Collaboration Without Chaos: Alienbrain Studio 7

Christopher Harz reviews Alienbrain Studio 7 and discovers collaboration without chaos.

Alienbrain versions, tracks and stores assets throughout production. © Avid Technologies.

Alienbrain versions, tracks and stores assets throughout production. © Avid Technologies.

Once upon a time, all the various digital assets used for a project were created from scratch, used once and then thrown away. Keeping track of them involved walking through your production studio and yelling out, "Hey, where's the ..?" Somebody usually knew, because there weren't that many things flying around, and there were only so many rooms in the building that those things could be hiding in.

Fast forward to the present day. With the cost of features at more than $100 million and videogames at more than $4 million for PS2 and Xbox, producers have become risk-adverse, with the result that more and more productions are not first-time efforts, but sequels (a la Matrix 1,2,3, Harry Potter 1,2,3 and on and on) which require the faithful reproduction of the models and vfx from previous versions. The number of assets has grown astronomically not only are there many more models, scenes and movements, but they come in different versions, used for different purposes. A high-resolution version of a model, for instance, won't work on a Website or a game application. The number of applications has gone up an asset that once had a single purpose in life now may be used for previsualization, preproduction, set design, production and vfx, one or more games based on the show, as a model for creating merchandise and for one or more sequels and spinoffs. Furthermore, the cost of creating the asset has gone up for instance, a model of an animal nowadays likely has much higher resolution, finer surface textures, subsurface bones and musculature; all this raises the price of losing it and having to recreate it. Finally, there is no "the studio" any more to search through the project may be spread over several continents, with half a dozen companies involved in approval cycles.

A good digital asset management system is essential on epics such as Troy, where hundreds of vfx shots must be easily accessible at any moment. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Ent. © 2004 Warner Bros. Ent. All rights reserved.

A good digital asset management system is essential on epics such as Troy, where hundreds of vfx shots must be easily accessible at any moment. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Ent. © 2004 Warner Bros. Ent. All rights reserved.

"Collaboration" has become a magic word in digital content creation (DCC) lately, fueled by the Internet collaboration between different types of artists, between teams, between culturally diverse corporations. A major production such as Lara Croft or Troy may be produced by dozens of medium and small studios and teams collaborating together. But the dirty secret is that collaboration brings its own spate of problems how do you keep all those different people working in synch, on complex projects where it's really easy to lose track of "what-version-of-the-dinosaur-are-we-working-on?" How do you keep all of this from spinning out of control?

Enter Alienbrain Studio from Avid Technologies (www.alienbrain.com, recently acquired by Avid). This is probably the most popular digital asset management (DAM) system for small-to-medium sized workforces (up to a few hundred people) around, with "out-of-the-box" simplicity of use. It versions, tracks and stores assets such as 2D and 3D graphics, audio and video files, html files, source code, office documents and custom or proprietary formats. And because they've been around for seven years, the good people at Alienbrain have gotten a lot of feedback from a user community that includes digerati such as Siemens, Sony, Electronic Arts and Atari, which has been incorporated into several upgrades, the most recent of which is Version 7

Studio is more than just a traditional asset management library that archives and retrieves resources (that's only part of it). Rather, it's a framework that manages assets throughout the development process, for designers and artists, project managers and programmers, in a secure central repository. All historical versions of each file are maintained, so the user can always get back to a previous state (to avoid those "whoops" moments).

The toolset has a client-server structure, with three client modules, oriented toward typical roles in a creative team:

  • The Designer Client supports the creation of content. The system securely hosts all file versions, and allows retrieval with thumbnails and previews (these "quick views" save time because whole files do not have to be downloaded). Because Studio has plug-ins for most 2D and 3D toolsets, the artist can use the tool within the standard application. A user working in 3ds max, for instance, can stay in that toolset instead of having to switch back and forth between max and Studio.
  • The Manager Client helps the team leader oversee and track the progress of each project, by letting him/her assign due dates, review files and annotate them or sign off on them, run automated activity reports and export file lists for meetings (actual or virtual) with the team. The preview function lets the manager see the file even if the content creation tool is not locally installed.
  • The Developer Client supports software programmers and engineers. Alienbrain Studio claims the honor of being the only system to support programmers and artists on one platform. This is important because many modern productions such as videogames have programming tightly woven together with content, interface controls and other game aspects gone are the days when artists, codeheads and designers could all sit in their own corners doing their own thing. The Developer Client has a complete set of configuration management and version control features for software, and includes popular tools such as Araxis Merge and Metrowerks CodeWarrior.

