Friday Flashback #322


The release of the movie Jurassic Park, the video game Virtua Fighter and the launch of the software Face Robot are three particularly significant events in the history of Softimage, says its vice president and general manager, Marc Stevens.

Softimage – Des dinosaures de Jurassic Park aux castors Jules et Bertrand

L’entreprise fondée par Daniel Langlois cherche à créer des logiciels conviviaux pour les artistes

29 novembre 2006 |Brigitte Saint-Pierre | Cinéma
Jurassic Park, Titanic, The Matrix, Happy Feet: tous des films pour lesquels un logiciel de Softimage a été mis à contribution. Appartenant à des intérêts états-uniens depuis 12 ans, l’entreprise fondée par Daniel Langlois en 1986 conserve néanmoins son bureau principal à Montréal.

La sortie du film Jurassic Park, celle du jeu vidéo Virtua Fighter et le lancement du logiciel Face Robot sont trois événements particulièrement marquants de l’histoire de Softimage, mentionne son vice-président et directeur général, Marc Stevens.

Softimage franchit le cap de la vingtaine cette année et a toujours pignon sur rue à Montréal, bien qu’elle appartienne à des intérêts états-uniens depuis 1994. Montréal a joué et continue de jouer un rôle important dans le succès de Softimage, estime M. Stevens, qui affirme qu’on y trouve à la fois des personnes créatives de grand talent et d’autres qui maîtrisent très bien la technologie.

C’est en 1986 que l’entreprise voit le jour. Après avoir appris à opérer un système d’animation par ordinateur à l’Office national du film, Daniel Langlois fonde Softimage. Avec son équipe, il crée un logiciel d’animation 3D plus simple d’utilisation. Cette volonté de fournir des outils aux artistes et de leur permettre de se concentrer sur leur art sans devoir consacrer trop de temps à la maîtrise de la technologie informatique est constante dans l’histoire de Softimage et se manifeste toujours aujourd’hui.

En 1993, Steven Spielberg a recours au logiciel de l’entreprise pour donner vie aux dinosaures du film Jurassic Park. «C’était vraiment la première fois que quelque chose comme ça était fait. Cela a réellement lancé la vague de tous ces effets spéciaux et ces personnages animés que l’on voit dans les films aujourd’hui», affirme M. Stevens.

De Microsoft à Avid

L’année suivante, Softimage passe aux mains du géant Microsoft. L’entreprise dirigée par Bill Gates acquiert la compagnie québécoise, en échange de 130 millions $US en actions. Daniel Langlois reste toutefois à la barre de Softimage.

Softimage continue de développer des projets. Elle travaille par exemple en collaboration avec la compagnie Sega sur le jeu Virtua Fighter. La deuxième version de ce jeu voit le jour en 1995. «C’était le premier jeu vidéo qui mettait en scène des personnages aussi réalistes, des personnages en trois dimensions», dit le vice-président et directeur général de Softimage. Depuis lors, le nombre de jeux vidéo, leur qualité, le nombre de personnages qu’on y trouve et leur réalisme ont augmenté de façon importante.

En 1998, la compagnie Avid, reconnue pour ses logiciels de montage, acquiert à son tour Softimage. Le coût de la transaction? 285 millions $US. Daniel Langlois se retire alors des activités quotidiennes de l’entreprise qu’il a fondée. Il occupe néanmoins un siège au conseil d’administration d’Avid Technology, qu’il quitte en 2000.

Au moment de la transaction de 1998, Daniel Langlois déclare au Devoir que l’équipe de développement, comprenant quelque 300 employés, demeurera dans la métropole et que leur nombre devrait même augmenter avec l’arrivée de personnes venant de Boston. Huit ans plus tard, Softimage compte environ 250 employés, dont quelque 200 à Montréal, dans les bureaux de l’entreprise, boulevard Saint-Laurent.

L’industrie a évolué avec les années et le prix des logiciels d’animation 3D a chuté. Un tel logiciel, qui pouvait coûter plus de 100 000 $ dans les débuts de l’entreprise, vaut moins de 8000 $ aujourd’hui. Les versions «advanced», «essentials» et «foundation» du logiciel XSI de Softimage se vendent à l’heure actuelle respectivement environ 7925 $, 2260 $ et 560 $.

