Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 10 (Oct 2003)

Spotlight - 10/03


Discreet recently unveiled its two latest software releases, combustion 3 and lustre.

Targeted at professionals producing films, videos, and Web content, combustion 3 is the latest version of Discreet's visual effects, motion graphics, and 3D compositing desktop software. Features new to Version 3 include built-in editing, JavaScript expressions, output to Flash, DV.capture and output, timeline markers, and more.

"Combustion has a tool set, work flow, and interface that has been established for more than a decade,".says Gary M. Davis, visualZ LLC's visual effects artist and discreet training specialist. "There has been no looking back, and combustion continues to amaze me every day."

Scheduled to ship for Windows XP and 2000 systems in the fall and for Mac OS.X in early 2004, combustion 3 carries a full-version price of $995 and an upgrade price of $199.

Lustre is a software-based digital grading and color correction tool for professional filmmaking. According to the company, the program is being used by leading film laboratories and postproduction/film studios—including Pixar Animation Studios and Technicolor Creative Services. —Courtney E. Howard

Discreet; www.discreet.com









PRODUCTS | WEB

Macromedia announced its new MX 2004 family, complete with enhanced versions of existing MX products (Flash, Dreamweaver, and Fireworks) and new additions, such as Flash Professional MX.

Now shipping, the Macromedia MX 2004 product family targets professional applications developers and Web site de-signers. As well as building blocks called MX.Elements for Flash and MX.Elements for HTML, the product suite sports a different look and feel via the all-new Halo interface for Internet applications.

Flash MX 2004 offers the ActionScript 2.0 scripting language, Timeline Effects for adding transitions, predefined behaviors, and support for cascading style sheets (CSS). Flash Player 7, a high-performance client for viewing Flash content and applications, is said to achieve twice the performance of previous versions. Dreamweaver MX 2004 offers en-hanced support for standards and server technologies, including CSS, secure FTP, and ASP.NET. In addition to support for server-side code and nested tables, Fireworks MX 2004 boasts built-in FTP features, automated compression and e-mail options, and new drawing tools.

For professionals creating advanced and data-driven content, applications, animations, and video, Macromedia Flash MX Professional 2004 is specifically designed with the top 10 or 20 percent of Flash users in mind. No longer tied to the timeline-based method of development, users of the Professional version have the option of working in a forms-based environment. Added video capabilities enable users to add interactivity and custom interfaces to video and ensure easy integration with leading professional video and encoding tools, such as those from Apple, Avid, Canopus, and Pinnacle.

For Windows and Mac OS.10.2.6, Flash MX 2004 is priced at $499. Users of Flash 5 or Flash MX can upgrade at the discounted price of $199. The introductory price for Flash MX Professional 2004 is $699, whereas upgrades from Flash 5 or Flash MX are priced at $299. —CEH

Macromedia; www.macromedia.com









PRODUCTS | HARDWARE

With the release of the AMD Athlon 64 processor, AMD brings 64-bit computing to desktop and notebook PCs.

Reported to be the only Windows-compatible 64-bit PC processor, the AMD Athlon 64 improves the appearance, performance, and productivity of both 32-bit and 64-bit applications. Answering the growing demand of game developers, game enthusiasts, prosumers, and creative professionals for 64-bit technology, the company's new processor overcomes many limitations of 32-bit graphics. For example, more game objects can be dynamic rather than static; processing speeds are increased, particularly with large files; and such visual effects as fire, fur, and facial expressions are more realistic. As a result, digital content creation and 3D gaming professionals are among those expected to benefit the most from the new offering.

"Gamers will like it because it runs faster, enabling greater detail, realism, and play speed," notes Roger Kay, vice president of Client Computing at IDC, a technology market research firm. "I suspect that 64-bit computing will take a while to establish itself, but it eventually will be adopted in the mainstream. OEMs will likely consider the new architecture for some of their high-end systems, and competitors probably will respond with 64-bit products if AMD's Athlon 64 shows sufficient signs of success."