So how does Studio actually perform? It's hard to decipher what a software product really does these days if you wandered the booths at the recent SIGGRAPH show you were probably beset by near-identical descriptions of "solutions" that purportedly did everything under the sun. Asking actual users presents a much clearer picture. Fortunately, in the case of Studio, there are a lot of these to draw from.

Case Study One: Pixelspell Animation Studios

Pixelspell (www.pixelspell.de) is a small studio where more than 50 artists from five countries contribute content, often from their home offices. According to Ralf Zender, the Pixelspell producer, Studio enabled the distributed team to collaborate on the La Cucaracha project, to track progress regardless of the location of the contributor, to make reference and storyboards available to all of the team members and to keep "who's doing what" straight no easy task, since several artists were working on the main character (a cockroach) simultaneously. The team used a mix of Windows and Mac machines, and Maxon Cinema 4D, Photoshop and other toolsets (with Studio plug-ins). According to Zender, typical daily questions ran thusly: "Where is the model of the toaster? Is the texture for the bathtub ready? And what am I supposed to do next?"

Ralf Zender, Pixelspell producer, and a shot from their La Cucaracha project. © Pixelspell.

Ralf Zender, Pixelspell producer, and a shot from their La Cucaracha project. © Pixelspell.

Questions such as these are common in any studio, but become even more challenging when the people on the project do not see each other face to face on a regular basis. Studio kept storyboards, models and other digital assets secure in a (non-erasable) central database. Depending on their responsibilities, team members could access, view and/or edit the data Studio allows for different levels of authority, so that only people that are supposed to make changes can actually enter these into the system.

Pixelspell did not consider what a lot of studios are still using proprietary software developed in-house, an extremely problematic solution. "We knew that other solutions, for example a custom file maker implementation, would require programming resources we didn't have," says Zender. "With Alienbrain Studio we were able to start right away. Studio enabled our virtual team to work together smoothly."

Case Study Two: Siemens Corporate Technology

The Industrial Visualization department at Siemens develops virtual reality (VR) applications to support industrial design and building projects throughout the huge (35,000 employees) organization. The department provides visualization of new factories, power plants and other industrial sites in the planning phase, before actual construction begins.

In a typical project, the team built a VR version of a new factory that would allow planners, managers and workers to envisage what the factory would look like when finished and check out what parts of the design didn't work before the first brick was laid. The team used the Studio Designer and Manager Clients, 3ds max and Adobe Photoshop (each with Alienbrain plug-ins) and the Shark 3D Engine, along with large stereo 3D displays that allowed groups of people to "travel through" the virtual factory as it was being generated.

First the team measured the site, took photographs and got the dimensions of the various sets of machinery that had to fit into the factory. The preview function of Alienbrain proved valuable, as it allowed the viewing of very large CAD files without having to pull the entire files from the server. The team started to build the factory using CAD drawings of buildings and equipment, as well as the textures from the photographs they had taken of the sets of machinery. Some 10,000 assets, including 200 Discreet 3ds max models, were created and stored on the central Alienbrain server. Each of the models was developed in at least five versions, each of which had 10 to 15 additional files and photographs attached.

Michael Schumann, the team's lead programmer, decided that he needed an organizational tool that would be usable both by programmers and 3D artists and be simple enough to use by all the members of the team. "While it is natural for programmers to retrieve files from a central database and to submit them after changes are completed, artists and designers need some time to adapt to these processes. Alienbrain's user-friendly design shortens the learning curve significantly," Schumann says. The team installed Alienbrain Studio within one day, and Schumann then spent about 30 minutes training the artists.