Au cours des années, Softimage a cherché à démocratiser la technologie qu’elle a développée. Elle tente entre autres de rendre ses logiciels accessibles au monde de l’éducation, de l’école secondaire à l’université. Elle offre ses produits à prix réduits aux institutions d’enseignement, a mis au point du matériel didactique et créé un processus de certification pour les centres de formation et les instructeurs. «Nous voulons permettre à plus de personnes de se familiariser avec l’utilisation des logiciels d’animation 3D», dit Marc Stevens.

Perspectives d’avenir

Softimage offre par ailleurs toujours des logiciels destinés aux professionnels des milieux du cinéma, des jeux vidéo et des publicités télévisées, et les acteurs de ces industries continuent d’y faire appel. La technologie de Softimage a par exemple été mise à contribution pour le film Happy Feet actuellement à l’affiche, ainsi que pour les publicités télévisées de la compagnie Bell mettant en scène les castors Jules et Bertrand.

La division d’Avid continue aussi d’offrir de nouveaux produits. Cette année, elle a lancé le logiciel d’animation faciale Face Robot. «Les personnages dans les jeux vidéo deviennent de plus en plus intéressants, mais leurs visages [et leurs expressions faciales] continuent de ne pas être réalistes. C’est une chose à laquelle nous accordons beaucoup d’attention en tant qu’êtres humains. Cela peut faire la différence entre une bonne et une mauvaise performance à l’écran ou une bonne ou une mauvaise expérience de jeu. Donc, nous avons vraiment tenté de créer un logiciel qui permette à l’artiste de mieux animer les visages des personnages 3D dans les jeux vidéo, dans les films et dans les publicités télévisées», mentionne le vice-président et directeur général de Softimage.

Le développement actuel des jeux vidéo offre par ailleurs des perspectives intéressantes pour Softimage, selon M. Stevens. «Avec la nouvelle génération de consoles de jeux vidéo, les attentes sont beaucoup plus élevées en ce qui concerne la qualité de l’environnement et des personnages des jeux. Je crois que nous avons une technologie [qui permettra de répondre à ces attentes]», dit-il.

Quelles sont les pistes de développement pour l’avenir? Si beaucoup de chemin a été parcouru depuis 20 ans, les techniques d’animation peuvent encore être améliorées, mentionne le vice-président et directeur général de Softimage. La division d’Avid cherchera à offrir des outils permettant d’effectuer des animations 3D d’une plus grande qualité en moins de temps et de créer des personnages 3D animés de façon encore plus réaliste.

Friday Flashback #321


softimage_3d_extreme_datasheet_snippet Even the best animation system is not complete without the extendible capabilities of a fully functional, high-quality rendering solution. With mental ray, artists can easily create the type of complex, photorealistic and innovative imagery that provide a competitive edge in the industry.

–Daniel Langlois, founder of Softimage and senior director at Microsoft.

Softimage Launches New Version of Mental Ray Distributed Rendering Environment

LOS ANGELES, May 16, 1996 — As part of its latest high-end 3-D modeling, animation and rendering software, Softimage Inc. is introducing a more powerful version of mental ray, its distributed, fully programmable rendering environment for Softimage® 3D. With this new release, available with Softimage 3D Extreme or as a concurrent user network license, mental ray is significantly more capable, faster and easier to use. It supports many new innovations, including interface enhancements, an extensive library of shaders and effects, a robust development environment and support for cross-platform distributed rendering. All mental ray features, including distributed rendering, are now available for the first time on Intel® Pentium® Pro, Alpha and MIPS® RISC 4400-based systems for the Microsoft® Windows NT® operating system and Silicon Graphics® platforms.

In addition, Softimage has announced attractive pricing for network and standalone concurrent user licenses of mental ray that will enable customers to build extremely cost-effective distributed rendering networks, also called renderfarms. Renderfarms speed production work and lower costs.

As part of the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) here, Softimage is demonstrating a massive renderfarm, with mental ray, running in a network of more than 30 Windows NT and Silicon Graphics laptops, single and multiprocessor workstations, and servers based on Intel Pentium Pro, Alpha and the MIPS RISC 4400 microprocessor.

Several independent software developers, including Lightscape Technologies Inc. and The VALIS Group, are demonstrating new plug-in applications that enhance mental ray’s rendering capabilities. These plug-in applications are based on Softimage’s new software development kit.

