Ed Harriss is an old SoftImage pro, started
using this application in its early
Days and has
become a fixture in the SoftImage world.
In this Interview, Ed talks about the two SAS
commercials he and his team at Alternate Route Studios
have worked on. Combining the work from several
departments, including the model shop, the sound stage
and their CG department using some of latest 3D tools
(guess what 3D Package they used… lol) to complete these
exceptionally visually rich commercials.
You can watch these two commercials in Mpeg
format. We recommend that you use the Windows Media
Player or the Apple QuickTime player to view these
Interview with Ed Harriss
Who is Ed Harriss? (we want to know
everything, from your shoe size all the way to your
Social Security Number here) :)
Sorry, the Ed Harriss "Shoe Size" and "Social
Security Number" are classified. :-)
a 3d Artist/Technical Director. I began doing CG in the
early 80s by trying to learn how to program graphics on
Apple2e and a Commodore 64 computers. After a few years
I gave up on that until I went to College, where my
animation teacher, David Jackson (great guy!),
introduced me to the Amiga and a Program called Silver
(now called Imagine). After I graduated from College I
worked in a stadium that had a "Jumbotron" style screen
out behind center field. They had hired me (and another
guy) to do animation/graphics for it. It was loads of
fun! While I was working there I got a job teaching
Softimage|3D at a local graphics school. During my time
there I managed to get various freelance jobs at all
sorts of different companies, and a few years later… a
job at Alternate Route Studios. I've been there now for
over three years.
Over your career, what are the most prominent
projects you have ever worked on?
have worked on hundreds of little projects. But probably
the biggest one was 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. This
project was a monster. It lasted for over 2 years. 20K
leagues was an FMV game. You know "Full Motion Video".
We used Softimage|3D and mental ray to do hundreds of
pre rendered environments and animations. There were
lots of very extravagant sound stage sets too. Live
actors, all the stuff you'd expect in a "Riven" type
game, they even filmed the whole thing with 35mm. It
looked great! We spent millions on the game, hundreds of
people worked on it. Only to have it canned
approximately 3 months before it was finished.
Aside from that, I've done work for all sorts of
companies. IBM, The Smithsonian, Time/Warner, CBS,
Glaxo, Northern Telecom, etc… But none of them have come
anywhere close to the scale of 20K. Ever hear of a
company called Rocket Science? =) (If you have, you'll
know what I'm talking about)
You are a prominent Softimage user (Hint...
Hint... Your name is at the top of Softimage's links
page) what made you so famous?
don't consider myself famous, but I'm glad that some one
does. =). I've been using Softimage for many years
(since the early 90s) and in that time I've really
gotten to know the Software pretty well. As a result
I've made it a habit to try to help out others that are
interested in learning it. For example: When time
allows, I try to participate in the online Softimage
community. Also I am a part time Softimage|XSI
instructor (one night a week) at a local computer
graphics school here in the US. In my years of teaching
Softimage I've had many students go on to work in all
sorts of companies, all over the world. That in itself
has helped me develop a relationship with the Softimage
user base that I otherwise would have never had if I
only worked at a graphics company. Also, my relationship
with the people at Softimage is excellent! Out of all
the software that I've used, I've never gotten better
support from anyone. Whenever I have a problem they are
always quick to help. They've even sent people down to
help us out! Also, I'm one of the Softimage|XSI beta
testers. (Constantly trying to break the software or
find areas that could use improvement, etc….) If you use
Softimage|XSI then there's a chance you'll run into a
feature or two that is in there because it was suggested
by me. ;)
Well, As you can see by my work, I like lighting,
rendering and texturing. So right off I needed something
that had an excellent renderer, very tight integration
and good tools to take advantage of it.
