The story of Softimage is one of a revolutionary animation application that never found a real home, and will soon die.

Over the last 28 years, the Softimage CG (computer-generated) animation application has helped produce groundbreaking specials effects from Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs to the sensual robots of Bjork’s All Is Full Of Love music video (above). But in its time it has been owned by three large corporations: Microsoft, professional video hardware and software vendor Avid and, most recently, CAD (computer-aided design) and 3D software giant Autodesk – and many users believe it never had the chance to be as successful as it could have been.

“[Softimage] has been passed around from company to company over the years like a CGI hot potato,” says Nick Webber from visual effects company, Milk VFX. “It's as if they never knew what to do with this eccentric genius child.”

So when Autodesk announced last week that it’s to finally kill off Softimage, it was a move that surprised no-one – except perhaps that there will be a final upgrade next month before it joins the creative choir invisible alongside other tools still sadly missed by some users such as Macromedia’s Freehand (offed by Adobe) and Nothing Real’s Shake (inhumed by Apple). That Softimage, which Autodesk bought in 2008, is still with us now is the thing that we really should see as unusual: Autodesk also develops two directly competing products, 3ds Max and Maya, that – while doing some creative tasks better than Softimage and some less well – are sold to much wider audiences.

Softimage|XSI, released in 2000 and the 'second act' of the application’s development, introduced the idea of a video-editing-style timeline and revolutionised the creation of animation.

According to Autodesk’s Maurice Patel, the decision to kill Softimage was taken to focus the company's efforts on its core 3D tools.

“The industry continues to evolve very rapidly and customers are demanding a faster rate of innovation across all our product lines including Softimage, 3ds Max and Maya,” he told us. “Given this, we needed to focus resources on where there was the greatest customer need, which is 3ds Max and Maya, in order to accelerate our development plans.”

The decision has been met with dismay and some anger within the professional animation community. Some hardcore users haven’t been happy to let Softimage go gently into that good night: there is a petition already up on to save the software – but many users we’ve spoken to are resigned to the demise of what was long regarded as a brilliant artistic tool.

So how has a product that’s been pushed from pillar to post inspired such emotional connection in a creative community that’s not short of great tools?

Known affectionately as 'Soft’, Softimage is a full 3D animation suite. Its tools include modelling, animation and rendering. It’s modelling tools allow you to create 3D people, creatures, objects and environments; while its animation toolset is for bringing these to live. For both of these, artists generally work with wireframe or low-resolution previews of how a scene will look – and the final scenes need to rendered to get high-quality realistic results. Rendering can take hours or even days to complete, so is often passed off to hugely powerful servers.

The end result is an animation that is either the final product – for a fully animated film or commercial – or is a component to be composited with live-action footage to create the visual effects used for everything from adding exploding spaceships to big blockbusters to historically accurate buildings in period dramas.

Softimage has been at the heart of some great visual imagery over the years. As Martin Chamney, head of CG at Nvizible recalls: “The Bjork video [with animation and effects by London-based company] Glassworks, Walking with Dinosaurs and the creatures in City of the Lost Children (trailer above) were all high points. During the mid-to-late nineties, it was the number one computer animation system. All the best commercial facilities used it.

“Despite its limited toolset, it was super-fast to use, with a highly intuitive UI. You got a lot done very quickly, which was great for clients."

Martin says that its strengths were in its animation tools: it had the best IK (inverse kinematics] skeleton and skinning system. Found in most professional animation systems, this type of system places a skeleton of connected bones within a model to define how it should bend, with realistic relationships between parts – so for example the movement of a hand will affect the position and angle of a human or animal models elbow and shoulder. Having this working correctly is a major boon to producing realistic-looking animation efficiently without lots of manual tweaking.

Special effects company Jellyfish Pictures is well known for its use of Softimage. The company’s CTO (chief technology officer) Jeremy Smith says that part of its appeal was that it was relatively easy for skilled users of other 3D software tool to learn.

“If you’ve never used this package before, it won’t take you long to get up and running,” says Jeremy. “Soft also has a great workflow as there is a different section for each stage of the production – modelling, animation, rendering and so on; everything is well integrated rather than features being slapped on.”

“Softimage was extremely capable, but more importantly was very agile,” says David Cook, a 3D artist at Jellyfish. “That made it very suitable for broadcast where there is a requirement for high-end material on a fraction of a feature budget. Maya has more features, but a lot of them are just bolted on and not very usable without a lot of code support that is not available in small/mid size [companies].

“Most of the features in Softimage are well integrated and thought out and it doesn’t feel like there is a lot of redundancy in the structure. If I open [Autodesk’s] Maya today – and  I will be opening it a lot soon – it looks and feels exactly the same as it did in 1999, and even back then there were five ways to do some simple things.”

A history of Softimage

A 3D render created in Softimage|XSI 1.0.

