Friday Flashback #345


Softimage “Twister” Enters Beta at SIGGRAPH

ORLANDO, Fla., July 20, 1998 — Softimage Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Microsoft Corp., announced today at SIGGRAPH 98 that its next-generation rendering system, code-named Twister™, is entering the beta test cycle with delivery to customers scheduled for the fourth quarter of 1998.

Twister is the first module of the soon-to-be-released 3-D animation platform, code-named “Sumatra,” which provides a revolutionary new approach to character animation and introduces the concept of nonlinear animation (NLA).

Twister is well-suited for use in combination with SOFTIMAGE® |3D version 3.8, now shipping to customers, which allows users to perform interactive rendering in a next-generation environment. Combining the power of mental ray® version 2.0 with the architecture and interface of the “Sumatra” next-generation 3-D platform, Twister fits neatly into the SOFTIMAGE|3D 3.8 workflow with an interactive tool set that complements and extends the functionality of the current-generation software.

Twister takes advantage of the forthcoming “Sumatra” user interface, which provides much smoother workflow and data access while maintaining the familiar and intuitive Softimage user environment that has become integral to much of the animation industry.

Twister will revolutionize the way people handle production-level rendering,” said Dan Kraus, product manager for Softimage. “Not only does Twister provide the next generation of mental ray, but it also makes tuning and editing scene-rendering parameters a completely interactive process. We fully expect Twister to set a new benchmark in the industry as the first truly interactive renderer.”

“As a beta test site for mental ray 2.0, we’ve been extremely pleased with the truly interactive nature of the tool set and we eagerly await the opportunity to put ‘Twister’ to use in our facility,” said Dave Throssell, head of 3-D animation at London-based The Mill FX.

“Twister seamlessly integrates mental ray 2.0 into the rendering environment, thereby taking full advantage of new functionality for both interactive and batch rendering.”

 

Interactive Renderer Delivers Improved Creativity and Workflow

Twister allows users to render directly in the 3-D view, with instant feedback that shows how parameter changes affect the final rendering quality. Whereas rendering was once a time-intensive process, it will now become essentially another viewing mode. This interactive view evaluates the entire scene-rendering tree, and it allows users to view and modify all rendering effects, including motion blur and shadow mapping.

Twister also integrates many production conveniences, such as scene-level renderpass definition, allowing users to predetermine all of the computer graphics passes to be used in a production.

Next-Generation Photorealism Sets New Standard for Quality and Workflow

Twister is based on mental ray version 2.0, a next-generation renderer that will set new standards for quality and workflow. In addition to significantly improved performance, mental ray version 2.0 offers a host of new features, such as depth-map shadows, scanline motion blur and polygon displacement, as well as support for caustics, which allows the renderer to accurately calculate and render the light diffusion around a scene.

Twister allows users to distribute jobs quickly and easily across multiple CPUs, both locally and remotely, using new techniques such as distributed tesselation and local texture caching for significantly improved distributed performance.

Pricing and Availability

Twister is scheduled to be available in the fourth quarter of 1998. Licensed users of the extreme version of SOFTIMAGE|3D under a valid maintenance contract will receive
Twister at no charge. Customers with the base version of SOFTIMAGE|3D will receive an approximately 50 percent discount on Twister.

About Softimage

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 cel animation). The company was acquired in 1994 by Microsoft. 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 and Twister is a trademark of Softimage Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Microsoft Corp.

Microsoft is either a registered trademark or trademark of Microsoft Corp. in the United States and/or other countries.

Mental ray is a registered trademark of mental images Geselleshaft fur Computer Film und Maschinenintelligenz mbH & Co. KG, Berlin, Germany. All rights reserved.

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

Softimage general information:

United States and Canada: (800) 576-3846

International: (818) 365-1359

Note to editors: If you are interested in viewing additional information on Microsoft, please visit the Microsoft Web page at http://www.microsoft.com/presspass/  on Microsoft’s corporate information pages.

Friday Flashback #335


Interview with Joseph Kasparian
Textures & Lighting Lead on 300 at Hybride, Joseph Kasparian talks about creating 540 visual effects shots, the production process and how to work with completely green-screen shot movies.
March, 8th, 2007by Raffael Dickreuter 

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Joseph Kasparian, Textures &
Lighting Lead at Hybride.

Tell us how and why you got started in the cg industry?
When I was 18, I dreamed of becoming the lead guitarist of a big band that would tour around the world or becoming a professional skateboarder. For some enigmatic reasons, I ended up in Finance at the University of Montreal (HEC). But the day that I saw the T1000 in Terminator 2, I realized what I really wanted to do for a living and that would be Special Effects.

In 1992, a close friend of mine introduced me to the world of computer graphics. I realized that the possibilities were endless. I kept on studying full time in Finance but was spending 6 to 8 hours a day learning 3D at home. It was the biggest hobby I ever had.

When Jurassic Park came out, I heard the professional software used for the dinosaurs was Softimage 3D and that it was made in my hometown Montreal. My dream of working in that field was more than ever possible. As soon as I got my degree in 1996, I took a specialize course in 3D animation at the NAD Centre. Once I finished, I got a job at Hybride in 1997 as a 3D animator. It’s been 10 years now.

What do you like to do in your spare time?
For what I remember, I use to play guitar, mountain bike and snowboard. But now I have a 4 year old son and I’m trying to spend most of my spare time with him and my wife. So the correct answer would be I play with Legos and Transformers and make up my time to not miss the incredible kids channel shows.

