John Edgar Park takes us on a tour of SIGGRAPH 2001, focusing on the latest technology news.
SIGGRAPH is always a magic combination of technology, art and learning as seen in Tentacular Continuum, Detail 3 by Kent Oberheu. Image courtesy of Ken Oberheu and SIGGRAPH.
OK, I'll admit that I find it disturbing that SIGGRAPH is shrinking. Why is it that the CG industry seems to be getting bigger all the time -- more shows are using 3D characters and effects than ever, we have a whole slate of all-CG feature films in the theaters and in production -- yet SIGGRAPH, the pre-eminent trade show for all things CG is getting smaller? Well, I, for one, saw more interesting developments at this year's show than ever, so here is my theory on the size problem: no vapor.
You see, with the economy spinning into a nosedive, companies tend to wise up and focus on their core products. Leaving aside the consolidations, mergers and buyouts rampant in the hardware business, many businesses that were tempted to hype a load of vapor-ware during our economic boom are pulling back. SIGGRAPH 2001 may have seemed a bit more sedate, but I'm willing to bet that a larger percentage than ever of the products shown will actually be launched and deliver as promised.
As Jean Prudent, president of Reflex Systems, remarked, "The people at this year's show seem more serious about doing business, but you have to remember that SIGGRAPH is not here for business. It is for the researchers." Good point: SIGGRAPH is a non-profit organization. The trade show portion of it gets a lot of press, but it is the scientific papers and presentations that really drive the innovation in the industry.
An area of research to watch is the subsurface light scattering work of Henrik Wann Jensen, Research Associate at Stanford University's Computer Graphics Laboratory. By accurately calculating the way light rays bounce and scatter just below the surface of a non-metallic object before reflecting back out, his new shading model will have a great effect on the realistic rendering of translucent objects such as marble, skin and even a simple glass of milk. (http://graphics.stanford.edu/~henrik/papers/bssrdf/)
SIGGRAPH is as much about education as it is about research. The Birds of a Feather sessions, User Group meetings for nearly every major software package and informal get togethers are rampant. Learning from the vast experiences of others or hearing things directly from the people who write the software is one of the best reasons to attend.
One such opportunity was the 2001 Alias|Wavefront Global Users Association Seminar. A few hundred Maya users packed into a conference room at the Westin Bonaventure each day for four sessions with topics ranging from "Integrating a Creature Animation Rig Within a Production Pipeline" to "Lighting and Rendering in Maya 4.0" led by Jeremy Birn of Tippett Studio. It is always amazing to watch people have breakthrough "Ah-ha!" moments and there were plenty of these during the seminars as the speakers revealed their hard-learned methods.
These master classes were accompanied by an excellent support CD-ROM with sample files and notes from the seminars, making for a complete take-home educational package. Plus, they gave out really groovy Alias | Wavefront backpacks! Who says you can't score free stuff at trade shows anymore?!
Alpha Wolf by Bill Tomlinson, Synthetic Characters Group, The Media Lab, MIT. Image courtesy of Bill Tomlinson and SIGGRAPH.
The Art Gallery and Emerging Technology exhibits explore some of the ways artists combine technology and creativity.
The MIT Media Lab Synthetic Characters Group was demonstrating Alpha Wolf, a technical innovation in the area of interactive synthetic social behavior. Three users could control the emotional state of wolf pups by whimpering, growling, baying and barking into microphones. In turn, the wolves would develop their own social hierarchy and behaviors. (Badger.www.media.mit.edu/people/badger/alphaWolf.html)
By far, the most mesmerizing display in the Art Gallery was the high-tech lava lamp called Protrude, Flow. Designed by Minako Takeno and Sachiko Kodama of Tokyo's University of Electro-Communications, this otherworldly installation consists of a pool of electro-magnetically charged black oil that moves, spikes, flows and roves around like sentient goo. Anyone who stared at it for long wanted one in their living room! (http://oz.hc.uec.ac.jp/~kodama/proflo.html)
On to the products of the SIGGRAPH exhibit floor! This year's trends included the refinement of existing products, a move toward automation of tasks like motion tracking and 3D data capture, and the inclusion of Macromedia Flash output in every program under the sun! Here are some of the more interesting products on display.
Side Effects Software will soon be releasing Houdini 5, the latest version of its 3D animation and effects software. Long regarded as an elite program for visual effects gurus (Walt Disney Feature Animation has recently announced a significant integration of Houdini into its animation production pipeline), this new version hopes to attract artists who were scared off by Houdini's reputation as a tool for Technical Directors only. The interface has been overhauled to accommodate artists and the immersive modeling tools have been revamped for a friendlier, more hands-on workflow through the addition of "persistent handle" technology.
Houdini 5 geometry is focused on subdivision surfaces built with poly split/extrude tools -- this seems to be emerging as an industry-wide standard. Houdini's integrated compositor (which is functionally similar to Nothing Real's Shake) has received its first major rewrite in over six years. The speed gains are quite evident when building elaborate composites.
This release promises to be more powerful, yet more accessible and easier to learn than previous versions. It has a new shader preview mode that uses OpenGL to calculate displacement, refraction and shadows in near real-time. Plus, these shaders can be used during export to the excellent mental ray renderer, thanks to a new agreement between Side Effects and mental images.
Side Effects also plans to release a stripped-down, $2000 version called Houdini Select, which will offer the same interface and workflow as H5 min us some of the most powerful particle, character, rendering and compositing tools. Additionally, a Sun Solaris port of Houdini 5 has been announced.
