3D on NT
When three key graphics packages made the move to NT, Tinseltown took notice--and helped move 3-D graphics closer to your desktop.
-- by Lynn Ginsburg and Josef Pusedu
In Walt Disney's day, animation meant pen and paper-plenty of paper. But today's animators create three-dimensional animations in a fraction of the time with high-tech tools.
Computer-based special effects and graphics have been a Hollywood staple for a while, but until recently, they were exclusive to expensive graphics workstations. In the past year, however, Hollywood discovered Windows NT-and the OS is quickly becoming the platform of choice for Tinseltown's animation studios.
Though Windows' seemingly sudden dominance is rippling through the industry, its emergence has actually been in the works for some time. Pentium processors added the oomph that desktop systems needed to compete with souped- up, multimedia-ready workstations, and Windows NT was ready to handle the demanding 32-bit multithreaded requirements of high-end 3-D animation programs.
PCs didn't just catch up; they overtook their workstation competition. For well under $5,000, you can buy a PC-based animation system that delivers workstation-class power. Previously, the cheapest professional-level workstation (running on animation platforms like Amiga, Silicon Graphics or even DOS) would have cost at least twice that.
With the technological cornerstones of the Pentium and Windows NT in place, PCs are now poised to become the dominant 3-D animation platforms.
Past and Future
It would probably be harder to count the commercials or films that don't have 3-D or animation elements. From flying logos to dancing candy bars, 3-D has become part of our lives. Driving 3-D creation into the next century is the Web, where ever-increasing demands for rich multimedia content will make 3-D de rigueur on every competent site.
By definition, 3-D animation and special-effects programs seek to provide more lifelike images than their flat, 2-D cousins. Three-dimensional graphics fool the eye by adding depth to an image. Add motion to a 3-D image, and time-the fourth dimension of spatial perception-is also engaged, further enhancing believability. These 3-D programs work by quantifying the laws of physics into digital terms to account for the effects of gravity, the behavior of light in the atmosphere and the way objects react in collision with other objects.
For our look at 3-D on NT, we checked out the top three high-end 3-D programs running on NT: Kinetix 3D Studio MAX, NewTek LightWave and Softimage. Each of these programs migrated from other platforms: LightWave from the Amiga, originally bundled as a hardware/software solution called the Video Toaster; 3D Studio MAX from DOS (marketed by Kinetix's parent company, Autodesk); and Softimage on Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI)
According to the Roncarelli Report on the Computer Animation Industry, only six years ago the race for ownership of the animation business was a three-way affair among the PC, Macintosh and workstation platforms (primarily SGI). Now, the PC is the clear front-runner: The Roncarelli Report projects that, in 1997, the Wintel platform will own 70 percent of the market, while the Macintosh will run a distant second at 18 percent and SGI will have fallen to third at 12 percent. By 2000, the PC will have 74 percent of the market, the report says. The Mac's market share will slip to 14 percent, and SGI will hold steady at 12 percent.
Robi Roncarelli, industry analyst and author of the report, says the PC now provides all the power and tools 3-D artists require at a lower price. "We've seen a tremendous switch from SGI to the NT platform," Roncarelli says. "It's extremely powerful, easy to work with, can run your other applications like word processing and databases, and has the largest community of developers working on renderers and chips to make it even faster."
According to Roncarelli, both SGI and Macintosh have lost out, in large part, due to price. "SGI was just arrogant in its pricing because the company thought it had the high-end market sewn up," says Roncarelli. "It's been forced to make price reductions now, but it's 'low' entry price is deceiving. Macintosh has also made price reductions, but it's still expensive compared with Wintel machines, and the range of software offered for the Macintosh is small in comparison to the PC."
Moving Pictures to the Desktop
We used two systems to run our software: a relatively low-cost Dell OptiPlex GXpro desktop outfitted for 3-D graphic artists and a high-end Intergraph workstation designed specifically for running 3-D graphics.
The $3,665 Dell machine would be considered entry-level for high-end 3-D graphics, but it's still a powerhouse, with a 200MHZ Pentium Pro CPU, a Matrox Millenium video card with 4MB of VRAM, a 3GB hard drive, a Fast/Wide SCSI controller, an 8X CD-ROM drive, a 17-inch monitor and Windows NT.
