Adrian Pennington reports back from the Autodesk Summit in Montreal, which included a roadmap for future development.
The stated purpose of a recent Autodesk Summit at its Media & Ent. (M&E) headquarters in Montreal was to allow journalists a peek into its roadmap for digital imaging and visualization, as well as to provide a more comprehensive overview of the divisions activities. A secondary -- dare we say discreet -- intention might have been to imprint the Autodesk brand firmly over iconic post-production tools such as Flame and Smoke.
The former main Discreet building (still owned by Discreet Logic founder Richard Szalwinski) in old Montreal is being refurbed in a manner, according to former staff, which will replace the ultra cool of its original identity with a more corporate look and feel. Flame and Smoke are now Autodesk Flame and Smoke. Its the final phase in a lengthy integration that began after Discreets $410 million acquisition by the CAD giant in 1999. The company clearly hopes to make Autodesk as much of a leading name in film and videogames as it already is in technical design for manufacturing and architecture.
Executives had healthy third quarter figures to demonstrate that being part of a $1.8 billion software firm (of which the M&E division accounts for 18%) is benefiting not only internal growth but also addressing a changing set of customer needs.
Overall revenues rose 21% to $457 million of which M&E contributed $64 million: a 50% leap from the previous quarter. 3ds Max continues to perform well, rising 28%, but it was the record (33% growth) quarterly revenues for Maya (now Autodesk Maya) with which executives were particularly pleased and served to justify the $197 million price tag it paid for Alias.
Speaking of which, Autodesk has just released Maya 8.5, with the chief innovation being the introduction of Nucleus, the companys unified dynamics simulation framework. This is a new solver designed by award-winning scientist Jos Stam to simulate the actions of any type of matter from rigid bodies to cloth and liquids. Although the focus of the solver is on Maya, Autodesk expects to port the technology to other products.
The first implementation of this Nucleus technology is called Maya nCloth, which allows artists to create believable cloth-on-cloth simulations with complex cloth collisions, such as a cape over a jacket, more easily. nCloth also features a unique air-pressure model that enables artists to create more than just clothing simulations. Artists can use any geometry (whether a closed, sealed volume such as an inner tube, or an open one such as a balloon) to create an inflatable object with internal and external pressure. They can also simulate other materials, including deformable plastics and metals, which can be pulled, sheared, dented and stretched.
Less than nine months after acquisition, were able to show we can add value to the business, said divisional vp Marc Petit. Our aim is to create a large company that is not some 800-pound gorilla, but one which can have a significant impact on the market.
However, its systems business, encompassing Lustre, Inferno and Toxik, grew just 5% in a year of dramatic change outlined by marketing head Maurice Patel. Weve undergone a major transition in our systems business. We introduced Flame on Linux at the end of 2005 and this year  all of our products have transferred over from SGI. As a result, the cost of those products has reduced, weve been able to drive new applications and our sales are up. Systems used to be driven by proprietary hardware and turnkey solutions to derive realtime performance. Were adapting to a different business model based on PC components rather than SGI and moving to a new, agile development model.
As part of that adaptation, Bill Roberts, former director of systems product management, and Pierre Bouchard, director of systems R&D, have left the company along with 30 other R&D and support staff. According to Petit, Its a process of streamlining. We were a heavy functionally-oriented organization and need to offer a faster, more product oriented approach. More than 80% of its systems product revenue in the last quarter was Linux-based.
Autodesk Outlines Key Market Drivers
Autodesk attributed its improved animation sales to sweeping demand for 3D. Weve predicted 15% annual growth over the next couple years and the driver is 3D, said Patel. Autodesk is present at both the conceptual design and production stage and increasingly that means 3D tools. Our customers use 3D models for manufacturing, civil engineering, terrain simulation or architecture. Its visually informed design where clients can make more decisions earlier in the process to save costs and plan efficiently.
Producers want to pitch an experience to studios and would like to have the tools to test and validate the concept, added Michel Besner, senior director product management. Directors appreciate being able to quickly build sequences in animated imagery, to lock-off timing and visualize camera positions and edits. 3D storyboards allow more people to get closer to the idea and to cost the production. Content can be brought into a 3D environment to build editorial and block shots. It could be a 3D storyboard for a project that wont require any special effects.
Autodesk identified several other key drivers it sees shaping the industry. These included vendor consolidation: Growth by acquisition will continue in this field, which is already dominated by Apple, Avid and Autodesk, observed Patel. Autodesk has built its entertainment industry portfolio on the acquisition of Discreet, Colorfront and Alias.
Workstation performance was also highlighted. When you compare yesterdays state of the art SGI Onyx to todays quad core processors you can immediately see that the days of supercomputer configurations have been overtaken by massive performance gains in GPU and CPU power. That trend is vital to how we develop our products. It also feeds into the divisions current restructuring toward a commodity business.
