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October 2014
Issue: November 1, 2012

Review: Autodesk Entertainment Creation Suite: Ultimate 2013

By: Oliver Zeller
PRODUCT: Autodesk Entertainment Creation Suite: Ultimate 2013

PRICE: $9,595 with subscription, Free 30-day trial

WEBSITE: www.autodesk.com

Since their 2006 and 2008 acquisitions of Maya and Softimage, Autodesk has been in a unique position to link and hybridize the fragmented ecosystem of 3D digital content creation software.

While some anticipated a single unifying Autodesk 3D program and lamented the loss of competition, I saw the potential for Autodesk to breakdown the boundaries between 3D software.

Smaller visual effects pipelines could ultimately leverage the strengths of various software and its users rather than being constrained to a primary 3D application.

Autodesk has now accomplished this with efficient and broad interoperability features in their new suite, Autodesk Entertainment Creation Suite: Ultimate 2013. A bundle I’ve long awaited, it combines the latest versions of 3ds Max, Maya and Softimage along with Mudbox, MotionBuilder, Sketchbook Designer and the 3ds Max/Maya supplementals Composite and Matchmover.  



DATA TRANSFER

The seeds of enhanced interoperability began last year with single step Maya or 3ds Max data transfer between MotionBuilder, Mudbox and Softimage. Now data can be shared between Max and Maya with a single click. Advances in the FBX file format - the heart of this automated transport - result in a smooth transfer even in scenarios where I expected hiccups, for example translating multi-parented animated Vray cameras. 

Maya’s handling of imported geometry however remains mediocre. Non-quad geometry is triangulated via FBX; not so via the OBJ standard, yet OBJ and other imports on occasion fail to load. Thankfully Max’s superior translation capabilities can be leveraged in Ultimate and its excellent OBJ translator offers solutions to further strengthen FBX. For instance, Maya’s handling of units results in users often applying an arbitrary unit scale, yet FBX has only limited metric presets, Max’s OBJ adds a numeric field for custom unit scales.

Maya’s translation deficiencies are greatly alleviated by its added support for Alembic, the scene data cache format initially developed by Sony Pictures Imageworks and ILM. Accessed via its own Pipeline Cache menu - with a  replace function and non-editable cache version for GPU’s - it bakes all geometry and animation for data sharing and optimization. In my experience file sizes were four times smaller and the memory footprint less than half of Maya’s own data. Alembic is natively supported by Houdini, Modo and The Foundry’s Katana, a look development & lighting application that utilizes Arnold, PRMan and VRay renderers. While Maya is currently the only software in Ultimate to natively support Alembic, Exocortex has released plug-ins for 3ds Max and Softimage. 

Maya adds a new animation format, ATOM, for transferring motions with set driven keys and animation layers onto other character rigs. Since I tend to only animate characters in previsualization and have long relied on 3DS Max’s CAT biped system - well suited for its ease of use, solid form, and footstep simulation - the HumanIK updates really caught my attention. HumanIK rigs can now be updated with live streaming between Motionbuilder and Maya, and applied in one-step to 3ds Max’s CAT bipeds or vice-versa. This smooth transfer is a godsend and solves issues I’ve encountered in the past when working with other animators.

A unique data transfer addition is 3ds Max’s composite link with Adobe After Effects. This is a feature of the Slate Compositing Editor accessed via the State Sets window, a new render pass system that elegantly mixes Maya’s Render Layers with Photoshop’s Actions. I wasn’t clamoring for compositing capabilities in Max, but it introduces several advantages without being bloated. You start by recording a new state and altering the scene - hiding object layers, changing materials and most render settings with the unfortunate exception of V-Ray render elements - to develop your render pass. States can then be composited in a node tree view akin to the Slate Material Editor and sent back and forth to After Effects. An Object State transfers animated cameras and lights for 3D composites; ideal for motion graphics work where I once spent a hundred dollars for an equivalent plug-in.

EASE OF USE

Another new node editor, simply dubbed Node Editor, is the best addition to Maya 2013. Maya maybe the standard in film 3D visual effects - it is also an absolute mess. A mess that the Node Editor helps rectify by providing a clear visual presentation of object and shader connections. It lacks the grace of Max’s Slate or Softimage ICE in terms of usability, and I’d like to see the ability to expand all input/output connections of branches and sub-branches simultaneously, but nonetheless a terrific addition.

3ds Max benefits from a renewed focus on fixing workflow issues that have existed for too long. The inability to manipulate views during certain operations - cutting polygons, creating splines or arraying objects - has finally been addressed. The new modeless array dialog also handles operations appreciably faster. Isolation mode no longer comes with an annoying exit pop-up button; it’s now discretely embedded into the lower interface bar. Edge loop selections are accelerated through a double click, a feature also added to Softimage 2013. 

Having worked with over a dozen major graphics packages in a production capacity, and no longer doing CG day to day, I find myself rarely using hotkeys beyond transformations and Modo. 
So consistent hotkeys for Maya users throughout the suite and for Max users using Softimage, is a wise addition.

THERE’S MORE

Given the enormity of the suite, there’s a lot this review doesn’t cover. Having recently recreated slow motion shots in CG, I especially like the new Retime f-curve tool added to all four animation apps. Upgrades to physics simulation are especially prominent. Last year’s egregious excision of the older Reactor system with only MassFX rigid dynamics has been rectified with the addition of soft body dynamics and mCloth. Maya and Softimage’s visual scripting platform ICE, integrate the popular Bullet physics engine developed at Sony Pictures Imageworks. Softimage headlines new features with crowd simulation for ICE. It’s a welcome sight to see broader updates to Softimage 2013 despite the dominant market shares of Maya and 3ds Max. It’s too superlative a piece of software to be neglected.

FINAL THOUGHTS

What can be a strength in software can also be a weakness. The quality work of large visual effects studios can in part be attributed to their flexible pipelines, using or coding the optimal tool for a specific task. With Ultimate, Autodesk has diminished the boundaries between 3D software, making flexible and efficient pipelines viable to a broader segment. Every studio should own at least one seat of  Entertainment Creation Suite: Ultimate.

Oliver Zeller is a Creative Director, VFX Generalist and Set Designer based in New York. He can be reached at: email@oliverzeller.com.