The Tips in detail

"I want to be in this business. What 3D package to choose?"

by Joey Ponthieux

Last Modified 01/06/2001 19:00:00

I've been doing animation for a long time. I have worked on systems like Picturemaker, Aurora,

Softimage, Wavefront, Maya, and Max. I remember companies and systems like Vertigo, Prime,

Apollo, Intelligent Light, Gig, Digital Arts, Bosch, Topas, and many others. When I started at this

back in '87 the cheapest PRACTICAL animation system cost anywhere from $60K to $70K at a

minumum. At that price you couldnt afford anything but a system with about 4megs of ram, and a

21Mhz 386 processor. We could go on for days discussing elitism, or at least perceived elitism, in

this industry. But the truth of the matter is that animators, the people who create animation, are not

"elitists", they are "territorialists". They tend to find themselves in a territory of this business, build a

heavy foundation in that territory, then make allegiance to the territory they now are familiar with.

I thought this question is a fair one. It's a question I've been asking now for almost 12 years. It's also a

question for which I've had many answers for over the years, not because my answer to it may have

been wrong or based on bad information, but because in this industry, paradigm shifts of extreme

magnitude occur often in the state of the software available for animators to use. Where one year

Picturemaker was king of 3D, next year Wavefront was, in another day and time Softimage was, then

Maya was all the rage. In between these major power players were many different contenders which

threatened the status of these softwares, many names of which for now are prctically lost in history.

Though many still survive and many, including Max and Lightwave, more than just survive. For as

long as I remain in 3D business, I will be continuosly asking the same question Brad asked. Who will

be king of the hill next year, Houdini, Maya, Sumatra, Hash, Max, "fill-the-blank"? This is not going

to go away, it is a question which will remain and its a valid and fair one. The fact that it is even

being asked indicates we have choices. As for David, I think his point of is valid, and I defend his

position. Here's why:

Consider the following. 6 to 8 years ago a company might decide to go into the 3D business. Your

best choices, barring expense, to do professional animation were Wavefront, Softimage, and Alias,

3D studio, or Lightwave. 3D studio is a fledgling DOS based software. Lightwave is on Amiga. Mac

had some solutions but not many. Odds were that if you were very serious, and decided to put the

heavy cash down(Im approaching this from Brads question), you went with SGI because there were

more options and upgrade paths avaliable to you on that platform. Choosing SGI historically proved a

sound investment at the time because it prevented obscelence. If Alias, Soft, or Wavefront failed,

there would be another software there which you could ease into without having to change your

hardware platform. Historically, people avoided using DOS based platforms because of failures like

Cubicomp, Digital Arts, and many others who promised all sorts of things but could never deliver due

to the limited resources the operating system provided or lack of vision on the part of the developer.

The relevence of this is that in the DOS world programmers designing animation systems had to

create everything, the core, the windowing, everything. In the SGI world programs like Wavefront

borrowed API from the GL library, as did Soft, as did Vertigo, as did Alias, etc. So for any company

to develop on DOS was an extremely cautious and risky task. One that required enormous resources

and time and one that often failed.

There were many DOS based 3D products offered over the years. Though DOS 3D software was

inferior to Unix based software, and everyone knew it, their cost effective low price was an effort to

get people to overlook that, and so people did buy it. By 1995, only a small handfull of players in the

DOS world had managed to survive. Among them was 3D Studio. Left in the wake of this era in

animation was an extreme distrust by many major players, studios, tv stations, ad agencies, and

production houses in the animation industry for DOS based 3D products. For many had invested in

the likes of Cubicomp, Digital Arts, and such and had been heavily burned when many of these

corporations dropped off the face of the earth leaving them high and dry, with no support, obsolete

software and hardware, and often with graphics cards in these bloated PCs that cost in excess of

$10000 and would only work with the 3D software the vendor sold them. The developer goes

bankrupt, no more 3D software upgrades... $10,000 piece of junk in a $6,000 pc, oh heck 486's are

availble now, time to throw away the 386.......

