Animation World Magazine, Issue 2.6, September 1997


News From SIGGRAPH `97

by Wendy Jackson

Photo by Cintia Matte Ruschel. © Animation World Network.Photo by Cintia Matte Ruschel.  Animation World Network.

For those of you who didn't have a chance to absorb the who, what and how of the 24th International Conference on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques, interactive was definitely the key word in the acronym this year. Virtual Reality, VRML, and Motion Capture were everywhere. . . . More than 48,000 people attended, SIGGRAPH, creating an unending sea of bodies in the showroom, navigating the jungle of Hardware, 3D Software, and 2D Software. on display from 300 exhibiting companies . . .Recruiting was on the agenda of many studios. . . . And we got a sneak peak at some of the coolest Content around, as well as a look at what's In Production.

Content

Everyone was showing off the portion of this summer's effects-driven feature that was created using their hardware, software or services. Films such as Jurassic Park: Lost World, Spawn, Contact, Air Force One, Species, Men In Black and Titanic were played in heavy rotation on video monitors all over the place!

Odyssey Productions produced two new computer animation videos: Cyberscape: A Computer Animation Vision by Beny Tchaicovsky, and Computer Animation Showcase, a 45 minute compilation reel. Both titles, distributed through Sony Music Video and in stores on September 23, will be reviewed in the upcoming issue of Animation World Magazine. Odyssey is also producing a video of the works of abstract computer artist Yoichiro Kawaguchi.

Floops, a VRML cartoon on the Web created by Protozoa.
Download a Quicktime version now!

3D Software
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Kinetix released the latest version of 3D Studio Max, with more than 1,000 new features, according to their literature. 3D StudioMax R2 for PCs is $3,495 for a new single-user license with prices for upgrades starting at $795. Several 3D StudioMax-compatible programs and plug-ins were also unveiled. . . . Digimation alone released 15 new plug-ins including the self descriptive ClayStudio Pro, Shag: Fur and The Incredible Comicshop. . . . .Sven Technologies released SurfaceSuiteMAX, a new plug-in for mapping photo realistic textures. . . . .LambSoft showcased Smirk, a plug-in for facial animation which uses pre-set expressions which can be altered to fit any face. It also works with motion capture devices. . . . .Kinetix previewed CharacterStudio 2.0, which, used with 3D StudioMax, creates movements and behaviors which can be applied to characters. This technology was used in the creation of CG sequences for Hanna-Barbera's Jonny Quest series.

Alias/Wavefront demonstrated their highly anticipated Maya software, which has been pushed back for an early 1998 release. Called "the next generation of 3D animation software," Maya will present Alias' first new software architecture in years. . . . .Maya is currently going through beta testing at 50 locations, including, most of the major computer animation houses. Meanwhile, inside Alias/Wavefront's lab, Chris Landreth, creator of the Academy Award nominated short, The End, is creating a new short animation with the Maya program. Maya will be priced similarly to Alias PowerAnimator 8.5 , which was released back in April. . . . .Alias also announced an exclusive alliance with Physical Effects Inc., developers of a technology for animating cloth, which will be incorporated into Maya.

Softimage is developing Sumatra, another software package built with new architecture. Like Alias has with Maya, Softimage has pushed their new product's release back to early 1998. Everyone is curious which will come out first. This should be an interesting time for the industry, and a good time to buy, with two competing high-end 3D animation packages being released around the same time. . . . Now in beta testing, Sumatra is called "the world's first collaborative nonlinear animation system." Only trying out the real McCoy's will determine which software package will best meet the needs of the demanding professional 3D industry.

NewTek's Lightwave 3D is available to Sun computer users for the first time, with a $2,995 package which runs on Sun's Ultra Creator 3D workstations. Version 5.5 of Lightwave 3D for Windows 95/NT was released in July. Also released at SIGGRAPH, is the new Motion Plug-in Pack for Lightwave 3D, offering five complex animation tools for $200.

Questar released a version 3 upgrade of World Construction Set, their software package for modeling and rendering photo realistic landscapes and natural settings such as clouds, water, terrain, planets and vegetation. Compatible with Lightwave 3D and 3D StudioMax. The cost is $835.

Lambsoft's Smirk software for facial animation.Lambsoft's Smirk software for facial animation.

