows 2000/NT (SP 4 or higher); workstation with Intel Pentium or higher; compatible OpenGL-accelerated graphics card with a minimum 8MB RAM; 128MB RAM required, 256MB RAM recommended; 195-360 MB disk space. N32 libraries and patches; SGI workstation with MIPS R10000 or higher processor; 128MB RAM required, 256MB RAM recommended; 645MB disk space. Both platforms require a three-button mouse and CD-ROM drive.

Pros
1. Excellent animation tools.
2. Nonlinear animation tools.
3. Powerful NURBS modeling.

Cons
1. No polygon tools.
2. Unconventional interface.
3. No polygon tools.

Friday Flashback #159


Before Sumatra became XSI, XSI was .XSI the file format, an ASCII-based, .x-like file format for game developers.

… the .XSI file format and real-time viewer will give game developers a seamless environment for faster prototyping and more accurate exchange of data between their Windows-based PC development platform and target Windows CE-based game consoles. The .XSI real-time viewer will be available to developers in September 1999, and will ship, with source code, as part of Microsoft Windows CE authoring tools.

Here’s a news release from late 1999 that mentions “.XSI” 18 times, and “game” 27 times.

gdk1

Avid Technology to design new Dreamcast game authoring tools

Reporter: Jim Cordeira
Date: 8-10-99

Avid Technology Inc.’s subsidiary, Softimage® Co., has entered into a strategic agreement with Microsoft Corp. to design and deliver tools for authoring Microsoft Windows CE-based games for the Sega Dreamcast console.

Softimage will provide game developers with an ASCII-based file format called .XSI. The .XSI file format is based on Microsoft’s popular .x file format which is already used extensively in conjunction with the Softimage® GDK (game development kit) game core module.

Softimage will also develop a real-time viewer for .XSI files, which will serve as a key prototyping component of a Windows CE-based games authoring environment. Together, the .XSI file format and real-time viewer will give game developers a seamless environment for faster prototyping and more accurate exchange of data between their Windows-based PC development platform and target Windows CE-based game consoles. The .XSI real-time viewer will be available to developers in September 1999, and will ship, with source code, as part of Microsoft Windows CE authoring tools.

Seamless Authoring Pipeline Between Windows NT and Windows CE Game Consoles

Many of the leading game developers are long time users of the Softimage® 3D and Softimage GDK premier tools for creating high-quality geometry, textures and animation for use in games. To prototype game play using high-quality complex scenes, game authors are faced with a daunting and time consuming task of converting data files to and from real-time, console-compatible formats and sizes. The .XSI file format will provide game developers with a flexible conduit for importing, exporting and editing game data. The .XSI viewer will allow game developers to quickly and easily view their 3-D game data in a real-time environment without having to leave their development platform. For the first time, game developers can have a seamless authoring pipeline between their Windows NT-based development platform and the Sega Dreamcast game console.

“Our goal is to help game developers optimize their authoring environment,” said Chris Phillips, director of Business Development, Consumer Devices Group at Microsoft. “The .XSI file format and viewer will become a critical part of the toolset for creating and prototyping Windows CE-based games for the SEGA Dreamcast. The .XSI real-time viewer and .XSI file format will greatly accelerate the development of next-generation games.”

“At Softimage, we understand the difficulties inherent in developing next-generation games,” adds Softimage Director of Product Marketing, John McQueen. “We have foreseen the needs of games developers and are developing viable, tightly-integrated prototyping and authoring tools that will improve game development environments.”

The .XSI Viewer

The .XSI viewer will include source code, enabling game developers to modify and enhance both Softimage 3D exported data as well as the .XSI parser or data reader. The .XSI file format contains a variety of new templates offering data interchange solutions for high-end features shared between the Softimage 3D program and any game engine.

The .XSI Viewer allows scene display using Microsoft Direct3D Immediate Mode, enabling the display of complex scenes with high refresh rates. It will accurately display .XSI data, including geometry, textures and hierarchical shape and transformation animation in an optimized environment with interactive navigation controls.

The development and distribution of the .XSI file format and viewer will result in an environment in which developers initiate game development with entirely new features, including advanced graphics technology and algorithms using the Direct3D Immediate Mode API. .XSI will also accelerate on-going development on all manner of Windows CE platforms, including Sega’s Dreamcast console.

– Jim Cordeira

Friday Flashback #158


ProcessRender
Back in early 2002, Softimage introduced a new family of processing and rendering products: BatchUniversal, Batch, and mental ray standalone. The pricing, from today’s viewpoint, seems awfully high:

  • BatchUniversal is available in volume at prices as low as $2,750 US MSRP, for dual processors.
  • mental ray v.3.0 stand-alone licenses are available in volume for as low as $950 US MSRP per processor.
  • SOFTIMAGE|XSI Batch v.2.0 is available for order now with scheduled shipment in March 2002, and will be offered at volume prices as low as $1,495 US MSRP, for dual processors.

Here’s a screen capture of softimage.com from Feb 2002:
processing_rendering_family_comparison