This distrust had as much to do with the topsy turvy Microsft-Intel pc world as it did with the 3D

software providers. As much to do with a computer industry, which was in serious flux every other

couple of months. Plug and play did not exist, and PC's did not come with standard graphics cards

that would or could run these graphics apps. You had to spend gobs of money to get them to do

anything decent, often times modifying them well beyond what the original PC manufacturer ever

intended. There was no NT, no audio, no mice, no Win95, no zip disks, and no TNT cards at the local

Compusa or Egghead, nothing. In the case of Cubicomp, the graphics card literally sat OUTSIDE the

PC in a huge chassis called a "Frame buffer".

Now consider what SGI offered you. You spent more, but you had an upgrade path. You were stuck

in proprietary hardware, but SGI systems performed. You bought the box, plugged it in, and it

worked. You payed a costly maintenance fee, and when your Personal IRIS couldnt be upgraded

anymore, you got sweet upgrade deals from SGI to put you into an Indigo Elan with a R3000 in it.

The difference was that with SGI you were replacing the box every 5 years instead of every year. You

payed alot of money, but your software still worked, and your animator never breaks a stride.

Compared to the PC world, you actually KEPT your animator, where all those guys on PC animation

systems were ALWAYS wanting to get on Wavefront, or Soft(Myself included), OR were tired of

being told by their boss "no upgrades this year... Digital Arts / Cubicomp / Pansophic / Aztek / 'fill-inthe-

blank' went out of business... sorry". Of all the major SGI packages over the years, one of the few

to actually get wasted was Vertigo. It got bought out by Cubicomp, a DOS developer which sold

Picturemaker, in an attempt to break into the lucrative SGI market. After Cubicomp "arrived"..... they

closed doors on Picturemaker production .... and to their surprise no one would buy Vertigo

anymore.... no one wanted to get screwed again by buying something that could disappear overnight.

Cubicomp just didnt get it. It had nothing to do with SGI, or IRIX, or Vertigo. It was about stability.

It was about having a return on an investment and knowing that this time next year you werent going

to have to go through this all over again with new hardware, new software, new vendor, training, lost

productivity, etc, etc, etc.

You really didnt have a choice, these things had to be considered, the only other option you had was

obselesence. Trust me I know. Cubicomp closed doors in 1990, I worked on a Picturemaker until

1994. I kept being told, "we havent paid off the first Picturemaker we bought in 87, or the second we

bought in 90, we cant afford an SGI right now....", so inevitably I master a system which had been

dead for 4 years. All the time looking for a job with someone using Wavefront or Alias or Softimage.

All the time being told "we can't afford to send you to training, we need someone to run Alias now,

the learning curve is a year, we cant wait that long....sorry". So there I was, drowning in the

obselesence of a 16mhz 386, making the best of every minute. Doing things with the software that

were never intended. Spending unbelievable hours painting out little black render bugs by hand. The

only reason I was ever able to dig out of that situation was because I interviewed with a company

where the guy interviewing me had working knowledge of Picturemaker. Had used them, fought with

them, and understood what they WERE NOT capable of. He hired me with the condition I had to

learn Softimage. He knew there was going to be down time, but unlike many others, he had working

knowledge of what I was capable of, because he knew after six years on Picturemaker I was rabid to

learn something different and he knew what I was going to do with it. I learned Softimage in two

weeks. I slept on the SGI for weeks on end. He never regretted his investment for one second.

