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XSI Marks the Spot

Greg Singer speaks with Softimage, authorized training centers and others to learn about the educational push to bring XSI to a wider creative community.

Softimage XSIs latest offering is affordable to teachers, students and educational institutions.

Softimage has been hard at work creating a more robust version of its 3D software package. The latest incarnation, Softimage XSI v.4.0, has distinct advantages in terms of productivity, accessibility and flexibility. With its foundation of mature, effective technology, XSI is arguably well-positioned to outpace its competitors in the market.

Having proven itself on such films as Jurassic Park, Star Wars, Titanic and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, to name a few, Softimage is now ready to bring XSI to a wider creative community. Their latest education initiative is putting these tools into the hands of tomorrows professionals. What generally retails for $9,000 is now being offered to students, teachers and educational institutions for $300 even as little as $175 for a one-year subscription. If that isnt enough, a full-fledged version of XSI also will be shipping with Valves Half-Life 2, so that players can build models and level modifications for the game.

The educational software comes with all of the advanced features and functionality that the big-time studios are using. Through authorized training centers, vocational art schools, user groups, books, DVDs and a growing bank of online tutorials and support services, the intent is twofold: (1) to meet the increased demand for XSI talent working on some of the most rewarding feature film, visual effects and game development projects; and (2) to help people who are interested in adopting XSI to be as effective as possible as quickly as possible.

Favorable Learning Curve

The NAD Centre in Montreal has been training students and professionals on Softimages products for the last 10-plus years. Louis Alexander Lord, an instructor at NAD Centre, teaches how to create special effects for television and movies. Lord recommends that XSIs ease of use is equally beneficial for the exigencies of commercial production as well as the creative, experimental needs of the classroom.

Softimage has worked on speed of workflow since the beginning, and it shows, says Lord. XSI is visually interesting to work with. The interface is great, and the students learn really fast.

Stonehenge done in XSI, rendered with mental ray. All Mesmer images © 2004 Mesmer Inc. and Anthony Rossano.

The NAD Centre had taught Softimage 3D before switching to Softimage XSI. Since the transition, the instructors have seen a drastic change in the performance of their students. Everything went skyrocket in terms of learning, Lord adds. Whereas some 3D packages can be unwieldy, with XSI the learning curve slopes in a more forgiving direction. Initially, it may be difficult, but once people understand the paradigm, because everything is so consistent within the software and behaves as you expect, what you learn on the first day seems to apply to the second day. So, after a year of working, even if the next year you have to do something completely different, you actually have a good basis of understanding for how to navigate in the new task.

Lord is not alone in his enthusiasm for the progress and prospects of his students. Monty Clark is the chair of game art and design at the Art Institute of Ft. Lauderdale, and he believes that XSI is at the forefront of 3D content creation tools. The Art Institute of Ft. Lauderdale is one of 30 such schools throughout the United States, with a handful also in Canada, that teaches reality-based concepts, techniques and technologies currently used in the entertainment industry.

Clark says, Its not like when I did my undergraduate degree, where the professor would come in, blow the dust off his syllabus and go through the same thing hes done for the last 20 years. Here, the industry changes constantly, so our curriculum reflects what is being used in the industry. The underlying art foundations stay the same, but we change and adapt to teach the appropriate industry-related technologies.

Anthony Rossano of Mesmer thinks the fact that DreamWorks, ILM and Valve use XSI confirms its status among students.

After a demonstration of the software for an overcrowded room of curious students, the XSI course at the Art Institute of Ft. Lauderdale immediately filled up during the following days registration. There is also a nonacademic Saturday users group where students support one another in their growing expertise. It used to be that no one came to the Saturday meeting. Now that the school is offering XSI classes, the user group is bursting, Clark contends.

Based on the interest of the student body, more XSI classes are being developed at the Art Institutes. Outside of class, there are online tutorials and specially produced DVDs to help students learn the softwares different tool sets.

Clark goes on: At Art Institutes, we teach animation from a traditional point of view. Whether 2D or 3D, it all falls back to some very basic skill sets. Now in the industry, especially for 3D or game art that students are going into, we focus on the fact that nobody is going to hold your hand. Every game, every movie, has to outdo the last one. Youve got to learn how to make these tools do things that have never been done before. A pencil in the hands of Michelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci is an incredibly powerful tool. Its no different with computer tools. Youve got to use your creativity to make this happen.

The fact is: anyone who knows XSI is able to find a job. In Montreal, 90% of the studios are using Softimages software. Even if someone works with another 3D package during their employment, its relatively simple to become familiar with a new interface. Lord adds, As long as one knows the techniques, its just a matter of relearning the buttons.

