The long and lonely death of Softimage

Digital Arts

The story of Softimage is one of an inspired creative software application that never found a real home, and will soon die.

Over the last 28 years, the Softimage 3D modelling and animation application has helped produce groundbreaking visual 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, Avid and, most recently, Autodesk – where it had to compete with the company’s two entrenched 3D suites: Maya and 3ds Max.

“[Softimage] has been passed around from company to company over the years like a CGI hot potato,” says Nick Webber, senior FX TD (technical director) at 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 2015 release before it joins the creative choir invisible alongside Macromedia’s Freehand (offed by Adobe) and Nothing Real’s Shake (inhumed by Apple).

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

According to Autodesk’s entertainment industry manager 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 VFX 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', the product has been at the heart of some great visual imagery over the years. As Martin Chamney, head of CG and CG supervisor at Nvizible recalls: “The Bjork video by [Soho-based visual effects 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. Its strengths were in the animation module; it had the best IK skeleton and skinning system at the time and fantastic deformation tools.”

Jellyfish Pictures is well known for its use of Softimage. The company’s CTO Jeremy Smith says that part of its appeal was that it was relatively easy for skilled users of other 3D software 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 senior 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 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 focal point of the CG community’s year, the SIGGRAPH conference and exhibition.  

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. 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).

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 pipelines 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, strong interactive rendering, a particle system, compositing and ActiveX scripting.

“Early on, XSI had huge advantages over Maya, particularly mental ray integration,” says Nick Webber from Milk VFX. “Modelling was fast. It had an interface ahead of its time. There was the render tree and built-in compositing, and of course the animation tools, render layers and large datasets. 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, but not DS) 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 Autodesk Softimage and has since continued to be developed as part of the Autodesk Entertainment Creation Suite, 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 lighting TD 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.”


flek said: We used softimage 2.62 in the beginning, as you know, and we had to have a balance of artistry and technical know-how.Many of my colleagues went on to many fine productions.For instance Jimmy Hayward went on to direct one of my favs: Horton Hears a Who!Andrew 'spanky' Grant evolved into an excellent animator for ILM as did his friend Andrew Doucette. And C. Michael Easton..who also got to be the 'bus driver' extra in one of the Star Wars prequels...Attack of the Clones, I think.Gerald Lauze, the primary designer for Reboot does 3D printing now in many mediums, very impressive.As for myself, I'm working for a long while on my own thing.Strangely, I also quit university to get into 3D :)And yeah, Reboot had a big impact on so many people...a first of its kind and a 'once in a lifetime' experience for me, of which I'm very grateful.I'm very happy we inspired you.-flek

Intars Kocesevs said: I never thought that just by a random coincidence I will stumble on internet upon some CG artist that happened to work on CG television show that played I guess and am pretty sure one of those veeeeery first subconscious yet so immensely powerful impacts and inspiration on me as a little kid back than. So much that after many years I stepped into realm of CG graphics and by bringing to sacrifice my studies at uni I decided to become an CG artist and that is where I stand now!Reboot and Beast Machines - transformers saga, one of my favorites from childhood was one of the turning points! I oftenly was imagining - who were those people working there, what software they used, what are they doing now e.t.c

Llia O said: I was inspired, by this tragic event!

flek said: You're very welcome for the inspiration. We Mainframers loved Reboot and the 'once-in-a-lifetime' chance to make history.I would certainly hope that all the Softimage engineers and users get together and develop something as genius as Softimage...and open source.Come on's time to create Softimage's genius sibling.-flek

duster said: doubt they'd kill maya,it's just got a different purpose than max does

Incertoe said: I took highschool credits in Softimage in Toronto. Mainframe was always the pinnacle we looked towards. I got my feet wet in broadcasting because of you guys and now i run a graphics department at a national TV network. Gotta say thanks for being an inpsiration!

