Peter Plantec’s Entirely Biased Golden Pixie Awards, Part Three

I have always been a rule-breaker — as I believe many of you are. I follow civil rules, but tend to dislike doing things the way they've always been done. Thus you may have noticed I make up award categories as I go along. I've always done it that way, but it's my way. Anyway. 

Selecting Pixie winners is not as easy a task as it may seem. I wrestle with them and have sleepless nights. I don't want to be unfair, and some of the decisions are very difficult. For example, when it comes to material development tools? That's a big category this year with many outstanding tools. So let's move forward.

Most Fun Texture Tool

I'm kind of cheating. I was torn between xNormal and CrazyBump as the best texture tools. CrazyBump was falling behind because it isn't free. In fact, I feel it is way overpriced. But, all factors considered, it gets a Pixie. Why? Because I have so much fun creating great textures with it. Seriously, it is the most intuitive and easy to use and texture tool in my arsenal. It is not the most accurate, but it is the most used.

This is a screen shot of a 3D texture I created from an image of sci-fi pipes.

With it, I can instantly make a full set of maps. The original photo becomes the diffuse map, and the program somehow figures out an excellent displacement map, ambient occlusion map, specularity map and normal map. It is the quality of these maps that gives it a leg up. I can also load in a normal map and it calculates the displacement, occlusion and specularity. It also generates a diffuse map from the normal, which is really more of a surface detail map.

One thing I love about it is the instant real-time 3D display of your texture on a cube or roll or sphere, etc. You can even load an object. You can tweak the texture while looking at a real-time display of it with movable lighting, etc. It really is killer good.

My problem with it (that almost disqualified it) is the price. It costs $99.00 for what is basically a one-trick pony. It makes texture maps — really good ones from photos. At least, that is my main use of it.

Note that this award may be short-lived. There is a newer, competing product called MindTex, which is almost a clone of CrazyBump and costs a mere $15.00 It did not get the Pixie because the maps are not quite as good, but in some ways it is a more useful app. It creates a clever self-illumination map along with the others. It also provides more real-time surfaces to test your texture on; however, it has difficulty handling very large textures. For a little bit more money, ShaderMap is excellent as well. So officially I award a PPEBGPA to CrazyBump as the Most Fun Texture Tool in my box because I use it a lot, with an honorable mention of MindTex and Shadermap Pro.

Most Useful Film-Manipulation Plug-In Set

Over a number of years, I have found this regularly updated set of plug-ins to be most helpful in creating the kinds of video I like to create. It is useful for motion graphics of all sorts and has been used to create some of the most spectacular abstracts we've seen on TV in recent years.

Talk about sex appeal: Trapcode Suite 12.1 has so many After Effects plug-ins that let you create so many astounding FX it went on my list more than a year ago. I'm giving the Golden Pixie to the entire Suite because It's all very cool. At $899, the price might seem a little steep at $899, but the 10 included plug-ins are worth it if you do motion graphics with VFX. You will save that much in time on your first job, making you more competitive. You could spend the next 10 years learning all the cool things you can do with these plugins, such as:

  • Lux – Simulates the look of lights in dark or foggy environments.
  • Mir – OpenGL enabled and generates smoothly organic, flowing elements from oceans to mountains to galaxies. Packed with manipulation tools.
  • Particular 2 – So much more than just a particle app. Creates 3D particle-scapes that you can fly through and much, much more.
  • Shine – is just that. It adds shimmering god rays to your renders. They are automatically animated as your camera moves.
  • Sound Keys – lets you analyze and key off of the sound track. Many uses, including abstract music video clips.
  • Starglow – If you have ever needed some dazzling sparkle coming off your mirrorball or an ocean, etc., this is your plug-in. It keys off a scene's highlights.
  • 3D Stroke – A 3D plug-in that lets you create lines in space, some glowing, in your shot. It is heavily used in TV motion graphics.
  • EchoSpace – create and manage multiple-layer 3D effects. Great for text animation as well.
  • Form 2 – An amazing 3D plug-in that can work with Particular. Works with Obj models. Let an automobile crumble into gravel, or have a person evaporate into particles.
  • Horizon – Horizon is a camera-aware image-mapping tool that ties your After Effects camera to a 3D world. Create infinite gradient or realistic backgrounds.

You can buy individual units for prices ranging from $499.00 for Particular 2 to $69.00 for Echospace.

I can not tell you how many hours I have spend just fooling around to see what I could come up with. Combining Sound Keys with Particular and MIR and Lux all together to get ethereal, sound-driven footage can be so much fun (and profitable as well) for both large and small-time houses. Even freelancers will expand their portfolio greatly with this collection.

I am proud to award the Golden Pixie for Most Exciting and Useful After Effects Plug-in Suite to Trapcode.

Red Giant is a great company, too. They support users with excellent podcasts and online tutorials (Red Giant TV) and their active online community, with a library of free tools for VFX and motion graphics artists as well as film editors and filmmakers in general.