Back in 1986, while Autodesk was firmly focussed on CAD products for the design of real things, National Film Board of Canada filmmaker Daniel Langlois established the fundamental principle and design layouts of the Softimage Creative Environment system. In 1988, after working with engineers Richard Mercille and Laurent Lauzon to turn it into a commercial 3D software product, Langlois launched the Creative Environment 1.0 at the most important US conference for animation and effects, SIGGRAPH.

Modelling, animation, and rendering were integrated for the first time in a single package. Later, Softimage would add realistic CG character animation, adapt inverse kinematics (IK) for more realistic motion from robotics and introduce performance capture technology. The system was used by Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) to animate the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park.

1994 saw a big change for the software when Microsoft acquired Softimage Inc. Now renamed as the snappier Softimage|3D, version 3.0 came out on Windows NT as well as SGI’s IRIX platform used by its ultra-expensive workstations such as the Onyx – opening it up to effects and animation firms with smaller budgets.

Softimage|DS was launched in 1997, an editing and effects system that was tied to high-performance hardware (for the time) to allow ‘finishing' of commercials and music videos. This was back in the day when hardware restrictions meant that most editing was done using relatively low-quality previews, which then had to be rendered. A post-production house would likely own a bunch of relatively moderately priced editing suites, plus one (or perhaps a few) expensive final ‘finishing’ suite where final tweaks and effects would applied in real-time, often with the director in the room.

Then in 1998 Avid bought Softimage from Microsoft for $285 million – though there were hints it was more after Softimage|DS to complement Avid's own Symphony finishing system than the main Softimage 3D application.

Around the same time, in February 1998, SGI subsidiary Alias|Wavefront was releasing its character animation and visual effects software, Maya 1.0. This had some immediate advantages over Softimage.

“When Maya 1.0 arrived it was a superior system with the power of MEL scripting language,” recalls Martin Chamney. “Many larger film FX companies built their [workflows[ around Maya, and when XSI was released it had a lot to catch up with.”

Softimage struck back with the redeveloped-from-the-ground-up Softimage|XSI (above) in 2000. This introduced a non-linear animation editing and mixing system – essentially applying the core principles behind the timeline found on video editing tools from Apple’s iMovie to Adobe’s Premiere Pro to animation – and interactive rendering, so you could make adjustments to a rendered piece of animation. It also gained a particle system for realistically mimicking smoke and liquids, compositing tools for combining already rendered animations without having to re-render, and scripting.

“Early on, XSI had huge advantages over Maya, particularly integration [with high-end rendering software mental ray]” says Nick Webber from Milk VFX. “Modelling was fast. It had an interface ahead of its time. Later ICE made it unique and others were envious.”

Introduced in 2008,  ICE (Interactive Creative Environment) allowed non-programmers to control elements within scenes in XSI – such as camera, particles and light properties – simply by connecting nodes on a graph.

“When the ICE effects system was introduced it greatly increased the capacity of what Softimage could do,” says Wayde Duncan Smith, senior technical director at Nvizible. “Most importantly it was fast and gave it an edge above Maya. The problem is, when XSI was introduced Maya had already established itself.”

By this point, Maya was the 3D suite of choice for feature film visual effects – and had become a crown jewel for Autodesk, which had acquired Alias in October 2005.

It may look rough now, but in 2000 this kind of rendering was mind-blowing.

In October 2008, Autodesk acquired the Softimage application (and brand) from Avid for approximately $35 million in what was widely regarded as a bargain buyout, though Avid continued with the DS product line. In February 2009, Softimage|XSI was rebranded as Autodesk Softimage and has since continued to be developed as part of the Autodesk Entertainment Creation Suite bundle of tools, together with former rivals Maya and 3ds Max.

“One can't help but assume that Autodesk bought it to harvest technology then engineer its downfall,” says Dan Upton, a technical director specialising in CG lighting at Jellyfish. This accusation has been thrown at Autodesk regularly since it bought Softimage: for a while every Autodesk press conference related to its CG products would include a journalist asking when Autodesk would kill Softimage – initially seriously and then as a running joke. But no-one’s laughing now.

Autodesk itself prefers to see its approach as letting Softimage live on in other products.

“The acquisition of Softimage led to several major enhancements in other Autodesk products, as well as to new areas of research and innovation such as Project Bifröst.” says Maurice Patel, referring to its new fluid simulation system that’s 50% ICE and 50% the Naiad system that Autodesk bought last year.

While some firms will continue to use Softimage for the foreseeable future, moving onto another application is inevitable.  Rhys Williams, formerly lead CG artist at Lola, now at Jellyfish, is saddened by the news, but is of the opinion that an entire section of the industry will just have to retrain.

“Fairly recently, Autodesk was still making reassuring noises about the future of Softimage, but obviously these were incorrect,” he says. “In many ways, it is this lack of transparency that has caused irritation, both in terms of what their plans for Softimage were and what their future plans are. Maya is based on a fairly old architecture and people presume it'll have to be replaced itself sooner rather than later. It'd certainly be good to know which direction to retrain in.”