Which brings me to my is not elitism to exclude a Max artist, just as it is not elitism to

exlude a Softimage or Maya artist, just as it was NOT elitism to exlude me because I was a

Picturemaker artist. In most cases, the art is the most important aspect in a hire, in others not, because

the animator may not be required to be an artist, maybe just a modeler, taking instruction, or an

architect's assistant replicating a building which already exists, animating it nicely, but not really

requiring an artist's experience like that found in a Lucas film or a fine art piece you might see at

Siggraph. What is important is the productivity. All factors must be considered. The hardware, the

software, longterm maintenance costs, training, track record of companies that will provide software

and hardware, need to return a profit. Not just the creativity of the artist. I've seen it go both ways,

artists that get hired because they know a package the company has, or the company hires an artist

and physically goes out and buys the artist his package of choice.

I know that for many artist thats a hard thing to understand, and I don't blame them, after all art is the

most important thing in the world to them, that is the reason WHY they are artists. But art alone does

not a business make. In many cases, a company has a contract, they start out producing it, their

Softimage artist leaves to go to work for another company which has Maya(he sees Maya as the

software of the future and doesnt want to be left behind). So now the guy with a standing contract to

finish his work needs a SOFTIMAGE artist..... not just any artist, ...he needs a Softimage artist.... he's

not going looking for a Maya guy, or a Lightwave guy, or a Hash guy, or a Max gal. He NEEDS

someone to run Softimage now...else he will be looking at a lawsuit. If the resume that comes in says

he only knows Max, the artist doesnt have doesnt have a chance in that situation. An investments is

made, software is purchased, a contract needed to be fulfilled, an artist is needed to help return a

profit on the investment. The business has two choices, hire the artist who knows Softimage or hire a

Max artist and train him on Softimage. 9 times out of 10 the Max artist is going to lose that battle to a

Softimage artist.

This is very standard in the business, studios in hollywood may have 100 seats of Soft, 100 seats of

Maya, and 50 seats of Max or Ligtwave. If they need 5 Maya animators, they arent going to consider

you if all you know is Max and they DON'T have the time to train you. And they arent going to push

one of their longtime Max users out of his seat for you. They MIGHT bring you on as an intern paid

at minimum wage or something like that if they think your creativity is worth the risk. They might

hold onto you long enough to see if you can cut it and how fast you can learn other packages. But, the

package you have knowledge on is the second most important thing you need after your art. Client

skills come next.

Years ago when I started you HAD to have a minimum of 3 years experience in 3D....and a minimum

of 1 year on the package they were using. That was the norm, without it you didnt even have a chance

of getting 5 minutes of their time. It is the main reason why I took the attitude that multi-platform

knowledge with at least minimal knowledge of every hardware platform and some programming

knowledge was the way to survive in this industry. I decided that eventually I was going to know as

many softwares as I could, at least one I would master(inside and out), but I would know as many as I

could. No longer would I isolate myself in a territory, digging a foxhole with my seat of Softimage or

Picturemaker and hold the attitude "I'll never be taken alive by those Lightwave people...". I had

realized that by embracing as many softwares as physically possible, I would be as sellable as those

guys at Siggraph every year who had, Soft, Wavefront, Alias, and Lightwave experience on their

resumes. At least with a little of each, you were already familiar with the package. I might not be able

to master it, but the company would not have to retrain me from the ground up. Now, three years after

assuming that point of view, and have the ability to implement it, I am practically on platform

burnout. I find it hard to keep it all in. Hard to remember the keys from one package to the next. But I

have learned that while in Soft, I miss Maya's ability do high quality modelling. While in Maya, I

miss Max's ability to conviently replace the content of the text which I have just bevelled in mere

seconds. And while in Max, I really miss Softimage's interface. And while in.....well you get the


You must realize that 12 years ago, nobody had the time for you to go to 4 weeks of training, and

another 10 months to get up to normal working speed. There were no Windows back then, and many

functions in the software were all command line, the manuals were written by programmers and it

took three people, one with a technical writing degree and another with a physics degree to decipher

the manuals. So many companies tried to get their secratary or their stock boy or their weekend

cameraman to be animators for them. They didnt want artists because artists were unstructured and

often only wanted to do art instead of doing what the client wanted. I knew artists who got fired

because they were so cocky they would tell the client what they wanted wasnt art and he (the artist)

wasnt going to do it. Some management people actually thought they could get their secretaries to

learn this stuff in a couple of days. And while the software has gotten better, the learning curve

shorter, the hardware faster, and artists are more technologically inclined than ever, one thing has not

changed, they still need it done yesterday.