Match Mover 3.0
New from REALVIZ comes Match Mover 3.0, an automated motion tracking package. Match Mover 3.0 can now automatically generate camera data from a length of footage without any manual point setting or camera data input. It's amazing to see it in action and claims to be a 100% solution for match moving, since you can manually add or adjust points if you don't get a perfect match the first time.
With the ability to export 3D camera or object track data to any major 3D application, this release will surely find its way into the pipeline of many studios and post-production houses.
Softimage xsi 2.0
In their gigantic red booth, just left of center on the SIGGRAPH show floor, Softimage was showing off xsi 2.0. With a planned release at the end of October 2001, Softimage has really upped the ante with this version. There are many, many additions and improvements in version 2.0, from cage deformers to text tools, from the beautiful UI to multi-pass rendering, from .eps imports to envelope painting tools. But the three largest features of xsi 2.0 are the real-time shaders, the new compositor and hair.
Real-time shaders use many of the advanced OpenGL and nVidia specific drivers and render routines to give you realistic previews of surfaces before rendering. This includes true environment reflections, bump mapping, multiply maps and more. It seems to be quite a time saver, and a case of video game technology bleeding into graphics applications.
The brand new compositor that debuts in xsi 2.0 is a drag-n-drop, node-based 2D/3D compositor reminiscent of Softimage's Eddie product. Anyone familiar with discreet's combustion, Nothing Real's Shake or any of a host of others will be right at home with the xsi 2.0 compositor. Pulling all scene data directly from the PIC rich file format, such as Z-depth, shader assignments, alpha channels, etc. allows for very quick editing of scene elements without leaving the program.
The Hair plug-in being added for xsi 2.0 is an implementation of Joe Alter's excellent Shave and a Haircut (www.joealter.com) but with one twist -- the xsi version will be the only one hooked into the Mental Ray renderer, allowing for high-quality, fast rendering fur and hair on your characters.
One other new feature I really like is the Synoptic view. The synoptic view lets you render a viewport and then add HTML-like hotspots to it. Using the script editor, the hot spots can become a whole new interface for selecting IK handles, invoking facial animation sliders, performing macros and so forth. TDs will love this feature, since it allows you to generate any interface you want for speeding up animator workflows.
A shot of RAYZ 1.2's new, easier to use, customizable UI. © Silicon Grail.
Silicon Grail, the company founded by multiple Academy Award-winner Ray Feeney, unveiled RAYZ 1.2. This compositor, used on countless features films, and already respected for its power, speed and versatility, will now add Kodak Cineon and a newly customizable interface.
Being the first compositor with full Cineon support brings film grain matching and film stocks to RAYZ 1.2. Matching shots has never been easier.
Says Feeney, "We have gone to our customers for feedback on this product and found that what they want is ease-of-use." With this in mind, RAYZ 1.2 now supports a customizable UI, real-time rotoscoping updates, a new image morphing feature and terrific interactivity while making changes to D1 or proxy images.
I was pleasantly surprised to see something at SIGGRAPH that has the potential to be both revolutionary and time-saving. Reflex|DRAMA is a realistic human creation engine that may help studios forgo the lengthy R&D cycle necessary to create realistic CG actors from scratch. Reflex|DNA is the "PostScript" of the human body. The DNA defines the skeletal, muscular, fat and skin layers of the body, rather than the traditional "shell" data approach.
Still in alpha (betas are headed to the major studios and game companies in a few months), DRAMA's workflow will be to choose skeletal building blocks (i.e.: mandible, skull shape, rib cage size, etc.), then add the muscle and fat layer, then the skin. These layers are adjustable and have influence on each other. The movement of the IK-based skeleton (which contains all of the bones of the human body and are interconnected with ligaments, tendons and muscles) will deform the muscle, fat and skin layers realistically, requiring no lengthy deformer set-up process. If you choose to make the character fatter, the amount of secondary motion (or jiggle) in the belly with increase in kind. It's really fun to play with and amazing to behold!
Based on potential-client feedback, Reflex has included a plug-in API for all of the major 3D applications, .rib export for RenderMan and full motion-capture support. Reflex|DRAMA could be a real contender for the production pipeline, and you may see Reflex actors in upcoming CGI features.
studio This former LightWave plug-in for character animation is now close to release as a stand-alone product. Already in use on the feature film Jimmy Neutron, the incredibly fast skeletal IK system is lauded by animators. It includes character animation and rigging, a global illumination renderer (formerly Arnold) and a new development environment.
The messiah:develop module will be used for creating new plugins within messiah. Lyle Milton, partner pmG Worldwide, says, "Since this is the tool we used to created the lion's share of messiah:animate, you'll have the very same development tool that we use, not a watered-down version. This means that you'll be able to create your own custom Edit, Play and Customize extensions, as well as Effects (e.g. Melt, BoneDeform, etc.) and Tools (e.g. Skeleton, Curve, Slider, etc.). You can also create function libraries; these are the functions that appear in the functions pop-up in Command mode and are used in our new script system! In addition, we'll be adding the capability to create custom shaders."
SIGGRAPH 2001 was a bit smaller than in year's past, but by no means less important. The hard economic times have slowed the flow of venture capital and marketing expenditure, but not the amount of high level research and innovation in the CG hardware and software industry. Look for these products in a studio near you; and see you in San Antonio for SIGGRAPH 2002!
John Edgar Park is a 3D animator, instructor and writer based in Los Angeles. He received his B.A. in Drama from the University of Virginia.