Friday Flashback #240

Creation of Liquid Images
Reprinted by courtesy of “Graphis Magazine”

If Daniel Langlois was one of his own animated creations, he would be trailing speed lines in a blur of gravity-defying motion. Over the past seven years, this entrepreneur has dreamed up and created Softimage Inc., the leading developer of animation software for entertainment, which he sold to Microsoftfor 130 million dollars of stock in 1994. According to Langlois he’s just getting started.

by Steven Katz

While he is best known as one of Canada’s leading executives, Langlois is a filmmaker and animator by training. Softimage is his way of creating the ideal digital workspace – one that he would like to be using when he returns to filmmaking in the future. According to Langlois, “My background in design is at the center of everything I do”.

His background includes watching the animation of Chuck Jones and Tex Avery while he was growing up, but like most Canadians he was also exposed to the National Film Board of Canada, long considered an influential center for independent animation. Shortly after graduating college, Langlois worked at the NFB as a special effects animator/computer programmer/director for six years (1979-1986) at a time when the power of digital processing was just being recognized. One of his earliest projects was to make NFB’s primitive 2D computer system easier to use.

Langlois discovered that he was more interested in 3D animation and shifted his design emphasis to extending the 3D system at the NFB. His experience in 3D led to his participation in Tony de Peltrie, an independent film project that began production in 1983. Even today, this entirely computer-generated short subject stands out for more recent high-octane offerings which dominated animation festivals because it concentrates on character and mood rather than eye-popping illusions. Langlois served as character designer and co-director on de Peltrie for over three years to create just six-and-a half minutes of animation. This was at a time when the concept of a user interface was just being introduced to the computer world and every character gesture had to be written in code. With no commercial animation software applications on the market, Langlois realized that if he were to continue as a digital artist he would require better tools. In 1986 he founded Softimage and within a year introduced the Creative Environment running on SGI hardware.

“Whenever you edit a 3D project and it’s not finished you should be able to go in
and change it.” says founder and visionary Daniel Langlois of the need to integrate software, “You need the best tool on any frame at any time.”
Whale, Gribouille

The Creative Environment was the first animation software designed specifically for character animation. With virtually no competition in this special area. Softimage soon became the standard commercial software in Hollywood and in production houses worldwide. The new company also benefited from arriving on the scene at the beginning of what will probably be viewed as the early stage of an animation Renaissance. Langlois’ software has been used in some of the most successful commercial movies of all time including Jurassic Park and Back to the Future and is being adopted by many of the major players in the video game industry. Langlois’ success as a toolmaker has postponed his work as a filmmaker, but he is still working on achieving the perfect tool set. He is quite aware that even with Softimage’s flagship product, the Creative Environment, 3D animation is tremendously complex and is not the fluid, intuitive experience he strives for.

Whether Langlois needed Microsoftto achieve his goals in an interesting question, but having the backing of the largest software company in the world allows Langlois to make bolder moves in the face of increased competition. Every major animation application available today in concentrating on the entertainment industry and Softimage has serious rivals. You can measure the advances made over the last few years by the “must have” features that the big three, Alias, Prisms, and the recently merged TDI and Wavefront, add with each new software upgrade. There is a considerable similarity between these products and a tendency to concentrate on effects-based capabilities such as particle systems and inverse kinematics while the basic operating systems and interfaces remain the same. Taking the longer view, and now with the security of a massive parent company, Langlois is introducing the next generation of digital tools this year.

For Langlois, the key concept in any new software is accessibility-accessibility in price and ease of use. Digital Studio is the first software to place the entire digital filmmaking process in a single integrated environment. The final suite of Digital Studio tools will include: digital ink and Paint, 2D image editing, compositing, 3D animation, audio, and online editing in a truly resolution-independent system. Nearly all of the above capabilities exist in current Softimage products, but Langlois is creating entirely new tools so that the individual parts of Digital Studio will work together intimately and seamlessly at the system level without compromise.

Even at major post-production facilities (the first market for DS), digital production is a fragmented process tying Macintosh, SGI, and traditional analog devices together. For any given project, artists frequently move through 3 or 4 software packages to create, paint, and edit animations. This is usually a cumbersome and unnecessarily awkward process that constantly interrupts the creative flow.

