The Evolution Of 3d animation Tools on the Desktop

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The Evolution Of 3D Animation Tools on the Desktop

By Ken Baer


The history of Computer graphics imagery and animation has often been described in terms of “high end” hardware and software trickling down to the “low end”. The initial research and development did occur on prohibitively expensive equipment, but as the personal computer emerged many innovations occurred there that have contributed greatly to the tools we know today. These innovations have often been overlooked, and should get the attention they deserve.

I am going to cover some general history of Computer Graphics (CG), show the context of how 3D animation tools evolved, and show where today’s tools came from. For the purposes of this discussion, I will use the term “Desktop” to refer to low cost personal computers, and the term “Workstation” to refer to mini-computers that cost $30,000 and up. There are some influential products that will not be covered due to time limitations of this presentation. To those of you that use these products, there is no disrespect intended.

The Early Days of CG (1960’s – 70’s)
The very earliest efforts in CG were done in the 1950’s for Computer Aided Design (CAD) and military simulations. The output was usually to a plotter, and by the late 50’s to black and white film.
In 1962, Ivan Sutherland, a student at MIT wrote a program called “Sketchpad”. It was a 2D program that could draw lines and curves on a CRT screen. By using a light pen the user could draw directly on the monitor. Over the next few years, early vector graphics began to emerge. Most of the results were 2D, white lines on a black background. Early applications in architecture and mapping began to occur.

In 1965, David Evans started the CG department at the University of Utah. That same year, Charles Csuri started the Ohio State University CG program.

A few years later in 1968, Ivan Sutherland joined the computer graphics department at the University of Utah. That same year, he and David Evans founded the very first computer graphics company, aptly named Evans & Sutherland. It provided vector graphics system comprised of custom hardware and software. Previously, this kind of equipment was only available as one-of-a-kind multi-million dollar installations for military sites. Evans and Sutherland made the first CAD systems and were used primarily by the automotive design and aerospace industries.

Much of the early research that makes 3D CG possible was done at the University of Utah. Among the technologies to come out of Utah were, hidden line and surface algorithms, smooth 3D shading known as Gouraud shading, and surface subdivision. The earliest efforts to model a human hand and human face were also done there.
A small number of people that went through the CG graduate program at Utah had and continue to have a huge influence in the development and use of CG. Without question, the most influential is Edwin Catmul. Catmul’s career always seems to have him at the forefront of the CG’s cutting edge, where he continues as the co-founder and President of Pixar. Other notable figures to come out of the Utah program are Jim Clark, the founder of Silicon Graphics (SGI) and Netscape, Nolan Bushnell the inventor of Pong and the founder of Atari, and John Warnock, who founded Adobe. While in the program, Martin Newell scanned a teapot one point at a time, to create a virtual object that was used for testing many new algorithms for drawing and shading. It has become legendary in the CG community, and is often used in a running in-joke at SIGGRAPH conferences. Many other pioneers of CG technology also came out of the Utah program, but the list is too long to show here.

In 1973, Dr. Alexander Shure hired Ed Catmul to head the Computer Graphics Lab at the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT). One of the primary goals of Shure was to create a full length CG feature film. Considering that very few CG images had even been produced at that time, it was quite an ambitious goal. Several people from the Utah program went with him. The CG developments at NYIT were numerous and created the foundation of what we use today. Among the innovations they had the world’s first 24-bit frame buffer, the first RGB paint program, the first computer controlled video editing system, the first Alpha channel (invented by Ed Catmul and Alvy Ray Smith), and the first mip-mapped textures.
Most people do not realize the sheer number of technical problems that had to be solved with the invention of new technology in order to make 3D animation possible. The research done at Utah, NYIT, and others such as Ohio State University, and other universities around the world was pivotal and created the foundation of CG.
CG Goes Into Production
In 1979, funding for the NYIT CG Lab wound down, and Ed Catmul got an offer from George Lucas to head the LucasFilm Computer Graphics Lab. Many people from NYIT eventually joined him there. Lucas’ goals were to create computer tools to aid in filmmaking, particularly in digital output to film, film editing, and sound synthesis. But, in the process they also created some of the first high quality film CG sequences. In 1982, they created the “Genesis” sequence for the film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn. It included particle fire, and an animated fractal terrain.
Several CG production companies started around this time. They created mostly flying logo sequences and animation for educational and corporate films. The hardware available at the time was limited to mainframe computers and terminals. Modeling was usually performed by defining simple shapes with scripts or programs. Motion and animation were also performed mostly with scripts. All the software was developed in-house, and the animators had very little visual feedback or interactivity. Also, the computers capable of the number of calculations needed for CG work cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. It was a huge investment that put a burden on these small companies.