Through a combination of advanced ray-tracing capabilities, procedural shaders, volumetric rendering, distributed processing and a programmable architecture, mental ray has established the benchmark for rendering quality by producing the industry’s most detailed, photorealistic images for films, videos, commercials and games.

Most recently, Buf Compagnie (France) used mental ray to produce imagery for the feature film “The City of Lost Children” (“La Cité des Enfants Perdus”).

R/Greenberg Associates (New York) used mental ray to create a photorealistic version of the Statue of Liberty for an Oldsmobile Aurora commercial.

Digital Domain (Los Angeles) used mental ray to produce a stunningly realistic animated character, the T-Meg, for the Terminator 2 3-D attraction at Universal Studios Florida.

“Even the best animation system is not complete without the extendible capabilities of a fully functional, high-quality rendering solution,” said Daniel Langlois, founder of Softimage and senior director at Microsoft. “With mental ray, artists can easily create the type of complex, photorealistic and innovative imagery that provide a competitive edge in the industry.”

All mental ray enhancements are available for Windows NT-based workstations and servers and Silicon Graphics systems. The enhancements include the following:

  • Distributed rendering. Mental ray is a distributed rendering solution that can take advantage of multiprocessor and networked hardware, including Windows NT-based workstations and servers and Silicon Graphics systems, to dramatically reduce the time it takes to render a complex animation scene. Availability of mental ray on Windows NT allows customers to choose from a variety of high-performance, low-cost hardware platforms based on Alpha, Intel Pentium Pro and MIPS R4400 microprocessors for fast, cost-effective renderfarm solutions.
  • Shader library. Softimage 3D Extreme ships with an extensive library of mental ray shaders and effects, including some of the most challenging effects such as hair, smoke, fog and environmental effects such as sunsets and sunrises. Shader libraries are updated continually at no charge through Softimage’s World Wide Web site, . Through an Internet browser, customers can quickly view an effect in action to determine how it can be used in an animation scene.
  • Enhanced programmability. With mental ray programmable shaders, animators can differentiate their imagery with unique, visually exciting custom effects. An open application programming interface based on C, made available through the Softimage software development kit (SDK), enables customers to directly access the mental ray rendering engine for building custom shaders that match their unique creative environments. To help bolster a community of plug-in applications, Softimage in February introduced the Softimage Developers Connection program.
  • Interface enhancements. Mental ray is now fully integrated into Softimage 3D, making it easier to render images. A new render preview window also saves time in getting the right effects. A new shader ball allows customers to find the desired effect quickly.

In addition to mental ray distributed rendering, Softimage 3D version 3.5 includes many other significant enhancements including full NURBS (nonuniform rational B-spline) modeling, an enhanced particle animation system and other features. (For more information on Softimage 3D, see the “Microsoft Introduces Major Upgrade of Softimage 3D” news release.)

Plug-in Applications

As part of E3, several ISVs plan to demonstrate applications developed with the Softimage SDK. Lightscape Technologies (San Jose, Calif.) is demonstrating the integration of the Lightscape Radiosity Server and Softimage 3D using the Softimage SDK. A viewer linked to the server will provide real-time display and navigation of the radiosity solution from within Softimage 3D. The VALIS Group (Tiburon, Calif.)will announce it plans to ship several cross-platform, procedural shaders that eventually will be included as part of its Shader of the Month Club for Softimage 3D. The VALIS Group develops and markets special-effects applications and a series of procedural shaders for Renderman.

Pricing and Availability

Softimage 3D and Softimage 3D Extreme are shipping today for the Silicon Graphics platform; Windows NT-based versions are scheduled to be available in August. Licensed users of Softimage 3D version 3.5 can obtain networked or standalone, cross-platform concurrent user mental ray licenses. Approximate U.S. prices are single license, $2,495; four-pack, $7,995; eight-pack, $13,995; 16-pack, $23,995; 24-pack, $29,995; and 48-pack, $47,995.

Founded in 1986, Softimage develops software for media-rich applications including video, film, interactive games and CD-ROM applications. Products include Softimage 3D (high-end modeling, animation and rendering), Softimage Eddie (compositing) and Softimage Toonz (2-D cel animation). The company was acquired in 1994 by Microsoft Corp. Additional information about Softimage and Microsoft can be found via the Internet at http://www.softimage.com/ and http://www.microsoft.com/ respectively.

