Animators: prepare to throw away your bones, envelopes and weights

How Softimage’s ICE Kinematics will revolutionise animation

Softimage’s XSI package has always had a great reputation for animation tools, but the company’s introduction of its visual Interactive Creation Environment (ICE) promises something entirely new, reckons product marketing manager, Leonard Teo.

"People are so used to working with bones and creating envelopes and weights – basically making a lot of unnecessary 3D objects that help to deform your character," he says. "ICE Kinematics will negate the need for all that."

Of course, to-date, ICE Kinematics remains a future product in the Softimage XSI pipeline, but there are plenty of teaser videos available on the company’s community site.

But to backtrack a little, ICE itself is the visual node-based programming language replacement for XSI’s API. Basically it’s designed to bridge the gap between the ways artists work and the increasingly technical nature of that work. Instead of using scripts, you join together nodes, in much the same way as building up shaders. The first version of ICE, released in conjunction with XSI 7 in August, brings this approach to the creation of particle effects and deformation. ICE Kinematics will be the next release.

"It’s very lightweight. There are no bones. You’ll be able to work much faster that you currently can. In future, character animation is going to be procedural with intelligent rigging," says Teo. "When we’ve shown technical directors how this works, some of them just shortcircuit, because they’re so used to working with bones. ICE Kinematics negates the old ways of doing things. The whole architecture’s open. You can create your own IK solvers. It’s much more flexible and faster."

As for the development of the technology, that’s been ongoing ever since Softimage made what seemed to be the strange move of acquiring 3ds Max animation plug-in company Character Animation Technologies back in 2006. Its CAT plug-in is still available from the Softimage website, but the company’s founder Philip Taylor is the man behind ICE Kinematics.

"We bought CAT to get Phil’s brain," Teo reveals. "The CAT plug-in is build around the 3ds Max SDK so you can’t just drop it into XSI because the architectures are completely different. But what we wanted was Phil’s philosophy of how animation should work. That’s where ICE Kinematics has come from. I think the whole animation paradigm is going to change."

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