|By George Maestri
Softimage|XSI Version 3.0 is the release in which XSI comes into its own as a leading-edge package. Since the software debuted a few years ago, it has been playing catch-up with many of the other high-end packages. Version 3 greatly expands the feature set and usability.
|Softimage|XSI Version 3.0 includes features that make it easier to create complex quadrupeds. Image courtesy Softimage and Avid Technology. Bear courtesy Project Studio, France.
Softimage has been continually refining the interface since Version 1.0, and workflow is now excellent. The package is accessible and easy to use, with many of the features employing a browser-like interface. New to Version 3.0 is the XSI Explorer, which offers a tree-like view of your scene as well as a graphic window. Click on a character, and a rendered version of that character will quickly appear in the browser, making it easy to distinguish between objects in your scene. Speed has also been increased substantially. Most CPU-hungry tasks such as loading, shape animation, and subdivision surfaces show significant improvement. I was able to manipulate a subdivided model with practically no lag time on my humble dual-processor 1.4ghz Pentium III.
Modeling has also been improved. Those who still use NURBS will find support for features such as NURBS trims. Extrusions and lathes have also been updated. And subdivision surfaces has been reworked for speed. There is a new display mode for subdivision surfaces that makes a model look like a NURBS surface. This is great when manipulating a model, as you will see the final tessellation in the viewport.
Character animators will enjoy many of XSI's new features. The software comes with pre-built rigs that can be created with a few mouse clicks. The rigs can be either biped or quadruped and can have dozens of options. These include film- and game-style setups, Quaternion splines, arm and leg roll controls, and deformation controls for the skinning of complex joint areas.
Creating a character mesh is also fairly easy. Character Designer has been upgraded to include more controls that allow you to rough out a character by defining everything from height and musculature to the size and shape of facial features. Those who like to model their own characters can get a good start with Character Designer.
Animators should also be happy with the new Animation Mixer, which is faster and better able to handle complex scenes. One nice new feature is called Mixer Ghosting, which shows ghosted views of your clips and allows you to see what all the clips in the animation mixer would look like if they were not blended.
Rendering has had many significant improvements as well. The standard renderer included is Mental Ray 3.1, but Softimage has added a number of enhancements to it. Displacement mapping has been changed to implement "microtriangle" displacement, which is similar to RenderMan's displacement mapping. The results render quickly and are excellent. Displacement mapping has also been expanded so that it is multi-directional. Most displacement algorithms use a grayscale map that simply moves the geometry up or down. This is nice for flat landscapes, which displace along one axis, but not 3D objects, which need all three. Softimage uses the RGB channels to control displacement in three dimensions, making for a more accurate displacement.
Another great rendering feature is called a Geometry Shader, which, as its name implies, adds actual geometry to a scene. This is useful for applications with scenes that have lots of similar objects.
Batch rendering has also been improved, allowing you to cue up rendering jobs from anywhere through an Internet connection or from within XSI. The entire batch-rendering interface is accessed through a Web browser, which can be used to track active jobs and machine availability. You can also prioritize jobs to get the most efficient renders.
For those interested in animating the teeming masses, Softimage sells Behavior, an add-on module that allows for extremely complex crowd animation. The software allows each character to be given intelligence that controls its individual behavior. Additionally, groups of characters can be choreographed for complex interactions.
Overall, Softimage|XSI Version 3 is an excellent upgrade for existing Softimage users. For anyone involved in high-end character animation, special effects, or graphics, the package is also a very good choice. Softimage has once again become a force to contend with in the 3D arena.
George Maestri is a contributing editor of Computer Graphics World and president of Rubberbug, an LA-based studio specializing in character animation.
Minimum System Requirements: Windows/Linux: Intel PII/AMD K7 processor; approved OpenGL card; 256mb of RAM. Irix 6.5.14: SGI Octane 200mhz; MIPS12000; 256mb of RAM.