Today is one of the bigger days in recent memory at Autodesk Media and Entertainment — the company formerly known as Discreet. After years of development, Autodesk Toxik was formally announced today, with version 1.0 shipping in mid-April. While building upon past discreet creative tools, Toxik takes leap forward with the first integrated compositing collaboration environment. It is sure to make a big impression on large film and effects facilities where

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The Toxik desktop creative area

Toxik — then known as Strata and Mezzo — was first shown at the Discreet Users group meeting at NAB in April of 2002 as well as to Discreet clients in whisper suites and after hours during the week. But since customers had to sign non-disclousure agreements, no one was allowed to talk publicly about the software. However, there were underlying issues with the software — both from a technical standpoint and a lack of creative tools — and Discreet had the good sense to take a step back and retool the product. Along with a dozen artists from around the world, the fxguide partners were all involved in the early development path of the Toxik product. For this reason, you can get a behind-the-scenes look at the stop and go development of Toxik in our exclusive story about the process and see how Discreet had the good sense to step back and end up with an improved product.

So what is this software formerly known as stigma, strata, mezzo, Toxik, then mass, then Toxik again? Autodesk Toxik is aimed squarely at the shoulders of Apple’s Shake software, targeting large film facility workflow. But what makes Toxik different is that it specializes at bringing a collaborative pipeline process to facilities, with optimizations for dealing with images of high resolution with very high quality rendering. There is an incredibly powerful database structure underneath the software which allows facilities to track footage, interact with the software at all levels with Python Scripting, and provide overall project management. The software currently runs on Windows, with plans to release a Linux version as quickly as possible. It will run on any Intel CPU hardware system — single or dual proc — but as you increase the processor speed, the app will obviously perform better. The system also must contain a certified NVidia Quadro FX card and large, fast storage is also recommended. Media is generally stored on a NAS, with local caching available to speed up interactivity and playback. There is no need to purchase a proprietary storage system such as a Stone disk array.

The software has also gone through tremendous optimizations for playing back and working with high quality, high resolution imagery. It was really an important cause for the software developers in Montreal to get as much performance out of the software as possible when dealing with such images. It also has a tightly integrated player within the software, which is considerably different from the image sequence viewers in current node-based compositing software programs such as Shake. From an effects artist standpoint, the software can intelligently update the resolution you’re looking at based upon the zoom level of the player. This allows for some extremely interactive compositing.

Toxik, which will release as version 1.0 at NAB, is made up of three components:

  • Toxik Creative Software, which is the software upon which the effects artist works
  • Toxik Collaboration is the annual subscription fee for database access, versioning, and support. It also includes all minor and major upgraes which occur during the time of the contract.
  • Toxik Utilities, which are individual applications such as background rendering, a possible future standalone player station, and scripting facilities

For the first time at Autodesk, the software will be distributed only in electronic form via a web portal. This web portal will also be a place where the company intends to build an online community with online examples and scripts which can be shared between users.

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The Toxik schematic, shown here in overlay mode where the background is partly transparent so that you can still see your composite

A single standalone creative seat costs US$6500. However, facilities need to purchase a minimum of five seats of Toxik since the creative seats are sold in packs of five. In the five-pack, the price ends up being $5525 per seat, which reflects a 15% discount for the multiple license purchase. With discounts, pricing can scale to less than $4550 per set for large sites. There is also a US$2,500 annual fee per seat for collaboration and maintenance. You basically have to pay both the creative and the collaboration fees, otherwise you totally lose the collaborative workflow and database upon which Toxik is built.

The heart of the Toxik Collaboration architecture is an Oracle database and permit server which keeps track of everything related to the software — users, clips, compositions, and published results. Keeping track is all done in the background without the user having to manage setups or such. Most if not all work in feature films is being done on a collaborative basis and a huge amount of time is spent managing shot data and tracking results and comps.

What is really interesting about this workflow is that an artist can have a composition in which the results are available to other users either on the local workstation or on the network. The remote user would insert this composition into their current composition on their desktop. Then, if the original user modifies the composition which is on their workstation, the changes will automatically propagate across any workstation which is using the result of the original composition. Imagine in a large facility that you wouldn’t have to manually re-import the revised results — it would simply happen automatically. This could also be extended to clips and not simply composition results.

