With today's new software packages becoming more and more efficient for less and less money, one can definitely do more with less. John Edgar Park discusses the different software and hardware combos that can get you on the fast track to great looking CGI work.
Now is a great time to purchase a 3D animation solution. The line separating low-cost and high-cost software is blurring. You no longer have to invest tens of thousands of dollars in a Unix workstation running high-end software in order to create stunning animation, but what solutions provide the best bang for your buck? The good news is: there are a lot of choices out there. Now here's the bad news: there are a lot of choices out there!
Today's 3D software packages are all-in-one marvels that range in price from a few hundred dollars to many thousands. They all contain modeling, texturing, animation and rendering tools. Many also include inverse kinematics, particle systems, dynamics, ray-tracing and scripting systems. What usually sets the pricier packages apart from the others is the depth, not breadth, of their options. The bottom line is: all of these packages are being used to create wonderful animation.
Waving the flag high for inexpensive, high-quality 3D character animation software is Hash, Inc.'s Animation: Master (www.hash.com). Running under Windows 98/NT/2000 and Mac OS and costing only $299, this package boasts a tremendous price-to-performance ratio. The inverse kinematics (IK) and skinning functions found in Animation: Master rival those found in high-end rivals Maya and Softimage. The modeling system excels at organic shape creation. In addition to traditional Phong and raytracing, it has a very nice cartoon shaded renderer.
For a nice example of work done in Animation: Master, visit www.navone.org and look for Victor Navone's Alien Song movie. This terrific piece led to Navone landing a job with Pixar Animation Studios to work on the upcoming feature Monsters, Inc.
The mid-level price point software includes Maxon Cinema 4D ($1700; www.maxoncomputer.com), ElectricImage ($2000; www.electricimage.com), NewTek LightWave ($2500; www.newtek.com) and Discreet 3D Studio Max ($3500; www.discreet.com). These applications have been used to create award-winning animations and effects for broadcast and film. It is perhaps this encroachment of moderately priced software upon the territory of high-end software that has spurred price reductions from Alias|Wavefront and Softimage. 3D Studio Max, in particular, has a great number of plug-ins available to fill the gaps between it and Maya or Softimage.
Walt Kubiak, founder of The Krislin Company (www.krislincompany.com), has built his 3D animation studio around Discreet's 3D Studio Max 4. The upcoming Baloonatiks series was created entirely in the alpha, beta and final release versions of Max 4. Says Kubiak of the decision to go with mid-level software instead of one of the higher-end packages, "Technology has come along so far since a few releases back that we're doing better work for the same amount of money. To be honest, Max has become, for lack of a better word, more 'Maya-like.' From pre-production to post, we created thirteen and a half hours of animation in 16 weeks."
The 60 animators working in Krislin's Toronto office, Krislin-Elliot Digital, have used a few tricks to get the best look possible within the confines of a tight budget. Under the supervision of George Elliot, president of Krislin-Elliot Digital, they are working in 24fps with a 3:2 pull-down. This allows the traditional 2D animators to stick with a familiar frame rate and allows them to render fewer frames than a rate of 29.97fps would dictate.
In another cost-saving measure, they made the decision to use the built-in bones and skinning tools within Max. They have been more than happy with the results, and have saved considerable money by not adding Character Studio (Discreet's character animation add-on for Max) to their tool set.
The final animation frames for the Baloonatiks series were rendered on the 60 animators' Windows NT workstations. Rather than set up a separate renderfarm, Krislin & Elliot uses Max 4's built-in network render license during off-hours. With an allowance of up to 1000 render nodes per seat of Max, most studios will run out of available machines before they're required to buy a network render license.
Over the past few years, 3D graphics workstations have increased in power while decreasing in cost. This is partly a result of Moore's Law (which states that the CPU speed doubles every two years) and partly a result of the demands of 3D gamers being met by the graphic card vendors. It is now possible to run most 3D packages adequately on a basic consumer-level PC. But what should you look for when selecting your own graphics workstation?
