Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Aqsis 1.8 Sneak Peek

The Aqsis developers have been quite busy trying to get all the features and changes ready for the 1.8 release, some of which has helped secure the future of the open source renderer. Since it's inception, Aqsis has always been a "old-fashioned" REYES rendering application, that is it had the functionality that complied with the requirements of the RiSpec, as well as additional features however it lacked the more modern rendering methods such as point based rendering. That is soon changing as reported earlier this summer and it was uncertain if these changes would appear in the next release, or in the 2.0 release, so it has been confirmed that the new point render branch will be merged with the main branch for the next release.

On July 31 the Aqsis team officially announced "Phase 1" for the next release, during which time will be focused on completing the new features.

Other additions include support for OpenImageIO, which was written by Larry Gritz, as well as Partio by Walt Disney Animation.

The main feature changes for 1.8 are as follows.

1. Point Based Global Illumination
  • bake3d()
  • occlusion()
  • indirectdiffuse()
  • texture3d()

2. Rewritten RIB parser
  • Inline archives are supported, using ArchiveBegin/ArchiveEnd
  • Frame dropping is reimplemented to allow a single frame to be selected.
  • Archive interpolation in miqser executes ReadArchive calls in place.
  • RiContext() / RiGetContext() now supported for the core renderer.
  • RiBegin("something.rib") can be used to produces RIB via the core renderer lib.
  • Validation of array lengths and parameter ranges for all RI procedures, used in both the core and in miqser.

3. Port all GUI tools to Qt.

4. Begin relicensing under BSD style license.

As some of you might know, Aqsis does have a couple of GUI based tools, Piqsl and Eqsl, both of which allow users to use Aqsis without having to resort to a command line to render a file or view an image. Piqsl is more commonly used as it is the primary framebuffer tool to watch the renderer at work, as well as use the tool to view multiple images, or to help with development of a render or shader as you can flip through the images. Eqsl allows users to render a RIB file, convert textures to a MIP map, or compile a shader. Both tools were an addition several years ago and have been evolving since and now they both have been ported over to QT, the GUI framework from Nokia, previously they relied on FLTK. While FLTK did provide an easy way to build a GUI app, QT has been chosen to replace it as the framework is proving to be more popular and many 3D tools and applications are using it as well, both commercial and open source.

The most exciting features of course is the Point Based Global Illumination stuff and many people all over the world are happy to see that Aqsis is evolving. This is the one of the most important things done to Aqsis since the renderer debuted on SourceForge in 2001, simply because the addition of the new GI code has changed it. Now it can work with GI much the same way as 3Delight and Pixar's RenderMan can, aside from the fact that ray tracing is still not possible yet. That is something to come about later on. Below is a very recent render with the latest Git source, which as of this week includes the point render branch added to the trunk.

Point Based Global Illumination with Aqsis

Aqsis 1.8 has a few more months of work before it officially is released.

This also comes shortly after a CGSociety article about the very subject, which ultimately led to another debate as to whether or not Renderman was dead, given the success of proprietary renderer's such as Arnold and CGStudio++. Regardless of who is sided with whatever software, Renderman still holds the title of being the one that brought CG to an affordable means of visual effects in film, has been for over 20 years now and not many other rendering software can match up to that record. That said the article in question relates to Point Based Global Illumination in Pixar's RenderMan, which is interesting to note that the Aqsis team was busy getting this very method of GI stable for release at the same time.

Another reason for the sudden shift in the Aqsis team to get more modern rendering methods into this now 10 year old project (missed that little bit of info until just now, Aqsis was registered on March 14, 2001), the decline of development with Pixie, the one time champion of open source Renderman with ray tracing and GI, which in some ways still is, however the development seems to have slowed to a halt with no new updates in years. So while the last working version of Pixie still works for this kind of thing, the Aqsis guys are taking a more pro-active approach and taking on the role as the open source Renderman of choice. Others are taking their ties to the team to help implement Aqsis into professional studios, others are developing plugins to work with Aqsis and providing technical support.

During SIGGRAPH the Blender team had a lot of interest by studios interested in placing Blender into their pipelines, something we have been dreaming about for years so now that the link between Blender and Renderman is getting tighter it is only a matter of time before these tools will be added as well. In certain places this has already happened. Once Aqsis is released fully in 1.8, this gives it a step up into the realm of professional use and give the renderer a massive step up in the world of open source visual effects.

Monday, August 22, 2011

SIGGRAPH 2011 opens up new avenues for Blender

This year's SIGGRAPH seems to be a solid turning point for Blender and it's developers. According to Ton, there was quite a bit of interest in Blender from the professional industry, which is amazing news to the entire Blender community since for years it has been bashed as a "hobby" app. Over the years Blender has been evolving and in such a fast rate that it is almost hard to keep up, however one of the most impressive changes is of course the interface, which on the surface level is pleasing to the eye and thus people are more inclined to explore more of Blender, from there they understand just how powerful this open source app really is. Shame it took them this long to figure this out, however Blender was a different beast even 5 years ago when the Blender to Renderman community was just a tiny speck compared to what it is now. Just in two years Blender evolved again into a very formidable piece of software. In turn other software that are commonly used in conjunction with Blender is evolving too, thus opening even more possibilities to the community at large. Then there is the community, of which had it not been for the large number of users that devote vast amount of time working with, or on, Blender, none of this would have happened in the first place. Blender truly is now making some serious headway into becoming a widely adopted tool for content creation and it all started as an internal tool for a game company. Amazing how events unfold over time.

