Videography - March 1997

Softimage Makes Networking a Priority
By Sheldon Liebman

When Softimage first introduced Softimage 3D, it billed the product as a "creative environment" rather than simply an animation program. Since that time, a number of other products have been introduced including Softimage Toonz, Eddie and Digital Studio. In each case, the company has tried to provide tools that work with artists and operators to expand their ability to be creative, rather than dictating a methodology within which they have to work. As the production industry undergoes a transformation to a workgroup orientation, Softimage is committed to evolving its entire product line to meet the challenges of this new way of creating content.

Some of these changes have already started to take place, while others will be introduced in the next versions of the company's products. The process is made more difficult since Softimage's interactive products are no longer confined to the SGI environment. The company's Mental Ray rendering product has run on a number of Unix platforms for a while, but it's batch orientation made that relatively easy. Last year, a Windows NT version of Softimage 3D was introduced. More recently, Softimage Toonz was announced for that same platform. In addition, the new Digital Studio product is designed to run under NT.

Similar Yet Different
With the introduction of products that run under multiple operating systems comes the problem of coordinating information in a multi-platform environment. This really involves three different areas - sharing data, operating the programs and figuring out which machines are used to run which tools. Softimage has dealt extensively with all three of these issues.

Dan Kraus, Group Program Manager, 3D at Softimage, says that it's important to "make sure everyone can talk to everything they need at the right time." To this end, Softimage has implemented basic file locking and sharing so that multiple operators can work on a project at the same time. The database is also the same whether it's on Windows NT or an SGI. And the company has spent a lot of time making sure that a Softimage database cannot be corrupted very easily.

Greg Smith is a Program Management Coordinator who works with Kraus. According to Smith, "one of the most important things in any database system is making sure you don't lose anything. It's very easy to do something weird to a model, but (with Softimage 3D) you can always step two copies back." In addition, adds Smith, "only one person can have read/write access at a time."

The database itself has also evolved over the years to include all of the data necessary for a project. Depending upon how a particular company likes to work, there may be different databases for models and scenes or all the information may be in a single location. The data can also be shared between programs. For example, Eddie can use 3D scene data for compositing. To move between Softimage products and other software, a full range of conversion software is available to manipulate images or models.

In addition to moving the data around easily, Softimage has also taken steps to let operators move from one machine to another. The look and feel is the same on both the SGI and NT versions. "If you bring up the system," says Smith, "you need to look at the workstation to see which platform you are using. That's something people really like."

You Got a License for That Thing?
With identical databases and interfaces, it may seem unnecessary to worry about which kinds of workstations you are using, but this issue comes up as well. Based on price, performance, scheduling and other factors, it's often necessary to change which tasks are running on which machines. Today you may want to use two NT machines on a project. Tomorrow it may be one NT system and one SGI. Softimage's answer to this is a "floating license" that can be used from any platform.

To manage the floating licenses, Softimage users specify one machine on their network to be the "license server." This machine runs a high-level software package that approves or denies requests from any machine to run the software tools. According to Smith, this lets the user "determine how to split the licenses between machines" from day to day or job to job.

Name That Toonz
Another product that benefits from the floating license arrangement is Softimage Toonz. Hugues Leveille, Softimage's Director of Worldwide Sales, is also currently acting as Product Manager for Toonz. "Toonz can be broken down into Ink and Paint and an Animation/Exposure Sheet module," explains Leveille. These modules require different amounts of power in a system, so the ability to move freely from one machine to another is a big advantage. With the recent release of Toonz for Windows NT, this is even more of a requirement. "There may be a large number of Ink and Paint workstations that are very basic in terms of their power and capability," adds Leveille.

Nothing But Net
At the core of being able to share data easily is the creation of a network that can handle it. "Whenever people talk about workgroup computing," comments Kraus, "I think about the bandwidth of the network. People are only now starting to discover that reliability requires correct networks." For example, says Kraus, "you should use 10BaseT instead of coax to avoid collisions."

Kraus is also a big believer is high-speed networking. "The throughput of people is in direct proportion to how fast the data can be moved between machines." But it doesn't stop there. You also need to manage the data so people can organize and retrieve it more easily. "When we started doing research for our next generation product," states Kraus, "I was amazed at how much time people spend playing around on the network. A large percentage of their time is spent interacting with the file structures." If people are to become more productive, adds Kraus, "this stuff has to be as transparent as possible."

Softimage: The Next Generation
Managing assets and content is one of the features being built into the new Softimage Digital Studio product. As it relates to the Softimage 3D product, this new architecture is called Sumatra. According to a company white paper, "the ability to collaborate efficiently across hardware and data boundaries can make or break a project. Common vision, access to production data, and project tracking are fundamental to workgroup productivity."

In the case of a 3D project, the same white paper refers to "one artist modeling a character while another renders the background, while still another works on facial animation." By building a system around a set of tasks and managing those tasks efficiently, workgroup computing can be enabled.

According to Leveille, Softimage also wants to take workgroup computing a step further. "In the Digital Studio architecture," he says, "we are looking to have collaboration even with remote networks." In previous articles, we've touched on the possibility of having a Producer in NY, an Editor in Chicago and a Graphic Artist in LA. With Digital Studio, Softimage is designing a product that wants to make that dream a reality.

Perhaps the only thing better than a set of tools that enable workgroup computing is if those tools are part of an open platform, and Softimage is committed to that as well. As we discussed in last month's story about Digital Studio, the new architecture supports the use of plug-in technology to expand the functionality of the system. By allowing other companies to integrate tools into the products, Softimage does not have to worry about developing every single piece of the production puzzle.

"Our philosophy is that we will provide the initial high end set of tools but people can develop specific features or even complete modules," says Leveille. "Softimage is the only company today with the global view of all aspects of production."

This global view, where the whole production process is merged together, will be clearly evident at this year's NAB show. All of the tools will be networked together in the Softimage booth to demonstrate a practical application of their philosophy. It should be a pretty impressive showing.

Back to Recent L&S Marketing Articles