If you were now to test drive Digital Studio, you would find yourself behind the wheel of a hyphenated tool set (compositing, image editing, sound and picture editing, 3D animation, 2D animation) all wrapped in one interface. At the core of the DS environment is the timeline, the standard graphic representation of sequential images in most production software. Before DS, animators learned a different timeline interface for each step of a project separating the production process into component parts. But this separation is a severe creative limitation. Since all aspects of an animation interact, an artist should be able to adjust any aspect of the sound or picture in a continuing process of refinement. In the computer products now available, this kind of immediate feedback and interaction is cumbersome at best.

Water Women, SVC

Digital Studio solves the problem by providing a single timeline whether you’re working in 3D, 2D, compositing, editing, or recording an audio track. Any tool for any part of the process is immediately available to the artist. All files and changes are recorded in the same format so the artist can play back synched audio, with levels of compositing and 3D sources at any moment in the process. Editing will no longer merely be the process in which finished elements are brought together, when the content of footage cannot be modified. In DS, an animation can be accessed during editing and the necessary animation or modeling tools will be available to make changes. Conversely, at the visualization stage of a project, an animator can easily check his shots in a sequence because the editing tools and any other source material are available without switching interfaces. In short, Langlois has conceived Digital Studio as an extension of the imagination: non-linear, multi-faceted, unrestricted by arbitrary standards and formats.

Embodied in this approach to digital art is Langlois’ wistful ideal that an artist have the tools to express a personal vision.

While this is in keeping with the independent tradition encouraged by the NFB, it also points to the paradox in Langlois’ vision. Digital Studio is designed to empower the individual, but few independent artists can afford Softimage products or the SGI hardware they run on. The irony of this is not wasted on Langlois. His answer is the plan to port Digital Studio to Windows NT; with a tentative release date of early 1996. Strategically, then, Langlois’ Microsoftdeal seems and inspired middle game strategy to give Softimage access to the largest installed base of computer users while maintaining a product line for high-end production facilities.

As it turns out, this is merely a return to the plan Langlois had originally charted in 1985 when he began developing the Creative Environment for the Macintosh. After only six months, Langlois abandoned the Mac and moved to Unix on the SGI, but nearly ten years later both the Mac and PCC offer a viable and more cost-effective alternative for many artists and small facilities. Langlois’ belief is that “The difference between a professional tool and a consumer tool will slowly disappear. As important as Digital Studio will be for production in the 1990s, it is hard to imagine that Microsoftpaid 130 million to enter a niche market. If Langlois is the artist who became an entrepreneur, he may be passing Bill Gates going the opposite way as Gates positions himself to be the first software mogul turned studio head. The Softimage purchase is not really about selling tools. It’s about creating content for home delivery systems that Microsoftis hoping to shape and control. For every tool sold, be it Word, Excel, or Digital Studio, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of books and home videos that are created with those tools. Microsoftis already a leading CD-ROM publisher and Gates’ expectation is that some type of set top box may allow Gates to do an end run around the major record, movie, and book publishing companies.

Langlois’ role in this is through the AAT group (Advance Authoring Technology) at Microsoft. Softimage is part of this group with the mission of providing the tools and production expertise Microsoft will need in the next five years as the media infrastructure undergoes radical change. Projects in this area include set top box and distribution technology for the home and office.

Since interactive media offers users the ability to shape the direction of the material they consume, they will also require new interfaces and the underlying tools required to make true interactivity compelling. It is not hard to imagine a time when the content of a work of fiction or game is judged as much by the innovation and the accessibility of the interface as the traditional elements of character and plot. If this happens, toolmakers will share intimately in the content creation process. So in a sense, the evolution of the new media may ultimately allow Langlois to become one of the first toolmaker/artists.

Digital Studio was conceived with this future in mind thought Langlois thinks it is too early to know what shape the aesthetic of interactivity will take. In charting a path for this uncertain future. Langlois has developed Digital Studio with an underlying operating system that will give him maximum flexibility in shaping the product for the special needs of interactive entertainment.

In its first release, however, Digital Studio must succeed as an innovative tool in a traditional, post-production setting. The grand synthesis of art and technology/creator and consumer is still in the earliest stages of evolution and Digital Studio will primarily be of immediate interest to the makers of commercials, network I.D.s and flying logos. Even Digital Studio on the PC will be a strategy to make a more cost-effective product for production facilities rather than non-professionals. It appears that the more interesting, consumer use of this technology is yet to come.

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