Spotlight - Products - Jan 08
Issue: Volume: 31 Issue: 1 (Jan. 2008)

Spotlight - Products - Jan 08

Dell Readies Next-Gen Models

Dell introduced two new models of its Dell Precision workstations, the Dell Precision T5400 and T7400, offering the highest levels of performance and expandability available in any of the company’s workstations.

Dell says it will be the first tier-one vendor to ship workstations with the latest Quad-Core and Dual-Core Intel Xeon 5400 and 5200 series, using Intel’s 45nm manufacturing process.

The workstations feature a dual-socket design that supports a maximum of two next-generation multi-core Intel Xeon processors (Dell offers a range of Intel Xeon processors, up to 3.2 ghz). Multiple processor cores can increase application performance dramatically in multithreaded and multitasking environ­ments. They also contain dual, full-performance PCI Express Gen2 x16 graphics slots, providing up to double the maximum bandwidth of PCI Express x16. This enables customers to include as many as two high-performance OpenGL graphics cards and support a maximum of four 30-inch Dell UltraSharp flat-panel monitors at full resolution.

The T5400/T7400 uses a dual independent front-side bus design—up to 1333 mhz on the T5400 and up to 1600 mhz on the T7400—to provide a fast data path between processors, memory, and chipset, benefiting memory bandwidth-intensive applications. Furthermore, both offer extensive memory and storage options, while improved acoustics make the systems run up to 33 percent quieter than their predecessors. The Dell Precision T5400 and T7400 are available now, starting at $1600 and $1850, respectively.

Nvidia Quadro Solutions Geared for Video/Film 

Broadcast, video, and film professionals engaged in editing, compositing, and color grading can benefit from the advanced features of new Nvidia Quadro FX 5600 and FX 4600 SDI graphics cards. These next-generation graphics-to-video-out solutions, which allow real-time rendering to become an integral part of the production workflow, feature eight-, 10-, and 12-bit uncompressed SDI output in SD, HD, or 2k formats, genlock support, improved 2D video compositing capabilities, 3D graphics and GPU programmability, and more.

The FX 5600 and FX 4600 SDI graphics solutions now also offer 2D video pass-through compositing, enabling incoming video to be passed through and alpha-composited, luma-keyed, or chroma-keyed with the Quadro rendered graphics image on the outgoing SDI video. They also support 768mb to 1.5gb of ultra-fast graphics frame buffer memory and 8k texture and render processing, along with next-gen vertex and pixel programmability.

The Quadro FX 4600 SDI GPU sells for $5999, and the Quadro FX 5600 SDI GPU is being offered for $6999.

Autodesk Flexes Its Maya Muscle 
Autodesk has launched its Maya 2008 Extension 1 software, which introduces Maya Muscle functionality into the 3D modeling, animation, visual effects, and rendering solution.

This muscle and skin system, recently acquired from Comet Digital LLC, allows artists to create lifelike skin motion by precisely directing muscle and skin behavior. The tool set integrates well with the Maya architecture and overall workflow, enabling it to be used in isolation, interconnected with other Maya features, or customized and scaled as needed. Maya Muscle provides technical directors and animators with the tools they need to create detailed skin articulation and animation. These include advanced muscle and skin sculpting and deformation tools, as well as extensive jiggle and weighting options, like slide, sticky, and wrinkle weights.
In addition, Maya Muscle can increase artists’ productivity by taking advantage of familiar user interface and workflow features included in Maya 2008, such as the software’s brush-based interface. At the same time, it delivers a number of tools, including automatic rigs, real-time jiggle tweaking, and file caching, designed specifically for achieving secondary character motion.

Autodesk Maya 2008 Extension 1 can be downloaded now by Autodesk Maya 2008 Complete and Autodesk Maya 2008 Unlimited Subscription customers with Gold support. Extension 1 is not sold separately.

Autodesk Launches Combustion 2008 
Autodesk rolled out Combustion 2008, the latest version of its desktop compositing and visual effects solution. The software has been used on the Juicy Fruit “Ant” commercial by Asylum Visual Effects, the Target “Anthem” ad by Brand New School, and by Zoic Studio on the Journeyman television show.

The release includes improvements to the schematic view and more. Also new to Combustion 2008 is the popular Colour Warper tool, found in the Autodesk Flame visual effects system. Colour Warper in Combustion 2008 performs primary and selective color correction. It also allows for precise fine-tuning with multiple levels of adjustment in a single pass.

Autodesk’s Combustion 2008 is available now. It is priced at $995, with upgrade pricing available. The release is supported on both Macintosh and Windows operating systems.

