|Strictly an animation authoring system, MotionBuilder does not provide any modeling tools. Basic texturing and effects can be done in the software, but high-end rendering is perhaps best left to other programs. Characters are modeled in a favorite 3D package and brought into MotionBuild-er where motion—whether keyframed animation, motion clips, motion capture, or automatic animation—is applied.
Getting data to and from other applications is fairly easy, thanks to Kaydara's .FBX file format. Rapidly becoming a standard file format for 3D authoring, it supports NURBS and polygonal models, as well as texturing, deformations, and skeletons. I passed scenes between Alias Systems' Maya, Discreet's 3ds max, and MotionBuilder with relative ease. The .FBX format also is available as a plug-in for QuickTime, for viewing motion files on any system. It is a great feature for directors who need to see animation files but don't have sophisticated 3D software.
The interface seems a little daunting at first, but after a few minutes of exploration, things become fairly clear. The software relies on floating windows to organize the work flow. MotionBuilder has windows for asset management, motion editing, transformations, and so on. One nice little feature enabled me to switch the software's hot keys to reflect my favorite package.
Before animation begins, characters and assets are imported into the scene in the .FBX format. The software supports most major features, so models are imported fully rigged and textured. Users performing character animation might elect to use MotionBuilder's rigging tools. MotionBuild-er's skeletons have many nice features. They are fairly smart in that motion from one type of character can be mapped smoothly onto others; a karate kick for a tall character will map directly to a short one. The skeletons can move seamlessly between forward and inverse kinematics. MotionBuilder skeletons also have controls that can define the floor plane and a character's finger tips, thereby helping to prevent the feet from go-ing through the floor or a character's hand from penetrating an object it is holding.
After a character is rigged, it can be brought to life using a variety of methods. MotionBuilder provides a curve editor and a dope sheet that most animators will find very familiar. Animators can store clips of motion and reuse them with MotionBuilder's nonlinear motion editor, which enables users to layer motion and to transition smoothly between motions. The nonlinear tools are particularly good for manipulating motion-captured data. Those doing real-time animation will enjoy the ability to connect characters to the outside world using such devices as joysticks and midi sliders. Support for advanced full-body, motion-capture systems is available only in the Professional Version.
MotionBuilder has great tools for facial animation. Using .FBX, characters and morph targets are brought into MotionBuilder, where animators can man-ipulate facial features with either morphing or clusters. MotionBuilder also provides a very robust voice-recognition module, enabling users to supply a voice track either through a microphone or an audio file and have the character's lips automatically synch to the dialogue. The module is essentially plug and play; I match phonemes to facial shapes, and MotionBuilder does the rest. The results were good, if a bit mechanical. A decent animator could do much better, but it would take a lot longer. Still, with the cost of third-party voice-recognition software running into the hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars, this module alone makes MotionBuilder worth the cost.
For scene authoring, Version 5 adds a story timeline; users can manage an entire project, rather than individual scenes. The Story tool enables users to combine assets and switch cameras as they animate, speeding the authoring process. MotionBuilder has a number of real-time effects, such as particle systems, to help add realism to a scene. Lights have such features as fog, and reflections can be calculated in real time.
Overall, MotionBuilder 5 is a terrific tool for character animation. It's only an animation package, so good 3D software is required for modeling and high-end final rendering. But the package is a great investment, particularly for those creating large amounts of character animation.
George Maestri is president of Rubberbug, a Los Angeles-based animation studio specializing in character animation.
Minimum System Requirements:
Windows 2000/XP or Mac OS 10.2, 256mb of RAM, 300mb of hard drive space, and a 16mb OpenGL card