Issue: Volume: 25 Issue: 1 (January 2002)

Layer by Layer

By Audrey Doyle

As audiences' appetites for 3D imagery in films and television continue to grow, production deadlines continue to shrink, while at the same time, the cost of creating digital effects remains expensive. Having access to 3D tools from within 2D desktop compositing software can expedite the necessary post-production processes, and make it easier for artists to get their jobs done.

Many of today's desktop compositing software vendors are responding to this need for combined technologies by integrating 3D tools with their products. Want to composite rendered images in XYZ space while interacting with lights, shadows, and cameras? You can do so in Discreet's combustion and Adobe Systems' After Effects. Need to add a particle system to your project but don't have time to send it back to the 3D artist? Now you can create a 2D particle system moving through a 3D space directly from within Eyeon Soft ware's Digital Fusion, and render it there, too. How about seeing all your layers at once and interacting with them in the final composite, without having to add new operations? Silicon Grail's Rayz offers that capability, and more. The list goes on.

These are positive advances, but they do pose some questions. What will all this integration mean for compositors down the road? Will they stop specializing in their craft and instead try to excel at 3D modeling, animation, and effects creation as well? Or will it eventually create artists who are jacks of all trades but masters of none? Vendors say neither scenario is likely. Rather, by offering such 3D tools, vendors are enabling compositing and 3D artists to continue concentrating on the tasks they do best, with the as surance that the imagery they create, enhance, and composite will move freely through a streamlined post-production pipeline.
Programs such as Discreet's combustion, a desktop compositing application that includes some 3D content tools, are blurring the traditional lines between compositing and animation tasks.
(Image courtesy Discreet.)

The increased focus on 2D/3D integration is occurring now because compositing software, along with the role of the compositor, has matured.

"Until a few years ago, compositing software was young, with room to grow; so, vendors spent their time improving the traditional compositing tools in their applications," says Jean-Luc Bouchard, director of marketing at Nothing Real. Such traditional tools include color correction, image tracking, rotoscoping, matting, and chroma keying, among others. Vendors also worked to improve the speed of their software. And some, including Nothing Real and Discreet, began offering compositors the ability to use 3D rendering data such as Z-based blurs, layering, and defocus to further expedite and facilitate post production.

"People are realizing that it makes sense to give compositors more control over a project than what they've had in the past," says Craig Zerouni, product manager at Silicon Grail. "Traditionally, compositing wasn't thought of until the end of the project, when the 3D and 2D elements were to be combined. But if even minor changes had to be made to a 3D element, the project had to go back to the 3D artist for manipulation and rendering before being composited again.
Los Angeles-based studio Wideopenspaces created this composited scene with Adobe Systems' After Effects. The project was begun for a commercial client, but proved so challenging that the studio decided to make it a long-term in-house experiment instea

But why enhance the compositing applications? Why not add more compositing functionality to 3D programs? To be sure, most major 3D modeling and animation packages today come with embedded compositing tools. However, many users want an application designed specifically for compositing.

"Compositing isn't just about adding layers on top of each other," says Isaac Guenard, Digital Fusion product manager. "It's also about stabilizing footage, rotoscoping, masking, image tracking, and color correction. These tools-and skills-take a long time to perfect." In addition to the depth of tools in compositing systems, other factors in their favor include simpler user interfaces than those in most high-end 3D programs, and the ability to handle live-action footage.

The issue comes down to the focus of the toolset, states Bouchard. "Products designed for 3D modeling and animation are focused on those areas first and foremost. That's their core strength."

So, instead of expecting all their users to composite shots in their software, most 3D vendors offer a choice. NewTek's Light Wave modeling and animation package, for instance, comes with both compositing tools and tools for exporting images to be composited in applications including Digital Fusion and After Effects.

The same is true for Side Effects Software's Houdini. "Although we believe in providing an integrated 3D modeling, animation, rendering, and compositing solution, we also believe in protecting people's investments in other products and in the skills [they've honed using those products]," says Tony Cristiano, general manager at Side Effects Software US. Nothing Real's Shake and Silicon Grail's Chalice are the two primary desktop compositing programs that Houdini supports, but the software also works with packages such as Digital Fusion and After Effects.
The new 3D Particle Suite in Eyeon Software's Digital Fusion 3.1 allows compositors to work more easily with 2D particle effects (such as rocket trails) in 3D space.
(Image courtesy Eyeon Software.)

Choice is also the focus at Alias|Wavefront, which used to offer Maya users two pro ducts for compositing: Maya Composer and Maya Fusion. Earlier this year, the company stopped developing those products and began focusing on making Maya compatible with as many compositing systems as possible. "Our customers tell us that as compositing becomes more prevalent in their pipelines, they want us to invest in integration with [third-party compositing] applications rather than trying to solve all their production needs within Maya," says product manager Shai Hinitz. Although the company will continue supporting Composer and Maya Fusion through December 2002, it's now providing a migration path for those customers to various dedicated compositing programs.

