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The Digital Eye: Building Pipelines for the Changing World

In this months Digital Eye column, Kim Davidson of Side Effects Software explores refining pipelines to improve production quality, reduce costs and remain competitive.

Image courtesy of Deron Yamada. © 2004 DYA367.

In the 3D animation and visual effects industry, a studios ability to fluidly take a shot from concept to final output is a crucial part of both the creative process and the studios ability to make money. Studios must therefore develop pipelines that bring together all the tools and techniques needed to efficiently complete a shot. In the past, these pipelines were built with proprietary software that used the latest technologies. Over time there has been a shift to off-the-shelf 3D animation packages that are now mature enough to provide critical path technologies. The secret lab approach to building pipelines is being replaced by a more widespread use of commercial software.

With Autodesk announcing their intention to acquire Alias, many of these pipelines will be shaken up. While it has been officially announced that these products will continue on their present course, 3ds Max and Maya are largely competitive with each other and share features in all areas of the pipeline. Many studios will likely face uncertainty when it comes to building future pipelines based around these products.

But it is wrong to think that the pipeline is defined solely by a single 3D animation package. In fact, all pipelines make use of several commercial packages then glue the pieces together largely with proprietary software. With this kit-of-parts approach, every studio uniquely builds a pipeline that brings together talent, tools and techniques in a way that gets their job done as fast as possible while achieving optimal results.

With the industry as a whole taking this approach, no two pipelines are going to be the same even when they include the same software. Last month I attended an event sponsored by the Visual Effects Society where four producers discussed the issues they face producing 3D feature animation. The panel included representatives from Disney Feature Animation, DreamWorks Animation, Pixar Animation Studios and Sony Feature Animation. The diagrams of their pipelines were very different, each with unique software, workflows and approval checkpoints. The differences are quite illuminating, considering that these are the experts who are producing essentially the same product.

Despite the success of past projects, each of the producers believed they had not yet achieved the perfect pipeline. They often change their approach from feature to feature to accommodate new looks, technologies or director preferences. The one thing they agreed on was the need for the process and the pipeline to remain organic. One producer noted that it took 50 years to perfect the traditional animation pipeline, so why would anyone expect to perfect the computer animation pipeline in less than 10 years?

Animation and feature pipelines will need to remain organic for years to come. Thanks to continuous hardware and software advances, artists churn out models, textures and images at ever increasing rates. But all these terabytes of data need to be versioned and tagged. And artists and directors like to make changes changes that can impact all this data. And everyone likes to see the shot in the context of the sequence or in comparison to previous versions of the shot, necessitating access to all the data. The point is, it is possible to address all these current and future needs, but not without continuous upgrading of production pipelines.

And pipelines are not just getting revamped; many pipelines are getting built from scratch as young studios get their big break. Facilities are being created virtually overnight, as 3D animation projects get green-lit at an amazing speed. But establishing a new pipeline overnight is not quite so easy and any misstep will have a negative impact on the project. A jump start is often needed and this has given rise to a new cottage industry of freelance pipeline consultants and companies who supply both products and services. Pipeline focused companies that have sprung up in the last couple years to address this need include Mind the Gap, Cirque Digital and Temerity. These pipeline experts are not a replacement for studio in-house expertise, but they do bring best practices, objectivity and the extra manpower required at pipeline start-up or for major pipeline changes.

At Side Effects Software, we have a team of production specialists who work with customers to handle many of their pipeline issues. We like to take a get-there-early approach and consult while projects are still in pre-production. We help a studio strike the right balance between their in-house capabilities and our ability to make enhancements to Houdini. We recently placed several programmers on-site at C.O.R.E. Feature Animation, where they were ramping up a pipeline for their first feature film, The Wild, for Disney. This close interaction and tight integration of Houdini within their pipeline resulted in an efficiency level and an ability to handle creative changes that impressed many of the veterans working on the project.

DNA Prods. had produced the animated feature Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius only a few years ago, but when they went into production last year on Ant Bully, they redesigned their pipeline to incorporate new ideas and the latest technologies. We talked with DNA early to understand the kind of movie they were trying to make and what pipeline changes they had in mind. We then ensured Houdini integrated into this pipeline, and we customized Houdini based on their artists daily feedback. In this way, DNA is able to leverage our involvement and make Houdini more effective than simply an off-the-shelf product. Developing this kind of relationship with a software company is one way a studio can reach their goals.

Houdinis procedural and flexible approach has always been pipeline- friendly. We recently extended Houdini with Digital Assets. Digital Assets provide studios with an open referencing scheme that is invaluable for the feature animation pipelines. Similarly, many of our visual effects customers have adjusted their pipelines to take advantage of DigitalAssets. For instance, Digital Domain use Digital Assets to help manage the repetitive effects and this allows their team more time to focus on the truly special effects. Digital Domain also developed a version-less asset system that allows the artists to work, paradoxically, without having to manage any assets. This streamlined their pipeline and helped eliminate many of the communication problems typical in large productions.

Kim Davidson.

To take advantage of technology shifts such as cool new products or shifts in the industry such as Autodesk acquiring Alias, studios will continue to keep their pipelines open and flexible. The challenges and pressures on pipelines will not abate any time soon. In the film industry, the number of digital shots each year is in the tens of thousands and growing. There are lots of unsolved problems such as trying to make digital actors faster, cheaper and better. With at least seven animated features planned for next year and dozens more in production, animation studios are driving innovation by continually refining their pipelines to reduce the cost, to raise the quality or, in short, to remain competitive.

Building a production pipeline is a large investment. Anytime the designers of that pipeline can accommodate choice and minimize the risk of future change, then they protect their investment. Again, with Autodesk acquiring Alias, the choice of 3D vendors has decreased by one, but the issues surrounding the development and maintenance of production pipelines remain the same. Customers are looking for tools and expertise to help them address these pressing issues. I anticipate that we will be helping these studios build their next generation pipelines for many years to come.

Kim Davidson is president & ceo of Side Effects Software, developer of the award-winning Houdini. Kim started building digital production pipelines in 1985 at Omnibus Computer Graphics. He co-founded Side Effects Software in 1987 and has received two technical Academy Awards. Kim has animated on over a hundred commercials and was an executive co-producer of the TV series Monster by Mistake. Side Effects customers include C.O.R.E., Digital Domain, Disney Feature Animation, DNA Prods., Framestore-CFC, Rhythm + Hues and Sony Pictures Imageworks, among others.