Spotlight - 7/03
Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 7 (July 2003)

Spotlight - 7/03

Ultimatte Corp. has been developing bluescreen and greenscreen compositing technology for more than a quarter-century. The company's latest hardware device, the Ultimatte 10, incorporates a new matte engine that can composite finely detailed foreground features such as wisps of hair or rings of cigarette smoke while automatically suppressing foreground spill that would lead to a "cut-out" appearance against the background. Imagery such as motion blur and shadows can also be preserved.

Image courtesy Ultimatte Corp.

The Ultimatte 10 is the first hardware product to incorporate Ultimatte's proprietary AdvantEdge algorithms, introduced in software earlier this year. "The watershed event is this new way of calculating the matte signals," says Reid Baker, Ultimatte's director of business development. "This is done by looking at each pixel and its neighboring pixels to determine whether the pixel should be in the foreground or the background." The end result of this new technology, according to the company, is real-time compositing that allows users to create realistic-looking composites incorporating a large amount of detail.

Additional features include an eight-input router, full RGB foreground and background color controls with ambiance, flare suppression controls, and conformation to CCIR 601 video standards. The Ultimatte 10 compositing system costs $19,500. —Jenny Donelan

Ultimatte Corp.;

PRODUCTS | Modeling and Simulation

Bionatics specializes in procedurally based plant modeling and simulation software. The company has recently issued a new version of its natFX program—Version 1.8 for Discreet's 3ds max—that has been updated with features designed to appeal to game developers.

Image courtesy Bionatics.

According to the company, users can now generate hybrid 2D/3D trees at nearly twice the speed of earlier versions of natFX. New features include a 2D Copy button that makes it possible to quickly generate a 2D "billboard" (a 2D texture map that looks 3D) in order to generate seamless level-of-detail (LOD) transitions for a selected tree when blending it into a scene. The software also comes with an Optimize button that automatically streamlines a hybrid tree by removing any of its unnecessary billboards. In several seconds, for example, a tree of 2000 polygons can be reduced to as few as 50 polygons. Modelers may also set a polygon limit on all 3D trees prior to generation, and natFX will produce a tree with an optimized LOD within that limitation.

NatFX for 3ds max requires Version 4 or 5 of 3ds max and runs on Windows NT/2000. A NatFX for Alias|Wavefront's Maya is also available. The price for each ranges from $990 to $7000, depending on the number of plants purchased with the program. The basic package begins with a 10-plant library. Additional plants cost from $20 to $100 apiece, and can be downloaded from the natFX Web site. The company currently offers more than 500 types of trees and plants from around the world. —JD


PRODUCTS |Digital Video

The Matrox RT.X100 Xtreme is a hardware-based real-time editing and DVD-authoring package that includes a video editing card, Adobe Systems' Premiere 6.5, and Sonic Solutions' DVDit SE software. The product is designed for use by videographers, digital filmmakers, studios, and corporate communicators.

Chief among the RT.X100 Xtreme's new features is an XtremePreview mode that allows users to edit multiple layers and effects without rendering. Other new features include real-time, three-way, 18-parameter YUV color correction and 8-parameter RGB gain/.offset colorization, waveform and vectorscope monitors, real-time chroma and luma keying, field-blended fast and slow motion, and a real-time pan and scan filter for aspect ratio conversion between 16.9 and 4.3.

Image courtesy Matrox Graphics.

A WYSIWYG video output plug-in is also provided for users of Adobe's After Effects, NewTek's LightWave, and Discreet's 3ds max.

The RT.X100 Xtreme costs $1099 with Adobe Premiere and $1299 with Premiere and Sonic ReelDVD Studio. —JD

Matrox Graphics;

PRODUCTS | Modeling

The most dramatic change to the form.Z 3D modeling program from autodessys is an internal restructuring that allows the software to accept plug-ins and scripts. In fact, the overhaul is so extensive, notes the company, that many operations that aren't new to the program are now running as plug-ins. The new architecture will obviously allow autodessys and third parties to develop plug-ins for form.Z, but will also enable users to install some product capabilities on a partial or as-needed basis. Currently available plug-ins representing new features include Sketch Rendering, which allows users to modify a digital image to make it look hand-drawn, Point Cloud Re-engineering, which enables arbitrary point cloud data to be threaded into both faceted and NURBS structures; and STEP Translator, which permits the import and export of parametric objects and their controls.

