Spotlight - 11/03
Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 11 (November 2003)

Spotlight - 11/03

Canopus has released its DVStorm2 Ultra Bundle, a suite of software solutions designed for professional video production. Combining video and audio editing, video production, and DVD authoring in a single offering, Canopus's new bundle includes not only the company's DVStorm2 real-time editing tool and Storm Bay breakout box, but also Adobe Systems' Premiere Pro, Audition, and Encore applications.

One of the first Adobe Premiere Pro-certified editing solutions available, the DVStorm2 plug-in enables users to preview and output native Premiere Pro effects and Canopus effects simultaneously in real time. DVStorm2 delivers multi-track editing via unlimited title and graphics layers and the support of five simultaneous real-time video streams. Meeting the video editor's need for MPEG capabilities, the company built its StormEncoder real-time MPEG hardware-encoding module directly into the product.

The DVStorm2 Ultra Bundle carries a suggested retail price of $1299. —Courtney E. Howard



Maxon Computer has announced the availability of BodyPaint 3D Release 2, developed with input from the award-winning special effects team at Sony Pictures Imageworks.

With the goal of supplying users fast and easy-to-use tools, Release 2 of the company's popular 3D texturing application offers Projection Paint-ing for painting textures on 3D models without the appearance of UV seams. An all-new Paint Setup Wizard, as well as support for Adobe Systems' Photoshop and Photoshop-compatible filters, OpenGL, and Wacom pressure-sensitive graphics tablets, lend to an accelerated and more efficient work flow.

Available for Discreet's 3ds max 4 or 5, Alias Systems' Maya 5, and NewTek's LightWave 3D 7.5 on Windows and Macintosh operating systems, BodyPaint 3D Release 2 carries a $695 price tag when shipped with a printed reference manual, and $645 when accompanied by an electronic (PDF) version of the manual. —CEH

Maxon Computer;


Kaydara has upgraded its professional 3D character animation solution, MotionBuilder, to Version 5.

Among the features new to MotionBuilder Version 5 are a built-in clipart library, expanded file format support thanks to Kaydara FBX, and drag-and-drop functionality. A new story timeline marries an array of editing controls with independent shot, standard animation, character, camera, digital video, digital audio, constraint, and command tracks to help speed the animation process.

Productivity enhancements in the latest version include customizable shortcuts, improved F-curve and property editors, and multiple undo. MotionBuilder 5's photorealistic, real-time rendering engine takes advantage of OpenGL and Nvidia technologies. The upgraded version also boasts added support for quadruped characters, finger and toe controls, additional neck-bone controls, squash and stretch, and more.

Kaydara MotionBuilder 5 is available for Windows 2000 and XP or Mac OS 10.2 and higher operating systems at a cost of $995. A Professional Version, priced at $4195, adds a software development kit, support for advanced motion-capture editing tools, and integration with asset management systems. In fact, Kaydara also announced the recent addition of NXN alienbrain asset management functionality to MotionBuilder 5 Professional. —CEH



Maxtor has debuted next-generation hard disk drives with the introduction of its Maxtor OneTouch product line. The Maxtor OneTouch is, in fact, reportedly the first push-button backup and restore hard drive-based solution on the market.

Maxtor's new external storage solutions implement the company's award-winning, illuminated OneTouch button for effortless use. The OneTouch button can be customized to auto-launch applications or create instant or automatic backup copies of files.

Housed within an anodized aluminum casing suitable for horizontal or vertical use, the Maxtor OneTouch boasts plug-and-play capabilities, Dantz Retrospect Express software and system-restore capability for disaster recovery, and more.

Maxtor offers the OneTouch drive in capacities and prices ranging from 120gb at $199.95 to 300gb for $399.95. The company also markets a Mac-formatted version of the product, the 250gb/7200 RPM OneTouch, for $349.95. —CEH



Interactive Data Visualization has employed its SpeedTree family of tree and plant creation software in the development of a new environment, The Valley. The latest addition to the com-pany's Web site, The Valley is a photo-quality demonstration of its tree and grass technologies. Open to all visitors, The Valley is populated with trees, plants, and grass to help demonstrate the advanced detail, realism, and presentation algorithms possible in future gaming worlds. Interactive Data Visualization anticipates shipping the latest version of SpeedTreeRT, complete with such new features as bark bump mapping and multiple shadowing effects, before the end of the year. —CEH

Interactive Data Visualization;


When Ra Productions (Dunedin, New Zealand) was approached to create several minutes of computer graphics for Animal Planet's "The Most Extreme" series, its animators jumped at the opportunity. As a result of their efforts, the studio was duly rewarded this fall when its "The Most Extreme Jumpers" episode received a News and Documentary Emmy Award nomination in the Graphic and Artistic Design category. Moreover, a character animation script that one of the artists created for the project has since been developed into a commercial plug-in that is receiving accolades from beta-testers.

