Beta Sight: Autodesk Toxik

Universal Images added Autodesk Toxik to its compositing pipeline to complement its stable of Autodesk products. Pictured: Christopher Wirth, executive vice president and creative director, Universal Images.

Universal Images added Autodesk Toxik to its compositing pipeline to complement its stable of Autodesk products. Pictured: Christopher Wirth, executive vice president and creative director, Universal Images.

As executive VP and creative director of Universal Images, I''m responsible for evaluating and purchasing equipment, managing creative teams, hiring and recruiting, new business development, and overseeing every commercial and television project that comes through the company. This position means I''m constantly researching the latest tools and technologies out there that will keep my company competitive.

We made the decision in 2003 to standardize our entire visual-effects, editing, and finishing pipeline on Autodesk tools. We did it with utter confidence that we were adopting a workflow and toolset that would enable us to deliver the best-quality creative work and help grow our business.

Six years later, our company has expanded to a staff of 73, and we''re taking on an increasing number of commercial and entertainment projects. We''ve completed a 2-hour History Channel special called Journey to 10,000 BC, a high-tech graphic novel look at prehistoric America. We''re also in production on eight 1-hour episodes for History Channel miniseries titled Battles BC—a new, intense, and highly stylized visual treatment of the world''s most famous ancient battles. David W. Padrusch directed both groundbreaking projects.

Seamless interoperability with the Autodesk pipeline

About a year ago, we added Autodesk Toxik to our compositing pipeline to complement our stable of six Autodesk Flames, nine Autodesk Smokes, three Autodesk Backdrafts, two seats of Autodesk Maya, 10 seats of Autodesk 3ds Max, and a whole slew of Autodesk Combustions. Of course, Toxik fit into our workflow absolutely seamlessly, and we now push virtually every project at Universal Images through our Toxik system.

We now have a total of five Toxik licenses—three running on Lightbeam Systems Reel Six, running Windows XP Professional x64, and two installed on 3D workstations so our 3D artists can get a quick preview of their work.

As with any new tool, getting up to speed on Toxik wasn''t immediate. In fact, we joked when it was first installed that we all needed Ph.D.s to run it. We were pleasantly surprised, however, that after we got used to the interface, we found Toxik to be incredibly intuitive and were amazed at how much more efficiently we were working in Toxik than with the other compositing software options out there. And if you''re already accustomed to working in a node-based compositing environment or with other Autodesk products, Toxik will feel pleasantly familiar.

The Motio feature in Autodesk Toxik helped Universal Images artists create a U.S. Navy commercial through ad agency GlobalHue.

The Motio feature in Autodesk Toxik helped Universal Images artists create a U.S. Navy commercial through ad agency GlobalHue.

Indispensable features

There are several features within Toxik that we find indispensable, such as its nondestructive rendering capabilities, which lets you put an effect or treatment on a layer and then cache it. You can then layer around it and when you want to get a preview, it plays back in realtime. It allows you as an artist to go back up and down the stack to make changes upstream and downstream and not get punished with long render times.

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We recently used Toxik on a U.S. Navy commercial through ad agency GlobalHue. We were going for a grainy, handheld camera look, like in the movie Cloverfield. In the spot, a man rips an anchor out of the ground and walks away. The footage had a lot of motion blur with cameras panning in and out, which made tracking the anchor and the actor very difficult.

There''s a feature in Toxik called Motio, which analyzes the forward and backward motion vectors of the footage. That tool allowed us to take the forward vector and pipe them into a 3D blur module. We could then apply that blur module to the forward vectors of the footage, which added a blur to the 3D render in the footage. So every time the camera would go in, pull back, or pan around, the object rendered in the scene would have the same look. We then used the Garbage Mask tool in Toxik to feather out the edges and make things tight.

The Garbage Mask tool—one of Toxik''s “super tools”—is a rotoscoping cutting-out utility that allows you to key undesired elements in an image. It has superior handles and allows you to cache images so you can rotoscope with a tremendous amount of performance. And because Toxik''s playback is disk-based instead of RAM-based, you''re not caching your previews to RAM, so you''re freeing up the system to perform more crucial tasks.

Universal Images used its Autodesk stable to create this

Universal Images used its Autodesk stable to create this "Jeep Graffiti" spot through ad agency GlobalHue.

But the feature I find the most valuable is how Toxik handles metadata when doing a ZDepth pass to render out depth of field. So when you''re creating elements in 3D, you can take handles such as specular passes from your elements, resulting in superb handles for enhancing and sweetening your projects.

Toxik also allows you to browse directly from the Autodesk''s direct Fibre Channel digital media storage solution called Stone, thus improving the interoperability between Toxik and our other Autodesk visual-effects tools. This enables us to cache our data onto the Toxik bay, do the work, and render back to the Stone—so we''re able to better control, maintain, and organize our project through Toxik''s powerful database system.

Of course, no matter how great a software''s feature set is, it needs to be complemented by attentive and helpful customer support. The Toxik help team really shines. Whenever we''ve run into issues with the software, we''ve been able to get assistance in a very quick timeframe with solutions to our problems, so we''re back to working in no time.

Toxik''s excellent R&D team continues to make Toxik better and better with every new version, patch, and update. If you''re looking for a compositing tool to integrate into your Autodesk pipeline, your money is well-spent with Toxik.

Editors note: The Mac version of Toxik 2009 is shipping in May; both Mac and Windows versions include new stereoscopic 3D capabilities.

Based in Southfield, Mich., Universal Images (UI) provides visual effects and postproduction for advertising agencies, creative editorial houses, and production and communication companies. In business since 1983, Universal Images has done work on TV episodics (Journey to 10,000 BC, Battles BC) and commercials for companies including Jeep, Adidas, GM, Chrysler, Chevrolet, Pontiac, and ESPN.