CGI's Hits and Misses of 1998

by Eric Huelsman

Besides contributing heavily to Hollywood's biggest box-office year ever, CGI made some impressive technical and creative gains in an industry always on the lookout for trend-setters (read: money makers). Here is a look at some of the events that helped shape 1998 and should make 1999 an even more impressive year for CGI.

On the Water Front
The biggest splash on the CGI scene in 1998 has, of course, been Titanic. While arguable as to the novelty of the subject matter or the greatness of its performances, there is little question that Titanic's successes hinged a great deal on the inspirational attention to detail that James Cameron and the good folks at Digital Domain employed to recreate the ship and its tragic sinking.

While much has been made of the high cost obsession for making it look real, few could fault Titanic for the technological breakthroughs the picture made (e.g. "rotocap," a combination of motion-capture and rotoscoping that provides CG animators with model, motion and shading libraries that can be manipulated quickly and in endless ways). More importantly, however, was how Titanic's CG shots were seamless to the point where they advanced a sometime forgotten element in today's movies - the telling of the story.

The Big Hits of 1998
Of the year's other special-effects spectaculars, only two were really earth-shattering in terms of box office. Those of course being the end-of-the-world disaster epics Deep Impact and Armageddon.

Much like Titanic, Deep Impact depended a great deal on its story and subtle performances. Armageddon, by contrast, was a bucking bronco of a movie whose CGI, like everything else, was way over the top. Still, it succeeded as a movie due to the eye kept on promoting its story line. Again, a bonus for movie-goers (and an added bonus for the people at Edmund Scientific, who enjoyed a two-fold increase in the sales of backyard telescopes).

By contrast, 1998's other big screen CG spectaculars like Lost in Space, Sphere, and Godzilla, despite their massive budgets, tended to be box office losers, proving perhaps, that no amount of explosions, space ships or out-of-control dinosaurs can help any picture that pays little attention to how well it tells its story. I'm sure I'm not alone in thinking that the studios responsible for these duds would have been better off hiring William Goldman for a tenth the price of the CGI simply to fix their dumb scripts.

Somebody Call the Orkin Man - The Bug Hits of 1998
Coming on strong at the end of the year (and just in time for the holiday season) were the two all-CG animation hits, Antz and A Bug's Life, produced by DreamWorks/PDI and Disney/Pixar respectively. These two pictures proved that the general viewing audience is willing to "ante" up big boffo for what has previously been pretty much a kiddie domain theatrical release animation.

CG Production on the Rise and Other Good News

Download a Quicktime movie from Jan Pinkava's Academy Award-winning short Geri's Game.
© Pixar Animation Studios. All Rights Reserved.

More Work!
In Hollywood, a well-worn missive goes: You're only as good as your last picture. The FX house spin on this is: You're only as good as the number of shots you did in your last picture. In that case, 1998's winners have certainly been perennial big boys Digital Domain (Titanic, What Dreams May Come, Armageddon), Blue Sky|VIFX (Blade, The X-Files, Armageddon), PDI (Antz), Pixar (Geri's Game, A Bug's Life) and ILM (Deep Impact, Saving Private Ryan, Small Soldiers).

Competing FX Houses Work on the Same Production
Certainly not a new concept, but 1998 saw a strong rise in the number of productions contracting out different shots to competing FX companies. Who knows? Maybe the old days of "eyes only" proprietary software may be coming to an end as more and more companies are forced to share CG resources.

Huge Increase in Work Done by Smaller Shops
Perhaps the biggest news for 1998 is just how many smaller companies like POP Film, Blur Studios, etc., have stepped up to the plate to deliver big time CG. A lot of these shops tend to be NT workstation-based, often employing ten or less people and capable of delivering CG shots in a much shorter time and for less money than the larger houses. A trend? The number of under-$2 million dollar startup CG houses has increased 400% over 1996!

Mainframe introduced the hit War Planets this year. © Mainframe Productions.

More CG for Broadcast Television
More and more CG animation was started for television in 1998. Companies like Mainframe and Saban may have cancelled production on popular shows but then they turned around and stepped up production on new shows. Also as processors get faster and algorithms more sophisticated, kid's shows, game shows and other productions that make use of virtual characters and sets made huge gains in the "live" broadcast TV market. Wait `til HDTV catches on.