"The Most Extreme," a 13-part series produced by NHNZ in association with Discovery Channel's Animal Planet, highlights outrageous behavior and physical abilities of various animal species. The episodes focus on the natural history and science that helped produce these "stars" of the wild, yet nearly 10 minutes of every show includes realistic CG and animation to help in the storytelling process.

In "Jumpers," which was the first episode, the team used computer graphics to illustrate the extreme jumping abilities of frogs, rabbits, and fleas. "We used the graphics to illustrate that which isn't possible through film techniques," notes Philip Taylor, lead animator. "Most of the shows also use a digital human to demonstrate how a real person would perform a certain feat if he or she were the specified animal. For instance, if you were a flea, you could jump over two Empire State Buildings stacked on top of each other, all in a single bound."

Artists created a complex rigging system for the "Jumpers" characters, allowing for a range of realistic motion. Conversely, they applied a simple green texture to the models in accordance with the show's style.

Ra Productions not only designed "Jumpers," but also produced all the graphics. Nearly all the 3D animation involved characters—a man, woman, and child, in addition to seven different animals. Furthermore, all the models except for the 3D man were completed in two weeks by one person: Taylor.

Taylor accomplished the modeling in Discreet's 3ds max, in most instances within a day for each character. The complex character rigging systems, he notes, had to accommodate a wide range of realistic walk, hop, jump, and run cycles for an equally diverse set of characters. So as not to waste precious time, he used 3ds max's Meshsmooth modifier feature for rendering animatics, thereby ensuring that the animation was correct before committing to a full render using the software's default scanline renderer. Compositing was done in eyeon Software's Digital Fusion running on an SGI Zx10 with a DPS Velocity video drive.

In addition, Taylor scripted various tools to assist in the creation of the walk cycles and freeform animation, which he has since developed into a commercially available plug-in, called Character Animation Toolkit (CAT), released last month. "I used MAXScript to develop some crazy algorithms for automating the creation of my characters' walk cycles," he says, "and I wrote my own IK system for the IK/FK blending, and a layered animation system to enhance my work flow."

In fact, Taylor left Ra Productions once it became evident that what he had scripted indeed had commercial potential. He then dedicated himself full-time to producing the plug-in. Taylor rewrote the CAT system in C++ and enhanced it to support a fully customizable rig that's not limited to a specific number of limbs. The tool also includes a parametric walk-cycle generator, IK tools with fully accessible keys for freeform animation, motion-capture file import/export functionality, retargeting and editing capabilities, a non-linear animation editor, and more. "The plug-in will be useful to animators from within film production to game development—anyone who has his or her own 'Most Extremes' to deal with."

Among CAT's leading industry beta-testers are Blur Studios, Bioware, and Digital Dimension. "As animators, we always are looking for ways to create large amounts of motion quickly," says Digital Dimension's Justin Mitchell. "The days of keyframing every detail of a walk cycle are numbered. CAT allows us to create realistic motion quickly and in an intuitive and procedural paradigm." —Karen Moltenbrey

KEY TOOLS: 3ds max, Discreet;
Character Animation Toolkit, Character Animation Technologies


One of the big drawbacks to using electronic mail is that the communication process is impersonal. Now, however, some e-mail users can attach a "face" to their e-mail "names."

Internet provider America Online is enabling subscribers to get animated with their messaging through its newest offering, SuperBuddy icons. This feature augments the provider's exclusive Instant Messaging capability, with which subscribers can e-mail their "buddies," and if the recipient (also an AOL subscriber) is online at the time, the message will instantly pop up on the person's computer screen.

A unique feature in the latest version of AOL, 9.0 Optimized, the SuperBuddy icons become 3D computer-animated characters that bring life to instant messaging through color, motion, sound, and humor. These unique icons translate common Internet chat abbreviations and phrases into personality-driven character animations on the recipient's screen. For example, as a member types "LOL," an e-mail abbreviation for "laugh out loud," a character may act out the acronym by laughing with comical gestures or expressions; by typing "zzz," another character may fall asleep in dramatic flourish.