2D Software
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With digital ink and paint technology steadily being adopted industry-wide for animation production, there is a wider selection of 2D software packages to digitize every production process, from storyboarding to ink and paint to camera. The competition, however, is good news for people in production, as it results in development of better software, and competitive pricing. There will be a lot of growth in this area before the year 2000.

Cambridge Animation Systems is growing, and their software package, Animo is now the most widely installed 2D animation production software, with licenses at 200 studios in nearly 50 countries. The company will release Animo Ax-Cel for PCs in November, opening a new window of opportunity for home users to collaborate with the larger studio systems running on Silicon Graphics machines. The PC version will be available with a floating license for $12,000. Not exactly small change, but certainly a step in the right direction for the individual user market. Animo has been continually developed through beta testing at DreamWorks SKG and Warner Bros. Feature Animation, where it is now being used in feature animation productions Prince of Egypt and Quest for Camelot. Other studios currently using Animo include Nelvana (Sam & Max), Sunbow (Salty's Lighthouse), Pentafour and Rich Animation (The King and I). . . . Great Eastern Technology has recently been established as a reseller for Cambridge Animation System's Animo software. They will provide hardware and software sales, system integration and support for CAS customers.

Linker Systems released version 3.5 of The Animation Stand for Intel and Digital's Alpha platforms running on Windows NT. New features include eight new animation tools, automatic batch scan cleaning and simultaneous camera moves and rotations. At $5,000. Animation Stand is designed for affordability to smaller studios and even individuals. . . . .CalArts Character Animation Program recently licensed a Mac OS platform version of The Animation Stand for use as the 2D computer animation system in their recently upgraded computer lab.

Motion Capture
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Woah! This micro-industry of computer animation has become a whole industry of its own seemingly overnight. Just in the past year, we've seen the development of wireless technologies, the opening of Medialab's L.A. studio, and the formation of the Performance Animation Society, a non-profit organization for this hybrid field. At SIGGRAPH, there seemed to be a proliferation of motion capture/real-time animation displays. Apparently, the abundance of transmitting technology on the showroom floor caused some electromagnetic interference that made it difficult for some exhibitors to operate their technology. Magnetic motion capture technology is particularly sensitive to this type of interference. Despite technical difficulties, there was plenty going on in the field. Some highlights:

An actor demonstrating the Polhemus system. An actor demonstrating the Polhemus system.

SimGraphics literally put on a show to feature their recent adoption of Polhemus' StarTrak magnetic wireless motion capture system. Enacting something of a live soap opera named My Lover, My Dance Partner, My Alien, they demonstrated their ability to simultaneously capture motion of multiple characters. This is the first performance animation system to be ported to the Silicon Graphics 3 pipe Onyx2 System, which enables live motion capture projection in a 120 degree wraparound viewing environment.

Medialab recently made the switch from Polhemus' previous non-wireless system to Ascension Technology's MotionStar magnetic wireless system, which they are now using along with their proprietary CLOVIS P.A. and facial puppetry system. New features of the system include real time shadows, and a joystick which enables the director to move and pan the camera on a character during a shot. Medialab will soon be launching a new character for Nickelodeon U.K., which will join their "Bert the Fish," a motion capture character already airing on the network.

Downstairs in the Electronic Garden, SIGGRAPH's showcase for innovative new experimental projects and techniques, a group of Japanese performers and technicians presented Cyber Bunraku, a blending of the modern technology of motion capture animation with the ancient traditional art of Bunraku puppetry. Created by Kiyoshi Arai from Central Research Laboratory in Tokyo, this system used a wired metal puppet armature to control the body, and an optical point tracking system to control the facial expressions, in order to translate motion and emotion into original computer generated characters. The result was a creative and refreshingly organic performance.

Hardware
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At the concurrent MacWorld Expo in Boston, Microsoft Corp. announced that it will invest $150 million in Apple Computer, a bold business move that will affect users of both systems with more integration and cross-platform development.

For the first time ever, Silicon Graphics offered a dramatic special offer on their Octane O2 R5000 workstation, targeted at individual users and small studios. The system, which normally sells for $7,495, was offered for three days, to SIGGRAPH attendees only, for $4,995. While the marketing team at Silicon Graphics expected that maybe 50 or so people would seize the opportunity, they sold systems faster than they could arrange the orders with vendors. During those three days, a total of 960 systems were ordered, 65 percent of which were first-time customers of Silicon Graphics!