Even Avid is letting users choose between the fully integrated 8-, 16-, and 32-bit-per-component compositing system in its new Softimage|XSI 2 nonlinear animation system, and a program from an outside vendor. "In the past we've offered separate compositing-Avid Illu sion and Softimage Eddie," says XSI product manager Michael Smith. "With XSI 2, this is the first time we're offering compositing integrated within XSI.

According to Smith, XSI 2 will appeal primarily to 3D artists who want compositing functionality at their fingertips. "Our focus has always been on 3D, so we suspect most people will purchase XSI 2 for the 3D capability," he says.

Nevertheless, he claims that the compositor-which has its roots in Avid's Illusion and Eddie systems-offers most of the functionality of standalone systems, including resolution independence, the ability to composite an unlimited number of layers, and strong plug-in support. It also features more than 100 film-quality effects (8-, 16-, and 32-bit); and it performs pixel parsing, which allows the 3D information in XSI to control the pixel values in a layer-for example, to automatically control color, intensity, and blur values based on expressions.

"You can do final compositing in XSI," Smith claims. "But to protect users' investments in other software, XSI supports most file formats, so people can use XSI with most any desktop compositing system they want." Softimage|XSI 2 with compositing sells for $12,000 and runs on Windows NT/2000, Linux, and SGI Irix platforms.

It's clear that vendors in both camps support the idea of integrating 2D and 3D tools to improve workflow. Here's what some of the major compositing vendors are highlighting as capabilities that facilitate this.

As noted earlier, Eyeon's Digital Fusion now offers an integrated particle system. "You want to do your particles in 2D rather than 3D because it's faster to create simple particles, such as rain and fog, in 2D," says Guenard. "Even though it's 2D, the particle system in Fusion can be adjusted to match the same coordinate space as in a rendered 3D clip. This means the compositor can add 3D fog or rain to a scene in Fusion accurately because the particles making up the fog or rain are in the same coordinate space as the scene."

Fusion includes a text tool for creating 3D logo treatments. And it features 3D depth tools that use the Z buffer data, normals, UV texture coordinates, object tags, and coverage maps produced in most 3D animation programs so that users can create depth-of-field blur, fog, shading, lighting, and texturing in Digital Fusion. "More and more we're seeing 3D companies providing us with better information about the rendered 3D elements their software produces," says Guenard. "Having access to that data provides more flexibility and control to compositors." Digital Fusion starts at $5000 and runs under Windows NT/2000.

In Version 1.2 of Rayz, Silicon Grail added a morphing and warping tool. "We did this because effects artists use invisible morphs all the time to, for example, repair a clip if it's missing frames," Zerouni says. "With this feature, you can solve that problem in Rayz without having to hunt for and then use a specialized package."
AIST is an editing software vendor who has started incorporating 3D modeling and animation tools into its product line. AIST's Movie3D, for example, offers modeling and subdivision surfaces.
(Image courtesy AIST.)

In addition to morphing and warping, Rayz now supports the multipass rendering feature in Maya and Softimage|XSI. "We wrote scripts for Maya and XSI that allow a multipass render to generate not just the image layers, but also a controlling Rayz file that, when opened, arranges all the rendered layers in the correct relationship to each other," says Zerouni. The artist can then continue tweaking the colors, lighting, and so on of those layers independently." Rayz also features Cineon grain tools and CineSpeed, a clip re-timing tool. It also allows users to write short scripts to process image sequences. Rayz runs on Linux, Windows NT/2000, and SGI Irix/Irix64. A permanent license sells for $9900.

With After Effects 5.0, Adobe introduced the option of working in a 3D compositing environment, complete with 3D cameras and lights. The recently released Version 5.5 builds on that impetus by providing features developed especially for users of 3ds max and Maya. "Many of our users like the flexibility of choosing to work in 2D or 3D," says After Effects senior product manager Steve Kilisky. "Sometimes they want to work faster, so they choose 2D, where fewer calculations are involved and the interface is simpler." Also new in After Effects are parenting controls that let users animate footage, lights, and camera layers hierarchically. "Because compositions frequently have multiple layers that share behaviors, the ability to inherit behavior from a parent layer can save a lot of time," he says.

The Mac/Windows software comes in a Standard version ($649) that provides core 2D/3D compositing and effects tools, and in a Production Bundle ($1499) that adds additional keying, motion control, distortion tools, audio effects, 3D channel effects, 16-bit-per-channel color, vector paint tools, and support for network rendering.

After Effects' open architecture has led to the development of some new third-party plug-ins that further integrate 2D and 3D. For instance, Conoa's Mondo enables users to import 3D geometric primitives into After Effects and combine them to form objects. In beta at press time, Mondo supports reflections, area lights, soft shadows, alpha channels, and 3D cameras inside After Effects. Also taking advantage of the lights and cameras inside After Effects is Zaxwerks' Invigorator. Says Kilisky, "Invigorator, which focuses on 3D typography, was limited to using its own lights and camera system. But with the next version, you'll be able to create 3D flying logos and other type treatments inside our environment instead of working in Invigorator and jumping back and forth." Zaxwerks is also working on another version that will enable users to import and export 3D models from major animation packages and animate them inside After Effects.

