XSI 6.0 Review: Focusing on Animation and Other Resources

Karen Raugust looks at how portable devices have enhanced producers and distributors ability to pitch their properties at trade shows.

Softimage has a new version of their animation program, XSI 6.0. All screen shots courtesy of Ed Harriss, unless noted otherwise. 

While the new XSI 6.0 has something for just about everyone, it's obvious that Softimage has focused many of its resources on animation, rendering, data exchange and programming.

New Animation Features

There is a new motion retargeting tool called Motor. It allows you to transfer the animation between characters, regardless of their size or proportions. This is especially useful when you want to reuse motion capture data to animate many different characters with the same movements. The tool works well with BVH or C3D MoCap and the data can be saved in a generic format to be reused on any rig.

Animation layering lets you add keys on top of the existing base animation (action clips or fcurves). You can easily add keys on top of mixer animation without needing to actually work in the mixer, or add keys on top of existing fcurves. Since they are non-destructive, they won't alter your base animation in any way. As a result, the keys in the layer always remain a separate entity. This allows you to experiment with different effects on your animations and build several variations of a move, each in its own layer, making it especially useful for adding keys on top of motion capture data.

Motor, animation retargeting for XSI 6.0 (left). Animation Layers allows you add keys on top of existing animation (right). Images courtesy of Softimage Co. and Avid Technology Inc.

Character key sets are sets of keyable parameters that you create for an object or hierarchy. Once you have created key sets, you don't need to select an object first to key its parameters, press K or click the keyframe icon and whatever is in the current character key set is keyed. You can think of character key sets as "keyable groups" for a whole hierarchy (such as a character), as well as for the individual objects within that hierarchy. This lets you keep the same set of parameters available for any object for easy keying, such as only the rotation parameters for the upper body control in a rig.

There are also lots of additions and changes to the Dopesheet, like a new Scene Summary track, in addition to the Dopesheet Summary track. The timeline is displayed at the top of the dopesheet. The Select tool is active by default. When you click a key to select it, it turns white. You can then simply drag it to move it, or press Ctrl+drag it to copy it. Marquees are displayed around the frames as you move or copy keys or regions. There are icons for the Select and Region tools in the command bar. You can customize the colors of the dopesheet in the dopesheet's preferences property editor. There are icons for the Cut, Copy, Paste and Delete commands in the command bar. There is a new Deselect All button in the command bar and Edit > Deselect All command that deselects all tracks, keys, and regions. There are new Edit > Select All Keys and Select All Tracks commands.

Manage all your materials and libraries with the Material Manager. Image courtesy of Softimage Co. and Avid Technology Inc.

You can now copy and paste multiple keys on multiple fcurves in the fcurve editor. And there are new icons for slope orientation commands making it easier to adjust fcurve handles. You can also click anywhere on an fcurve handle to select it. The handle turns yellow to indicate it's selected and remains selected even if you select another key.

New Rendering and Materials Features

The material manager is a convenient tool for managing and editing all your materials and libraries. Among other things, it allows you to create, duplicate and delete materials. It will show which objects and clusters use which material and list image clips used by that material. It also contains a rendertree, texture layer interface, image clip browser and much more.

The Material panel (MAT) is an alternative interface for working with texture layers. It provides similar controls to the texture layer editor, but in a different arrangement.

Shaderballs give you a quick preview of a material or shader using standard lighting and geometry. They update automatically as you change settings. Shaderballs are displayed in several views, including the material manager, render tree and shaderball view. There are two kinds of shaderballs. Spatial shaderballs, which are useful for showing how the shading is affected by the position in space and the incidence of light, and parametric shaderballs, which are useful for seeing shading information that depends only on the UV parameterization, such as for images, 2D gradients and 2D procedural textures. The default shaderball model is an apple. There is also a flat grid model. However, you can easily create and use your own shaderballs by simply saving out an XSI emdl model into the appropriate folder.

Quickly preview your materials with XSI's new Shaderball system. 

The Render region tool now includes memo cams (much like the viewports) and a "compare last render" feature. Users also now have the ability to draw a render region in every open viewport, even the object view. The render pass channels display in the render region as well.

The render manager provides a convenient view of all the important rendering options for your scene. These options apply to the entire scene, each render pass you define, and the renderer itself. The render manager also gives you quick access to an explorer with its scope set to passes, your rendering preferences and a summary of the render options for your passes.

The rendering core of XSI has been completely revamped. One of the new features, render channels, allows you to output multiple data streams such as illumination components, normals, motion vectors, etc, in each render pass. New shaders make it easy to extract any part of a render tree and output it via custom render channels. XSI 6 also offers integration with mental ray 3.5.6 and includes expanded support for the integration of third-party renderers via a new open rendering API.

The Render Region tool has been significantly enhanced. Image courtesy of Softimage Co. and Avid Technology Inc.

XSI now includes the mental ray car paint shader. This makes life easier for users as they no longer have to download and install it as a custom shader. Also included with this release are the glossy reflection shader, metallic paint shader and the bump flakes shader. Additionally, XSI includes the mental ray architectural library. This set includes architectural material, the physical sun and the physical sky shaders, as well as render-time rounded corner and simple tone mapping shaders.

XSI now supports the Valve texture format (vtf) and the RGBE subformat of memory-mapped files (map) as textures and as images in the FX Tree. Additionally, many nodes in the Fx Tree support unclamped 16-bit floating-point color values. (OpenEXR) Also, the Fx Viewer can preview two nodes at once. You can switch between them, or display them split-screen and wipe to show more of one or the other.

A morph tool called "Elastic Reality" is now integrated directly in XSI's built-in compositor, making it easy for you to deform textures maps and image-based lighting in realtime. Those of you who have used the warp/morph tools in Avid's DS software, are fans of old Michael Jackson videos, Terminator 2, Willow or Quantum Leap know the power of this tool.