More than just animated GIFs, the SuperBuddies are mini applications with built-in behaviors that respond to real-time input. Each icon has its own unique personality that includes 21 animations that respond to more than 50 text and smiley triggers. A SuperBuddy icon even will continue animating while the user's messaging function is idle.

While these are the faces that can be used for chatting, the actual "face" behind this technology is Viewpoint. Buddies of sorts themselves, Viewpoint and AOL have collaborated in the past, when AOL began shipping Viewpoint's Media Player technology, allowing for high-quality graphics on both narrowband and broadband applications. To create the SuperBuddies, the artists first conceptualized the imagery in Macromedia's Flash. Second, they generated the 3D assets, including the modeling, morph targets, and animation, with Alias Systems' Maya. Last, the group exported the content to Viewpoint Technology for publication on the Web.

According to Viewpoint's vice president Russell Kern, designing an image with personality while adhering to a small file size (required to fit within the application's 48x48-pixel viewable window) was quite a challenge.

To achieve this, the group exaggerated many of the character expressions to give them more compelling visual impact in the limited space.

AOL is planning to create more than 100 characters, from animals to people to funny objects, with different moods, personalities, and traits. These include Walrus, which has a strong, deep voice that's tinged with a lisp because of his long tusks, and Bug, which has chronic allergies and a high-pitched nasal voice.

In addition, AOL recently introduced two special icons—Ben Stiller, star of the upcoming movie Starsky and Hutch, and Star Jones, a host of ABC's The View. Other celebrity additions are expected to be rolled out in the future. —KM

KEY TOOLS: Viewpoint Technology, Viewpoint;
Maya, Alias Systems


Techniques abound for matting objects from film or video sequences and compositing them into other scenes. Some entail matting images filmed against a blue- or greenscreen, or use manual rotoscoping to prepare the images for compositing into other settings, while newer methods transfer mattes directly from one natural background to another.

But despite advances in working with objects in a scene, relatively little progress has been made in matting and compositing the shadows cast by those objects. In fact, complex shadows typically must be created by hand or extracted from bluescreen plates and manually placed in the desired location.

Images copyrighted by and reprinted with permission from ACM and the University of Washington.

Recently, researchers at the University of Washington, Microsoft Research, and Industrial Light & Magic have unveiled a new physically based technique for extracting shadows from natural scenes and inserting them into others. The new method, which can capture simple shadows from foreground objects in one setting and alter their shape according to the backgrounds they fall onto in another, accurately conveys important visual cues about the imagery. As a result, it lends greater realism to the final scene.

As shown in the accompanying images, to demonstrate the new method, the researchers filmed an outdoor scene of an actor and his shadow. They extracted mattes of the actor using video matting techniques, then extracted mattes of the shadow using a new shadow compositing equation, and composited the two elements over a new background. Because the shadow did not conform to the background geometry, they computed line equations of a shadow from a straight rod that was manually scanned across the tree, and used these to compute a displacement map to distort the actor's shadow to the correct shape.

Although the researchers believe the technique represents a big step forward, they see areas for further improvement. Foremost among these would be interactive editing tools for adjusting shadow shape and direction, which would be useful when the lighting or the reference planes do not correspond properly between the source and target scenes. —Phil LoPiccolo


A leader in haptic feedback technology, Immersion (San Jose, CA) announced the settlement of a lawsuit the company filed against Microsoft in February 2002. According to the agreement, Microsoft will license Immersion's haptic patent portfolio in exchange for cash payments of up to $35 million. Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI; Mountain View, CA) has joined Discreet's infrastructure sparks partner program. As a result, the two companies will work together to qualify elements of SGI's InfiniteStructure system, including the SGI SAN Server and SGI CXFS file system, to work with various Discreet software products. For its work on the now-canceled TV series Firefly, digital effects and animation production house Zoic Studios (Los Angeles) was awarded the Emmy for Outstanding Special Visual Effects for a Series. Zoic Studios employed Discreet's flame to composite previz, live-action photography, and 3D animation for the award-winning series. Nvidia (Santa Clara, CA) announced that its GeForce FX 5200 Ultra and GeForce4 MX graphics processing units are powering Apple's newest iMac. Maxon Computer (Newbury Park, CA) revealed that Sony Pictures Imageworks has incorporated its BodyPaint 3D software, designed for painting and texturing 3D elements, into its animation and effects production pipeline.