Rich Animation used the Animo system for The Swan Princess 2, and is
currently using it in the production of The Swan Princess 3 and The King and I.
Rich Animation used the Animo system for The Swan Princess 2, and is currently using it in the production of The Swan Princess 3 and The King and I.

Infinity Multimedia created a buzz with their patented autostereo 3D display system, which creates a seemingly three-dimensional image without any special glasses or headsets. A far cry from red and blue cellophane lenses, or even polarized filters, this digital technology works on the principle of displaying several images of a scene in rapid succession, each from a slightly different angle, on a very high speed monitor. The result, seen with both eyes, is the illusion of a third dimension that changes as the viewer's head moves laterally. Infinity plans to license the autostereo technology for use in video arcade games, motion-based film rides, computer monitors and home entertainment systems.

VRML
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VRML, which stands for Virtual Reality Modeling Language, allows developers to create interactive 3D worlds on the Internet. First proposed at the International WWW Conference in 1994, VRML is finally becoming a reality with interactive 3D web sites such as The Palace cropping up all over the Web. Properly equipped visitors can create their own avatars (CG characters as personas) and settings, and interact in real time with multiples of other incognito users around the world. Most VRML browser software still requires at least 16MB of RAM, extensive memory, and are usually available only for the PC. Some of the latest VRML developments unveiled at SIGGRAPH are:

Blitcom, a company recently formed by VRML innovator Mark Pesce and producer Jan Mallis (former executive producer at Protozoa), to create VRML 3D character based entertainment across the web, unveiled "Bliss.com," their first project using streaming VRML technology. Streaming delivery of VRML animation means viewers see animation during downloading, rather than after downloading. Meanwhile, at the Microsoft booth, streaming VRML was demonstrated with a project created by Protozoa earlier this year. Floops, a seven minute, 22 MB animation that would have taken an hour to download, was displayed instantly with streaming VRML in Microsoft's latest Internet Explorer browser.
Floops, touted as the first VRML 3D cartoon on the Web, was also showcased in the SIGGRAPH `97 Computer Animation Festival, and can be seen in Quicktime format in this issue of Animation World Magazine.

Sony debuted Community Place, their new communication software with multimedia user functions conforming to VRML 2.0. The browser and server installed software enables real time navigation through 3D space with full sound, text chat, video images and animation. It is available for Windows 95/NT, and runs in compatibility with Netscape. Sony is currently working with pioneer multimedia artist Rodney Alan Greenblat to create original interactive attractions, in a sort of "online theme park" called Rodney's Chip and Peg Park.

Sven Technologies premiered AvatarMaker 3D 1.0, a new program for creating avatars from scratch, using a palette of pre-existing heads, torsos, limbs and accessories. Avatars created with the software can then be used in any VRML 2.0 compliant virtual world. Available for Windows 95/NT, the package is designed with an intuitive interface that requires no knowledge of programming languages. It retails at $39.95

Platinum Technology presented VRCreator, an authoring tool that enables users to create interactive VRML content with a simple interface. It includes a library of more than 1,000 "drag and drop" components like 3D models, and JavaScript behaviors. VRCreator Personal Edition is available for $129., with a free sample Learning Edition available on the Platinum web site.

Is VRML just the next Java craze? All of this virtual reality cyberspace activity inspired Ralph Bakshi to dream up a whole storyline for Spicy City, his animated series on HBO. In an episode titled "Love is A Download," he depicts a story of two people who choose to have a relationship solely interacting through their avatars on the Internet. What's next?

Virtual Reality
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What is virtual reality these days anyway? From flight simulators to glorified interactive video games, virtual reality, or, VR, is claiming to be everywhere. SIGGRAPH is more of a showcase for VR developers' tools than actual entertainment applications (go to IAAPA for that <link to Animation World News: Events>). A couple of the coolest things going in VR at the show were:

MuSE Technologies showcased Continuum, a system for real time collaboration which is being called "a quantum leap in human collaboration over networks." What does this mean in English? Continuum allows multiple users to work together from different geographic locations in shared multimedia environments, for applications in science, industry, education and entertainment. MuSE, which stands for Multidimensional User-oriented Synthetic Environment, is one of the systems being integrated at
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to collaborate with researchers at other facilities in designing lander design technology for future missions to Mars.

