What a year for character animators. All the major software manufacturers have either just released or are launching new versions. All versions incorporate changes suggested by animators - user friendly interfaces, more efficient workflow pipelines, more advanced functionality - indeed, some versions are almost entirely the result of customer suggestions. Nearly all have two-tier price points to encourage a wider range of users; Kaydara has just done this for the first time with MotionBuilder.
And manufacturers are already working on the next versions of their software. If they haven't already, 3D animation software makers are cutting their turnaround time for new releases dramatically.
"Our release schedule is so aggressive now - 3.5 launched at NAB just six months after our last release - and it's very customer driven," says John Attard, product manager for Softimage|XSI, who uses his animator/boutique owner background to help optimize production pipelines from a creative point of view. "Softimage has a commitment to the industry and [with a new] release in six months, we're giving the industry software when it needs it. We're developing tools that you'll see the results of in two years. If you think about what drives a lot of companies, a movie comes out like The Matrix and everybody will start developing software that does things what Matrix does but by then it's too late. If you're that far behind the curve, that's bad. I'm working with customers to look at problems they're facing today for things that will be released in a couple of years time. We want to deliver technology when it's relevant. With a 12- to 18-month delivery schedule, that's not really going to be the case."
Film Action employed Softimage|XSI 3.5 to create characters (seen throughout this spread) for the feature film The Magic Roundabout.
From NewTek which is premiering LightWave 3D V.8 at SIGGRAPH, the first major upgrade in two years: "We heard a lot from our users that they would be happy with smaller updates that came out over shorter amounts of time," says William Vaughn, LightWave evangelist. Adds Chuck Baker, director of corporate communications, "Between major upgrades we normally try to do a number of maintanence upgrades - in this case there were four - free to folks who own the software. But we are going to try to step up that schedule for major releases and upgrades."
Discreet 3DS Max product marketing manager/3D Dave Campbell says, "We are adopting a more aggressive delivery schedule. In the past we've tried a number of different approaches. Some companies like to say we'll do the most requested featuresâ€¦ even if people don't necessarily use it. We actually work in tandem with a large group of users - the user advisory board - to talk about features and how, practically, they use them daily. What can we do to help improve your production pipeline right now and what things can we open up for you if you want to do some crazy custom coding for some unique functions?"
Side Effects Houdini does an annual customer survey through calls and interviews and also tries to anticipate where the industry is heading. Their new releases come out once a year. Alias|Wavefront Maya listens to customer feedback, then develops its 3D software, which "takes however long it takes. There's really no set time when releases have to come out - 4.5 came out 14 to 16 months ago," says Robert Hoffman, senior Maya product manager.
What follows are highlights of the new 3D software packages at SIGGRAPH.
KAYDARA MOTIONBUILDER 5.0 (new at SIGGRAPH)
Platform: Windows, Macintosh
New Features: Streamlining. "A year ago we introduced the automatic rigging - what we call the characterization process - that allows animators to take a skeleton and bind it to a behavioral full body IK system. We also introduced a concept of full body and body parts in the software to facilitate and automate the keyframing process. With MotionBuilder 5.0, we're pushing this towards quadrapeds," says Laurent Ruel, MotionBuilder product manager. "We're improving also the bipeds. It will be more precise. It's giving you fingers and toes IK solving, and floor contact. It's adding more neck bones so you can do a dinosaur. We're pushing all this into the automatic control rig we have."
Alias| Wavefront's Robert Hoffman (inset) reports that Maya 5 offers a rendering workflow.
Storytelling timeline that integrates 3D animation with audio, video and camera shots. In FilmBox, Ruel says, Kaydara pioneered nonlinear animation with its motion blending tool. "We're now pushing it one step further, bypassing the nonlinear animation and introducing storytelling. Animators will be able to do nonlinear animation not only by blending animation clips together, but they will also have the ability to alter the result non-destructively by incorporating more animation tracks or animation layers [as you would do using video or audio NLE]. In addition, we've added Character tracks. This enables the animator to use the full potential of our Character technology directly in the Storytelling timeline where the user can now mix animation, audio, video and constraints tracks and get the result in realtime. Moreover, we added a Director's timeline, a second time base integrated with the Story timeline, giving the user the ability of creating and assembling camera shots with time discontinuity.