Other new features include network rendering, enhanced NURBS operations that incorporate new ways to reconstruct, attach, merge, split, and trim NURBS surfaces and curves, native Mac OS X support, and interface enhancements. Form.Z supports both Mac 8.6 and OS 10.1 and Windows 95/98/2000/XP/ME. The cost is $1495. A RenderZone module is $500, and RadioZity is $395. —JD


PRODUCTS | Web Authoring

Anark Studio is multimedia authoring software that allows users to integrate 2D and 3D imagery, video, and a variety of interactive content. Version 2 includes work flow improvements, a greater variety of content delivery options, and OpenGL and Mac OS X support.

Chief among the work flow improvements is a timeline with features such as scalability, filters, a new inspector palette, and a component element for building time-independent menus or nested animations.

Content developed with Anark Studio can now be exported to a single EXE projector file that can be used to create stand-alone 3D CDs or DVDs. Screensaver export is another new option with which developers can create interactive 3D Windows screensavers for use as branding and marketing tools. And the new video export capability makes it possible to use Anark Studio for video projects. Advanced blend modes and behavior-based animations let users preview work in real time before rendering.

Anark Studio client and player applications are now available for Mac OS X, and the Anark client for both platforms has a rendering engine that utilizes OpenGL to optimize the software for most available graphics cards.

Anark Studio 2 runs on Windows ME/2000/XP and Mac OS 10.2 or higher operating systems. The software costs $995. —JD

Anark Corp.;

USER FOCUS | Broadcast

It seemed appropriate that the artists at Zoic Studios in Los Angeles worked late into the night to create the visual effects for the final episode of the long-running cult television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Since the 20th Century Fox Television program debuted in 1997, Zoic co-founder Loni Peristere has provided the digital backup to vampire slayer Buffy Summers and her friends from Sunnydale, California, as they tangled with vampires, demons, monsters, and just about every other imaginable creature of the night.

A mixture of 3D elements, miniatures, and live action set the scene for the final showdown between Buffy and the vampires. All images ©2003 20th Century Fox Television.

During the 144th (and final) episode, called "Chosen," Buffy and the gang confront an evil army of super-strong vampires as they prepare to take over the world. Once again, Buffy saves the day, as the town of Sunnydale—built atop Indian burial grounds that became a portal for all things evil—is finally obliterated, once and for all closing the gateway to doom.

For the finale, Peristere had a little more time than usual to develop the "show-stopping" effects. Wanting to provide the audience with a memorable experience, he worked within a budget that was several times that of a typical Buffy segment. "In this episode, we employed the action-effects sequences fans have come to expect from the show but we stepped them up one more notch," he says. "The effects allowed Joss Whedon, the show's creator and director of this episode, to greatly expand the scope and scale of the danger threatening Buffy and her friends. But instead of just a few bad guys, there had to be thousands. Instead of just one or two effects sequences, there had to be many."

Some of the more challenging effects in the episode were used in an enormous underground cavern sequence. Zoic's CG team modeled and textured a large portion of this vast underground space, complete with bridges and bonfires, in NewTek's LightWave, matching the virtual space to live-action sets and miniatures created under the supervision of Emmy-winning visual effects supervisor/producer Ron Thornton. Then, the artists filled the scene with thousands of running and crawling virtual vampires.

To create these uber vamps, Nexus Digital Studios (Culver City, CA) used CyberWare laser scanners to digitally capture the body and head geometry of a stuntman in full costume. Zoic then cleaned up the scan data, surfaced it, and transferred it into LightWave and Alias|Wavefront's Maya, using The Beaver Project's translation software to work between the two programs. The artists then textured the model in Maya, applying high-resolution surfaces of the stuntman with Adobe Systems' Photoshop 7. To animate the figure, the team applied various moves (such as running, falling, fighting, and leaping) that were recorded at Motion Analysis Studio with the company's proprietary Digital Eagle motion-capture system. These moves were then added to a library of connectable cycles and applied to the model in Maya, before it was placed in the final LightWave scene. Later, the artists duplicated and slightly altered the 3D vampire to produce the final army of bloodsuckers that appeared in the episode.