There was a time when I worked in one package and
rendered in another. While this can be a good thing
(depending on the situation), more often than not, it
just hinders the creative process.
the time I started using Softimage they were already
planning to add a really good renderer (Mental Ray)
Mental Ray had not yet been integrated into it but the
prospects looked very good. Back then no one had a world
class renderer like that one integrated with their
package. (Nor were they even talking about it) This in
it's self was more than enough to at least warrant some
investigation into Softimage. (Not to mention they had
the best animation tools on the planet) But that's not
the only reason I've stuck with it all this time. One
thing that I liked about it was that it didn't need
plugins to get the job done. This was great since, I
didn't want to have to buy a lot of extras in order to
produce quality work. As a result I didn't have to deal
with the incompatibly problems and instability that is
(unfortunately) all too common with software that relies
heavily on plugins.
was the reason that I started using it…. The reason that
I continued was, that I was heavily influenced by what I
saw when I was beta testing Softimage Sumatra (Now
called Softimage|XSI). I couldn't believe some of the
cool things that they were putting in there.
first thing that blew me away was the rendertree. It's
like mental ray shader creation for non-programmers, on
steroids, all in one window! Using the rendertree
(together with the render region) I saw my productivity
go through the roof. And another thing… The render
region is great! It shows you exactly what your final
image is going to look like, you can draw in any size in
any view port and you don't have to hit the render
button 8,000 times an hour…. No more, tweak, render.
Tweak, render. Tweak, render.
I discovered render passes. It's one of the biggest time
savers ever. Anyone who has done any sort of complex
rendering knows that scene compositing is the only way
to get professional looking results and meet (or beat)
the deadlines with out lots of extra work and headaches.
With Softimage|XSI I'm able to render out all the
important elements (passes) of production (Shadows,
Highlights, Reflections, etc…) separately from each
other… Just by clicking a couple of buttons. But it
doesn't stop there. I can even isolate elements within a
pass. (An object, a surface, even parts of a surface,
etc…) It's completely customizable. This feature alone
has saved me countless days of work.
you've seen any of my work, you'll know that I'm a big
fan of Global Illumination, and Final Gathering.
(Radiosity) While Softimage|3D had those features,
Softimage|XSI made them much easier to use. There are
some projects that I simply would have not been able to
do if it weren't for GI and FG.
course I think the animation tools are great! Especially
the animation mixer, but since I don't do that much
animation I (unfortunately) don't get to play with it
that much either.
Another aspect of Softimage|XSI that I've only
just scratched the surface of is the scripting. But I'm
really starting to like it. For example: One night I
wrote a script that rang my cell phone, (triggered by an
e-mail) that told me my render was done. It made the
rest of my evening much more relaxing. (Nothing's worse
than interrupting your evening to go back in and check
What other 3D packages have you used in the
past and which ones are you still using today?
memories…. The first "real" 3d package I used was called
Silver, then the name changed to Turbo Silver and
finally they decided to call it Imagine. I think it's
still available today, last time I used it they were
just getting version 2.0 out. In the past I've used
Sculpt Animate, Caligari (before it was called
Truespace), Aladdin4D, 3d Studio (DOS), 3dsMax, Maya,
and even some various proprietary software solutions.
But through most of that time I was consistently using
What is Alternate Route Studios, and where
does that name come from?
Alternate Route Studios (ARS) is the name of the
production company that I work for. ARS does special
effects for television commercials. We cover the whole
range of effects, (shooting, building miniatures, sound
design, editing, etc…) not just CGI. There's a 28,000
square foot model shop for making sets, props and
miniatures. There are a few edit suites (both linear
(Digital Betacam) and non-linear (Softimage|DS, Avid).
Two 4,500 square foot sound stages with green screens,
dressing rooms, showers, etc… There are a few recording
studios, with voiceover rooms.
square foot model shop
(Digital Betacam) edit suite
Non-Linear (SoftImage|DS, Avid) edit
my department, CGI. We use Softimage|XSI/3D mostly, but
we've also got a seat of Maya and one of 3dsMAX as well.
To get all our work done, we've got a render farm
consisting of 50 Dell machines running mental ray under
Red Hat Linux and another 27 Silicon Graphics Origins
running mental ray under Irix.
What's your role there?
main jobs here are Texturing, Lighting, Compositing and
(Although I do a little modeling and
animation from time to time.) Since we are a medium
sized production house, (around 100 employees, of which
about 20 of those are Artists like me) I'm able to take
on more than just one role in a production. Makes things
interesting when you texture/light for 2 months straight
and all the sudden they come to you and say "you are
going to spend the next 3 weeks compositing, have fun."
