Friday Flashback #213

From the Softimage Customer Stories, volume 1, issue 1, a 2001 customer story on Aldis Animation
click to read the full story (PDF) or scroll down

THE ALDIS ASCENSION: SOFTIMAGE|XSI Helps Aldis Animation Keep Moving On Up
by Michael Abraham

When last we visited with Kim Aldis, founder and co-owner of London’s Aldis Animation Company, he and his crew were busy putting the beta version of SOFTIMAGE|XSI v.1 (codename Sumatra) through its paces.

Roughly a year after our first conversation, I reconnected with Aldis at his home number. I’d called the Aldis Animation offices the previous day, but the sound of holidays celebrations in the background suggested it wasn’t a very good time to talk. Damn the holidays anyway; they play hell on the work schedule of irredeemable procrastinators such as myself. But I digress.

Speaking with Aldis the morning after the night before, he sounded surprisingly upbeat. It’s been a good year for the company. So good, in fact, that everybody was feeling a little fried as the Christmas season approached. A party was definitely in order.

“We’ve had a pretty good year,” Aldis admits, with typical understatement. “We branded all the UEFA Cup pieces for Ford and did a whole bunch of stuff for the CITV network here in the UK. More recently, we created some titles for the British television game show Blankety-Blank (the British version of the old celebrity game show The Match Game). We also created backgrounds using SOFTIMAGE|XSI v.1.5 in conjunction with Avid|DS for a very challenging pop video promo. That project was really an interesting one.”

“Interesting” in this instance apparently means intensity of the mind-bending variety. As it turns out, the Hatiras video (entitled “Spaced Invader” and featuring the talents of nefarious MC/Rapper, Slarta John) was shot entirely on bluescreen, leaving Aldis to create all the backgrounds using SOFTIMAGE|XSI v.1.5. That is a lot of work in and of itself, but after careful consideration, Aldis felt he was up to it. That was before the Defected Records and Vigilante Productions realized that the video should be out before Christmas, which significantly compressed the timeframe.

Even with the original deadline compressed to a fortnight, Aldis isn’t one to complain. Adhering to his philosophy that there is always a solution within Softimage, he prepared to put his beta version of SOFTIMAGE|XSI v.1.5 under some of the most intense pressure the system has ever seen.







“Basically, they shot all the footage of Slarta John against a bluescreen,” explains Aldis. “About the same time they were shooting, I started working on the graphics. By the end of the first week, the footage had been offlined. We took that footage into Avid|DS together with the graphics I had managed to create by the start of the second week. Aries Brooker did a great job on the compositing, editing and effects using the Avid|DS system. I carried on working on the remaining graphics in the meantime, so it was all quite efficient. What was most encouraging in the midst of all the chaos though, was how well the new version of SOFTIMAGE|XSI performed. I’ve always really liked and relied on the system in the past, of course, but we’ve never put it under pressure quite this intense. We rendered an enormous number of frames. We did a lot of rotoscoping and matching of backgrounds. And, of course, there was all that bluescreen footage to deal with. I can quite honestly say that I wouldn’t have been able to get it done without version 1.5.”

Despite the stress and hard work, however, Aldis insists that the project was a thoroughly enjoyable one. Much of the credit for that goes to co-directors Ben Hume-Paton and Steve Lowe.

“Anytime you can work with directors with whom you can get on, you know that you’ve got a good thing going,” says Aldis knowingly. “It was the first time I’d worked with Ben, and we seemed to share the same vision of things. It was a pleasure, in spite of all the problems and even though we had to work so hard.”

Aldis also gives considerable credit to the latest version of SOFTIMAGE|XSI, both the success of the project and the positive experience it ultimately produced.

“It was great to see XSI working so well,” he says happily. “I really hope that people will sit up and take notice of the vast improvements in version 1.5. I love it: it goes from strength to strength. My favorite parts are the Render Tree and the scripting capabilities, which have both come a long, long way since the first version. The much-improved rotoscoping was key to this project. We had backgrounds that would refresh completely and consistently in real time. That means you can rotoscope, then play it back right away. That is an invaluable feature you could never do before. I also used scripts to set up my camera constraints. A single scene in the pop video might require 20 to 30 constraining objects for a single camera. I was able to script the constraints, then drop them into the timeline of the Animation Mixer. At that point, the timing is set up, and all I have to do is scroll through, position the camera on each shot and bang, I’m away!”

After the very short respite over Christmas, Kim and his team at Aldis Animation are preparing for a number of challenging projects. They are currently in negotiations to create special effects for a popular television series, and they have just signed an agreement with two character designers to create their own animated series.

“Suffice it to say that the character designers are very well thought of,” says Aldis mysteriously. “This is a new direction for us, but one that we’re all very eager to take. In fact, I’ll be working on some characterizations over the holidays, with the idea of getting a trailer out early in the New Year. We’ll also be setting up a subsidiary company to handle the in-house productions we’re planning on doing in the coming months and years, so these are exciting times.”

With 2001 now upon us, it’s fair to say that one good year deserves another at Aldis Animation.

Friday Flashback #133

1998. The Sumatra logo derives from nautical and navigational imagery, such as a sextant, astrolabe, or compass. It’s also suggestive of a gyroscope, but is not a literal translation of any of these objects. This logo imagery is used to elicit the idea of a vast, unexplored environments as well as to recall the renowned navigability of the product. The “axis” suggest cartesian planes, and the arcs communicate motion/animation about a point of origin. The rough, hand-drawn character of the lines lend it an asiatic quality, in keeping with the graphic design of our other product logos.
— Charles Migos, User Interface Designer

Saturday Snippet

This is a bit of a snippet and a bit of a flashback. Back in the early days of “Sumatra scripting” (14 years ago), commands like GetValue didn’t have a return value. They had output arguments and you had to go through the ISIVTCollection to get the output value.

