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The Digital Eye: Bringing Massive to the Masses

In this month's edition of "The Digital Eye," Massive Software ceo Diane Holland describes in more detail the breaking news about Massive at SIGGRAPH 2007.

Image courtesy of Deron Yamada. © 2004 DYA367.

Image courtesy of Deron Yamada. © 2004 DYA367.

The other day I was reading this very cool book my friend sent me called The Tipping Point. According to the book, the "tipping point is that magic moment when an idea, trend or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire." The stories in the book struck a chord with me, and I thought immediately of our company, Massive Software.

My brilliant business partner and Massive creator Stephen Regelous wrote Massive to help Weta Digital realize Peter Jackson's vision of the crowd scenes in The Lord of the Rings movies -- and like so many of the larger vfx studios, Weta is Linux-based. So when Stephen and I set our strategy for these early years of the company, we decided to stay just on Linux for a while. This has allowed us to grow slowly and organically, develop an efficient infrastructure and close-knit team, and listen carefully to new feature requests from our high-end clients.

Focusing initially on the high profile film and broadcast market allowed us to work with sophisticated users and take advantage of the great publicity our client's work afforded us. Starting a company from scratch and building it into a world-famous brand without getting capital investment is extremely rare. Our success is owed to the passion and hard work of our teams in New Zealand and Thailand, who share Stephen's singular vision for the product, and to the inspiration we get from the talented artists who use Massive in production. Not a day goes by that we don't pay homage to the fact that Weta's mind-blowing Rings battle scenes gave us the ability to kick-start Massive Software. And then what followed near after, the stunning work from our other early clients at The Mill, Animal Logic, Rhythm & Hues, Digital Domain, DNA and Pixar, among others.

Artificial Intelligence in Animation

What some people don't know is that Stephen didn't originally envision Massive as "crowd software." For 10-plus years prior to going to Weta, he studied Artificial Life principles and kept asking himself why in the CG world we were still doing "stop motion in a box." He had for some time theorized a way to create autonomous actors in the computer who could perform and take direction. When Peter Jackson approached him personally about creating a new crowd technique he could use for Rings, Stephen used the opportunity to deliver what he knew would be a much more far-reaching contribution to the way we make computer animated characters and simulate life.

Diane Holland.

Diane Holland.

Prior to the creation of Massive, the best solution for generating crowds was to use particle systems. In fact, some studios still have legacy in-house software based on that methodology. This used to be a smart solution because there are certain aspects of human or animal behavior in a crowd situation, which is fluid-like. But the reason the Academy gave a sci-tech award for the best crowd system only to Stephen, after an in-depth analysis of the 20 other proprietary and commercial crowd solutions, is because he took a fundamentally different approach. A crowd, after all, is a collection of individuals that have their own decision making and navigation systems. If you want realistic looking crowds, you need realistic looking individuals. This is why Massive crowds appear more true to life than particle based ones.

Much More than Crowds

This SIGGRAPH and going forward, we will be emphasizing to users that Massive is much, much more than a crowd tool. It's an authoring system, which allows non-programmers to create and then direct AI-driven characters of any sort. The real promise of Massive is to allow all animators and tds to create artificial life forms for any purpose. Massive characters act and react to their environment with vision, hearing, touch and memory quite like we do, performing whatever capabilities their creators build into them.

What autonomous character animation means to the vfx community is that we can start putting more of our resources into getting great performances from our characters and less on touching each and every frame of our character elements. A director on a live action set doesn't have to worry about whether the IK of the ankle joint is providing realistic looking terrain adaptation as he or she is trying to evoke the right emotion from the actor. The promise of AI-driven character animation is that we can participate more directly with entertainment creators to deliver the performances and messages they want to give audiences. As we see it, Massive characters will someday be working with their animators, saying things to them like: "I'd like to try that line over, I think I can do it better if we do another take." Think of Massive as a way for you to create and then direct your characters more the way you would actors on a live-action set.

Massive for the Masses

To date, Massive has only been on Linux, and now, with the release of our version 3.0 at SIGGRAPH, we're going to be making our products available to Windows users as well. With the Windows port, we enter into a completely new era at our company.

Lots of the boutique or medium sized vfx studios are on Windows, and since they don't have a Linux admin available to them, they've been precluded from getting started with Massive. Similarly, a great percentage of schools teaching CG are on Windows as well, so we are only now ready to start saturating the educational market. There have been thousands of students who have written to us wanting to learn Massive, and clients clamouring for trained users. We want to get Massive into the hands of as many people as possible around the world, and schools are a critical next step in achieving that.

Our first educational partners -- Savannah, Gnomon, USC, Ringling and Bournemouth in the U.K.-- have committed to integrating Massive into their programs in the most primary way, installing Massive licenses on hundreds of workstations so every student will have it handy in their toolbox.

