Friday Flashback #317


Interview With Michael Arias
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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.

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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

Friday Flashback #313


Fantastic Faces


Rock Falcon, the poster boy for Softimage’s Face Robot technology, takes digital acting to new heights with expressive facial animation.

The problem is a classic one for animators-many of whom have fallen back on the argument that there is no place for hyper-realistic human animation. When it comes to animating humans, it’s better to opt for more stylized faces so the viewer doesn’t get distracted. And certainly there is a whole beautiful body of work that supports this point including Disney’s Snow White, Hayao Miyazakiís Spirited Away, Pixar’s melding of classic squash-and-stretch with 3D in The Incredibles. But then, an animated character like Gollum comes along, a combination of talented acting by Andy Serkis, and stellar animation by at least 18 animators working for Weta. The bar is moved.

At Blur Studios, in Venice Beach, CA, the quest for good facial animation is close to an obsession. However, Blur is not the kind of studio that puts an army of technicians to work on specialized software. Rather, Blur prides itself on turning out high-quality 3D animation on time and on budget. Its body of work includes mischievous animated critters such as the Academy Award nominee Gopher Broke and plenty of human character animation for cinematics in games such as X-Men Legends 2 Rise of Apocalypse.


Softimage’s Face Robot technology is being utiliized for many projects at Blur. Most recently, it was used to complete a series of game cinematics for Xmen Legend 2.

On a recent visit with Blur Studios, we talked with Blur’s President and Creative Director Tim Miller and Jeff Wilson, animation supervisor. Like so many people in the animation business, the people at Blur are friendly and funny when they’re not being driven by murderous deadlines. On this particular day, the people at Blur were taking an earthquake training course, though Tim mused that it seemed unnecessary to take a course in “running and screaming.”

When it comes to facial animation, Miller is opinionated and outspoken. He levels plenty of criticism at the tools that have been available from Alias, Autodesk, Softimage, and LightWave, saying the Blur team worked arduously on facial expressions, only to end up with animation they considered unworthy of their efforts. Wilson at Blur also was frustrated, especially when Miller pointed out places where the facial animation wasn’t working , particularly around the jaw and the mouth. “You can hack the eyebrows,” notes Wilson, “but motion capture wasn’t helping with the mouth.” Up to this point, Blur Studio’s animators were trying to make facial animation work through brute force. Jeff notes that at one point, they were up to using 100 markers to capture facial movement and still the results were not what they wanted. When trying to use morphs, too many steps were required to accomplish the movements of cheeks bulging, eyes opening and eyebrows wrinkling. Blur was discovering that you can’t model and mocap every single move. Brute force is not practical.

The solution, they were certain, was a matter of getting better software. “We wanted the software to do more of the work,” explained Wilson.

Blur has worked primarily with Autodesk Media and Entertainment’s 3Ds max, and Miller has been a believer in a single pipeline for as much of the production as possible. So Wilson took time of to focus on facial animation, first working Autodesk Media and Entertainment’s Character Studio. The Autodesk team pitched in to help, but the Blur team wasn’t getting the results it wanted and the complexity of what they wanted to achieve slowed down the software. Somewhere around this time, the guys from Blur ran into the guys from Softimage’s Special Projects Team. (Venice, California is, after all, a small town especially if you’re working in computer animation.) And, the Softimage Special Projects Group was formed.

Just around the corner from Venice’s famous Muscle Beach, in offices that, ironically, were formerly occupied by Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Softimage Special Projects Group tackles customer problems such as creating realistic facial animation. Yes, the heavy lifting for facial animation is now being carried out in Arnold’s former workout room.

In those offices, Michael Isner leads the team working on facial animation, which includes Thomas Kang, Dilip Singh, and Javier von der Pahlen. Isner and von der Pahlen both have backgrounds in architecture and Kang has worked in interface design. Singh is a facial production expert, and he and von der Pahlen both have production experience and a good idea of what customers are going through. They have a larger backup group at Softimage HQ in Montreal.

By the time the Softimage Special Projects Team met Blur, Michael Isner said his team was ready to tackle solving “tens of hundreds of extremely hard problems.”

