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Mental-ly gone

Tough times for 3D old-timers like me it seems. After the demise of Fabric Engine a few weeks ago, today we have to put on yet another grief-stricken face for Mental Ray. NVidia, current owners of the product have declared the cessation of active development.

Surprising? Not really! When was the last time you heard any relevant news on the subject, anyway? Exactly! As far as everyone and their mum was concerned, the product had been dead for a long time already, latest when Autodesk put the final dagger into the chest by removing it from their products in favor of Arnold. as I wrote about one year ago in that article, Mental Ray was once really hip and at the forefront, but it had been clear that they never knew what to do with the product. Even their outsourcing iRay seems like a ditch effort, considering that most of their (former) customers quite likely have moved on to greener pastures and will never be looking back.

While it’s said to see a product go that was part of every 3D artist’s wet-dreams in the early 1990s, at this point few are going to miss it. Personally I never really got so deep into MR during my Maya days and thus won’t shed a tear. After all, wiring up a ton of nodes just to produce a simple shader seemed unnecessary complicated and the actual rendering speed was nothing to write home about. the term “glacially slow” springs to mind. it made you wonder how they ever finished those movies it was used on. in a way one could argue that this ultimately was their biggest issue: They never managed to make it simple enough for a more wide adoption and then their already limited active user base dwindled into obscurity….

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Torn Fabric

Ah, the times… It seems another one has bitten the dust. While elsewhere 3D software is getting worse and worse (Hello Maxon!), the last few bits of truly innovative programs die off. This time Fabric Engine is the victim of this trend. Now granted, it was nerdy stuff and at the end of the day, unless you were a Maya or Houdini user who was used to rudimentary graphical UIs it was one hell of an ugly bitch (including the one in the Modo version), but it’s regrettable that it seems to be a goner. At least their website doesn’t offer any clues as to what happened, so we can only speculate. Either they really bankrupted because not enough users were into their subscription model (in which case I could of course point fingers at myself because even when I still could afford it I never took the plunge) or they got bought by some other company on the sly. Here’s hoping for the latter, so maybe it will be revived in some form. Perhaps the next few days and weeks will bring us some info that can unravel that mystery…

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Egg Cirque

Unfortunately Cirque du Soleil shows seem to be getting more and more scarce here in Europe, so every single one counts even more  and I’m just as glad that I got to see Ovo yesterday.

When it comes to the newer shows, I’m admittedly a bit more skeptical than for the older ones, mostly owed to the fact that information on them is rather elusive and you don’t have much of a chance to gauge them beforehand ever since the Cirque stopped making DVDs. Unfortunately they don’t run as often on arte.tv anymore even, so there you have it. I’m not saying that diving in blindly is a bad thing, but considering the ticket prices it would be nice to walk into this more assuredly beforehand. That’s just me, of course.

As things turned out, I was pleasantly surprised. I’ve had the soundtrack for as long as when it came out first and though it’s not my favorite, it helped to finally see how the songs are used in the show. Incidentally they also sound more interesting with those slight variations when played live instead of the sometimes all too clean studio recording. The show itself relies a lot on the colorfulness of the costumes, a huge back screen projection and the lighting design, while it’s otherwise staged pretty simple, the specific bits and bobs for the individual artists’ acts notwithstanding, of course.

Another positive  a-ha moment stems from the fact that several of those acts are performances high up such as a flying trapeze number, several variations on rope acts and of course the trampolines in the finale, which adds quite a bit of excitement and awe. The timing is also usually very fast, ramping up the action quickly, which furthers the feeling of something exhilarating going on. What irked me slightly, however, were a few all too obvious dark segments where they were prepping and setting up the necessary safety measures. Other shows manage to sneak that in a bit more elegantly.

That being said, regardless of my minor niggles, it is a very enjoyable experience. There’s a million worse ways to spend two and a half hours in the evening and with those shows being so elusive in these parts, this is even more a matter of a “once in a lifetime” opportunity. So if you get a chance, go, see it!

2018 ain’t coming yet

Just a quick follow-up on my article from one month ago (Wow, these days I only post about once a month. how times have changed!): Sad as it is, stay away from Adobe Creative Cloud 2018 products for the time being.

Just when you think things can’t get worse, Adobe proves that they can up the ante on the negative side even further. Calling their new line-up dysfunctional would be a kindness, a lot of the products are plain and simply downright broken. Two days after the official release forums are already filling up with issues that make you question if anyone even takes responsibility for quality assurance over there. I imagine it must be one of the coolest things to work for them and get paid 10000 bucks a month without actually having to do your job. Some of the most obvious issues:

  • Project corruption in After Effects seems back, especially when opening old projects. Similar occurences have been reported for Premiere Pro, BTW.
  • The GPU accelerated motion blur in After Effects produces artifacts, so revert to software mode.
  • Shame on Mettle: Now that they sold their asses to Adobe they didn’t even make sure that their old projects for Skybox still open.
  • The usual DynamicLink issues.
  • The usual “My computer is not good enough anymore” issues, because they ramped up the system requirements once again to only qualify for a NASA supercomputer or something like that. Photoshop users that happily worked even in CC 2017 (and that was already buggy as hell) no longer get any GPU features in the 2018 version.
  • Similarly, the new brush engine seems to never work if you don’t have adequate hardware.
  • Once again Illustrator‘s version of GPU acceleration seems to not work at all, causing drawing artifacts that make everything look like a 30-year-old CAD program, where circles were drawn as 8-sided polygons for performance reasons.

