Can you afford custom graphics from a leading visual effects facility, such as Weta Digital or Industrial Light and Magic? For 99.9 percent of video and film producers, the answer is no. That has created an immense gulf between what a Hollywood blockbuster looks like and what everyone else can do on their own. Fortunately, that gap is beginning to narrow. Much of the credit is due to improvements in commercially available 3D rendering programs, such as Avid’s SOFTIMAGE|XSI v.5.0, as well the latest advancements in computer hardware. You still can’t duplicate The Lord of the Rings on a shoestring budget, but you can add some synthetic sparkle to your production if you, or someone in your organization, is willing to invest the time to learn the software.
Softimage|XSI v.5.0 is more than a cosmetic upgrade. It represents a tenfold increase in the amount of detail you can add to your rendered creations. This version supports the latest generation of PC-based processors, including dual-core and 64-bit processors. The 64-bit support is especially important, because a 32-bit operating system can access only 4 GB of RAM. A 64-bit operating system can theoretically access 16 TB of RAM, though Windows XP x64 is currently limited to 128 GB. With 4 GB, you can render millions of triangles at a time. With 16 GB, you can render billions of triangles- all on a desktop computer you can buy today.
The built-in render engine (mental ray v.3.4) is substantially improved. It’s 10 times more memory efficient, renders files 10 times smaller and can render many projects five times faster. If you’ve worked with 3D rendering programs, you know they can be real memory hogs. They take over your computer’s resources and often crash. SOFTIMAGE|XSI v.5.0 is smarter than previous versions in how it loads and off-loads memory. According to Softimage, once your project is loaded into memory, it will render without crashing. That would be true whether you’re running a 64-bit dual-core system with 16 GB of RAM or a 32-bit single- core system with 512 MB of RAM. These are all under-the-hood enhancements that aren’t usually visible to the user except through the speed and reliability of an operation. But there are other, more visible enhancements as well.
Armed and Ready
One of Softimage|XSI v.5.0′s most noticeable improvements is Gator, which stands for Generalized Attribute Transfer Operator. It allows you to pass any or all data from one animated character to another, rather than having to start from scratch. The data can include materials, textures, shapes or a completely modeled animation. The characters don’t have to be similar, either. You could take the arm from a two-armed character and transfer it to a four-armed character.
This version also adds an extensive set of migration tools for Maya users. You can change the keyboard shortcuts, alter the menus and remap the mouse (all in ways that resemble the Maya interface). You could use the Alt key to navigate the cameras just as you would in Maya, or add panels to recreate familiar layouts. The migration tools would also be valuable for anyone who moves back and forth between the two applications.
While the SOFTIMAGE|XSI v.5.0 interface is remarkably intuitive given its impressive number of options, this isn’t an application you can master over a weekend. That’s both a strength and a weakness. Softimage|XSI v.5.0 was used to render many of the special effects for Sin City and Fantastic Four, so it’s fair to say you won’t quickly outgrow it. In addition, if you don’t need all the bells and whistles, you can opt for a scaled-down package.
SOFTIMAGE|XSI v.5.0 is available in three flavors: Foundation ($495), Essentials ($1,995) and Advanced ($6,995). The Foundation version is surprisingly powerful, considering its price. Check the Softimage Web site (www.softimage.com) for a detailed comparison.
Now we move on to hardware. I was able to run a late beta of SOFTIMAGE|XSI v.5.0 with no problems on a year-old 3.4 GHz Dell Dimension 8400 with 1 GB of RAM. When I reinstalled the software on a Dell Precision 380 workstation with a 64-bit dual-core 3.6 GHz processor and 4 GB of RAM, the differences were dramatic. The tools and commands responded much faster. I was able to manipulate partially rendered objects in real time or near real time. And I was able to continue my modeling while rendering a large and complex scene.
It’s not often you can take several giant leaps forward simultaneously. Dual-core and 64-bit systems are rapidly becoming affordable, as is the option to have multiple gigabytes of RAM. Add in powerhouse 3D rendering programs, such as SOFTIMAGE|XSI v.5.0, and small production companies can render like the big guys for a minimal investment.
- Toolbar – To switch the Toolbar to its Model, Animate, Render and Simulate toolsets, you can click the Toolbar label or press the 1, 2, 3 or 4 keys on your keyboard.
- Transform Panel - You can click the controls on the Transform Panel to scale, rotate or position an object. Use the mouse buttons to determine which axis of the object to transform, or use 3D manipulators to interact directly with the transforming object.
- Lower Interface - From the easily overlooked Lower Interface, you can create and activate scripts, as well as edit and play back animations.
- General Attribute Transfer Operator - Using the new Gator feature, you can transfer surface properties and other data attributes from one object to another – even if the two objects are quite different.
- Constrain Panel - With the various options from the Constrain Panel, you can restrict the potential movement of an object. For example, you could constrain a ball joint to move in just two dimensions.
- Power Users: The migration tools in v.5.0 mean you can now move more easily from other 3D programs like Alias' Maya.
- New Users: This is a powerul program. If you don't need a full version – or can't afford the time it will take to master it – opt for one of the scaled-down versions (Foundation or Essentials)