Founded in 1975, Microsoft (NASDAQ “MSFT”) is the worldwide leader in software for personal computers. The company offers a wide range of products and services for business and personal use, each designed with the mission of making it easier and more enjoyable for people to take advantage of the full power of personal computing every day.

 

Softimage is a registered trademark of Softimage Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Microsoft Corp.
Microsoft and Windows NT are either registered trademarks or trademarks of Microsoft Corp. in the United States and/or other countries.
Intel and Pentium are registered trademarks of Intel Corp.
MIPS is a registered trademark of MIPS Technologies Inc. MIPS is a wholly owned subsidiary of Silicon Graphics.

Friday Flashback #318


 

Oct 1997 Softimage to Support New Intel Architecture
Expects increase in performance using the Merced™ Processor’s advanced architecture
The first Sumatra-level 3D product to be made available on the new architecture will be Softimage’s next-generation rendering and finishing system, codenamed Twister. IconOffering completely interactive rendering control, as well as direct manipulation of scene lighting and texturing, Twister is designed to fit seamlessly into the customer workflow already established by Softmage 3D, the current-generation product.

For Immediate Release

October 13, 1997

Softimage to Support New Intel Architecture
Expects increase in performance using the Merced™ Processor’s advanced architecture

MONTREAL — Oct 13, 1997 —Softimage Inc., the leading provider of animation and video-editing tools for games, film and video content, today announced its plans to support the first implementation of Intel Corporation’s IA-64 architecture, code-named Merced™. Softimage’s next-generation 3D platform, code-named Sumatra, is expected to experience a substantial performance boost on the Merced Processor’s advanced architecture. These applications will be optimized for workstations running Microsoft’s 64-bit Windows NT Operating System, and will be available when the Merced Processor is launched.

“We are very excited about the promise of the IA-64 architecture as it relates to our next generation products,” said Marc Petit, Director of 3D Product Development for Softimage, “the gains in computing power will enable us to push the envelope in terms of interactivity and rendering performance. We are working closely with Intel to ensure that our applications take maximum advantage of the Merced Processor architecture.”

The first Sumatra-level 3D product to be made available on the new architecture will be Softimage’s next-generation rendering and finishing system, codenamed Twister. Offering completely interactive rendering control, as well as direct manipulation of scene lighting and texturing, Twister is designed to fit seamlessly into the customer workflow already established by Softmage 3D, the current-generation product.

“Users of Softimage’s 3D products will clearly benefit from IA64’s performance. We are delighted that Softimage is extending their commitment from IA32 to IA64 and look forward to their forthcoming Sumatra product release on IA64” said Anand Chandrasekher, general manager of Intel’s Workstation Products Division.

Softimage products will be certified to run on Mercad Processor-based workstations from a large number of industry-leading vendors including Compaq, HP, NeTpower and others who have announced plans for Merced Processor systems when it becomes available in 1999.

Softimage Information

Founded in 1986, Softimage develops software for media-rich applications including video, film, interactive games and CD-ROM applications.  Products include Softimage 3D (high-end animation), Softimage Eddie (compositing) and Toonz (2-D cel animation).  Additional information about Softimage and Microsoft can be found via the Internet at http://www.softimage.com/ and http://www.microsoft.com/, respectively.

Founded in 1975, Microsoft (NASDAQ “MSFT”) is the worldwide leader in software for personal computers.  The company offers a wide range of products and services for business and personal use, each designed with the mission of making it easier and more enjoyable for people to take advantage of the full power of personal computing every day.

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Softimage and mental ray are either registered trademarks or trademarks of Softimage Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Microsoft Corp.

Microsoft, Windows NT and DirectX are either registered trademarks or trademarks of Microsoft Corp. in the United States and/or other countries.

Other product and company names herein may be trademarks of their respective owners.

Friday Flashback #317


Interview With Michael Arias
1064594254_arias1
Michael Arias works for the Softimage special projects team and talks about creating The Animatrix movies, the industry and the fusion of 2D & 3D techniques.