Most Innovative Software Delivery System

And now for my very first Golden Pixie awarded to a Cloud. Things sure have changed since I first started making these awards. Things have even changed since cloud apps first appeared not long ago. As many of you know, I was not crazy about the idea of Autodesk taking their applications to cloud subscription. I like to own a copy of my software so I can use it down the line if I need it. The thought of paying monthly for an application just goes against my grain.

But then I did some simple math and in general paying a monthly fee per year comes out to … wait for it … a really good deal! If you work in this business, you really have to keep your apps reasonably up-to-date in order to remain competitive. It's especially critical for graphics and VFX houses. So the idea of a system that keeps your on-box applications strictly up-to-date, at all times, does have some appeal.

Then one company decided to put all their applications online for one substantial-yet-fair monthly subscription price. And an even more fair annual subscription. Many of these tools are industry standards that we all use almost daily. I think there is only one company that fits this category.

And the Golden Pixie goes to—forgive me, all of you who are still pissed about the idea of subscription software—Adobe Systems. I kid you not! It was a hard decision, but I have to give them their due. They are working with users more closely than ever, so their updates often include useful new tools. Their cloud system, so far, is working well. You get 20 GB of cloud storage with your subscription, too.

Adobe is also working with us (you and me) to find a pricing system that really works. The pricing structure is a bit complicated, but if you already own CS3 or higher the deal is pretty good at $29.99/month. New folks can get the whole package for about $80/month on a month-to-month basis — you can sign up for just a month or two to complete a project, and then sign off. The best deal is for educational institutions, which can get licenses tied to a single system for $30/month. Considering what you would have had to pay in years past to buy all this creative power (and keep it completely up to date), it's a good deal. The fact that you can get a single app for a project for one month for $19.99 is also very handy. And the 10-buck-a-month Photography deal, which includes Photoshop and Lightroom, is outstanding.

One last advantage is portability. Say you have to go on a job on Guam and you suddenly need SpeedGrade to finish the project. You just sign into your account and install it on any computer you're working on. You uninstall it when you no longer need it. This is particularly handy if you work on a laptop. Add to that the new line of tablet touch apps that link to Cloud apps, and you're looking at the future.

Okay, in a sense I feel like a guilty turncoat for giving this award because I have been unconvinced about cloud-based subscription programs. Nevertheless, I assure you, Adobe has earned this award, and I think we all have to admit their software is, in general, of a very high caliber. So congratulations from the heart, Adobe. I was wrong. Subscription software does make sense the way you're doing it. However, I wish you would introduce a system where when you stop your subscription after, say, at least two years, you get to keep certain key apps you've installed, without further updates. That seems fair.

For those interested, I've based this award on using and reviewing these apps:

  • Bridge CC
  • Acrobat XI Pro
  • Illustrator (2014) CC
  • Photoshop (2014)CC
  • Premiere Pro (2014) CC
  • After Effects (2014) CC
  • Audition (2014) CC
  • Light Room (2014) CC
  • Media Encoder (2014) CC
  • SpeedGrade (2014) CC

I thought I'd just use Photoshop, After Effects and Premiere Pro, but I was wrong. With free access to the entire suite, I find myself using more and more tools.

Best Environment Creation Tool

I like doing environment concept designs, so naturally I've looked at most of the environment creation software like Mojo World, Bryce, Terregen, and Vue. Each one has it's strengths, but one stands out for it remarkably well designed interface and tools. Vue 14.5 is the clear winner of the Golden Pixie this year.

This castle was rendered in Vue and then incorporated into a digital matte painting of nearly 100 layers by Peter Plantec.

Why? Because with it you have the tools you need to create amazing photorealistic images and animations that defy detection as pure digital. It is my entirely biased opinion that nothing really comes close to Vue for environment design and creation. Instead of writing a lot about it, here is are three images created by renowned environment artist Drea Horvath in Holland using Vue. Notice the atmosphere, water, vegetation, lighting and render quality.

By artist Drea Horvath

Vue is available in five different price levels, from the free Pioneer version to a full-bells-and-whistles Vue Extreme version. The latter contains plug-ins for most major 3D creation suites, including Max, Maya, Softimage, LightWave and C4D. It is amazing to work right within 3ds Max using the powerful Vue tools to create and animate environments of amazing quality after only a few days of learning. Congratulations to the development teams at E-on Software in the U.S. and France.

 

Vue can be used to create highly realistic establishing shots in very little time. This one is highly compressed for the web.  

I've uploaded a very short video clip in which I have included bits and pieces from Golden Pixie winners. I composed this clip after watching a Peder Norrby tutorial on Vimeo. Of course, I went off on my own about halfway through.

 

I used After Effects CC and Vector Blur CC, as well as Layer Styles, all from Adobe's Creative Cloud. Then I incorporated Red Giant Trapcode tools Mir and Shine. I stylized the flame look using a free plug-in from Video Copilot called VC Color Vibrance. To add drama, I used some sound FX and atmosphere from Andrew Kramer's Designer Sound FX and Pro Scores packs. Fun stuff. It's only a few seconds. Enjoy.

Wrap

It really is a pleasure to give credit to elements of our industry that do a particularly good job. I certainly will miss some deserving elements. But maybe I'll catch them next year.