It keeps me from getting bored with my job. Some people
might not like that, but I do.
There is a great mix of old and new technology
here. In one of the SAS commercials called "The Harvest"
you sent us, the giant Silos are actually miniatures.
Why did you choose to use live models instead of CGI for
Actually both of the commercials have miniature
model work in them. Although we used miniatures the most
in "Harvest", more models were built for "Flood". We
wanted to divide the work among the employees in the
facility evenly. We also knew that, in some shots, the
models would be very close to the camera so details that
the CGI crew might not have had time to create could be
integrated into the model with no problem. This left us
(the CGI dept) more time to work on less models, thus
allowing the ones we did create to be a lot more
How did you integrate all the elements in
used a combination of various software and equipment. A
lot of the compositing and color correction was done
with After Effects and Softimage|DS. Small bits and
pieces were done with Matador, Softimage|Eddie, Shake
and Digital Fusion. Since all the models were shot in
our studio we had complete control of the environment.
This made it a lot easier to comp in all the other
elements later on. Almost all the "live action" was shot
in Vancouver. A few actors were shot at ARS. All the
footage was then scanned in and delivered to us.
Harvest Film Crew
Harvest Top Down Backplate
Action shot in
What kind of particle technology did you use?
used a combination of Softimage, Maya, and After Effects
to generate the particles. Most of the dust and debris
in the "Harvest" commercial was created with Softimage
particle. Some of it nearer the end of the ad was
created in Maya.
Majority of the particles in the "flood" commercial were
done with Softimage and After Effects. All of the
"raining data" that you saw crashing into the ground was
generated with a combination of Softimage|3D,
Softimage|Particle and Softimage GoWithTheFlow. Much of
the foreground rain was created with Softimage|3D and
composited with After Effects.
What were the biggest challenges in this
Coordinating all the resources that were needed
to create some of the shots and matching our CG to the
live footage and miniature shots.
example, in a particular scene of the "flood"
commercial, the director wanted a shot from the top of a
building, looking down at the sidewalk below.
the sidewalk there were supposed to be a group of people
running around in the rain. For various reasons this
entire scene could not be filmed on location. As a
result this shot (and all other shots containing this
building) had to be done either in the studio or as CG
The first step was to build a
physical model of the building (which the wonderful
people at our model shop did for us) and film it in
the green screen studio. (Which the talented people
in our studio dept did for us) The next step was to
scan the film. These scans are then handed off to us
(the CG dept) so we could add the CG elements.
director has asked for us to add in these three
- Two new buildings (one on each side)
- Some people running around on the sidewalk
first thing I did was re-create the scene in 3D. Next I
was given some live action footage of various people
running around on the sidewalk.
Elements added to the physical models including a
sideawlk and two new buildings.
of people on the sidewalk
final shot before the rain is
keyed them out and saved that so it could be composited
into the 3D scene later. Then, using Softimage|XSI's
render passes, I rendered out the reflections, the
shadows, the hightlights and a beauty pass. I took all
this, tweaked it and composited it together with the
people footage. Finally we took all the "Data Rain" and
composited it together into the complete shot.
of the other challenges that we ran into included the
management of huge polygon datasets. In particular, two
shots of the city in "Flood" were very large…. in the
millions of polygons range. There were a few frames that
were taking 10 to 15 hours each to render. Which was not
that bad but it kept the number of revisions that we
could make lower than we would have liked.
Screen Grab from SoftImage XSI's
Close-up wireframe view
final shot with the digital rain
Screen Grab from SoftImage XSI's
How does it get done?
......mental ray Render Farm!
Sometimes it was not the rendering that slowed us
down. It was the sheer number of buildings that we had
to build. With so many artists working on different
buildings we had to make sure that they all looked like
they belonged together. Even with good reference
material this can be quite a challenge.
What's next for Ed Harriss?
Another Softimage|XSI video is in the works. This
time, dealing with almost exclusively with Softimage|XSI
and Mental Ray. Also, I am working on some online
content that I'm not able to discuss…. Yet. But, when it
comes out, you'll be the first to know. (Imagine
something similar the Softimage Tutorial section on my
web site… but on Steroids :-)