In 1983, Disney took a major leap of faith and released the movie “Tron”. What most people do not realize is that the majority of the scenes that take place in the computer’s world, were not CG, but actually hand animated rotoscopes. However, the movie did contain 15 minutes of real CG, and included work from four different CG studios. These studios were MAGI, Robert Abel and Associates, Triple-I, and Digital Effects. They were the major CG studios at that time.

Another studio that made waves was Digital Productions which was founded in 1981. They decided they would trump all of their competitors by purchasing a Cray XMP supercomputer. The catch? The price tag was $17 million. The idea was that they could produce much more output than their competitors and do many more jobs. They did do hundreds of commercials, and 25 minutes of space ship shots for the movie “The Last Starfighter” in 1984. That was the first time that CG was used in the place of traditional model effects elements in a live action feature.

Just for a matter of perspective, the Cray XMP processing power was reported as roughly 0.9 Gigaflops. A Gigaflop is a billion processor operations per second. According to Apple, the PowerBook G4 500Mhz is 3.7 Gigaflops, and PowerMac G4 Dual 1.25Mhz is 18.3 Gigaflops. The newer 3 Ghz PC’s are even faster.

Meanwhile, back at the Lucasfilm Computer Graphics Lab, work continued. They create a holographic display sequence for “Return of the Jedi” in 1983, and the sequence with an animated stained glass knight in 1985’s “The Young Sherlock Holmes”. But, Ed Catmul was still interested in pursuing CG feature films, and George Lucas was not. “Tron” and “The Last Starfighter” were both unsuccessful at the box office, and Hollywood became weary of computer graphics.
So, in 1985, Lucasfilm’s Computer Graphics Lab spun off and was renamed Pixar and led by Ed Catmul and Alvy Ray Smith. A year later, George Lucas sold his controlling interest to Apple’s co-founder Steve Jobs, who remains the CEO to this day.

Most of the CG production business was in commercials and flying logos. Robert Abel and Associates did some of the best work during this period and produced some groundbreaking animation. In many ways it was ahead of most of what was being done at the time, and actually still holds up well today.

The First Wave Ends
The first wave of CG production companies started running into trouble by 1986. Most of the them were burdened by huge debt from very expensive hardware they had purchased in the early 80’s. Another set of events was also taking its toll. In 1984, Silicon Graphics released their first graphics workstation. Other minicomputer workstations started appearing from companies like Sun Microsystems, Apollo, and HP. These workstations were expensive, in the $60 thousand to $100 thousand range, but they were far less expensive than the old mainframes of the previous generation. The old companies could not upgrade to the newer workstations because of their debt, and therefore could not compete with the newer up and coming CG studios.
By 1987, virtually all of the original CG studios were out of business, except one. Pacific Data Images was founded in 1980 and originally ran as a four person company. Rather than investing heavily on a massive mainframe, they bought an DEC PDP-11/44, an older and less expensive mainframe. While not cheap by today’s standards, it was considerably less expensive than what their competitors had purchased.

On a personal note, we had a PDP-11/44 at my high school in Portland. To give you an idea of the changes we’ve gone through since those days, here is a picture of the PDP-11 with my mentor Phil Mason.

And here is a picture of Phil and I when I ran into him at SIGGRAPH in 2001. To those of us that were there during the days of mainframe computers, it doesn’t seem like that long ago, but other things remind us that it was. Thank goodness I still have my hair.
PDI became known for its network and corporate logo work. They survived because they concentrated more on commercial work than on “glamorous” feature films, and financially they stayed in the black. They grew slowly, in a piece-wise fashion, and paid as they went. They later went on to make “Antz” and “Shrek”.

