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The Electronic Theater

The Art Gallery

The Chapters Party

The new Alias logo

Lightwave 8 at NewTek Booth

Terminatrix at Softimage Booth

Discreet shows Max 6

ImageStudio at Alias Booth

Free "Finding Nemo" Posters

Electronic Theater and Other Cool Clips

The Electronic Theater was the real highlight of the show for me this year.  While some areas such as the Expo hall have shriveled to a fraction of the former size, the quality and variety of innovative work in the ET continues to impress, and unlike some years this showing included a majority of things that I hadn't seen before in any other venue.  The work shown in the ET seems especially relevant as so many studios are leaping into the computer animated feature market; I only wish that all of the producers and directors involved could watch this Electronic Theater and see the diverse range of imagery and styles that CG artists are capable of producing, instead of everyone chasing the same looks and styles for all of their new projects.  The tickets may cost $50, but it is well worth the show.

The other most interesting footage I saw at the show were the behind-the-scenes clips that ESC Entertainment showed in their session on making The Matrix.  In the movie itself, the heads of the digital doubles were usually not seen in close-ups and were running and fighting with motion blur, so seeing close-ups on the animated faces, and just how accurate the geometry and texture was that they captured was impressive when they showed the animated close-ups.  Their approach to face tracing is a partially automated process using an array of HDTV cameras focused on the actor at different angles, and between their photometric software and some human intervention tweaking geometry at individual frames, they showed that they could reproduce in 3D a realistic close-up of an actor's face during a performance.  Seeing the unfolded texture map animated, and how the wrinkles changed and color built up with blood flow in different expressions gave a perspective on why the texture needed to be updated at every frame along with the geometry.  Their work on human hair was good as well, considering they needed to match real life hairstyles of different actors. (There are some articles about this work on George Borshukov's website - source: deathfall.com.)

Competition in 3D Animation and Renderers

Competition seemed surprisingly healthy this year.  As recently as two years ago, it seemed that Alias's Maya had a complete strangle hold on the film production market, as the only commercial animation package being used for modeling and animation across most leading effects studios.  This year, Maya version 5 is still going strong, with a lot of television and film studios relying on Maya, as well as an increasing number of game developers, and yet the market is more competitive, with Softimage back in action selling new XSI licenses to some film studios, as well as many smaller firms.  If things had gone differently, I had been worried that by this year we could be seeing more carnage with some companies going out of business or getting acquired - such news might still come for some of the players in the crowded 3D animation market, but this year all I saw was a more balanced market and a lot of vendors with new versions on display.

XSI version 3.5 looks like a strong upgrade with improved modeling, new manipulators for transformations (which every program apparently needs to have nowadays), and better hair rendering.  XSI has been selling licenses by including a fully integrated implementation of the Mental Ray renderer, as well as built-in compositing and other goodies to give customers at smaller shops a complete production system right out of the box.  Maya has been improving its integration with Mental Ray in version 5, while it hasn't gone as far as XSI with interactive previewing and shared memory, it certainly provides a compelling alternative to the Maya Renderer.  3D Studio Max version 6 has now joined XSI and Maya in including a license of Mental Ray version 3.2 with every copy, as well as extra Mental Ray shaders (before Max 6, the Mental Ray for Max connection had been an expensive optional renderer that emulated the Max renderer's shaders and did not allow the user to use other MR shaders.)

Mental Ray is now in a unique position of being included with every copy of the leading 3D animation packages Maya, Softimage XSI, and 3D Studio Max, as well as the older Softimage 3D.  Further expanding it's reach, Alias rolled out a new product called ImageStudio for industrial designers, which includes Mental Ray, and can read files from Alias Studio or other industrial design software, adjust textures and lighting, and create Mental Ray renderings of any design.  Mental Ray still has competition, however, and while users get one Mental Ray license for free, they would need to buy more Mental Ray licenses in order to distribute a rendering task to more computers.

Pixar's Renderman had significant news at SIGGRAPH: the new version 11.5 will add several improvements to speed and render quality, Renderman was shown running on a Macintosh G5 at Pixar's booth (at this point it was just the Pro Server version, rendering from files that needed to be generated on another operating system), and Renderman also has greatly reduced pricing.  Price is big news for Renderman because many professionals already regard it as the fastest way to render detailed high resolution scenes with motion blur, and have admired the work that leading film studios do with it, but many smaller companies had avoided investing in it just because of the price.

If there's another renderer worth watching, it's Splutterfish's Brazil, at present this promising renderer has a limited market and only works with 3D Studio Max, but a representative at the booth told me that we should expect an announcement later this year about connections to other animation packages.

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Pictures and Article Copyright © 2003 by Jeremy Birn www.3dRender.com