Bunkspeed Gets Hyper with HyperShot 

Autodesk rolled out Combustion 2008, the latest version of its desktop compositing and visual effects solution. The software has been used on the Juicy Fruit “Ant” commercial by Asylum Visual Effects, the Target “Anthem” ad by Brand New School, and by Zoic Studio on the Journeyman television show.

The release includes improvements to the schematic view and more. Also new to Combustion 2008 is the popular Colour Warper tool, found in the Autodesk Flame visual effects system. Colour Warper in Combustion 2008 performs primary and selective color correction. It also allows for precise fine-tuning with multiple levels of adjustment in a single pass.

Autodesk’s Combustion 2008 is available now. It is priced at $995, with upgrade pricing available. The release is supported on both Macintosh and Windows operating systems.

Phoenix Integration Releases CAD Fusion 
Phoenix Integration unveiled CAD Fusion, plug-ins for integrating the company’s flagship PHX ModelCenter software with leading CAD/CAE applications.

Engineering design is typically divided into conceptual (low-fidelity models) and preliminary design phases (high-fidelity models). The handoff from one team to the other leads to process inefficiencies, errors, and reworks. The CAD Fusion plug-ins, however, allow for a common, collaborative design environment for both teams, resulting in a shorter design process with fewer reworks.

CAD Fusion enables conceptual designers to link with CAD applications as part of their design optimization process using PHX Model Center; thus, high-fidelity CAD tools are introduced earlier into the process. Furthermore, CAD variables and design geometry are integrated with optimization trade studies to improve and expand analysis of alternative studies.

Each plug-in automatically imports geometry from the associated CAD application without end-user programming or scripting. Designers can use CAD variables such as volumes, surface areas, weights, and geometry files in ModelCenter, and view the impact on CAD geometry as variables are changed during ModelCenter trade studies. The product interfaces ModelCenter directly with each CAD tool without intermediate translators, thereby enabling access to special CAD tools and features.

Existing ModelCenter users can purchase CAD Fusion for $8000. New users can buy the ModelCenter PowerPak, which includes CAD Fusion, Optimiza­tion­Pak, and VisualizationPak, starting at $36,600.

Duiker Intros Color Symmetry Plug-ins 
Duiker Research, maker of imaging and color tools for motion pictures, unveiled Color Symmetry, a suite of plug-ins that allow the look of film to be emulated and previewed within an array of animation, graphics, and effects packages.

The plug-ins are powered by a custom library of film profiles, proprietary Look-Up Tables, color-correction nodes, and transformation techniques that eliminate color disparity between the way images appear when being manipulated, integrated, and rendered, and the way they would look on film stock. The same functionality, film-profile display mechanisms, and color-correction operations are mirrored in all Color Symmetry-supported applications, which cover a range of products for painting, compositing, animation, visual effects, editing, and DI.

The Color Symmetry plug-in suite is available now, with platform-transparent support for Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X operating systems. Pricing for the plug-ins was unavailable.

Boxx Unveils a Pair of Quad-Core Workstations

Boxx Technologies rolled out the 3DBoxx 8400se, a VFX workstation that leverages the 3.2 ghz Quad-Core Intel Xeon. The machine is designed for compute-intensive tasks such as rendering animation on the fly or creating high-end 3D models.

To harness the 150W, 3.2 ghz Xeon’s power, Boxx implemented an advanced liquid cooling system. Entirely self-contained, the cooling system provides continuous and safe thermal dissipation for this configuration. It also incorporates advanced “green” design elements.

In addition, the company released the 3DBoxx 8400, which leverages the new Quad-Core Intel Xeon processors to get the most out of multithreaded applications. The 3DBoxx 8400 is tested by Boxx Labs to run VFX, architectural design, and building information modeling (BIM) applications.
The 3DBoxx W8400 and 3DBOXX W8400se can be ordered now, with pricing starting at $3125 and $5986, respectively.

Frantic Films Adds a Bit of Holiday Magic to Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium
It’s the holiday season, when parents search for that perfect toy for their good little boy or girl. At Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, the shelves are stocked from high to low with just about every toy imaginable: dolls, plush animals, planes, trains, and more. It is truly the strangest, most fantastic toy store in the world, and not just because of all the toys. Here, the toys come to life, as does the store itself.

But when the 243-year-old eccentric owner, Mr. Magorium, announces that he will be turning over the keys to the shop to his awkward and insecure manager, Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman), a dark and ominous change begins to take over the once-remarkable Emporium. The lively, bright toys have lost their color and their life, sitting immobile on the shelves as Molly and her young friend try to find the source of the problem and revive the magic.