C said: It seemed obvious that this was the end game so I moved to modo a while ago... its not got everything that Softimage has but its modelling and rendering is really strong and if you really need advanced animation you can always use it with Houdini

flek said: I've used Softimage since it was Softimage|3D. My colleagues and I at Mainframe worked on Reboot and couldn't have done it with anything else at that time.Pity to see Softimage get shit-canned by people who don't understand it...just at it was maturing.Like how the Amiga was trashed by Commodore. Softimage is certainly the genius child.It's interface and operations are fluid and fast. In my dreams I could see Softimage source released and let if become a free open source platform like Blender. I know it wont happen by I can dream.On the other hand, this hole in 3D needs to be filled. 3D as we know it is still a developing fetus (Say, compared to mathematics) merely 30 odd years old. It's amazing how fast things move along...except desktop computing power....I should have a 6-12 processor system with 8 cores per processor in one box.In the future there will be amazing new 3D software and Softimage a fading memory.Softimage will always be the eternal genius child for me.-flek

aerebi said: Autodesk want to keep 3D S Max. becuase Autodesk's original software was 3D Studio (Max). next step die Maya I think!

Francis Schmidt said: Those of us forced to change are thinking very heavily of leaving Autodesk for a company more dedicated to designing and supporting a cohesive 3d animating application. I am leaning towards Modo, others C4D, Houdini etc. At the very least those companies have developed frameworks that don't require the inelegant jamming of 'new' features every 12 months. And they listen to their customers, unlike Autodesk.Maya was once a very good NURBS based modeler with a solid simulation environment attached and a custom programming language to control it. It is now a formless monster, with entirely foreign technologies shoved in lengthwise whenever Autodesk is guilted in to it. I would have to slow down the amount of knowledge I teach students if I were to adapt it.

softwareagnostisist said: I hear what you're saying Brad - good argument.I'm a long time Maya guy with experience of Soft and Houdini and they all have their pluses and minuses. Unfortunately throughout history, time and time again the 'best' technology isn't often the one that wins the battle for supremacy e.g.VHS v's Betamax - I'm sure similar discussions happened years ago when Apple killed Shake.Regrettable, unfair, unjust - but thats the way sometimes things go. Ask game-developers/artists how they feel when their AAA title gets canned after 3 years development - I'm sure its the same sort of gut wrenching feeling.I have much sympathy for Soft users - although whilst many of the impassioned pleas for clemency from Autodesk are quite noble, there's air of inevitability that probably means this will fall on deaf ears. A bit like King Canute trying to hold back the tide by building a sandcastle.When the rhetoric subsides and reality dawns, the upshot will be Softimage users gravitating towards packages that allow them to continue to operate at 'the high end' and where there are jobs. This appears to be Maya, Max or Houdini. (Cinema4D or Modo are still not quite there yet IMHO).Unfortunately, Maya still seems the most likely option - whether people like it or not. :-/

Brad Hiebert said: I have over 25 years industry experience using Softimage, Maya, as well as Rhythm and Hues proprietary in house software, Vooodoo. Maya is BY FAR the most unintuitive, bloated, slow performing software of the 3. I say this as a daily user. Most people I know who have similar experience agree 100%.I'm primarily are rigger and agree that Houdini is absolute torture to learn, but that argument does make Maya a better choice. It's like saying, "You think getting stabbed is bad (Maya), you should try getting shot (Houdini)"........ how about neither?!I do agree that most of the backlash should be directed at Autodesk, but Maya is their choice - so that line is pretty thin.They say that the industry needs innovation and R&D - so why did they choose to do that on an architecture that is 20 years old?..... Let's watch them "innovate" by just throwing more crap on the heap.I still hold out hope that the new owners of R&H will make Voodoo available to the public..... now THAT is cool!

lynnfredricks said: Mirye Software is offering a cross-grade for Softimage users to an equally historical (though more obscure, sure) 3D tool Shade 3D

softwareagnostisist said: Could be worse - you could be forced to use Max. :-pThe bottom line is that your always going to be more inclined to 'diss' something your not familiar with and I have huge sympathies for Soft users that will have to retrain - but surely there are loads of positives from moving over to Maya i.e. a larger install base = more work for freelancers, the opportunity to do more film work etc.. Its just some of the arguments on forums across the web have been somewhat unfair bordering on juvenile over the last few weeks regarding Maya as not a viable option.

Francis Schmidt said: Most everyone I know who has issues with Maya and prefers Softimage does so because they had to use Maya at some point. No 3d app is intuitive (excepting actual existence), but Maya is a mess.

softwareagnostisist said: Interesting article - although full of unsubstantiated value judgments from Soft users that have very little 'production' experience of using Maya which is probably a tad unfair.I've noticed over the last few weeks a huge backlash against Maya - which is illogical. Surely the beef is with Autodesk not Maya?If you think Mayas a nightmare wait until you try Houdini. said: good bye