Here’s a classic example of the .Value(“Value”) syntax.

Name = GetValue("Sphere.Name").Value("Value")

Friday Flashback #103

Just about 13 years ago to the day, the URL went live.

Sumatra is Coming from

Sumatra is Coming from

Rather predictably, this sparked some debate on the mailing lists, with a number of different riffs on the URL, including “”:

Sorry Softimage, your software has served me well, but it’s time to wake up and smell the coffee. You sat around on your ass too long while I watched everybody around me switch to Maya, now it’s my turn. I’m actually excited to learn Maya, it seems like it’s creators are willing and able to stay up-to-date and on the cutting edge.


3d Discussion archive via the Wayback machine

Friday Flashback #98


3d.archive.9712.Sumatra.revisitedWhat were they talking about 15 years ago on the SOFTIMAGE|3D discussion group? Well, for one thing, they were wondering about “Sumatra (codename)” and whether they’d lose the beloved spartan SOFTIMAGE|3D interface:

Aside from the possibility of losing certain favorite tools I am very concerned with what Sumatra’s design will be like. I really love the spartan modular SI interface. It’s elegant, clean and very responsive.

I agree about the Interface. I really don’t care if they change the “look” of the interface, do that goofy rounded thing with the buttons, as long as they keep the functionality and general layout: The menu cells along eachside of the four views.

My vote is to KEEP THE SPARTAN INTERFACE. 10-15 hrs/day, I really don’t want to be looking at colorful icons and layers of hidden functionality collapsed into an insufficient number of modules.

The answer back from Softimage makes for interesting reading (keep in mind that “Sumatra (codename)” wouldn’t be released for another couple of years):

Subject: RE: Sumatra… revisited
From: Dan Kraus
Date: Mon, 22 Dec 1997 10:45:21 -0500


>I think we should all think about it and be a little concerned that
>after SIGGRAPH SI has not even whispered the word ‘Sumatra.’

Although we’ve been coding hard since well before Siggraph ’96, we
haven’t spoken too much about it, except at the yearly Siggraph users’
group, because we want to be certain of our ship date before starting to
set concrete user expectations.

Sumatra is a complete replacement for the currently 3D product –
modelling, animation, rendering, particle, mental ray, etc, all
integrated into a single, seamless multi-threaded environment. We’re
coding Sumatra simultaneously both on IRIX and NT – there’s no ‘port’
involved this time, which also means that we get to take max advantage
of the hardware on both sides. Of course, there’s a lot of new tools –
performance, modelling/animation, etc – but our first priority is the
v3.7 toolset, to guarantee that you can use Sumatra for exactly the same
thing for which you use SI3D today.

Sumatra will actually be preceded by Twister – a standalone rendering
product which uses the Sumatra interface/architecture, and also
incorporates the next-gen of mental ray (v2.0). Twister is designed to
be used in tandem with SI3D, so you can start using/learning the new
interface as you’re comfortable, and integrate it into your current

We currently expect Twister to ship in Q3 (Calendar) of ’98, and Sumatra
(Q4). This is behind our original target dates, but we want to be
completely certain that Sumatra is a true replacement for the current 3D
product. From the upgrade point of view, we’ll be treating Sumatra as
the release version of SI3D, which means users under maintenance will
recieve an automatic upgrade, just as you would to a point release or
service pack.

>>I wanna know what the interface will look like

Can’t blame you 😉 One of the most time-consuming tasks of the
Sumatra/Twister effort has actually been understanding and replicating
the existing user model. This extends way beyond pure interface issues,
and it’s taken us almost 2 years of work with our PM and internal
development teams (including several professional animators) to
guarantee that we understand why and how data is passed through Soft,
and propose an interface re-design which improves on what we have today.
We also have the benefit of having a true in-house production team (the
Softimage Content Group), who works closely with us on tool design,
putting things into immediate practice as soon as they’re coded.

Here’s a peek at a few of the key UI issues, and what’s happening:

Speed of Access – things like parent, cut etc are not available in all
the modules in Soft. One of the things you’ll notice when working with
Sumatra is that the right-hand panel provides you with all the general
controls you need – all the time.

Tools Organization – The Sumatra UI puts things in more sensible and
intuitive places, yet respecting where the most important controls (ex keyframe)
sit today.

Quick Selection Model – Sumatra has filters and presets which make life
much easier by not just making them ‘unselectable’ as is the case in
v3.7SP1, but actually letting you pre-select the type of objects you
want to grab. Makes repeated actions on a certain object type a whole
lot easier

Existing Workflow – The Sumatra UI has been designed with a constant
preoccupation (‘obsession’ is probably more accurate, actually 🙂 with
maintaining the existing workflow. Specifically, things like keeping all
the major tools two clicks away, providing contextual menus (ok, that’s
new :-), work-centric focus (manage your character, not the tools) – and
most of all, pure interface speed.

Please keep the comments coming, and keep an eye on our web page early next year – we’ll start rolling out the info as we draw closer to ship.


Dan Kraus Softimage/Microsoft
Product Manager, 3D Montreal, Quebec

There was also a side-discussion of whether or not a context-sensitive UI would be a good thing; surprisingly (to me at least), opinion seemed to be split on that.