The AMD Athlon 64 processor boasts HyperTransport technology for increased bandwidth, an integrated DDR memory controller, and what is said to be the industry's largest on-die cache memory system for PCs.

Models 3200+ and 3000+ of the AMD Athlon 64 are available for notebook computers, whereas the FX-51 is designed for desktop PCs. —CEH

AMD; www.amd.com









PRODUCTS | CONTENT CREATION

Adobe premiered two comprehensive software packages for creatives: Adobe Creative Suite Premium and Standard. The Standard version encompasses Photoshop CS, Illustrator CS, and InDesign CS, whereas the Premium edition adds GoLive CS and Acrobat 6.0 Profession-al. Both offer the Design Guide training tool and Version Cue, enabling users to roll back to previous versions and to see who is working on a file.

An impressive upgrade, Photo-shop CS supports 100 times the pixel count as does Photoshop 7. Photoshop CS is a complete solution for creative professionals designing content for the Web, film, and video, as well as for photographers and graphic artists. Photoshop CS provides support for a wider variety of image formats, raw camera files, non-square pixels, and 16-bit graphics. Lending to increased productivity, an on-screen lightbox and a filter gallery assist users in viewing, organizing, and using images and filters.

Photoshop CS offers ImageReady CS, complete with new features for the creation and preparation of Web graphics. An enhanced interface, im-proved integration with Photoshop, and a Web Content palette are among ImageReady's enhancements. Users also benefit from the newfound ability to export files to the Flash (SWF) format and to save layers as files.

Photoshop CS costs $649 for the full version and $169 for a standard upgrade. Users can upgrade to Adobe Creative Suite Premium or Standard for $749 or $549, respectively. —CEH

Adobe Systems; www.adobe.com









FOLLOW-UP | COMPOSITING

Further to "x-cellent FX" in the July issue, Kleiser-Walczak contributed to the innovative eye replacements for Mystique, an X-Men mutant portrayed by Rebecca Romijn-Stamos. According to Frank E. Vitz, visual effects supervisor, Kleiser-Walczak's eye replacement team not only conducted the R&D that established the specific look of Mystique's eye re-placement shots, but also produced many of her eye replacements in the film X2. Led by 2D shot supervisor Mary E. Nelson, Kleiser-Walczak's eye replacement team included five compositors: Svetla Belcheva, Katharine Evans, Marc Morissette, Leah Nall, and Andy Tanguay. —The Editors









USER FOCUS | BROADCAST

A series of television commer-cials for cable/Internet service provider Bright House Networks features an elegant, contemporary-style home that is loaded with sophisticated high-end consumer electronics. The setting—used as a metaphor for the Bright House services, which include digital television, broadband Internet, and video on demand—is cutting-edge on another level, as the majority of the set is virtual.

Click 3x, a New York City-based effects and design studio, created the 13 spots, which are intended to introduce Bright House to cable customers in new markets. In each commercial, a camera pans through a cross-section of the home to reveal family members watching television, surfing the 'Net, playing computer games, and engaging in other forms of electronic entertainment. The family members are live actors, but the home and many of the objects in it are computer-generated.

Digital artists built the virtual home used in the commercials from the ground up, designing the 3D model as if it were an actual architectural project.




Click 3x creative directors Iain Greenway and Christine Lin Barraud designed the digital house, approaching the task as if it were a real-world architectural project. "We looked at a lot of modern architecture for inspiration, then designed a home that we would want to live in," says Greenway. "We wanted the structure to convey a sense of reality in that every detail made architectural sense; we wanted a house that someone could actually build."

Next, a team of digital artists using Maya from Alias Systems began con-structing a rough model of the virtual home, which was used to previsualize each commercial. This step provided the advertising agency and the client with an idea of what the final presentations would look like. It also served as a road map for the motion-control shoot that followed.

That shoot occurred on a special effects stage operated by Arf + Co. With Greenway directing and Click 3x's Peter Corbett acting as visual effects supervisor, the actors, along with tables, chairs, and some other furnishings, were filmed against a greenscreen backdrop. The layout of the virtual home was demarcated in tape on the stage floor, so the actors' movements could be choreographed precisely to coincide with the 3D model.

