Spotlight - 8/03
Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 8 (August 2003)

Spotlight - 8/03

Discreet has announced 3ds max 6, the latest upgrade to its flagship 3D modeling, animation, and rendering software. With Version 6, the company affirms its commitment to game development and introduces new features and enhancements.

New features that game developers in particular will welcome include a robust 3D painting and texturing application based on Right Hemispheres' Deep Paint engine. It enables artists to paint multiple channels of information on multiple objects using multiple layers. Discreet also adds to the rendering options by bundling a license of Mental Ray 3.2 and integrating it tightly with the software.

Enhancements to 3ds max's interface include a complete rework of Schematic View that makes the product more efficient and user friendly. Vertex Paint has been updated to include pressure-sensitive brushes and blurring. The package also makes automating technical tasks easier by adding a command line interface to the renderer and Maxscript.

Character animators will appreciate the new skinning tools, which permit envelopes to be mirrored across a character. For effects artists, Discreet has created Particle Flow, an event-driven particle system with an easy-to-use, node-based interface. In another nod to the game development environment, Reactor, 3ds max's physics engine, is bundled with Version 6 and has been updated to include vehicle and human dynamics. Scheduled to ship this summer, 3ds max 6 costs $3495. —George Maestri


Image courtesy Discreet.


Avid's Media Composer Adrenaline video-editing system combines the company's Media Composer software with its special-purpose Adrenaline hardware, which features a unique hybrid architecture that takes advantage of both host-based processing and hardware-based acceleration. The new system is designed to provide workstation-level video-editing capabilities on a desktop PC or Mac, at a price in the low five figures.

The Adrenaline hardware device, which is part of Avid's recently announced DNA (digital nonlinear) family of accelerators, connects to a desktop unit through a single FireWire connection. According to the company, Adrenaline is the first system to support uncompressed SD (standard definition) video over standard FireWire. In addition to real-time, multi-stream, uncompressed SD video editing, Adrenaline offers 10-bit high-definition media expandability. Other features include 24P Film Composer offline editing functionality, 24-bit audio, and a real-time, automated color-correction tool.

Adrenaline can operate in a collaborative workflow with the Avid Unity MediaNetwork. It provides native support and timeline mixing for Avid Meridian JFIF, ABVB, DV25, DV50, IMX, and uncompressed 601 media formats. The Media Composer Adrenaline system costs $24,995. —Jenny Donelan

Avid Technology Inc.;

Image courtesy Avid.


ParticleIllusion 3.0 from wondertouch is a standalone particle effects program de-signed for the visual effects industry. With this 2D, sprite-based application, users in the film and broadcast industries can add particle effects to imagery, animation, and video footage. Among the preset effects are smoke, fire, pyrotechnics, sparkles, "space jellyfish," "octopus in shadows," and numerous water effects. Users also can create and edit effects. Moreover, emitters (animated properties) are displayed in a user-friendly hierarchy that presents a selected property's data in a graph window beside it.

Kevin Kipper, special effects artist at Pixel Magic, a Los Angeles-based special effects house, has used particleIllusion on a variety of film projects, including Hart's War and Behind Enemy Lines. "I use it primarily for smoke, fire, snow, dust, and rain effects," he says. "Its strengths are its speed and ease of use."

The application is optimized for OpenGL to provide speedy previews and final renders. Highlights of Version 3.0 include forces, which enable users to influence particles with phenomena such as wind; super emitters for more realistic effects; new color options, including one for simulating displacement effects in real time; a library manager that permits the movement of emitters between libraries; and an improved rendering engine.

Priced at $399, particleIllusion runs on Windows systems. A Mac version is scheduled for release this year. —JD


Image © 2003 wondertouch LLC.


The Foundry, a visual effects plug-in developer, has released Version 2.0 of Keylight, a greenscreen keyer for Avid|DS compositing and effects systems. According to the company, Keylight has been designed to provide extra functionality for users working with images that incorporate reflections, semi-transparent areas, and hair—all of which are tricky to place against greenscreens without an artificial or "cutout" appearance.