Here is a sample of the some of the work they did to this point.

Some of the other studios that started in 1987 are Rhythm & Hues who later did “Babe”, , deGraf/Wahrman, ReZn8, and Blue Sky who made “Bunny” and “Ice Age”.
The Hardware Landscape Changes
The first personal computers came out in the late 1970’s. The first popular machines were the Radio Shack TRS-80, the Commodore PET, and the Apple ][. I started with a TRS-80 which had a graphics resolution of 128 x 48 on a black and white display. A year later, I moved up to an Apple ][ with the hires capability of 280 x 192 and six colors. The processors had about the same power as an original Palm Pilot. Producing 3D graphics and animation was beyond what these machines could realistically handle.

In 1984, SGI released the first Iris Workstation terminal and Apple released the Macintosh. The Macintosh took a step backwards by being black and white instead of color like the Apple ][, but a big leap forward by having the first consumer graphical user interface (GUI). Previously, that was only available from Xerox to a select few. The SGI was not yet a standalone computer, but a graphics terminal.
In 1985, Commodore released the Amiga. This was a turning point. Not only was the Amiga cheaper than the Mac, which was being marketed to business more than home users, it had color, a graphics co-processor, a snappy 7Mhz 68000 processor, and even video out. That meant that you could create 2D or 3D animation on it, play it back, and record it directly to a home VCR without additional equipment. Desktop video was born. The community that grew up around the Amiga was smaller than the Mac and IBM-PC communities, but seemed to have an energy and excitement that the others did not. Amiga users began to realize the world of CG was now available to them. Similar sentiments were happening in the Atari ST community, but the Amiga had a few advantages that kept it ahead.

As the SGI emerged in the mid-80’s, the first commercial 3D packages started coming out. In 1984, Wavefront released PreView, a graphics program for previsualizing motion control camera motion. Over the next few years they added modeling, animation and rendering capabilities. The following year, Alias released the Alias/1 modeler, which used cardinal splines and popup menus. In 1986, Vertigo released the first fully integrated turnkey 3D animation system for Sun workstations. In 1987, Alias released Alias/2 which used B-splines for modeling. Another early player during this time was Symbolics which was founded in 1980 as a spinoff from the MIT AI Lab. They made hardware and software systems built around LISP machines. Symbolics went in a very different direction than the other software companies that were focused more on SGI and Sun hardware. It also was the first software to have character animation features and flocking.

Though the early workstation hardware had more power and capacity, 3D tools began to emerge on personal computers. Autodesk, which was founded in 1982, was on a mission to provide a CAD solution for PC for $1000. One of the first on the Mac was a simple polygon modeler called Easy3D. Not long after in 1986, CAD-3D came out on the Atari-ST.
But, the real explosion happened in personal 3D on the Amiga. During 1986, a few shareware ray-tracers came out, but they had no interface and used data scripts to create still images. But, the awareness of 3D on the Amiga started when a cover article in AmigaWorld magazine showed 3D images of a cityscape created by a yet-to-released program called Caligari. I was still in college when this came out, and the group of us with Amigas were very excited about the prospect of creating 3D animation films with our Amigas.

Later that year, the famous Juggler animation was created by Dr. Eric Graham, and showed the first example of character animation on the Amiga. As it turned out, the software that was they were working on to create these examples weren’t the first to hit the market.

The first 3D animation product to actually become commercially available on the Amiga was Animator’s Apprentice by Martin Hash.

Later that year, several other 3D programs came out including, Aegis Videoscape3D by Allen Hastings, Aegis Modeler3D by Stuart Ferguson, Sculpt3D written by Eric Graham and released by BytebyByte, Silver by Impulse, and Forms-in-Flight.

