Spotlight - 4/03
Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 4 (April 2003)

Spotlight - 4/03


Sketchbook Pro from Alias|Wavefront is a software program that works with Tablet PC devices running Windows XP to provide a digital drawing option for artists. With Sketchbook Pro, users can sketch, view, and annotate images. They can input BMP, GIF, and JPG files, and switch brushes, use undo and redo, and manipulate image layers.

The sketchbook uses a pen-and-paper paradigm to enable users to create drawings of both inorganic and organic objects without having to learn many software commands.

Image courtesy of Alias/Wavefront

Sketchbook Pro also runs on PCs that are equipped with Wacom tablets. A free introductory version is available at or The Pro version of the software starts at $129. —Jenny Donelan


products|virtual reality

Prairie Logic's new Virtual Video Reality (VVR) technology enables live-action 3D imagery to be captured, then viewed, in 360-degree digital surround video. The company likens the viewing experience to Imax or Panavision, with the main difference being that VVR is an immersive 3D experience.

To create a VVR experience, a film crew uses the company's Experience Capture System (ECS) to obtain footage. The digital files are then sent to Prairie Logic, which processes them using proprietary algorithms and image manipulation software. The resulting content is delivered on DVDs and can be played back using Prairie Logic's PC-based Experience Playback System (EPS) and viewed on any display that supports stereo viewing, such as head-mounted units or projection-based wall displays.

Advantages of VVR, according to the company, include the ability to capture 360-by-360 live-action video in 3D, the elimination of perspective distortion common to other immersive camera technologies, image resolution that is scalable from video to HDTV to film-camera quality, and directional surround-sound—the ability to lock audio to the images. A viewer who hears a bird chirping off to the right, for example, can look that way and find the bird in a tree. Once the viewer is looking straight at the bird, its chirping sounds equally loudly in both ears.

Current uses for VVR technology, which debuted this winter with the ECS-1 system, include 3D kiosks and industrial and corporate applications. The target market, however, is entertainment, particularly home gaming systems. The product might allow users to enjoy virtual experiences such as diving at the Great Barrier Reef or relaxing on a beach in the Caribbean. Currently in development is the ECS-1.5 system, which is designed to produce high-resolution and high-contrast images of cinematic quality. The cost of the ECS-1 system varies according to configuration. —JD

Prairie Logic;


Discreet recently issued new versions of its visual effects and compositing systems, inferno 5, flame 8, and flint 8. Each system serves the professional digital content market, but inferno is Discreet's top-of-the-line product, whereas flint is designed for broadcast graphics and post-production applications, and flame falls somewhere in between.

Each product now features mixed resolution architecture with the ability to handle layers including HD, 2K, and 6K images. New enhanced editing capabilities include multiple cameras and support for Kaydara's FBX file format. An improved workflow in Batch mode enables artists to view quick previews without having to render imagery at full resolution. Prices for each product vary according to system configurations. —JD



NaturalMotion has introduced endorphin, the first commercial product based on its Active Character Technology, which simulates a human body and adds AI motor control. The program is designed to complement traditional motion capture, making it speedier to create action scenes for games and films.

An endorphin character is biomechanically simulated and controlled by adaptive forward-dynamics AI controllers. If you "push" an endorphin character hard enough to make it fall backward, for example, instead of collapsing like a rag doll, it tries to stop its fall by bracing its arms and possibly landing on its elbows. Characters are "directed" to perform by the user, and the resulting animations saved to standard motion capture formats. The company notes that it is possible to perform more painful or dangerous stunts with endorphin characters than with live mocap performers. The product runs on Windows-based systems. —JD



The latest addition to Leitch's Professional Post Production product line is an update to its dpsVelocityQ multi-stream non-linear editing system (see "Editing Evolution," pg. 12). This offering is designed to balance price (with some systems in the sub-$10,000 range) and performance. Accordingly, notes the company, dpsVelocityQ users range from high-end editors to independent videographers.

The dpsVelocityQ features real-time playback of four video streams in any combination of uncompressed or compressed video, six graphics streams, and four channels of real-time 3D DVE. New features include an updated interface, more than 100 editing refinements, better integration with Leitch VR servers, and improved support for high-end audio tools. Prices vary according to configuration. A complete turnkey system costs around $25,000. —JD


user focus|broadcast

Since its premiere in 1995, The Drew Carey Show has often deviated from the tried-and-true sitcom formula by adding elaborate song and dance routines to elicit laughs from the audience. In a recent episode, titled "Family Affair," computer-generated visual effects were inserted to augment such a segment.

The one-minute sequence opens with Carey working at his desk when suddenly his laptop computer freezes. He grabs it and storms over to the help desk, where a Bill Gates look-alike shakes his head to indicate the hopelessness of the situation. A ghostly apparition of the laptop's internal system emerges and waves good-bye as it exits the machine. The scene segues to the rooftop, where Carey and his coworkers are shown tossing their computers to the street below. The camera follows Carey's laptop as it falls and smashes into pieces. The sequence then cuts to ground level, where the office gang breaks out into a "Riverdance"-inspired performance as computers continue to crash down around them.

"The special effects were key to this segment," says Holly Sawyer Friedman, the show's producer. Timing was also critical, adds Jerry Spivack, creative director at Ring of Fire, the West Hollywood, California-based studio that created the CG effects. "The dance sequence had to be scripted tightly to the music, so we had to know how long it would take Drew to perform each movement," he says. To accomplish this, the team at Ring of Fire previsualized the segment, shooting a series of digital stills that they edited together with a rough animation timed to the music. As a result of using the previs, the group determined that it had to slow the original timing of the song to coincide with the action.