September, 26th, 2003by Raffael Dickreuter, Bernard Lebel, Will Mendez

 

Tell us a bit about your background and how you got started in the 3d industry
It always seems to me that my career’s taken many bizarre turns along the way. I started out in the film industry – in 1987 or ’88 – at a company called Dream Quest Images – later reincarnated as Disney’s Secret Lab, and now defunct, as far as I know. I was just looking for something that would make use of my electronics skills and keep me busy while my band sorted out its various personnel problems. After a little while there, I ended up helping debug Dream Quest’s new motion control system, and then being chosen to work on the stages as an assistant, since I was one of the few people who knew their way around the system. Those were great days for the effects industry – it was before the advent of much CG and people were doing tremendous things with motion control, optical effects, miniatures, pyro, whatever. And the studio was a great place for me – still 19 or 20 – a big tinkertoy factory run by car nuts and mad bikers. At DQ I got to work on some great films too – THE ABYSS, TOTAL RECALL, and some others.

1064595338_arias3
working on James Cameron’s The Abyss.

After a couple years there, I moved back to the East Coast and promptly got recommended to Doug Trumbull for his BACK TO THE FUTURE, THE RIDE attraction for Universal. Another great experience – Doug was – IS – such an inspiring figure. For me and the other younger crew, including John Gaeta, now VFX Supervisor on the MATRIX films, Doug was so generous with his knowledge; such a very warm and receptive and articulate and creative guy.

It happened that our optical composites were being done by a Japanese company called Imagica. BTTF was all Omnimax so it required large format opticals, and Imagica was one of the few places in the world where one could do high-quality 15-perf opticals. And because I spoke some Japanese (from having studied Japanese in university), I ended up spending a great deal of time with the Imagica folks when they were in town. That, combined with the fact that our miniature crew was also largely Japanese, left me with a standing invitation to come visit Japan.

I ended up finally going with Doug to the Osaka expo (in ’90 I guess) and, though I’d seen the CG in THE ABYSS and a couple other shows by that time, the stuff I saw in Japan just blew me away. That, more than anything else, was what convinced me that the future of filmmaking was CG. I ended up working at Imagica for a year after that, still doing motion control camera work. And then I got the chance to direct a short “ridefilm” at Sega, for an 8-seater hydraulic motion base they had. Of course I had no real experience with 3d except for what I’d managed to learn from books and a borrowed copy of 3DStudio (rev. 1!). But the Sega folks saw this as an interesting opportunity to build up their CG team, still using Iris4D workstations at the time. And by the time I was onto the project they had chosen Softimage|3D, then called Softimage Creative Environment, version 2.4 I think. Perfect for a newbie like me. The film I did at Sega, MEGALOPOLICE TOKYO CITY BATTLE was shown in SIGGRAPH’s ’93 Electronic Theater. By today’s standards it’s pretty goofy but for the time it was quite ambitious. Insane really, considering that none of the team had any real CG experience.

After that I moved back to New York to team up with some friends, Randy Balsmeyer and Mimi Everett (their company is now called Big Film Design – BFD), to start a little CG production house, called “Syzygy Digital Cinema”. Through their work in film titles and design we ended up with some great clients: David Cronenberg, The Coens Brothers, Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch. But New York wasn’t quite ready for the CG business yet and because of our feature-film focus we couldn’t cash in on New York’s commercial business (which has since all but dried up). But it was a fun two years.

And by that time, I was ready for something new. I had really been thinking for a while that to go any further in CG I’d need to program more. I’d written a package called M/CAD for Sega and Doug’s motion base programming, and that had really whet my appetite for coding. And as my time at Syzygy started getting short, Softimage seemed like a natural fit. I’d made some close friends at SI; it was (and still is) a fairly tight-knit group. And I loved Montreal (having only been there in the Summer, thus far). David Morin, then director of Special Projects, made me a very nice offer that included lots of travel to Japan, and so I joined up. This was still the “good old days” when workstations and software were costing 40, 50, 60 thousand dollars, and up, so it really was quite different than it is now that everyone’s tightening their belts.

I think I’ve been with Softimage for eight or nine years now. I’ve now actually outlived all of the folks who hired me. And I spend so much time away from Montreal that most of my co-workers only know me from email.

Can you tell us what is the role of the special projects team 
We used to joke that Special Projects was where Softimage put people capable of doing everything and those capable of doing nothing. Not sure about that, but SP does seem to have always attracted people with a jack-of-all-trades sensibility. At the time I joined I think the entire team was composed of people with heavy production experience and even now I think we tend to gravitate towards hands-on work. Some of us, like myself, do a bit of programming. Others are experts in technical animation, scripting, or games development, for example.

