Search form

Digital Design: The Borders are Fading Fast

Chris Harz investigates the blurring borders of design across various mediums from vfx production to gaming.

NXN's asset management system was used on the CG production of Kaena. © 2003 Xilam.

NXN's asset management system was used on the CG production of Kaena. © 2003 Xilam.

Not that long ago, designers working on a large production -- say, a film that involved extensive sets and vfx, and had associated video and online games -- would each do their work in their own way. Design elements might be created over and over again by dozens of individuals working in different media, including industrial designers working in CAD, costume designers using pencils, vfx people using 3D animation tools and so on. Coordinating these different versions between design teams and keeping track of changes and approval cycles was fairly chaotic. At the end of the project, most of these designs were discarded; in case of a sequel, they were then regenerated.

Today's Trends

What was a difficult situation -- working across different communities of practice with different tools and understandings of design -- became a near-impossible one with a couple of strong recent trends. One is the drive for more co-production (due to financing and distribution partnerships) and outsourcing to different countries. Collaboration that was difficult in a single building now became chaotic when it was spread between many people over several continents.

Another trend is the sharply rising demand for more realism. "EA is actually approaching car manufacturers in order to license and create perfect digital replicas of their cars," notes Craig Tozzi, creative director of Twothousandstrong ( Joseph Kosinski at KDLab Inc. (, which is involved in both architectural design and game technology, agrees. "Film and game designers want ever higher resolution for their sets -- the level you might see in 3D architectural CAD models, for instance. The boundaries between architecture, film and gaming are getting increasingly blurred."

A short perusal through the popular Turbo Squid resource library ( illustrates the point. Turbo squid offers thousands of 3D models, backgrounds and animation cycles that can be bought for use in games and films. What is striking is the level of resolution of many of these files, which include vehicles, buildings and furniture created not only in popular animation packages such as 3ds max (as you would expect), but also in AutoCAD, the high resolution toolset of architects and industrial designers.

Joseph Kosinksi, principal of KDLab Inc., sees the lines of division between architecture, gaming and film fading away.

Joseph Kosinksi, principal of KDLab Inc., sees the lines of division between architecture, gaming and film fading away.

Bridging the Digital Divide

One company that is well poised to serve both ends of the design spectrum -- from the ultimate in detailed engineering/architectural 3D designs all the way to the relatively low-res backgrounds and figures of mobile online gaming (on platforms such as cell phones) -- is Autodesk/Discreet. As Autodesk (, it makes CAD/CAM toolsets such as AutoCAD (used by more than 90% of the manufacturing and construction industries, with more than four million customers worldwide), while as Discreet (, it is familiar for its 3ds max product, the 3D toolset of choice for tens of thousands of animators. A company with this broad a span of experience has obvious advantages for an animator or designer who might need to use both ultra-high-res models mixed in with more conventional models and backgrounds, such as inserting several gleaming BMW Mini Coopers into an action game, the type of product placement that is becoming increasingly popular in the gaming industry. Product manufacturers such as BMW have something in common with present-day gamers -- they want uncompromising accuracy.

"Translation high-res CAD files for something like a car into a game format can look spectacular, but must be done carefully," says Michael Woodcox of Discreet. "The first step is to take a CAD file such as an AutoCAD DWG (.dwg is the AutoCAD file extension name) and bring it into 3ds max. Max contains tools that help you do this. You're starting with the highly detailed shapes of the mechanical design, such as the precise curves of a car hood, say, which may have been created as mathematical shapes (like NURBS). You can see this shape as a fine wireframe in your workstation viewport. This shape is then tessellated (this is the process of converting it into polygons, basically millions of triangles, which are the most economical flat plane that a 3D toolset can paint and manipulate). The trick is to reduce the numbers of polys, which we call decimation, so the game isn't burdened with a gigantic file, but the car still looks like it has all its fine details. Max has all the tools you need to do this and visualize this, but it still takes the fine eye of an artist to do it just right, and then to texture the surfaces and apply proper lighting."

Draining the Swamp versus Fighting the Alligators

John Blackie, the production designer of the Mutant X series, agrees. "It can become a real fine line you have to tread, the tradeoff between file size and realism. You can have that same tradeoff in a live series, where you are deciding between an actor or a digital representation -- the question is, where is the line, where does it become unbelievable?" Blackie, who was also the production designer for the popular Honey, I Shrunk The Kids series, is used to moving between different 3D file types. "We may get a set of CAD drawings for a structure such as the interior of a space ship, render that in 3D for the pre-visualization supervisor, then texture map it with metal and wood paneling and paint for the designers and builders of the actual and virtual sets -- with many changes and approval cycles, of course. At the end it may be re-purposed for the game version of the show, with extensions that are interpreted by the gaming engine to serve as backgrounds for the action of the game. Eventually that 3D structure may be turned back into a CAD design for merchandise manufacturing -- for instance, if the space ship is turned into a toy. Every step of the process should be inspirational to the next person in line -- like passing the puck to the next player in a hockey game."