Most of the movie, from Walden Media and Mandate Pictures, is filled with practical objects and effects, though a number of scenes have been infused with CG magic under the direction of Kevin Tod Haug, visual effects supervisor. Among those contributing digital effects to the film were Intelligent Creatures, FX Cartel, Bar X Seven, and Frantic Films, which also created a VFX-packed finale.

Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium was never intended to be a VFX movie; rather, it features in-camera effects and toys that are animated via animatronics and puppetry. The original final sequence featured a tightly orchestrated scenario in which Natalie Portman’s character makes the toys spring into action. However, after the filmmakers screened the original ending, they decided they wanted a more magical finale than the mechanically driven toys could achieve, so the Frantic Films team was brought onboard to create this scene digitally in post.

Digital magic helped transform the finale in the feature film Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, as VFX artists injected the scene with vibrant life.

“We quickly realized the new ending would require us to create a sequence for which there were no conventional elements. So we rebuilt 75 to 80 percent of the entire finale scene in CG,” says Chris Bond, president and creative director of Frantic Films. “After watching it, I think moviegoers will be hard-pressed to believe that it wasn’t storyboarded that way.”
According to Bond, the most dramatic and visible effect in that scene was the use of Flood, the studio’s proprietary fluid technology, to simulate the particles in the room, which created an energizing and dynamic environment.

Under the direction of Frantic Films VFX supervisor Glenn Neufeld, the studio did extensive scene reconstructing, particle work, and fluid simulation in virtually every shot, as well as final compositing. The artists also added 3D birds, a sunny, holographic effect spilling through the shop’s stained-glass window, and ample amounts of pixie dust sprinkled throughout. The result is a snowstorm crescendo as the toys are brought to life by a simple wave of Molly’s hand.

The VFX team’s process involved conducting detailed analysis of each shot using copious amounts of reference photography taken on set, to catch everything that appeared in frame. The artists then had to continuously sample each sequence to see what was in each scene, in order to figure out what had to be digitally removed and how to reconstruct the scene with digital elements for the final clip.
The studio also had to work with Russian-based VFX studio Dr. Picture, the vendor responsible for the toy animation. This was particularly challenging as the two studios were working in parallel, and it wasn’t always certain which toys would be flying around in each scene until the final composite. Because Frantic Films was building something in the digital realm that never existed on set, collaboration and creative trust among vendors was key, notes Neufeld.Frantic Films used Autodesk’s 3ds Max for modeling, its own Flood and Autodesk’s Particle Flow for particle fluid simulation, and Eyeon’s Fusion for compositing.

In the end, it was truly the magic of computer graphics that provided a fitting finale to this movie.

A Scene That's Wet and Wild
Turbulent water plays an important role in various stages of college grad Christopher McCandless’s adventures, chronicled in both the best-selling non-fiction book Into the Wild from Jon Krakauer and its film adaptation.

The movie, like the book, is based on the true story of McCandless, a top student and athlete who, after graduating from Emory University in 1992, abandons his possessions, gives his entire $24,000 life savings to charity, and travels around the country, eventually finding his final adventure in Alaska, living in the wilderness until his untimely death.

“The water’s power, plus Chris’s battles to master it, are major symbolic threads through the movie,” says Mat Beck, president of Entity FX, which produced a number of digital effects shots, including those in the movie’s early Wash sequence.

During his initial flight from his conventional life, Chris pulls off the road and drives into the Arizona desert to park and spend the night. After a beautiful sunset, lightning storms are seen in the distant mountains as the camera cranes down to show Chris asleep in the back seat. A very wide camera pans left across the dark desert to find the tiny car at the base of a bluff—just as a surging wave enters from the right frame. Inside the vehicle, Chris awakens in response to the sound of the surging water. Over his shoulder, we look out the windshield to see a torrent of water as it hits the car. The car swings around violently to the right as the water hits and cracks the windshield. In a view from the bluff, we see the car smack into a big rock and lurch to a stop.

When the flood begins to recede, Chris smiles. In the morning, he puts on his pack and walks away from the muddy, battered car for good. This becomes a prelude for what’s to come in his journey. In fact, the movie opens with the story’s end, as Chris is found dead inside an abandoned bus in Alaska.

To create the desert scene, the Entity FX group had to battle 118-degree heat while shooting in Arizona. “The first and greatest commitment was to follow Chris’s journey. Some shots would have been easier in a more controlled environment as opposed to a desert location, but somehow not as good,” says Beck.