Our focus is fairly short term, by necessity. Even our software projects are limited in scope by our commitment to a particular client, or by how much we have to work on many things at once. Not at all like how the folks in R&D; spend their time. That said, though the R&D; folks may not have the practical knowledge or the user’s outlook, they definitely have to deal with the software at a much lower level, and their knowledge of its workings, and of the mathematics and methods of 3D, are way beyond that of any of us in Special Projects (or at least me). The smartest people I know are all in R&D; at Softimage.

Did you always work for the Special Projects team at Softimage, or what were your previous positions?
I’ve been with SP since I joined Softimage. Actually I think I’m the only original member left at this point. Kind of a dinosaur, really. Someone has to come from Montreal periodically to clean off the cobwebs. Change my fluids, filters, and hoses, that kind of thing.

What do you do in your spare time?
Play with little kids. My kids, that is. Also, I’ve been biking a lot lately. Biking seems to be the latest fad to hit the traditional animation industry in Japan these days. I just did a 120km ride with Katsuhiro Otomo (director of AKIRA and the upcoming STEAMBOY). That almost killed me. Everyone else’s bicycle cost 5 times what mine did and weighed half as much. When I showed up at the rendezvous, the first thing the others did was pump up my tires and offer to strip my bike of all the extraneous bits (kickstand, baby-seat rack, etc.).

Working in the industry do you find that projects are becoming more technical than artistic?
I’m not sure if you mean the CG industry or the film industry in general.
If you mean the CG industry, I’d have to say “not really”. Software is (slowly) getting easier to use, and this means that CG artists, in some positions anyway, require less technical knowledge. That’s opening the field up to more talented artists with a broader range of talents. That’s good.

Filmmaking has always been a mixture of the artistic and technical, but I think slowly filmmaking too, particularly with the advent of non-linear editing and digital cinema, is becoming more open to artists who might have otherwise been inclined to pursue more direct means of expression. It’s easier and cheaper to make movies these days. At least, I think one could say, the entry cost is much lower. You can shoot a movie digitally, and mix and edit it all on a home computer, achieving respectable quality at the same time. That kind of thing was unthinkable just a few years ago.

What is your view about the current situation in the industry?
I think, on the one hand, the CG software industry is in a very tough spot, even while these are good days to be a CG animator. The film industry, like always, suffers from a lack of good ideas. There’s just so few good movies made.

What are the biggest differences between the Asian market and the Western 3D market?
I think the biggest difference is in the size of the market, in general, at least for artists in the film industry. Though it wasn’t always the case, the Japanese film industry is miniscule compared to that of the US. And movie budgets here reflect that. And lower budgets mean typically mean fewer effects, hence less CG.

On the other hand I think the game industry, though it’s definitely seen better days, still offers some interesting work, both for artists and software developers.

How has the localization of XSI help improved the Japanese market? 
Well, the people here at Studio4ºC (Studio Four Degrees) started using the Japanese version then day they got it and haven’t switched back to English. I have no idea if the introduction of a region-specific interface has helped sales here, but I can’t imagine otherwise.

You’ve worked closely in the Animatrix project. What can you tell us about that?
Andy and Larry Wachowski, directors of the MATRIX films, and their producer, Joel Silver, contacted me through their VFX supervisor, John Gaeta, an old friend who I’d kept in touch with over the years, and who knew I was working in Japan. We all met in Tokyo, and then in LA a couple of times, and after we’d talked about their idea for an anime “dream-team” project a couple of times, they asked me to produce the project for them.

I had very little “production” experience. Nothing really, except for once having acted simultaneously as CG director and co-producer of a feature-film pilot (TEKKON KINKREET, seen at SIGGRAPH 2000). But I felt good about the Wachowskis and the folks at Silver Pictures, and, more importantly, I had great partners in Japan: Eiko Tanaka, president and producer at Studio4ºC (where we ended up making much of ANIMATRIX), and Hiroaki Takeuchi. Tanaka stayed pretty close to her studio, while Takeuchi dealt with a couple of our other studios, and oversaw legal and contractual issues. Regardless, it was an enormous responsibility, and it totally dominated my life for the three years I was on it. I think in many ways it was more complex than producing a feature might have been, simply because we had so many teams running in parallel, and each director aspired to make their own “mini”-feature. Traditional animation in Japan has so much to do with personalities: some directors and animators require a great deal of hand-holding, while others are very independent. Fortunately, because I had worked a great deal in the animation business here already, I was on a “first-name” basis with many of the staff of our various episodes.

