By Ann Fisher
Issue: August 1, 2004


Good news for animators. Their favorite tools are at SIGGRAPH with version updates and deeper tool kits. A new Kaydara Motion Builder release targets a broader range of animators with the addition of critical keyframing components. Discreet 3DS Max offers a new version that includes Character Studio for the first time, a natural step since the company acquired Unreal Pictures, the makers of that character animation tool. NewTek has finally released LightWave 8, after beefing up its character animation functions.

In this report, representatives from Side Effects and Softimage talk about their new Houdini and XSI releases, respectively, while also addressing some broader industry trends. Side Effects' front man Tony Christiano believes the larger studios are retooling pipelines and looking for strategic partners. Softimage has introduced a third pricing tier for the cost conscious and has thrown open its technology for easier customization.

SOFTWARE: Kaydara MotionBuilder V. 6.0, release - September 2004.

PLATFORM: Windows, Mac

PRICE: $4,195 - MotionBuilder Pro. This year's pricing includes the required one-year software maintenance license; the base software price remained the same. $995 - MotionBuilder Standard.

Digital Dimension used Discreet's 3DS Max 6 on effects sequences for Warner Bros.' A Cinderella Story, starring Hilary Duff.
PROJECTS: Splinter Cell 3 game for XBox and PS2 (UbiSoft) - one of the accounts that has been working in developing V.6. Polar Express feature film - "They didn't use 6, per se, but their feedback was instrumental in building version 6" with their requests for many animation paths, better IK/FK synching and better character animation control, says Kaydara president Michel Besner.

USERS: "A key area we're focusing on is the game market - we'll have a very strong solution for the game animation process - and also on preproduction for film and TV, mainly in layout, cinematics [and] animatic-level production," reports Besner. "Our focus as a product is on the animation part of things - we don't do modeling, raytracing. But you'll be capable of doing all animations in the product itself."

He adds, "The strength that we have in our product, that we've had in the past - like our realtime capabilities, our strong character animation features and our nonlinear capabilities - have always been appreciated but we were always limited in our growth because we were lacking in some of these keyframing capabilities. We always had a lot of clients who wanted to do more with our product."

SIGGRAPH NEWS: Version 6 is a one-stop solution. "[It] is focusing on increasing the user base of our product. We've been known for the longest time for motion capture and character animation, and our goal right now is to become the ultimate animation tool, adding a lot of basic components that are standard applications in other packages but were missing in MotionBuilder," says Besner. Additions include keyframing tools like scripting and better controls over character animation tracks with seamless Inverse Kinematics/Forward Kinematics syncing.

"Another key area is one of the biggest problems when you're animating. Say you have a character that's taking the elevator, then walking outside and going to a car. Your character will be animated using multiple types of references. How can you easily animate a character within these multiple references? We've simplified the process of doing that. Usually that can take a lot of hours just to animate and to have your constraints work between different references. We've done a lot of work to simplify that entire process so it will be completely seamless to animate a character that goes from an elevator to a car, in and out, and focus on the animation itself, not the technology."

SOFTWARE: Discreet 3DS Max 7.0, release - fall 2004.


PRICE: $3,495 - This year's price includes Character Studio 4 for free (a $999 value) for users who buy or upgrade to V.7. A subscription program - for automatic downloads of new builds, enhancements or bug fixes - is available for $350. This has grown by nearly 50 percent in the past year, reports Dave Campbell, 3DS Max product marketing manager.

Hilary Duff.
PROJECTS: The feature film The Day After Tomorrow and the Spider-Man 2 game for XBox and PS2 used V.6. At press time, Max 7.0 was still in alpha.

USERS: Games, films and design/visual effects. "I think normal mapping [see explanation below] is going to secure our position in film even further [invented for game animators, normal mapping can be used in film and TV projects as well]. Historically for Max, the position of film has been around digital matte painting. A lot of the digital environments that you see have been done with Max," says Campbell.

SIGGRAPH NEWS: Normal mapping, a new function for the games industry, has been added. This technique mimics the high resolution of a character by "tricking" a low resolution 2D map, polygon mesh of the environment into thinking it has all that detail.

LightWave now includes a new dynamic system offering rigid and soft bodies.
"The trick with ours - and this is what's really going to change things - is that normal maps are also renderable. So film effects and visual effects experts are going to be able to have this 20-million-polygon character but only have it be 100,000 polygons. They're going to be able to extend a little bit beyond what the game cards will be able to do just because they don't have to run these things in realtime. The levels of fidelity required by today's demanding pipelines are really extreme and they take a long time to render these highly-detailed characters. We're going to be able to crush that down to a very reasonable amount and Max is going to continue to produce a high volume," says Campbell.

The new version includes Character Studio 4. While this feature has been in Discreet's advanced animation toolset for years, now it will be included in the 3DS Max release.

