Model winner

Autodesk takes centre stage as one of its software packages helps to bag an Oscar for Best Visual Effects. Charles Clarke reports.


AutoCAD is probably the most recognisable global CAD ‘brand’ — a bit like the Coca-Cola of the CAD world. Yet if you examine Autodesk’s recent products it’s all about animation and visual effects.

The company’s modelling software was used on some of the top films at this year’s Oscars. London-based Framestore CFC, for example, used Autodesk’s Maya 3D modelling, animation and rendering software to create and light all the challenging polar environments, such as ice and snow shots, in the fantasy epic The Golden Compass. The film won an Oscar for Best Visual Effects.

The software also helped bring to life special-effects tricks in non-animated films such as Atonement and No Country for Old Men.

The interesting thing here is that well-known post-production houses such as Framestore, Industrial Light & Magic, Asylum, Sony Pictures Animation, Rhythm & Hues, EFILM and Deluxe Digital London are now using ‘standard’ commercial software to work their magic.

When these companies and their predecessors first said that there was no such thing as reality in films any more in the late 1980s and early 1990s it was their own home-grown applications that achieved the remarkable effects.

‘Maya, with its wide-reaching flexibility, has always been a terrific package for us, easily and efficiently enabling integration of our in-house tools and other packages in our pipeline,’ said Laurent Hugueniot, Framestore’s computer graphics supervisor.

Framestore also used Maya to build and animate all the shots of a massive armoured polar bear, one of The Golden Compass’ heroes. Rhythm & Hues used Maya for modelling some of the film’s other heroes, including Pan, the Golden Monkey and Stelmaria.

In the Best Animated Film category, Sony Pictures Animation used Autodesk’s Lustre colour grading system for the final grade of Surf’s Up, an animated parody of surfing documentaries. Maya was also used extensively to create the complex final water animation sequences.

‘It was necessary to develop animation rigs and tools that could produce physically accurate water motion, which could at the same time be intricately directed and art directed,’ explained John Clark, lead wave animator at Sony Pictures Animation.

‘Maya software’s extensibility made the process flow smoothly, providing the riggers with a platform to develop a unique character rig for the waves, and the animators a high-performance animation and layout environment.’

By exploiting the power of Maya Embedded Language (MEL), Python and the API scripting functionality in Maya, the Imageworks team customised the Maya software to overcome many of the film’s challenges.

David Schaub, animation director at Sony Pictures Animation, said: ‘We never have the question, “Well, can the software do that?” because if it doesn’t, the way Maya is built allows us to create a tool that will do the job.’

Away from the film world, Autodesk has recently announced two new versions of 3ds Max modelling, animation and rendering software, which it describes as the leading asset creation tool for game development.

One, 3ds Max 2009, is aimed at entertainment professionals, while 3ds Max Design 2009 is targeted at architects, designers and ‘technical’ visualisation specialists.

Both versions are claimed to offer new rendering capabilities, improved interoperability with industry-standard products, including Revit software, and time-saving animation and mapping workflow tools. Max Design 2009 also provides lighting simulation and analysis technology.

Back in the ‘real’ world, acquistion and integration was the CAD market’s top story of 2007.

Siemens Automation & Drives bought out UGS — owner and developer of the traditional Unigraphics CAD/PLM product line.

The idea is that UGS PLM software continues with business as usual. Meanwhile, Siemens will work to integrate the acquisition into unifying suppliers, customers, and everyone in the distributed value chain of Siemens’ portfolio of automation and control solutions through a standardised, shared base of product and process knowledge.

Siemens Automation and Drives will focus on developing standardised products and systems that achieve integrated industrial automation, otherwise known as manufacturing execution systems (MES). As customers demand greater capacity with automation, the company will continue to build its MES business. With UGS’ PLM solutions and capabilities, Siemens can support the whole innovation process, from product development to automation and support to the factory floor.

‘Integrating PLM and MES will reduce time to market via real-time simulation and validation of changes in a closed-loop system, while maintaining data and process integrity across the entire manufacturing environment,’ said Giorgio Cuttica, Siemens general manager, MES.

The idea is to feed analysis data from the production department back into product design, then advise the factory floor of any changes.

UGS/Siemens has introduced Project Archimedes, designed to bring UGS PLM solutions in line with the Siemens A&D portfolio. This involves 100 people, 50 from Siemens and 50 from Unigraphics.

One of the main focuses will be adaptive manufacturing. The concept of designing for automation enables ‘intelligent production,’ and realises the integration of process and automation design. Another focus will be on harmonised lifecycles. This enables tighter communication between CAM and physical controllers through integration of PLM information with shop floor controls and production management systems.

‘Integrating Siemens’ MES and UGS’ PLM technology will allow seamless interaction from product concept to the realisation of marketable products, ensuring data integrity from the moment of design and allowing all information to go the plant,’ said Cuttica. ‘It will involve populating all production software with information coming from the PLM information backbone, allowing easy and fast design and deployment from PLM into the manufacturing line.’