Stay tuned, because there are more Golden Pixies to come. I've been working on this all year and I have found a lot of worthy recipients.

-P-

Categories: Peter Plantec, VFX  |  Tags: ,  |  Comments

Interstellar: First Reactions and Tech Specs for Exhibition

Christopher Nolan's nearly-three-hour-long spacefaring epic Interstellar, which opens November 5 in theaters showing film and November 7 on digital screens, is one of the year's most ambitious and highly anticipated movies. Until very recently, it was also the big studio release that we knew the least about—even if you had seen it, you weren't allowed to say anything about it until this week. That didn't stop some high-profile colleagues of Nolan's from having their say.

And now movie critics have started weighing in. Interstellar has earned a Metacritic Metascore of 77 ("generally favorable reviews") from 11 writers and a Tomatometer rating of 69% from 26 reviewers (18 favorable, 8 negative) at Rotten Tomatoes. Here are some quotes from both sides of the aisle.

Interstellar reaffirms Nolan as the premier big-canvas storyteller of his generation, more than earning its place alongside The Wizard of Oz2001Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Gravity in the canon of Hollywood's visionary sci-fi head trips. — Scott Foundas, Variety

The movie's strengths and weaknesses are profoundly bound up together, producing a riveting push-pull dynamic throughout. You watch the film lamenting its most recent slip-up, only to be knocked sideways by its next extraordinary flourish. — Tim Grierson, Screen Daily

It's a bold, beautiful cosmic adventure story with a touch of the surreal and the dreamlike, and yet it always feels grounded in its own deadly serious reality. — Dave Calhoun, Time Out London

It’s a glorious spectacle, but a slight drama, with few characters and too-rare flashes of humour. It wants to awe us into submission, to concede our insignificance in the face of such grand-scale art. It achieves that with ease. Yet on his way to making an epic, Nolan forgot to let us have fun. — Henry Barnes, The Guardian

It's impossible to not admire the technical achievements of Interstellar, but as Michael Bay and so much more modern moviegoing has proved, rapturous visuals can't make up for a ruptured script. Christopher Nolan's Interstellar spends hundreds of millions to take the audience on a journey to the farthest parts of the cosmos … so they can be told sentiments as close, and as cheap, as any of the offerings at your local Hallmark card retailer. — James Rocchi, The Playlist

OK. So some people will love it and some will hate it. But the most controversial thing about Interstellar on the exhibition side of the industry is the director's stubborn refusal to give up on film. What does it mean for moviegoers? Well, beyond the different look of film prints, Nolan's use of multiple formats means the movie will be screened in many theaters with a changing aspect ratio, and audiences will see a different frame depending on where they see the film.

According to the official "technical specifications," Interstellar was photographed in 35mm anamorphic and 65mm 15-perf IMAX formats. When the film is projected in an old-school 70mm IMAX theater, the aspect ratio will switch between 2.40:1 (35mm anamorphic) and 1.43:1 (IMAX) at "key dramatic moments".

Before and After
Mouseover film still above to compare aspect ratios. Note: this is a publicity still, not an actual frame from the film. We're just using it to show the difference between the aspect ratios; we have no idea whether the scene in the film was shot on 35mm or in IMAX. Photo courtesy Paramount Pictures.


For "digital IMAX" exhibition, the original film elements have been scanned at 6K and 8K before being scaled down for the DCP. The aspect ratio will switch between 2.40:1 and "up to 1.9:1," presumably depending on the height of the screen at any given digital IMAX installation. All IMAX screenings, film and digital, will feature an uncompressed IMAX sound mix.

At 70mm screenings, the IMAX footage has been cropped top and bottom (and the widescreen footage cropped slightly on the sides?) to create a 2.2:1 aspect ratio. The six-track audio will be delivered on a Datasat disc. 35mm anamorphic prints are made from the original 35mm camera negative intercut with 4K negative sourced from 8K scans of the original IMAX negative. Sound will be encoded on the prints in six-track Dolby SRD.

Look for more news on Interstellar when the film is in release … and the people who helped make it are finally allowed to talk about it.

VFX Coder Proposes MOX, a Crowdfunded Open-Source Movie File Format

Can a crowdfunded open-source project bring the industry together behind a QuickTime killer? Brendan Bolles, a veteran of The Orphanage and an experienced programmer of VFX plug-ins, thinks so. He's asking the industry to contribute money supporting his development of a specification and open-source software library for MOX, a new cross-platform, patent-free professional movie format combining audio and video in an MXF container.

At the funding goal of $20,000, Bolles will develop an Adobe Premiere Pro plug-in. At "stretch goals" of $25,000 and $30,000 he'll create plug-ins for Adobe After Effects and The Foundry Nuke, respectively. Because the software library is open source, users will in theory be able to write plug-ins for any program, but Premiere, AE and Nuke are part of Bolles' proposed initial development. Watch the official MOX "campaign video," created by San Francisco motion-design studio Swordfish, to get an idea of what Bolles is up to.