Is there more? No doubt and I expect the next month to be a wonderful time where I will find myself alternating between facepalming myself for how dumb and unnecessary some of those issues are and laughing my petit ass off hat how ridiculous this has become (as in a mad man laughing at the world). As a certain Mr. Trump would tweet: “Sad.”, even more so since it utterly tarnishes their research work shown at MAX. Some of the stuff looks actually pretty interesting, but you already expect it to totally not work as advertised once it’s turned into a commercial product…

Another Year, another Mess…

I’m fast running out of post titles to describe my frustration with After Effects and its current development direction, having ranted and bitched about it for years now, but every time I think things will get better, another bit of depressing news arrives. Like so many times already, the pre-announcement announcement for the latest CC update looks anything but promising.

It’s funny how clearly visible the influence of the current product manager Victoria Nece and her work at some former infographics agency shows up in that one and I don’t mean that in a good sense. Importing JSON files? C’mon, don’t we have other problems and can’t leave that to the script writers? There was a time when some other ex-AE product managers would have wiped the suggestion off their desks with an angry grin. The whole concept is just puzzling, even more so since AE‘s limited capabilities doing stuff in realtime and actually being able to use such data prevent it from being more useful as a full news graphics production system or whatever, anyway.

The casual mention of motion blur and some other GPU features doesn’t improve on that, either, as none of that doesn’t do you much good if you can’t use it. You guessed it – forums everywhere are already full of “Why don’t I have GPU acceleration?” and “My comp window looks weird.” posts and I don’t see how pushing things further into that direction before sorting out all those existing bugs and glitches is of any use to anyone.

Along those lines I’m also not too jazzed about the new type panel with font previews. Who needs this, anyway? YouTube kids who can’t keep their thousands of stolen fonts straight by name? If you feel so inclined, you might also get some kicks out of researching how many times font previews alone crash Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign and so on. If you ask me, this is going to be another permanent black hole that you just can’t plug.

On a more positive note, if only ever so slightly, after like 25 years they now have managed to implement a native keyboard shortcut editor and we get access to masks and shape paths using expressions. Yay! Erm, not really. There was a time when I would have nerded out on this, but considering that there’s already scripts and plug-ins for this now, it seems like an afterthought. Don’t get me wrong – in the long-term this could open up some interesting opportunities for tracking (if they ever get around to really writing a completely new full-featured hybrid 3D and 2D tracker) and all workflows based thereon so you don’t always have to delve into mocha, but it just feels lame. I also fear that the limitations of the expressions engine and the potentially clunky syntax (if the one used in scripts is any indication) will make this less powerful than one might think.

Finally, the VR features are of course inevitable, albeit rather obvious in a trendwhore-ish way. At least Adobe got some good return value by shoving a few millions to Mettle. To me, however, the fate of VR remains questionable, at least this particular kind. I find those panoramic videos on Facebook and wherever highly unsatisfying and my impression is that people get carried away with the technicalities and otherwise don’t have any good ideas what to do with the technology and how to actually use it for telling great stories. I mean there’s only so many “Inside the MOMA” videos you can do before it gets boring, if you get my drift…

Atomic Lens Distortions

With the advent of action cams and cheap “VR” lenses (yes, the ironic/ sarcastic use of quotation marks is fully intended) the problem of lens distortions is more prevalent than ever. Personally I’ve never been too much a fan of people ironing out every bit of lens curvature on their video and photos because, you know – what’s the point of learning the art of lensing when you still doctor up your imagery to look like run-off-the-mill stock footage (which BTW is one of the reasons why you can always tell “bad CG” even in super-expensive movies) – but of course there are occasional requirements for that sort of thing, be it just for technical reasons to facilitate things like rotoscoping or integrating set extensions. To that effect our friends at Atomic Image Labs have been at it again exploiting their adaptive technology and just like their first effort it’s free. That should be reason enough to grab it. just don’t forget to bring some of that nice lens effect back after you’re done…

Going Fu-Fu-Fucking Fusion?

Best news of this year’s SIGGRAPH so far: Fusion is going 9 and they’ve lowered the price to a ridiculous level that even I might be able to afford the Studio version despite living off charity. With this there’s barely any excuse left to not take the plunge, considering that you get pretty much all the tools you need, including particles and support for 3D object rendering. They even added a planar tracker, a 3D tracker and VR tools. It really makes maintaining your After Effects and all the necessary plug-ins for even some simple tasks look expensive, assuming you a) have the right kind of work and b) can get behind the sometimes awkward logic of node-based compositing. I also have to disagree on their claim of Fu being good for motion graphics – it isn’t, at least not in its current state. A bunch of particle swirls don’t save your bacon from mediocre text tools, if you get my drift. Still, if you feel so inclined and are as frustrated with Adobe not pulling their fingers from their asses and fixing After Effects for good, it’s worth downloading and giving it a spin.

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