The bulk of these programs were based on polygon modeling or simple primitives like spheres, cones, and cubes. Apprentice, however, was very different. Apprentice was the only program among the group that was specifically designed for character animation. The goal was to achieve “organic” modeling and animation. To this end, instead of using the traditional polygon modeling, it used something called “voxels”. Voxels are like 3D pixels, or small colored cubes. The Apprentice modeler used an image-based approach to creating shapes. The user would load a front and side view of the object, and the program would create cross-section slices. After filling in the gaps, the user would stamp images onto the model and be able to paint on it from different views.
After making the individual shapes, called Segments, they would be brought together in to create a skeleton based character. Then the user would create Actions for the character with motion ease for natural, non-robotic looking motion. The characters would then be placed on a stage, actions would be assigned to them, and the user would move the characters, lights, and camera on motion paths.
It was a very primitive interface by today’s standards, but the other programs of that time essentially had no interface. They would make the user create models and animation completely through scripts. In Apprentice, final rendering would go out to 4096 color images or animation with overscan, which meant the images could go to the physical edge of the video screen, and not have an invisible border around it. The program could also output a flat “Disney-style” animation that was similar to today’s toon style. The other programs at the time were limited to 32 colors without overscan.
Apprentice had many early innovations. The intention of the method of character motion was intended to make it easy to create actions that could be reused, not just for one character, but for all characters with the same skeleton. Action overloading allowed multiple actions to be layered on the same character such as a walk cycle and facial actions like eye blinks and lip sync. With the action list, actions could be moved, sped up and slowed down as well. A year before the first version of SoftImage shipped, and more than a decade before SoftImage would coin the term, Apprentice had non-linear animation.

Most of the other 3D applications were written with the renderer first, and then modeling and animation features second. Apprentice was written with modeling and animation features first, and the renderer last. The result was that images and animation from the polygon based programs were predominantly simple shapes moving and rotating on a checkboard floor, our users were making character animation and telling stories. And here is a sampling of animation made with Apprentice during this time.

During the next three years, we went through three major versions of Animation:Apprentice, and released nine other animation products for the Amiga. They included a digital compositor called Multiplane that predated After Effects by about five years, a program for ADO effects called Effects, an animation stand emulator called Stand, a titling program called Titler, a program for creating dopesheets from digitized dialog called Soundtrack, and several other utility programs. We also did some contract programming for Disney and Commodore. Not bad for a company of four fulltime employees, and four part time people.
Incidentally, Multiplane was written by Mitch Hurst who had previously worked at Vertigo. One of Multiplane’s innovations was the fact that it used spline based channel graphs. This provided inspiration for our next generation 3D software.
As the 1980’s came to a close, many factors contributed to boost the computer animation industry. In 1988, SoftImage released the first version of their Creative Environment. Wavefront, Alias, Virtigo, and Symbolics systems started being used more in production, and SGI workstations became more popular in studio environments. Though these systems were much less expensive and more powerful than the hardware of the early 80’s, they were prohibitive for anyone outside of a well funded studio.

In 1987, an SGI Iris 4D/70 workstation cost $55, 000, and the major 3D packages for SGI cost between $50,000 and $100,000. In 1988, SGI released the Personal Iris which was touted as the first “affordable” graphics workstation at $30,000. In contrast to workstation hardware and software, an Amiga was about $1500, and 3D software was a few hundred dollars, Apprentice was $299.

The Mac started getting more 3D applications. Strata released StrataVision. And Aegis released a port of Videoscape3D on the Mac. It was short lived, but interesting because of what happened later with the future of Videoscape. Symbolics also flirted with the Mac by making a LISP machine on a card called MacIvory which they sold for about $5000. It made it possible to run Symbolics animation software on the Mac, but you were essentially putting another computer inside your Mac to make that possible.

The other major developments were that “Roger Rabbit” and “The Little Mermaid” spurred a renewed interest in animation. A new generation of young people now had a desire to learn and create animation. In the past, creating animation usually required having access to expensive equipment like single frame capable film cameras, animation stands, cels and paints, and a good film lab to develop your film. By using personal computers with low cost software, the world of animation opened up to many people.

ILM was also pushing the limits of CG in feature films. In 1989, “The Abyss” was released. It featured the water pod sequence which demonstrated a photorealistic element mixed seamlessly with live action. It opened the door to a new era of CG becoming an essential element in feature film special effects. This also boosted the popularity of computer animation.

