Videography - July 1999

SIGGRAPH Showcases Graphics and Animation
By Sheldon Liebman

Next month in Los Angeles, the computer graphics world will gather for the latest SIGGRAPH show, the premier exhibition for graphics and animation products. Lots of new products are sure to be introduced and we'll cover that in our SIGGRAPH round up later this year. Since the show is almost here, this is a good time to look at trends in the graphics and animation industries.

One major trend is that animation is definitely HOT! From "ANTZ" to "A Bug's Life" to "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace," 3D animation is on movie screens everywhere. It's also being used extensively on network and cable television. A few shows are completely computer generated in 3D and others mix animated characters with live action. Of course, 2D animation is also growing in prime time with the recent additions of Fox's "Futurama" and the UPN's "Dilbert" joining the long-running "Simpsons." 2D animation is also on the rise in news and sports. You can still find traditional graphics, but we're seeing more and more animation in its place. If showing a pie chart is good, animating it is better.

Let's All Get Along
One of the reasons we're seeing so much animation is that it's easier than ever to mix and match between different programs and tools. Ten years ago, a lot of companies used Alias for modeling and Wavefront for motion scripting. Special conversion software was created to move data between these two programs and the process was painful, even if the results were outstanding. Today, these two companies are one and their Maya product builds on the strengths that both companies brought to the 3D animation table.

Conversion issues for Maya users have obviously disappeared, but just about everyone can merge information from a variety of sources today. 3D clip art companies like Viewpoint DataLabs in Utah have made a whole business out of providing models that can be used with multiple 3D packages. If the model you're looking for doesn't exist, you can go to laser scanning services like The Nicholas Group, a new company in Redondo Beach, CA. Using the Polhemus FastSCAN hand-held laser scanner, they can come to your location and quickly create a detailed model of just about any real-world object. Once created, the object can be used in a variety of 3D animation programs.

"Which comes first, the model or the reality?" has always been a sticky issue for animators. CAD systems focus on creating the models first and then using that data to create high quality renderings or animation. One of the most well regarded packages in that area is Form-Z from auto-des-sys, which has recently added some animation capabilities. AutoDesk's AutoCAD was another favorite in this area, resulting in the development of the original 3D Studio software to animate models created in the CAD package.

The introduction of laser scanning technology has made it easier to work in whatever media feels most comfortable to you, with the knowledge that you can turn just about anything into a computer model when you need it.

You Want It, You Got It
Other packages offer specific modeling functions that can be brought into full-blown animation systems. MetaCreations, for example, offers Poser 4 for 3D human and animal figures and Bryce 4 for creating models of landscapes and terrains, including the modeling of USGS mapping data. If these tools are better than the ones included in your system, it's easy to model with them and then animate and render with something else. Of course, MetaCreations hopes you'll choose one of their other products to do that, including the full-blown Ray Dream and Infini-D packages.

Another company offering a full range of products under one roof is NewTek, whose LightWave 3D continues to be a popular choice for 3D modeling, rendering and animation. Version 6 of this often-used program was in development for over 2 years and offers enhanced character generation and improved workflow. In addition to LightWave, NewTek offers Inspire 3D, a lower end animation system that can feed LightWave, as well as Aura, a painting and effects package that works seamlessly with LightWave.

This mix and match environment isn't limited to 3D. Compositing tools have become much more sophisticated as well. Adobe After Effects has become something of a standard in this area, but other tools exist as well. Over the past few years, After Effects has evolved from being a simple compositing system into a full-featured animation system. On the other side, animation products like Linker Systems Animation Stand also offer sophisticated compositing with the ability to mix both 2D and 3D information.

One of the reasons After Effects has grown is the development of the "plug-in" market. An entire industry exists solely to provide plug-in technology for Adobe products and for other packages like SoftImage 3D and 3D Studio Max. Using a plug-in, specific functions are added directly to the animation package, eliminating the need to convert data or take any extra steps outside the main program. Before plug-ins were used, creating explosions, for example, required that an external program be run before every frame of an animation, changing the definition of the model(s) being rendered. Now, you just blow things up.

Walk This Way
Another reason for the 3D animation explosion is the development of motion capture systems. Early 3D animators (that would be 10 years ago) spent weeks or months creating the keyframes necessary to model human behavior like walking. At their first SIGGRAPH, Digital Arts, an early pioneer in PC graphics that I was involved with, showcased a "walk sequence" that was created by former Disney animator Bill Kroyer The entire animation lasted 3 seconds and the model took four steps, but people were absolutely amazed.

Today, motion capture has all but eliminated the need for keyframe-based animation. Using these systems, you can accurately model Sammy Sosa's home run swing or Wayne Gretzky's hockey moves. Need to animate a couple dancing the Tango? Hook them both up to a motion capture system and the results are incredible.

Depending on the power of the system you use, motion capture has also created another industry - computer puppets. Silicon Graphics computers (and other platforms) are now being used in real-time entertainment applications that allow a computer-generated actor to mimic the actions of a live actor hooked up to a motion control system. CBS used this technique in their "Wheel of Fortune 2000" game show on Saturday mornings.

Is It Real or Is It Memorex?
Digital puppeteers blur the line between computers and reality by allowing a computer to perfectly mimic the actions of a real person. Simulation systems can also perform a similar function, although not always in real-time. As computers and animation tools have become more powerful, it has also become possible to simulate real-world phenomena like gravity, wind and the movement of objects affected by these forces.

On the entertainment side, this allows more realistic looking missile launches, crashes and explosions, among other things. On the scientific end, it allows more realistic recreations of real-world events. One of the leaders in this area is Engineering Animation in Iowa, whose VisLab software is used by the National Transportation Safety Board as part of the process to recreate plane crashes.

Priced to Move
After reading all the information above, you might be wondering how much money it's going to cost to get all of the pieces you need to create the animation you need. Although it is definitely possible to spend an incredible amount of money on this, it's also possible to do it on a fairly tight budget.

At last year's SIGGRAPH, Nichimen Graphics introduced a very capable animation package for under $100. Today, companies like Ulead have joined that club. In fact, at least one 3D product from Ulead can be downloaded for free from their web site.

At the higher end, Electric Image, which was purchased by Play after last year's show, has reduced their package price by over 60% and are finally including a modeler with their system.

The result of all this lower pricing is that you can afford to purchase multiple products as part of your animation toolkit. If a package is strong in a few areas but weak in others, just get something else for those areas.

Thank You For Your Support
Animation is also available on all the major platforms. Although Electric Image may be the only company still offering their products only on the Mac (it will be available "soon" on other platforms), many of the lower end products that exist today are available for both Mac and Windows, including traditionally Mac oriented packages like Strata 3D. At the higher end, support for both Windows NT and SGI is common. And some packages, like Linker's Animation Stand, support all three platforms.

La La Land, Here We Come
In a few more weeks, we'll be able to see just where the graphics and animation industry stands. And, at the SIGGRAPH Electronic Theater, we'll be able to see shining examples of how all this technology is being used. A couple of years ago, few people would have guessed that we'd be where we are today. Next month, we'll see just how much farther we've gone from there.

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