Animal Logic is recognized as one of the world’s leading independent creative digital studios, producing award-winning design, visual effects, and animation for 30 years. As a ‘birthday present’ to the industry, Animal Logic has released a fully realized Universal Scene Description (USD) Scene that aims to encourage further collaboration and exploration by the wider community. The scene and set data are called USD ALab. USD, originally developed by Pixar, supports the interchange of 3D graphics data through various Digital Content Creation (DCC) tools, providing an effective and scalable solution for the complex workflows of CG film and game industry studios.
In 2018 Disney released a massive data set consisting of the whole Moana island, from the film of the same name (see our story here). This was a brilliant and generous move to allow direct download of the models and data that were used in that movie, and it includes all trees, ocean, corals, flora, and other clutter in the scene. While the Moana set is still extremely valuable, it is not (yet) available as a USD scene. The Animal Logic ALab set is fully USD, and it contains all the relevant 4K textures. Additionally, this is not the final release, as we found out when we spoke to Animal Logic’s Group Chief Technology Officer, Darin Grant, regarding the open-source release of USD ALab. “I think of it as a gift back to the industry that has given our company so much after 30 years,” he comments. “We are really happy to do this.”
An abandoned workshop. The inventor, with her penchant for nostalgia, has long since left. What remains is a labyrinth of jerry-built experiments, tangled purposely with nostalgic science toys from childhood – chemistry kit, plasma ball, ferrous fluid, sea monkeys, drinking bird, an ant farm. Nothing remains. It is now your kingdom and playground, your very own creative lab. The ALab scene was Inspired by the early Animal Logic PR giveaway ‘chemistry set’, and leans into a unique aesthetic that will feel familiar to anyone that has spent time in the Animal Logic’s studios, especially the Sydney office.
In the assets, users will find lots of different Easter eggs, including, the Animal Logic chemistry set that was an actual promotion piece that “the company gave out years ago to help sell its VFX services back in the day,” points out Grant. This is the first open-source USD production assets, available for free download. He adds, “we believe USD to be a foundational technology for our industry and broader communities, and we encourage the release of open-source assets to educate and inspire others to conduct their own exploration.” As an early adopter of Pixar’s USD, Animal Logic began transitioning their Sydney and Vancouver studios to an end-to-end USD-based pipeline during production on Peter Rabbit in 2017 and completing with Peter Rabbit 2 in March of 2020.
As was evidenced with their 2017 open source project AL_USDMaya, Animal Logic continues to be motivated to promote broader USD adoption through the release of USD ALab to serve as a reference for many USD Concepts. (See our fxguide story here). While AL_USDMaya is now a read-only Github, it built upon Pixar’s USD technology and extended it. Animal Logic uses AL_USDMaya to allow native Maya entities such as complex Maya Rigs loaded as references, and other assets not easily represented in USD, to be embedded in USD scenes and imported into Maya in their native form. The plugin maintains a “live” connection between the USD and Maya scene and can respond to various events, keeping the Maya and USD scenes in sync. This original Animal Logic USD project drew the attention of Autodesk, the makers of Maya as well as Pixar. “I think that was three years ago and we said, ‘Hey, let’s all merge this, and then it is just ‘USD for Maya’, and Autodesk should be the supporter of this long term.” That was announced at SIGGRAPH three years ago, “and two years ago, the various teams finally started to merge the repos. And then last year we finally said, okay, let’s stop publicly updating ours, and get everybody onto this new USD, Maya plugin.,” Grant recalls. As of today, most of the functionality of AL_USDMaya is in the latest Autodesk version but not quite all. “They’ve actually improved many areas and added some features that we didn’t have, which is fantastic, and it’s almost feature complete with our original ALUSD Maya version.”
What was significant about this work was our need to expand our custom USD to incorporate our rigging. Rigging is the most un-standardized part of commercial pipelines. Grant feels this is for one simple reason: “a rig is executable code. It’s one of those areas which has been extremely proprietary. That is why there no actual open-source pipeline that everybody’s adopting”. The net result is that when major animation or effects facilities share production assets they simply never share rigs. What Animal Logic did with AL_USDMaya and beyond is to internally extend USD. “I’m not familiar with how everybody else used it, but internally we would embed some Python references in our USD files,” he points out, which is, “like, ‘Wow, you’re mixing chocolate and peanut butter there!’” Inside USD there is USDSKel, which is a standard part of USD, but it’s not actually rigging. It is just the skeleton. “I think a number of us that have talked about what’s the RigX, – along the lines of MaterialX,” he states. “How do we get to that or OpenRig? I think there’s a lot of opportunities there, there’s a lot of interest in solving this.”