Hair, Fur, Lanes, Dynamics and More

Version 3.0 brings dynamic hair and fur capability to Massive now, which is really exciting. The new lanes feature enables artists to lay down directional lanes in terrain very simply. We've also dramatically improved our stunt/dynamics capabilities. Prior to this year, when Massive agents fell down they had to die, once the rigid body dynamics kicked in. In 3.0, you can now transition back from dynamics to kinematics -- so your agents can get violently knocked down to the ground and get back up again and continue their performance.

In the past, people have thought of Massive as an engine for providing motion for background extras, and they fit Massive into their pipelines for that sole purpose. This year we're getting the word out there that Massive can be used throughout the whole process. Your agents don't have to be relegated just to being background extras. We've enhanced our sub D support and integration this year and you can now interactively view sub-D surfaces on hundreds of thousands of agents in the viewport. More and more users are bringing Massive agents close to the camera and having them perform right alongside hero characters.

We've added the much requested support for mental ray, and FBX support for skeletons and motion so you can feed your animation cycles into Massive using any animation package.

Creative Inspiration

What continues to drive us to develop new features for Massive is seeing the new and creative ways customers are using the software. They are the ones who have always raised the bar for us, and this past year has been no exception. People are developing Massive agents for all kinds of creatures -- horses, insects, planes, trains, automobiles, ships - and, of course, those crazy rats in the kitchen that the great Massive team at Pixar gave life to.

Animal Logic utilized Massive to complete hundreds of shots for the Academy Award-winning Happy Feet, giving us a sort of mega Busby Berkeley experience. Director George Miller wanted to ensure that the Massive crowds weren't just filling in the background, but were able to deliver complete performances and, because of environment and terrain demands, performance requirements were set very high. Massive enabled Animal Logic to produce shots comprised of between 50-60 thousand agents, each with their own set of social behaviors.

Animal Logic also used Massive to achieve battle sequences of epic proportions in 300, which combined live-action performances with 3D elements and virtual backgrounds to bring Frank Miller's graphic novel to life. The eight-minute opening battle sequence, originally filmed with about only 30 performers, featured up to 20,000 Persian troops.

Rhythm & Hues used Massive to create thousands of lifelike computer-generated animals for Evan Almighty using Massive in the large establishing shots of hundreds of animals paired two-by-two. Having cut their Massive teeth on Narnia, experts at R&H created more than 269 unique types of animals, both male and female. Some of the shots contained up to 3,800 animals, all of them individual Massive agents.

Live Free or Die Hard found that new restrictions on filming in Washington, D.C. led the filmmakers to Digital Dimension for the evacuation scenes, which had a thousand realistic agents running at different speeds and talking on cell phones. For Night at the Museum, Rhythm & Hues used Massive to populate scenes with 3,000 characters of various types -- all at 1/24th scale. In Bridge to Terabithia, the ever-expert Massive users at Weta Digital used it for a very different sort of crowd scene -- fields of flowers. In a scene at the end of the film, the boy hero introduces his little sister to Terabithia and the world of imagination. Weta used Massive to grow the flowers, control how fast they grew, and how they broke off into discreet clumps, simulating a time-lapse effect.

Digital Dimension employed Massive to convey the story of Custer's last stand in HBO's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. The opening shot of the scene features 500 riders on horseback and 1,500-2,000 people running on foot through hundreds of teepees. This is the first time a studio has used our still-in-development horse agent.

A Massive Future

Facilities such as Digital Domain, Method Studios, The Mill, MPC, Charlex, Asylum, Double Negative, Rainmaker, Smoke & Mirrors, Stargate, Zoic, Framestore and others are making film and commercial shots with Massive a fundamental part of their toolset. Massive is enabling forward thinking artists to realize directors' visions and work more efficiently in spite of ever decreasing casting budgets and production constraints.

In the future, expect to see more of Massive in education, and a larger pool of trained Massive artists bringing their skills to a growing number of effects facilities, design visualization companies and other exciting new markets.

Not since my days at ILM watching dailies of T2 and Jurassic Park have I seen the CG industry deliver such a transformative creative technique for filmmakers. Bringing Massive to the world is a task which we at the company take very seriously, and we will continue to work very hard to get more and more access and information to you, through the new website we launched this week and other means. Since we started the company, some of us are a bit fatter and some of us a little balder, running as fast as we can to keep up with your phone calls and support requests. If we are, in fact, at some kind of "tipping point," we will still endeavor to hold on to the spirit of a small company who really love serving our customers and have lots of fun while doing it.

Diane Holland joined Massive Software as ceo in early 2004 after starting her visual effects and career graphics career in 1989 at ILM where she assisted management in developing the infrastructure necessary for such groundbreaking projects as Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park Among Diane's illustrious career accomplishments are serving as director of operations and then director of marketing for features films at Digital Domain, exec director of marketing for Sony Pictures, vfx producer at Santa Barbara studios, svp of Magnet Interactive and developing an animated feature for Disney.