Summing Up SIGGRAPH 2011
Rendering in the Cloud, Updated Tracking and Playback Software, and Sneak Peeks at Tools to Come
Emerging Technology, Closer than EverSIGGRAPH’s well-known Emerging Technology area featured the usual assortment of left-of-center science projects. But emerging technology one step closer to practical use was in evidence across the show floor. NVIDIA’s booth, in fact, was all about showcasing not-quite-ready-for-prime-time technology, from a GPU-accelerated way to create and edit motion graphics inside Adobe After Effects to a range of super-powered “virtual machine” CAD applications running on Lenovo’s upcoming ThinkPad tablet, slated for release later this month. (The tablet, by the way, comes with a regular-sized USB port and its own laptop-like stand/case with a full keyboard.) NVIDIA firmly believes that GPU computing is going mainstream and the power behind these demonstrations comes from what the company is calling Project Maximus, a combination of Quadra and Tesla graphics technology that will let users access different parts of the GPU, when they need it, and scale accordingly from project to project.
Though Autodesk wasn’t ready to introduce the 2013 versions of its digital entertainment software suites, which include Maya, Max, Mudbox, Flame, Flare and Smoke, it did give 2012 subscribers a whole new set of advanced features that history has shown are previews of things to come in subsequent versions. The other big news from Autodesk at the show was its licensing of Disney’s XGen Arbitrary Primitive Generator technology, most recently used on the Disney film Tangled.
Shotgun Software, a Web-based project management and tracking application, showed V3.0 of its software, featuring a new browser-based review tool and render manager. It will be released in September. Inside Shotgun’s booth, partners Tweak Software showed off its beta of RV 3.12 and Deadline, created by Frantic Film’s founder Chris Bond, introduced a professional services option that essentially lets Bond and his team, the creators of such well-regarded tools as the Krakatoa particle renderer, become any facility’s in-house R&D department to customize Thinkbox to its pipeline.
GenArts didn’t have a booth at the show, but while there I met with Steve Kilisky, the company’s director of product management, who gave me a demo of some of the new features coming inside the next version of Sapphire, due in September. These include a range of lens flares that users can control and edit with a great looking Sapphire Flare Designer UI, which will ship with 50 stock lens flares. You will be able to save custom flares you create with the designer’s varied tools. You can even create a lens flare in 3D space, though for the time being, that feature is for After Effects only. GenArts also announced during the show that it had partnered with Sony Creative Software to bring a number of pre-built effects to Vegas Pro and Sapphire Edge users. The 350 looks, featuring design sliders, list for $299.
Also coming in September is MAXON’s Cinema4D R13, which got a branding and logo facelift. We covered that release in detail here.
Rendering in the CloudAt last year’s SIGGRAPH, NVIDIA showed how its graphics cards could dramatically improve ray-tracing speeds and interactivity. This year, it pushed ray-tracing out to the cloud. NVIDIA’s vice president of Quadro Professional Solutions Jeff Brown explained how the company’s Mental Ray subsidiary, in collaboration with the Autodesk Maya team, was able to use Amazon’s Cluster GPU Instance for its EC2, a service that puts GPU processing power in the hands of much smaller facilities who can only rent, and not own, the processing power to render out complex scenes. For about $60/hour, Brown said, a boutique or single artist could tap into 30 GPUs using Amazon’s service via the NVIDIA/Mental Ray “bridge” built to get there. For a full demonstration, check out this video with NVIDIA’s Michael Kaplan, product manager on the Mental Ray team, who explains how iray uses the cloud to constantly update any changes made to cameras, lighting, materials and geometry during interactive rendering sessions.
Relative newcomer BlackSky Computing, which came out of the aerospace industry, was also talking about the cloud but was showing a range of hardware options at SIGGRAPH. It Hyperion line of servers, as well as its more affordable Apollo line, according to co-founders Scott Alexander and Michael Colonno, are suited to render farms, high-performance computing clusters and internal clouds. But BlackSky started as a cloud company first, and its founders see great potential in leasing out terabytes of processing power to those smaller shops that can’t build it themselves in house. In fact, Alexander and Colonno say, you can’t get a 40 GB network on Amazon’s EC2 cloud. “Clouds out there now just aren’t built for high-performance computing,” says Alexander. “We know how to set up HPC clusters from scratch. We believe the future for entertainment creation is the cloud, and we want to help smaller companies that don’t have an internal IT department.” Adds Colonno, “We want to take out all the pain and suffering of setting up an HPC cloud system. We essentially can create petabytes for customers. They don’t need to go out and keep buying more servers they can’t afford, and worse, don’t have the physical space to house.”
The Computer Animation Festival capped off each day at the conference. Nearly 900 submissions were winnowed down to 77 featured shorts and a few winners have even gone on to win a Best Animated Short Academy Award (CAF is recognized by the Academy as a qualifying festival). This year’s Best in Show, a stop-motion and 3D hybrid created by Moonbot Studios’ William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg, is part of an expanded narrative that includes a celebrated iPad app and soon, a companion book.
Next year’s show will return to Los Angeles and run from August 5 – 9.