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The Softimage name is legendary in 3D. It’s been around since the beginning, and has been popular among film-effects studios for years. Now with prices tumbling, and the features of its competitors improving all the time, XSI 3.0 will have to work hard to maintain its place. Though beta releases have been available for some time, this is the first review of the final release version. Softimage has been streamlining its standard modelling tools for a long time now, and the new version builds on them rather than completely re-writing them. However, there are some useful new touches – such as the ability to hide polygons so that when a user is working with a complex model, the parts that aren’t being edited vanish. By this, viewport updating will be a lot faster, and tool performance will increase. Mesh-editing tools have also been made faster. Strike a pose There’s a new character section on the animate toolbar that includes, among other things, biped and quadruped guides. These tools help users quickly set up characters: simply position the guide so that the limbs follow the model a user has created, and then allow the package to build a skeleton to those dimensions. The result is a skeleton that’s well matched to your model, and has foot-roll setups for game or video jobs. Another useful character tool is a special spine chain – a tool designed for the torso and neck of a character, but that works well for tails and tentacles, too. The spine replaces traditional bones in those areas, and makes for much more realistic bending and twisting motions. New tools also help with the tricky problem of skinning characters by attempting to retain the volume of a skin as it’s bent, or compressing the joint. This can help with thorny issues such as shoulder and knee joints. In addition, there’s a character generator – a little like you’d see in Curious Labs Poser – where users can create new human figures by adjusting sliders to control the character’s body and facial attributes. It’s a quick and easy feature, which might come in handy, but it isn’t a part of the programming – the character generator shows off quite successfully just what you can achieve without scripting by building your own tools inside XSI 3.0. Animation admiration XSI’s ground-breaking non-linear animation editor – a feature since the first release – allows users to use an animation as a block which can then be cut-&-pasted, repeated, combined, or merged with other animations to create a scene. Non-linear animation editing has been improved in this upgrade – especially in the way that complex animations such as character movements can be blended. These improvements come from the idea that, just as a complex sound is made up of different repeating patterns and frequencies, so a complex animation can be thought of in the same way. A walking character has different rhythms set up by his hands, feet, head, and other body parts. The motion may be made up of dozens (or if it’s motion-capture data, hundreds) of keyframes, but if you can analyze the waveforms, you can work with them in a more intuitive way, changing the characteristics of motion, or creating loops and transitions between movements more easily and smoothly. Because users can play animations on the same object simultaneously, XSI 3.0 introduces ghosting. Ghosting lets you play back your motion, watching the contributions of different animation tracks to the finished movement. Following in the footsteps of packages such as NewTek LightWave, high-dynamic-range (HDRI) images can now be used to create global lighting for your scenes. These are photographs taken at various lens apertures so that lighting intensity from every direction can be accurately measured and reproduced automatically in your 3D scene. However, few people are likely to go to the trouble of taking HDRI images, and most will probably settle for using ordinary image maps. Hair today… Hair in XSI 3.0 is about as good as you can get. You can groom hair using guide strands, and it’s possible to get a fair approximation of what the hair will look like in the viewport in real time. Users can texture the hairs, use collision detection on them, and make them dynamic with relative ease. They can also copy styles from one character to another. The new gradient shader simplifies the creation of some very complex textures, giving the opportunity to add as many colours as a user likes to a gradient, and manage them over the surface of their objects. It’s even possible to replace any of the colours with images (or other textures), so a single texture could contain snowy peaks, rock textures, grass, and sand. If a copy of the same gradient is used to displace the ground object, a quick landscape is created. Gradients are also useful when using the new particle tools. Particle dynamics has been completely re-written for version 3.0. Turbulence can now be introduced to particles, and users can deform them with any of the normal geometric deformers – even IK. Each particle can be selected and edited as an object in its own right. Mental-ray instances can be used to improve rendering times when using objects as particles. In fact, this kind of instancing can improve both rendering and viewport performance for ordinary objects as well. There are also some new shapes for the camera-facing objects used to project textures when creating effects such as fire and smoke. These – especially when combined with the new gradient tool – improve combustion effects, but still aren’t up to the standard of volumetrics produced by LightWave or Pyrocluster. This is a big update to a big package. The character-animation and particle tools are probably the most significant changes, although there are a number of smaller alterations that make modelling and animation tools more usable. Real-time shaders will help games designers, and new motion-capture functions to record the movement of the input device and apply it to animated parameters will be useful for natural movements. However, XSI’s price continues to be higher than similar products being used to do similar jobs. That comparison looks set to be made more often as the market expands.