Spotlight - 12/03
Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 12 (December 2003)

Spotlight - 12/03

Maker of high-end desktop and mobile systems, Alienware introduced two new workstations custom-built for digital content creation and digital video professionals.

For the digital content creation market, the Alienware MJ-12 is designed to maximize the performance of 3D animation, visual effects, and architectural visualization applications. Softimage, Discreet, and other leading 3D software development companies have certified the system for leading-edge graphics and high-performance rendering. The Alienware MJ-12 digital content creation workstation is offered in a choice of Intel-based configurations—the MJ-12 3100 Enthusiast, 3100 Performance, and 3200 Extreme for $1773, $2540, and $3999, respectively—and AMD-based configurations—the MJ-12 4100 Enthusiast, 4100 Performance, and 4200 Extreme priced at $2172, $3238, and $2643, respectively.

Another new workstation, the Alienware Roswell is built to provide optimal video capturing, video editing, and broadcast postproduction. The Alienware Roswell digital video workstation is available in Intel configurations, including the 3100 Enthusiast, 3100 Performance, and 3200 Extreme priced at $1960, $3069, and $4711, respectively. The AMD-based 4100 Enthusiast, 4100 Performance, and 4200 Extreme are priced $2359, $3767, and $3340, respectively.

Users have the option of custom-configuring a system or selecting a unit pre-configured for specific applications. In fact, customers can select the case color from various options, including Plasma Purple, Saucer Silver, Martian Red, Cyborg Green, and Chameleon. Both new systems are available now for purchase or business lease.



Adobe Systems announced the availability of its latest professional software tool, Atmosphere.

A professional authoring tool, Adobe Atmosphere is designed to aid users in the creation of graphically rich, interactive 3D environments for use on the Internet and in Adobe PDF (Portable Document Format) files. The new tool is targeted at Web designers and digital document creators in a variety of industries, including entertainment, the graphic arts, e-commerce, and education. Atmosphere's arsenal of tools and technologies enables users to create captivating settings and stages populated with realistic lighting, motion, sound, and animated 3D objects. Potential applications for Atmosphere abound; some samples include an online art gallery, a PDF storybook world, and 3D replicas of concert arenas that would enable customers to check the view of the stage from specific seats prior to making a ticket purchase.

3D environments created with Atmosphere can be viewed within Microsoft Internet Explorer running on a Windows 98, 2000, or XP system, as well as Adobe Reader when used with the free, downloadable Atmosphere Player plug-ins. Adobe Atmosphere is available for Windows XP.operating systems at a cost of $399. Qualified educators are offered the reduced price of $99.

Adobe Systems;


Sharp Systems of America amended its Actius line of notebook computers with a new model, the Actius RD3D.

The Sharp Actius RD3D is reportedly the world's first notebook computer to take advantage of Sharp TFT 3D LCD technology, enabling users to view 3D images with the naked eye. Users also have the capability to switch between 3D and 2D viewing modes.

The notebook computer sports a 15-inch XGA LCD screen providing imagery at up to 1024x768 resolution. Contributing to the power of the system is the Nvidia GeForce4 440 Go graphics processing unit with 64mb of graphics memory. The Nvidia card also adds video and power management enhancements, including Nvidia PowerMizer Mobile technology, and high-resolution anti-aliasing.

Also one of the first notebooks to support DVD-RAM technology, the Sharp Actius RD3D sports a DVD multi-drive with DVD-R/RW/RAM and CD-R/RW media compatibility.

The system comes equipped with an Intel Pentium 4 2.80ghz processor, the Microsoft Windows XP Professional operating system, 512mb of DDR SDRAM, and a 60gb hard drive. Software bundled with the computer includes Sharp Smart Stereo Photo Editor/Slide Show, TriDef Movie Player from Dynamic Digital Depth, and CAChe Group's Personal CAChe for Windows, a chemical molecular modeling application. Now available for purchase, the Sharp Actius RD3D carries an estimated price of $3299.

Sharp Systems of America;


Sony Electronics introduced its first LCD monitors optimized for full-motion video in broadcast and production environments. The new Luma series comprises five models: two multi-format systems and three rack-mountable units.

