Product Review: Softimage 2011
Autodesk has released Softimage 2011, packing a variety of changes, ranging from core application enhancements to new features that should improve your workflow greatly. Softimage 2011 focuses a lot more on the underlying architecture than on toolset-oriented features, but in the end both changes offer a very robust application.
Face Robot is the facial setup and animation module in Softimage 2011, and it now includes an automated lip sync feature. Speech animation is often a time consuming task, and it isn't usually the point of interest on the final shot, unless you have a close up of the mouth.
Creating automated lip sync is very easy. All you need is an audio file and a text file with the transcription of that speech. When you load your Face Robot-ready head, you import the phonemes that will adjust to your speech (Softimage includes a set of phonemes already). You can test those phonemes to make sure they do what you expect, and then you proceed to import the audio and text files. Softimage will analyze the audio and automatically apply the correct phonemes to your character's mouth.
If you've used automatic lip sync applications in the past, you've probably noticed the results aren't usually what you'd expect. That's not the case with Face Robot, though. The default animation will usually look extremely good, and if you find there's room for improvement, it's easy to just add or remove keyframes to it.
The following video shows the result of an automated lip sync I made using this feature. Even though Face Robot only supports English or Japanese languages, the Spanish speech animation came out extremely good (in case you may be wondering, the sentence is "Leave me alone, will you?" and it's from my upcoming animated short film).
Demonstration of the automated lip sync feature in Softimage 2011
Softimage 2011 also includes viewport and render slates. These are useful to display information about your current scene in the viewport, and in a rendered image. You have a variety of "tokens" you can use to describe the information in the scene, and you can add and remove these as you please.
If you have an Nvidia display adapter, you can take advantage of the PhysX engine. Rigid body simulations can take advantage of this in order to yield faster and more realistic results. The simulations I tested showed some improvement during the simulation. However, they are very simple and the standard simulation engine could already run them very fast. Heavier and larger simulations would take more advantage of this new feature, but for simpler simulations the effects may not even be noticeable since the Softimage simulator is already very fast.
New to Softimage ICE is Kinematics. You can use these to create a rig, instead of standard scripting procedures. There isn't actually a difference when it comes to the result (they both are used to create rigs, and both rigs may have the same functionality). However, using ICE Kinematics may be simpler for some, as they don't need to actually script anything, but rather connect nodes in the graphical ICE Tree.
I don't believe ICE Kinematics will ever replace standard rigging tools in Softimage. However, it's good to have different ways to do your rigging tasks inside the application, and some users (especially those not very fond of scripting) will find ICE Kinematics very useful.
There are also improvements in unfolding UVs. You can now update your UV islands after altering the UV cut line, without altering the relative positioning of the islands of your mesh. Besides, all UV islands are perfectly symmetrical, making things easier for texture artists.
Softimage 2011 also introduces a new way to edit your shaders. Now every shader is editable at code level, making any changes you need directly inside the code. If you author your shaders this way, Softimage will also build the UI for this new shader automatically, so you don't need a different tool to build that UI yourself.
If you're familiar with Mentalray MI shader programming, you will surely love this addition.
This release includes Mentalray core 3.8, just like the Autodesk Maya 2011 and 3ds Max 2011 releases. Softimage 2011 also ships with the Crosswalk data exchange toolset. On the scripting side, Python has also made its way to Softimage as a scripting language.
If I had to choose the killer feature in Softimage 2011, I'd say it's the automatic lip sync now included in Face Robot, as it's a huge time saver and Face Robot is one of the best facial animation tools available. Being able to use Nvidia PhysX to speed up simulations will surely help a lot of users. On the other hand, the new ICE Kinematics should make rigging easier for some, specially those who are not familiar with scripting.
At the end of the day, Softimage 2011 has something to offer to both the users that utilize what the software already has to offer, as well as those who like to go under the hood.
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Sergio Aris Rosa [nemirc], is Sr. Staff Writer for the Renderosity Front Page News. Sergio discusses on computer graphics software, animation techniques, and technology. He also hosts interviews with professionals in the animation and cinematography fields. You can follow him on Twitter, and if you want to see what he's up to you can visit his blog.
July 5, 2010
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