At first there was some concern about turning to software from Softimage since Blur’s pipeline has been built around 3ds max. Tim Miller laughs in retrospect. “These guys were scared to come to me with something from another company.” Miller, a veteran of the complicated problems faced by big studios with spaghetti pipelines, compounded by proprietary tools, vowed that Blur would avoid that situation by sticking to a simplified pipeline, using software tools from one company. But, once he was convinced that the Softimage team could help with the problem of facial animation, he was willing to give it a try. Says Miller: “Hey, I said, we tried. We put in a good faith effort, have at it.”

The relationship between Softimage’s special Projects Group and Blur is described by both as a super accelerated beta program and, in fact, Blur’s input helped the Softimage group take its Face Robot facial animation technology to the final stages of product development. Like Wilson, the Softimage team believed that the secret to facial animation was in building a system that understands how faces work so that th animator could work creatively with less focus on the mechanics of the process. But Isner and Kang both stress that the input from Blur’s animators gave them a critical understanding of how facial animation software needs to work to be truly useful to animators.


Thomas Kang with skull, Gregor vom Sheidt, Michael Isner, Javier von der Pahlen, and Dilip Singh of Softimage in the Special Projects studio near Muscle Beach.

 

“We want to be in the acting business,” said Isner who believes Face Robot can open the door to a new community of graphics artists-people who will make facial animation a specialty. And, just as there are Inferno artists, people skilled in using Autodesk’s Inferno effects software, there will be Face Robot artists.

Softimage|Face Robot differs from traditional modeling and animation tools, which have evolved as mechanical assemblies that move via software levers and pulleys or along paths. Instead, Face Robot enables soft tissue animation. When an animator grabs a control point and pulls, the face follows the point in a natural way, and the whole face is involved. Grab one side of the mouth and pull up-you get a sneer. Create a smile and the cheeks bulge, the eyes crinkle. Kang compares Face Robot to a Google app. “It’s simple on the outside, but there is a lot going on under the hood.”

A common problem in motion capture is the requirement for up to a hundred control points, which can cause lengthy set up times. Face Robot reduces the complexity and time of this process by using only 32 points. The result is a quicker process and better control over editing afterwards. A head created with any 3D modeling tool, for example, can be brought into Face Robot, where the key 32 facial landmarks are selected on the model. Face Robot includes an interface that prompts users to select the points such as corner of mouth, corner of eye, center of eyebrow, etc., and motion capture or keyframe animation can be used to drive a new set of handles that are optimized to pull the face around like a piece of rubber. Through being bundled with the entire programming API, modeling and character setup environment within Softimage XSI it has a great deal of flexibility for studios to fine-tune the facial system for their own needs. The process of incorporating additional rigging over the Face Robot solver allows studios to make the system resemble their own internal facial animation processes an interfaces. Face Robot also includes the ability to work with motion capture data, as well as perform keyframe animation. It is a superset of Softimage XSI and includes a complete environment for facial animation, with tweaks to the XSI core.

At Siggraph 2005, Face Robot was demonstrated by Rock Falcon a tough-guy character created by Blur Studios. His great dramatic moment comes when he rolls a watermelon seed around in his mouth, positions it, spits it out and turns to the camera with a satisfied smile. Blur’s Jeff Wilson, wearing mocap markers, supplied the motion for Rock’s big moment. He notes that the little smile at the end was probably involuntary but it’s a big part of what he likes about Face Robot. “The face stays live.” Wilson notes that one drawback of painstakingly animated faces is that they can go dead and flat between movements. With its underlying network of interconnected vertices, Face Robot does not go dead. In an interview with Softimage’s site XSI-base, Jeff Wilson notes “The human face is always moving unless it is very relaxed. Even when ‘hitting’ an expression in real life, the muscles will settle or twitch a bit. There are lots of very subtle adjustments that can happen after you reach an expression, and that’s what makes the performance interesting.”

So while Face Robot has all the capabilities of XSI, it also has its own unique engine for faces. Underneath it all, there is math. Michael Isner says the engine for Face Robot is essentially a solver with a collection of algorithms tackling the problems of facial movement. “We parametized the problem.” To meet those parameters, however, Face Robot requires a certain level of modeling. In most instances, says Isner, users will bring a head into Face Robot and they may have to fine-tune it to meet the expectations of the system’s engine. Face Robot has tools for modeling and sculpting the head beyond what is originally brought into the system. Being realistic, Isner says Face Robot could make the lives of animators more difficult as they get used to the initial hurdle of having to create a higher level of facial detail. It will require expertise, but the work put into preparing the head for animation will be rewarded with more flexibility, and power, when it comes to actually creating animation.