Improvements in Version 2.0 include simplified controls for the main matte, enhanced main key, the ability to use a different bias factor for calculating alpha and despill, upgraded alpha processing, and color correction. Keylight's independent inside and outside keyers each come with independent shrink and softness, as well as the option of separately fed garbage mattes.

The program's hold matte has been replaced by an inside matte, which permits users to incorporate arbitrary ranges of colors in the foreground. An outside matte tool enables arbitrary sets of colors to be excluded from the foreground. Keylight for Avid|DS 4.0, 5.0, or 6.0 systems costs $1250. —JD

The Foundry;

Image courtesy The Foundry.


Voice-O-Matic and Hercules are 3ds max plug-ins from Di-O-Matic that handle lip synchronization and musculature effects, respectively. Priced at $299, Voice-O-Matic employs algorithms to analyze the phonemes within an audio file and automatically create standard keyframes. Animators can then tweak the results.

Hercules provides muscles that can be dragged and dropped onto existing skeleton rigs or biped models. The muscles will automatically deform in relation to the model, contracting and stretching as the models move. Hercules works with skinning modifiers such as Skin, Physique, and Bones Pro, so that the overlying skin will react based on the muscles' deformation. Hercules carries a price tag of $599. —JD


Voice-O-Matic image courtesy Di-O-Matic.


For the recent live-action television commercial "Maybe Not," Steele VFX (Santa Monica, CA) created a barnyard of funky chickens for Burger King. The 30-second spot opens on two boys as they examine their lightning bolt- and star-shaped chicken tenders. The boys' imaginations then take over as they visualize a chicken coop populated by odd-looking varieties of fowl.

To produce the distinctive chickens, Steele VFX used NewTek's LightWave 7.5 for modeling, animating, texturing, and rendering the imagery. As strange as they look, the birds appear plausible except for their shapes, as the detailed texturing of the chickens' feathers helped create an illusion of reality. To make the feathers, the artists used photographic imagery and weighted the textures in LightWave.

The quirky way that chickens move also provided a hint of reality to the segment. Prior to animating the models, the artists visited a farm to observe chickens, especially their staggered walk. The two-person team translated that motion to their digital chickens—then took some artistic license.

According to Jerry Steele, visual effects supervisor, the chickens' bizarre shapes suggest certain personality traits. For instance, the star-shaped chicken resembles a sumo wrestler, with a heavy lower body and weighted motion, and the lightning bolt chicken is top heavy and unstable on its feet. "We saw them as a kind of Laurel and Hardy pair," he adds.

After generating the CG characters, the group integrated the birds into the live-action background using Adobe Systems' After Effects and a Quantel Henry compositing suite. —Karen Moltenbrey

LightWave, NewTek

Steele VFX created these funky fowl for a TV commercial using NewTek's LightWave.


Mosaics, created by inlaying small pieces of varicolored material to form pictures or patterns, were created as early as 4000 BC. Recently, New York City visual effects and design company Click 3x placed a new spin on this ancient art form by using moving video imagery instead of still photographs to create one of these designs for two 30-second television commercials.

The spots, which invite consumers to take a closer look at financial institution Wells Fargo, open on the company's trademark stagecoach as its rolls through a Western landscape. As the carriage swings past, the camera zooms in, and the coach transforms into a photo-mosaic comprising hundreds of small frames, each containing moving video footage. These layers appear over portions of the main footage, with each "box" matching the particular color scheme that it replaces.

The artists started the effect in motion by using Discreet's sparks plug-ins, which enabled the artists to segment the main video imagery into boxes. To create the actual video montage, editor Lars Fuchs used an Avid Media Composer to cull the individual mosaic clips from more than 20 hours of stagecoach film footage.