NAD Centre students have gone on to work at such places as Weta Digital, ILM, Mainframe and Electronic Arts, among many others. One of the more renowned studios to have made the transition to an entirely XSI pipeline is Valve, creator of the popular Half-Life games. Pandemic Studios, which has recently released the remarkable Full Spectrum Warrior title, also produces its games with XSI.

Softimage has made a significant investment in the underlying architecture of its software. Clark says, Instead of the next version of XSI just adding bells and whistles, XSI 4 is hell and gone from 3.5. Its incredibly powerful. Theyve essentially got a working game engine in the program. You can be running a game engine in the top left quadrant, and look at what youre doing in that game in wireframe in your other windows, from other perspectives. You can grab some vertices, add objects, delete them, and its happening in realtime in the game engine.

Clark happily reports, You dont need to buy extra plug-ins. Its all in there. The Softimage team offers updates all the time. Within the program, you can go to surfaces and textures and, boom, itll go right to their Web site. You can find the latest stuff thats been done. Theres a lot of support behind this program.

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Students at NAD Centre created these images with XSI. All NAD Centre images © National Animation and Design Centre. Credits: Matthew Rouleau (left) and Rouleau and Gabriel Tremblay (right).

Tech Specs

XSI is as deep and capable as other 3D software, if not more so. One of XSIs essential strengths is the core programming architecture on which it is founded, allowing new and updated tool sets to be quickly integrated into the package. Given that project workflow is often software based across a shared network, it makes sense for XSI to be easily customizable and compatible with other product lines (especially from its parent company, Avid).

Gareth Morgan, senior production manager of Softimage, says, Its always been a goal for us to design an extremely consistent package. That was one of the keys going into the original XSI design process. Building upon a decade of growth and maturation of 3D production processes, having a consistent conceptual model throughout the package the whole intent of the overhaul of the software has been to surmount the technical hurdles of production while retaining the flexibility and power of the artists tools; to present the workflow in a way that is accessible and intuitive, so that people can concentrate more on creative decisions as opposed to getting bogged down in technical problems.

As a trend in the industry, 3D production is becoming increasingly sophisticated in its visual requirements. One of the results of the distributed workflow is that technical directors need to customize software to accommodate the specializations of artists. In this respect, an emphasis has been to make XSI completely XML-based, so that teams can very simply tune and refine the user interface as necessary. Whether re-organizing the layout of the program, or altering the profile of tools to be more convenient, the entire application can be tailored to meet the differing demands of, say, a modeler, animator or render wrangler.

In short, XSI 4 represents one of Softimages biggest releases in terms of new technology. The following is a quick overview of some of the softwares key highlights:

Character Development Kit

The character development kit is a set of extensions to the scripting functionality that provides an atomic language for creating high-level character elements: spines, ankle joints and all the biologically accurate armatures for character rigs that are needed. Morgan notes, Were trying to get to the point where artists are solving the creative problems with rigging and character animation, instead of getting stuck, for example, in having to integrate an IK solver and put a constraint to limit its axes in a certain way. Rather, artists are working with an ankle or a spine or a tail that kind of thing.

Simulation

The backbone of the particle, cloth and rigid body dynamics in XSI is derived from an open source, robotics based simulation engine. Certain elements have been enabled so that artists can freely blend and drive simulations using animation data. This opens up all sorts of prospects for integrating character animation with dynamic simulations. Also, having access to the code through the open source project means that its possible to work directly with XSI dynamics on a fundamental level.

Built-In Game Engine

A dedicated API exposes the XSI view manager to external applications, so that content can be plugged into the pipeline without a cumbersome, intervening series of optimization passes. With a minimal amount of effort (a few days for an experienced developer), an external rendering display engine can be connected to XSIs internal events, such that parameter changes are assessed immediately for in-game models and representations. This customizability closes an otherwise extended iteration cycle for making frequent visual refinements, thus improving productivity.

Animation Mixer

An innovation of XSI is that it is constructed around the paradigm of nonlinear animation. The animation mixer is a high-level tool that allows artists to move clips around in a very natural, organic way, as is the case with other nonlinear editing software. Rather than dealing with a multitude of keyframes, or moving points on a function curve, animation tracks can be adjusted and manipulated very quickly mixing, matching, transitioning and synchronizing as desired.

Rendering

One of the most important considerations in 3D production is the quality of the final image. The renderer that XSI uses, mental ray, is a complicated shader-based renderer, akin to RenderMan, and it was, until very recently, only available through Softimages products. The latest version of the renderer, mental ray 3.3, offers improvements in render speed, motion blur and shadow maps, among other things. Because XSI is built around mental ray from scratch, the renderer is much better integrated with the softwares core technology, requiring less technical support and allowing artists to tap into it more readily.

