SIDE EFFECTS HOUDINI V.6 (released in May)
Platform: Windows, Linux, IRIX, Solaris
New Features: Digital Asset Technology. A way to package an object (character or visual effect), put a customized interface on it and hand off to anyone. If that object appears in 100 scenes in a feature animation, and the technical director wants to make fundamental changes to what the character looks like or how it behaves, those changes are automatically propogated throughout the entire production. An enormous efficiency gain.
Side Effects' Paul Salvini says Houdini 6 (above) offers a smooth character workflow.
"That's pretty huge in terms of bringing things together. In the past, especially for character animation, we have lots of standards and formats and ways of saving things, but there aren't many ways to deal with complex entities like a character, its clothing, its behavior, its materials. We wanted to find a way to encapsulate all those properties into a single entity, be able to reference those and also be able to have a technical director build a customized interface to these digital assets," says Side Effects chief technology officer Dr. Paul Salvini. "We were looking at ways to make the process more efficient for our customers. One of the challenges the studios have is to do much more with the staff they have - putting out more shots in less time at a higher quality."
User friendly. "As the technology gets more and more sophisticated, we're able to do more behind the scenes; we don't need people to worry about how it works. We've always had a very open package - our reputation is you can do anything with the product - but because it can be quite open, it can be quite daunting for some people. It really isn't, it's just its reputation. But by allowing those folks to fence things off very nicely, they can hand it to a kid to play with," he says.
Hot key-driven keyframing system. One of a number of features to smooth workflow for animators and allow them to get better feedback and interactivity. "When you're doing the same kinds of things all day, any kind of encumbrance to the ultimate workflow becomes very visible and noticeable. We've spent a lot of time looking over shoulders, making sure that character workflow is very smooth in Houdini [V.]6."
Audience/Project: Studios working on X2: X-Men United used 5.0 and 5.5 - Cinesite and Rhythm & Hues. "We've always been known for characters involved in effects sequences, where the characters do something exciting and dramatic, but not for the mundane longer character animation sequences. I think [animators] will be pretty pleased with the separation of responsiblities with digital assets and those interfaces, and the efficiencies for the animator in the end," says Salvini.
Price: Houdini Master (complete package): $17,000; Houdini Select (modeling, rendering, animation): $1,299 node-locked version, $1,599 floating license; Houdini Halo (compositing, 2D image manipulation): $2,999; Houdini Mantra (renderer): $500 is incorporated into first three products. Houdini Escape (character animation): pricing has not yet been announced.
"We have a cost effective solution for studios," says Salvini. "The per-seat cost can be as low as $1,200. One of the things we did with Digital Assets is, you have a few people setting up these shots, usually highly paid individuals, you can then deploy that technology throughout your organization with a very low cost. That's the idea behind Houdini Select."
SOFTIMAGE|XSI 3.5; SOFTIMAGE| BEHAVIOR 1.1 (both released at NAB '03)
Platform: Windows, Linux
New Features (XSI): Interoperability. Softimage isn't building a 3D package anymore; this is a nonlinear environment/operating system. "We're building a tool that understands the production pipeline," says Softimage|XSI product manager John Attard. "One of the great things is 3.5 is interoperable with Avid|DS so if you build your comp in XSI, send it over to DS and open it up, it's exactly the same. And if they change anything, there's 100 percent compatibility between the two of them, and that's a big deal."
Mental Ray 3.2. The Softimage integration of Mental Ray is faster due to the shared resources between Mental Ray and XSI. This fluctuates with scene complexity. "We're very attuned to what's happening with our hardware partners. Our graphics card partners are in a crazy battle to create the best, most amazing things in realtime. Mental Ray takes advantage of that - it looks at your graphics card and uses OGL libraries on the cards and gives you a scanline rendering option [fast render] and uses actual hardware to render. We're seeing a hybrid between software/ hardware and the speed increase is very good."
New Features (Behavior): "A new classification of animation altogether that introduces a level of artificial intelligence," describes Attard. "It puts the animators in the position of being a director. Before, animators had to animate all the extras. Softimage|Behavior can grab 1,000 characters and treat them as a director would and can animate characters in the foreground. This isn't just a crowd tool. It makes decisions, such as what to do if a traffic light is red or green."
Audience/Project: The Magic Roundabout (a feature film via studio Film Action) with a shaggy mop-like dog named Dougal. Softimage improved the hair function.
Also, says Attard, "3.5 is driven by the games industry. We have a modeling tool called Symetrize, which allows users to build half of an object or character, automatically create the other half, then join the two pieces to create a single UV map." Valve's Half Life 2, for PC, used XSI as its concept creation tool. Valve is the game developer and animation studio.
"If you make the choice to buy XSI, you're optimizing your production pipeline," says Attard. "If you just look at one element - the rendering - where you have a 30 percent gain, imagine a regular renderer at film rez... you've got seven to eight layers. It may take you 30 days to render. Take off 10 days that you're charging $1,500, if you're cheap. That's $15,000, plus if you look at the speed of animation and the freedom with which the people can work, you have further savings: [XSI offers] a nonlinear environment, a compositor that's embedded."
ALIAS|WAVEFRONT MAYA 5.0 (intro at NAB, first showing at SIGGRAPH)
Platform: Windows, Linux, Mac OS X, IRIX
New Features: "One of the enhancements we'll be showing are the FK/IK blending," says Robert Hoffman. "We've fine tuned a lot of the features throughout the software to increase artist productivity. We've also made a lot of advances in our rendering with a new unified rendering workflow that allows end users the ability to use one of four renderers that are included with Maya. They don't have to learn a new package, so it's a consistent workflow."
Audience/Project: Films, games, commercials including ILM, Pixar, Electronic Arts, Nintendo. Weta Digital used it extensively for the Lord of the Rings film trilogy.
Price: Maya Complete: $1,999; Maya Unlimited: $6,999 (see review on page 72).
"We made a change in our pricing structure a little over a year ago, reduced the price where Maya Complete is $1,999. We haven't given up any of the features and functionality, but we've opened up high-end 3D to the masses."