Issue: December 2010 (from Post Magazine)

Review: AUTODESK SOFTIMAGE 2011


PRODUCT: Autodesk Softimage 2011

WEBSITE: www.autodesk.com

PRICE: With subscription: $3,790; without subscription: $2,995
- ICE kinematics now standard
- Face Robot for easier lipsync
- Mental Ray access via render tree

It’s that time of year again when we artists are rewarded with an update to the preceding year’s software package and we expectantly wait to find out what new improvements have been made and which bugs have been eliminated. It’s nice to see that considering it has only been six months since the past Softimage release, there is quite a spate of new tools and enhancements added into this year’s version.

ICE, ICE BABY
One of the biggest new features is the inclusion of ICE kinematics. Previously a sub-section of kinematics could be unlocked but, being officially unsupported, it was prone to crashes and was not reliable. But now it’s possible to rig models entirely using the ICE interface, thus making the possible transfer of rigs between different models incredibly simple. Granted, the creation of more complex rigs could evade the non-technical artists for now, but as a repository of custom ICE compounds proliferates online, everyone will benefit.

Besides rigs, standard operators, such as constraints, now have an ICE equivalent and a wealth of ICE compounds — which one used to have to find online — have now been included as part of the package. There are Deformation Effects, Hull Deformers, Verlet Integration and Strand Dynamics. Subtle improvements such as now being able to apply ICE operators on nulls help a lot in not being locked into specific objects, as the ICE instructions can now live external to an object, allowing greater flexibility in swapping objects.

LIPSYNC
The next major feature for character animators is the automatic lipsyncing feature in Face Robot. This is a smart move for Softimage as previously, Face Robot required motion capture techniques to effectively use the facial rigs. But by automating quite a significant portion of the lipsync process, artists need to just fine-tune the pretty impressive results this process gives. It’s not perfect, but if the audio file (and accompanying text file) is clear, without distracting background sounds, it does a pretty good job of laying out phenomes, which in itself can be quite a tedious task. This will also allow Face Robot to grow beyond being an additional module that seems daunting and too disconnected from the main app to be used effectively.

AND MORE
Besides these two, there’s a wealth of other additions or improvements to the existing toolset. A third-party plug-in called Craft Director Studio is bundled with Softimage 2011. Although I didn’t have a chance to use it, it seems like a welcome set of tools for artists to explore their cinematic creativity but not necessarily for bigger studios that have probably scripted their own tools to achieve the relatively simple effects that are included. But it’s free, and that can’t necessarily be a bad thing.

Mental Ray has also been upgraded to the latest version, and the entire Mental Ray library can now be accessed directly from the render tree unlike previous versions where you had to manually navigate to an outside folder to use them. The architecture for these shaders has also been modified to more easily allow their authoring. It’s now also easier to write realtime shaders for games or viewport display with the included shader wizard. Other improvements include the ability to insert nodes by right-clicking existing nodes in the render tree. The physical sun/sky shader set-up has been updated and is more complete than previous versions. However the ambient occlusion option in the architectural shader has still not been corrected, and the values for the shadow and ambient color are still flipped.

A welcome addition to lights is the ability to use IES profiles. The mia_photometric shader allows you to use IES profiles of actual lights downloaded from the Internet and use them in combination with real world units. This is definitely a step closer to simulating real-world lighting more effectively. Spotlights also have an option to use light shapes blending from square to round. A new feature for soft shadows is a welcome addition to creating shadows that would taper out over distances as they would in the real world. It also reduces the rendering overhead in shadow calculation as opposed to area lights.

Other updates include the ability to create camera slates, which can be useful in big productions as well as the ability to render out multiple cameras simultaneously. Python is now included in the Softimage install. Booleans have also been updated and seem more stable than earlier versions, while cache management is unified under a common interface for ICE particles as well as shape caching.

FINAL THOUGHTS
All in all, this is quite a worthy update. ICE as a tool is still young, and given proper development, it is bound to mature and become even more streamlined. In the future, it would be amazing if existing tools were deprecated in favor of their ICE counterparts. The software still has the occasional stability issue, and there is the inherent bug fix I would have liked to see put to rest, but as an application that attempts to give newbies simple tools to use and advanced users more powerful tools to expedite the creation of custom tools, it comes across as a solid update.

Ajit Menon is a 3D Animator with UVphactory in New York. He cam be reached by email at: ajvi99@gmail.com
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