For instance, you could leave at night having worked the entire last day on your 4K comp which included integrating elements from your 3D deparmtment which are rendered overnight. Every evening, new renders are done and need to be included in your work. When you came back to work the next morning, start up Toxik and open up your comp, you are notified visually that there is a new render from the 3D department and what you were currently viewing is out of date. All you’d have to do is hit update and the new render would be a part of your composite….in certain situations these new versions can automatically be updated in your comp. This type of workflow can be accomplished manually in many facilities, but what is exciting about Toxik is that it is built within the software from the ground up — and is fact the underlying architecture which drives the software. It’s something I and many other artists have wanted from day one on the Discreet systems products. This can be seen by movielink(toxikintro/toxik_collab.mov, clicking on this link and viewing a QuickTime slide show ) of how this process might work in the Toxik software.

Toxik also gives large facilities with software engineers the ability to customize how to get material in and out of the system. Every aspect of how the software interacts with a facility thougth import, export/publish, and archiving can be done via python scripting. Out of the box, there is a basic workflow which is included — and can acutally be seen in the UI — but it can easily be ehanced to include custom functionality such as updating an external production database when you publish a composition to other users.

Discreet’s recent name change wasn’t simply a packaging and marketing change, but also shows some changes happening below the surface. For instance, in Montreal there is an increasing use of using what Autodesk has learned when dealing with large software installations. For instance, there were over 10,000 AutoCAD designers working together and sharing files on the design of the Fredom Tower project at the former site of the World Trade Center. The company is introducing Autodesk Consulting for the Media & Entertainment industry at NAB, which can help facilities with deployment of Toxik and other products such as Lustre. This might include getting several different pieces of Autodesk gear but also integrating other third party products into the mix. An example of this is that Oracle Standard Edition One is included with Toxik, but through the Autodesk Professional Services this can be upgraded to the Professional Edition if you want a redundant database with the more advanced system.

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Photo Lab - the Toxik HDR color corrector

From a image processing pipeline standpoint, Toxik leaps ahead of the current Autodesk offerings with a 32-bit unclamped processing pipeline. There is support for HDR imagery with the PhotoLab interactive color corrector as well as 16-bit half float and OpenEXR. Why is this important? Check out our HDR QuickTime tutorial for an introduction to HDR.

While processing can be done in 2D there is also a 3D compositing node called Reaction. The 3D compositing environment has much in common with 3D applications like Max and Maya. In fact, Autodesk has actually incorported some of the technology and code from 3DS Max into Toxik’s Reaction. In the long run, this could allow for greater integration of 3D in the compositing environement.

Reaction’s software renderer is called Suave, which is a 32-bit HDRI-capable renderer. The renderer includes realistic shadow mapping, motion blur, and high quality antialiasing and texture filtering. In our tests with the Reaction 3D renderer, the results exhibit none of the filtering, softness and image degradation issues which can be seen in the current system products which use hardware for rendering. According to Bill Roberts, Autodesk’s Media and Entertainment Director of Product Management , they have placed a particular emphasis on ensuring that he result of renders done in the 3D Reaction environment stand up in quality. “With higher resolution workflow such as 4K becoming a reality, we’re seeing an increased need to have the highest possible 3D render quality which will stand up at the highest resolutions,” says Roberts.

Toxik 1.0 Toolset

The strongest part of Toxik at this point is its foundation as a collaborative environment and internal architecture. There has been an incredible amount of work which has gone into the product from an architecture standpoint. Users of current Discreet systems will probably be a bit disappointed in the initial creative toolset, because it is lacking compared to the more mature products already in the market. There is simply not the wide range of tools artits rely on which available in the current effects and editing releases. It’s honestly quite natural considering that this eporner is a 1.0 release. However, the foundation is certainly there to build upon and Autodesk plans to bring out creative tools as quickly as possible after the initial release. Its not as if Autodesk has to write all the tools from scratch, since they obviously have several different keyers, warpers, and other modules — if there’s one thing the company knows, its tools. The lack of a Paint tool (and regrain/degrain) is obviously a large gap which needs to be filled, but Autodesk is planning on introducing this feature as quickly as possible.