“We’re actually planning on adding to this asset set,” Grant outlines. The original idea behind the ALab scene was to include the character La Brat, which is a lab rat character. “We had a whole bunch of plans for him that included fur, varying materials and all these different things”. Basically, Le brat is a test character/animal/creature USD asset that Animal Logic still hopes to release.
Multiple Downloads on offer
While open-source data sets currently exist, USD ALab is the first open-source real-world implementation of a complete USD production scene. It is a full scene description from global assets through to shot outputs, including referencing, point instancing, assemblies, technical variants, global assets, and shot-based overrides.
“There are two downloads available, including guiding documents and two sets of textures,” explains Supervising Assets TD, Jens Jebens. “The first download contains the ALab scene assets themselves, derived from our production assets and conformed for compatibility to allow them to load in any tool which supports USD. The second download is an optional extra, a “production rendering Texture Pack,” which delivers 4K OpenEXR textures with UDIMs for production style rendering.”
Render Procedural Definitions
“In addition to the USD assets, we’ve included documentation that showcases some new ideas and concepts that we’ve added from our experience in using USD in production for years, including the idea of render procedural definitions, an extremely useful concept that we have not seen in USD to date.” explains Grant. “We hope that this combination provides the starting point for future contributors to showcase their own ideas for discussion, promotion, and hopeful adoption.” Grant points out that proceduralism at render time is important for major productions such as those at Animal Logic. “And that is not representative in USD right now. USD is a static file set.” For example, in Animal Logic’s Glimpse pipeline, if an artist wanted to have a detailed cable knit sweater on a character, then using their Weave program, it would add multiple strands for every single actual strand in the cloth, at render time.
The ALab concept was born from Animal Logic’s Art Department,” notes Head of Production Technology, Aidan Sarsfield. “The brief was for something “Uniquely Animal” and the team came up with a great story that revolves around a secret backyard shed, inhabited by a mad scientist of sorts.”
Academy Software Foundation’s asset license
USD ALab is also the first asset set to adopt the Academy Software Foundation’s asset license. Animal Logic wanted to allow for the broadest use of these assets to promote education, training, and demonstration by students, studios, and vendors. The Foundation’s asset license is important. “We wanted to make it clear that we wanted people to use ALab very broadly,” comments Grant. “The only thing that we’re trying to protect against are things like the Animal Logic Logo ending up in a production.” If the license stated that the assets could only be used non-commercially, then it might prevent “a hardware or software vendor from using them for a demonstration, or for testing purposes, and we didn’t want to do that.”
As the ALab scene is all open-source USD it is easily used in multiple DDC tools. Below is the scene in both Houdini and Maya:
The USD ALab data set is hosted on Animal Logic’s website courtesy of Amazon Web Services and is now available to access via “USD ALab”. The whole scene is derived from an internally produced project, rather than created from scratch as a “USD reference implementation”. It consequently exhibits the complexities (and some of the messiness) of real production assets. If the team at Animal Logic had set out to build a perfect USD structure for the sole purpose of showcasing USD, it would lead to a different result. This is a production asset not a sanitized USD proof of concept.
Animal Logic Studios
Animal Logic has creative studios in Sydney and Vancouver and offices for the company’s development arm, Animal Logic Entertainment, in Sydney and Los Angeles. Animal Logic continues to forge new partnerships and collaborations with leading studios and filmmakers to develop and produce stories that resonate with a global audience. In particular, the company has creatively joined with Imagine Entertainment and announced four original animated and live-action hybrid projects.
The Sydney studio is currently working with Ron Howard on his animated directorial debut with The Shrinking of the Treehorns and with Director Wendy Rogers on The Magician’s Elephant for Netflix. The Vancouver studio is wrapping up production on DC League of Super-Pets with Warner Bros and beginning production on Toto, directed by two-time Tony nominee, Alex Timbers.