The Best Tech of 2014
Every year, I put together a list of tech that stood out this year. Some are products. Some are ideas. Some are just philosophies. So, without further delay, let’s hit it:
“Indie Artist” — First and foremost is the recognition from the software developers that there are artists out there doing great work with their products, but may not be able to afford $5,000 per seat to use it. Plenty have released their learning, personal or apprentice versions, but all products had their wings clipped in some way. Now, Houdini, TheFoundry, BlackMagicDesign — and others to follow — have started to release their untethered software at prices ranging from free to the equivalent of a night at the movies and a nice restaurant ... if you fall within a certain annual income. I’m sure there will be a lot of people out there who are going to abuse this, but those are the same people who would use pirated versions anyway. I believe the trust and good will generated by the gesture will far outweigh the loss of potential revenue.
V-Ray 3.0 AppSDK — ChaosTheory and its leader, Vladimir Koylazov, released the latest iteration of V-Ray to adoring fans in Max, Maya, Cinema-4D, et al., and announced the public beta for Nuke integration. But that’s not what is special. What lies beneath is the little lauded and little talked about AppSDK, which gives developers a structured framework to develop V-Ray and V-ray tools for platforms that otherwise might not be supported.
Dolby Pulsar HDR Monitor — I saw this first at SIGGRAPH this year, and wept (internally). The HDR monitor displays around 40 times brighter than a reference monitor, and a high dynamic range of about 800,000:1 ... about. The blacks get deep and the brights get super white without clipping. This tech was recently announced in laser-projector format in partnership with Christie to bring us this kind of dynamic image to the theater experience. Can’t wait to see it.
Disney’s BRDF — Documented in a white paper from Brent Burley in 2012 at Walt Disney Animation Studios, the BRDF (Bidirectional Reflectance Distribution Function) was used for Rapunzel’s hair in Tangled, and expanded to their whole render system. Part of that process was taking measured BRDF’s of real materials (http:// www.merl.com/brdf/), and boiling the parameters down to something that could be used and directed by artists. The paper became a bible for developers in film and games, and paved the way for much of the real-time physically based rendering engines we see today. And it continues to be used as the foundation for their Hyperion renderer, most recently used on Big Hero 6. (https:// disney-animation.s3.amazonaws.com/library/ s2012_pbs_disney_brdf_notes_v2.pdf)
Physically Based Rendering — It’s not new to this year, but it has certainly been getting traction lately. All of Disney’s movies since Tangled use their renderer Hyperion. Pixar’s shifted Renderman to full PBR for Monster’s University. Animal Logic created a PBR Hybrid called Glimpse that was used to some degree in conjunction with PRMan on The LEGO Movie for that look that gave actress/neuroscience PhD holder Mayam Bialik reason to think it was stop-motion. And Weta received a sci-tech Oscar for their PBR renderer, Manuka with the added benefit of being a spectral renderer (this will be big in 2015). Not to mention its use in games from EA, Microsoft, and games developed on the Unreal Engine. And, of course, the mainstay renderers: Arnold, V-Ray, Mantra, as well as Maxwell, who used to be considered too slow for production, stuck to its scientific sincerity and ahead-of-its-time spectral rendering and waited for CPU speeds to catch up. If you aren’t rendering with PBR, you are in the wrong room.
Substance Painter — Substance Painter and Designer has seemingly carved a groove into the texturing community. With its PBR shaders, and a robust set of masking, non-destructive painting, and thick preset library, texture painter love it worldwide. Not to mention the particle brush is as fun as heck! Without UV tiles, it doesn’t quite measure up to Mari or MudBox ... yet. I have no doubt those guys have something up their sleeve. (http://www.allegorithmic.com/)
Red Shift — This was on the list last year in its alpha stage. Now in full release, Red Shift has been elevated to the level of “profoundly good” and “blisteringly fast.” It’s a biased GPU renderer, so it throws the calculations to your video card — and if you have something crazy like an NVidia Quadra K6000, all the better — so it keeps things off the less optimized CPU. However, it uses an out-of-core architecture that keeps the geometry
Toast the rebirth of a cartoon classic with this two-disc set, which comprises the latter batch of season one’s episodes — 13 two-parters in all. Launched in spring of 2014 on Canada’s Teletoon and Cartoon Network in the U.S., The Tom and Jerry Show was created with the aim of preserving the slapstick energy of Hanna-Barbera’s characters while updating it with a fresh Flash look, courtesy of production partner Renegade Animation and the supervision of director Darrell Van Citters and Ashley Postelwaite. [Release date: Jan. 13]
When last we saw spy Sterling Archer, voiced by H. Jon Benjamin, trying to sell cocaine after the agency he worked for, ISIS, was disbanded. Dubbed Archer: Vice, the fifth season also saw Archer and Lana Kane, voiced by Aisha Tyler, had become the parents to a baby girl.