The 17-inch LMD-170WS and 23-inch LMD-230WS multi-format, wide-screen displays boast a two-piece design. The LCD panel and tally light are housed in the display cabinet, whereas the separate engine includes video processing, input connections, controls, and the power supply. Well suited for NLE suites and desktop production applications, both new models accommodate standard- and high-definition analog and digital signals. Sony's rack-mountable LMD-440, 530, and 720W boast a modular design and an option slot for plug-in cards, enabling the units to accept additional signal formats. The LMD-440 is a quad-screen, four-inch panel in a two-RU setup; the LMD-530 is a triple-screen, 5.6-inch panel in a three-RU system; and the LMD-720W is a dual seven-inch wide-screen model in a three-RU package. These quad-, triple-, and double-screen systems carry suggested list prices of $1799, $1899, and $2299, respectively. The LMD-170WS and 230WS are priced at $3200 and $3950, respectively.

Sony Electronics;


ATI Technologies describes Catalyst 3.8 as the most significant software update in the company's history. The latest update to this 3D acceleration software suite brings increased performance and stability to ATI's Radeon desktop graphics solutions.

Catalyst 3.8's patent-pending ATI Overdrive maximizes the performance of the Radeon 9800 XT by over-clocking the graphics pro-cessor and keeping it at a safe temperature. The VPU Recover software recovery tool includes a direct feedback and bug report mechanism, whereas Shader Effects adds such new shaders as Sketch, Inverse-Color, Stylized Black & White, and ASCII. An expanded Multimedia Center, a redesigned 3D control panel, and Linux support complete the latest upgrade.

ATI Technologies;


For the recent live-action film Good Boy, the team at Rainmaker Studios in Vancouver, British Columbia, taught some new dogs a variation of an old trick. While giving real animals the ability to speak typically entails proprietary tools and techniques, at least for sophisticated lip sync, this time the gift of gab was accomplished with off-the-shelf software and hardware solutions, including a new commercial render format from Industrial Light & Magic (ILM).

In this "Lilo & Stitch meets Cats and Dogs" story from Jim Henson Pictures and MGM, a 12-year-old boy named Owen adopts a stray mutt called Hubble. However, the dog is actually a scout from Sirius, the Dog Star, dispatched to Earth to check on the progress of canine spies sent thousands of years earlier on a mission to take over the planet.
Rainmaker used commercial tools to create sophisticated talking-dog effects in the film Good Boy. At left is one of the original film plates; above shows the dog with a CG-altered jowl.

A fluke accident with Hubble's radio equipment allows Owen to understand dog speak, enabling him to communicate with his new friend and the four dogs he walks daily. Together, they are able to convince the supreme canine commander, the Greater Dane, that the dogs indeed have succeeded in assuming control over the humans, albeit in a different way than was initially intended.

Good Boy, in postproduction for a year, incorporates more than 450 digital effects, 350 of which entail mixing live-action sequences with CG muzzle replacements for realistic canine facial movements. To accomplish the majority of this work, Rainmaker used NewTek's LightWave for modeling, animation, and matchmoving. The team also used Worley Laboratories' Sasquatch Fur for texturing the CG muzzles with photorealistic hair. To composite the final models into the scene, the group used eyeon Software's Digital Fusion and Discreet's inferno. To simulate the physics, the artists used Alias Systems' Maya, which enabled them to calculate the appropriate amount of shake in the dogs' jowls as they spoke. On the hardware side, the group used Boxx Technologies' 3DBoxx workstations.

In all, the team replaced muzzles on seven different dogs. The most complicated of the animals was Hubble, a scruffy terrier that appears in nearly half of the talking-dog shots. "He had ten times more fur than any of the other animals," says Jason Dowdeswell, digital supervisor at Rainmaker. "In addition, his fur was difficult to light because it had a unique sheen and specularity, making it look inconsistent from shot to shot. So, we had to remodel [the muzzle] and relight it for almost every scene."
To make this film plate (top), artists placed a CG muzzle on Wilson, the dog in the foreground (bottom).

One of the other canines, Shep, a Bernese mountain dog, also required extra work because of its heavy panting. "When we shot the photography, we tried to make sure that the dogs had their mouths closed, so when we'd insert the CG muzzle into the plate, we wouldn't have to do a lot of plate reconstruction," Dowdeswell explains. "But with Shep, we had to make a lot of changes to the plate because its mouth was usually open."

Working with animals can be challenging, but Rainmaker's biggest hurdle was handling the large volume of effects work. "We had a tremendous number of shots that involved very expensive renders in terms of time," says Dowdeswell, "because calculating fur is time-consuming."