The climactic cave scene was enhanced with a CG shock wave and energy beam that disintegrates the bad guys.

By using NewTek's Video Toaster boards with NTSC-standard monitors, which were installed at every workstation, the artists could view and tweak the preliminary work without waiting until the shots returned from compositing. Once the artists were satisfied with the sequence, the final shots were composited in Discreet's flame and combustion. Rendering, which was accomplished in Maya and LightWave, took as long as 30 minutes for each frame.

In all, the group created 60 visual effects shots of varying complexity for this episode, amounting to nearly 10 minutes of screen time for the 45-minute show.

"The effects set a benchmark in visual effects for one-hour television," says Peristere, "in that this show incorporated major effects methods—miniatures, motion capture, CG characters, objects, and prosthetics, and greenscreen work—into a single episode." —Karen Moltenbrey

Maya, Alias|Wavefront;

LightWave, NewTek;


The promise of ubiquitous computing—of a world filled with intelligent objects that react to their environments to better serve human needs—has been hindered by a lack of enabling technologies. Indeed, the sensors, computers, and communications devices required to achieve this vision have been too large, too costly, and too difficult to program to be embedded effectively in everyday items.

Now, a research team led by Lars Erik Holmquist at the Viktoria Institute's Future Applications Lab in Göteborg, Sweden, has developed miniature, context-aware computers called Smart-Its to overcome these shortcomings. The devices, which will be on display at the Emerging Technologies exhibit at SIGGRAPH 2003, can be implanted in common objects to augment them with sensing, computation, and communications capabilities. To illustrate the concept's potential, the researchers will demonstrate how people need not refer to printed instructions to assemble pieces of furniture embedded with Smart-Its.

Image courtesy ACM and Viktoria Institute.

The long-term objective of the project is to enable developers to more easily build and test novel applications that involve context-aware devices and explore the potential of intelligent environments. Whereas there's a multitude of software tools for developing graphical user interfaces for desktop computers, little support exists for building products based on sensing and communication between objects. The Smart-Its program is designed to offer such support through standardized hardware, coupled with sensing and communication programming interfaces. As Smart-Its technology advances, the researchers believe an explosion of new and innovative ubiquitous computing applications will follow. —Phil LoPiccolo


Despite headlines proclaiming the PC industry in decline, sales of computers have continued to grow, albeit more slowly in the last couple of years. At the same time, there has been a shift in the types of computers being sold and the uses for which they're being bought. A new study by Jon Peddie Research, "The Mobile Computer as an Entertainment Device," shows that while growth of desktop PCs has leveled off since 1999, sales of mobile computers has been rising at a compound annual rate of 15.4 percent (see graph below). This growth corresponds to an increase in the use of mobile computers for entertainment applications, including games, DVD movies, and video streaming. In fact, up to 45 percent of mobile computer owners say they use their machines for viewing videos and playing games. And the availability of low-cost players for streaming video formats such as MPEG-4 is enabling a new form of computer-based entertainment—Internet-based short films. Chipmakers such as ATI and nVidia have responded by introducing powerful new multimedia GPUs and VPUs, while system vendors HP, Toshiba, and VPR Matrix have recently introduced mobile computers targeted specifically at these users. —Kathleen Maher, senior analyst, Jon Peddie Research


In Brief

George Lucas has launched a new company dedicated to the creation of computer-animated films. Lucasfilm Animation will operate separately from Industrial Light & Magic (San Rafael, CA), Lucas's special effects company.... Vicarious Visions (Troy, NY), a developer of computer games such as Crash Bandicoot, has announced the purchase of all rights to the Intrinsic Alchemy technology originally developed by Intrinsic Graphics (Mountain View, CA) as a middleware platform for PC and computer game consoles.... Sony Computer Entertainment America (San Mateo, CA) has announced plans to deliver its first handheld gaming device, the PlayStation Portable, or PSP, in 2004. The new device will compete with Nintendo's Game Boy and will feature 3D graphics on a backlit 4.5-inch LCD.... Postproduction house PostWorks New York (New York City) has acquired the Tapehouse Companies (NYC) and all of its affiliates, as well as SMA Realtime (NYC), and a 50 percent share in audio posthouse Caterini Studios (NYC). —Jenny Donelan