According to Schumann, the ability to use plug-ins to work within the main applications (3ds max or Photoshop) while at the same time staying within the secure environment of Alienbrain (that is, files could not be lost or destroyed) was especially valuable for new team members and for freelancers, as they were able to work within graphics interface environments they were familiar with. The ability to train workers on the system within minutes, and to annotate files with explanations and additional references such as photographs and previous file versions proved to be highly useful for a project that had new workers coming in quickly at various phases.

The project was a success, and the Siemens team now uses Studio to manage all digital assets throughout the complete development cycle of their projects. Every time a user enters changes, the system asks for commentary on those changes; every team member can now follow the evolution of a file with a glance at the Comments field: who changed what, why and when. The intuitive user interface allows the project manager to quickly integrate new freelancers into the workflow. The team has by now worked on a great number of projects, and is able to re-use many of its files, such as 3D models of computer monitors, desks or office spaces. The ability to efficiently manage people and to re-use assets with Studio has led to substantial savings of time, according to Siemens.

Beginning as the torchbearer in the digital asset management field helps Alienbrain keep its market footing because of familiarity. © Avid Technologies.

Beginning as the torchbearer in the digital asset management field helps Alienbrain keep its market footing because of familiarity. © Avid Technologies.

Summary: What Works for Successful Collaboration

This feedback from actual users underlines several key features that are critical to a collaborative tool such as Studio, and gives some insights on collaboration in general. One is the need for tight integration with applications the users are already familiar with, such as popular 2D and 3D toolsets. Here the fact that Alienbrain has been so prominent for so long is a good thing, because it means they've had time to form close alliances with and have adapted to the major players in the industry, such as Discreet, Maya, Softimage, Virtools, Kaydara and so on. An intuitive interface is necessary to bring new workers up to speed quickly, without disrupting the workflow. Elegant simplicity may be more important for a toolset than an infinite list of features if it takes weeks to learn how to use the system it will be useless to a production environment that uses "nomads" groups of workers that come and go as workflow demands (which is very typical of our industry these days). The ability to call up files visually with thumbnails and previews instead of long strings of alphanumerics (and God help you if you miss one #@(>~| character) is important for visually-oriented workers such as artists and designers. Working with previews instead of having to call up the full version of a file is handy, since bandwidth is always at a premium, especially for workers at remote sites (including their apartments). The system must be fault tolerant all the past versions of a file must be kept, so work cannot be lost or accidentally erased. Security is increasingly important the central server keeps track of who is working on what, and who had access to which files; there also needs to be a hierarchy of who can do what (view, edit, approve) with files.

It's also not enough to label an asset it should be put into context, with annotations as to why, how and by whom changes were made to each version. A lockout feature is important when a worker "Checks Out" a file no one else can work on it until he checks it back in this avoids confusion at companies such as Pixelspell where several artists are working on the same model. Finally, the ability to view files by different categories, such as "Awaiting Modification" or "Awaiting Approval," along with the ability to list who is working on what, helps answer that most important of worker questions, "What do I do now?"

New and Better: Version 7

The latest edition of Studio, announced at the Game Developers Conference, is Version 7, which has more than 40 new features designed to enhance and speed up performance for creative teams. These include multi-threading support for workstations with multiple CPUs/GPUs, an integrated Reference Manager that provides an instant overview of 3D scenes and their related files, a new Windows Integration Framework that simplifies the integration of third-party and proprietary tools into the Alienbrain system workflow, and change sets that allow a structured approach to detailed projects for instance, a user can unite all files that are associated with a single change into one logical change set instead of having to chase after all those files individually. You can go to www.nxn-software.com/prod_alst_prto.php for a quick tour of the product, and there is a trial version available. If you are not already a user of this collaboration tool, you may want to consider that you really have better things to do than suffer the deep frustration and painful loss of time that often follows the question, "Omygawd. Where is?"

Christopher Harz is an executive consultant for new media. He has produced video games for films such as Spawn, The Fifth Element, Titanic and Lost in Space. As Perceptronics svp of program development, Harz helped build the first massively multiplayer online game worlds, including the $240 million 3-D SIMNET. He worked on C3I, combat robots and war gaming at the RAND Corp., the military think tank.

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