Planet3dArt interviews SOFTIMAGE|XSI guru Ed Harriss

Joy CG interviews SOFTIMAGE|XSI guru Ed Harriss

SoftImage interviews XSI guru Ed Harriss




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 files.

The Flood (about 2.5 Megs) The Harvest (about 2.5 Megs)
Mirror Link Mirror Link

Interview with Ed Harriss
by Jean-Eric Hénault

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. :-)

I'm 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?

I 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?

I 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. ;)

Why Softimage?

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.

At 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.

That 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.

The 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.

Then 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.

If 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.

Of 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 renders.)

What other 3D packages have you used in the past and which ones are you still using today?

Ahh, 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 Softimage.

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.

28,000 square foot model shop
Master Control
Linear (Digital Betacam) edit suite
Non-Linear (SoftImage|DS, Avid) edit suite

Then there's 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?

My main jobs here are Texturing, Lighting, Compositing and Rendering.
(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 instance?

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 detailed.

How did you integrate all the elements in these commercials?

We 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.

The Harvest Film Crew
The Harvest Top Down Backplate
The completed shot
Live Action shot in Vancouver

What kind of particle technology did you use?

We 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.

The 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 project?

Coordinating all the resources that were needed to create some of the shots and matching our CG to the live footage and miniature shots.

For 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.

On 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 elements.

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.

The director has asked for us to add in these three elements:

  • A sidewalk
  • Two new buildings (one on each side)
  • Some people running around on the sidewalk below

The 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.

New 3D Elements added to the physical models including a sideawlk and two new buildings.
Footage of people on the sidewalk
The final shot before the rain is added
The final Shot

I 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.

Some 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.

A Screen Grab from SoftImage XSI's interface
Close-up wireframe view
The final shot with the digital rain added

A Screen Grab from SoftImage XSI's interface
The end result...

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 :-)

Related Links

Ed Harriss home-page
Alternate Route Studios