Rock Falcon, the poster boy for Softimage’s Face Robot technology, takes digital acting to new heights with expressive facial animation.

Clearly the effort has paid off for Blur. Jeff Wilson notes that the company’s productivity has skyrocketed. Wilson says that animators at Blur have been able to turn around about one second of animation for every hour of animator time, including setup. It’s a new equation for the company.

The company believes that the ability to animate faces better will also drive new business. Where, in the past, a lot of work went into downplaying the face in animation by focusing, instead, on the motion of the body to convey most of the performance, now they could use the face and take advantage of the emotional impact that faces can provide.

Likewise, it doesn’t take much to get Isner talking excitedly about the potential for facial animation and for Softimage. The ability to create Face Robot comes to a large degree from the painful rewriting process that took Softimage to the next level with XSI. One of the new features of XSI 5 is Gator, the ability to apply animation from one model to another. This can be especially powerful in the case of facial animation, and especially facial animation created with Face Robot. Performances can be saved and because of the consistent use of 32 markers, they can be easily transferred between faces. It’s even possible that an actor’s head can be scanned, captured, mo-capped, and re-used for additional footage.

Jeff Wilson notes that working Face Robot into Blur’s work flow has been reasonably simple. In the case of Face Robot, they are easily able to bring in a head modeled in 3ds max. At that point though, Blur tries to avoid doing additional modeling in XSI. If a head needs more work, they’ll usually go back out to 3ds max to do the additional modeling.

>Face Robot supports a variety of output formats, allowing users to work with different modeling and animation products for their entire project. Of course, notes Isner, the process would be naturally easier when the pipeline is based on XSI.

Just as Blur Studios is enjoying a period where they have an edge over the competition with Face Robot, before the product is officially rolled out, Softimage believes they have an edge with Face Robot. Softimage Vice President Gregor von Sheidt, former CEO of Alienbrain who came to Softimage with Alienbrain’s acquisition, will be leading the introduction of the new product. Face Robot isn’t going to be thrown to the dogs as a low cost module. Rather, von Sheidt says Face Robot is a high-end tool and will carry a premium price. The price tag will be closer to the Softimage of old than the XSI of today. It’s not a product for everyone and Softimage is not going for volume. Instead, Face Robot will be offered to key customers first. “We want users to have a good experience and we need to be sure we can support them.


Blur used Face Robot in the animation pipeline when creating the Brothers in Arms television commercials for its client Activision.

 

Obviously, Face Robot is enjoying a honeymoon. As of this writing only a few people have access to the software and most of them work for Blur Studios or Softimage. Blur helped develop it and they do see room for improvement, “especially around the mouth,” says Tim Miller who apparently says this a lot because everyone standing around him will sigh, roll their eyes just slightly, and give a resigned nod. It seems clear though that Face Robot really will change the face of animation. It could have the effect of democratizing facial animation in the same way new price points have expanded the universe of 3D animators.


Friday Flashback #308


GAME DEVELOPER • JUNE/JULY 1995 Microsoft’s Softimage is suddenly challenged by Silicon Graphics’s merger with Alias and Wavefront. What can game developers expect from these two?

 

 

3D Graphics Goliaths Square Off

Yesterday, as I was cleaning out a bookshelf in our office, I came upon an issue of Byte magazine from Aug., 1987. Although I was throwing everything away, I had an urge to flip through its pages—there’s something compelling about a computer magazine that’s over seven years old. Volume 12, number 9 of Byte may only have been 49 in dog-years, but it was much older in computer-years. I couldn’t believe it—ads for 386 16Mhz computers selling for $4,400, 9600-baud modems for $1,000, and articles about EGA graphics. It’s amazing we got through those rough times. (Some know-it-all will read this in 2002 and say the same thing about 1995, no doubt.)