Season six, which begins its 13-episode run Jan. 8 on FX, sees the series go back to its roots, though Thompson, executive producer on the series along with creator Adam Reed, says it’s more complicated than that. Animation Magazine: What were the biggest challenges you faced coming into season six? Matt Thompson: I love what we did lately, but I wanted to get back to the hard missions — going out, spying, people are going to die. It’s a more visceral comedy. Not a lot of people noticed, but last season nobody died. They were out trying to sell drugs and we kind of got away from what our roots are. I loved last season, but what we wanted is to bring it back to where it used to be. So now it’s back to Archer doing the dangerous missions, and we’re going to see him take one step forward toward being a good father and maybe two steps backward into being a bad father at the same time. Animag: Do you have any concerns going back like that in not repeating yourself or being able to find fresh ways to tackle it? Thompson: I don’t think that we are repeating because we allow the characters to grow. For better or worse, they’re informed by their past season and their past relationships. They’re going back to doing the same jobs but these are slightly different people now. And really, that shows up mostly between Archer and Lana this season in the emotion of what that means to have this baby between them as they’re going out there and doing these incredibly dangerous things. Animag: Any plans for new characters or changes to the existing characters? Thompson: There are some new people coming in but my favorite is some of the old people we are bringing back. My favorite character that is part of the Archer universe that is not in the main cast has always been Barry the Cyborg. So one of our best episodes of this season is an episode where Barry is coming back. And it happens to be the episode where we meet Pam’s sister, Edie, who is played by Alison Tolman, who was just on Fargo. From the first season, if people stuck with us that long, there was a great character named Conway Stern, who was a black Jewish secret agent voiced by Coby Bell. He is coming back as well and we’re finally going to get to meet Lana’s parents; they had to meet this baby. And two of the best just straight-up voices were cast as the voices: CCH Pounder and Keith David. Another great guy is Rob Huebel who I’ve loved on Childrens Hospital. There’s this old Clint Eastwood movie called The Eiger Sanction and we did a takeoff on it and, as far as animation goes, that episode with Rob where they’re climbing up the mountain has some of the best-looking stuff we’ve ever done. Animag: Has anything changed in the way you produce the show? Thompson: We have changed our pipeline, but we didn’t do it consciously. We did it because I had a show I was doing in Harmony that came offline unexpectedly as it got retooled. Our pipeline on Archer has always been: Photoshop backgrounds, Illustrator characters, and After Effects animation. I had all these people in Harmony, and I said let’s try and use them to make it better. We’re not reinventing our wheel here, but you’ll see some fights and some punches, like in the very first episode there’s a fight with Archer and this Japanese soldier and you can tell, oh, that’s different. And it’s like way too fluid and way too beautiful looking. We’re not completely doing the show in Harmony, but there are little pockets where you’ll notice. Animag: What else can you tell me about season six? Thompson: We did an episode this season that was really challenging for us in its simplicity, which is the entire main cast gets stuck in an elevator for the whole show. And it’s one of the funniest ones of the entire season because all it is is spending time with these people bickering at each other. But it was really interesting and a challenge animation wise to keep that interesting, being trapped inside an elevator and trying to make that visually interesting. I think that we did a good job.
The fantastic visual journey from Ed Catmull’s 1972 A Computer Animated Hand to Disney’s Frozen is a familiar one to animation and CG fans and professionals. But what celebrated author and artist Christopher Finch ( The Art of Walt Disney) brings to his latest 368-page epic is a sense of variety and wonder about what the art form’s pioneers (people like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, John Lasseter, James Cameron and Peter Jackson) have contributed to our modern culture. Showcasing a wealth of images from the making of Toy Story, Star Wars, Avatar and other popular animated and CG-laden films, this beautiful collection is a great keepsake for those of us who have witnessed how innovations in technology have transformed the medium and allowed visionaries such as Cameron and Lasseter to realize their fantastic dreams for audiences around the world.
If you’re looking for fresh inspiration for your work, or are looking for tips to fine-tune your figure and character drawing skills, we recommend this debut paperback from L.A.-based artist and educator Bob Kato. Inspired by Kato’s “The Drawing Club” live model sessions, the book aims to help both professionals and hobbyists flex and build their artistic muscles. Written with the same energy that drives the club, this figure drawing manual teaches readers how to translate life to the page, tell a visual story, get comfortable with a variety of materials and discover an individual artistic voice, as well as exploring comic approaches to drawing. A hefty array of inspiring examples is also provided in a gallery of both fine work and character art created by master artists and working animators.