SIGGRAPH 2005 Overview: Empowering the Artist

Rick DeMott opens up the new coffee table book, The Cinema of George Lucas, to discover more about the art of the man behind Star Wars.

Though appearing smaller, SIGGRAPH actually drew a larger crowd. All images courtesy of SIGGRAPH.

Though appearing smaller, SIGGRAPH actually drew a larger crowd. All images courtesy of SIGGRAPH.

While there were few technological leaps on display at SIGGRAPH 2005 (though Boxxs 4-way dual-core Opteron prototype workstation was certainly touted along with SOFTIMAGE| Face Robot) we seem to be in an incremental period of change. Now that we can do just about anything we want with CGI, its a matter of processing and managing all of those huge digital assets faster, cheaper and more efficiently. In other words, freeing the artists to work more creativity and productively. That was the theme of SIGGRAPH 2005, which appeared lighter in attendance yet reportedly drew more than 29,000 participants, up 1,000 from last year.

In a way, George Lucas set the tone in his keynote Q&A with Bruce Carse: Anybody who works in the arts eventually faces running into that technological ceiling, whether youre doing cave paintings on a wall and you want to add color or youre painting the Sistine Chapel... Youre constantly pushing that technological envelope. Art is technology...You need to know how to use technology... Im not afraid of risks as long as I think I can win. The problem with the leading edge of technology is the one thing you can be sure of is youre never going to win. The first guys out of the box the ones who demonstrate their breakthroughs at SIGGRAPH arent always the ones with solutions that are ready for the real world.

Lucas also referred to how he is moving away from the assembly line process with his new Zeno system at ILM in terms of getting artists to become less specialized and more collaborative with better, realtime tools, including a simple previs system that is going to change the way directors make movies.

No studio was more aggressive than Disney in touting its conversion to 3D animation and in recruiting artists to become part of the newly invigorated Walt Disney Feature Animation division, including the Circle 7 unit currently developing Pixar sequels. Not only was there a trailer for Chicken Little (along with rigging demo on the computer) but also plenty of concept art from American Dog, A Day with Wilbur Robinson (both of which had some clips too), Rapunzel Unbraided and Toy Story 3. Even Glen Keane, the famed animator (Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin) was on hand during the special Disney Legacy session to discuss his conversion to 3D animation as director of Rapunzel Unbraided and how Disney is trying to artistically bridge the gap between 2D and 3D with its latest fairy tale adaptation.

And there was a lot of evidence on display of changes in hardware and software to empower artists and simplify the use of technology. Touting 24% overall growth last year in 3D software, much higher than the 8% average, Alias introduced Maya 7 and MotionBuilder 7, which include new and improved connections between each other and other tools. Additionally, Maya 7 offers faster animated characters, new polygonal modeling and mapping tools, re-architected Render Layers, new toon shader, fluid, hair and cloth effects.

MotionBuilder 7, meanwhile, offers new and enhanced character animation functionality, productivity enhancing tools and improved pipeline interoperability between 3D content creation apps.

Adhering to SIGGRAPH tradition, Autodeskesk launched its very impressive 3ds Max 8, with improved character animation (including Biped controls), skin, modeling, unwrap, rendering, asset management (Vault), new Maxscript debugger and other architectural features.

Not to be outdone, Avid demoed SOFTIMAGE|XSI 5.0 along with Face Robot. XSI 5.0 offers Ultimapper, a map generation tool for producing movie-quality maps in a few clicks; and Gator, a property transfer system for merging fully textured and animated 3D models. Plus there are a host of other advanced character tools and Maya migration features for ease of use those who wish to transition to XSI.

SOFTIMAGE|XSI 5.0 along with Face Robot was a top draw at the event.

SOFTIMAGE|XSI 5.0 along with Face Robot was a top draw at the event.

As for Face Robot, the technology is built on a groundbreaking new computer model of facial soft tissue that mimics the full range of emotions portrayed by the human face. SIGGRAPH attendees experienced the Face Robot system in the Avid Computer Graphics booth and witnessed how this new technology offers artists a very intuitive way to interact with CG characters, while providing precise control over facial details, including wrinkles, frowns, flaring nostrils and bulging neck muscles.

The Face Robot software, which Blur Studio helped out with, supports both keyframe animation and motion capture, the primary techniques used for digital acting today. The soft tissue model at the core of the technology removes the need to manually create dozens or even hundreds of 3D shapes for different facial expressions and allows animators to work with an optimal number of control points. Keyframe animators can gain very direct, intuitive access to facial expressions, while motion capture animators can work with fewer markers to reduce setup and cleanup time.

NewTek previewed LightWave 3D v.9.0, due at the end of the year, with workflow improvement, Open GL tools, speed increase and layout tweak, among other things, to help enhance the needs of modelers and layout artists.