The group shot the action occurring in each room separately with a motion-control camera system from Kuper Controls, so the performances later could be seamlessly linked to the virtual set.

In one of the Bright House commercials, compositors completed the effect of a fish tank that is built into the rear wall by incorporating real fish, shot against a greenscreen, into a 3D aquarium filled with virtual water.




The motion-control data gathered on the set was sent via high-speed Internet connection to animators at Click 3x's studio, enabling the artists to apply the data to their 3D models. "We didn't want to spend any production time manually tracking the camera moves," says Corbett. "So we took the data that was collected on the set and immediately posted it to an FTP site. Our artists quickly verified that the data was clean, so we could move on with the production." In all, the team recorded more than 20 camera moves during the session.

After the live-action segments were shot and the 3D environment was finalized, the compositing group combined the elements and stitched together the final scenes using a Discreet flame system. "There was a great deal of finessing to do, such as adding shadows, tweaking moves, and adjusting the lighting," says flame artist Mark Szumski.

"The beauty of the finished spots is that so much of the effort that went into their creation is invisible to the viewers," says Greenway. "To the audience, the commercials look as though they were shot in one take. The [digital] techniques are hidden, leaving viewers to enjoy the modern space." —Karen Moltenbrey

KEY TOOLS:

Maya, Alias Systems www.alias.com

flame, Discreet www.discreet.com




USER FOCUS | GAMING

Using motion-capture technology to animate digital characters can be a weighty decision, but not so for Asian game developer Digital Frontier. That's because the studio used motion capture to accurately record human performers whose actions drive 3D characters that battle an evolved species of prehistoric beasts at zero gravity in Dino Crisis 3, a newly released Japanese Xbox title from Capcom.

In the game, which is set in the year 2548, players assume the role of the hero Patrick, as he and his partners conduct a search-and-rescue mission aboard a spaceship that has mysteriously reappeared after 300 years. Armed with an arsenal of futuristic weaponry, players must confront ferocious mutated creatures and evolved forms of dinosaurs that have overrun the massive ship.

The physics of deep space, in which the game is set, coupled with the fact that the human characters move around using jet-propulsion packs, presented a unique challenge to the animators—if not to the game players. That's because it's not unusual for the characters to perform some atypical stunts during the course of the game, such as flying into walls, falling through floors, or even hovering in midair. It was Digital Frontier's belief that these peculiar actions could be achieved more plausibly through motion-captured rather than keyframed animation.

To record these stunts realistically but safely using real performers, Digital Frontier employed a Vicon 8i optical-based mocap system with 18 high-resolution MCam2 cameras. The group set up the system in a 10x10x5-meter capture area, and within this volume, the motions of as many as three actors were captured simultaneously as they completed jumps, high-air suspensions, run cycles, and "everyday" actions while dangling in the air with the support of wire harnesses, trampolines, and other physical aids.






Digital Frontier captured stunt moves (top) and applied them to game models (bottom).




"The system's real-time capability enabled us to verify each performance immediately on the set so we could improve the moves," says producer Yuusaku Toyoshima. "We also used Vicon's iQ software for [processing and] cleaning up our data, allowing us to shorten our postproduction time."

After finessing the motion-captured data, the animators applied the information to its Softimage|XSI models.

The game—which marks the third title in the popular Dino Crisis series—is expected to be released later this year in the UK, with a US introduction to follow soon after. —KM

KEY TOOLS:

Vicon 8i and iQ, Vicon Motion Systems www.vicon.com




USER FOCUS | DV

When boutique restaurant chain Straw Hat Pizza wanted a unique look for a series of regional television commercials, Delaplaine Creative delivered with a set of animated cartoon spots containing 1950s comic book-style imagery enhanced with 3D camera moves.

Each spot was written and produced by Beard Boy Productions, which provided Delaplaine (Corte Madera, CA) with the script, audio, and 2D graphics created in Adobe Systems' Photoshop. Then, the Delaplaine team extracted the characters from their backgrounds, and isolated various body parts such as the eyeballs, eyebrows, arms, and so forth using a Media 100 844/X system, enabling the artists to animate each layer independently.

