Friday Flashback #379

On a challenging project like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, we look for speed and flexibility in our character animation tools. With the performance of the Subdivision Surfaces, the non-destructive character creation workflow, the open-ended scripting, and the rendering power of mental ray in XSI, we here at Stan Winston Studio are able to produce extraordinary digital characters and visual effects. SOFTIMAGE | XSI was a natural fit for Sky Captain and the World of  Tomorrow and is the perfect fit for SW Digital.

Randall J. Rosa / Animation Director
André Bustanoby / VFX Supervisor
SW Digital


Friday Flashback #375

Microsoft Softimage to Be Acquired by Avid Technology

REDMOND, Wash., June 15, 1998 — Microsoft Corp. today announced it has signed a definitive agreement to sell Softimage Inc., its wholly owned subsidiary based in Montreal, to Avid Technology Inc., a Massachusetts-based provider of digital video, film and audio solutions. As a result, Microsoft will own a minority stake in Avid and plans to continue its joint initiatives in digital television, interactive content development and other visual media technologies with Avid.

“For the last four years, Softimage has been an innovative leader in the digital media space and will continue this tradition of excellence as a part of Avid,”
said Craig Mundie, senior vice president, consumer platforms division, Microsoft.
“Microsoft will continue to be part of this success as an investor and strategic ally of Avid.”

Softimage has made major strides in providing state-of-the-art production tools for games development, films and commercials that have received numerous awards, including all seven films nominated for the Special Effects category at the 1998 Academy Awards ceremony as well as blockbuster games like Broderbund’s Riven, Sega’s Virtua Fighter series and Nintendo’s Mario64. Since its acquisition by Microsoft, Softimage has added more than 100 employees in Montreal, mainly graphics artists and developers, reaching approximately 300 today. During this time, Softimage also helped pioneer the adoption of the Microsoft® Windows NT® operating system in the professional media creation industry and established Digital Studio, a state-of-the-art high-end integrated environment and tool set for digital media creation.

“Over the past three years, Softimage has driven major breakthroughs in the industry,”
said Moshe Lichtman, president of Softimage.

“We were the first to ship the highest performance3-D animation and video production products on the Windows NT platform. We have built and introduced a revolutionary nonlinear production paradigm base on our Digital Studio architecture. At the same time, we have grown our installed base from fewer than 1,500 users to over 21,000 and our customer base from fewer than 700 to over 6,000. Joining the Avid team will enable us to dramatically accelerate our joint vision of an integrated production environment and to continue pushing the envelope on behalf of our clients and partners in the digital media space.”

Avid, the industry-leading provider of digital content creation tools for professional film, video and audio post-production, has a user base of more than 40,000 editors and artists. Avid’s digital media expertise is well positioned to build on Softimage’s revolutionary digital nonlinear production architecture and its powerful SOFTIMAGE® |DS and SOFTIMAGE|3D product lines.

“This deal is a win-win for all involved,”
Mundie noted.
“Avid gains the benefit of rapid expansion into the 3-D market, a video production solution that ideally complements its current offerings and a stronger alliance with Microsoft. Softimage joins the team of a proven industry leader that will help the company continue to grow and be a force in the digital media space. Microsoft gains a strategic ally for continued development on Windows NT and our digital media initiatives.”

Softimage and its employees will remain in Montreal and other Softimage locations around the world. The parties expect to close the acquisition during the latter part of July 1998, subject to receiving clearance under applicable U.S. and Canadian laws and other customary closing conditions.

Founded in 1986, Softimage develops software for media-rich applications, including video, film, interactive games and CD-ROM applications. Products include SOFTIMAGE|DS (video production), SOFTIMAGE|3D (high-end animation), SOFTIMAGE|EDDIE (compositing) and Toonz (2-D cell animation). The company was acquired in 1994 by Microsoft. Additional information about Softimage and Microsoft can be found via the Internet at ( and 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.

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

Softimage is a registered trademark of Softimage Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Microsoft Corp.

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

Friday Flashback #373

PLF uses SOFTIMAGE|XSI to pre-visualize challenging scenes in the Wachowski brothers’ second installment of The Matrixtrilogy, The Matrix Reloaded.

FREE YOUR MIND…ONCE MORE PLF Pre-viz Helps Reload The Matrix

by Michael Abraham
In The Matrix Reloaded, the first of two sequels this year from directors Andy and Larry Wachowski, the ingenious filmmakers behind The Matrix (1999) continue a cinematic trilogy that invites audiences to imagine their existence on different terms.  Again plugging into their unique vision – and to the talents of key collaborators such as Senior Visual Effects Supervisor John Gaeta – the directors take a truly comprehensive approach in bringing the movies from novel creative and technical concepts to the screen.The need to visualize in 3-D many of the most challenging scenes for both “The Matrix Reloaded” and for the third film, The Matrix Revolutions was integral to the Wachowski brother’s approach, as well as to the planning and production of the visual effects.