Take a trip back in time and do some morphing with Elastic Reality.

Interaction Features

XSI 6.0 has many new selection options too. Surround polygons controls whether you need to completely surround a polygon or not to select it using the Rectangle and Lasso tools. The deselect option in your preferences controls whether you need to simply click or click and drag slightly in an empty area of a 3D view to deselect. The shift key can be used to multi-select a range of elements in transient explorers, such as the one displayed by the Cluster button on the Select panel. When multi-selecting a range of elements, you no longer need to select the first element in the explorer itself. You can also use Ctrl+Shift to select multiple ranges in the explorer.

The Scale, Rotate and Translate tools each now remember the last reference mode used for objects and components separately. This makes it possible to use view for objects and local for components without having to continually reset the reference mode. Similarly, XSI remembers whether COG is on or off separately for objects and components.

There is a new option called Keep Manipulator Visible in 3D View. When the object's center or pivot is off-screen, the manipulator is displayed at the edge of the screen closest to the object's center allowing you to translate an object even if its center is not visible in a 3D view.

Cool New Miscellaneous Features

Delta referencing is a new referencing system that allows production teams to store 3D assets, and the changes made to those assets, in external files that can be assembled dynamically to produce characters, props and environments. Artists modify assets and then update them non-destructively. Any changes made to the objects in a referenced model within a scene are saved in the model's delta. The delta stores the changes for all resolutions of a referenced model and any referenced models that have been parented under it. You can export, import, and apply deltas manually. You can also edit and delete deltas and items within deltas, and even change a delta's target model.

The new referencing system (right) and new programming languages for XSI 6.0. Images courtesy of Softimage Co. and Avid Technology Inc. 

XSI 6.0 offers integrated C#, an object-oriented programming language popular with next-gen 3D game developers, and support for Python v.2.5 and .NET compliant languages. These developments might not look like much on the surface, but it is a huge time saver, especially for those developers that already know the languages.

Crosswalk allows you to transfer assets using the latest dotXSI and COLLADA standards, and take advantage of enhanced import/export tools to get assets in and out of Autodesk 3ds Max and Maya pipelines. Neither 3ds Max nor Maya need to be installed on the same system as XSI to enable data transfer.

Transfer your data from XSI to 3ds Max or Maya using Crosswalk. Images courtesy of Softimage Co. and Avid Technology Inc.

In the new rigid bodies tools there are now compound shapes allowing for passive RBDs under active RBDs, where they inherit the parents transform, thus allowing more complex shapes to be made from basic collision types. The new convex hull geometry display will show a yellow wireframe around the rigid body to outline the extents of its collision volume. There are also in-game controls for Rigid Body dynamics.

There are additionally new zipper controls for XSI's Syflex cloth, allowing users to create realistic zippers on cloth fabric or clothing for 3D characters. There is also a new volume force that allows you to inflate an object like a balloon.

You can now choose whether the duplicated hairs are splayed in a proportional way according to the hair strand's length, or splayed according to absolute values. The proportional option is selected by default and should give you better effects on hair that is of different lengths, especially for shorter hairs.

XSI 6.0 includes free DVD training from Digital-Tutors. The five XSI software training chapters include: Introduction; Modeling & Texturing; Animation; Animation & Dynamics; Lighting and Rendering -- a total of 43 lessons.

New zipping tools for XSI's Syflex cloth. Image courtesy of Softimage Co. and Avid Technology Inc.

More Miscellaneous

Clips are now sorted alphabetically in all Clips menus. Dragging and dropping images into XSI does not create just a source; it creates a source and clip. The object wireframe color set no longer uses a specially-indexed palette; instead it uses standard 24-bit RGB color and the color of shapes' wireframes can be set as well. The new transparent option for hidden line surface color allows you to see rotoscopy images, as well as non-geometric objects like nulls and bones that are behind hidden-line objects, but geometric objects will still occlude each other properly. Rotoscope supports fixed image planes, frame; Frame All no longer exits pixel zoom mode and large images display at 1:1 during pixel zoom rather than being scaled. The transform and tweak tool manipulators no longer disappear when navigating the camera in supra mode. In the explorer, + and - on the numeric keypad can be used to expand or collapse the selected node by one level. There is a new mini version of the transformation panel available at the top of the KP/L panel, making it easier to access transformation values as you are keying using the tools in the keying panel and animation layers that are also on the KP/L panel. When the Rectangle Select tool is active in the texture editor, a single click (as opposed to a click-and-drag) performs a raycast selection and selects a single sample, edge or polygon. Sym mode now works "live," without the need for a symmetry map. The new normalize envelope weights upon transfer toggle allows you to turn off the automatic normalization of weights when transferring envelopes making it easy to leave some points completely or partially unweighted. The Animation panel at the bottom of the interface now includes a new Save Key command button and a new Character Key Set menu. The new Save Keys on Modified Parameters Only option sets keys only on modified parameters that already have fcurves instead of setting keys on all parameters. The netview now has a "file open" option. Instead of being part of the install, migration is now done from File > Migrate Preferences. There is a new "Chain Root" Selection Filter.

As you can see, this release has a lot going for it. While I've covered a lot of what's new in XSI 6.0, there is still quite a lot more that I did not cover. With this in mind, it's easy to see that there will be a few fun surprises waiting for you when your copy lands on your desk.

Ed Harriss is a 3D artist/technical director, working at Alternate Route Studios, North Carolina. He is a Softimage expert and very well known in the community for his Softimage Learning Tools and his book How to Get a Job in CG. Ed is also writing for several online and print magazines and he is forum moderator on XSI Base.com