The Second Wave
The year 1990 was another pivotal year. Most of the 3D companies on the Amiga released new 3D programs with much more sophisticated interfaces and output capabilities. Many of these programs are still around today in one form or another.
That year, we released Animation:Journeyman. It was the first version of our software to feature our Hash spline modeling and animation. Our current version of Animation:Master still uses this technology at its core.

Autodesk released the first version of 3Dstudio for the PC running under DOS. It was written by the authors of CAD-3D, and CyberSculpt on the Atari-ST. NewTek released the VideoToaster with the 3D program Lightwave3D written by Allen Hastings and Stuart Ferguson who wrote VideoScape3D and Modeler3D. Caligari, Imagine from Impulse, and Sculpt-Animate4D also came out that year. Cinema4D came out a couple years later on the Amiga.
Polygonal modeling was still the predominant technology. But, Martin Hash realized that it was not ideal for character animation. Humans and animation, and most objects in our world are not polygonal by nature. Organic shapes are much more common, and character motion is much more fluid and flexible than the robotic motion of most CG systems. Also, the polygonal systems did not make texture mapping very easy or intuitive.
Spline based modeling existed in products like Alias, but they did not allow the control points to be on the surface of the model. They also were used only in the modeler, so that when it came time to animate or render, the user was dealing with a dense polygon model. Higher quality smoothness required more density. Martin wanted to be able to animate the spline control points as well. Not only that, a curve should stay a curve, especially at render time. Despite rendering algorithms that smooth out a polygonal surface when it is rendered, the edge of the object will still show the sharp edges of the polygon model. These are called polygon artifacts. Therefore the Hash renderer needed to use a technique that directly rendered the patch surface.
Martin decided that the best way to describe the models were with a spline mesh. And this spline mesh should have the control points on the surface of the model and not floating above the curved surface like B-Splines, and later NURBS. The mesh should also not be restricted to a grid. The user should be able to attach different parts of the geometry together arbitrarily and allow areas of greater detail. Not only that, they should have fine control over the curvature of the surface, that can be animated. It should be possible to create any shape, and not have the mathematics underlying the spline dictate the kinds of shapes you can make. On top of all of that, it had to run on a 14Mhz Amiga, so the spline calculations had to not cause so much overhead that the tactile user feedback is affected.
By directly addressing the problems inherit in polygon-based modeling, Martin created Hash Splines and Hash Patches, which have proven to be more versatile and have many advantages over NURBS and Subdivision surfaces, which were actually developed later.

Animation:Journeyman was a big leap for us. Even though the modeling paradigm changed radically, it incorporated much of the animation technology from Apprentice and built on it.

If the narrator seemed to be talking a little fast, that was because we were going to use 5-minute VHS tapes to distribute this demo, so he had to get all the details in that time window. It took several takes to get that right, let me tell you.

The Desktop Market Shifts Again
By 1989 it was clear Commodore was struggling against the Mac and the PC, which were catching up. Not because the others were releasing similar technology, but because Commodore was doing little to advance Amiga technology. Also, the fact that software piracy was rampant on the Amiga, especially in Europe, made it very difficult to make money selling software for it. So, in the early 90’s we began porting to Windows and the Mac.

Also during this time we began a relationship with Will Vinton Studios. They started a game software division called CinePlay, and we agreed to distribute our new version under that label. We released “Will Vinton’s Playmation” for the PC in 1992. According to VP at Microsoft, it was the first 3D Animation product to ship for Windows. Until then all other PC based 3D programs like 3DStudio ran under DOS. Microsoft had just shipped Windows 3.1, which was good timing for us since they earlier versions of Windows we lacking compared to the Amiga and Mac. We also were one of the few products to compile to 32-bit rather than 16-bit, which made it faster.

