Industry Standard

Thursday, August 29, 2019

 

In the mid-'90s, in the film VFX arena, two big names were fighting to be the industry standard for software. Softimage 3D and Alias wavefront's Power animator. The reality was that studios needed them both since each one had its unique strengths. However, for the companies creating them, it was a vicious competition to become the number one software used by studios working in CG related feature films. In 1997-98, both companies were ready to release their next-gen software, Maya Alias Power Animator's successor managed to come out to the light in '98, as for Sumatra; which become XSI, Softimage's 3D successor labor had a tough time. Softimage was an independent Canadian company that got acquired by Microsoft in '94. And instead of focusing on the next-gen release, Microsoft's main focus was porting the application to Windows NT, in order to penetrate a market that was primarily running on Unix based systems and Machines, Mainly IRIX OS and SGI computers. They released the windows version in '96 and then started working on the next-gen Sumatra to ensure it's windows compatibility in the future, there making the base code heavily reliant on windows API. The same happened with another great product that got stuck in limbo due to this decision, this was Softimage Digital Studio, and since Microsoft didn't have any plans for Softimage other than to port it to windows, it put it on sale and Avid (then interested in competing in the finishing market) acquired Softimage DS thinking will enable it to acquire some market share from Discreet's Smoke. Again Softimage 3D found itself in a new home that doesn't actually know what to do with it, which resulted in Softimage XSI getting a very buggy first release in 2000.

 

 

Ok so what’s the point of this “boring” piece of history, and how is it related to what I am going to say? The mid-’90s is when the CGI started really happening, with the first fully animated CG feature film Toy Story and before it feature films with impressive CG VFX such as Jurassic Park. Then the real boom in the late 90s, where CGI was in almost every blockbuster movie. Lucas decided it was time to produce the Star Wars prequels and Movies like the Matrix were released as well as Lord of The Rings were in the making. The Modern CG pipeline started taking shape in those years. Most of the larger studios, in the game early on like ILM and Pixar and Digital Domain, had their own Proprietary software and tools running alongside the main DCC Applications, they were getting from the software vendors. However the teams were getting really big with many artists, big turnovers, and artists ​

began moving between studios, ultimately making more than one vfx house collaborating on the same film. This meant that production time started dropping, 4 years to produce a single film wasn’t good enough for the big studios in Hollywood or the audience hungry for more action and creativity and more believable results. So VFX and CG studios in the late 90 started designing their pipelines based on all these drivers. This pushed for the only logical software at the time, Maya. Softimage’s future was very uncertain with a delay after delay in the release dates, with only fixes and minor patches happening for almost 3 years, made its appeal fade away in a fast paced industry. Then came the new kid on the block, Houdini, at that point with Houdini 1 it had no chance of even being considered as an all round DCC. There was also 3DS Max, which was big in the game and arch-viz industry, but lacked any character animation tools, and was only windows compatible, and no UNIX. Which meant studios couldn't run it on their existing Unix machines. Basically, Maya was lucky to be the right release at the right time and became the logical choice for most of the big players.

 

What doesn’t make any sense is what happened after and still is happening till today, 20 years later? A few years after, Softimage recovered, each release being truly groundbreaking since it was the first package to have a complete rewrite in 2006 and have a true 64bit modern core, yet nothing, it couldn’t penetrate the market again. it was adopted mainly by midsize to small studios and freelance artists, and a handful of big studios. I understand that the big studios just a few years back made the investment of building these pipelines and are not looking into spending, but for how long? The big studios have R&D departments and have the technical ability to add the tools they require to the software, none of those studios use the “off the shelf” version of the software, and the DCC application creators addressed that need early on and created SDKs and added scripting languages to their apps to enable the Developers and Technical Directors at the studio to tailor the apps to their needs. For the big studios, Maya is this familiar face that user interface that most of the artists know, hidden behind that are all the tools and scripts and functionality they added, it is just a sandbox. In many studios, years may pass before they consider even upgrading their Maya version.

On the other hand, smaller studios, independent artists and students don’t have these resources and depending on your technical skills, maybe stuck with what the software offers out of the box. So why continue using it despite the decline in the development and quality of the updates? Every artist coming into this industry dreams and aspires to that day he/she will work on one of those big blockbuster movies, Maya is marketed and sold as the tool that made all this amazing movie magic happen, and artists and younger students overlook the fact that the amazing artistic and technical abilities plus the studio resources are what made this magnificent work possible not the tool. If you are artistically or technically able and are a creative person you will get hired no matter what tool you use, but because learning those tools is a daunting task everyone tends to take the shortcut.

 

All the above compounded by the fact that by 2009 most of the main DCC apps got acquired by Autodesk, has created a very unhealthy environment that brought innovation and development of tools in the CG industry into a state of stagnation. Autodesk owning all the main tools and having the backup of those big studios and having the “Industry Standard” label they knew that they can float doing the bare minimum effort. And that the studios will just do the Dev they need on demand. With the cherry on top, being the increased piracy they have to deal with, since a lot of students and artists operating from 3rd world countries can’t afford their tools but still need to use the “industry standard”.

 

What this has done, is pushed the competition to fight hard and do their best to innovate and keep this industry moving, despite the struggle being real and still a stigma being associated with them, partly because they were stuck in that space to manage to survive alongside Maya. For example, Houdini being an FX package only or C4D being a motion graphics tool or Blender being the free tool for the hobbyist. all these applications have evolved to be more than this in the past few years, all they need is an opportunity. And this state of the market made it easier for the specialized tools that complement the all-round DCCs cause they fill in the gaps without being a direct threat although they are still not that widely adopted in pipelines but they managed to shine more in the past few years, and in that sector of the market we saw more innovation happening from GPU based render engines like Redshift and Octane and texturing tools like Substance Designer and Painter or even hardware vendors like Nvidia that keep pushing the envelope.

 

we are truly at the verge of a new era, with the release of the new Blender that is completely redesigned to be more industry standard and appeal to the pro-market, with a new core written for C4D r20 with amazing new potentials in artist-friendly procedural workflows, as well as SideFx pushing Houdini to be a more artist-friendly all-round tool. We are seeing even some of the big players in the industry either joining the Blender Development Fund or showing interest in it. But remember this change won’t happen from the top down, artists need to claim their tools again and take initiative, support the tools they believe in not just settle for what they told or are forced to use by schools and bigger studios. I see aggressive moves by software vendors do dominate that educational space. Trying to kill any chances for those smaller players. Observing the exponential growth of Blender is a good example of what can happen if blender gets the support of the pro artists. The jump in quality of tutorials and content is very evident as more professionals join the community.

 

 

 

As for me, I had my favorite tool taken from me by bad corporate decisions and I am not going to allow this to happen again. I am willing to swim against that current as I did before. But this time choosing an open-source tool that is supported by a great community. It is really up to us. We have more power than we imagine. I am really looking forward to those next 5 years and hoping for the best.

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