by Erik Holsinger

Ever notice how some things just never seem to lose their appeal? Amazingly enough, after over forty years of theme and variation, police action shows and daytime soap operas are still going strong. Such is the case with the notorious 3D flying logo. 3D flying logos are the Old Faithful of the computer graphics world; when in doubt, make that station ID in 3D. Initially the ability to create 3D text was all that set some of the early 3D animation programs apart from their CAD counterparts. Yet 3D text could never compete with standard character generation systems; the 3D modeling costs and animation time required was often too costly for anything but an opening title.

This month we took a look at a product that may change that perspective; Avid Marquee from Avid Technology. Marquee is a Windows NT and Silicon Graphics 3D animation software package that combines word processing capabilities, font manipulation and 3D text animation into one slick package. Marquee can create 3D models out of any PostScript or Truetype font, which means you can use thousands of different font styles in your production (Holy Video ransom note, Batman!). The clincher though is Marquees ability to harness all the power of a fast OpenGL graphics card for near real-time previews – complete with 24-bit textures, drop shadows and multiple light sources. Even on a Windows NT system Marquee’s blistering fast performance was able to impress my cynical hide; after just a short time on the system I was truly impressed with how quickly you can create incredibly complex graphics.

 

Font’s a Flyin'

To run Marquee through it’s paces, I used my trusty Intergraph TDZ-425 workstation with 256 Mbytes of RAM, dual 300 Mhz Pentium II processors, and an upgraded Intergraph Realizm II VX113 graphics card with Geometry accelerator. I had to upgrade my graphics card because at press time Avid had only approved three OpenGL cards on the Windows NT side (the Realizm II, Intergraph's Intense 3D 2200S and Diamond Fire’s GL 4000); according to the company other cards should be approved in future versions.

An interesting quirk on the Windows NT side; you have to have a Network graphics card installed, or Marquee won’t work. Avid tech support pointed out that this is due to the floating license server, which when necessary allows you to use one copy of Marquee on multiple machines. However, this does mean starting the program initially is a two step process; first you have to start the license server, and then you can boot up the program. Once you boot up Marquee, you’ll be prompted to log into the server before it will start the program. For Windows NT users, this is a typical SGI login process, that while initially irritating does add some flexibility to the software’s license.

While Marquee’s ease of use is impressive, its fast OpenGL-based previews is what truly sets it apart. Even on my TDZ-425, I was able to play back compositions with two or three different elements (with their textures and shadows) in real time without dropping a frame. Naturally, the more objects and parameters that you animate in the scene, the more you will tax the capabilities of your OpenGL card. Yet even when one of my Marquee projects slowed down to 15 frames per second, the ability to see the movement with all of the textures and light sources intact was a huge advantage. If you need real-time output in addition to previews, then you’ll need to invest in the SGI version; the Windows NT systems are quite up to the task – yet. With Intergraph, IBM and others constantly announcing faster workstations, it’s just a matter of time before the Windows NT machines will be able to match SGI performance.

Friendly Interface: Marquee’s interface looks more like a non-linear editing system than a 3D modeling program. The Timeline window arranges everything in a top to bottom layer hierarchy, where the top layer is the closest to the front. The Gallery and Properties windows are where you add textures, set 3D coordinates and shadow. If the Animation icon is selected, all the parameters that you set in the properties window are saved in the timeline as keyframes.

Keeping In Control

Once you’ve booted up, you’ll see the four main windows; the large Main display window, a Timeline window, a Gallery window, and the Properties window. The main display can change shape according to the resolution you set – anything from D-1’s 720 X 486 to HDTV resolutions. Unfortunately you can’t save custom resolutions and there are no standard film or video resolutions so you’ll have to set it up for each project. The standard 640 X 480 pixels was also a puzzling omission, as many non-linear editing systems use this size to import graphics.

Marquee’s Timeline interface is closer in style to a non-linear video editing system or a digital compositing system such as Adobe’s After Effects; if you’ve ever worked on either system you’ll find the program is amazingly user-friendly. Creating 3D text is a snap; just click on the Text tool, drag the mouse to the size of the "container" and then start typing. The Timeline window automatically displays your text as a layer in a top to bottom hierarchy; the lower you are on the timeline, the farther back your element is in the composition.

Animating any element couldn’t be simpler; just click on the Animation icon, go to the any point in the time line and make your change. The Timeline automatically sets a keyframe on all changes and animates between the keyframes. For example, to make your text fly across the screen just click on the Animation icon, position your text at the start of its movement, and then go to the end of the timeline. Just move the text to where it will finish at the end of the movement, and hit play: the text smoothly moves from one keyframe to another. If you need to fine tune the velocity of the animation, all the controls can be adjusted using standard bezier curves in the Timeline window.

Once you’ve created your text, you’ll use the Properties and Gallery window to enhance your text. Marquee uses a tab system to keep all track of all it’s properties, which makes sense given all the controls available. In addition to all the 3D settings (such as X/Y/Z coordinates, extrusion amount, edge type, and up to eight different light sources), Marquee also gives you precise control over the kerning, scroll position, margins. Naturally all these parameters are animatible, although not all (such as kerning animation) will display in real-time. The Properties window is also where you add materials or textures to your text, which you pull from Marquee’s Gallery window.

In the Gallery window you’ll find a collection of textures, materials, and even animation styles that you can apply to any or all objects in a scene. The texture section of the Gallery window is especially powerful, because you can map any image from 25 different file formats as the front, profile, extrusion or background of an object. To give your text a metallic finish, just drag a material or texture onto the Main section in the Materials box; Marquee will automatically add and display the texture on your text.

