Software fine tunes desktop tooning

HOLLYWOOD — Not long ago, the ability to do professional-quality animation on a desktop computer was more fantasy than reality. But that’s not true anymore, thanks to the sophisticated animation software that runs on today’s increasingly powerful PCs.

One of the leaders in this move to the desktop is Montreal-based Softimage, a Microsoft subsidiary whose acclaimed Softimage 3-D software now runs on Windows NT computers. While the original version used on Silicon Graphics supercomputers helped animate the original dinosaurs of “Jurassic Park,” the NT version enables desktop animators to achieve more modest — and affordable — goals.

It’s a hoot

At London production studio 4:2:2, they use the NT version of Softimage 3-D to meet the needs of broadcast clients with tight TV budgets, such as British children’s series “Ozzie the Owl.” Featuring substantial 3-D computer character animation, the series is a good showcase for the design skills of 4:2:2. However, as creative director Andy Davies-Coward explains, “The budget meant we had to build an economical, fleet-of-foot production line that was capable of both producing and minimizing our exposure to potential loss.”

Jobs for juniors

Their solution was finding young talent and training them on NT machines running Softimage. “It’s a user-friendly product, which is important because we hire kids out of college,” says Davies-Coward. “Softimage has some nice intuitive animation tools, which are much harder in other systems.”

Davies-Coward concedes, “Every system always pulls a few surprises, but on the whole it’s proved itself. And you don’t feel like you’re a second-class citizen because you’re running on NT.” He sees the desktop trend as a healthy one, noting, “With God-knows how many manufacturers competing, you can get a better deal. The danger is: How many different variations in performance are there going to be?”

The proliferation of PC software options is well-known to the computer animators at Toronto-based Topix. With projects that range from movie titles to network IDs, Topix utilizes a wide range of tools.

According to director Robin Len, “We’ve used PCs for production ever since DOS 3.0.” Complementing its SGI studio, Topix has an NT-based studio that counts among its key tools Kinetix’ 3-D Studio Max. Len says, “Max has a really powerful tool set, especially with the Character Studio plug-in, and the lighting and rendering quality is great. We use it like a tabletop studio, doing elegant camera moves in 3-D space. It’s quite a liberating tool in that way.” He cautions, however, “It has some hard concepts to get, like the object-oriented way that it works, but once you get it, it seems natural.

“And being object-oriented means you can infinitely undo things. It’s very different from working on, say, a Flame, where once you run your composite, that’s it.”

Len also notes that with today’s PC literacy, NT software training is easier “than bringing people up to speed on the ‘black art’ of using Unix machines. With the migration to NT, and more people understanding these tools, mean-and-lean shops will find new market niches.”

Small is beautiful

Mike Blackwell, a senior sales exec at London’s AMG Effects, couldn’t agree more. “With hardware costs dropping like a stone, suddenly it’s viable for a small company — a one-man band — to go to a bank and say, ‘I can be up and running for 10 grand.’ ”

Blackwell is a believer in desktop animation software because his company both uses and sells NewTek’s Lightwave. While Lightwave is known in America for the “Star Trek” TV series effects, it is used by AMG to produce commercials, broadcast and film effects and the animated British TV series “Joe Razz.”

“We’re doing also everything for that show in Lightwave,” Blackwell says. “It’s very leading-edge because it has full surface texturing. And nothing else compares to the level of pricing that we can achieve. If it hadn’t been for Lightwave, we wouldn’t have been able to do what we did for ‘Joe Razz’ at such a reasonable cost-per-shot.”

Blackwell cites new Lightwave features such as Morph Gizmo as powerful aids to creating realistic creature animation. “We just previewed a 30-second Greenpeace spot at a London theater — the animated fish and translucent squid were so lifelike it was unbelievable.” He expects this kind of capability with desktop software is going to “open up a lot of areas which people will find quite astounding. They’ll look at it and say ‘Hey, we can afford to do this now.’ “

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