To streamline the rendering process, Rainmaker devised a generic lighting rig that guaranteed that the muzzle models looked good, albeit not perfectly lit, when they were rendered. While the lighting may not have always matched the film plate, the models themselves were devoid of dark shadows and hot spots. As a result, the artists did not have to change the lighting on each model and re-render it until they accomplished the desired results. Instead, the models were handed to the compositors, who tweaked the lighting and performed the necessary color correction so that the models conformed into the final film plate.

The artists also used ILM's OpenEXR extended high dynamic-range image (HDRI) file format for "lossless" 16-bit floating-point color images. ILM created the source code a few years ago for internal use, and made it openly available this year, at which time certain vendors—including eyeon—implemented it into their offerings. So, by scripting a customized exporter from LightWave, Rainmaker was able to reap the advantages offered by OpenEXR through Digital Fusion.
Shep and Hubble, on opposite sides of Barbara Ann, required more CG work (right) than the other dogs. This was because Shep's mouth often was hanging open (left), leaving a gap in the plate, and Hubble's scruffy fur looked different from shot to shot.

"Often, CGI is either over-lit or under-lit, and you have to re-render the image after changing the lighting," explains Dowdeswell, who had worked at ILM while the code was being tested. "Sometimes we were looking at between two and six hours per frame to render the fur. And we couldn't afford to re-render the imagery just because the lighting was too dark, for instance. But by saving the imagery in the EXR format, all the data is embedded so we could bring up the dark values of the images during the compositing stage without introducing flat pockets of black or white ranges." Dowdeswell estimates that by using EXR, Rainmaker was able to cut its rendering time in half.

Although digital effects are not new to Rainmaker, until this project, most of the studio's work had been for broadcast series such as Dark Angel and Stargate, which required the artists to get the most productivity from commercially available products. "Using these tools and new time-saving techniques in the film arena enabled us to work cost-effectively," says Dowdeswell, "which, in turn, enables a studio the size of ours to compete for feature-film projects." —Karen Moltenbrey

KEY TOOLS: LightWave, NewTek,
3DBoxx workstations, Boxx Technologies
OpenEXR, Industrial Light & Magic


When visual effects and design company A52 and Fox Sports teamed up to create a unique on-air segment to promote the network's coverage of this year's college football season, they wanted to create a spot that would "reflect" a collegiate look. The intent, says Fox creative director Scott Bantle, was to design the commercial so it appeared as if it could have been crafted by talented university art students with materials readily available in their dorm rooms.

To this end, Bantle and fellow Fox creative director Chris Donovan wanted the imagery to showcase the reflective properties of tinfoil, an art supply that even money-strapped students can afford. "We considered the foil's reflective qualities to be appealing, and they added an extra dimension to the imagery," explains A52's Patrick Murphy, visual effects supervisor and inferno artist on the project.

Although these effects are meant to simulate inexpensive, real-world materials, the truth is that sophisticated digital editing tools were required to achieve the desired look. First, the group conducted a number of previsualizations, including test shoots using both digital video and film, and found that DV provided the most visually appealing sparkle. Then, to re-create the sparkle from the DV test yet maintain quality and control over the project's final look, the team shot all the elements in film and used GenArts's Sapphire Sparks plug-in to re-render the stars and sparkles during postproduction using a Discreet inferno system.
A52 and Fox used GenArts' Sapphire Sparks to mimic the look of tinfoil for a series of television spots.

The group shot the foil look in separate stages with numerous characters, all of which were illustrations captured on film, and then repositioned the imagery and color-corrected it by boosting the contrast for more reflectivity. The artists blocked the areas they didn't want affected by the plug-in, and used the luminance values of the other areas to "feed" the sparkle, giving the image more sparkle if the shot was brighter.

Next, the team used inferno to separate and relayer the 2D film elements to create a 3D look. Once this was done, the group began assembling the images into a 2D environment shot on film. Then, they animated the imagery by moving the camera perspective, which in turn moved all the elements in relation to it. "We didn't want the finished spot to look too polished and perfect," says Murphy. "For example, we were able to add a sense of oddity to the piece by purposely placing objects in opposition to one another," Murphy adds.