One article that caught my eye focused on the technique of transferring cartoon-quality film (a clip from Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves) into digitized EGA display. Yeeeesshhh, the final result looked horrible. So, maybe the time wasn’t right back then for creating digital media from live footage. But, like a rolling snowball picking up size and speed, the graphics industry is maturing to the point where there’s not too much anyone can’t do at an affordable price. Microsoft and Silicon Graphics (SGI), thanks to recent acquisitions and mergers, are helping to fuel this momentum.

man_overboad

Competitive Partners

The relationship between Microsoft and Silicon Graphics has changed enormously over the past 12 months. Silicon Graphics is the dominant player in the graphics
workstation market, and Microsoft is the giant in the PC software market.

However, when Microsoft acquired Softimage last summer, Microsoft gained a powerful suite of IRIX-based animation, editing, compositing, and cel animation tools. It instantly became a key partner of SGI. Eight months later—last February—SGI merged with Alias and Wavefront, two companies that compete against Softimage on the SGI platform. How have these developments changed the relationship between Silicon Graphics and Microsoft? More importantly, how does it affect their customers?

I spoke with Andrew Wright, group product manager of advanced authoring tools for Microsoft/Softimage, and Dave Larson, director of marketing for Silicon Studios, a wholly owned subsidiary of Silicon Graphics, about the actions their companies have taken recently in the digital entertainment industry.

The most recent event, Silicon Graphics’ merger with Alias and Wavefront, achieved two objectives for SGI, according to Larson.

“We felt that by merging with Alias and Wavefront,” Larson explained, “we could get two of the most important groups of engineers together with our engineers and accomplish two things. [The first objective] is to drive the development of our 3D software environment… [Second,] we don’t have expertise in entertainment and industrial [software] markets at the customer level like we do with hardware. We’re getting a sales force that knows the customers really well at the application level, a sales force that has a much greater depth of knowledge.”

What was Wright’s reaction to the SGI merger?

“Surprise,” he said. “From [Microsoft’s] perspective, it actually puts us in a stronger position because we feel that for our customers a cross-platform solution is important. Where they want the performance of SGI, we provide it, where they want the price-to-performance ratio and openness of a Windows NT system we’ll provide that to them. We’ll be the only high-end 3D animation vendor that’s effectively able to execute a crossplatform strategy.”

I sensed no edginess from either Wright or Larson about the relationship between Microsoft and SGI, and both played up the positive aspects of their new product lines. Wright stressed the fact that many of SGI’s partners, not just Microsoft, were now competitors, but that it wouldn’t make sense for SGI to consider them as such: “Yes, we are a competitor to [Silicon Graphics], but they’re also a competitor to a number of their other ISVs [independent software vendors]. Companies like Side Effects, Discreet Logic, Avid… One thing I can say absolutely outright is that if SGI loses their third-party applications as a result of this merger, they’re dead in the water. I think they’ve almost got to overcompensate to make sure that their third party ISVs are treated fairly,” Wright commented.

Dave Larson adamantly agreed.

“We’re going to treat [Microsoft] as we do a whole category of partners who will get early access information, and it’s based on business parameters. These guys, as well as other 3D vendors, are still selling SGI software and we’re going to do whatever we can to make sure they continue to do so. That’s our business.”

Softimage off the SGI Platform?

Upon acquiring Softimage last year, Microsoft stated its intention to port the Softimage tools over to Windows NT. I asked Wright whether Microsoft had plans to pull Softimage products off the SGI platform at a later date and focus exclusively on its own operating system implementation.

“No. One of the key reasons Microsoft bought Softimage is that Softimage had a tremendous presence in the community that was producing the world’s best content. ILM [Industrial Light and Magic]. Greenberg. Rocket Science. For those companies, the SGI platform is absolutely critical because they need that level of performance… We think Windows NT and the associated hardware developments are going to provide a very price-attractive alternative. But in no way is that going to put SGI out of business. They are going to continue to do very well and we need to be there.”

 

Microsoft looks at its partner/competitor relationship with SGI in the same light as its association with Apple.

“We’ll continue to invest in SGI,” Wright stated. “It’s very similar to our situation on the Macintosh. Microsoft makes a lot of money on the Macintosh and it’s a very vital platform for us at the application level, even though we don’t own the operating system. The fact that we’ve got applications on Windows 95 as well does not in any way affect our investment in the Macintosh platform.”

