For some time now it’s been tacitly assumed that creating serious, digital special effects required the services of prohibitively expensive high-end graphics workstations like those made by Silicon Graphics.

That perception is starting to change, however, as recent advances in hardware and software have brought the ability to generate broadcast-quality effects much closer to what could be considered more conventional desktop computers.

The move toward lower-end platforms is nothing new. Systems like the Amiga and the Macintosh have been in widespread use for years in generating video effects, and they have made their way into some film applications as well.

Software isn’t the problem; the kind of high-quality tools needed for this work already exist on the Macintosh.

The two main obstacles that have made Macs too slow for high-end film work have been a lack of processor speed and a bottleneck in moving data between the computer’s disk storage and memory. Apple enthusiasts hope that these concerns will be answered by the Tsunami, a new line of Macintosh systems that Apple plans to introduce this summer. In addition to using the speedy PowerPC processor, the Tsunami will incorporate the PCI bus, a high-speed data pathway between system components. That piece of equipment is already being used in some high-end PC systems.

Beyond the Mac, other graphic environments are being groomed for effects work. Most notably, Windows NT (the high-powered “New Technology” version of the Windows environment) will join the effects game with Softimage’s planned 1995 release of a version of its popular Eddie software for Windows NT.

The release of Eddie for Windows NT would theoretically bring the capability for serious digital compositing not only to the Intel-based computers traditionally associated with Windows, but also to systems built around other chips that can run Windows NT, such as Digital Equipment’s blazingly fast Alpha processor.

Does that mean new platforms will soon start taking the place of SGI and Quantel machines in feature film editing bays? Probably not soon. Even with these new advances, the sheer volume of data that needs to be processed to generate film-quality photorealistic output requires the computing muscle that only a high-end workstation – like an SGI or a Quantel – can provide.

Admittedly, the Tsunamis and DEC Alpha computers are in a different league than the regular PCs and Macs that most of us use from day to day. But when compared with the cost of setting up a full-blown SGI workstation, these alternative platforms will look more appealing as the price of PC computing power continues to fall.

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