Supported video formats will include Dirac, OpenEXR, DPX, PNG, and JPEG, including 16-bit and 32-bit floating point; audio codecs will include FLAC, Opus, and raw PCM at up to 32-bit lossy and lossless. The MOX format will allow for multiple channels, so that alpha, Z-depth, and 3D-stereo views can be included. File-wide and frame-specific metadata will also be incorporated. The library and plug-ins will be coded in C++ and hosted on GitHub with a non-restrictive BSD license allowing free use by both commercial and non-commercial software.

VFX guru Stu Maschwitz, who worked with Bolles at The Orphanage, threw his immediate support behind the project at his widely read Prolost blog. "Imagine if ProRes wan't controlled by Apple," he wrote. "Imagine a movie file that played back with the correct gamma on every computer." Maschwitz also testified to Bolles’ development skills, noting that he co-developed the eLin suite of plug-ins and scripts at The Orphanage and wrote the OpenEXR code that is today included with After Effects.

Other commenters were more circumspect. At his own blog, Philip Hodgetts was skeptical about the long-term viability of an open-source project. "History shows that many projects start strong, but ultimately it comes down to a small group of people (or one in MOX's case) doing all the work, and inevitably life's circumstances intervene," Hodgetts wrote.

In comments at the MOX Indiegogo page, Bolles says acquisition codecs, such as individual vendors' camera-raw implementations, could be supported in MOX as long as they are both open source and patent-free. If MOX can be launched with support already in place for Premiere, After Effects and Nuke, it will be worth keeping an eye on.

Categories: Technology  |  Tags: ,  |  Comments

Peter Plantec’s Entirely Biased Golden Pixie Awards, Part Two

This is the second volley of awards. There are quite a few to give out this year because I've spent time researching and there is a lot of excellent out there.

I'm also interested in your suggestions for Pixies. I have no dearth of prospects, but I could be missing something obvious – something special. If you have a stand-out favorite application, bit of equipment or person that you'd like to nominate, please do in the comments or in a private email. I'll check it out. I don't mind being biased, but I do like to be reasonably thorough.

And now for something completely different—the first PPEBGP awarded to a human.

Most Effective Client-Side VFX Supervisor

Over quite a few years now I've been bitching about toxic client-side VFX supervisors. These are the ones who are insecure or ego-involved and wreak havoc with VFX houses by demanding way too many redos — and then going back to the original after wasting sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars of the VFX house's budget. These people cause untold emotional upset and financial loss and have contributed to the demise of some good houses. Enough about them!

What I've never taken the time to do is talk about the good guys. These are the client-side VFX supes who work well with VFX houses, have compassion for their situation, and have the personal self-confidence to call shots without many unnecessary redos. These are the men and women who are efficient and solution-oriented.

Supervising for a studio is a high-pressure, high-responsibility job. You have to translate the director's vision into specific instructions and work with VFX houses to make it happen. You're ultimately responsible to the studio and the director for the final product. The number of technical, artistic and people skills required is immense. These are the people who help VFX houses blossom—help them create imagery that we all love—and, each time, they have to make it beyond what has ever been seen before.

I have selected one person whom I have had the good fortune to observe for nearly 20 years. I have met him a few times and find him to be a good and fun guy in real life as well. In fact, I walked with him once through an eerie, very old German cemetery at midnight while we were both attending FMX in Stuttgart. Okay, so we'd had a few German beers and there was dancing involved. But that's not why I picked him.

Inspired by Doug Trumbull's amazing VFX in 2001: A Space Odyssey way back in 1968, this Wisconsin-born sci-fi buff got interested in film at the University of Michigan, where he discovered and entered their film program. He eventually went to work with VFX pioneer Richard Hollander at VIFX, where many a young artist got their start. If I give you too much more, I'll spoil the surprise.

His list of major VFX films is remarkable, including such seminal opuses as The Relic, Broken Arrow, From Dusk Till Dawn, The Matrix Reloaded, Fantastic Four, X-Men: The Last Stand, Watchmen, Man of Steel, 300: Rise of An Empire. As you read this, he's supervising work on Batman v Superman. When he's finished there he hops right into Justice League. Phew. That might have given it away. But, continuing on…

Over the years I've heard his name mentioned by key people at several houses in London, L.A., and Vancouver as being the kind of VFX supe you want to get — not because he's easy, but because he is solution oriented, creative, talented and helps achieve images and sequences they had not imagined, all without excess drama. (As an aside, I've heard that Zack Snyder would agree with my choice here.)

The person I choose for Peter Plantec's Entirely Biased Golden Pixie Award for Most Effective Client-Side VFX Supervisor is: (imagine a drum roll here) GADZOOKS! It's Warner Brothers' legendary VFX Supe John "DJ" DesJardin!

John "DJ" DesJardin; photo by Jean Ho

This is a quote I found from DJ recorded by journalist Trevor Hogg at Flickeringmyth.com. It sums up the reason he is getting this award. DJ was asked what is most essential about being a good VFX supervisor, and I think he answers for both sides.

“I almost want to say temperament more than anything.  You have to ask yourself: 'Can you keep yourself regimented, and disciplined to be able to get through what you’re going to have to go through to get something done? Can you keep your ideas fresh? Can you be a nice person…' Just be pleasant about it because it’s a pretty lucky job to have. You’re not mining sulfur, your lungs are not filling up with sulfuric acid and you’re not dying when you're 30. Have a little humility, keep your head down and do the work. That, I think, is the most important thing about being a visual effects supervisor.”