Digital artists created this 3D ghost in Maya, using photographic textures acquired from actual computer parts.

To create the effects for the crash sequence, actual laptops and even some plaster versions were dropped from atop a ladder to provide some real "crashing" elements for this effect. The artists tracked the computers thrown from the ladder with 2d3's boujou, then they composited and tracked them within the live-action scenes using Discreet's inferno. All the computers were physical models except for Carey's, which the group replaced with a CG version created in Alias|Wavefront's Maya. As his laptop shatters, though, the team replaced it with a plaster version for optimal breakage.

Later, digital artists John Jenkins and Casey Dame used various computer parts gathered from the actual crash site to design the 3D ghost that appears earlier in the scene. The team took digital stills of the actual parts and components that had been smashed, and applied the photographic textures onto the model, created in Maya. The artists then enhanced the image by adding smoke elements, created in Discreet's combustion, as the ghost emerges from the machine. —Karen Moltenbrey

KEY TOOLS: combustion, Discreet
Maya, Alias|Wavefront

user focus|multimedia

Dozens of high-definition images from Artbeats, a video stock-footage provider, were used as colorful backdrops during the BBC's annual Royal Variety Performance, a live charity event featuring performances by celebrities from the worlds of music, film, television, and theater.

The video clips and still shots contained a wide range of images, including special effects and scenery, which were projected onto a large screen during various segments of the event. Some of the elements were computer-generated; others were live-action film shots. One of the more interesting computer-generated collections, titled "Virtual Insanity," was used in a James Bond medley-tribute. To create that particular CGI, Artbeats used Adobe Systems' After Effects.

Artbeats used After Effects to generate this image used by the BBC.

"The imagery truly enhanced the overall experience for the audience," says Barbara Wiltshire of BBC Entertainment. —KM

KEY TOOL: After Effects, Adobe Systems


Computer graphics technologists garnered five of the 13 Sci-Tech Oscars at this year's Academy Awards ceremony. The winners included Alias|Wavefront, Side Effects Software, mental images, PDI/Dreamworks, and Disney.

Of the three levels of awards—the Academy Award of Merit, the Scientific and Engineering Award, and the Technical Achievement Award—only 38 Awards of Merit have been issued since the inception of the Sci-Tech Oscars. And this year, three companies were given this honor, including the CG industry's own Alias|Wavefront. While specific individuals within the company have been granted Sci-Tech Oscars in the past, this is the first time Alias|Wavefront as a whole has been so honored.

Spider-Man, the character, ™ & © 2002 MARVEL: the movie, ©2002 CPII All rights reserved

The company was chosen for this award because of the impact its Maya 3D animation software has had on the film industry. Not only did Maya play a significant role in the production of all three of this year's nominees in the best visual effects category—Spider-Man (at right), Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones, and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers—the program was also used extensively in two of the films nominated for best animated short (The ChubbChubbs and Mike's New Car) and four of the five films nominated for best animated feature film (Ice Age, Lilo and Stitch, Treasure Planet, and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron).

The founders of Side Effects Software were on hand to receive a Scientific and Engineering Award. Its Houdini 3D animation and effects package has been a long-time favorite of the movie industry as witnessed by its use in the recent films James Bond: Die Another Day and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

The mental images team of mathematicians, physicists, and software engineers received a Technical Achievement Award for the development of the well-known raytracing renderer, mental ray—a product that integrates with Maya, Softimage|XSI, 3ds max, and Houdini.

The other Technical Achievement Awards went to PDI/ Dreamworks and Disney. The former distinguished themselves through the development of their in-house facial animation system. The latter received the award for contributions to Disney's "Deep Canvas" renderer, which allows for the creation of painterly images and animations by preserving 2D brush strokes through 3D transformations. Originally created for the film Tarzan, Deep Canvas was recently employed to create the virtual sets of Treasure Planet. —Lisa Taylor

market outlook

Approximately 53 million PC graphics devices shipped in the fourth quarter of 2002, a 13 percent increase over the previous quarter. The mobile segment of the market led growth, with shipments increasing 25 percent over Q3's. The desktop graphics segment grew by a more moderate 11 percent. Only five of nine tracked suppliers drove the fourth-quarter growth: ATI, Intel, Nvidia, Silicon Integrated Systems (SiS), and VIA. The other four, Matrox Graphics, Trident Microsystems, Silicon Motion, and 3Dlabs/Creative Technology, experienced losses or growth of less than 2 percent.

Market Outlook data provided by Jon Peddie Research of Tiburon, California (

news|In Brief

The Khronos Group will be distributing the OpenML SDK at Booth SL2248 on the NAB exhibition floor in Las Vegas this month. OpenML is a royalty-free open standard that enables developers to integrate video, audio, and graphics capabilities with their applications while making them portable across multiple operating systems, CPU architectures, and hardware devices such as PDAs and mobile phones.

The Khronos Group was founded three years ago by a number of hardware and software vendors, including 3Dlabs, ATI, Evans & Sutherland, Intel, Nvidia, SGI, and Sun Microsystems. The not-for-profit consortium is dedicated to creating open standards for the authoring and playback of rich media on a variety of platforms and devices. For more information about OpenML and the Khronos Group, see

The Quadro4 700 Go GL Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) from Nvidia (Santa Clara, CA) continues the trend among graphics chip makers of bringing workstation-type power to laptop units. The new chip incorporates Nvidia's Quadro4 XGL desktop workstation architecture and, according to the company, can perform twice as fast as Nvidia's previous best-performing mobile GPU, the Quadro4 500 Go GL. The new chip is first being made available in the Dell Precision M50 mobile workstation.