KEY TOOLS: inferno, Discreet
Sapphire Sparks, GenArts


Marking the first time a high-end editing package is available on Intel-based workstation platforms, Nvidia's (Santa Clara, CA) Quadro FX 3000G professional graphics accelerator has been selected to power Discreet's smoke 6 standard-definition online editing and finishing system. Designed for high-end and mid-range postproduction facilities, Discreet's new solution combines the Nvidia Quadro FX 3000G with an IBM Z Pro 6221 Linux workstation. Nvidia also announced that workstations incorporating its Quadro FX 3000 graphics accelerator won all six professional application tests in the latest Standard Performance Evaluation Corporation (SPEC) Viewperf 7.1.1 benchmark suite. Kaydara (Montreal, Canada) has been named to Samson Belair Deloitte & Touche's Technology Fast 50 list, an annual award honoring the 50 fastest growing Canadian technology companies, for the second consecutive year. Mental images (Berlin, Germany) has completed a $6 million investment round, enabling the privately held company to expand its US operation in San Francisco and amend its product offerings with RealityServer, a secure, server-based 3D collaboration platform. Electronic Arts (Redwood City, CA) has acquired Studio 33, a Liverpool, England-based developer of such console racing games as Formula One, Newman-Haas Racing, and Destruction Derby Arenas. The 30 former Studio 33 employees will join EA Northwest in nearby Warrington, where the new team is working on driving games to be announced in the future. Ballistic Publishing (Adelaide, Australia) is calling for artists to submit digital images for possible inclusion in Exposé 2, the second annual edition in a series of award-winning digital art books. To be considered for inclusion in Exposé 2, artwork must be submitted before February 29, 2004. Artists can enter online, without cost or limit, at call_for_entries. Alias Systems (Toronto, Canada) revealed that more than 100,000 copies of its Alias SketchBook Pro pen-based software program have been distributed via downloads, bundles, and online sales.


Researchers from the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are using 3D scanning technology to enable computers to recognize and respond to facial expressions. The furrowed eyebrow of someone viewing an online tutorial could someday spur a program to offer support, for example, or shifting glances from people being interrogated by police could cause another program to identify probable liars.

Studies contributing to facial-expression recognition programs often involve breaking down prototypical expressions (happy, sad, fear, and anger) according to muscle movements. But the expressions typically are studied using 2D photographs or video images that don't always paint a complete picture.

Researchers at Beckman, however, use dynamic scanning to capture 3D images in rapid succession, revealing time-dependent changes often lost with static images, says Jesse Spencer-Smith, Beckman Fellow and principal investigator. As an example, the subtle differences between a shy smile and a grin are discernible when the progression of the lips curling is examined in 3D, but might be undetectable when single photographs are compared.

Researchers use a digital camera and flash device to capture facial expressions, which are processed and assembled in 3D.

Eyetronics' 3D dynamic scanning system is used to record facial expressions from a fine grid projected onto the face by a standard slide projector. The images are processed frame by frame, creating a 3D model from the deformation of the grid lines.

Spencer-Smith's team employs a combination of complex algorithms to detect patterns, essentially assigning each characteristic a value according to the number of times it appears. The higher the value, the more defining that characteristic is for the associated expression.

What's learned from the analyses could eventually be translated into software code that enables a computer to identify dominant characteristics in a user's facial expression and interpret emotional state. —Jill R. Aitoro, writer, Cramblitt & Company


It might have seemed unthinkable even a year ago, but according to the most recent Market Watch Report from Jon Peddie Research, Intel has overtaken traditional market leaders Nvidia and ATI as the leading provider of graphics devices (see accompanying chart). Intel ships integrated graphics chipsets (IGCs), a combination of graphics and core logic to control the memory. This finding is not good news for users; according to the report, Intel's integrated graphics chipsets do not dominate the market because they provide superior graphics, but rather because they offer manufacturers the lowest common denominator. Fortunately, Jon Peddie Research anticipates the use of IGCs to start to flatten out and the re-adoption of traditional chipsets and graphics add-in-boards to rise. This trend will occur as the difference between good-enough graphics and mainstream graphics controllers becomes ever clearer to even casual users. The reason is that shaders are complicated and require a large amount of transistors, but lots of transistors and IGCs are mutually incompatible. At the same time, a market for graphics processors capable of turning dreams into reality always will exist. —Kathleen Maher, senior analyst, Jon Peddie Research
Intel has become the leading provider of graphics devices.