Be specific people, There's also DS, which is a DV Editing studio, and XSI, |3D's you nger sibling.

SoftImage|3D is an excellent 3D modeling and animation studio by Avid Inc.

For a period of about 3 years, both SoftImage and Mental Ray were property of Microsoft, until Microsoft recently sold the Softimage division to Avid.


The Modules

The software features 5 basic modules:

Each module is basically a different set of menus, as the UI has a vertical menu along each side, the left being functions, and various options affecting objects, paths, materials, and various tools. The right affects objects in the scene, such as translation, cameras, and selection.
Model:
The model module gives you options that allow you to modify the shapes of objects, and their structure. It includes a highly useful polygon editor, by means of raycasting and/or tags. It also allows you to affect such things as freezing any transformations, so they don't screw with you later when animating.

Motion:
This is the module where 90% of the animating takes place. Here you can define paths for objects that you created in model, or edit the fcurves, which is the basic principle of motion in SoftImage|3D.

Matter:
Giving everything textures and colors takes place here. There's also a little bit of animation in here, if you explore enough.
The basics of this module give you the ability to alter the base color of an object, its reflectivity, transparency, and various other features. Also is the ability to apply both 2D and 3D textures.
3D textures allow you to apply textures that occur throughout the object, sort of like a wood grain, or marble. It exists in all 3 dimensions, and can move that way. A good example of this is that a 3D texture can move in the Z axis, giving you an effect of rippling water. By rendering some of this on a flat surface, you can get a nice animation of dots moving in and out. In the resulting 2d rendering, it looks like rings expanding in and out, and warping. But when brought in as a 2D texture, accompanied by a script, it can be animated. By applying the script as a bump map, you can get quite realistic rippling water. By then moving the object you've textured slowly, you get a nice stream.
Incidentally, rendering is handled in the matter module. It offers various renderer choices, depending on your version of Softimage. The Extreme package comes with the default SI Scanline renderer, and the Mental Ray raytracer (which the softimage UI caters to).

Actor:
Actor is where physics and bones/structure come into play. Basic features of this module are the ability to create skeletons, apply skins, and weight points. Also are the ability to create bounded objects, apply gravity and other deformation effects, such as warps and detonations.

Tools:
Here are basic proofing tools, such as a flipbook that allows you to preview an animation from the freshly rendered scene, model processing tools that can prep properly built models for use on a nintendo64, playstation, or even sega saturn (replaced now). Also included are tools for processing finished scenes(MakeMovie+) that allows you to produce compressed video.

That's just a light overview of the modules, each one in the box has what amounts to it's own book (of varying thickness).

Database and Files

Softimage has an interesting way of managing scenes. Instead of like 3D Studio Max and Lightwave, Softimage keeps everything in a scene stored in a large database (a fancy name for "a bunch of folders in another folder that hold files"). The databases must be linked into a user profile, this way you can restrict and manage database access and permission (on Irix it may be easy, but on NT it's a bit thick).

Softimage Oddities:

The UI for softimage is itself is created entirely of GL objects, so any upgrade of the CPU or video card, 3D performance wise, will affect and improve the speed of the program.

The NT version of the program itself is only minimally modified from the Irix version (all the database and file management are straight out of unix, UI wise, so it's like jamming a square peg in a round hole on NT), mostly what was necessary to get the program to execute on NT. All the rest was probably just recompiled for x86 and modified slightly to support GL, which is then wrapped to OpenGL, then to hardware, which is why the x86 version tends to be a bit slower than the Irix release.

Softimage is written and maintained in Quebec, therefore it is not SoftIMAGE, it is SoftImaage (long a, you know. It's french canadian).

The future:

From what I can tell, the future of softimage|3d itself may be limited to the Irix platform, or other Unices, should they port it. The future of softimage on NT may lie in |DS and |XSI.

A little info about how I know this. I attend North Pulaski High School, in Jacksonville, Arkansas, of all places. The class, called EAST, or Environmental and Spatial Technologies, which originated in Greenbrier, Arkansas about 5 years ago. My class, a second year east-class, got its hands on 2 copies of 3D Extreme ($30k a pop!), and the EAST administrators manged to get Tim Horne to teach a week long seminar on softimage, from modeling to rendering, which I had the fortune to attend. As of a few weeks ago, we got upgrades for our 3.8 workstations to 3.9.1, which redesigned the UI slighly, fixed many bugs, and sped things up a bunch, and also got our first copy of XSI in. At last check, we still don't have a license key yet, so once we get that working, I may node it!

The EAST project can be found at www.eastproject.org
be warned though, they tend to be a little Windows/Microsoft-centric, I believe a couple of the higher up administrators nearly had a stroke when they heard a friend and I were running Linux on a box in one of the classes (their opinion, the box is school property).

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