Maxon, which introduced Cinema 4D 9.5 and BodyPaint 3D 2.5, acknowledged that Sony Pictures Imageworks has been using their award-winning 3D programs frequently for digital environments and that they are currently playing a supporting role on both Monster House and Open Season (particularly BodyPaint 3D).

Cinema 4D 9.5 boasts improved workflow, lighting and rendering enhancements and Sky, which allows users to easily create more sophisticated atmospherics. BodyPaint 3D 2.5 provides optimized workflow and new tools to assist artists in creating high-quality textures by painting directly on their 3D models.

Rick Baker, of all people, was on hand touting his conversion to Pixologics ZBrush and how version 2 is changing the 3D modeling world. Its ability to handle millions of polygons has enabled artists to move more of their sculpting to digital maquettes. Indeed, Cliff Plumer, ILMs cto, echoed how ZBrush has been integrated into its modeling creature pipeline.

AMD and Boxx Technologies offered a first look at the four-way dual-core Operon workstation running the Windows XP x64 operating system and a beta 64-bit version of LightWave 3D animation software. They are looking at an end of year release. This is the bleeding edge of our business, boasted Ed Caracappa, director of sales for Boxx. Virtual detail lies in 64-bit horsepower. This will free up pipeline bottlenecks so you can immediately visualize your own thoughts.

AMD, for its part, is riding the 64-bit bandwagon with its dual-core Opteron processor, and was pleased to be part of Sin City, Madagascar, Revenge of the Sith and War of the Worlds. Its role in realtime onset previs provides production power to content creators by getting rid of pipeline bottlenecks and is now a staple at ILM.

Vicon, which conspicuously moved front and center with its booth location, showcased its leading MX line of realtime optical MoCap solutions, including the MX 40, the first four megapixel grayscale motion capture camera, and the MX Bridge, which enables users to continue using their earlier-generation Vicon cameras while taking advantage of the companys latest advancements. Vicon, which is being utilized throughout the industry, including such Imagemotion performance capture movies at Sony as Monster House and Beowulf, boasts changes in camera tracking (four or five characters in realtime), and offers facial markers or a boujou alternative for inside out rather than outside in solutions. Overall, Vicon allows bigger environments and more detail. Plus it offers realtime previs for CG-driven projects.

Speaking of previs, U.K.-based Antics unveiled the upcoming 2.0 version of Pre-Viz, which will be available by the end of the year. The previs software is much easier to use and boasts a fully integrated timeline and is currently being utilized by the BBC as part of its training program for how to shoot a production.

With the announcement of Maya 7, all things Maya were hot at the event.

With the announcement of Maya 7, all things Maya were hot at the event.

In terms of rendering, Pixars RenderMan for Maya drew crowds for its seamless integration into the softwares unified rendering interface. And so did NVIDIAs Gelato 2.0, which offers volumetric shadows for hair and smoke, simultaneous rendering of stereo images, shader metadata, physical units in shaders, among other new features. It also boasts Sorbetto, a new interactive tool that significantly accelerates realistic lighting and relighting capabilities.

SplutterFish not only offered Brazil 1.2 for 3ds Max, which has been adopted at ILM, The Orphanage, Pixar, Blizzard and Blur Studio for large data sets, but also gave a sneak peek at v. 2.0 coming this fall, which boasts even larger data sets, 3D motion blur, global illumination and more.

Representing the thriving New Zealand community, Stephen Regelous discussed Massive Jet, the new streamlined version of his Oscar-winning Massive program: high quality, modular, final rendering AI crowd simulation without all the brains. However, the newest version 2.0 of Massive is being used on The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and King Kong. For Narnia, Massive is addressing greater rigid body dynamics and more physical and reactive characters. And for Kong, Massive is helping to create large crowds in New York City, including faces, midgets and cars.

Meanwhile, over at Box Rocket Animation, co-founded by Lord of the Rings vets Steven Upstill, Bay Raitt (who works out of Seattle) and others, they are trying to free artists from the computer with their own distinctively faster and cheaper system. They use state-of-the-art graphics hardware and software technology to craft high quality computer animated films, with a unique visual style: the bold look of a modern graphic novel. The studiosmethods also reduce the cost of production to a fraction of the Hollywood norm, making Box Rocket films from minutes-long shorts to low-cost features suitable for new channels of distribution like cell phones, portable games consoles and other non-standard outlets.

With its low-cost and vibrant look, Box Rocket engages in production partnerships [such as Valve, makers of the Half-Life computer game franchise] to acquire, develop and produce hard-hitting material aimed at older teens and young adults high-impact, mature animated comic books; tales of horror, action and adventure that blast far away from the family audienceextreme entertainment for the 21st century.

Added Upstill: How can we constrain the process so work happens with shorter feedback, hitting that sweet spot between high-end graphics and gaming graphics?

Bill Desowitz is editor of VFXWorld.

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