The group also used the 844/X to composite the multiple layers of graphics and to create animated backgrounds and other effects, including a real-time Gaussian blur effect achieved with the system's XBlur feature, which gave the imagery added dimensionality through soft drop shadows. The artists then added 3D camera moves, enabled through the Adobe After Effects plug-in standard. Next, they opened the native 844/X project file in After Effects (with the motion and layers intact), and added a motion-blur pass.

Artists used the 844/X to parody comic book characters from yesteryear.




The end result is a collection of still frames that are animated in an interactive environment. "The Straw Hat spots take a traditional, iconic American image—comic book art—and brings its two-dimensional characters to life," says writer/ producer Mike Smith of Beard Boy Productions. —KM

KEY TOOL:

844/X, Media 100 www.media100.com




TECHNOLOGY | RENDERING

Rendering natural-looking hair is key to creating realistic virtual humans. But the process is turning out to be a lot more complicated than it looks. Not only must the geometry of thousands of strands be determined, but the scattering of light from each one also must be accurately simulated. So far, most work has focused on modeling the geometry of hair. But when simulating light reflections, traditional shading models have treated the fibers simplistically, as smooth, opaque cylinders that neither transmit light nor produce any internal reflections. Now, a team of researchers from Cornell and Stanford headed by Cornell's Steve Marschner has devised a new model that more accurately simulates the way light reflects from actual hair fibers. For example, because the whole fiber is made of a pigmented semi-transparent material, it not only scatters light from the surface to form a white highlight (below, left) but also reflects color from within as a secondary highlight or glow (middle). Also, because the surface of a hair fiber is covered by microscopic scales that overlap like roof shingles, the light reflected from the inside emerges in a different direction than the surface reflection, so that the two highlights are separated and easy to see. Finally, because hair fibers have elliptical rath-er than circular cross sections, they focus internal reflections in such a way as to produce caustics or "glints" that add texture to hair and make it sparkle and glitter (right). The researchers point out that their analysis applies to many kinds of transparent fibers and, therefore, has implications for rendering animal hair, synthetic hair, fur, and cloth. —Phil LoPiccolo











Images copyrighted by and reprinted with permission from ACM SIGGRAPH and Steve Marschner.







MARKET OUTLOOK

Roughly 40 percent of all visual effects/dynamic media studios in the US cited previsualization among the top tasks that they perform, according to a survey from TrendWatch. This figure has risen five percent during the past six months. Previs work is more prevalent in larger facilities. Two-thirds of studios having more than 50 employees report that previs is among their major tasks, whereas 40 percent of studios with between five and nine employees use the technique. Among studios working exclusively on effects and animation, 90 percent with 10 or more employees now use previs. —Jim Whittington, principal, TrendWatch Inc.









NEWS

Nokia (Irving, TX) has introduced the N-Gage Arena service, a worldwide virtual community for gamers to play, share, and compete online via the Nokia N-Gage mobile game deck. GameSpy (Irvine, CA) also has launched a new section of its Web site (www.gamespy.com/ngage) dedicated to Nokia N-Gage. The ManyOne Network (San Mateo, CA) has signed a licensing agreement with GeoFusion Inc., maker of the GeoMatrix Toolkit, to incorporate GeoMatrix photorealistic visualization technology into the ManyOne Universal 3D Web browser. ManyOne provides an online environment where developers can build and publish Web-based 3D visual content, and GeoMatrix technology assists developers in the creation of interactive and realistic digital Earth and world-based applications. ATI Technologies Inc. (Markham, Canada) has announced the availability of its FireGL graphics accelerators on Pentium 4/Xeon-based workstations from Hewlett-Packard. Additionally, the company has entered into an agreement with Microsoft to develop custom graphics technologies for future Xbox products and services. For his contributions to the art of filmmaking, Michael Chapman has been awarded the American Society of Cinematographers Lifetime Achievement Award.
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