Discreet product manager Howard Gutstadt states that the architecture of the company's combustion program adds flexibility to desktop compositing by providing a unified workflow for painting, animation, and compositing in the same program. "Combustion 1 provided a 3D compositing environment with a raytraced lighting engine and animatable camera," Gutstadt says. "In Combustion 2, we've increased the depth of tools, the production quality, and the speed in which visual effects can be created on the desktop."

For instance, the software supports new multiformat project capabilities for video, HDTV, and film using 64-bit color processing and the Cineon file format. It includes a Schematic View that facilitates the creation of visual effects, an integrated 2D particle system, interactive text and motion graphics, film tools, and garbage masking technology compatible with Discreet's inferno, flame, and flint online effects systems. "Also, using 3ds max's RPF Rich Pixel For mat and optimized Ren der Elements workflow with combustion, artists can create effects that combine 3D animation and compositing techniques," Gutstadt says.

Combustion 2 features a new client/server network renderer based on technology in 3ds max. "Because of Com bustion's workflow integration with 3ds max, 3D animators, especially in small shops that don't have a compositing department, are now compositing inside combustion," Gutstadt says. Combustion 2 runs on Mac and Windows and costs $3495.

Meanwhile, scheduled to ship in the first quarter of this year are the next versions of Nothing Real's Shake and Tremor, which the company's Bouchard says will feature a 3D compositing environment in which individual layers can float anywhere in 3D space. The environment will also come with multiple virtual cameras, so users can navigate throughout the 3D environment. "And although we currently offer 2D tracking in Shake and Tremor, with Shake 2.5 and Tremor 1.5 you'll be able to do 3D tracking," Bouchard says. "You'll be able to load data from 3D tracking programs like 2d3's Boujou or RealViz's MatchMover, and re-create the camera move that came from the 3D application, or from tracking existing footage."
Discreet's combustion desktop compositing program features a node-based interface that allows for thumbnails, source footage, paint layers, and composite images to be shown in schematic view.
(Image courtesy Discreet. Content courtesy Matter in Mot

Both products offer vector-based procedural paint, so compositors can perform minor paint fixes themselves rather than send the project to a high-end paint suite. They can automatically handle 8-, 16-, and 32-bit depths and Web, 601, HDTV, film, and Imax resolutions within the same project. And they feature third-party plug-in support from vendors including The Foundry, Ultimatte, and RE:Vision Effects. Because the programs are script-based, compositors can globally adjust items like texture maps by writing a script that modifies all necessary elements simultaneously. Shake sells for $9900 and runs on Windows NT/2000, Linux, SGI Irix, and, soon, Mac OS X. A turnkey system featuring 90 minutes of video-resolution, background rendering, and real-time I/O cards, Tremor runs on Hewlett-Packard and Windows 2000 workstations and starts at $75,000.

All told, it appears that the quest to provide a streamlined workflow between 2D and 3D is on its way to becoming a reality. "What we see today in terms of vendors integrating 2D and 3D are the first steps toward what we'll see down the road," says Eyeon's Guenard. "Eventually, compositing programs will be able to load the actual 3D scene, rather than the rendered version of the scene, and perhaps even provide much of the rendering functionality of today's 3D programs," he predicts.

"The important thing to take out of all this is that the compositor should be able to do certain things in the 3D world to expedite workflow, but none of us is looking to replace 3D artists," concludes Nothing Real's Bouchard. "Rather, we're looking to take some of the burden off of the 3D artist so that the workflow will be smoother and faster, and the results will be a lot more transparent."

Audrey Doyle is a freelance writer based in the Boston area. She can be reached at

At least one company serving the video-editing market also is focused on improving the workflow between 2D and 3D. "The line between editing and compositing has blurred. Especially from the editor's side, that line is all but obliterated," comments Tim Wilson, director of marketing at Boris. "That's the direction we've been coming from: to bring compositing power into the hands of nonlinear editors."

Toward that end, Boris's Red combines compositing, titling, motion tracking, paint and rotoscoping, 3D modeling and animation, and DVE technology. Designed to be integrated into nonlinear editing environments including Adobe Premiere, Apple Final Cut Pro, and Media 100i and iFinish, among others, Red can be used as a standalone compositor. A new version, 2.1, now shipping for $1995, features faster 3D rendering, improved motion tracking, better Flash Export, and enhancements that provide faster screen redraws during effects creation.

Wilson says Boris will offer its 2D toolset to 3D artists. "Because our direction was to blur the lines from 2D composition and video editing into 3D, we haven't been as sensitive to the needs of 3D artists who have to converge back the other way," he says. "But we see this as a trend, and it's something we want to offer more of." According to Wilson, this most likely will be a 2002 project. -AD

Adobe Systems ·
Alias|Wavefront ·
Avid ·
Discreet ·
Eyeon Software ·
NewTek ·
Nothing Real ·
Side Effects Software ·
Silicon Grail ·