Apparently he's right. I would add that, while perhaps he doesn't even realize it, his creative and practical approach to getting things done is another key.

Though I have never worked with DJ, the stories abound. Stories about how houses and their people love working with him. "He's fun."  I would hear these nice stories about DJ and about how his vision, and humanity and talent work together with house-side VFX supervisors to help create great cinema. It is refreshing. He's not the only one. But he is the one I've heard the most good things about and followed the closest. Thank you, DJ, for being a breath of fresh air in our beleaguered Industry. Congratulations, kiddo. You deserve it.

And now for the second ever Golden Pixie being awarded to a human. Golden Pixie for …

Legendary Teacher in the VFX and Motion Graphics Industries

This is a person I have never met, but whom I have followed for years. I am not alone. His legendary tutorials have taught young and not-so-young (me) people around the world how to create some of the most sexy, awesome VFX using After Effects and other software, including some he has designed. He doesn't charge a cent for his hundreds of outstanding training tutorials. They are the best of the best. You probably already know who it is because he towers above other giants in the field.

One of his greatest personal assets that he employs almost daily in explaining the clever intricacies of VFX is his amazing voice and sense of humor. A former radio personality, he can do a half-hour tutorial and you never once fall asleep! He may be the only one on the planet that can accomplish this heroic feat. His presentations are always fun and useful and practical and most of all, kind of sexy. You learn to do things that can get you a job. In fact at his website, www.videocopilot.com, there is enough training to actually take a person from rank beginner to beginning professional or better—an entire VFX education to get you started!

I do not know how he has managed to put out hundreds or thousands of hours of training, all consistently high-quality, on his own time and getting not a cent for it. He is also a consummate professional in the VFX field. I have it on good authority from people who have worked with him that his talent in actually creating VFX and motion graphics in film and media are outstanding. Okay, now that 90% of you already know who it is, cue the trumpets. The Peter Plante's Entirely Biased Golden Pixie for Legendary Teacher in the VFX and Motion Graphics Industries is….Andrew…what's his name?…ah, ”hey what's up”… it's Andrew Kramer!

Andrew Kramer Golden Pixie winner.
Andrew Kramer

I have, for years, wanted to recognize Andrew's massive contributions to the industry and to me personally. He taught me After Effects. Today I do so. Congratulations, kiddo. You have taught us well, and please let Sam Loya, who has sacrificed his life many times for the cause, bask in the glory of this prestigious award. For those of you who have not been to VideoCopilot.com, Sam helped Andrew start VideoCopilot and works with him and has been shot, blown up, burned, abducted by aliens, run over by a bus, and otherwise met his demise countless times so we can learn how it's done.

A little about Andrew: he is a family man with three gorgeous kids and a lovely wife. He must work 20 hours a day to get it all in. (In fact he's become an expert on time management and has video about it at his website.) He's a modern Renaissance man who excels at almost everything he tries. He has worked at a number of visual effects houses and he actually has traditional artistic skills as well. His wildly creative mind came up with main title designs for iconic TV series like Person of Interest, Fringe, Almost Human, and Revolution. In film, he created the main-title sequences for J.J. Abrams' Star Trek and Super 8. IMDb credits him with composing music for 10 films! He regularly works with J.J Abrams on effects and creative designs. He is also a genius with sound effects and teaches how to use them to great effect along with VFX at his website. Andrew is also a director, having directed a number of promos and commercials. That's just a small bit about who he is.

I believe Andrew released his first serious tutorial in 2007. It was way cool. He taught people how to recreate the amazing light streaks featured in an early iPod commercial. That's the year he teamed up with Sam Loya. He and Sam went out to Andrew's garage and spent hours dropping ink into water and dribbling paint, etc., to create their first killer product called Riot Gear — a DVD filled with highly useful and creative stock footage. The clips could be integrated into all sorts of projects and, to make sure people knew how to use the stock, Andrew created a series of fun tutorials showing how.

The tutorials that I most appreciate had to be agony for Andrew to create — the “Basic Training” series where he takes us through, step by step, from the very beginning to make sure we master the basics of After Effects before going on to the complicated stuff. Somehow, he kept it all entertaining.

Sure, they sell products at Video Copilot. They also have free, extremely useful plug-ins and tons of free project templates to get you started. I'm thinking you can get a $20,000 education at VideoCopilot.com for free. I don't think there is anybody in this industry that doesn't appreciate Andrew's contributions. Congratulations, Andrew. Perhaps one day we will meet and I will give you a hug for all you've done for me. Or maybe not. Anyway, here's a fun video about Andrew and Sam.

Phew…that was fun. And now something small. I find it's a lot of the small apps that I go back to time and time again because they are simple, do the job and help me function at a higher level with less effort.