Pixel Liberation Front (PLF), whose pre-visualization work using SOFTIMAGE|3Dand SOFTIMAGE|XSI on such motion pictures as David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999) and Panic Room (2002) and Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002) has been turning heads around Hollywood, was hired to provide the pre-visualization for the film.

When Colin Green founded PLF in 1995, he worked on such action fare as Judge Dredd(1995), which starred Sylvester Stallone, and Eraser (1996), starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Green interfaced closely with John Gaeta on these projects, and through this process developed a shared understanding of the methodology for approaching the VFX production process – a process that would ideally encompass extensive pre-viz, technical planning and execution to ensure creative continuity from pre-production through to post. When Gaeta was given the chance to supervise visual effects for “The Matrix,” a then little-known film being created by the all-but-unknown Wunderkind directors, he sought out Green and PLF.

Although scheduling conflicts got in the way for that production, the timing was right when Gaeta came back to PLF to collaborate on the sequels.”We were, of course, thrilled at the chance to work on ‘The Matrix’ sequels,” says Green.   “It was great to work with John Gaeta again, and it was a given that the ideas behind the effects would be groundbreaking.  When we first saw the storyboards and concept art (drawn primarily by Steve Skross and Geoff Darrow) for the Freeway Chase in ‘The Matrix Reloaded,’ we knew we had a very rare opportunity to be involved in something really special.”The Freeway Chase is one example of the film’s mind-blowing moments, with Neo (Keanu Reeves), Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) battling agents, crashing cars, jumping from bridges and maneuvering motorcycles against traffic. It’s also an example of how PLF’s pre-visualization process came into play to ensure that the sequence lived up to the directors’ vision, and could actually be pulled off by the production crew on set and the visual effects team in post.

The entire process was carefully studied, not only by Gaeta and the rest of the VFX crew, but also by Stunt Supervisor R.A. Rondell, DP Bill Pope as well as many others to ensure that everything was coordinated creatively and technically to make the sequence as good as it could be.As was the case for all the shots on which PLF worked, the Freeway Chase seamlessly combines unbelievable stunt action with unprecedented CG and virtual cinematography. Lead Pre-viz artists Laurent Lavigne and Kyle Robinson created accurate digital models of all the elements in the sequence, including the set, characters, key props and set dressing.  They also added virtual cameras that allowed the filmmakers to pre-determine each shot and scenario right down to the type of camera lens that should be used.“We could tell from the start that the Freeway Chase was going to require a lot of very precise pre-viz to achieve the level of precision choreography and stylization that was evident in the boards,” says Green. “We worked in SOFTIMAGE|3D and SOFTIMAGE|XSI for over four months to create and polish the sequence design with John, Larry, and Andy.”  PLF’s artists then traveled to Alameda, California, to spend several more months supporting the shoot on set, translating the sequence from Softimage scenes into physical specifications that could be used by the location and stunt crew. Simultaneously, other members of the PLF team were developing pre-visualizations for the scenes to be shot in Australia.

All told, Green and PLF devoted the better part of two years to working on the productions, with Green spending nearly eleven months at Fox Studios in Australia, where he was joined by fellow PLF team members Lavigne, Robinson, Alex Vegh and Rpin Suwannath. The PLF team was joined in turn by Aussie artist Rob Nunn and Coordinator / Editor Duncan Burbidge.

The PLF team used XSI to pre-visualize in 3-D the filmmakers’ design of the so-called Mega-City, which appears in, and is central to, each of the sequels. “The Mega-City is really the ‘Downtown’ of The Matrix,” explains Green. “All of the action from both sequels was located within a comprehensive 3-D city map, which we built in XSI. We created some absolutely enormous scene files, and were definitely very happy to have SOFTIMAGE|XSI to help handle the task. The great polygonal modeling tools made this process much easier than it would have been in other applications.”
Green used SOFTIMAGE|XSI extensively on such scenes as the one showing Trinity’s dramatic exit out the window of a Mega-City skyscraper. The elaborate and complex screen action, which follows the character as she is pursued by an agent, required a full pre-visualization from PLF in SOFTIMAGE|XSI.

“To pre-visualize the complex camera animation style of these shots, we made considerable use of the Animation Mixer, the Constraint Blending capabilities, and easy rig-building interface in XSI. Having access to all of these tools inside the fast and responsive interface in XSI made a big difference for over-the-shoulder shot design sessions. It was wonderful to work with these tools.” 

Friday Flashback #366

title22003: Glassworks uses SOFTIMAGE|XSI to drop a cat for the new Mercedes Benz 40-second spot. The creative team works faster and gets a better look using XSI. What’s more, no cats were harmed during the creation of this commercial.


THE CAT’S MEOW. Glassworks Relies on XSI to Animate Cat for Mercedes

by Audrey Doyle

There may be several ways to skin a cat. But judging by a new car commercial coming out of Glassworks, perhaps the best way is with SOFTIMAGE|XSI.