I really had to draw on a great deal of experience that had sat unused in the background while I’d been pursuing software development. Everything I’d learned until this point: a brief career in recording studios, composing music and doing sound effects for short films in college, having my own company, working in special effects. It was a great chance to exercise some dormant (or damaged) brain cells.

Honestly, though I didn’t get involved in the computer graphics aspect of the films as much as I’d have liked to, the most enjoyable part of the process for me was post-production. None of our directors came over for the dubbing sessions and, even for the fellows who made it to their final mixes and met with the composers, I was able to act much more as a collaborator than most producers are. This was not only because of the language barriers, but also because the post-production of animated films in the US is so different from the Japanese way.

Without question, my favorite single day on the show was towards the very end, when I got to record “walla” (crowd noise and background voices) for the battle scenes in SECOND RENAISSANCE. They had me in a booth screaming at the top of my lungs for hours – enormous stress relief. I’m especially proud of my soldier, begging for mercy while having his arms ripped off by a Sentinel (“oh God, no, please, God, no, AAAARRGGGHHHH!!!!”).

To what extent XSI was used in the overall project?
I think all of the episodes done at Studio4ºC were done using XSI, though there were some models built with Softimage|3D. You have to remember that we started ANIMATRIX three years ago, and there were some major gaps in the modeling functionality then. By the end, when we were working on BEYOND, we were doing everything with XSI version 2.0.

Kawajiri’s PROGRAM had a couple of CG shots done using Softimage|3D.
CG elements for Peter Chung’s episode MATRICULATED were done by a couple shops in Seoul using mainly Maya and Max. Of course, the only full CG episode, Square’s THE FINAL FLIGHT OF THE OSIRIS, was done using Maya and Square’s in-house renderer.

As a producer, I wasn’t necessarily in the best position to deal with software choices, but I think all of the Japanese animation houses saw a clear advantage in using Softimage software. Being on close terms with a software provider definitely gives a production an edge, particularly when technical challenges arise. Just the fact that I was writing the XSI Toon Shaders and dropping off new versions at the studio almost daily was seen as reason enough to use XSI, particularly on SECOND RENAISSANCE and BEYOND, which contain so many hybrid 2D-3D shots.

The Second Renaissance

Why do you think was XSI the perfect choice for a project like the Animatrix?
Great set of tools useful for 2D/3D integration: the Toon Shaders, of course. But also the camera projection mapping features, lens center offsets, compositor, audio tracks, animation mixer. The Render Tree and interactive rendering with mental ray. Good Japanese documentation and great local support.

Were there any special techniques used in combining 2D and 3D artwork
No rocket science really, but I think we did end up doing some wonderful shots with 3d characters (Toon rendered) and hybrid 2D-3D backgrounds. Studio4ºC has really refined the techniques involved in “perspective mapping” – projecting hand-painted artwork onto 3D geometry to camera movement other than just 2D panning and zooming.

You’ve worked on the development of the XSI toon shader, right? What can you tell us about that?
One of the first things I wrote when I started at Softimage was a very simple shader to do two-tone rendering – a poor-man’s cel shader if you like. It was quite primitive. I think most shader-writers start with similar projects. But my boss at the time, David Morin, thought that it might be useful for a project that was then being worked on by MTV’s digital team, DTV, and he put me in touch with their director, Myles Tanaka. Myles asked me to check out the work they were doing on a television pilot called “The Cathy Sorbo Show” (or something similar). The show involved cartoon-rendering a motion-captured performance of a talk-show host. The original idea was to do everything in real-time, but my shader was eventually used to offline render all the characters.

I kept working on the shader after that. Warner Bros. had me work with their rendering guy for the Duck Dodgers thing they did with Michael Jordan, showing him the techniques I was using to get my ink lines. They ended up incorporating the same techniques into a Renderman-based pipeline.