NT Headed
The one-two punch of Windows NT and Intel's newest line of computer chips (XEON) could conceivably mean the end of competing platforms for 1999. Not that UNIX platforms won't continue in some fashion, just that new FX companies will undoubtedly be NT-based, and the occasional UNIX box will be relegated to quaint, in-house novelty.

Company Mergers
1998 saw hardware AVID's acquisition of software manufacturer Softimage, software Autodesk's (imminent) buyout of editing tool gurus Discreet Logic and, perhaps most importantly, the merger of AOL, Netscape and partner Sun. With the merging of technologies like AVID's Media Composer and Softimage's Digital Studio, Autodesk's 3D Studio Max and Discreet Logic's Flame, Flint, et. al., industry pundits are left wondering who shakes out as the actual winner here. FYI, Autodesk reportedly will drop division name Kinetix in favor of Discreet Logic. If so, this implies a host of changes for the makers of the ever-popular 3D Studio Max. A Flame with Heidi drivers? A disturbing image, eh? Also, look for the AOL/Netscape/Sun deal to produce perhaps some tough competition for Microsoft, the makers of NT, in the not-so-distant future.

1998's Vendor Winners
and its aggressively-priced workstations (and aggressively-poised salespeople) is quickly becoming the poor man's Silicon Graphics in terms of workstation exposure as more and more studios are making the move to NT. . . .3D Labs' new chipset technology greatly improves OpenGL card performance. ViewPerf ratings of the 96Mb Glint GMX cards are nothing short of mindblowing. . . .Intel Corporation and its introduction of 100Mhz bus systems helped continue the PC's inevitable march into the No. 1 spot as the platform of choice for CGI. Merced chip up to bat in late 1999. . . Alias|Wavefront's Maya is hands-down the most desired 3D animation software around. Artesan and MEL animation makes it an impressive tour-de-force. . . .Question is: Will they stay with SGI?

Lightwave's Hypervoxels may not have been impressive but Newtek has
some groundbreaking releases planned for `99. © Newtek.

1998's Techno Losers - Speaking of SGI...
Where Silicon Graphics has posted a bit of a rally in corporate earnings late in the year, the lack of an NT-based Visual PC could be pernicious to the former industry giant. . . .Though very popular, Newtek's lackluster upgrade from Lightwave 5.5 to 5.6 doesn't work properly, especially the highly touted Hypervoxels. The fix is in with the $250 Hypervoxels 2 upgrade, however. This, of course, rather neatly explains why Hypervoxels 1 was "free." . . .The question for Montreal-based Softimage is, "Whatever happened to Sumatra?" While 3.8 is an interesting upgrade, the software is still incredibly complex to load (and use).

The heat and humidity made Siggraph `98 a bit unbearable in Orlando, Florida. Photo by and © Linda Ewing.

The Good, the Bad and the Ungodly of 1998's Trade Shows
The short-lived New Animation Technology Exposition (NATE) has apparently come to an end. After a resounding flop in Pasadena this year, the show's organizers have pulled up roots and are headed north for 1999 (though without any vendors). The end? No doubt so, and a shame, too, as NATE was truly a one-of-a-kind venue.

While NATE was unimpressive, the heat, humidity and price of admission to SIGGRAPH `98 were, by contrast, impressively oppressive. To many this year's show was a tired re-do of many of the workshops from 1997. The one bright spot was the ever-popular Electronic Theater, especially Chris Landreth's dark satire, Bingo, which featured simply stunning CG character animation.

On the exhibitor floor, the three-I circus, Intergraph, Intel and IBM, was busy blurring the lines of who is who and what is what by appearing in every other vendor's booth. Silicon Graphics' lack of a Visual PC for NT was definitely this year's fart in the elevator. SGI's `who-did-it/not-me shuffle' was most evident with their virtual reality tour, which was a lot of hoopla to show us three-year-old technology. At least the 45 minute wait netted you a cool baseball cap. The big question on everyone's mind: "Where is the HDTV stuff?"

Where Do We Go From Here Dept.
All in all, 1998 was an interesting year full of surprises and upsets on all fronts. Hard to say what's in store for 1999, but by all indications HDTV is about to change everything as we know it. The winners and losers here will shake out very early, especially those caught sleeping.

Download a Quicktime movie from Chris Landreth's Bingo made using Alias/Wavefront's Maya. © Alias|Wavefront.

Eric Huelsman is the head of the 3D computer graphics center at the Abram Friedman Occupational Center.

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