Nvidia Intro GeForce FX Line
Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 3 (March 2003)

Nvidia Intro GeForce FX Line

Nvidia has announced two new graphics boards based on its NV30GL GPU. The Quadro FX 1000 and Quadro FX 2000 are designed for the high-end segment of the workstation market. Both cards are measurably speedier than Nvidia's previous best performer, the Quadro4 980 XGL, with the FX 2000 running SPEC viewperf benchmarks more than two times faster than the 980.

In addition to fast performance, both cards offer pixel- and vertex-level programmability, as well as graphics precision—including 128-bit floating-point frame buffer color, 12-bit sub-pixel precision, and 16X sampling for full-scene antialiasing—unified drivers, and a host of third-party software certifications that ensure the cards are optimized to run with major design and DCC packages. These features translate to faster application performance for graphics professionals. An artist working in film production, for example, should discover that lighting, textures, and other special effects being done in real time will run faster. In addition, the FX cards enable real-time rendering so that artists can see what their work will look like before sending it to the off-line rendering portion of the production pipeline.

The Quadro 1000 is a single-slot card that costs approximately $1300. The Quadro FX 2000 requires two slots due to the cooling apparatus mounted on the card and costs approximately $2000. A genlock/framelock option in the form of a daughterboard will be available for the FX 2000 later this year. —Jenny Donelan

Nvidia; www.nvidia.com

Photo courtesy of Nvidia

products compositing

Discreet has introduced Version 2.1 of combustion, the company's unified paint, animation, and 3D compositing software for motion graphic designers, animators, and visual effects artists. The package is designed to provide resolution-independent tools for multi-format work, including video, HDTV, Web, and film projects.

Major features of combustion 2.1 include workspace and timeline views, motion tracking, garbage masks, a fully integrated, vector-based paint system, network rendering, and an integrated 2D particle system. Version 2.1 represents an incremental upgrade to Version 2.0. The need for hardware dongles has been eliminated and added features include bug fixes and performance speed improvements. With Version 2.1, Discreet has also greatly reduced the price to below the $1000 mark. (Combustion used to cost $4995.) Combustion 2.1 runs on Windows NT/2000/XP and Mac OS 9 and X systems and integrates with other Discreet products such as 3ds max, inferno, and flame. The price is $995. —JD

Discreet; www.discreet.com

Image courtesy of Discreet

products image editing

Mokey from Imagineer Systems is a motion-keying tool for video and film applications that separates foreground objects and removes unwanted objects from moving footage without requiring artists to use keying or hand painting techniques.

Version 2.1 represents the company's first offering for the Mac (OS X) platform, but also comes with a significant new feature, EdgeTrack, which will make it easier for artists to track non-rigid objects in footage. EdgeTrack does so by automatically adjusting the shape of the splines to follow the object being tracked, thereby significantly reducing the amount of interaction required during tracking.

Mokey 2.1 costs $9950, or $4995 for a Studio Edition. A rental version will also be made available for OS X users. The software also runs on Windows NT/2000/XP, Irix, and Linux systems. —JD

Imagineer Systems;www.imagineersystems.com

Images courtesy of Imagineer Systems

products modeling and animation

Pixels 3D is a low-cost ($399) 3D modeling and animation program for Macintosh users from Pixels Digital. The latest version, 4.5, adds a number of new features, including global illumination, area lights, and RigMaker and LogoMaker. RigMaker upgrades the IK capability of the program, making it more powerful and easier to use. LogoMaker enables users to create sharp, beveled text elements for flying logos, broadcast images, and so forth.

Version 4.5 also comes with new shader nodes, including cell noise, weave, wave, blur, and color transform; new modifiers to enable users to shape and manipulate objects; and new import/export options. The program now handles LWO, OBJ, DXF, 3DS, and RIB file formats. Another new feature is Quick Render, which allows artists to view textures, lighting, and many other features of a scene at any point of the production pipeline, without having to step through final rendering, and ambient occlusion.

Pixels 3D 4.5 runs on Mac OS X. A version for OS 9 is pending. —JD

Pixels Digital;www.pixels.net

Image courtesy of Pixels Digital

products rendering

AIR 2.2 is the latest version of SiTex Graphics' 3D rendering program for applications including architectural visualization, industrial design, advertising, and digital content creation for television and film. Major new features include multithreading on Windows platforms, which will allow users to take advantage of multiple processors without running multiple instances of the renderer, and a new tiled rendering architecture. This architecture enables control over the order in which frames are rendered, so that large, memory-intensive scenes can be handled in an order that doesn't exhaust available memory.

SiTex has also released BakeAIR, an add-on for AIR that renders or "bakes" shading, lighting, and geometric scene information into texture maps for accelerated rendering.

