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Rent-a-crowd in a Discreet little package

For £3,000 you can be the next Spielberg

Want to make the children's film foundation look like Spielberg? Well, the special-effects wizardry that let Hollywood sink the Titanic and fill the Colosseum with tigers and baying crowds is coming to a PC near you.

Discreet, a Quebec-based software company which specialises in computer-simulated effects, is about to launch a package allowing small film-makers everywhere to compete on equal terms with the biggest California studios.

The program, called 3ds Max5 and comfortably the most advanced of its sort in the industry, allows users to produce ultra-realistic 3D effects which can be worked into film or computer animations. In the hands of Hollywood directors such as Steven Spielberg, Discreet's software has won a string of Oscars, but the new package will be sold at a price that puts it well within the reach of producers working on far smaller budgets.

Its estimated price of about £3,000 means it is expected to appeal to makers of short animations for television and designers of video games.

The big studios and game developers have latched on to the huge potential of the software, which has been used to produce effects in The Lord of the Rings, The Matrix and in the Tomb Raider series of video games. As well as allowing designers to use a massive range of effects, the software vastly speeds the animation process. A spokesman said: "A 15-minute animation of Toy Story quality which might have taken a year and a team of 20 people could, and has, been achieved by two people working in a bedroom for a month."

One of the principal selling points of 3ds Max5 is that it contains a revolutionary program that replicates the physics of real life. Objects and pictures can be designated as having certain properties, and the program will animate them accordingly.

The software can handle cloth, liquids of different densities, and can even be used to make rope knot and tangle in a realistic way.

For computer-games developers, one paramount attraction is the software's ability instantly to produce 3D characters. Once the basic design has been entered into the PC, the program automatically animates the character. This process alone might have cost millions before, but can now be performed on a standard PC.

Other parts of the program that have won Academy Awards include the ability to animate flames, smoke, explosions and other natural effects on the grand scale. In Titanic and Gladiator, Discreet was behind the effects that showed hundreds of people running along the deck of the sinking ship and thousands in the crowd at Rome's Colosseum. In both cases, very few live extras were used.

Discreet grew out of a hi-tech boom in Montreal which was largely prompted by Daniel Langlois, the Canadian entrepreneur whose small special-effects company won instant fame when it animated the dinosaurs for Spielberg's Jurassic Park. As Hollywood sent an increasing amount of business in Quebec's direction, Discreet was set up to commercialise the technology further, and maintains a large studio of its own where new effects are developed.