Tell us about your responsibilities on 300 as Lighting and Texturing Supervisor
As the Textures and Lighting lead, I have to evaluate the complexity of each sequence with the supervisors. I establish procedures to speed up the artist’s work which includes constant R&D; on new techniques to texture and light scenes. I make sure the outputs of my team suit the compositors needs. I guide my colleagues technically as to follow the art direction and to keep the composition in place. And finally, I take care of delivering some of the more complex shots.

What were the biggest challenges in order to deliver the desired look on this production?
We had to transform the very stylistic look of the renowned American comic book author into film: silhouetted images, painted skies with brush-stroke effects, contrasting colors, charcoal blacks, and so on. For the environments created, each structure had to be an obvious part of Frank Miller surreal world before to be photo reel. The Hot Gates walls and skies were probably the most important aspect to define before to start the production. It was crucial that each vendor respects the exact same look. In order to help that process we received detailed documentation and concept arts about the look we had to achieve.

The wolf is another good example of the style they were looking for: a surreal beast in a photo real environment developed with an artistic touch. In the graphic novel, the wolf appears only as a huge black silhouette with red eyes. We kept those elements and integrated skin, muscles and hair to go a few steps closer to the real world.

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What custom tools or techniques were used especially in the area of lighting?
Many lighting techniques were used depending on the location. At first, we had to rely on precise layouts. Once we had the client approbation and depending on the amount of shots, we chose to move forward with regular Textures and Lighting techniques or Matte paintings.

We created high dynamic range environments for each sets. The effort on textures was critical to accomplish the movie style. In fact, we had to reduce the contrast levels on the 3D side to bring them back with the live footage on the final comp. The combination of flat textures with dynamic lighting helped us deliver images that allowed great flexibility for extensive color correct sessions.

The textures created where either a mixture of procedurals done in Dark Tree called within XSI or a good use of quality pictures taken from the actual set.
The matte paintings were developed over shaded scenes lit using final gathering or light rigs.

For many locations, specific light rigs where built at a very early stage and we used internal scripts to automate the creations of the passes required by the compositing department.

What kind of inspirations were used to inspire the artists for this kind of look besides the comic book?
Sin City and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow were without a doubt a major influence because they allowed us to work on very stylized movies that were entirely shot on green screen. We acquired a great confidence and expertise in that kind of movie.

One of the biggest sources of inspiration was the artwork sent by the production. It definitely captured the essence of the comic book and gave us a great head start.
The detailed and very technical documents done from the art department were essential to define properly each location and to develop the appropriate look for the backgrounds and skies. Each section was defined by a specific color palette to the great pleasure of the artists.

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How long was the production schedule for the team at Hybride?
Hybride produced 540 visual effect shots for a total of 45 minutes. A total of 95 Hybride employees worked on the project for 16 months. We were 45 in the 3d department, 35 in the compositing department and 15 in administration and technical support.

We had a wide variety of shots to do:

  • Animation: wolf, warriors (Spartans, Persians, Free Greeks, Immortals), troops animation (thousands of warriors), whip, banners, swords, weapons, spears, axes, etc…
  • Virtual Environments: backgrounds for all of our scenes, mountains, cliffs, plains, valleys, winter sceneries, oceans, skies (clouds, lightning, moon), etc.
  • Particles: Snow, embers, fire, rain, blood, smoke, dust, dirt.

Was the film entire shot in blue screen or to what extent is the film life action and to what extent cg?
Having shot the film entirely on a blue-screen background, each step involved in post-production required a considerable amount of work. The live footage included the heros and the ground. Everything else was CG.

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How was the processing of the life action footage to not only blend with the cg elements but at the same time look stylized?
We had to start by matching the 3d environment to the live footage to pretend they were shot simultaneously. Once the integration done, we stylized the whole image with the help of different passes (mats, depth fading, etc…). The extensive use of color correct definitely eased the integration of the live footage with CG elements.

How was XSI used in this production? 
XSI was used to generate almost every 3d elements. The software was very efficient to create complex environments, to do character animation and to manage army scenes with more than a 100 000 soldiers.

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Which features were especially useful?
The ability to built solid output pipelines with the creations of customizable passes was without any question a very important Feature in XSI.

These Features where also very usefull:
1. GATOR to transfers any surface attributes
2. Ultimapper to grab normal maps and occlusion maps.
3. The Render Tree to build complex shaders
4. The Fxtree to do practically everything with image clips.

Which areas of the software should be improved?
The procedurals could be improved in XSI. More than ever, we are asked to generate full cg environments and the usage of procedurals is very efficient for that need. It would also be nice to improve the Texture Editor with some tools such as Uv Layout’s flatten tool and Deep Uv’s Relax tool. And since Pixologic’s Zbrush is now used everywhere, it would be interesting to include a Ztool reader in XSI. That would allow to interactively change the meshes resolution in a different way than with referenced models.

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Do you think we will see more movies in the future like this and what possibilities do you see in this kind of filmmaking?
More movies are shot entirely on green screen. The director can do what he wants with each shot. I think this way of filming will become a standard. The big advantage consists in the infinite freedom of creativity that last long after the shooting is achieved. For 300, the graphic quality quickly takes over the complex and technical aspect to generate the images. This allows the audience to plunge in Frank Miller’s fantasy world. It is obvious that a new trend of film is emerging, a trend that joins more than ever the art of telling a story with the art of drawing that story.

Is there anything you would like to say to the rest of the cg community?
Nothing is more thrilling than working in a field in constant explosion. Not evolution, explosion. Each year, I’m overwhelmed by the images produced by the movie and the game industry. All technical borders are falling apart. The tools are more efficient and the artists more talented. There is no doubt that everything that made this profession exciting ten years ago is true more than ever and I’m delighted to be part of it.

 

Hybride near Montreal, Canada.


 

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 #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
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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.