We showed Playmation at the SIGGRAPH conference in Chicago in our own booth. We had shown our software at the previous four SIGGRAPH shows, but had always been in the Commodore booth. We made a huge splash, and sold over 100 copies. At one point a VP from Microsoft came by and asked how we mocked up the interface to make it look like Windows.
We had another interesting interchange at the show. Someone came up to Martin and asked what kind of splines we were using. Martin replied “a variation of the Catmul-ROM spline”. “Really” the man replied, “a variation? Well, I think I’d like to buy a copy. Here’s my credit card”. Martin took the card to run it through the credit card machine. It was then that he read the name on the card. “Edwin Catmul”. Needless to say, Martin continued the conversation with him, which resulted in an invitation to demonstrate the software at Pixar a few weeks later. At that time Pixar had 50 employees. There were 30 people in the room for the demo, including Molly the company sheepdog. She fell asleep, but hopefully nobody else did.
The next year we released ports of Playmation on the Mac and the SGI. Incidentally, our SGI version sold for $999, and SGI wouldn’t list it in their product catalog because it was less than $10,000.

During this time our relationship with Will Vinton Studios improved. We helped them set up their first computer network, and began training their animators in our software. We set up their first CG department. They were world-famous for their Claymation films and commercials, but had never done CG and wanted to get into it. We added several features to the software for them including skinning, motion blur, alpha channels, field rendering, full 3D Inverse Kinematics, and network rendering. We decided to create two versions of the software, one for the hobby market, and one with more features for the pro market. The lower end version was called “Martin Hash’s 3D Animation” and the other “Animation:Master”. Since it was the next generation of Playmation, we gave called it “Version 2”.

Vintons used Master in several commercials, and in a film for Sesame Street called “Cool Tools”. Several years later I saw a collection of Sesame Street animations that was screened locally. There were two CG films in it, one was “Cool Tools”, and the other was “Light and Heavy” made by Pixar.

The quality of work we started seeing from our users increased dramatically during this time as well. This is an image called “Bald Man’s Corner” by Rod Altschul. Even though it was made ten years ago, we still use it in our promotional material. And being the Mac guy at Hash, it made me very happy that it was done with the Mac version.

The SGI market was changing during this time as well. The workstations were getting better graphics acceleration and more capacity, but were still between $30,000 and $40,000, and the software prices were still around the same. Wavefront bought Thomson Digital Image (TDI), which was a European company that sold a 3D animation system that included NURBS modeling, and interactive rendering. Alias released PowerAnimator and Alias Studio, which were the exact same executable, but marketed to the entertainment market, and the CAD market repectively. In 1991, Symbolics was bought by the Japanese company Nichimen, and renamed N-World. It would several years later become Marai.

Wavefront started shifting its focus to CAD and allowed Alias to make inroads in the entertainment industry. This also created a vacuum in animation tools that SoftImage began to fill. They released their Actor module in 1992 which included a number of character animation tools and what they called “Advanced Inverse Kinematics (IK)”. However, they IK only worked in 2D, not from a bird’s eye 3D view.
Also, in 1993, ILM pushed the limits of CG in feature films again with “Jurassic Park”. It provided another boost to the desktop CG market.
Back at Hash, we consolidated all of the individual modules of Animation:Master into one application. Ever since Apprentice, Sculpture, Action, Choreography, and Render had all been separate programs because of the memory limitations of the machines we ran on. In 1994, we released version 3 which brought it all together. We also added support for Motion Capture hardware and Stride Length which made it much easier to create walking characters that didn’t slide.

That year at SIGGRAPH we really felt like we were giving the SGI guys a run for their money. The highlight of the SGI booth was a person in a motion capture suit that was controlling a relatively low count polygon character in shaded mode on an SGI machine with a $100,000 Reality Engine. It was very cool. However, in our booth I was also in a motion capture suit, and driving the animation of a character in Animation:Master in wireframe mode. The big difference was that our hardware was a 90Mhz PC and our software was $699. Here are a couple samples of what we were showing.

We also were showing the following film, “Killer Tools” by Rod Altschul

By 1995, Microsoft had bought SoftImage, Alias had bought Wavefront, and then Alias/Wavefront was bought by SGI. ILM was the undisputed king of CG feature effects and animation. They were using Alias for modeling, SoftImage for animating, and Renderman for rendering. It was a combination that they used for many more years. Lightwave had been ported to the PC and was being used in broadcast TV effects like “SeaQuest” and “Babylon 5”. 3DStudio started becoming popular in video game development. It was also the year that “Toy Story” came out, and interest in Desktop animation had never been higher.