Version 7 features an update of Mental Ray 3.3, new functionality and further integration. It now adapts to scene scale automatically since, often, artists are working in different scales. Hardware accelerated rendering functionality allows artists to accelerate without changing the look of the render. Also, a new subsurface scattering shader for rapid rendering of advanced translucent surfaces.

"Version 7 is a substantial release," adds Campbell. "What we're looking to do this time around is help others prepare for next-generation 3D pipelines across the board in the game space - as the new hardware comes out, we get to retool. It's also for next-generation film pipelines and evolving what designers and visualization experts are able to do."

SOFTWARE: NewTek LightWave 8, release - June 2004

PLATFORM: Windows, Mac

PRICE: $1,595 - same as last year.

PROJECTS: Feature films Garfield, Spider-Man 2, Van Helsing.

USERS: Film and a wide range of digital content creation including games, Web, industrial and print. "We've got users up and down the spectrum," says Andrew Cross, VP/software engineering. "I was out in Hollywood recently and I was stunned at the number of people using LightWave for high-end production. On the flip side, we've just got a huge number of individual users out there. We tried to listen to a broad range. We were consistently being told where the weak points of LightWave are - character animation was clearly one of those where we've made huge strides.

"Something that we've not been that strong in is the games industry," he admits. "The way it's looking today, probably the two biggest game releases this year [Doom 3 and Dark Sector, the new game from Digital Extremes, the makers of Unreal] are very significantly based in LightWave."

Kansas City-based animator Dave Winslow created an animated show open, via Strata 3D, for client Helzberg Diamonds that ran during a three-day sales event held on Amelia Island in Florida.
SIGGRAPH NEWS: Last year, NewTek showed a preview of V.8; this year, users get the real deal, loaded with more features. "One of the key things is we've got a whole new dynamic system - new rigid bodies, new soft bodies. There's bone dynamics, something completely new, that allows you to apply dynamics operations to the bones themselves which would then deform the mesh or the model that they're attached to. That gives you very good realtime performance," says Cross. "We've got a new particle system, new modeling tools, we've got a new morphing system. How much more do you want?"

SOFTWARE: Side Effects Houdini V.7, release - beta at SIGGRAPH

PLATFORM: Windows, Linux

PRICE: $1,599 - Select (modeling, rendering, animation) .

PROJECTS: Feature films: Spider-man 2, Around the World in 80 Days, The Day After Tomorrow.

USERS: "We are dedicated to our existing customers. We build these products based on their feedback," reports Tony Christiano, Side Effects COO/VP of US operations. Side Effects is focused primarily on film, though it has customers in many sectors of digital content creation.

SIGGRAPH NEWS: "Going into SIGGRAPH, what we're trying to hone in on is, one, the importance of an integrated, comprehensive pipeline of technology and, two, an innovative partner that understands production," says Christiano.

Special pricing for students
Its upgraded pipeline offers more refined implementation of digital asset technology, a way to package an object, put a customized interface on it and hand off to anyone; and productivity improvements such as Take Manager to simultaneously view and/or blend various takes without destroying previous work. Christiano stresses that Houdini's pipeline is comprehensive, "all pieces are built to work together from the outset," though the pipe is open enough to replace elements.

"We're seeing a lot more success these days and people are really changing the way they deliver film. One of the things that was lacking in the past was the ability to control the art form. People would try to make Pixar-level films but found that they didn't have the infrastructure." 

More partnerships: Side Effects is adding more staff and production consultants in order to share technology, product knowledge and help clients ramp up pipelines more quickly.

"Technology is just part of it," he says. "I think what they're looking for as well is a vendor that's going to partner with them.... with a party like Side Effects software," explains Christiano. "In the past a lot of the pipelines have been very disparate. People would buy seven or eight different products and glue them together. In one area it worked quite well - renderer, compositor or modeler - but when they brought the whole pipeline and project together they had problems running everything through the process. The biggest impact of that is at the end of the project when the director or producer wants to make a change and they find they're backed into a corner; they don't know how to make those changes and that impacts the art. The other thing is when they have to do something new or they have to develop a crowd or a scene or a different type of look for cloth, hair or animation, they find they have to innovate and it's a bit risky, expensive and it takes time. They like to partner with a reliable party [Core Feature Animation and DNA Production are examples] that has done it before and can help them through."

SOFTWARE: Softimage|XSI 4, release - launched in April at NAB, shipped in June.

PLATFORM: Windows, Linux

Side Effects is at SIGGRAPH with a beta version of Houdini 7.
PRICE: $3,995 - Essentials (down from $6,750 last year), $8,995 - Advanced, $1,995 - Foundation, new this year. Of the nine feature subsets that all XSI packages have, Foundation does not have 20 percent of the individual functions including polygon reduction, texture layer editor and advanced rigs.