Intergraph has long been popular with professional 3-D graphics artists. In the early 1990s, the company shifted from UNIX RISC platforms to Intel/Windows NT. According to Steve Pesto, Intergraph's director of marketing, workstation division, "We could clearly see that Intel would continue to dominate the processor market. And it was also clear to us that NT would eventually migrate for use in the high-end graphics market. "
The Intergraph system we used was a TDZ-410 model, with dual 200MHZ Pentium Pro processors, 128MB of RAM, Intergraph's RealiZMZ13-T16 graphics board (which includes 16MB of texture memory), a 4GB Ultra SCSI hard drive, an 8X CD-ROM, an Ultra SCSI controller integrated onto the motherboard, 10/100BaseT network interface, integrated 16-bit sound, a multimedia keyboard with built-in speakers and microphone, and Windows NT 4.0. The $14,695 price may sound steep, but for high-end 3-D graphics it's a bargain compared to an equivalent SGI system. Intergraph also offers single-processor systems that can handle advanced graphics for about $5,000 (not including monitor)
The Dell was an excellent performer, running all the high-end 3-D software without a hiccup. For intensive 3-D production environments, you'll need to put your money where your mouse is and opt for equipment more on the order of Intergraph's offering. The dual-processor system (an option that's also available from Dell) can take advantage of 3D Studio MAX's and Softimage's multithreading capabilities. When we rendered the same 3D Studio MAX images on the Dell and the Intergraph, we found that the Intergraph's dual processors allowed us to render images nearly twice as fast. (Multithreading capability is standard with MAX, but an additional licensing fee per processor is required to use SoftImage's multithreading)
Intergraph's RealiZMZ13-T16 graphics card is designed specifically to accelerate common 3-D graphics functions, accelerating both Gouraud shading and texturing, and rendering 3-D triangles at speeds exceeding 1.2 million triangles per second. The board's texture-mapping memory speeds the application of a 2-D bitmap image onto a 3-D object. One device 3-D artists should consider plunking down big bucks for is a high-speed 3-D graphics accelerator board like Intergraph's. The company also sells some graphics boards separately.
3D Studio Max
Kinetix's 3D Studio MAX, first released in April 1996, was the only program in our group that was built from the ground up for Windows NT and 95. As a result, 3D Studio MAX has a true Windows look and feel, with such familiar conventions as an icon-driven interface and context-sensitive right-click functionality.
Users coming to 3D Studio MAX from other Windows graphics programs will initially feel more at home. However, once fully entrenched in the software, you'll find that 3D Studio MAX is an intensely complex program that pushes the notion of a GUI interface to its limits.
MAX's powerful 3-D animation and modeling tools are all available in a unified workspace (unlike the separate modes in LightWave and, to a lesser extent, Softimage). The program offers modeling options that include mesh, spline, patch and parametric geometry. You can apply these techniques to a single object separately or in combination to accomplish the demanding task of organic modeling. However, missing from this list are nurbs and metaballs-key tools for creating complex 3-D graphics-although these are available via third-party plug-ins.
The Modifier Stack records every modeling function applied to an object. With it, you can selectively invoke the modeling process steps to create and modify any object. You can turn individual modifiers on and off, edit any modifier and delete modifiers from the stack entirely. For instance, you could create a circle, extrude it and bend it. Then using the Modifier Stack, you could go back to the second step and increase the extrusion's depth, which will then increase the bent tube's length.
Character Studio, a $995 plug-in from Kinetix, provides a sophisticated means for streamlining the animation of biped characters. Character Studio is a footstep-driven approach to character animation, as opposed to relying solely on the arduous manual process of animating motion using inverse kinematics. The program's core is a generic mannequin you use as a reference point to lay down the footsteps that determine the path of the motion. You then take your own character mesh, place it over the mannequin (so that it functions as a skeleton), and link the corresponding joints of your mesh to the mannequin's joints. Character Studio can account for the effects of gravity and uneven terrain, and can link other objects to hands and feet to simulate the effects of such motion-driven functions as catching a ball or riding a bike.
3D Studio MAX has wholeheartedly embraced the Windows platform, and done an excellent job of migrating complex workstation tools to NT's user-oriented interface. Its price is in the middle of the three programs we examined, but adding such features as biped motion in Character Studio, or nurbs and metaballs via third-party plug-ins, will jack up the price.
LightWave 3D 5.0
Of the three programs we looked at, NewTek's LightWave is available on the most platforms, including Windows 95 and NT, PowerMacintosh, Amiga, Digital Alpha and SGI. Such cross-platform compatibility is a boon for production houses running a mix of hardware platforms. LightWave released its first Windows version in August 1995.
LightWave's interface is text-based and relies on labels rather than icons. It has more in common with Softimage than 3D Studio MAX. This may be disconcerting to Windows users migrating from lower-end 3-D software, but it quickly becomes apparent that neither pictures nor text matter for interface utility. LightWave's minimal interface is clearly designed for getting work done easily.
LightWave consists of two independent applications: one for modeling and another for layout/animation. While the separate modules simplify the interface, they result in an unnecessary division of the animation and layout process from the modeling process. This will cost you time switching back and forth. On the plus side, if you have ample system resources, you have the option to render in the animation/layout module while working in the modeler.
At $1,495, LightWave is the least expensive of the three programs. Despite its cost-conscious price, LightWave doesn't skimp on the extras, offering a breadth of features that includes an extensive list of plug-ins for modeling and rendering. One useful feature is MetaNurbs, which converts polygonal models into nurb surfaces. MetaNurbs greatly enhance LightWave's modeling capabilities by combining the ease of polygonal modeling with the flexibility of nurbs modeling. You can edit the mesh using the standard polygonal modeling tools, but the surface transformations have the organic quality of smooth nurbs surfaces.