The current tools in Autodesk Toxik 1.0 are:

  • 2D Compositor
  • Channel Operations – Extract, Replace, Rewire, Set Alpha
  • Color Correction – 1D LUT, 3D LUT, CC Basics (Discreet Color Corrector), CC Histogram, Dlog, Gray, Invert, Log, Mono, Pass Through, Photo Lab (HDI Color Corrector), Solarize, SRGB,
  • Composition – Blend, Blend Matte, Comp Ops, math Ops
  • Distortion – Flip, Panner
  • Filtering – Blur, Sharpen
  • Formatting – Convert Depth, Crop, Premultiply, Resize, Unpremultiply
  • Garbage Mask
  • Image Generation – Bilinear Ramp, Color Source, Linear Ramp, Noise, Radial Ramp
  • Keying – Color Curves, Diamond Keyer, Difference, Edge, Luma keyer, Matte Histogram
  • Pixel Selection – Channel Select, Compound Select, Drop Selection, Feature Sel, Invert Sel, Set Selection
  • Reaction (3D Compositing Environment)
  • Time – Rate Convert, Time Offset
  • Tracker

From a workflow standpoint, working in the Toxik environment is obviously not quite as refined as working in the batch flowgraph of flame. Makes sense, since once the software gets out and is being used by a large number of artists feedback can help drive the way the software is developed. The engineers can never really fully refine the software and features until it is used in real world situations on real jobs….this is really evident in the beta testing processes I’ve been involved with for several manufacturers. Discreet (and now Autodesk) has always been incredibly great about listening to their users and implementing things from an artist’s perspective.

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The Gate UI - A new, context sensitive way of navigating through the interface

There are really some interesting new UI paradigms in the software and Autodesk spent a great deal of time developing the interface. A big one is the Gate UI, which is a context-sensitive gateway to various menus. The familiar tilde key is the hotkey to bring up the gated UI and depending upon which player area you are in, the gate changes. Depending upon the direction in which you drag over the gate, you will be taken to the listed menu or the listed command will be executed. We’ve created movielink(toxikintro/gateui.mov,another QuickTime slide show) which demonstrates how the gated UI changes based upon the cursor’s position on the screen. The UI is fully anti-aliased and supports transparency in menus and other items. When you drag a node from the tool menu into the schematic, the connecting lines between nodes highlight as you move over them, indicating where the node will be dropped.

In Toxik for instance, based upon its granularity of nodes, keying operations can take several nodes to accomplish since they are broken down in individual operations such as edge, blur, color curves, etc. For Shake compositors this is a familiar environment but for Discreet users this can initially be a shock. Autodesk is trying to provide the best of both worlds by introducing the concept of Super Tools, which combine several granualar nodes into a single node. This could be considered similar to Keyer node in flame’s batch — which contains multiple operations such as edge, color correct, supress, color curves, etc — all in a single node. As the software progresses in development, new Super Tools will be added.

The node-based approach while providing incredible flexibility can also increase complexity. For instance, tracking an axis to an image isn’t as simple as hitting the “S” button in Reaction’s axis menu. You need to add a Tracker node in the flowgraph, do your track, and then pipe this result into the Axis by selecting it from a popup list of trackers in your graph. While this is initially a bit more complex, it also provides the expanded capability of easily reusing the track in multiple locations throughout your composition. The garbage mask tool — similar in many ways to the standard Discreet masks — also only allows you to have one mask per node so if you want to do multiple masks you need to add multiple garbage mask nodes. Also, the way splines are drawn, edited, and handled is quite different from what is done in the current Discreet-branded systems. This is already undergoing further refinement even before the software is officially released.

While Discreet artists have been admittedly spoiled with the variety of keying tools available in the software, the depth of keying functionality is quite limited in the initial release of Toxik. The Diamond Keyer is the only provided keyer in version 1.0 — this is the same keyer which can be found in the selective color correction area of the Color Warper. While Shake may have only one built-in Chroma-Key like Toxik, Shake still ships with third party Primatte and Keylight keyers so that users have more options right out of the gate. According to Bill Roberts, users might initially see a lack of options as compared to the current products but the plan is “to share as many tools that are in the current Autodesk family as quickly as possible and also to work with our plug-in partners to provide as many third party tools as can be brought to bear in the Toxik architecture.”

One huge strength of the Toxik architecture is that it allows for the release of tools quite quickly in comparison to the current Autodesk system offerings. It is possible to only release individual tools or packs of tools and not have to completely rebuild and reissue the main software package. This can greatly speed up getting tools in users hands so that they aren’t waiting for yearly or half-yearly releases.

In the coming weeks before NAB, we’ll be taking a closer look at the software from the ground up. Stay tuned.


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