Wright sees Silicon Graphics remaining the superior platform for highend digital video and three-dimensional animation over Windows NT, just as the Macintosh held its position as the superior platform for graphic design when Windows 3.0 was introduced.

“Macintosh had a very strong position in graphic design. Windows came in and everybody thought that it was going to completely take over the market. As a result, companies like Aldus and Adobe developed their applications first on Windows and second on Macintosh. But they realized over time that the Mac wasn’t going to go away… We think a similar thing is going to happen in the SGI world,” Wright said.

Porting Softimage Products to Windows NT

Upon acquiring Softimage, Microsoft announced that it would port the company’s toolset to Windows NT. Wright indicated that Softimage products would be available on Windows NT this year, but he declined to be more specific, fearing that divulging an estimated date could raise false hopes.

I wanted to know what strengths Windows NT could offer over the SGI platform to game developers. After all, SGI has been targeting this market for years and has optimized its hardware for high-end graphics and animation. Wright responded: “We think that the Windows NT platform will offer very attractive price-to-performance ratio in the range of performance that it delivers. We also feel that for people who have PC-based networks, for example developers who are using [Autodesk’s] 3D Studio, it will be important for them to run a high-quality 3D product in the same environment that they’re running their other tools. I think that’s going to be key to the games development area.”

Downward Pressure on Prices

In addition to announcing the porting of Softimage tools over to Windows NT, Microsoft announced in January that it was slashing the price of all Softimage software by up to 50%. What was behind this aggressive move? Wright explained:

“Over the last couple of years, interactive developers [have begun to] require [highend] tools as games have become more sophisticated. We looked at our pricing structure and said, ‘Well, those prices make sense if we continue to maintain our high-end feature set for our traditional market.’ But if [Microsoft] really wants to penetrate the market for game developers as well as other emerging interactive media, it’s important to have more aggressive price points and maintain that leadership position.”

A large number of graphics and animation products have been launched for the Windows, DOS, and Macintosh platforms recently by companies like Caligari and Strata. Although these products aren’t in the same class of function or performance as either the Microsoft or SGI tools on IRIX, they seem to be exerting pressure on software prices for the entire market, regardless of platform. I asked Dave Larson how Silicon Graphics viewed these lower-priced products, and how his company would respond.

“We’re moving down in terms of markets,” declared Larson. “As our price points come down, we’re cutting deeper into various markets… Historically, SGI has been perceived as vastly more expensive and out of reach, a boutique kind of machine. We think we’re rapidly expanding beyond that, and that we’re within reach for a lot of people [developing digital entertainment] for a living. It’s all about how much time you have to get your work done. For instance, a friend of mine just came up who’s been doing a lot of audio work on the Mac, and he just started using a new audio application on our platform. He says it’s dramatically affected his work just after a few days of working with it. What he used to think ahead to do he now does in real time. He can test his decisions as he goes. That’s the metaphor for performance change. Everything happens so much more quickly [on the SGI platform], and your creativity can increase.”

Sega and Nintendo Choose Sides

There’s an interesting sidebar concerning SGI and Microsoft. The two archrivals in the game cartridge market, Nintendo and Sega, have gone to separate corners for their respective development tools, and you can probably guess whom each has enlisted. In 1994, Nintendo selected Alias (whose software was used to create the Super NES blockbuster Donkey Kong Country) as the authorized graphics development system for both current games and next-generation 64-bit games. Last January, Sega chose Softimage 3D as the official three-dimensional development tool for the new SegaSaturn game platform. I’m not saying that this is an instance of “any enemy of my enemy is my friend,” but it is predictable political maneuvering.

As long as the Softimage tools on IRIX don’t take a distant second priority to their Windows NT version, users stand to gain from a price war between two resource-rich companies like Silicon Graphics and Microsoft. Feature sets and performance should evolve more rapidly, and it undoubtedly will spur other SGI platform competitors to keep up.

You’d better get used to seeing more companies merging or acquired as the digital entertainment market expands—it’s a natural consolidation that should continue for the next couple of years.

Alex Dunne is contributing editor for
Game Developer magazine.
C R O S S F I R E
14 GAME DEVELOPER • JUNE/JULY 1995