Visual Interface of NXN alienbrain Studio. © NXN Software.

Visual Interface of NXN alienbrain Studio. © NXN Software.

Blackie notes that once the cycle of design for a series/film/game has started, it establishes a pattern that is hard to alter in mid-project. "I've experienced both kinds of projects -- the type that becomes a mix of every kind of media, such as pencil sketches, paintings, parts of 3D FX, and rough previs sequences, as well as the kind that is all 3D from the start, with consistent files and configuration control. The latter approach is far better, but it has to be that way from the start. Once the fast pace of the production starts, it's hard to go back and re-organize. It's like the saying, you get so busy fighting alligators, it's hard to remember your real objective was to drain the swamp."

Blackie makes extensive use of digital actors as well as virtual set pieces. "We digitize all of our main actors -- we make digidolls from them, with detailed faces and hair, hands, and bodies. If a scene is too dangerous for the real actor, such as falling out of a plane, we use his virtual stunt double. We may also use the digidoll version for certain sci-fi vfx, such as having the character become semi-translucent." Digital sets have an advantage that goes beyond merely being cheaper to build than practical sets. "If we blow up a real brick wall, say, and then have to go back later and do more shots around it, it's great to have a digital version of that wall, so we don't have to rebuild it," Blackie notes.

Working with different communities of practice can be as challenging as working with different graphics formats. "Set builders are totally different creatures than animators," says Blackie. "The production designer has to be able to talk to both, as well as to the other groups, such as the fx, vfx, props, set dressing, set design, wardrobe and prosthetics people that he supervises. He has to be a jack-of-all-trades, and understand the tools the different groups are using, and what their needs are. After a while, you get into a real relationship, and get a common vocabulary -- with some people, I almost feel like we speak in beeps and pings." Unfortunately, many people are not cross-trained in other disciplines, so that they can understand what the other teams are doing. "The schools are not teaching across disciplines as much as they should," he notes. "Online courses may help with that, with up-to-date courses to help in cross training. I'm finally seeing people facile in five or six different software programs, and I believe that's the trend of the future."

Eric Schumacher, marketing manager for NXN, points out that alienbrain manges the total production cycle of each asset.

Eric Schumacher, marketing manager for NXN, points out that alienbrain manges the total production cycle of each asset.

He commonly uses 3ds max to create his digital sets, as well as a quick modeling tool named Rhino, which (like max) can also interface with popular CAD formats such as DXF/DWG and IGES (more at "Translating between file types is never totally seamless," Blackie says. It's like sending something out to the printer -- you have to decide on what size and color level and dpi you want for the particular application, and then keep checking on the results."

Building a DAM to Control the Flood

Different types of digital models and files also present challenges for storage and management. Anyone who has shoe boxes full of old photographs in the garage will appreciate how hard it can be to find graphic media quickly in a fast production environment. Munich-based NXN ( offers the popular alienbrain digital asset management (DAM) product line, which includes Studio (for gaming, simulation and many 2D/3D animation apps) and vfx (for large visual effects projects) modules.

"One major way in which alienbrain differs from other asset management products is that we focus on the total production cycle of each asset, rather than just on the archival storage of an asset after it's been used," says Eric Schumacher of NXN's office in Venice, California. "We help install alienbrain at the beginning of the production process, so every asset is tracked from day one." The customer list of alienbrain reads like a Who's Who of the entertainment world (including Pixar, Atari, EA, LucasArts, Universal, DreamWorks and Sony Online Entertainment), but also includes manufacturers such as Siemens, who use it for managing CAD-level resources.

An advantage of alienbrain is that files can be re-used if a sequel to a game is mounted.

An advantage of alienbrain is that files can be re-used if a sequel to a game is mounted.

alienbrain works in a server-client mode; its control over assets such as CAD or other graphics files, digital models, motion capture files and code segments includes version, approval and permissions control throughout the project. For a gaming project, for instance, alienbrain would provide a centralized repository for all models and sets. Without such a centralized repository, two team members might copy a file and work on it independently for a week, then copy it back into the repository, resulting in a week of lost work. Easy location is a major feature of alienbrain, with descriptors including time, project name, and type -- a game file might be named, "12/5/03, 3:05 am, The Magician, magician's robe, black," for instance. "Game companies tend to have their own naming conventions," notes Schumacher. "Labeling files can be done either manually or semi-automatically."

After a gaming company has equipped its server with alienbrain, it then sets up its permissions structure -- who has authority to read, approve, annotate and edit/change files. The company's marketing department personnel, for instance, might have permission to browse a file, but not to access or copy it, to make sure they do not inadvertently release graphic IP (intellectual property) without the licensor's permission. Review and approval cycles for games tend to be frequent, and are systematically and clearly documented, avoiding the so-called "whirlpools" that occur when files are sent around without their creators knowing who-did-what-to-which. Version control includes not only time-based tracking of what version is the current one, but identifies different versions that may be used simultaneously -- a car might be available in resolutions including CAD (extremely high) and then different levels of decimation, ranging from high-res for filmic use to medium-res for a PC-based online game to low-res for a small wireless platform such as a cell phone.