Downstairs in the Electric Garden, Vivid Group displayed their patented Mandala System for real time video interaction in virtual reality games. This system operates without any of the wires, data gloves, headwear or other encumberments often found in these types of entertainment applications. What this means is that users are able to see themselves, not avatars, on screen, and interact in real time with computer generated, animated environments. Mandala is currently being used in entertainment complexes in the U.S., Korea, Ireland, Finland, China and Australia.

Recruiting/Education
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As expected, SIGGRAPH was a hotbed of recruiting activity for digital effects and animation companies. Recruiting was the main interest of animation production exhibitors such as Pacific Data Images, Pixar, Walt Disney Feature Animation and DreamQuest, who took in hundreds of resumes and showreels at their booths while everyone else was busy pitching products. On the fourth day, throngs of resume-wielding artists waited in line for over three hours just to get into the Career Center Job Fair. Among the crowd must have been a number of ex-staffers from the recently shut-down Warner Digital, as well as many of the 31 employees laid off from Digital Domain the week before SIGGRAPH began. More than 35 companies were vying for the talent's attention at the Job Fair, with plenty others scouting the rows of corkboards overflowing with resumes.

Can you say guerilla marketing? Softimage has established a "campus rep" program which will place full-time paid employees of Softimage on college campuses, to promote the products, and scout student work for publication. . . . Softimage Education Program (SEP) premiered a reduced $1,500 student subscription price to Softimage 3D, and a $5850 price for the Digital Alpha XL Workstation. . . Softimage's latest Student Animation Contest is now accepting submissions, and is offering $83,000 in cash and prizes.

On the schools front,
Sheridan College, USC, and Cal Arts <link to 9708 schools article> have all recently vamped up their computer animation facilities. Ringling School of Art & Design seems to have a very strong program, with three excellent computer animated student films in the SIGGRAPH `97 Computer Animation Festival. <link to SIGGRAPH festival article in this issue>

"Love is a Download," an episode of Ralph Bakshi's Spicy City
which draws upon the age of virtual interaction.

In Production:
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Walt Disney Feature Animation, with ten films in various stages of production, is already well underway with animation on the CG feature Dinosaur. At their gallery-style booth at SIGGRAPH, they showed off some artwork from a new "Nutcracker Prince" computer animated sequence for Fantasia 2000. Their studios in Los Angeles, Orlando and Paris are working on traditional animation and CG effects for Kingdom of the Sun, Mulan and Tarzan. Disney Feature's recruiters were scouting the ranks of digital artists, pushing Atlantis, the next animated feature in line by inviting talented artists to join them as they "take on the next millennium."

Plugging away on their five picture deal with Disney, Pixar is quietly working on A Bug's Life, a fully computer animated feature due in theaters Fall 1998, and the much anticipated sequel, Toy Story II, scheduled for a direct to video release sometime in 1999. Pixar and Disney are already working with Mattel in developing the toy and merchandise line for both films. Ever so timely, Mattel president and CEO Jill Barad recently joined Pixar's board of directors.

Pacific Data Images showed some concept artwork from Antz, their CG feature film in production for DreamWorks. No, Antz with a "z", is not a misspelling. It's the recently copyrighted title for the film. To handle the volume of character modeling needed for Antz, PDI recently formed an alliance with Viewpoint DataLabs to contract out modeling work by shipping actual sculptures to the facility for computer digitizing. This working relationship will enable PDI staff to focus on the animation process.

Warner Bros. Feature Animation has begun production on Iron Giant, which will be partially CG animation. Get the full story in this month's edition of Animation World News. <link to 9709 News: Films>

Looking Ahead

The organizers of Imagina, <link to 9703 imagina review>Europe's answer to SIGGRAPH, seized the opportunity to put out a call for projects and announce programs for the Imagina `98 festival/conference/trade show, which will be held March 4-6 in Monaco. Knowing it's never too soon to be thinking ahead, SIGGRAPH was also promoting their 1998 conference, scheduled for July 19-24 in Orlando, Florida. SIGGRAPH will return to Los Angeles in 1999. How much things will have changed by then!?! In addition to the conference, SIGGRAPH's local chapters hold many events throughout the year. For information on the SIGGRAPH chapter nearest you, visit http://www.siggraph.org


Wendy Jackson is Associate Editor of Animation World Magazine.


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