1995 was also a big year for Hash, Inc. Animation:Master became the software of choice for some amazing artists, and images and animation made with Master started showing up some very high profile games. “Duke Nukem” was one of the biggest. Jeff Bunker became of the best known artists in the Master community for his amazing work. Here are a few examples.

Bob Terrell, who we had worked with at Will Vinton’s, did some great animation for a game called “Captain Quazar”. Here is a cut scene.

We released Animation:Master for Windows NT on the PC, Alpha, and Mips PowerPC, and for the new PowerPC based Macintosh. In fact, we had the second animation software for the PowerMac, and were beaten only by Infini-D, which managed to get pre-release machines out of Apple eleven months before we did.

That was also the year we made “Fluffy”. This was a film by Doug Aberle, an animator at Vintons. The animation was produced in-house at Hash, rendered on our render farm, and printed out on textured paper. Aberle then took the printed frames, and shot them onto film with Vinton’s down-shooter. “Fluffy” was shown in the Electric Theater at SIGGRAPH to a sold out crowd at the Shriner’s Auditorium, and was the hit of the show. Here is “Fluffy”.

But the one project that truly dominated our time was “Telepresence”, our feature film. Martin Hash decided it was time for us to write and produce our own direct to video feature film. Written by Martin Hash and directed by Ray DiCarlo, it was a gritty science fiction film with 25 minutes of pure CG. In comparison, “Jurassic Park” had 11 minutes. We released it in 1996, but were never able to get a good US distributor. We did sell it in several countries overseas. We had a user that saw it on Malaysian television. We learned a valuable lesson that I will pass on to you. If you want to make money with feature films, always get your distribution deal before you make it. Here is the trailer for “Telepresence”.

In 1996, we rewrote Master from the ground up, changed to a unibody modeling approach and released it as Version 5. This was also the first version with the project workspace, constraints, and faster Direct3D and OpenGL support. It provided a new code foundation to build the application we have today. Also that year Martin Hash was interviewed by Wired magazine.
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The artwork that our users were making was truly amazing. We started to get used in several studios around the world. Here’s a medley of Animation:Master work that was done by 1997.

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Even though we didn’t market to studios, we started being used by some very talented artists who worked for the big studios, but preferred our software and used us for their own personal projects. Some of these artists were also beta testers for Alias and SoftImage, and kept commenting to us that they preferred our method for modeling and animating.

Over the next few years, we added many features to Animation:Master. We added powerful modeling tools like 5-point patches and hooks, and animation tools like pose sliders, full timeline controls, and major rendering features like radiosity, A-buffer rendering with selective raytracing, and effects features like lens flare, particles, cloth, hair, and fur. But, our focus was on ease-of-use, a clean self-evident interface, and tactile control. Because our market is much larger and more diverse than the SGI market, our interface is held to a much higher standard when it comes to ease-of-use.

In the year 2000, Martin Hash was named one of the “15 Top CG Pioneers” by Animation Magazine. That’s Ed Catmul pictured above him.

The Next Generation on SGI
In 1998, Alias/Wavefront had been losing ground to SoftImage for several years, and turned the tables with Maya. That same year, Microsoft sold SoftImage to Avid. They had been showing their next generation 3D software that would become SoftImage/XSI, at SIGGRAPH. But it didn’t ship for two more years. By this time they had also ported to Window NT, with Maya soon to follow.
Maya and SoftImage/XSI had significant interface improvements. But, much of these were already in Animation:Master. I believe that much of the feedback they were getting was from artists who also used desktop 3D programs like Master, Lightwave, and 3DStudio, and they were requesting features for Maya and XSI that already existed in these programs. There were certainly features from Maya and XSI that were emulated in other Desktop 3D programs, but the reverse was also true. It is something that engineers will deny, but they may not have even been aware that these features already existed in low cost 3D applications. From their point of view, they were merely fulfilling the requests of their customers. But, it was clear that they were influenced by Desktop 3D, whether they knew it or not.