The big advances came when Softimage put me in touch, more or less simultaneously, with Dreamworks and Hayao Miyazaki’s studio, Studio Ghibli. Dreamworks was ramping up for PRINCE OF EGYPT at the time, and Ghibli, for PRINCESS MONONOKE. I spent the better part of the next couple years writing a library of ink-and-paint shaders to their specifications, and managed to get a patent on some of the techniques I was developing at the same time. Dreamworks went on to use the shaders on some amazing shots in THE ROAD TO EL DORADO. Full 3D characters, rendered to match the traditionally animated elements – really convincing stuff. I’m quite proud of their work. I’m no longer in touch with Dreamworks, so I don’t know how theye are going about these kind of shots now, but Ghibli continues to use the latest version of the Softimage “Toon Shaders”. While producing ANIMATRIX, I rewrote them from the ground up to take advantage of XSI’s Render Tree and interactive rendering as well as some new mental ray features. We used them quite a lot on THE SECOND RENAISSANCE 1 and 2 and BEYOND.

All in all, I think I’ve been playing around with these shaders for six or seven years now. As software, they’re really not so complex. The real key to their success in the field is the feedback that I was receiving from various animation studios testing the shaders for me. Because I had regular contact with all of the key Toon Shader users while working on each new version, I was able to incorporate a ton of suggestions as well as analyze users’ reports to pinpoint bottlenecks and deficiencies in the software. Along the way I think I managed to stumble onto a couple of clever tricks as well. I taught myself programming and math and computer graphics for the most part, so anytime I write software I end up employing a “hunt-and-peck” methodology. A more experienced programmer would no doubt arrive at a better solution faster. But I learned a great deal from the clients and Softimage people I was working with, and consequently really enjoyed working on all of this.

Is there a difference between anime animators and 3D Animators, if so what is it?
I haven’t seen any 3D animators in Japan with the chops of many of the traditional animators here. 3D is a somewhat deceptive tool: you’re able to create fantastically real (or surreal) images with comparatively very little effort. Things like motion blur, depth of field, sophisticated camera movement, rigid body dynamics, particles, hair, etc. are all included right out of the box. But if you give most 3D animators a simple skeleton with minimal rigging and automation and ask for a good “sad” pose, for example, or some athletic running and jumping, without relying on the technical animator’s bag of tricks, I think you’d be quite disappointed with the results. So when looking at various 3D work, you might see very evocative or convincing still imagery, but when you evaluate it for animation, you’ll often be disappointed by performances that are below the level of even some very rudimentary traditional work. This isn’t to say that there’s no bad trad. animation here – there’s tons of it – just, generally speaking, the training and experience and talent of traditional animators is of a higher level. That said, there’s an extraordinary shortage of good traditional animators, while there’s a phenomenal glut of 3D artists. As far as I can tell, the situation is similar, in both regards, in other parts of the world as well.

What Do you think about the fusion of 2d and 3d techniques? Will 2d disappear?
I don’t think it will ever completely disappear, not as long as there’s a few people crazy enough to want to actually hand-draw their films, frame by frame. At the same time though, everyone here complains about the lack of good animators. There seems to have been an entire generation of artists that chose other fields – CG for instance – instead of becoming traditional animators. The youngest animators on our staff were already pros when AKIRA was being made, and that’s an old film now. And these guys have never had the chance to pass on their knowledge to the next generation of animators. The budgets stay the same or shrink, while people’s expectations get higher and deadlines get tighter. It’s tough work; can you imagine actually hand-crafting a film? There’s nothing on the same scale except for animating with clay or models.
Even in the US, traditional animation has lost enormous ground to CG, though I think a great deal of this has to do with the relative brilliance of the stuff being put out by Pixar and Blue Sky. I really do feel like ANIMATRIX proves that people will watch good animation with compelling stories.

But yes, I suppose I do feel like we’re seeing the slow decline of traditional animation. Sad, really.

What challenges would you like to take on? 
I’m currently storyboarding a feature-length animated film that I’ll be directing at Studio4ºC.

Friday Flashback #316


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Friday Flashback #315


Bunny Hops to Fame

1998
The gang at Blue Sky Studios really knows how to ring in the New Year. Their animated film Bunny scored three top prizes at IMAGINA Du Futur in January, including the Grand Prix IMAGINA. Bunny showcases the warm, photo-realistic style that Blue Sky achieves using “radiosity”, their computer rendering technique that mimics the most subtle properties of natural light.

CGI Studio, their proprietary lighting software, and radiosity work in conjunction with SOFTIMAGE|3D to give Bunny its unique film-noir style.

“Everything was animated in SOFTIMAGE|3D,” says Doug Dooley, senior animator at Blue Sky.

bunny_hops_to_fame