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The moon has turned blue, pigs are flying and the application formerly known as Sumatra is finally here.

We’ve waited four years for Softimage|XSI, and the result is unlike anything currently on the market and unlikely to disappoint even the most hype-addled animator. When Softimage refers to XSI as the first third-generation animation tool, the company isn’t gushing marketing gumph at all. It is as different from second-generation WYSIWYG suites such as Softimage|3D, Maya and 3D Studio MAX as they were from the first-gen code-based mathematical tools.

Central to this is the concept of non-linear animation (NLA). This uses the creation metaphor found in non-linear editing packages such as Premiere through a window called the Animation Mixer. Clips of animations (called Actions) sit in tracks on a timeline and are played out on models in order. There are many tools that will be familiar to anyone who has used editing tools, such as a scrubber, keyframes, transitions and filters.

In XSI, transitions are used to seamlessly merge different actions, almost like the animation version of a cross dissolve. They fill the gaps between different forms of motion to create a smooth whole. These do require some tweaking to create perfect motion – but this is more efficient than doing it the conventional way.

Transformations twist the NLE filter metaphor in the same way. They share much common ground with additive filters such as chroma keys and opacity controls – allowing multiple actions to be applied to the same model at the same time, with variable effects.

The scope of the animation mixer should not be underestimated. At its lowest level, it can increase the speed of basic animation by filling in all of the gaps for you. At its peak, you have one of the most effective asset management systems available in any discipline. Because animation can be separated from a model and applied to any other with the same appendages, you can create libraries of models and animations that can be instantly grabbed, applied and then tweaked.

The only problem is the accompanying learning curve. However, you can continue animating in the same way as you did in Softimage|3D – but once you start to get to grips with the mixer you’re unlikely to go back.

XSI’s innovation doesn’t stop there. Rendering has been given a good kick up the backside with the introduction of a render tree and interactive rendering. The former uses a flowchart layout where textures and effects are plugged into shaders, which then form the final material. Creating these layouts is initially as simple as grabbing the output node of a control and attaching it to the correct input node on the shader.

However, to get the precise effect you want, you need to apply extra elements such as colour correction or conversion. This is where it starts to get very messy – but nowhere near as messy as if you didn’t have the coherent layout to work with. Interactive rendering works in tandem with this. Draw a box on a viewing window and XSI will render that view of the scene very quickly. It’s not quite as instant as Softimage claims, unless you’re running XSI on a top-spec SGI machine, but we’re talking seconds not hours as long as you set the render quality to a level relevant to your hardware spec and the size of the box.

It makes all of the power given to you by the render tree worthwhile, because now you can fiddle to your heart’s content and see the fully rendered results in a jiffy. Softimage|XSI is loaded with more features than you can shake an IK stick at, and it will take an age to not only discover them, but master them to boot. Features such as scripting in open languages (VBScript, JScript and even Perl) with Microsoft Office macro-style script creation, a fully-customizable user interface, multiple render passes and a bin-style element browser sit excellently next to updated features from Softimage|3D. With free copies of Softimage|3D v3.9 and Mental Ray 2.1 included as well, you’re laughing.

Being version 1.0 there are a few bugs, such as the inability to grab multiple objects from the elements browser, but hopefully Softimage will sort these out in the next few months with downloadable fixes. More annoying is the lack of higher-end modelling tools such as polygonal modelling. You can gain access to these tools through the free copy of 3D, but switching applications is a pain. However, these are minor niggles compared to what XSI delivers

The cautious may want to wait until Maya 3 is released next month, with its Trax NLA system and mouthwatering concepts like different detail levels on the same object, but you can’t go wrong with Softimage’s suite. The animation crown has been taken and it’s going to be very hard for anyone else to steal it off XSI.