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2003: The Year of the CG Artist — Technology in Review

Heikki Jokinen writes an in-depth review of Chris J. Robinsons book, Between Genius & Utter Illiteracy: A Story of Estonian Animation.

The ZBrush was one of the technical highlights of 2003. Dave Cardwell, digital modeler for Weta, used the latest Beta version of the software to create the images above. All Pixologic images © Pixologic Inc.

The ZBrush was one of the technical highlights of 2003. Dave Cardwell, digital modeler for Weta, used the latest Beta version of the software to create the images above. All Pixologic images © Pixologic Inc.

As technology continues to shift and evolve, it is becoming much more apparent in todays mainstream print, broadcast, film and gaming industries, to name but a few, that the tools are much more cost efficient and also much easier to wield due to the increasing intuitiveness given to the talent behind the scenes. As more and more directors and even executives outside of our industry begin to take a serious second look at not only the eye candy todays tools can create, theyre also beginning to see the trend of accomplishing more at a lower cost while giving them ultimate creative control over their projects. As the tools of the trade continue to grow in impressive leaps and bounds in 3D animation software along with the hardware that sustains it, we have seen quite a few advancements in all aspects of technology in the past few years, most notably in 2003. Although beginning as a relatively slow first half, 2003 held some significant software advancements such as Wetas Massive and Pixologics ZBrush to the unparallel performance from hardware counterparts such as NVIDIAs Geforce Quadro FX series of graphic cards along with the new sporty AMD 64 chipset. But what was even more apparent was the fact that 2003 was really a year for the artist.

The Geforce Quadro FX series of graphic cards from NVIDIA represented a major advancement in hardware this past year.© 2003 NVIDIA Corp. All rights reserved.

The Geforce Quadro FX series of graphic cards from NVIDIA represented a major advancement in hardware this past year.© 2003 NVIDIA Corp. All rights reserved.

As an artist myself, I know how tough it can be at times to keep up and stay ahead of the game, but with many software and hardware prices beginning to drastically drop as fast as the industry is growing, what better time to hold on and not let go. With our constant demand and requirements for faster and more stable performance growing everyday, were not only keeping the many software developers and engineers on their toes, but all the other developers out in the market today producing just want we need with better results.

Massive Needs are Required as We Push Forward

With our need to continuously raise the bar to the next level and beyond, you might be wondering how exactly companies such as Weta Digital and directing moguls such as Peter Jackson are responding to their creative prowess. One shining example is of Weta Digitals software Massive, a stand-alone 3D animation system developed for the purpose of generating crowd-related visual effects for film and television. What began as a very simple concept involving a digital agent navigating itself throughout a maze, has now become a revolutionary solution for crowd control in todays market that not only gives its users impressive control over elements such as terrain adaptation and weapon aiming in each of the thousands of generated agents, but also ease of use so that a sequence of the complexity of the Battle at Helms Deep (from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers) for example, can be pulled off by a handful of artists.

Kaydara MotionBuilder 5 makes complex setups easier, which saves digital artists time. All Kaydara and MotionBuilder images are registered trademarks of Kaydara® Inc.

Kaydara MotionBuilder 5 makes complex setups easier, which saves digital artists time. All Kaydara and MotionBuilder images are registered trademarks of Kaydara® Inc.

Most of the tribute goes to the young code wizard Steven Regelous, who realized Jacksons vision of creating armies and began his years of R&D that resulted into something beyond anything ever seen before on film, or any other media for that matter. As other developers begin to realize the apparent trend continuing to grow for large scale battles or crowd scenes as seen in upcoming films such as Troy, games such as War Craft 3 or even TV commercials (PlayStation TVC), we can expect to see many more advancements to be made within Massive itself, Discreets Character Studio and many other respective crowd control applications making their way into the market share.

So, as our digital counterparts increase their AI prowess, modeling techniques within current 3D applications are also keeping pace. Lets take a look.

Last year, AMD introduced the Athlon 64 FX Processor. © 2004 Advanced Micro Devices Inc.

Last year, AMD introduced the Athlon 64 FX Processor. © 2004 Advanced Micro Devices Inc.

Created for Artists by Artists

The modeling, or for a better term today sculpting, paradigm has begun to shift as well. Software such as Pixologics ZBrush, has revolutionalized the creative workflow in the recent year and will continue to do so this year and beyond. Although some 3D sculptors may believe not much more can be done in the advancement of modeling tools with respects to techniques and efficiency, they will be in for quite a surprise when handling the new comer ZBrush. What is the difference you ask? For example, sculpting your model as apposed to creating it from the traditional cube.

What makes ZBrush unique is the sense of actually pushing and pulling real clay. ZBrush gives the artist the tools to not only now break away from the somewhat inorganic feel of creating characters, but also gives them the tools to create those imperfections in a mesh as easy as pinching clay, which makes them more lifelike and real. Just as in life, all software does, however, have its shortcomings, and with ZBrush theres no exception, due to the very intimidating and somewhat non-intuitive approach to ZBrushs UI. Many an artist has thought this application to be a novelty for sometime, as a result not peaking their curiosity enough to give it a fair shake, but rest assured, with the help of some of the most formidable production houses in the industry such as Weta Digital already utilizing ZBrush in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Pixologic has promised that many exciting features and changes are to come with the pending release of ZBrush 2.0.

