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Notes from SIGGRAPH 2000
By Jeremy Birn

The convention center in New Orleans is right on the shore of the Mississippi River.

New Orleans still boasts an old French Quarter dating back to the days when the state of Louisiana was a French Colony.

New Orleans is famous for its Cajun style foods, which are spicy and high in fat.

The Softimage Users Group Meeting on Monday night previewed XSI version 1.5.

Maya 3 was demonstrated at the Alias|Wavefront booth.

Sony Pictures Imageworks recruited artists with a "Draw Your Own T-Shirt" booth.

Pods surrounded the Softimage Booth for smaller demos.

Right Hemisphere showed Deep Paint 3D, along with Texture Weapons.

Reflex Systems software poses human figures starting with their underlying anatomy.

I signed copies of my Digital Lighting & Rendering book. It's great to finally see the thing in print! (Photo by J. Kim.)

July 28, 2000 - Thousands of SIGGRAPH attendees braved the heat of New Orleans, Louisiana in late July to keep up-to-date on the CG Industry's latest hardware, software, screenings, courses, papers, and parties.

XSI Taking Off with 1.5

Softimage XSI (formerly known as Sumatra), the long-awaited sequel to Softimage 3D, is currently shipping in 1.0. Version 1.0 is a promising start, with a cool interface and some features that set it ahead of other high-end 3D apps. However, as experienced users would expect from a 1.0 of such a complex system, it also has some limitations and omissions.

A key question for XSI's future is the pace and quality of Softimage's version development over the next year. If Softimage's updates to XSI are as sluggish as the initial development of the product, XSI will not be able to compete with more complete high-end packages. If Softimage moves forward rapidly to fill-in missing areas and build an end-to-end production solution on top of their XSI architecture, then Softimage could come back as a strong challenger for Maya's current high-end market dominance. With this question in mind, the demonstration of XSI version 1.5 at the Softimage Users Group Meeting on Monday gave an appreciative audience great hope.

According to the schedule shown at SIGGRAPH, Softimage|XSI version 1.5 is slated to enter beta in September, and hopefully to ship by December of 2000. The pre-alpha of XSI 1.5 that was demonstrated had a complete-looking set of polygon modeling tools, multiple types of subdivision surfaces that include adjustable weighting for edges, and all-new Boolean tools that seemed much more stable and interactive than the old Softimage Booleans. The animation-mixer, already the best in the industry in version 1, got several new upgrades, and Softimage 3D's popular dopesheet window comes to XSI in version 1.5 in an updated form. New tools were also shown for texture mapping and UV coordinate editing for polys, NURBS, or subdees. Scripting had been improved with scripts that could run continuously within your scene, acting more like plug-ins.

However, other features that you might expect, were not shown. For example, they did not show whether 1.5 will allow you to trim a NURBS surface, whether it will support shader balls for previewing materials and textures, whether there would be any Rendermap+ or "Convert Solid Texture"-type functionality, or whether the procedural textures will include a ramp or gradient editor. They did show a very brief demo of XSI running under Linux, a port that is under development, but didn't mention a specific date for a Linux release. Softimage has apparently been getting a lot of work done in a short time, and most Softimage users walked away from the meeting very upbeat about the whole presentation.

Maya News

Maya version 3.0 is shipping. I just wrote a lot about 3.0 in my NAB 2000 write-up, so I won't repeat that coverage on this page. The AWGUA meeting featured a series of user demos showing their use for the software, from large production companies and smaller groups of individuals. A|W promised ports of Maya to Linux and to Max OSX, and "X" t-shirts were given away by Apple. While it was a good meeting, there was no Duncan Brinsmead presentation this year, and no noteworthy new features unveiled.

Arnold Renderer & project:messiah

The Arnold Global Illumination Renderer (web site) seems to have become a subject of discussion on almost every 3D-related listserve and newsgroup over the past month, with the whole net talking about the photorealistic shading achieved in the programmer's demo animations. Marcos Farjardo had been developing the Arnold renderer as a plug-in renderer for 3D Studio Max. News announced just before SIGGRAPH 2000 (web link) was that it had been added to project:messiah's product line.

Project:messiah started as in-house code at Lightwave-based production company Station X Studios to augment the character animation capabilities of Lightwave 3D. Messiah was later marketed commercially as a Lightwave plug-in, and the company has split-off from Station X. The popularity of Messiah as a Lightwave plug-in seemed to diminish when NewTek shipped Lightwave 6, which added enhanced character animation features to the base package. (In an e-mail reply to this report, a publicist for pmG asserts that messiah's popularity only appeared to diminish on the Lightwave lists because users started posting on the separate messiah list.)  Now Messiah is being sold as a stand-alone 3D animation application, that can be bought and used by itself, with mesiah:render (aka the Arnold renderer) as a rendering option.