The End of the Workstation Era
As we enter the new millennium, the hardware landscape has changed dramatically. Personal computers have increased so much in speed, and dropped in price to the point where there is very little reason to spend $20,000 or $30,000 for a workstation. 3D accelerated videocards are performing at a speed that easily humbles graphics workstations of just a few years ago. And 3D animation software on the desktop rivals workstation based tools in ability and quality.
The 3D industry is at a very strange place today. Products that evolved from the “low end” and from the “high end” have met in the middle. But there remains a dichotomy. Products like Maya and XSI evolved in the studio environment. Most studios have three separate groups of people that are using the 3D software; modelers, animators, and technical directors. Also, studios are in a position to train their animators in the parts of the software they want them to use. They emphasized scripting tools that the TDs could use. The result is that these programs are very complex, and are not designed for an individual to do everything. They are made for a team environment.

We have a very different design philosophy. We have always designed our software to run well on a machine costing $1500 or less, and allow one artist to create a film on a single machine. Even though the underlying code is very complex, every bit as complex as Maya or XSI, it should not overwhelm the user. Artists should not have to know how to program scripts, or learn an endless array of CAD style machine tools in order to create great models and animation. The look of the final output should reflect the artist, and not what tool they used. Modeling and animation should go hand in hand, so the animator isn’t stuck with a mesh so dense that making it actually move is an ordeal rather than a joy.
Most of the 3D animation tools on the market have aimed their design and marketing towards studios. That used to be the only market, and it made sense for the SGI based applications. But, we always felt that the real market was everybody else. People who had aspirations of being the next Steven Speilberg or Tex Avery, but couldn’t afford to buy a workstation. We want to include people who want to learn animation as a hobby or future career. Over the years we have added many features for the studios that we work with, but the overall design is for a wider market. We are continuing to make Master easier to use. We feel we are far ahead of the competition in this area, but we have a lot of plans to improve it more.
The 3D products of today have improved in many ways from their ancestral code. But the newer tools like NURBS and subdivision surface modeling are still sitting on top of a polygon base and do not solve the problems that Hash patches solve. Animation:Master continues to have significant advantages over the polygon-based systems to this day.
**** Clark talk ****
During this course, Steve will be showing you some amazing films that have been made with Animation:Master. You can also download many of these from the Hash website. The bulk of these films were made by individuals on their home computer. These are great films, because they were made by talented artists. But, the revolution of 3D animation software on the desktop opend the door for them and made it possible for them to make these films. You have incredible power at your finger tips, I encourage you to make the most of it, and realize your dreams.
**** End Clark Talk ****

I’d like to conclude here with a few of the more famous films made with Animation:Master in the last few years. This next film you may have seen in your email. A couple years ago, it seemed like everyone was emailing the link to this animation to all of their friends. It’s called “Alien Song” by Victor Navone.

Victor was working for a game company when he did this in his spare time. He credits this film for getting him a job at Pixar. He worked on “Monsters Inc.”, but ironically, didn’t animate any of the one-eyed characters.

This next film is one of my favorites. This film was the number one rated film of all time on iFilm, and is still in the top 10. Jeff Lew’s “Killer Bean 2:The Party”.

Jeff Lew has worked for several well known CG studios and most recently was a supervising animator on The Matrix:Reloaded. You can see why he got the job.

This next film is by an animator in Slovenia by the name of Dusan Kastelic. The character in this film is our current mascot. This is “Perk”.

Perk was shown the SIGGRAPH screening rooms last year, and was also featured on the official SIGGRAPH Video Review t-shirt. Now, that’s an endorsement!

And I’d like to conclude this evening with a film by Conrad Chow. When I first saw this film, I thought to myself, this is why I write CG animation software for a living. This is “Snapshot” by Conrad Chow.

Each one these films that I have just show was done by an individual on their home computer. They are great films because they are talented artists. But, the revolution of 3D animation software on the desktop opened the door for them and made it possible for them to make these films.

That concludes my talk. I’ll leave you with a picture of where we work. I will take any questions now.

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