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When NAD Centre switched from Softimage to XSI, the learning curve skyrocketed. Matthew Rouleau and Matheiu Lepierre (left) and Lepierre and Jonathan Gregoire (right) used XSI to create these images.

Compositing

In compiling rendered images or backgrounds, or making use of its raster and vector paint systems, the compositor is a feature which XSI offers that other packages do not. What used to be a $30,000 stand-alone film compositor is now embedded fully into XSI, so that it operates in the same way that its other components do.

Project Management

The complexity of 3D pipelines necessitates organization. The assimilation of NXNs alienbrain software into XSI addresses this integral need. Dave Lajoie, education and training manager of Softimage, says, Since turnaround time is so important, sharing and managing information is key. Whether tracking code or artwork, alienbrain facilitates asset management very well, covering whos working on what, and when materials need to be modified or checked. The integration of alienbrain and XSI offers a noticeable, positive influence on workflow, and were making more distinct steps for that to get better.

Training Materials

Softimage has produced several training materials for artists to sharpen their XSI skills, or, if they are new to the program, to make the painless transition. Available through the Softimage Web site are a series of five DVDs: Animating in XSI; Modeling and Texturing in XSI; Rendering in XSI; Rendering Concepts; and Simulation in XSI. In total, the DVDs offer about 30 hours of instruction, ranging from novice to advanced. While the library of training materials is growing, students will be able to broaden their facility with XSI in school and at home.

Also, the first official book for XSI has recently come out. Experience XSI 4: The Official Softimage | XSI 4 Guide to Character Creation (Thomson Course Technology), written by Aaron Sims and Michael Isner, is meant to capture the spirit of what XSI enables animation professionals to accomplish. With other books planned to follow, it should be a handy self-reference to assist ones education.

Andy Shafran, svp of Thomson, says, We are a big believer in a revolution thats happening in the way animation is developed, and the way professionals are trained. There is a constant acceleration in the software development world. Theres also a real opportunity to migrate over to new tools and current generations of tools. Two years ago, we started publishing a series of books for animation, our Inspired series, geared towards professionals and aspiring professionals. Our partnership with Softimage is the natural extension of the resounding success our animation books have had. Experience XSI 4 will explain how to effectively use XSI to create compelling and lifelike characters across disciplines whether in gaming, animation, feature film or simulation software.

Learning communities share a strong belief in the direction of the industry. Mesmer Animation Labs in Seattle has been training a variety of clients on Softimages software since 1994. The center offers a range of classes, books, DVDs and streaming videos to bring students, teachers and professionals up to speed on the newest technology.

XSI 4 takes a leap in technology. The innovations in this version offer an improved mental ray renderer. © 2004 Mesmer Inc. and Anthony Rossano.

Anthony Rossano, instructor and ceo of Mesmer, says, The question is one of degree, whether its easier to use one tool or another. Easier frequently means there are more iterations possible; you can do the same thing over and over. Quality becomes a function of how rapidly you can iterate. Thats the distinction between a high-end tool and a low-end tool. LightWave, for instance, probably never became real big in the film business, with a few exceptions, because theres too much of a distinction between the modeling and animation sections of the program. It made it difficult to go back and forth between the two. Maya has extremely good iteration; its pretty quick to go back and forth. And XSI is making things even faster. Maya has made inroads [in the industry] because it was out four years before XSI. But Softimage is the high-end tool of choice for film production.

For complex visual effects, the mantra in the United States is often to use Alias Maya for features and Discreet 3ds max for games. However, for much of the rest of the world, including Asia and Europe, Softimage is already well established in both moviemaking and game development.

Rossano believes that the current price drop is not what is encouraging peoples interest in XSI. There is always a free learning version available, and tomorrows professionals are being introduced to the software through schools. Rossano says, What really drives interest is the intangible buzz for what is being produced... what high-profile projects are being done by companies that people respect. Knowing that XSI is used in such production houses as ILM, Valve and DreamWorks certainly goes a long way in confirming its viability.

Softimages Morgan concludes, The market pressures are to the point now where artists are having to get more quality work done in a shorter period of time for less commercial payback. Retail prices arent going up, so its really the only way out of the conundrum: high-level tools that offer the same kind of power and flexibility, but with a greater ease of use. Artists have to be able to use our software quickly, and to feel comfortable producing a good amount of work with a sense of dignity and job fulfillment. That means tools that let them focus on their creative problems. Thats the overriding goal for us. Hopefully were succeeding there.

Greg Singer is an animation welfare advocate, eating in Los Angeles.

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