Autodesk's Softimage 2010 In Review
December 14, 2009 2:44 am
Softimage 2010 is the latest version of this 3D animation package, and also the first X.0 version to be shipped by Autodesk. This release focuses on workflow and speed improvements, and also integration. The software has gone through optimizations on its core architecture, and also now includes Face Robot as part of its default toolset, instead of it being a separate application.
I’ve been interested in Softimage for some time, but I’ve never had the chance to try it out till now. Since I don’t have any previous Softimage experience, I am reviewing the software from a Maya user point of view.
Switching from one application to the next can be frustrating, especially if only one of those is your main application and the other one is only used “now and then” (I go through that every time someone asks me to do something in 3ds Max, since key bindings and camera navigation in Maya and Max is very different). It was an extremely pleasant surprise to see Softimage allows the user to switch between different “interaction models,” meaning that your key bindings and camera navigation will adjust according to the option you’ve selected (Softimage, Maya, SI|3D and SI with extended component selection).
Using Softimage with the Maya interaction model becomes second nature in no time (save for the fact you still need to understand where to find the commands, panels, and pretty much everything you may need to work). Personally, I don’t find the user interface very friendly, since it relies heavily on text, and I’m the kind of person who works better with icon-based UIs.
Just like in Maya, you can switch between the different modules (modeling, animation, dynamic simulations, rendering). When you switch to a different menu, the buttons on the left toolbar will change accordingly.
Each module also has a specific menu. The Softimage menu is made up of 2 parts: the standard menu and the modules menu. The modules menu never changes, even if you switch to a different module, so you have access to your modeling tools even if the left side toolbar is set to the animation module.
During one of my SIGGRAPH attendances I took the time to see a Softimage|XSI demo. On that specific demo I saw a very high resolution model being displayed on the viewport in near real-time speed thanks to Softimage’s GigaCore architecture.
Softimage 2010 includes GigaCore III. This architecture allows Softimage to handle large amounts of data, and also translates into a very fast and capable viewport. I tried subdividing a medium resolution model 4 times, till I got a poly count of maybe 1 to 2 million polygons, and the viewport was extremely responsive.
Another interesting feature in Softimage is ICE (Interactive Creative Environment). ICE is a module where you combine different nodes forming the ICE Tree, to create a variety of effects, be it particles, soft and rigid body simulations and such. To create a dynamic simulation you connect the different nodes, one after the next. You can also group connected nodes into an ICE Compound. ICE Compounds are useful when you want to reuse specific node setups and you don’t want to create them each time.
ICE is supposed to be a multi-threaded simulation engine. During my tests, the ICE simulations used all of my 8 cores, but the usage was barely over 25%. Even complex simulations that would take a lot to run would not use the cores at 100%.
Back in the Avid days, the developers had created the facial animation tool: Face Robot. Now in Softimage 2010 Face Robot is part of the core software. Face Robot allows for very realistic facial animation because its solver can simulate how facial skin would move and wrinkle as it slides on top of muscles and the skull.
Setting up a facial rig in Face Robot is very simple, as you’re guided through the whole process. First, you select the different parts of the head (head mesh, eyes, teeth and tongue), then you interactively select different parts of the head (nose tip, eyelids, brows, and so on). Then you adjust your influence curves, and you’re done.
Face Robot can be used to apply facial capture data to your 3d character, but it can also be used as a keyframe facial animation tool, making it very valuable to artists who don’t have access to a motion capture studio.
If you’re a Maya user, you will want to use the amazing facial animations that Face Robot produces in Maya. Actually, you can do it, but not without following some specific steps. Basically, what you do is run a series of steps that convert the Face Robot animation into a shape-based animation that you can export to Maya using Softimage Crosswalk, and they will work flawlessly in Maya.
Face Robot animation in Maya
(posted in the Renderosity Video Center)
Overall, Softimage 2010 is very stable. It never crashed on me, even with the heaviest and more complex ICE simulations. However, I did have a complaint when it came to playing back animations. Whenever I tried to playback a complex animation (for example, a complex ICE simulation or a Face Robot animation), I couldn’t stop the animation. So I had to wait for it to finish (you can imagine that’s somewhat of a pain if the animation is around 2000 frames long).
After speaking with technical support, I realized the issue was caused by my Wacom tablet. You can stop the playback by clicking the stop button with a standard mouse, so if you’re using exclusively a Wacom like me, it’s a good idea to have a mouse plugged in just in case.
Softimage has included Mentalray as its default renderer for quite some time. You can output your animations as a single render pass or as different render passes. The Pass Options window allows you to create and setup all of your different render passes. To tell the truth, I was a little surprised to see there weren’t many render passes available in Softimage as compared to Maya.
The Render Options window can be a little intimidating at first. However, if you’re familiar with Maya, you should be quick to understand how the Render Options window works.
If you don’t have a compositor, that’s not a problem, since Softimage includes its own compositor, Softimage Illusion. Having your compositor included with your 3D application can be very cost effective as you don’t have to buy a third party application, and thus can be very attractive to small studios and freelance artists. On the other hand, sometimes people will prefer to have a dedicated compositor for various reasons, like workflow, interoperation, 3D compositing capabilities or simply personal taste.
Softimage Illusion is a node-based image compositor very similar to Fusion or Nuke. What’s nice about Softimage Illusion is the integration with the Softimage core software. You can import image sequences from your hard drive, but you can also get the different passes directly from your Softimage scene.
Third party compositing applications have more features than Softimage Illusion, such as 3D compositing capabilities (meaning the ability to manipulate 3D objects in 3D space). This may be a turn off to some users who really need those. On the other hand, many users should be just fine using Softimage Illusion for their compositing needs.
Getting used to Softimage with a Maya background was very easy, not only because it works in a similar way but also thanks to the Maya interaction model. It also offers an end-to-end solution, thanks to Softimage Illusion, which can save artists money since they won’t have the need to buy a separate compositor. Finally, Face Robot is simply a wonderful facial animation tool that can yield amazing results.
Although I would not actually use Softimage exclusively, I will definitely integrate it in my Maya workflow. On the other hand, I know that if I want to use it exclusively for a project, I know it will be more than capable to do whatever I need to do. As I said before, this is the first time I've used Softimage, but I find Softimage 2010 to be an amazing application.
For more information on Softimage 2010, please visit the Autodesk website.
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.
December 14, 2009
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