With great anticipation, I went to the project:messiah booth on Wednesday, hoping to see messiah:render demonstrated, but was saddened that the folks at the booth could not show me the program running, nor could they tell me when it would be publicly demonstrated.  (A July 21 announcement on the company web site described messiah:render as "available" separately or together with their other products, and advertised that they would be "unveiling" the new renderer at this year's SIGGRAPH - this does not match my own observations from visiting the booth, where I got the impression that it wasn't available yet, and they were not showing it.)  In the future, perhaps in next year's SIGGRAPH report, I look forward to being able to write about how this promising new renderer works, or how it integrates with different applications.

Deep Paint 3D

Deep Paint 3D by Right Hemisphere (web site) seems to show 3D paint "coming of age" in the sense of being usable for all levels of production texture-mapping. In most of my work so far, when 3D paint programs were used at all, I only used them to "mark-up" a model, making a map that simply indicated the locations of key features and areas within the model, and then used the mark-up map as a background layer in Photoshop, where I would paint and/or composite-together the actual texture map in 2D, using the mark-up map as reference. I fell back on 2D because either the 3D paint programs didn't have all of the paint tools, filters, and layering capabilities of Photoshop, or because the 3D paint packages didn't allow all the functions I needed to base my final textures on processed scans or photographs.

Deep Paint has a very Photoshop-like interface, as well as similar multi-layer support for different layers of textures, making it pretty easy to sit down and use for people with Photoshop experience. Deep Paint 3D includes all the functions of Deep Paint 2D, giving you a built-in 2D paint program already, although it can also be launched as a Photoshop Plug-in if you want to stick with Photoshop. The natural-media brushes are similar to the ones from Fractal Painter, except that they have the option to paint into the color, bump, and specularity texture channels all at once. With their new Texture Weapons extensions, they had tools for fixing the texture distortion commonly seen around poles or singularities in objects, and for unwrapping complex models to give each point a unique UV coordinate, and an option for 2D "projection painting" over a model, which gets stamped down into the model's texturing when it is rotated, in addition to straight 3D painting directly onto the surface.

Digital Humans

An area where progress never stops, and technology will never become "Good Enough," is the creation of 3D virtual humans, which are in demand in interactive entertainment, movie special effects, and as characters for a variety of other venues.

At the AWGUA (Alias|Wavefront Global Users Association) meeting on Sunday, Sony Pictures Imageworks showed some of their amazing work building a character for Hollow Man from the inside out. Constructing a realistic skeleton, muscles and connective tissues, and even a circulatory and digestive system for their figure, they showed test animations with the incredibly realistic dynamics applied to the hand and body of their complete figure. Animated Renderman shaders revealed muscles down to the individual strands and revealed organs as volumes, showing the process of the actor becoming partially invisible as a serum was injected and traveled through his blood stream.

Similar in concept, in that a human is animated starting from an accurate skeleton and muscle model, Drama software from Reflex Systems was demonstrated with a pre-configured, adjustable human figure. While the concept sounds good, the actual surface modeling of the figure was a bit crude, and when he moved, there were no impressive wrinkles or dynamics. Despite the slightly weak demo, the basic approach of bringing anatomy-oriented character set-up into commercial software seems likely to emerge as a viable production solution at some point in the future, so I will check back on this or any similar products in future years.

The Electronic Theater screenings included some new virtual human work as well. LifeFX Inc. (web site) showed an impressive job of 3D face replacement in Young at Heart, where a young actress had her face tracked and replaced by a 3D rendered face of an older woman, based on motion capture from the young actress's face. Ironically, the final product came out looking a lot like a young actress with heavy aging make-up applied, but the results were seamless, and served as a demonstration that they could "digitally age" actors for scenes in movies. Digital Domain had just completed a similar face-replacement project, tracking and replacing a dancer's face with the with a CG-animated face of a younger James Brown, to recreate a historical performance by James Brown that was never filmed.

Other shorts in the Electronic Theater were reminders that realism isn't necessary to entertain: Robert Rioux's Block Wars, featuring Star Wars characters and sets made out of Lego, got more laughs from the audience than most of the higher-tech wizardry.

SIGGRAPH (Special Interest Group on Graphics) is the leading American organization for computer graphics professionals.  Most new developments in computer graphics over the past 30 years have been introduced at the annual SIGGRAPH Convention, the main event of the year in computer graphics.  Visit the siggraph.org for details about future conferences, or consult the schedule below:

SIGGRAPH 99 (See Report.) Los Angeles, California
July 23 - 28, 2000 (this page) New Orleans, Louisiana
August 12 - 17, 2001 Los Angeles, California
July 21 - 26, 2002 San Antonio, Texas
July 27 - August 1, 2003 San Diego, California

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Copyright © 2000 by Jeremy Birn.  Please do not duplicate without written permission.