Best Buy
  • Price: 1399 . 2599 . 5899

  • Company: Central Saint Martins Coolege of Art and Design

  • Pros: Superlative workflow and artist-centric modes of operation, yet has the power to cope with advanced effects work. Tight integration with Mental Ray gives one of the best renderers in the business.

  • Cons: Despite the minimum interface resolution of 1,280-x-1,024, the screen can feel cramped at times, and some better way to manage the interface panels could be devised.

  • Our Rating: We rate this 9 out of 10 We rate this 9 out of 10

If you’re looking to invest in a top-flight 3D animation system, there are a few big players to look at – and Softimage|XSI would be included in the list. The reasons for choosing one 3D package over another are many and varied, and the top contenders all have their strengths and weaknesses. Feature lists don’t tell the whole story, and high-end 3D applications all have similar features, and include all the 3D buzz words – such as subdivision surface modelling, global illumination, soft body dynamics, expressions, and scripting.

Some of these programs have had high-end features longer than others, and it could be argued that they have
a more refined workflow. Softimage|XSI is still a relatively young application, but it’s based on its well-respected predecessor, Softimage|3D. XSI benefits from a vast pool of production knowledge that Softimage has built over time.

In the past, XSI lacked a rigid body dynamics system. This was a peculiar omission, considering soft-body animation was included in the application. Version 4 rectifies this imbalance, providing users with a decent rigid body system. In use, it’s simple – set up your rigid body objects as either active or passive, add a force such as gravity and press play. It’s fast and interactive – it plays in real time in the viewport – and has properties such as mass, friction, and elasticity.

Softbody simulation remains unchanged, but third-party plug-in Syflex Cloth in XSI Advanced can handle cloth simulation. This offers a number of presets for cloth types including leather and pizza dough. The soft and rigid body systems are well integrated, so you can drape cloth over rigid objects easily.

Mental render

One of the big new features is the upgrade to Mental Ray 3.3. The new version of this acclaimed rendering system has improved motion-blurring effects through Motion Interpolation. This gives smoother motion blur with less overhead. Late Shutter Opening allows for better control of the motion blur setting, and Intensity Clipping restricts the motion blur brightness for objects that are set with a brightness greater than 1.0.

Improvements have been made to scene optimization and rendering, especially for large scenes, plus there are more memory management options. Final Gathering passes can now be previewed before rendering, allowing you a degree of diagnosis when working out settings for a scene. Another new option changes the Final Gathering units from world space into the screen pixel space. This makes it logical to work out settings for scenes that don’t work to scale.

Shadows maps in Mental Ray are still slow compared to other applications. However, they have some new features including a shadow bias setting (at last) and a new Detail Shadow Map option that takes into account object transparency and colour.

When working with shaders in the Render tree you can now display image clips as thumbnails. It’s not quite as good as Maya’s Hypershade, which will render each node on the fly.

One feature that seems obvious to users of lesser 3D applications is the shader library. This is a new panel in XSI that stores custom shaders for easy access. The shaders can be used in different projects and are displayed with rendered thumbnails. There are a number of ready-made presets displayed in tabbed sections in the palette. These include fabrics, Eyes, Hair, Metal, and Glass. The simple things are often overlooked in high-end 3D programs, so it’s good Softimage filling in the gaps.

This kind of usability is quite important, especially in the base version. Softimage|XSI Foundation – for sale for a mere £1,400 – is in competition with the likes of Cinema 4D, Maya Complete, and LightWave at the lower end of the price scale. While Maya has its usability issues for the more casual 3D artist, Cinema 4D and LightWave are much easier to use.

The new modelling mode setting has made the program much easier to use. XSI offers non-linear modelling, so it can be confusing to remember what is a modelling modifier, what is an animation, and what is shape modelling. In XSI, you choose your Construction Mode from a pop-up menu in the interface, and the modelling operators are applied in the correct location in the operator stack.

The upshot of this is that you can go back and modify the geometry of a model that’s already rigged and animated, simply by switching to modelling mode and making the changes there. There is even an automatic mode-switching option
that lets XSI choose which is the best place to put an operator, which is ideal for the new user. For character animation work, XSI 4.0 offers new and improved preset character rigs and guides including a Dog Leg rig – a new kind of Biped rig.

Screen burn
What XSI does really well is put all these disparate tools and features into a well-structured framework. The interface is well designed, though there never seems to be enough space on screen. A double monitor set-up would help.

However, the overall problem of scene and data management is well handled. For instance, if you need to access a parameter on a group of selected objects, you just click the Explore button, which pops up a little panel from which you can choose common parameters. A single parameter window pops up and you can enable the GI inclusion on all selected objects with a single click.

The new operator stack modes extend XSI’s general ease-of-use to the whole modelling and animation workflow. It allows you to keep your operators in check without really having to know where they should go. If a character has been animated using joints or shape animation, you can switch to Modelling mode, and your base geometry will be displayed unanimated. You can modify the geometry of the base shape without adversely affecting the animated geometry, and the operator changes propagate through the stack correctly. This is a major timesaver for any animator, particularly if changes are often made late in the day.

XSI 4.0 is a great 3D system. It has a built-in compositor and some nifty new vector brushes, but it feels like a coherent application. The upgrade is worthwhile for the improvements in the operator stack alone, but taken as a whole, the program offers some serious competition to Maya and 3DS Max.