Next, compositor Steve Zourntos imported the clips in-to a Discreet inferno system, and scanned all the footage at 2K resolution, enabling him to increase the size of the imagery without losing quality. He then began the painstaking process of assembling the mosaics. "Each mosaic involved nearly 500 layers, so it was difficult to previsualize at the Avid [editing] stage," he notes. "Only when we got it into inferno were we able to begin assembling the mosaics, and it was all done by hand."

Perfecting the mosaics was complicated by the fact that the main video was in motion, requiring the team to track the effects in Discreet's flame. The movement of the individual clips presented even more of a challenge. "Suddenly, a box that was predominantly brown might suddenly turn red, and that would affect the way it related to the overall color scheme," notes Zourntos. To overcome this issue, the group used flame to make subtle lighting and color adjustments so each effect would work properly. —KM

inferno and flame, Discreet

Digital artists used hundreds of layers of video to create this unique mosaic for TV.


For the past several months, Nvidia has been turning heads at industry trade shows with its short animation of the fetching fairy Dawn, a realistic-looking real-time character created by the graphics card vendor for showcasing the power of programmable shaders and vertex processing on its GeForce FX line. Since the E3 trade show in May, Dawn has been sharing the spotlight with her pixie pal Dusk, also created by the Nvidia development team to draw attention to the same programmable features used in "Dawn"—in particular, the use of customized skin, hair, and wing shaders—but with the addition of real-time shadow effects.

In the original demo, a fresh-faced Dawn prances along a tree branch, as soft sunlight filters through her colorful, translucent wings and is absorbed by her light-peach skin. In contrast to this sun-kissed setting is the more robust, dark, "grungy" environment of "Dusk." In the "Dusk" animation, the moonlight is reflected on the character's black leather and lace clothing and on her silver wings, along with projected real-time shadow effects.

"Our goal [with these animations] is to show that the new graphics hardware now supports the kind of shading language that the film industry has been using for years, only in real time," says Curtis Beeson, manager of the company's technical demonstration team. "We initially did this with 'Dawn,' and she had this soft, high-dynamic-range lighting effect that people weren't used to seeing in real time. But something was conspicuously absent—shadows. So when we released the GeForce

FX 5900 Ultra, which supports the same function set used for 'Dawn,' we were able to go back and add that detail."

Produced by Nvidia's content development team (led by Daniel Hornick), "Dusk" was created in much the same way as "Dawn." To model the character and the background, the group used Discreet's 3ds max and character studio (mainly for touch-up) and Alias|.Wavefront's Maya (mostly for the character setup, skinning, and rigging). Texturing was accomplished in Adobe Systems' Photoshop and Right Hemisphere's Deep Paint.

To animate Dusk, the Nvidia team hired a modern dancer, whose movements were captured with a 24-camera Vicon8 optical system by House of Moves. The motion-capture facility then processed the data using its Diva software. Nvidia imported the raw data into character studio, and applied it to the model. More intricate movements—such as hand/finger animations, facial expressions, and wing movement—were hand-animated in 3ds max.

Rendering was accomplished with a custom-built real-time system similar to current game engines. "We use Cg, a high-level Nvidia shading language in OpenGL, or HLSL in [Microsoft's] DirectX, to draw the image," says Beeson.

Even though "Dusk" was intended to show off Nvidia's high-end consumer cards, the animation required a professional Quadro FX 2000 solution for the content creation.

One of the biggest challenges to making "Dusk," according to Beeson, was figuring out how to assign the shaders before they were supported in the software used to generate the content. "Most of this software supports Cg internally now, which will make it easier to prototype the look of an effect in the future," he notes. "Through Cg, artists can now create photorealistic shaders and modify them in real time within their viewports, enabling them, for instance, to alter the sheen of Dusk's skin from dry to oily by adjusting sliders in the application, and the change will be calculated and rendered in real time. Conversely, we had to invent tools along the way and export the effects into our engine before ever seeing what they were going to look like."