The crew also found themselves battling nature’s clock: The sequence is supposed to occur at night, though shooting at that particular time was not practical. “Shooting the wider shots in the ‘dusk for night’ meant very little time to get the actual shot, and for many of the shots, take two was not an option,” says Beck. “In one instance, the practical whipping around of the car made for realistic bounces inside and outside, but the motion broke the A-camera mount on the back of the vehicle.”

As for the water, the team used reference photos taken by Chris after the flood, to authentically reproduce what really happened to him throughout his two-year journey. The water itself is a combination of real water reference (ocean surf, water tank elements) along with CG splashes and highlights.

The artists also created a CG replica of the car, to replace the areas of the vehicle that were covered by the camera mount during filming and to provide a tracking surface with which the CG splashes and flowing water to interact. According to Beck, 3D artist David Alexander wrote scripts for the splash particles to generate surface flow once they collided with the model. This generated “wet maps” in which a specular shader showed wet areas where the splash had hit.

The 3D modeling was done in Autodesk’s Maya, while rendering was achieved using Mental Images’ Mental Ray running on a Linux-based renderfarm. The splashes were Maya particles.
The artists also placed bushes in the desert for the water to swirl around, allowing compositor Eli Jarra to add some foam and highlights, thus providing a hint of spatial information in the dark.

“The last push into the car was shot by a Steadicam operator riding on a crane. The crane armed down and then the Steadicam operator walked toward the car,” explains Beck. “We tracked that move in 3D and added a CG stand-in for Chris in previs. Once the move was approved, we exported it to a motion-control system, then shot the actor against greenscreen with matching lighting and dropped him into the environment.”

The group used Autodesk’s Flame and Inferno for the compositing, while tracking was done using 2d3’s Boujou.

In all, the group worked on approximately 14 VFX shots in the film, which is a non-effects movie. For Beck, the biggest challenge overall was showing just enough detail to convey the scene and the emotion, without having the imagery and visual effects look fake or overlit—in effect, making it appear natural, thereby emphasizing the theme of the movie.

Leaders in the Processor Industry Benefit from Strong Demand and Price-War Lull
In the third quarter, Intel and AMD both managed to gain share in the global microprocessor market due to robust sales of PCs and servers, and the cessation of the companies’ brutal price war, according to iSuppli Corp.

In Q3 2007, Intel accounted for 78.7 percent of global microprocessor revenue, up 0.3 of a percentage point from 78.4 percent in the second quarter. AMD fared even better, with its share rising by more than twice that of Intel to reach 13.9 percent, up 0.6 of a percentage point from 13.3 percent in the second quarter. The two microprocessor suppliers gained at the expense of their smaller rivals, whose collective share of global revenue declined to 7.4 percent in the third quarter, down from 8.2 percent in the second quarter.

iSuppli’s final revenue ranking of global general-purpose microprocessor suppliers in the third quarter accounts for sales of all types of general-purpose microprocessors, including RISC chips as well as the PC-oriented x86 devices sold by Intel and AMD.

Yet again in the third quarter, the two microprocessor giants accounted for an increasing share of total market revenues. Combined, Intel and AMD claimed almost 93 percent of global microprocessor revenue in the third quarter of 2007—an increase of 2 percentage points compared to the third quarter of 2006.

In fact, Intel and AMD benefited from strong sales of computers in the quarter. Global PC shipments, including desktops, notebooks, and entry-level servers, amounted to 68.1 million units, up 13.8 percent from 59.9 million during the same period in 2006, and up 11.1 percent from 61.3 million in the second quarter of 2007.

The companies in their third-quarter financial calls stated they had seen a reduction in the aggressive pricing that has ruled throughout most of 2007. This signifies the beginning of the end for the x86 microprocessor price war, iSuppli believes.

“The combination of strong PC and server demand, combined with stable microprocessor prices, led to a prosperous quarter for both Intel and AMD,” says Matthew Wilkins, principal analyst at iSuppli.

Several factors contributed to a reduction in microprocessor market share in the third quarter. “Pricing trends were influenced by many variables, including the consistent strength in computing markets, Intel’s rapid migration to its new Core 2 architecture microprocessors, and the increasing penetration of multicore products in the market,” Wilkins says.

While the pricing battle may be coming to an end, Wilkins believes that the competition will continue to be extremely fierce.

“AMD’s launch of Barcelona and Barcelona-derived products gives the company a stronger portfolio with which to compete, and with Intel shipping its products based on its new 45nm manufacturing process, neither company is resting on its laurels,” Wilkins notes.