While Marquee gives a lot of fine control over your animations, there are several things that I’d like to see in the next version of the product. First, more key commands would be good; the program is still too mouse-based, especially when you have to jump back and forth between different tabs in the materials window. Also, some controls, like the ability to change the render size should be more accessible: right now you have to go into the program preferences to change the projects render size. Finally, it would be nice if you could directly import and extrude EPS logos into Marquee. While you can do this in other 3D animation programs (such as 3D Studio Max R2), Marquee only allows you to bring in EPS graphics as a custom font (see the tips section on how to do this).

Spline Surgery: You can set key frames by either using the Animation icon and then making your change later in the timeline, or by adding a keyframe onto the parameters control line. Marquee gives you full control over an objects movement using bezier curves, and even includes presets for easing in and out.

Bang Versus Buck

With a software package this impressive, there naturally had to be a sticking point – which for some folks will be the price tag. Marquee’s list price is quirky; at $7,495 it’s at the high-end for niche Windows NT software, and on the low-end for SGI software. Granted, Avid does through in a nice bonus of 500 Bitstream fonts. While I would have preferred Adobe PostScript fonts (due to their popularity in print designs), the variety and volume of the Bitstream fonts is a great resource and a nice touch. Yet for small studios, investing in a software package that is more expensive than a workstation will give some cause for concern.

After fussing over this point with Avid for a few weeks, I had the matter settled for me during a post-session that occurred while I was reviewing Marquee. One of my clients needed a logo treatment, yet it had taken weeks to schedule a time with them. While in the studio, on a whim I booted up Marquee, and we started playing with different treatments. In the space of one hour, my client signed off on a final version of the animation. Normally this process would have taken days, with initial comps rendered out and then the sent back and forth for approval: with Marquee I was done in an hour. This alone convinced me that Marquee’s price was a moot point; any product that can provide that kind of client cause and effect is worth its weight in gold.

The bottom line? Marquee is an impressive product. Marquee’s numerous control parameters, intuitive interface, and wicked fast previews make it one of the most impressive 3D text packages on the market. If you create broadcast graphics and own a high-end NT workstation, you should definitely add Marquee to your graphics tool set. Considering this is just the first version of Marquee, I can’t wait to see the next version.

 

 

Flying Font Frenzy: Here’s an example that I created using Marquee. This project used about eight different objects, several 24-bit textures, three different soft drop shadows and two different light sources. With this many elements it was necessary to reduce the quality of the OpenGL acceleration to Low in order to preview the animation in real-time.





Avid Marquee Technical Tips sidebar

Here’s a advanced tips courtesy of Avid Technology’s tech support crew that will help you get the most out of Marquee.

Maintaining Styles on Lower Third Graphics.
You can create lower-third titles that share the same layout, by using: the Page tool to create a deck with the default single page. If you need to align a lower-third title to a reference clip, then just apply the clip as the Background material of the deck. The graphic will appear on all the pages of the deck. Next create a text box for the lower-third title on the first page. Now add a page to the deck using the Add Page Before or Add Page After commands in the Page tool's pop-up menu. Viola! The contents of the previous page are duplicated on the new page. Just type in any changes to the lower third title, and you are all set. Don’t forget to turn off the Background material for the deck before you render frames from this project, or you’ll have your reference element rendered into your final file.

Create 3D Logos from EPS files.
While there is no direct way to take EPS files into Marquee, there is a back door approach that can work. Just extrude your EPS logo by converting them to a PostScript Type 1 or Truetype font using a third-party utility (such as Macromedia’s Fontographer), then using the fonts in Marquee. If you want to match different colors in the logo, you’ll need to edit the EPS file in Fontographer so that each different colored element is a stored in a separate font location. Then in Marquee, all you have to do is change the colors of the different elements in the Materials section.

Create Lighting Styles.
The beauty of the style section in Marquee is that anything can become a style, even your light sources. Just save the animated movement of light sources in your project as a style definition; then when you need it you can just apply the style to other light sources in the same project or other projects.

Turn Off Shadow Softness To Speed Display.
Adding multiple soft shadows to your project will drag down the frame rate of your project. While creating rough comps, either set the Softness parameter to zero or (better) turn off the shadow by selecting the Disable Shadow radio box. Doing this will give you a 15% to 20% speed increase.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Avid Marquee 1.0 Quick Look Box

Description: Accelerated 3D text animation and compositing software

Platform: Windows NT and SGI

Minimum Hardware/Software Requirements:

NT: Intel Pentium Pro; Windows NT 4.0; 96 Mbytes of RAM; 60 Mbytes of hard disk space; 8 Mbytes of Texture memory; 20" 1024 x 768 color monitor; CD-ROM drive; Network card; approved OpenGL graphics card.

SGI: O2 running Irix 6.3; 128 Mbytes RAM; 60 Mbytes Hard disk space.

Recommended Hardware/Software enhancements:
128 Mbytes RAM; 16 Mbytes of Texture RAM; SGI; High Impact running Irix 6.2 or OCTANE running Irix 6.4.

Price: $7,495 for both the Windows and SGI versions

Contact: Avid Technology, Inc., Metropolitan Technology Park, One Park West, Tewksbury, MA. 01876. Phone: (800) 949-2843
Web Site:
http://www.avid.com