Patel additionally talked about the impact that the transition to HDTV, the digitization of the feature film process and the pressures of next-generation game production were having on producers and product development. In particular, he cited huge demands on data manipulation, storage and increasingly complex workflows often demanding collaborative or parallel production between seats at a facility, facilities within a city and also between time zones.
HDTV brings increased complexity because our customers have to handle four times as much data across storage, processing and throughput, he said. There is strong convergence between film and traditional post production in workflow and tools which also demands that people within the same facility work on the same media for real time parallel production. Were seeing a globalization of production in which facilities want to outsource of jointly create projects with counterparts in L.A., London or Asia. This means we have to figure out how customers will best work in larger, remote teams.
Distribution Drives Repurposing
The plethora of distribution outlets from stereoscopic cinema to mobile devices has also increased pressure on facilities to maximize assets within their system. Games are being put into production at the same time as film with the assumption that games will represent 15-20% of total revenue from that license, commented senior games industry manager Michel Kripalani. The recent opening of a production office by games developer Activision within DreamWorks Animation is indicative of this trend. Activision has a long-term agreement granting it exclusive videogame rights to feature films from the studio, including the Shrek franchise.
Patel also predicted greater volumes of fully CG animated features. Production costs have come down, the platforms are faster and there is a level of technology democratization, said Patel. Animation is still complex and it will never be fully automated but we expect it to become easier. Weve been through the phase where 3D meant putting occasional objects on the screen to where it meant hundreds of layers of inanimate objects through massive crowd generations where now we see the creation of lead synthetic characters. These trends drive complexity.
At the other end of the spectrum, the downloading of 3D games to new wireless mobile phones is seen as a developing market. The capability of cell phones in terms of 3D is comparable to that of the PlayStation 1, claimed Patel. Migration to broadband will spur the growth of online games. The gaming audience will grow as younger gamers enter the market and older gamers do not exit as quickly.
Creation is no longer isolated either. Assets need to be repurposed within the pipeline to suit a variety of delivery outlets from DVD to physical merchandise. Where a character for the PS3 ported to a PSP might use the same base object it requires a different set of polygons and rendering.
Besner observed that directors such as Peter Jackson and George Lucas were leaders in iterative filmmaking: using digital workflows from storyboard to final output to change, add or reorder sequences right across the timeline.
New Product Roadmap
Where do all of these rapidly changing scenarios leave Autodesk? It wants to offer technology at every point of the pipeline right on through animation, compositing and grading. It doesnt have all the pieces yet but has amassed sufficient tools to capitalize on future workflows, which, as it predicts, will be data intensive, parallel and collaborative.
It indicated, for example, that it is working on solutions to better manage data complexity and file exchange for remote working and also that it may develop a competing asset management software to Avids Alienbrain.
Autodesk Color, a color management initiative, is being implemented across its systems range from Toxik to Lustre, Flame and Smoke. This is designed to match color values on any monitor within a facility viewed on Autodesk equipment and to provide confidence that what is being viewed on screen is how it will look when output to print.
Autodesk also made it clear that it has a strong emphasis on integrating 2D and 3D and that this marriage of hitherto separate skills is also impacting on the colorist. Lustre, its color correction platform, is being deployed about 50/50 between traditional colorists used to physically interacting with film negative and telecine hardware and between new artists emerging from a compositing background on Flame or Inferno.
Theres a new breed approaching grading with a compositing mind frame, suggested Petit. Theyve deconstructed the scene in their mind beforehand and deploy 3D shapes and tracking in the colorist suite. The toolsets of compositing and grading are merging.
The company is investing in InfiniBand, a high-speed connection technology that can be bonded for additional bandwidth. Toxik product manager Chris Vienneau could envision two to three streams of HD being pumped simultaneously around a facility. Autodesks Incinerator, an InfiniBand based cluster processing system, has been designed with that in mind, and award-winning Technicolor Montreal colorist Nico Ilies (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) was able to show how background rendering of blurs and secondary color correction on Lustre optimized with Incinerator improves performance.
If your client wants you to change something on the fly you can do so in 2K realtime, locate clips nonlinearly and work with group shots to quickly apply a look, Ilies said. Its a process familiar to anyone working in Avid edit environment but taken to a new level.
Added Vienneau; If you combine finishing with grading, create interactive vfx in an editorial environment and integrate 2D and 3D you get more than the sum of the parts. A lot of our direction is to be able to maintain leadership in this. Video customers using 3D are generally working as part of a pipeline that includes complementary 2D and 3D applications, especially compositing and editing tools. They need to iterate quickly and make changes with minimum disruption. Where clients have their top artists working on, say, Lustre, we want to achieve a halo effect in which the suite is surrounded by more Autodesk applications such as Maya and [collaborative digital compositing software] Toxik.
Adrian Pennington is a U.K.-based freelance writer and editor of animation magazine Imagine.