By George Maestri
Softimage|XSI 4 includes a license for SyCloth, Syflex's superb cloth module.
Version 4 is likely the most substantial upgrade Softimage|XSI has seen, and the new release contains a wealth of new features and improvements that adds significantly to the depth of the software.
One new feature is the competitive price. The costs of XSI Advanced, Essentials, and Foundations have been cut by more than half. The three packages sport incrementally more features, with Foundation having enough power to tackle most basic design and game animation work. XSI Essentials adds subdivision surfaces and advanced character animation, as well as soft- and rigid-body dynamics. XSI Advanced has the full feature set, including a superb new cloth module by Syflex—probably the most realistic cloth simulator on the market today.
XSI installs fairly easily, but it is the first package I've seen in a while that still requires a dongle. Users will find the interface essentially the same as the previous version, but with some nice enhancements. Customiza-tion is made easier with advances in user-defined layouts. Layouts are XML-based, making resizing windows and customizing the interface easier. A new organization feature, Shelves, enables users to store models, textures, sounds, and other assorted media in a floating window. Ghosting is significantly improved; users can ghost even complex tasks, such as simulations.
An interesting interface feature, Custom Display Host allows users to run virtually any third-party application within XSI. It's particularly useful for game designers who want to test games within a viewport.
Softimage has incorporated a 2D paint engine in XSI. Housed in XSI's built-in compositor, the paint engine supports vector and raster paint—great for doing anything from wire removal to creating textures. Although the paint tools are not as robust as those in Adobe's Photo-shop, brushes and parameters can be animated, allowing for lots of great effects.
Rendering in XSI is improved by Mental Ray Version 3.3, which offers faster motion blur. Another bonus, Softimage doubled the amount of Mental Ray render nodes that ship with the package. Interface improvements include a mode that allows for quick rendering of final gathers, improving work flow for those using global illumination.
One of the best new rendering features is the ability to create materials libraries. Materials can be organized in groups, making them easier to store and transport. More important, the XSI interface finally allows for shaderballs, something users have been wanting since Version 1.0. Another new rendering feature is a nice UV Unwrap tool that makes texturing polygonal objects easier.
The addition of rigid-body dynamics allows for real-world physics to control the behavior and animation of objects. The implementation is fairly straightforward, with objects subject to forces such as gravity and wind. Objects can have mass, elasticity, and friction, among other parameters. After initial conditions are set, you can set the simulation in motion for realistic results.
XSI's character animation tools have seen improvement over their already stellar implementation. XSI includes a number of pre-built character rigs, which are now more customizable. Fingers, toes, and even ears can be added with a few mouse clicks. Standard rigs also can support user-defined splines to assist in facial animation. Control splines can be rigged to simulate skin sliding by using curves to indicate where a character's face deforms.
Animating in XSI has always been easy, with the most advanced non-linear animation timeline on the market. New to XSI is timeline-based editing. Several animation editors are combined in the same window so users can work with multiple editors on the same scene. Animation can be edited using curves, clips, or a dope sheet—all from the same window. It is an easier way to organize the work flow for the animator.
Modelers and animators will appreciate Construction Modes. Artists can go back to the base version of a character and add more details, without destroying the subsequent phoneme and facial shapes built onto the original character, for example.
The interface improvements aid in productivity, the character animation tools are top-notch, and the rigid-body dynamics help the package expand into areas such as special effects. Softimage XSI 4.0 is a robust and capable package with a deep feature set.
George Maestri is president of Rubberbug, a Los Angeles-based animation stu-dio specializing in character animation.
Computer Graphics World
Price: $6995 for Advanced, $1995 for Essentials, $495 for Foundation
Minimum System Requirements: Windows 2000/XP Pro or Red Hat Linux 7.3, 8.0, 9.0, or Enterprise Version 3; AMD K7, Intel Pentium III, or higher processor; OpenGL accelerated graphics card; 520mb of hard-disk space; and 256mb of RAM