Both AIR and BakeAIR run on Windows and Linux platforms. Costs vary according to number of licenses purchased; one AIR license is $375. The BakeAIR add-on is $300. —JD

SiTex Graphics;www.sitexgraphics.com

Image courtesy of Haggi Krey

user focus film

Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki has captivated audiences around the world with his highly illustrative animation style in such acclaimed films as My Neighbor Totoro and Princess Mononoke (March 2000, pg. 34). Recently, Walt Disney Studios brought the newest creation from Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli to US audiences at select theaters.

Spirited Away, Japan's top-grossing film of all time, is an anime-style fantasy/adventure that follows the exploits of a 10-year-old girl named Chihiro, who stumbles upon a secret, parallel world after she and her family become lost during an outing.

The 130-minute "cartoon" takes place in contemporary Japan, and is filled with strange-looking creatures and nature spirits, similar to those in Princess Mononoke. The majority of the imagery, with its naturalistic details and vibrant watercolors, was hand-illustrated and digitally inked and painted. In some instances, though, Miyazaki augmented the 2D artwork with 3D CGI.

The 3D imagery is conservatively sprinkled throughout the film to achieve specific effects. In most instances, it was used for generating water, taking advantage of the medium's reflectivity and shading capabilities. Yet, the water in Spirited Away is depicted in many different ways, notes Atsushi Okui, director of images. Depending on the style that suited each sequence, the water sometimes has a cel look, while in other instances its appearance is more photoreal.

In one scene, the sludge-immersed River Spirit spews garbage into the air, then leaps from the cel-like water. To create this explosive sequence, the artists layered 3D objects, generated with Avid's Softimage, onto 2D backgrounds. Conversely, in a view from a train window, Chihiro gazes at an islet, generated as photorealistic 3D water to take advantage of the shifting angle of perspective and the reflectivity.

Heading the effort to bring the film to English-speaking movie-goers were several of today's top animation filmmakers, including executive producer John Lasseter from Pixar. "We all had the same goal: to protect Miyazaki's vision and bring it, in its complete intact form, to the American audiences," says Lasseter.

In addition to receiving numerous awards, Spirited Away was the first animated feature to win the Golden Bear Award at the 2002 Berlin Film Festival. Recently, the project was named Best Animated Film by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and its New York counterpart, giving it added momentum going into the Oscar stretch. —Karen Moltenbrey

Spirited Away is mostly a 2D hand-animated film, but in some instances, 3D imagery was used to enhance a scene.
Copyright 2002 Walt Disney Studios/Studio Ghibli Film

KEY TOOL:Softimage, Avid;www.softimage.com

user focusmultimedia

To herald the birth of Sony's new Wega plasma screen optical engine, design firm yU + co (Los Angeles) conceived a simple yet compelling animation that symbolizes the birth of a dynamic new technology.

The key element in the brand-identity package is the Wega Engine motion-graphics logo, created by lead 3D designer Bryan Thombs based on an original design element from creative director Garson Yu and designer Yolanda Santosa. The logo opens with the letter "V" composed of bonded circular molecules created using the former television scanline format. Next, a second "V" comprising smooth, clear lines, representative of the new plasma technology, appears. The two letters then join to form a "W" as the phrase Wega Engine appears. The elements were generated in Adobe Systems' Illustrator, then brought to life through animation in Adobe's After Effects and Alias|Wavefront's Maya running on a Boxx Technologies dual-AMD workstation. "We are suggesting the evolution of a new technology, one that results in a new image of exceptional brilliance and clarity," explains Yu.

Created for a Japanese trade show, the brand also will be used in an array of multimedia applications that entail both static and animated imagery. —KM

Sony is using this motion graphics logo in its multimedia ad campaign.

KEY TOOLS: Illustrator and After Effects,
Adobe Systems: www.adobe.com

user focusgames

Lionhead Studios grabbed the attention of the gaming community when it released Black & White, a PC title that helped popularize the "god-sim" genre (March 2001, pg. 32). Now, nearly two years later, players can embrace the game as never before with a version that supports Essential Reality's P5 Gaming Glove.

To play Black & White, you cast spells and perform miracles in an attempt to win over villagers, who will then help you defeat enemies. The villagers worship you as a god, but you must choose whether to rule with a soft heart or an iron fist—and endure the consequences of that decision.

In the original version of the game, you perform an action or move around the environment by using a mouse, which maneuvers a hand icon on the screen. The game's gesture-recognition system interprets how fast you move the mouse, to distinguish, for example, whether you are gently stroking a creature or harshly clawing it.

With the P5 peripheral device, you can now touch a creature, pick up and throw objects, and cast spells with more intuitive hand and finger movements. The glove's embedded sensors and remote-tracking technologies interpret the movement and relay the information back into the game. "What better way of controlling Black & White's on-screen hand than with your own hand?" prompts David Devor, Essential Reality's vice president of marketing.

Current Black & White players can "grasp" this new capability by downloading a software patch available on Essential Reality's Web site. Users must also purchase a P5 glove, which sells for less than $100.