In all likelihood, Dawn and Dusk are probably the most realistic real-time characters appearing today, and they have demonstrated to game developers what can be accomplished using state-of-the-art technology, especially programmable skin shaders. And, Hornick expects that other characters will soon be sporting similar skin effects in upcoming game titles, including Tiger Woods 2004 from Electronic Arts. As with "Dusk," this game includes improved self-shadowing, with advanced DirectX 9.0 pixel shaders creating accurate shadows.

"We're shooting for a cinematic look that is more in tune with movies than current game content," says Hornick. —KM

GeForce FX and Quadro FX cards, Nvidia;

Unlike its "Dawn" animation, which is entirely GPU-driven, only some of Nvidia's "Dusk" (above) is processed in the GPU.
Images © Nvidia Corporation.


One of the biggest snags in computer animation has been to simulate how clothing bunches up and then relaxes again, as when a character's elbow bends or arm moves across the front of the body. The problem with conventional cloth-simulation techniques is that during such motions, fabric becomes sandwiched in areas where it intersects with the body and itself, and it gets pulled, stretched, and tangled. As a result, it can flutter, wiggle, and appear jagged. And then, when the body parts separate, it can remain pinched and tangled instead of falling loosely and naturally back to its original shape.

To avoid these problems, David Baraff, Andrew Witkin, and Michael Kass of Pixar Animation Studios have devised two cloth-collision algorithms described last month at SIGGRAPH in a paper titled "Untangling Cloth." The first is called collision flypapering, which eliminates nearly all visible artifacts in regions of body intersection by carefully controlling the motion of any trapped or pinched cloth points. The accompanying figure shows how the flypapering algorithm produces realistic cloth simulations when clothing would otherwise get pinched from typical body motions of a CG character (above).

The researchers also have developed a cloth-to-cloth collision algorithm that performs a global intersection analysis (GIA) of the interacting cloth meshes. It instantaneously characterizes the current intersection state of the fabric in order to guide the cloth back to an untangled state where intersections occur. The two images at the right demonstrate how a crumpled shirt looks with the GIA algorithm turned off (top) and then turned on (bottom). —Phil LoPiccolo

Images copyright and reprinted with permission of Pixar Animation Studios and ACM.


According to the recent TrendWatch report, "Visual Effects/ Dynamic Media," the number of facilities planning to purchase servers is significant across all markets (see chart below) and has risen 17 percent compared to a year ago. Several factors are driving this growth: Visual effects and dynamic media organizations increasingly are buying servers for tasks such as rendering, and running Linux on the systems. And the transition to digital video production formats is creating the need for additional storage and dedicated servers for specific tasks. Moreover, prices have declined, making servers a "must have" investment even for small studios and independent freelancers. —Jim Whittington, principal of market research firm TrendWatch, Mill Valley, CA.


Blur Studio (Venice, CA), a creator of visual effects and animation, moved into a new headquarters measuring 20,000 square-feet, nearly three times the size of its former offices. Blur also added roughly 24 computer artists to its staff, bringing the current head count to 65. Blur Studio's immediate reason for expansion is to meet current production deadlines, whereas its longer-term goal is to become a major player in feature animation.... Discreet (Montréal), a division of Autodesk, has formed a strategic partnership with Criterion Software (Austin, TX), the maker of RenderWare middleware tools and technology, to develop and promote a game development pipeline between Discreet's 3ds max modeling, animation, and rendering product and RenderWare.... IMAX Corporation (Mississauga, Canada) recently retired approximately $22 million in face value of its $200 million of senior notes due December 2005 in exchange for newly issued common shares. According to the company, it has reduced its total debt by more than 40 percent in less than two years. IMAX also announced an agreement with EuroPalaces, one of the largest commercial exhibitors in Europe, to open a new IMAX 3D theater at France's Disneyland Resort Paris in June 2004.