John Blackie, production designer, is well-versed in all the different digital programs used by set builders, animators, props, set dressing, set design, wardrobe and prosthetics.

John Blackie, production designer, is well-versed in all the different digital programs used by set builders, animators, props, set dressing, set design, wardrobe and prosthetics.

Backup is performed periodically, on both the graphics and software assets in the system. Finally, after the completion of the game, all the assets are stored in "buckets," which can be tape, DVDs or similar media. Some companies store files in DVD "jukeboxes" that can be quickly brought online if the game goes into a sequel.

The ability to re-purpose a digital asset with a system such as alienbrain can be a godsend. "Atari recently wanted to create a game with a very detailed soccer stadium. Rather than build a new set, the team was able to quickly review assets from all the previous games, and found a stadium that was perfect for the new application," notes Schumacher. Besides 3D models and backgrounds, a gaming company can also find and re-use motion files such as sword fights or dance sequences, rather than having to build them from scratch. "A valuable feature of our labeling is the ability to view thumbnails of the motion files, rather than having to rely purely on text labels," Schumacher notes. Cross-referencing is another useful feature. If a director decides he doesn't like the color of a lampshade in a digital set, for instance, the animator can pull up and identify all the scenes that the lampshade occurs in, so that the director can calculate the cost of making a change.

The alienbrain toolset also interfaces with management tools such as Microsoft Project, which is especially important for very distributed projects that may take place in several countries. Although the program could apply labels in multiple languages, the trend seems to be that companies from different countries that are working on one project choose one common language, often English, according to Schumacher.

An Integrated Approach

Another challenging trend of the times is the demand to push high-res digital assets ever further forward, to platforms such as PDAs and cell phones (which lack significant compute, render or storage capabilities for detailed 3D images), while at the same time keeping a tight lid on the security of these assets. The perfect solution for this might be the new RealityServer system from mental images (, which offers a multi-user, scalable server-based collaboration system for access to 3D content. Animators will be intimately familiar with mental -- its high-resolution mental ray rendering system is so good that it's actually built in each and every one of the "big three" 3D animation packages -- 3ds max, maya and Softimage/XSI, as well as many CAD packages such as AutoCAD (from Autodesk) and CATIA (from Dassault/IBM).

Because of mental images's close collaboration with these and other software design firms (and because it can build upon its existing rendering software), the RealityServer can offer native data compatibility with a wide range of CAD and digital content files. Because this is a predominantly server-based system (and since the user platforms are limited-power "thin clients," the server can retain total control over the basic file), the digital assets can remain secure. This could allow collaboration between different manufacturers, for instance, who might want to see how their systems would function together, but would be hesitant to share CAD files with competitors. The efficient central handling of digital assets (at levels ranging from CAD to low-res gaming) and transmission to wired or wireless displays (without special plug-ins) means that very large numbers of users can simultaneously work or play collaboratively and remotely within the same database, an ideal situation for either large companies running an ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) program that ties in all the levels of the company (manufacturing, marketing, procurement, training, maintenance, etc.) or for MMOGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Games).

Example from mental images' RealityServer. Photo courtesy of metal images.

Example from mental images' RealityServer. Photo courtesy of metal images.

Not surprisingly, ERPs and MMOGs are two markets that the RealityServer is targeted for. With its ability to run many different types of graphics assets at different levels of resolution, the system should also be useful for scientific computing (for complex visualizations Stanford is a mental images customer), digital content creation (for feature films and interactive entertainment projects -- DreamWorks and EA are customers), and computer aided design (for automotive, aerospace, industrial engineering and architectural applications -- Honda, Mercedes, BMW, Airbus and Boeing are customers). Future applications include telemedicine and JIT (Just In Time training) for electronic or automotive maintenance, where graphic data and diagnostics are downloaded to head-mounted displays.

The Future

At present, there appear to be many communities of animation and graphics practitioners that are not aware of each other. They're working in different focused disciplines -- military simulation, architecture, product design, films and television, gaming, education, research, medicine, law, forensics and so on, each with special skills that could be useful to the others -- but, like ships passing in the night, they co-exist unknowingly. Projects that cross community lines often get re-invented over and over again. It looks like the success of such broad-reach companies as Autodesk/Discreet and the advent of powerful toolsets such as mental ray and alienbrain are shrinking our world and bringing our communities much closer together. That should be a good thing, because we have much to share, and much to contribute.

Christopher Harz is a program and business development executive for new media enterprises around the world, and covers topics such as the Next Gen Internet, vfx, online gaming and wireless media. As VP of marketing and production at Hollyworlds, he produced 3D games for films such as Spawn, The 5th Element, Titanic and Lost in Space, and for TV shows such as Xena, Warrior Princess. As svp of marketing and program development at Perceptronics, Harz helped build the first massive-scale online game worlds, including the $240 million 3D animation virtual world, SIMNET. He also worked on combat robots and war gaming at the Rand Corp., the American military think tank.