Most Sophisticated Free CG Texture Application

Strangely in this business, there are a number of fine tools that are available free on the web. There is one that I think provides a lot of function for the price. It is completely free for both personal and commercial use. There are much more sophisticated commercial applications in this arena, and I'm looking at them, but I've already made up my mind on this one. This is the Swiss Army Knife of free texture applications. You may have guessed it, It is xNormal!!!

xNormal is probably the best free tool for creating normal, ambient occlusion and displacement maps. To get full use requires a reasonably steep learning curve, but for most uses it's pretty intuitive. It was developed by a team headed by a fellow called known only as Santi. It has been used by virtually all the studios on lots of major VFX films. It's that good. I asked Santi about it.

“I started xN as a tool for my own never-released 3D engine," he told me. "I needed an app to compute normal maps and AO so I decided to create one by myself with all the functionality required. Then I realized all was too slow and had to early-adopt several new technologies such as multicore CPU programming (via OpenMP), GPGPU (via CUDA) and hardware-accelerated ray tracing (via my own CUDA renderer, Optix and OpenRL).  I decided to give xNormal 3 away for free because in the moment it was created not many free normal mappers were available, and also to explore new technologies. Along the way I have met very interesting people—for example, Morten Mikkelsen, a tangent-space calculation guru who has helped,  and people from very important game, vfx and IHV companies. Exciting!”

I asked him about version 4, which is in the wings. He told me, “Expect a complete redesign of the UI, multi-platform OS support (Linux, Mac, Windows), OpenCL GPGPU, custom shaders, ptex, etc. We were going to release an alpha at the end of this year, but we had an accident with a HDD and we are also waiting for some tech to mature a bit.”

If you're interested in progress, you can follow it on his blog.

I really appreciate the included interactive 3D viewer (with advanced shaders and real-time soft shadows/glow effect), and it comes with a few Photoshop filters and importers/exporters for 3ds Max and Maya. xNormal is very fast because it uses all your cores and supports advanced distributed/parallel rendering, ray-tracing and advanced GPU techniques. It works amazingly well with the Nvidia K5000 Quadro—I've tested it! Hard to believe all this from a free chunk of excellent software suitable for professional use. Congratulatins to Santi and his team.

Wrap
In the next edition of the Pixies, I look at plug-ins, a software delivery system, and surprises. I am pleased that there are many worthy candidates out there and competition is stiff. Let me know what you think about including people in the Golden Pixie Awards. I think there are a lot of people out there who are doing an especially good job, and I like to recognize them.

Keep your eyes out for the next edition. I announce on my Facebook page and on the Facebook “Work” group, which is group of more than 3,000 animation and VFX people. It's a closed group, but if you have good reason to be there, we'll get you in.

-P-


Golden Pixie


Golden Pixie is a work in progress. Anyone who wins a Golden Pixie may use that Pixie in advertising or on product packaging. Contact me for a Pixie logo package.

Welcome to Peter Plantec’s Entirely Biased Golden Pixie Awards

Welcome to Peter Plantec's Entirely Biased Golden Pixie Awards. Yes, I started awarding Pixies almost 20 years ago at Animation Magazine. They are unique because I am beholden to no one. I tell it like it is, and and I pick hardware, software and people based on my personal experience. I've been doing this for decades, so my opinions are based on experience, and some of the winners are suggested by friends in the industry. My realm of interest is fairly broad, incorporating all of digital entertainment—my association with Mundos Digitales in Spain and FMX in Germany has sparked my interest in gaming and digital architecture.

Sometimes I have a hard time picking between two similar products. For example, I'm having a very hard time selecting one 3D material system. Quixel and Allegorithmic are both very powerful and highly effective, but they are quite different. Since I can be biased, I might just award each with a Pixie. I'm still pondering it.

Of course, this all goes to my head and I pretend to be a god giving out golden halos. I figure after more than three decades in the industry, I should have a little fun.

Note: Some years after I started awarding Golden Pixies, another outfit started awarding “Pixies,” which are gold in color. To avoid confusion, my awards are officially called “Peter Plantec's Entirely Biased Golden Pixie Awards.” Awkward, but distinct.

How I Go About Selecting Awardees
First, I spend a lot of time reviewing software and hardware at my secret studio high in the Rocky Mountains. I maintain a really nice test-bed computer for testing software. For example, I sculpted the Golden Pixie by moving back and forth between ZBrush and DAZ Studio. I experimented with texturing her in Marmoset Toolbag 2, Vue and 3ds Max. I played with lighting as well. I'm still not quite happy with her, but I'm getting there. To achieve the look I'm going for, I need to spend time learning and experimenting in DAZ, Photoshop, Vue, 3ds Max and ZBrush. These projects give me insight into the software and their interfaces and how they work for me. That is a biggie. If the user interface makes a lot of intuitive sense, it gets high marks from me.

People and Companies
I decided to change things up. In addition to software and hardware, I have discovered that certain companies and individuals are worthy of special recognition. I particularly like small companies, but when a big company does exceptional work, I have to recognize it. In fact, the very first Golden Pixie is being awarded to a whole company for outstanding work.

Honorable Mentions
Okay, sometimes I run across serious contenders but for some reason, usually having to do with cost/utility ratio, I don't feel comfortable giving them a Golden Pixie. Since they usually do one thing and do it very well, I may give them an honorable mention.

