Videography - February 1997

Digital Studio Turns a Product into an Environment
by Sheldon Liebman

An interesting shift is starting in the video production industry. Back in the early days of video production, which may be as recently as 10 years ago, custom-purpose black boxes were used for each function in a production suite. There was the graphics box, the editing box, the compositing box, the audio box, etc. These products were designed for a single purpose and were not necessarily expected to communicate with each other in any reasonable manner.

More recently, the trend has been toward open production platforms. This could be seen in two very different ways, although both gave similar results. One the one side were standalone systems that became "aware" of the other pieces of the production puzzle. Using some type of data interchange, it became possible to move information between these systems. The first common data exchange format may have been Truevision's TGA file format, which could be used by a large number of animation and graphics systems. Other formats such as Avid's OMF (Open Media Framework) allow many systems to exchange other types of information.

The second type of open system was usually contained on a single machine. How many systems are out there with separate software packages for paint, animation, compositing, editing and audio all loaded on a single machine and (hopefully) sharing files between applications? The nice thing about this scenario was that all the data was readily available from a single source. The two major disadvantages are that (1) each package has its own interface and (2) only one of the packages can be used at a time.

Reestablishing the Creative Process
Softimage, which was acquired by Microsoft a few years ago, is looking to change all that with the introduction of the Softimage Digital Studio. Although the vision for this product started with Daniel Langlois, President of Softimage, the execution is easier due to the expertise of their parent company. In fact, the company refers to Digital Studio as a "Creative Environment" rather than simply a product. Although the same term was applied to their original Softimage 3D product, it seems to be more appropriate in this case due to the breadth and scope of the functions included in the system.

Michael Stojda is the Digital Studio Product Manager and understands the vision behind its development. "This industry has been a collection of disparate products that don't talk to each other. When you move from one type of task to another, you change the way you do things. Sometimes, this change is so drastic that you need to change operators." Every project starts with a vision, adds Stojda, and if "you need to use 5 different tools to develop the story, you'll lose parts of it" during the process.

In this type of setting, the other thing that can happen is that the tools start to define "how things will be done and how they will look," explains Stojda. "We wanted to create an environment where people, not tools, are in control. Our goal is to remove the barriers that impact creativity so that the tools are almost an unconscious part of the process."

Understanding the Process
The combination of Microsoft and Softimage is a powerful one when it comes to understanding the different pieces of this complex puzzle. Softimage has experience and expertise in creating tools for high-end production professionals. The company has watched the successes and failures of its customers in the integration of tools from different manufacturers very closely. On the other side is Microsoft, the dominant software force in the PC industry. "Microsoft works hard to understand the needs of its customers and actively supports the process of creating a suite or 'environment' rather than isolated products," says Craig Mundie, Senior Vice President of the Consumer Platform Division at Microsoft. "The newly released Microsoft Office 97 suite is a prime example of integrating different functions into a seamless environment. Through a similar shared vision with Softimage, we plan to extend this seamless integration into the digital media market with Digital Studio."

If the companies had not joined forces prior to the completion of Digital Studio, this one product vision would have been a tremendous reason for them to consider it. In fact, although we don't know all of the reasons for the acquisition, it is probably a safe bet to say that Bill Gates and the people at Microsoft would feel that this fit right in with their overall strategy. According to information on the Softimage Web site (, Langlois has been working on this idea since 1993, which was before the Microsoft negotiations began.

Plug In and Play
Softimage Digital Studio is not just a standalone product with the hopes that other companies will adopt its methods and techniques. As with Microsoft Windows and Office products, there is a developer's toolkit and application interface that ensures all products that become available for this environment adhere to strict rules. As with products like Adobe PhotoShop, Digital Studio "plug-ins" will be developed that can be used to extend the software's toolset in as seamless a manner as possible. Entire industries exist to supply additional functionality to certain products and Softimage is hoping that Digital Studio is added to that short and desirable list.

If companies don't want to directly integrate their functions into Digital Studio, they can create standalone products that fit into the Digital Studio environment. This is similar to a class of products available today that are "Microsoft Office Compatible." By ensuring that the look and feel of the application is similar, these products can take advantage of the popularity of the base system while still maintaining a separate identity. It is also possible for products that cannot be integrated directly into Digital Studio, such as those that run on Apple Macintosh or SGI computers, to allow information to be exchanged through the use of the file formats that will be a part of the system.

Video Production as a Single Application
The idea behind Digital Studio is to effectively make the entire production process a single application. Although there will be different ways to configure Digital Studio and a studio may have more than one system running, it will be very easy to move between the various "modules" without having to change the way you work.

"The interface is going to be the same" across the product, states Stojda, "and multiple systems can be networked together. In this way, the tools become an enhancement to the creative process (instead of a barrier). Multiple people will be able to collaborate on a project simultaneously without having to run through a facility or send stuff through the router." Everyone can share the work in progress and view it at any point.

As an example, Stojda offers a compositing project where one person is working on the background and another is doing the foreground. With Digital Studio, they'll be able to preview the composite at any time and adjust the images as needed with no surprises. "You're not just taking away the barriers," says Stojda, "but truly giving the power back to the creative people who are trying to develop a vision."

Along the same lines, having the ability to customize the system to specific tasks while still maintaining the interoperability with other tools can enhance creativity. A user doing in-house corporate videos has one set of requirements, a network television show another. But each can invest in options that will enhance the specific features they need to be successful. And, if the corporate video user wants to move into a higher level of capability, the system can be expanded through both hardware and software to meet those needs.

Although the final configuration of Digital Studio is not set, there are a number of applications that are almost certain to be a part of it. These include audio and video editing, 2D and 3D paint and effects, compositing, titling and content management. There are also a number of hardware add-ons that will integrate with the system. These include Trinity from Play (Rancho Cordova, CA) and DigiSuite from Matrox (Dorval, PQ) as well as several others. All of which will be usable in a networked environment through Windows NT. Final configurations of the product are still being determined based on feedback from Beta sites and show audiences.

The pricing of Digital Studio is also not set, nor is a firm introduction date. Stojda is willing to say, however, that "Digital Studio will be a prominent part of our NAB display" which will be located in the main hall. Other products in their booth will include Softimage 3D and Softimage Toonz running under Windows NT. For now, these will remain as separate products, but it is probably a safe bet to say they will integrate into the Digital Studio environment as soon as possible.

In a memorable ad campaign for the United States Navy, the tagline was "It's not a job, it's an adventure." In the case of the Softimage Digital Studio, "It's not a product, it's an environment."

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