3-D Software Market Sets New Standard in Realism

Canadian firm's software helped create lifelike dinosaurs in `Jurassic Park'

IN the highly competitive global software industry, it is generally a good idea to hang on tight when you have a hungry dinosaur by the tail.

That describes the voracious market for 3-D animation software latched onto by Softimage Inc., a fast-growing Montreal company. Its advanced 3-D graphics software was used in the creation of the lifelike dinosaurs in the recent hit movie, ``Jurassic Park.''

Traditional 2-D cartoon animation has long been a part of the movie industry. But adding the dimension of depth to make 3-D animation was too expensive and difficult until computer hardware and software advances were recently combined. The result: dinosaurs romping on screen.

``The movie industry was not an area for 3-D animation much before this,'' says Pierre Rinfret, Softimage vice president of marketing. ``There were only eight minutes of 3-D animation in Jurassic Park and that was a major advance.''

Yet those eight minutes, which mostly depict people being chased by toothy reptilians, set a new standard in realism for movie studios and have helped animate the 3-D market.

Powered by the movie industry's increasing appetite, the 3-D software market generates about $50 million annually and is growing fast, Softimage officials say. With about 35 percent of today's market, Softimage is aiming for a 40 percent share of what its officials predict will be a $100 million 3-D market in 1995.

``They've had a pretty profound impact on the 3-D market,'' says Steve Porter, editor of Computer Graphics World magazine in Westford, Mass. ``Softimage has come in with good technology and low pricing that's had their competition scrambling for the last couple of years.''

The post-production studio, Industrial Light & Magic, used a variety of software in making Jurassic Park's dinosaurs. But the Softimage program was crucial in helping the beasts move in a lifelike way by permitting each part of the 3-D dinosaur skeleton to be dynamically interconnected to every other part.

If a dinosaur's foot is moved forward on the computer screen, for example, all other parts of the dinosaur flex forward automatically and seemingly reflexively. Previously, a computer graphics operator would have had to move hundreds or thousands of pieces of a dinosaur drawing inch by inch from toe to tail. The new technology saves both time and money.

The software industry is littered with companies who were disappointed when their hot products were surpassed. But competitors like Thomson Digital Images Inc. of France, United States-based Wavefront Technologies Inc., and Alias Research Inc. of Toronto are close on Softimage's trail.

``Up to now, Softimage's distinguishing characteristic has been their animation capability,'' Mr. Porter says. ``But other vendors are offering similar capabilities now.''

ITH such hungry competition, Softimage will not sit on its laurels, Mr. Rinfret says. The key to the company's near-term success, he says, is its heavy investment in research and development to continually produce the upgrades expected by companies that have paid $6,000 to $60,000 for their software.

But to stay on the cutting edge and supply the profit and sales growth Wall Street demands, Softimage will have to exploit the much larger markets for 2-D animation used in advertising, home entertainment, video games, and Saturday morning cartoons.

Softimage has only a small presence in 2-D, but hopes to gain an entree with software scheduled for release in March. The new product will integrate Softimage's high-end 3-D software with new 2-D software on the same hardware.

Post-production studios currently pay top dollar to upgrade proprietary hardware and specialized software for animation. Softimage hopes to lure these studios by cutting their production costs.

Softimage was founded in 1986 by Daniel Langlois, a would-be cinematographer who wanted to make animated images more lifelike. The company went public last year. Sales in the first nine months of 1993 were $19.6 million compared with $14.6 million for all of last year.

Mr. Langlois has given up filmmaking to devote himself full time to the more lucrative software business.

``I'm at the point where I could go back and do film again, but I'm not going to do that,'' Langlois told Report on Business Magazine. ``The impact we can have with our software is far greater, far more important than what I could ever achieve by doing film.''

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