Software Interfaces
Interface design has many aspects, not the least of which is that one's cognitive style semi-dictates one's preferences. Engineers tend to design interfaces that artists don't like. Interface designers tend to design interfaces that make sense and are easy to learn. Engineers tend to create interfaces by their own esoteric methods, often making things overly complex. Blender, a great 3D application, has an interface that requires unnecessarily complex operations to do simple things. It is also inconsistent because for some procedures, that isn't true. That doesn't mean Blender won't get a Pixie. It is under consideration for other reasons.

Designing interfaces for software like Autodesk or Adobe applications is an enormously complex task. Getting it right takes luck, brilliance and insight. Some of the most amazing software out there has poor interface design.

Cleverness
I really appreciate cleverness. I am happy to say I'm seeing a lot of it lately. Such things as spray-on particle-driven texturing, textures that are UV-savvy and analyze surfaces and deposit layers accordingly, tickle the heck out of me. So cleverness counts.

Functionality
Functionality in software is key. It's one reason I'm considering Blender. The function per dollar invested is through the roof. But expensive apps have to have a lot of functionality to be considered.

In hardware, it just has to do it better than anyone else. This would bias me toward Intel over AMD because Intel's CPUs simply have more performance per cubic nanometer. On the other hand, AMD represents one hell of a value, generally providing more performance per dollar than Intel. So you can see my quandary.

Sex Appeal
This one is hard to define, but if I find an application very exciting, it gets extra points. For example, when you go to SIGGRAPH and a software or hardware demonstration blows your mind? That is sex appeal. I remember the first time I saw the very first beta of Bryce demonstrated at SIGGRAPH it captivated me completely. It was slow and limited—not for animation at that time—but the images were stunning. The first time I saw Eyeon's Digital Fusion demonstrated, with its modular interface design, it got instant sex-appeal points and eventually won a Golden Pixie. It won because It worked well and was intuitive to use. Today, almost all applications offer a modular interface option. Connecting processes up with wires makes sense to just about everyone. After Effects is flat-out sexy to me.

I Only Have a Limited Ability to Look at Things
Yes, there are other great applications out there that I wish I had the time to learn and evaluate. Houdini? Amazing application. Cinema 4D? Absolutely a contender, but I haven't spent time with it lately. Corel has some very cost-effective products that are high quality. I hope I get time to spend with them. The Foundry has great apps like Mari and Nuke, an industry standard, along with Katana and Modo. My problem is that I don't have the time or energy to learn them all. Modo, for example, has a non-standard interface with a steep learning curve, and I don't have the time I need. Friends who have worked on Modo and others who use it have let me know it is a great application. But I can't give it a Pixie because I don't know it well enough. I could go on all day mentioning great hardware and software that I haven't learned in depth, but it would be futile.

Behold: Peter Plantec's Entirely Biased Golden Pixie Awards!

And the first Entirely Biased Golden Pixie goes to …

Nvidia

Hot professional Video Card

Nvidia's K5000 is serious hardware. It scores high on a host of performance indices that game cards score poorly on.

I am biased because I reviewed the very first chip that Nvidia ever successfully released. We go back. But more than that, over and over I have found that the people who work at Nvidia are helpful and often brilliant. Their GPU architectures are exceptional, and their products have become industry standards. In fact, their fast gaming products perform so well they are often used by VFX houses on individual workstations where performance is key.

Let me talk about the chunk of hardware that I have been testing. It's the Nvidia Quadro K5000 Professional Graphics engine. Based on the Kepler graphics architecture, this unit is designed specifically for heavy-duty professional power users, especially in graphics, animation, VFX and CAD/CAM. Nvidia dominates this sector of the graphics engine industry. AMD's professional FirePro series is quite good, but they just do not have the market share and I haven't reviewed them in several years.

Based on the well-tested GK104 chip, the K5000 has 3.5 billion transistors in it! I remember when my first transistor was released by Raytheon, the CK722. It cost almost $4. At that rate. the K5000 would cost the GNP of a small country! They can fit so many junctions on the chip because they are using the 28nm scale production process. This is actually nano-engineering in play. The actual number of parallel streaming processors is a mere 1536 CUDA cores. Talk about supercomputers—the K5000 is a true supercomputer in itself. Its internal memory bus has a bandwidth of just over 170GB/s!

It actually uses the same GPU as the gaming version, Nvidia's GeForce 680. Nvidia has unlocked the K5000 but it runs standard quite a bit slower than their high-end gaming cards. That means it is quieter and you get better energy efficiency, and pro cards have to be totally reliable. Nevertheless, overclocking fans can turbo this card unti their head spins, given extra cooling power and the proper settings.

As I understand it, the Quadro cards do not cost that much more to manufacture than the GeForce 680, but what you get is more direct customer service and reliability. More importantly, the pro cards from Nvidia are optimized for professional work in our industries. They massively outperform the game cards because the K5000 is much better at handling dense OpenGL-based models, anti-aliasing, and texture solutions. In fact, on some benchmarks the Quadro K5000 performs dozens of times better than the GTX 680. It's all about optimization.

