Issue: Volume: 25 Issue: 4 (April 2002)

Softimage|XSI Version 2.0

By George Maestri

Softimage|XSI, released a little more than a year ago, represented a complete rewrite of Softimage|3D, the venerable 3D modeling, animation, and rendering suite. The initial version of XSI had promise, and the subsequent release of Version 1.5 extended the new architecture to include polygonal modeling tools. Version 2.0 adds a large number of features, including an integrated compositor, which brings Soft image to the front of the pack in terms of features, usability, and performance.

On the surface, Version 2.0's interface looks the same as that of previous versions, with toolbars along the right and left side of the viewports, as well as a menu bar running along the top. But the menu bar has been expanded, and now includes most of the tools from the toolbars. One interface enhancement has been cryptically dubbed Synoptic View. A Synoptic view is a way to create custom interfaces using HTML. Animators might attach a Synoptic View to a character's hand, for example. Bringing up the view might show the animator a menu of hand poses, from which he or she could quickly select.

Since Computer Graphics World's review of Version 1.0, the software has gained a complete subdivision surface system, in addition to the polygonal modeling tools. The fact that Softimage has not updated its NURBS modeler since the initial release demonstrates the company's emphasis on subdivision surfaces.

Other enhancements include new animation features. Enveloping has been improved to include deformers that allow you to sculpt a mesh's deformation based on the angle of a joint. XSI now has a spline-based IK system, which is terrific for long chains of joints, such as backbones or tails.
Softimage|XSI's new compositing module lets users combine images within the 3D authoring environment.

One nice addition is a series of customizable rigs for two-legged characters. You simply load the base skeleton and fit it to your character's mesh, click a button, and the skeleton automatically configures itself. I haven't seen this feature in other packages, outside of Discreet's character studio. It saves lots of time compared to building the skeleton from scratch.

One of the more interesting new features is an integrated compositor, which allows most compositing chores to be done within XSI. The compositor operates in a viewport, where the interface resembles that of other object-oriented compositing programs. The compositor features more than 100 film-quality effects and transitions. Images, clips, and renders are imported to the interface, where effects and transitions can be added to create a composite network. The compositing module works well enough to be used for everything from test composites to final output. Its tight integration with the main package also allows compositing functions to show up in unexpected places: A texture or a bump map can be the output of a composite, for example, and Softimage's expressions can be used with the compositor to calculate such factors as depth of field for added rendering speed.

Softimage has always been an excellent environment for animating characters. The addition of the new Hair and Fur tool updates the package to create more complex and realistic looking characters. Version 2.0's hair and fur tools set themselves apart from most of the competition in that they perform true dynamic simulation on hair. This allows hair to interact with other objects in the scene, as well as with natural forces such as wind. While many hair plug-ins can create only short, furry hairstyles, XSI's Hair and Fur makes longer styles possible. For creating just the right look, the toolkit also allows artists to color, cut, and style a character's hair.

Rendering and texturing has also been improved. The software ships with mental ray 3.0, which promises significant speed improvements. Version 2.0 also has the ability to project multiple UV maps on an object, allowing each map to have its own coordinates. There's also a new texture tool for healing, which matches up edges of different maps on an object, allowing for smooth transitions between textures.

Softimage|XSI has come a long way in a relatively short time. The incorporation of so many features since the software's re cent introduction is typical for packages that have undergone a complete rewrite. With the new architecture finished, programmers are free to add features quickly. The integrated compositor, for example, makes Version 2.0 an excellent start-to-finish solution for character animation and effects. The new version can certainly can hold its own against any package on the market.

George Maestri is a writer and animator living in Los Angeles.

Softimage 2.0
Price: Not available
Minimum System Requirements: Windows NT/2000 or Red Hat Linux 7.1: AMD K7 or Pentium II processor; 256MB of RAM. Irix 6.5.14; SGI Octane 200MHz with MIPS R12000; 256MB of RAM.