Titled “Cat”, the 40-second spot highlights the safety features of the Mercedes S-Class luxury automobile through the use of a slow-motion animation of a cat as it falls from an out-of-frame perch. The cat, which begins its descent as a live-action feline, dissolves into a CG cat shown in X-ray form. As the cat falls, its X-ray body turns upside down and twists in the air to correct itself, ultimately landing safely on its feet. The scene then shifts to the Mercedes, also shown in X-ray form to highlight its own interior safety features. At this point the camera swings around the cat and tilts to show its body, including muscles and skeleton, from every angle. The commercial ends with a live-action/CG composite, as a photo-real CG cat saunters off screen, leaving the real Mercedes to take center stage.

A leading post-production house based in London, Glassworks completed the approximately 30 seconds of 3-D animation for this commercial entirely in SOFTIMAGE|XSI, running on Windows 2000 PCs equipped with Nvidia’s Quadro DCC graphics cards.

As Alastair Hearsum, head of 3-D at Glassworks, explains, the sequence begins with a real cat that was shot using a high-speed digital camera called the Phantom 5, from Photo-Sonics Inc. According to Hearsum, the team had to shoot footage of the cat falling at a very high rate of speed in order to capture the way its body moved as it fell. Bruce Steele, director of Visual Effects at Glassworks, adds that the Phantom 5, which uses high-speed video that stores frames in the camera’s RAM, can hold approximately 4 seconds of action. This, he says, allowed the artists to rotate and tilt the camera in one continuous shot.

Glassworks shot the footage of the cat against green screen with the camera rigged to move around the cat as it fell. Steele, along with programmers from Glassworks’ R&D department, wrote some code to filter artifacts from the frames. This left a film-quality image that they then processed to interpolate the frames from 1000 to 2000 frames per second, thus slowing the motion of the cat even further.

As the cat is falling, the footage moves seamlessly from live action to a 3-D computer-generated X-ray animation that highlights the feline’s skeleton, muscles, tendons, and internal organs. In order to ensure that the approximately 100-frame dissolve from live action to CG was precise, the Glassworks artists painstakingly tracked the motion of the real cat by hand.

To create the 3-D X-ray cat, meanwhile, the artists began with a Viewpoint model of a cat, imported it into XSI, and manipulated the points so that they mimicked the shape and size of the cat in the commercial. Then they built the cat’s internal organs, muscles, and skeletal structure in XSI, using books for reference.1

While the transition from live to CG required precise tracking, once the cat was entirely CG the artists were allowed to exercise a bit of creative license in terms of animating the cat’s mid-air twists and turns. “We had a lot of footage of the real cat landing, so we studied it, and with input from Daniel Levi, the director, we came up with a hybrid piece of action composed of various takes that the director liked,” Hearsum recalls.

To create the X-ray Mercedes, the artists imported into XSI actual design data for the car, which they received in VRML format from the automobile manufacturer. “The data showed all the innards of the car,” says Hearsum. “Once we got it into XSI, we applied the X-ray look to it.”

The X-ray look for both the cat and the car was accomplished with XSI’s Render Tree. “The Render Tree was very important for this commercial,” Hearsum says. “With it, we were able to create shaders that we would otherwise have had to get our R&D people to create. We were able to knock off quite sophisticated shaders just by joining boxes together.” According to Hearsum, the Render Tree’s Incidence Node provided the basic X-ray look. “We then changed parameters, added new nodes, and were able to quickly try out different looks until we got one that was just right.”

In addition to the Render Tree, another XSI tool that was crucial to this project was the Isner Spine, a spine creation technique developed by Michael Isner, the character setup and animation lead for Softimage Special Projects. With this tool, the Glassworks artists were able to intuitively animate the cat’s spine without having to build a complicated and elaborate bones setup. “This tool” says Hearsum, “allowed us to easily bend the cat’s spine in a very flexible and realistic way.” For everyone who is interested, Isner’s spine creation technique is available as a character animation script in XSI.

In addition to the X-ray version of the cat, the Glassworks artists also built a digital version of a photo-real cat, which appears at the end of the commercial, walking out of the shot. The artists built the cat, including its fur, and animated it walking in a convincing manner in XSI.

According to Hearsum, the artists had only four weeks in which to complete the CG for this spot. And thanks to the tools in XSI—particularly the Render Tree and the Isner Spine—they were able to complete the project in this timeframe to the director’s high expectations. “If we had to complete this project in another program in this timeframe, it wouldn’t have looked as good,” Hearsum says. “We wouldn’t have been able to achieve the look that the director and I were after in that amount of time

“SOFTIMAGE|XSI is very comprehensive, which makes it easier to arrive at a solution to a problem that a particular effect might pose,” he concludes. “And as budgets and deadlines continue to get shorter, being able to solve such problems quickly is very important.”