I choose to give the Golden Pixie to Nvidia because they never rest on past performance and are always pushing the boundaries of what is possible. Their GPU cores are used in the fastest supercomputers, they provide the best optimized drivers for your particular use, and their customer service on professional graphics cards is exemplary.

I awarded a Golden Pixie to the K5000 graphics card because its performance in all my professional and personal applications driving a dual monitor display blows my mind. The way its GPU accelerates video transcoding and other tasks in 3D design and animation is just flat-out sexy.

Digital-Tutors

I stay on up to date on a number of applications by taking video courses at www.digital-tutors.com. Keeping up on what I write about is no easy task these days. Back in 2004, about when Digital-Tutors started, there were just a few key applications that were fairly universally accepted. Back then I would get DVDs to keep on top of various 3D software applications.

At that time I got DVDs wherever I could, and many were reasonably unprofessional, often with dogs barking or babies crying in the background. One famous set I still have has belches all through it. It was about then I discovered Digital-Tutors. They were very helpful and have continued to be as they grow more sophisticated in how they teach each subject.

Now there are hundreds of useful applications used in various processes needed to create VFX, games and animation. I noticed Digital-Tutors has at least 80 different subjects with close to 1700 courses available. Within these courses you will find more than 32,000 individual video lessons!

At Digital-Tutors, I simply go to the specific product training and watch the series of videos as needed. For anyone who wants to learn a new tool, this is most likely your best place to find what you need. Programs like Maya and ZBrush and Photoshop all have a range of subjects to be learned, allowing you to focus on various aspects. They also provide individual introduction series, where the teachers go through the tedious step-by-steps of learning the basics of each program. Also useful is the release of a New Features video for each new release of key software products. In all, Digital-Tutors offers training in 80 different subjects. The training is virtually all well thought out and presented in a professional way. Not all are perfect, but the bulk of training is well presented. I now depend on Digital-Tutors to keep me on top of my selected applications.

I particularly like their asset library, which they fill with models and rigs and other things that will let you jump into a set of training sessions without having to build your own assets. This saves me a lot of time when learning new things.

Recently merged with PluralSight, Digital-Tutors is staying reasonably independent and, so far, up to date. Lastly, I find many of the courses offer fun projects. Some of them are even kind of sexy.

I also like www.lynda.com, where I also take some training videos, but from my perspective Digital-Tutors has more content that is more current in the areas where I need it. Lynda.com is an honorable mention because they have a very wide range of mostly excellent courses, though in my experience they can take longer to get a course up on a brand new release. Check them out anyway. Their range is pretty amazing.

Arnold

SolidAngle

No, it's not a person. Arnold has been a Hollywood best-kept-secret render monster until the creators, Solid Angle, recently came out with commercial versions adapted for Maya, Softimage and Houdini. For some time, the studios have had access to Arnold and have been using it on many feature films. It was reported to be very fast and efficient.

I had heard buzz about it, and I met the creator of Arnold, Marcos Fajarodo, at Mundos Digitales in Spain. He's an interesting, brilliant guy that I have to admit I like. For a very long time I had no access to the renderer, but I've long been curious because a number of my friends in VFX were singing its praises. Finally I got my hands on a demo and tried it out in Maya. I was impressed. The learning curve is less steep for me than other renderers I've had to learn.

In a word, you don't have to be a PhD and spend many hours setting up excellent shots, because Arnold works with the artist to simplify the process.
Looking at my resource consumption during renders, my conclusion is that Arnold is exceptionally frugal with resources. The controls seem to make sense and I believe artists will be comfortable with them. It is more intuitive than most, especially in the realm of lighting.

I think one of the reasons I like Arnold so much is its cleverness. My interpretation of how Arnold works would be that it is an adaptable tracing engine that attempts to solve optimized ray trajectories on the fly. Lots of little things add up to a very efficient render solution. For example, there seems to be a psycho-perceptual element going on. Ray-tracing really is a virtually endless process that is arbitrarily halted at some level of acceptability. That level is determined by eye when it looks “right.” I suspect that Arnold “knows” how to efficiently determine the number of rays to trace along cleverly optimized pathways to get the kind of image that we humans find acceptable. It does so in a way that reduces both time and render resource consumption, helping to keep production costs down. 

Pixie Herself

Golden Pixie
Golden Pixie is a work in progress. I'm not yet happy with her. The wings are far from finished, and her pose is not where I want it to be. I'm slow at sculpting and design, so bear with me. I've created anime-style clothing for her in ZBrush. So accept her as the prototype and I'll try to have her finished by next time. Also, anyone who wins a Golden Pixie may use that Pixie in advertising or on product packaging. Contact me for a Pixie logo package.

Wrap
This is just the beginning. I get exposed to a lot of good and marginal software, hardware and people. Instead of pointing out the bad, I point out the good. I hope this is helpful. I know most of you know your stuff, but often I will find something you could use and didn't know about. I'll post my next installment shortly, and it will have quite a few more awards in it.

So stay tuned for more of Peter Plantec's Entirely Biased Golden Pixie Awards. There will be a few surprises.


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