Processor: Speed is king. Go for one notch under the fastest and you'll save big bucks, for little noticeable speed difference. Here's a list of the ones to watch for: Pentium III 1GHz, Pentium 4 1.3GHz, AMD Athlon 1.1GHz, and PowerPC G4 667MHz. If you are willing to spend twice as much to increase rendering speeds, and your software/OS will support it, consider getting a dual CPU setup.
Memory: A minimum of 256MB of RAM is recommended. The price of RAM fluctuates a lot, but is currently cheap, so splurge and get 512MB - 1GB.
Hard Drives: Here you will want to spend a bit more for higher performance. Ideally, get a separate drive each for your operating system, applications and rendering. The system needs to access all three simultaneously during rendering; and with three drives you won't run into bottlenecks. ATA66 and ATA100 IDE drives running at 7,200 RPM are good, Ultra160 SCSI drives are better. SCSI costs more and requires an add-on controller card, but still reigns as performance king. 10-20GB per drive is good, with a larger drive for storage/rendering. Look at drives from Seagate, Quantum and Fujitsu. A good place to check for reviews is www.storagereview.com.
Graphics Card: The 3D graphics cards out there today can really push polygons around. nVidia (www.nvidia.com) offers consumer-level chipsets, like the GeForce 2 and professional ones like the Quadro 2. These chipsets are found on cards from Elsa, Creative Labs and Hercules, or built into workstations from Dell, HP, Fujitsu and Compaq. ATI Radeon and Matrox G400 cards also turn in excellent performances at a low price.
Different users have different needs. Are you just making the switch from 2D to 3D? Get your feet wet with something like Animation: Master - it's not a huge investment and may satisfy all of your character animation needs.
A free software package to consider is Not A Number's Blender (www.blender.nl). It is a fully featured 3D program that runs under the Linux OS. While its interface doesn't conform to the familiar look of Mac and Windows 3D programs, it is very powerful and could be an excellent choice for the animator who is technically minded.
Another freebie worth looking into is Exluna's Blue Moon Rendering Tools (BMRT; www.exluna.com). A RenderMan-compliant renderer with movie credits such as The Cell and Hollow Man, this powerhouse was written by Larry Gritz, formerly of Pixar. While Exluna has plans to commercialize the technologies in BMRT, it is currently available as a free download.
A mid-level 3D package may be the last 3D app you ever buy. They are capable of doing work on a production level of the highest quality. If you are ready to make the plunge and buy one, it's a good idea to try them all out first. After all, you'll be spending lots of time with your 3D software, so be sure it's a good fit! Demo versions are available from many manufacturers; for others it may be necessary to contact a sales representative to take a test drive.
So, what are the advantages of paying for a top-shelf package? A compelling one is that of production integration. They can save you money by providing an efficient production pipeline. Is the workflow of a low-end app a good fit with the other tools in your studio? Could you easily integrate your animation with live-action background plates? What other plug-ins or additions will you purchase to round out your animation tools? For example, Alias|Wavefront's Maya Unlimited includes very solid camera-matching in the form of Maya Live, cloth simulation, paint effects, a fur plug-in, a compositor and more. Purchasing these things alongside your core 3D program can push the price up pretty quickly, making Maya's $16,000 price tag seem a bit more reasonable.
Another consideration is long-term planning. You won't want to switch programs every year. These are complex applications; mastery can take years to achieve. You may find yourself saying, "I'd like to start in this one, but then move to Maya when I'm ready." Bad idea. In truth, many animators stick with one main program; leaving it becomes increasingly unpleasant due to their depth of knowledge in that one program. You are unlikely to outgrow a high-end app, with its depth of features and extensibility.
Ultimately, these are just tools to aid the animator. In the right hands, almost any software will yield wonderful results. The line between low- and high-end software has blurred, which means you can now go forth and create wonderful 3D animation -- affordably.
John Edgar Park received his B.A. in Drama from the University of Virginia. He is a 3D artist with NovaLogic, Inc., a Los Angeles-based video game developer.