From the Blender. org website.

Tradeshow booth
  • During three days, 9-11 August, Blender Foundation presented Blender + art showreel at 6x3m booth at the tradeshow floor. 
  • Link to showreel download & youtube coming soon! 
  • HP provided us 4 fast workstations and 30" displays. 
  • 100 Blender shirts and 1500 Blender DVDs were handed out (also thanks to sponsors Lumikuu &Renderfarm.fi) 
  • Demo DVD made for FMX by Francesco Siddi & Sebastian Koenig & Thomas Dinges, thanks! ISO download is free to spread and use. 
  • Booth attracted visitors from all over the world, all over the industry... including artists from Pixar getting personal demos. 
  • Our OpenCL (Cycles render, compositing) projects attracted visitors from all main Graphic cards vendors (Intel, NVidia, AMD/ATI). They are seriously committed to help out with Blender testing and advising us on best usage of of OpenGL and OpenCL features. 
  • Early demos of motion tracking did people's head turn too. It appears we're providing the first cross platform free/open tracking tool for film makers here. 
  • Met with author of MeshFlow, a Blender based research paper accepted for Siggraph. 
  • Had a good meeting with Khronos, discussing our COLLADA support and established tight connections to get further support. 
  • Talked to many journalists; including 3D World, 3D artist, Renderosity. 
  • Interest from new developers, among which Ari Shapiro of ILM/R&H fame 
  • Several film/vfx/animation studios interested in integrating Blender in pipeline, but they need consultants to help them. (will be via Blender Network) 
  • In general: so cool to see so many artists dropping by who already were using Blender professionally and with great results. 
You will note that one of them involves integrating Blender into pipelines at studios, a HUGE step forward and something that has been dreamed about by many Blender users, developers and of course Ton himself. THIS is what we have been looking forward to and now it looks like the professional industry is finally coming together and looking at Blender as a viable tool, not as a hobby toy. In the past few years many studios have released open source projects for visual effects and animation, which some of these in turn ended up in Blender, so it makes sense to look at Blender to do certain tasks which is compatible with said projects. Hence the purpose of open source.

The other factor is cost, as we all know the world economy is not exactly great and this does have a strain on the entertainment industry, since they are paid from the money we spend on their products, people are not spending as much so thus the industry is not making as much as before. A studio used to be able to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on software alone, during the early 90's this was no big deal since it was new and exciting, producers were willing to fork over millions to make the next blockbuster. Now visual effects are common in nearly every film made, so the luster is gone and the cost is rising each year to make even non visual effect heavy films, studios are looking to cut costs. One such measure was taken by replacing expensive SGI workstations with PC's, since hardware costs kept going down and computing power increased every couple months. 3D software in the early 90's were really a niche market and the internet was not as expansive or utilized then either, some software had to be purchased over the phone it was so specialized and expensive. The software that was affordable by the general public was not as powerful either. In the following decade studios have switched from expensive operating systems to Linux, an open source and cost free OS that functions exactly as the costly UNIX systems of the past. In general studios were forking over millions on hardware and software alone, something they can no longer afford to do. 3D software still costs a small fortune, even with recent price drops across the board so it only makes sense for these places to look at an open source and cost free software, one that can be modified at whim, one that can be installed on as many hard drives possible without licensing fees, one that is quickly becoming compatible with projects they developed, one that used by nearly every aspiring 3D artist world wide. THAT I think is the best cost solution, young talent cutting their teeth and all done without them having to spend anything on software, imagine the pool of talent in the upcoming years all trained on Blender.

Pixar artists looking at Blender is a certain glowing point for us on the Renderman area of Blender, as you can imagine, so even though it is no secret what we are doing in this corner of the internet, it feels good to know that certain people from Pixar have had a chance to see Blender itself and we just hope that this only adds to our cause.

Which comes down to our connection, the people involved with Blender and Renderman at least. In the Blender.org post, there is mention of the "Blender Network", which is a proposed network of Blender professionals that would be contracted to provide support, or something to that degree. Some people have already been doing this in their own way, including some of us. Morpho Animation Studios is beginning to incorporate Aqsis into their pipeline, as they already use Blender and Pixar's RenderMan with RIBMosaic, this should be fairly simple, though risky since Aqsis has not been used in commercial work. Regardless they are taking that gamble and have requested our help. This in turn almost requires the assistance of the various developers themselves so even though they may not directly have contact, due to people's network of connections, they are all interconnected, they also help each other out since the publicity generated works out in favor of all involved.

Funny about the image at the top, with Ton and Co. standing in front of the AutoDesk booth, the slogan "don't blend in stand out" behind them, almost nearly seems that the company is afraid and in some ways, they should be.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Morpho Animation Studio at Siggraph 2011

My friend Christian Vargas sent me an email about Costa Rica being at this years SIGGRAPH. The booth monitors were showing clips of "Grampa's Robot" so viewers were watching what Blender and Renderman can do together, regardless if they know about the various projects involved or not. Just by sheer luck, the booth was right in front of the line that lead up to the Pixar gifts, so people like Renderman TD's, visual effect supervisors, software developers and CG enthusiasts alike where asking questions. Christian explained to them the various projects related to Blender to Renderman as well as what they were doing and a LOT of them responding with a "WOW". Not only are they impressed with what they saw at the booth, they are very interested to see what will come in the next year.