"The Storytelling timeline is completely clip-based and clips are in Kaydara's FBX format, which is a streamable 3D file format."
Production efficiency. "An animator is at least 50 percent more productive. Importing characters and models can be reused," says Ruel. "Because of the characterization process, FBX motion clips can be applied and retargeted to any type or size of character. You can work with proxies also, knowing that the final character will behave the same. Altering animations nondestructively allows you to try multiple approaches easily. [We do] true realtime rendering."
Id Software used NewTek LightWave for geometry work on Doom 3.
Audience/Project: The feature film and game Matrix Reloaded. Reel FX is using this software for the animated TV series GI Joe.
Price : MotionBuilder Standard: $995, MotionBuilder Pro: $3,495.
NEWTEK LIGHTWAVE 3D V.8 (previewing at SIGGRAPH, to be released 4th quarter)
Platform: Windows, Macintosh
New Features: Workflow improvements. "We spent a lot of time visiting key accounts and we found that they really wanted us to work on workflow," says William Vaughn. "One of the things that has always been great about LightWave is the tools that the community creates for it, things like Motion Mixer and Motion Designer that haven't been fully integrated but are a part of LightWave. So we're working on making sure that everything is where it needs to be, that the interface design is set up the way it needs to be. We not only listen to our key accounts but we're also heavily involved in the community itself. We allow users to send in feature requests and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
. Most of the employees are involved in the forums like cgtalk.com or lwg3d.com and our own forums. Our key accounts come first, they're the ones pushing it to the limit as well as our beta team of diverse users."
Character animation tools. Character animation tools. "One of the areas that has always been difficult for new/advanced users is character rigging and character set-up in general. We're answering some of those issues," says Vaughn. "There is an easier workflow for character animation because it has a different set of hurdles than doing technical or logo animation or even special effects. Because character animation is so labor intensive, we are continuing to focus on tools that speed up the workflow, everything from building the character rig to actually setting keyframes for character animation."
Kaydara MotionBuilder 5's Storytelling timeline is entirely clip-based.
Audience/Project: The film release Matrix Reloaded and fall release Matrix Revolutions, via production house Esc, used LightWave for modeling. Animators on Quake 4 (Ravensoft) and Doom 3 (Id Software) used it to create all its geometry.
Price: $1,595; $395 upgrade.
DISCREET 3DS Max (at press time there were no formal announcements on releases beyond 5.0, but company officials alluded to a new release and called this "our biggest SIGGRAPH ever").
New Features: Extensions released within past months hint at release upgrades:
Particle Flow. Visual effects tool, nonlinear event-based particle system which allows for a more mature approach in building complex effects scenes. It's already been used on shots for The Core, says Dave Campbell.
API and Script. Announced at the Game Developers Conference. New type of code called the game exporter interface that enables them to quickly write exporters for consoles and PC titles much faster than they'd been able to in the past.
Design visualization. Extensions which enable users to link intelligently to other disks of design products.
Workflow enhancements and rendering improvements. "The one thing that Max has always had is the ability to approach any given problem from a multitude of directions," says Campbell. "It's definitely going to be that philosophy. Whatever we implement will definitely tie into the system so the artist can find whatever is best for the either the shot or the engine you're writing for. Our mandate is to make things faster."
Audience/Project: Three markets: film, games, design visualization. Projects include the film Bulletproof Monk (clients were VFX, Blur) and The Core (Frantic Films) and the game Enter the Matrix (Shiny Entertainment). "We're seen as the tool that people want to have in their toolbox regardless of what they're using," says Campbell.
"We set this price point when Max V.1 came out," he says. "For a long time now, we've seen everyone settle at our price point, and even below it. We've found what it costs to make 3D software and to deliver an infrastructure. People are willing to pay for security, to know that you're going to be around, that you're going to keep innovating on your software and that when they have a problem they have someone they can call."
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."