The Cel Shader, another useful plug-in, is used to make 3-D images look like traditional, hand-drawn cartoon animation. This plug-in reduces the complex color gradients of 3-D rendered scenes to simplified areas of color with fewer transitions. In addition, the computer can generate scenes in between key frames, which would otherwise have to be drawn by hand.
LightWave's rendering engine was recently redeveloped in conjunction with animation production company Digital Domain to increase the pixel sampling rate by three to five times for extremely accurate anti-aliasing effects. Combined with LightWave's flexible camera and lighting settings, the program yields exceptionally high-quality output. LightWave comes with customizable, visible lens flares for lighting to create complex and nuanced scene lighting. LightWave's camera settings are equally powerful, accounting for depth of field effects to simulate traditional photographic techniques.
Don't let LightWave's low price fool you-this is a full-featured high-end animation program with a proven track record in film and video. While its separate modeling and animation/layout modules aren't as ideal as having both functions in one unified interface, it's only a minor annoyance. With all the extras included in the base price, LightWave offers an excellent opportunity for Windows 3-D designers to move into the big league without a big budget.
Microsoft Softimage 3D costs $7,995-a price that may seem steep, but it's considerably less than what it was just a couple of years ago. Softimage 3-D is clearly not for the casual, entry-level 3-D artist looking to make a 3-D flying logo. It's intended for the production of Hollywood film-quality 3-D animation and special effects that require extremely complex high-end control over all aspects of the animation and modeling process. Softimage's 3-D character animation especially shines, boasting a Who's Who list of films that have used it to create characters. While 3D Studio MAX and LightWave also have impressive film credits, Softimage seems to be the preferred tool of Hollywood animators for making fantasy creatures come to life, as seen in the dragon of Dragon Heart or the singing and dancing roaches in Joe's Apartment.
Softimage's modular, text-label interface may be disconcerting at first. But once you get beyond your attachment to little icons, you'll appreciate the utility of the program's interface. Softimage, however, will get an interface overhaul in an upcoming upgrade, code-named Sumatra (no release date yet). Look for a completely object-oriented interface that Microsoft claims will combine next-generation video and animation tools in a transparent work environment.
Softimage has four modules-Model, Motion, Actor and Tools-that can easily be accessed from within the scene you're working on by using a hotkey or by clicking on the module's button from the Server Bar. The modules are separate, but switching between them has no effect on the workspace other than making available the specific tools you need for any particular function.
Softimage offers an almost dizzying array of powerful, easy-to-use controls for both animation and modeling. The Softimage Modeler includes relational nurbs, Meta-Clay, patch, spline and polygonal modeling tools. The program's real strength is the magnitude of its animation capabilities, anchored around its advanced inverse kinematics functionality. Inverse kinematics reflect special controls like gravity, wind and force that allow you to mimic the effects of physics with precise constraints. Generalized Skeletons give you the means to skin geometry onto any object, and by using inverse kinematics you can use the skeleton to control the object's motion.
You edit animations in Softimage using envelopes, onion skin-like overlays and dope sheets. Softimage supports about 30 forms of motion capture. For instance, if you use a microphone to capture an actor's voice, you could use the motion-capture tools to link the voice to an animated character speaking. The motion capture's animation controller would then generate mouth movement and sync it with the capture of the actor's voice, opening the mouth wider as the actor speaks louder, for example.
It's a 3-D World After All
Once the domain of only a few technologically far-out Hollywood special effects shops, 3-D images are now finding their way into the mainstream. More demand for 3-D images means good fortune for those who can create them-the Roncarelli Report projects earnings of close to $30 billion by the year 2000, up from $7 billion in 1994.
The average business user is as enamored with 3-D graphics creation as the professional graphics community is. These 3-D graphics are rapidly becoming the new corporate standard for a professional, polished image, and Webmasters have jumped on the bandwagon with 3-D-enhanced sites. With companies like Microsoft hard at work developing 3-D authoring programs for the masses (see sidebar "The Shape of 3-D to Come"), 3-D graphics will be as commonplace in the office and the home as they are in Hollywood.
Lynn Ginsburg writes about computer graphics, animation, multimedia and the Web. Josef Pusedu is a Boulder, CO-based graphic artist, animator and fine artist. Contact them care of the editor at the addresses listed on page 20.
formZ and formZ RenderZone
Platforms: 3.1x, 95, NT
Price: $1,495; $1,995 with RenderZone
auto des sys
614-488-9777, fax 614-488-0848
Platforms: 95, NT
Lightscape 3.0 Visualization
Platforms: 95, NT
LightWave 3D 5.0
Platforms: 95, NT
Platforms: 95, NT
3D Studio MAX
Platforms: 95, NT
Platforms: 95, NT
Price: $10,000 to $50,000, depending on modules
314-344-5900, fax 314-344-4180
The Shape of 3-D to Come
Windows Magazine, May 1997, page 203.
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