Insightful and Noisy! AGUA Meeting Opens SIGGRAPH 2003

An extremely noisy crowd of more than 1,500 Maya users gathered last night at the 4th R & B concert venue in San Diego, Calif. to participate in the annual AGUA (Alias Global User Association) meeting and celebrate the 20th Anniversary of Alias, formerly Alias|Wavefront. This popular SIGGRAPH-related event is often the highlight for worldwide attendees and avid users of the company’s 3D animation software, but is typically a bit more sedate. The enthusiasm of the crowd was so pitched that the running motif for on-stage guests was the anxious and annoyed proclamation, “Will the people in the back please shut the f— up!”

Although “the people in the back,” were not to be calmed, the show went on without a hitch and boasted its share of industry luminaries and techno-highlights. Chief among the list of special presenters was Tristan Ikuta, digital clothing supervisor for ESC. Ikuta’ s demo focused on “the Burley Brawl,” the six-minute long The Matrix Unloaded scene in which Neo fights hundreds of Agent Smiths.

According to Ikuta, the massively complex sequence produced in Maya took two years to complete and features more than 2,700 digital versions of Neo’s sunglass-wearing nemesis. Ikuta explained “to the drooling attendees in the front” that the Wachowski brothers provided the main mission statement for the digital cloth artists; to create an immediately recognizable silhouette for each character. So, while Trinity could be established by viewers even when seen in the dark by the mercury-like shimmer of her skin-tight black costume, so too could Neo be recognized by the manta ray-like wave of his moving cape and Agent Smith by the trim lines of his business suit. The perfection of Neo’s silhouette is most apparent in Neo’s night flight over the city and the Burley Brawl shot in which Neo shoots up from the ground, helicopters around his weapon and takes out numerous adversaries.

Ikuta pointed out that recreating Neo’s cape and Agent Smith’s suit took patience, a deep knowledge of digital rigging and real-world tailoring. “Good digital costumers having rigging experience are riggers themselves,” he explained. A good rig equals a good cloth. To test the Agent Smith suit, hundreds of tests were required, each making sure that critical seams “especially seams under the arms and around the starched collar–did not rip during the aggressive Kung Fu action. In closing, Ikuta’s advice to other digital costumers was to constantly check rigs, think like a costume designer, plan the scene out early, be tenacious and take tons of reference shots.

Suzanne Kaufman, 3D lead for Sucker Punch, also offered a fascinating look inside the production artistry of Animation Magazine‘s Rad Pack-winning platform game, Sly Cooper and The Thievius Racoonus. Kaufman explained that her company switched to Maya recently because the package’s MEL scripting allowed the house to streamline its process. In addition to some engaging looks at the Sucker Punch pipeline, Kaufman said her animation team is constantly trying to create action that instantly “reads.” If a character is dangerous, for example, then its action must read so within the first second or two of motion. She also maintained that environments are really the core of a great game. If a player cannot immediately identify or feel a part of the environment in a level, the game will not be a success.

Another highlight for the users in the front of the house, was the presentation by Stephen Regelous, creator of Massive, a software system that builds advanced autonomous agent animations for, pardon the pun, massive crowd scenes. Used in the creation of crowd scenes for The Lord of the Rings, this Maya-compatible system, can generate upwards of 10,000 unique characters with unique movements, rigid body interactions, and costume movement simulations. These motions are handled by an enormous brain tree system that can be manipulated to include upwards of 300 movements for an individual agent.

To demonstrate the power of the system, Regelous displayed portions of the Helm’s Deep sequence in which thousands upon thousands of orcs stage an attack. He also broke down the explosion sequence, explaining that when the bomb goes off, the sound of the debris triggers the autonomous orc agents to turn and react before they are hit from above.

Alias, newly renamed to rebrand the property, will feature these presenters and many others at its SIGGRAPH booth. For more information on becoming a Maya users group member, check out the Alias website at www.alias.com/eng/community/user_groups/index.jhtml.

The special AGUA event was sponsored by ATI, HP and Intel.