"XSI is the newest, youngest 3D content creation tool on the market," says senior product manager, Gareth Morgan. "We've been working at the high end of the market to mature the technology and broaden the feature set so it's at parity or exceeding anything else out there. We feel we're reaching the stage where it's starting to be mature as a product line and we think that we can now go after a broader customer base in terms of some of the more price-sensitive customers."

PROJECTS: The feature film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind used XSI 4's new rigid bodies and simulation engine to create effects shots of a house collapsing. Harry Potter 3 contains effects shots.

USERS: Entertainment content creation for broadcast/post, film production and games.

SIGGRAPH NEWS: Character Development Kit, a scriptable language for high-level elements of character rigs, extends XSI's character animation functionality. "We make it a lot easier for character artists and animators in general to build complex, articulated rigs that exhibit some really interesting behaviors, structures like tails, clavicles, dog legs, all these things that have historically taken artists a long time to set up," describes Morgan. "Now they're bundled into this structured language that is fully integrated in our new scripting system, which makes it easy to assemble characters from these components. Around that is a range of advancements around animation keyframe editing, integration of audio and AV feedback into the animation editing."

There's Mental Ray 3.3 integration. "A lot of performance improvements there - displacement, motion blur, shadow mapping," he says.

There's open UI for customization. "One of the strategic goals for version 4 for us was to take this already refined UI and really open up the customization," Morgan adds. "The whole UI is an XML frameset so you can rebuild all the layouts, you completely change the whole UI based on XML files. In terms of keyboard customizations and workflow and tool customizations, there's a huge number of options for specific functions. The artist will really get a lot more productivity out of the package based on that.

NYCs UVPhactory used Softimage|XSI V.4.0 on this ID for the Voom Network.
"We've noticed a trend in 3D content creation - probably the majority of 3D productions are now done with large distributed teams. It's a trend of increasing specialization as artists work on more complex content and sophisticated visual results."

"This is the hugest release in terms of functionality since Version 1; it's quite an important cycle for us," says Morgan.

SOFTWARE: Strata 3D CX, release - June 2004

PLATFORM: Windows, Mac

PRICE: $695 - same as last year.

PROJECTS: Corporate projects for Helzberg Diamonds and Skechers stores.

Kaydara MotionBuilder was used by UbiSoft on the Splinter Cell 3 videogame.
USERS: "Most people would be using this for previz," says user community director Lex de Azevedo. "Although we can pretty much render for any resolution, we're well known for the designers. We're a really easy-to-use program and then that can be sent out to the people in the studios."

NEWS: [Editor's note: Strata will not be attending the SIGGRAPH show this year.]

Strata 3D CX now offers connectivity to Adobe tools. Significant workflow enhancements are achieved by linking to Photoshop and Illustrator. Photoshop files are read in as live link textures. "If you import a Photoshop file as a texture, you can work on it in Photoshop, save it and those changes will automatically apply so you don't have to re-import it. That's pretty handy for workflow, that saves a lot of time," says de Azevedo.

CX now supports HDRI (High Dynamic Range Images). This new function can be used in textures or as Lightdomes to light a 3D scene. Used with Strata's Raydiosity renderer, users may now generate true light-energy based images.

CX can now import Kaydara MotionBuilder models. "We do 3D modeling, rendering, animation but we don't specialize in motion data, so that's definitely a solution for character animation for our users. We import their files - you can access different takes so you can have a character that's running, falling or throwing a punch. It also comes with all the texture mapping information," he says.

SOFTWARE: Alias Maya 6, release - May 2004 (In June, Alias announced Maya Unlimited 6 for Mac OS X.).

PLATFORM: Windows, Macintosh, IRIX and Linux.

PRICE: $1,999 - Maya Complete, $6,999 - Maya Unlimited 6. Prices remain the same for Maya 5

PROJECTS: Feature films I, Robot, Spiderman 2.

USERS: Film and broadcast, game development, Web and interactive media, education and visualization markets along with students and 3D animation hobbyists.

SIGGRAPH NEWS: New ways to create, edit, combine and repurpose animation data. Complete re-architecture of Trax nonlinear animation system and other additions like Motion Retargeting. New Maya Hair system with a robust set of native and integrated tools that make creating and working with long hair fast and straightforward. Advanced character creation tool improvements like Maya Cloth - it's now as easy to work with cloth objects (created from modeled geometry) as garments constructed from flat panels. Fur can now be rendered in Mental Ray for Maya.

"Maya 6 technology significantly advances character creation and animation," says Rob Hoffman, senior Maya production marketing manager. "It is a customer-driven release packed with literally hundreds of new features and feature enhancements, all of which are motivated by user requests."