Don't get me wrong, just because you have Max experience does not eliminate you from being

employed, it just RESTRICTS most of you to being employed by people who own Max. And while

some employers will take a chance on some Max users to learn Maya, or Sumatra, or whatever, don't

expect them to give you as much consideration as a Softimage user if the only software they own is

Softimage. Only in rare cases will you win that battle. I'm not saying to not wage the battle, and I'm

not saying give up.....I am saying to you that you should expect that road to be a harder one to travel,

because even if you do get hired as a Softimage animator as opposed to may not like it.

After several years of spending time of several mailing lists, I've noticed a trend. On the softimage

list, some former Max users complain about all the crap they have to put up with in Softimage "why

doesnt Soft have all of Max functionality for cripes sake!..." is a complaint I've heard often. Many

territorial Softimage users take offense to this, besides why should they have to listen to somebody

put down the software they love. On the Maya list are Lightwave users who complain about Maya,

and how come Maya isnt as friendly. Needless to say, many Maya user's don't take too kindly this

either. I must admit, I guess I could understand why any employer who uses Soft or Maya, and would

pay attention to the Soft or Maya list's, would never want to hire a Max person if they think all the

Max user's are going to do is complain about the software they have spent thousands of dollars on.

My intention here is not to berate any Max users. It is sincere constructive criticism about a

phenomena which is rampant in the computer industry. I have gone through the trouble to share this

experience with you to try and illustrate a basis for my opinion. If you want to dig that foxhole and

take a "Max is the only software the world should use" point of view, I guess I cant blame you. I've

been there, done that. I remember a time when my devotion for Picturemaker was identical to your

devotion for Max. There is nothing wrong with that. But, respectfully, if you dig that foxhole, if you

take that stance, please don't expect others in this industry to second guess that point of view. They

may just take you at face value and think to themselves "if they like Max that much, let em keep it, I

don't have time for that...I need someone to animate and I only have Maya". The irony to this point is

this: If Max's value is so much greater than say Softimage or Maya, why would any Maxer be

insulted by being systematically rejected for a position without looking at his demo in a company

where there are no Max seats or would be working for people who may not like Max anyway? Are

you saying you would be willing to work on software less capable than the version of Max you

currently use. Surely, if Max had an industry value that higher than that of Softiamge or Maya, no one

Max user would be insulted since Max would be the Elite Software, the one everybody and his

brother wants to learn. Why step down to inferior software anyway, I'm gonna stay witha real

animation system, Im gonna stay on Max. Is that what max user's are saying?

A fact of life is this, we strive to get employed by people with the BIG toys, so we can IMPLEMENT

our creativity on the software thats being used by other proffessionals. Its a high for us, we want to be

part of that crowd, we want to see just how good we can be on that software, just how much better

and faster will we be able to draw our art out. We don't want to find out ten years later that the glove

that really fits better on you is the one you have been unable to use. The tool isn't going to make

anyone a better artist, but it may allow you to draw the art out faster, more efficiently, easier.

But the truth of the matter is that most of us bought Max because it was cheap, and because it runs on

a PC. Something we can easily set up in our homes and small businesses. Larger companies, studios,

and production houses had many more considerations than just software expense and also had alot of

experienceS driving their decisions to invest in software and hardware that to some here may be

considered elitist. It doesnt make those products elitist, it may however make it prefferred. Some of

the companies selling those products may have had an elitist attitude, may have had a point of view

that they had "arrived", that the software they make is better than the rest. I'll grant that. But

respectfully, a manager making the decision to not look at a Max's user's reel has nothing to do with

elitism. It may be that the user is out of the manager's territory, but it has nothing to do with elitism.