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ZBrush was tested by Weta Digitals modeling department during post-production work on The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Digital artist Dave Cardwell notes, I and other highly-experienced modelers have been able to do things with ZBrush that we could not do digitally before we had this betait brings to life things that you cant paint in a 3D paint package.

Time to Get Moving

OK, so you built your models, textured them and gave them their individual personalities, so now we need a way to get them moving. Well, you can say that the current wave of 3D applications on the market offer some very efficient means of getting the job done and on time, but, as we know, theres always room for tools that can make any job just a bit easier.

Over the course of last year, animators were treated with some of the more innovative and intuitive tools to date. A few of the more memorable tools consist of Segas Animanium and Kaydara MotionBuilder 5. Whats notable about both of these tools are the increased user feedback and intuitiveness when crunching out your frames for that big project, while taking the headaches out of dealing with problematic complex rig setups, which leaves the animators with more time to do what they do best. Another quality that I found honorable with most outside developers such as Sega and Kaydara is that theyre adopting methods to extend their products to most major 3D applications such as Alias Maya and Softimage XSI, thus keeping your investments sound and growing.

replace_caption_tech08_MotionBuilder-screen.jpg

Render On

Computing power is thankfully and constantly always keeping ahead of the game, improving in considerable leaps and bounds throughout every year, and 2003 was no exception. One impressive revelation that was the talk of last year was the major shift to Linux operating systems. Many large and small reputable animation studios such as DreamWorks, The Walt Disney Co., Pixar Animation Studios and Blue Sky Studios, to name a few, have made the switch to Linux-run operating systems within the last year. Promising more memory and greater processing power for the rendering process, arguably one of the greatest demands in our industry today, many studios are realizing their once mighty render farms are beginning to tap out at the 32-bit system memory threshold. Thankfully, within the last year scalable and clustered systems are becoming better solutions and readily available for our needs, and with the introduction of 64-bit processors such as AMDs Athlon 64 FX Processor, the choices are becoming very obvious and simple.

Other hardware vendors such as NVIDIA and ATI have also locked horns within the last year, delivering the next wave of graphic processors. Both sport impressive 128-bit floating-point precision, giving power users the much needed realtime performance. ATI had put up a great fight and continues to do so with their Radeon 9800 family series, but no other vendor created as much stir as NVIDIA with their high-end Quadro FX series of graphic cards, touting the Industrys only true 128-bit floating-point graphics pipeline. With the introduction of the NVIDIA Quadro FX 3000, NVIDIA succeeded in delivering to the power users of our industry.

Render On

Computing power is thankfully and constantly always keeping ahead of the game, improving in considerable leaps and bounds throughout every year, and 2003 was no exception. One impressive revelation that was the talk of last year was the major shift to Linux operating systems. Many large and small reputable animation studios such as DreamWorks, The Walt Disney Co., Pixar Animation Studios and Blue Sky Studios, to name a few, have made the switch to Linux-run operating systems within the last year. Promising more memory and greater processing power for the rendering process, arguably one of the greatest demands in our industry today, many studios are realizing their once mighty render farms are beginning to tap out at the 32-bit system memory threshold. Thankfully, within the last year scalable and clustered systems are becoming better solutions and readily available for our needs, and with the introduction of 64-bit processors such as AMDs Athlon 64 FX Processor, the choices are becoming very obvious and simple.

Other hardware vendors such as NVIDIA and ATI have also locked horns within the last year, delivering the next wave of graphic processors. Both sport impressive 128-bit floating-point precision, giving power users the much needed realtime performance. ATI had put up a great fight and continues to do so with their Radeon 9800 family series, but no other vendor created as much stir as NVIDIA with their high-end Quadro FX series of graphic cards, touting the Industrys only true 128-bit floating-point graphics pipeline. With the introduction of the NVIDIA Quadro FX 3000, NVIDIA succeeded in delivering to the power users of our industry.

tech10_segaAnimanium-pose.jpg

Segas Animanium develops software that is compatible with most major 3D applications, saving users money and headaches. tech09_SegaAnimanium-logo.gif

The Future of CGI

In the past year, significant improvements have definitely been made, but I got the feeling it was more a year for the artist. The tools have gotten easier to use, so much so theyre now beginning to take a backseat as the talent behind the scenes bring us unsurpassed realism in digital characters such as Gollum and the Hulk. With stunning visual effects in films such as The Return of the King and X2, even the accolades have been more evident, with the introduction of the International 3DAwards and Exposé created by CGNetworks (a division of Ballistic Media Pty Ltd.), to name a few, and the competition has surely heated up.

But have we seen it all? Not likely, as software and hardware continue to develop at such a rapid rate that we can expect to see new tools such as Luxologys Modo, ZBrush 2.0 and long-standing vendors such as Alias, Softimage and NVIDIA stepping up to the plate time and time again.

Tito A. Belgrave is currently a freelance writer and senior 3D artist for DKP Effects in Toronto, who is working on the first- ever primetime CG series, Game Over (http://www.gameover.tv), debuting March 10 at 8:00 pm on UPN. When not involved in a hectic day-to-day schedule, he spends time with his lovely fiancée, and works on his short film, The Tale of Kar.

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