Other current P5-enabled titles include Serious Sam II: The Second Encounter, Hitman 2, and Tiger Hunt. —KM

A P5 Gaming Glove-enabled version of Black & White puts game players in touch with the action.
Image courtesy Lionhead Studios.

KEY TOOL:P5 Gaming Glove, Essential Reality;

user focus broadcast

CG director Arman Matin of Rhinoceros gives viewers "an inside look" at a Dockers-clad lad in a recent television commercial for Levi Strauss & Co. In the "Getting Dressed" spot, Matin expands the digital X-ray look he created last year in a similar Docker's spot by advancing the technique to deliver a challenging shot consisting of more complex actor and camera movements.

In the commercial, an actor is shown dressing in front of a mirror, hip-hopping to the beat of music as he fills his pants pockets with an array of items—a pen, a comb, a key, a palm pilot, and more. When finished, he dons a pair of "X-ray" glasses, and peers into the mirror, which reflects a dancing skeleton and the contents of his pockets.

To accomplish this effect, the actor was photographed against a grid, so the digital artists could build an appropriately sized skeleton to insert into the live action. The small objects in his pockets were similarly photographed, then re-created in Alias|Wavefront's Maya, as was the skeleton. For the most part, the actor was filmed within an actual set. In some instances, though, he was shot against greenscreen, tracked inside of the Maya software, and then composited into the scene using Discreet's inferno.

Once the filming was completed, the Rhinoceros animators inherited each shot so they could position all the computer-generated objects and set pieces to match those that appear in the live action. "Due to the transparency of the X-ray effect, every object that appeared in the live-action plate had to be digitally reconstructed and replaced for the effect," says Matin. Next, they rigged the skeleton and animated the model to match even the subtlest motion of the actor. "It was literally a frame-by-frame process," he adds.

The artists then added layers of clothing to the skeleton model, and used a proprietary "X-ray" shader for Maya to render the 3D imagery, including the skeleton, clothing, sets, and props.

All told, the project required more than 20 layers of CG, which were composited in Adobe Systems' After Effects. Inferno was used to accomplish the final transition from the live action to the digital X-ray effect. —KM

Rhinoceros created an X-ray shader for Maya to generate this skeletal effect.

KEY TOOLS: Maya, Alias|Wavefront
Inferno, Discreet www.discreet.com


Computer scientists at Microsoft Research Asia have devised a novel algorithm for modeling and rendering realistic-looking feathers. The program allows the user to automatically create a wide variety of feather types and shapes—including contoured feathers, flight feathers, bristles and plumes—simply by changing a few parameters. The technique achieves highly realistic renderings by capturing the special characteristics of feathers: the barbs and barbules that branch from the central shaft, the surface reflectance created by this unique structure, and the gaps that occur in the feather blade. The images above show how a synthetic feather modeled and rendered using the new system (right) compares to a photograph of a real feather (left). In future versions, the researchers hope to overcome current limitations in rendering down feathers, such as for ducks, and iridescence, such as for hummingbirds. —Phil LoPiccolo

Images © 2002 ACM, courtesy of Microsoft Research Asia


A team of researchers at Stanford University and Industrial Light and Magic has developed a new, physically based method for modeling and animating the burning of either solid or gas fuels. The key to the technique is a model that accounts for the expansion that takes place when a vaporized fuel reacts to form hot gaseous products—including smoke and soot—or when solid fuel is vaporized into a gaseous state. The system also models and renders the blue center of a flame that occurs when fuel is converted into a gaseous state. It also allows the fire and smoke to interact with objects, and for flammable materials coming in contact with the fire to burn. The accompanying image created by the system shows two logs on a campfire, one that is burning and the other, with flames flowing around it, that has not yet caught fire.—PL

Images © 2002 ACM, courtesy of Stanford University and ILM


LightWork Design (Sheffield, UK), a developer of rendering and lighting simulation software, announced the spin-off of its MachineWorks Division into an independent company, MachineWorks Ltd. Development at the new firm will concentrate on CNC simulation and verification technology for the manufacturing market. LightWork Design will continue to focus on its flagship visualization software, LightWorks...Boxx Technologies (Austin, TX) has announced that it will continue to support Boxx hardware sold with 5D effects systems such as Cyborg, Commander, and Colossus. 5D ceased operations last fall, and the majority of its assets have since been acquired by Discreet/Autodesk...DDD Group (Dynamic Digital Depth; Santa Monica, CA), a maker of glasses-free 3D displays, has announced a partnership with monitor manufacturer ViewSonic (Walnut, CA), through which both companies will develop a new line of ViewSonic 3D displays.


Nvidia's Quadro4 980 XGL graphics card bested offerings from both ATI and 3Dlabs in the latest round of SPEC/GPC Lightscape benchmark tests. For information about the Lightscape benchmarks, visit the SPEC/GPC Web site at www.spec.org/gpc.

Companies listed are voluntary participants. Source: SPEC/GPC benchmark results January 2003. Copyright Standard Performance Evaluation Corp.