There may indeed be more seats of Max in the world, but what does that mean, how many of those

seats are owned by individuals who employ no one. How many of those seats even get used any

more. I've got one, I rarely use it anymore. I don't have the time. I bought to do sideline work and

play with, it was cheap. There are not many seats of Softimage or Maya that sit out there unused

when the maintenance for the software cost more than a base seat of Max. Realize that your software,

is good software, its giving you an opportunity that you wouldnt have had otherwise. For many of

you, it will provide a means eventually to break into other things, other software. But of all the jobs I

had, some were got because of contacts, others were got because of my talent. The one thing that

contributed to each job I got was that I had used Picturemaker for 6 years. Every person who hired

me had been around it, knew of it, knew it, or used it. What was unusual about this was not what

Picturemaker was capable of, but what Picturemaker was UNCAPABLE of. To almost every

employer who looked at my real it was just work. But only to those who knew how hard it was to

draw anything out of the machine was it of any value. It was hard creating art from the hood of a 29

Ford. I had actually gotten to the point where I didnt like art anymore, because the tool was just so

painful. I had gotten to where I loved making work with picturemaker but I really wasnt making art.

But to those who knew, my work was an unbelievable 6 years of struggle of one hour gouraud

renders with only 3 lights, 1 texture map, and no raytracing. You see, they knew I didnt have time to

be an artist, It wasnt what they could see that counted, it was what they could not see that got me

hired. They couldnt see any render bugs that was supposed to be there, they did not see any jerkiness

in the motion which was hard to not have with the limited curve ability of Picturemaker. They did not

just see a few animations, they saw 8 minutes of it. 8 minutes of what looked mediocre to the rest of

the world, was unbelievable to these folks, where did I have the time I was asked, how did I get the

raytrace appearance, how did I achieve such work with such an awful animation system? How did

you model that? However, if I had to use that reel today, Id never get a job. Because nobody would

understand those things anymore.

The point you may ask?.......? I REALLY liked Picturemaker. I thought it was the greatest thing since

Laird character generators and Ampex DVEs. It was my world, it was all I knew, I knew all the

tricks. But I wasn't about to stay on it forever. I wanted a job with someone who would take a chance

on me, someone who would have the grace to let me learn on a "REAL" animation system(one that

doesnt have render bugs in it) and pay me at the same time to do it. I wanted to work on a tool that

would make it easier for me to be the artist I was, instead of just a computer user. But it took years

before anyone would give me that opportunity. Those who refused were practical people. Maybe they

don't realize what they missed out on, Im certian it was their loss. But they were not elitists, they were

people trying to make ends meet as fast and equitable as possible. It was not their fault I could not get

Picturemaker upgrades, it was not their fault my employer did not want to buy an SGI, it was not their

fault there was no MAx at the time. It was not their responsibilty to hire me or not. It was their

choice. Having a choice does not make someone an elitist. They are not obligated to look at your

work. They are not obligated to make a place for you if Max is all you know.

Just because Max was not the "Elvis" of 3D, because it was not first on the scene, because it was not

a major player in this industry until just recently, because it hasnt been the craving of every

hollywood studio, because some people do view it as having less value, does not mean you can't get

hired with a Max demo reel. It does not mean that max's value is less to the point its wrorthlessness.

But it does mean that if Max is the only thing you know, you are going to have greater success getting

employed with people who have max but less with those that don't have it, don't prefer it even if they

do own it. Since most people who don't use Max have been doing animation alot longer than the 5 or

so years Max has been around. The real value of Max is what you make of it. How many hours you

put into it. How many jobs you'll be willing to take working on max before someone else will give

you a chance to work on another platform if you so desire. It doesnt really matter what the rest of the

world thinks of Max. The real value to max is within you, not within Max.

from: Joey Ponthieux <>