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SOFTIMAGE|EXP — The Freedom To Create Just Got Freer

A live-action cover?

Packages like SOFTIMAGE|XSI were once out of reach of your average Joebut now high end animation systems are much more accessible. Image courtesy of Softimage Co. and Avid Technology Inc. Scene and Volkswagen material courtesy of PSYOP, inc.

For years the word Softimage has been synonymous with high-end professional 3D animation. Since 1986, the company has paved the way forward in the world of digital media creation, helping to set milestone after milestone in the field of visual effects and animation; building a set of tools that enabled artists and filmmakers to realise their dreams in the most astonishing ways. This is a company that has been there from day one developing a creative 3D environment that has set the standard in all of the packages we see on the market today.

Hands Off The Goods!

Once upon a time software like this was out of reach for the aspiring animatorthe several thousand-dollar price tag was slightly off-putting! But those days are gone the prices of animation packages have gone down, and down, and down. So today we find that these high-end packages are more accessible than ever. In fact, if you want to produce animation with an industry standard program, it doesnt even have to set you back a penny.

Last month Softimage released XSI 3.0 EXP a free version of SOFTIMAGE|XSI 3.0 available for download from their Website. EXP is the successor to the XSI Experience CD, which was released this time last year. The two-pack CD contained the SOFTIMAGE|XSI 2.0 Advanced system, full documentation and a video-based training module. This time around, Softimage have opted to place EXP on the Web available as a free download, or it can be ordered on a CD from the Softimage Website (priced at US$14.95).

The EXP Learning Kit a 470 page book of tutorials and a media CD with all of the necessary scene files on it can be purchased separately. For those of us new to Softimage, this will prove a worthwhile investment, as getting your head around such an advanced piece of software can often prove challenging. US$69.95 is a fair price to pay for anyone serious about learning a serious animation package.

Access For All

The release of EXP has opened a door for anyone enthusiastic about animation and 3D. According to Michael Stojda, managing director of Softimage, Everyone from professional digital artists to 3D enthusiasts will benefit from the advanced learning tools of the EXP and also from the community created to support it. Im looking forward to the results of the explosion of content and creativity well be seeing posted to the gallery on our Website.

Because Softimage has such a wide array of uses in so many types of digital media, EXP is a package that will be of interest to artists from every corner of the industry. Its high-end features will be welcomed by everyone from animators to visual effects artists, illustrators to game developers, post-production artists to general 3D hobbyists.

Moving Up In The World

Those who choose to download EXP will be opening the doors to a myriad of professional tools and features. Initially, the most striking feature of EXP is the distinctive Softimage interface. Like any 3D package, it can be somewhat disconcerting at first, but taking the time to read through the manual and figure out where everything is will pay off quickly. After getting your head around the basics, the XSI interface is very intuitive.

EXP contains all of the usual modelling tools weve come to expect from the latest 3D packages, but theyre faster, more refined, and more suited to those who favour a creative workflow that allows them to change their mind on the spur of the moment and not have to start again from scratch. Every object created, every modification to that object, every keyframe set is stored in a hierarchy with unlimited undo levels, even for camera movements.

Characters can be created and rigged for animation with the greatest of ease with XSIs character set up tools. Image courtesy of Softimage Co. and Avid Technology Inc.

But the power of XSI is truly unleashed in its range of animation features. The program boasts new character set up and rigging tools with over 20 set up options, making the often-tedious task of rigging a character for animation almost childs play. Set-ups suitable for use in film or games can be completed in minutes for all types of characters, with a high degree of customisation.

Another time saving feature of XSI is the non-linear Animation Mixer, which was justifiably hyped when it was introduced in the first version of XSI. The Mixer can be used to blend together clips of animation quickly and seamlessly. This is particularly useful for character animation; artists can build up a library of movements that can be used again and again with different characters.

Big Boys Toys

Particle simulation tools tend to separate the men from the boys in animation packagesand in XSI 3.0 Softimage have completely redesigned their particle system from the ground up. Its a powerful tool that lets artists create everything from fluids and explosions, to crowd simulation with the most intricate control over every aspect of movement, down to the individual particle. The fully integrated hair and fur dynamics system is equally impressive. Forces such as drag, wind and gravity can be applied with ease; hairstyles can be sculpted with tools like comb, clump, cut and lock, and those styles can be re-used on different characters even if their proportions arent identical.

Fast interactive rendering makes for integrated high-quality renders of even complex fur dynamics. Image courtesy of Softimage Co. and Avid Technology Inc. Bear courtesy of Project Studio, France.

The hair and fur dynamics tools take full advantage of XSIs interactive rendering to maximise their potential. The award-winning mental ray 3.1 technology is completely integrated into XSI, providing users with high-end photo-realistic special effects with more natural lighting, without ridiculously long waits. In fact, everything about XSI is faster, more streamlined, more memory efficient. Its unusual for a software company to spend just as much time refining a programs fundamental features as developing new ones.

The Freedom To Create

SOFTIMAGE|XSI EXP is very much a creative tool for creative people. Its intuitive and fast enough to let artists create anything they can image with minimum fuss, and powerful and complex enough to allow for the meticulous level of control an artist demands. The list of features goes on and on (Toon shaders, Direct X support, integrated compositing, cloth simulation, lightweight model instancing, etc.), creating a toolset that will bring a smile to the faces of games developers, visual effects artists, animators and post-production workers alike. EXP is the perfect platform for students, 3D hobbyists and enthusiasts, and animation professionals to get to grips with a piece of software that is unquestionably in the top of its class. It opens up new doors to artists who previously had no access to a high-end animation system, allowing them to take their work, and their skills to a new level. There has never been a better time to be a 3D artist!

Paul Younghusband has been writing about all things visual effects and animation related for around five years, having served as editor of Visual Magic Magazine. He recently dyed his hair bright red for Comic Relief and now believes this could be an excellent plot for his animated short film...which has been in development for around 36 months....