Issue: Volume: 29 Issue: 10 (Oct 2006)

Spotlight Products and User


Product Focus
Products
MOTION CAPTURE
RealViz Makes a Move with Movimento
Image-processing developer RealViz rolled out its latest software product, Movimento, a video-based motion-capture solution powered by SMART, the company’s automatic 3D tracking engine.
 


An affordable, accurate, and flexible motion-capture solution without the need for a mocap studio, the software offers a complete and flexible solution for facial, hand, arm, and full-body motion capture across a range of applications, from special effects to sports science to behavior analysis. The offering draws on RealViz’s longstanding expertise in 2D and 3D motion tracking, particularly MatchMover Pro, by capturing the motion of any non-rigid object from multiple image sequences.

The software requires a minimum of two cameras, which can be fixed or moving. Users can combine 3D camera tracking and motion-capture processes for applications requiring non-static cameras, and reconstruct 3D meshes automatically from the tracked data. Capture is non-intrusive, and can be realized in natural or ambient lighting, and requires no specific hardware.
Any frame rate or resolution can be used, and the mocap data can be imported into most major 3D modeling and animation packages for further manipulation.

Movimento, which runs on Win­dows, Mac OS X, and Linux, is available now. A software-only version costs $19,000, while pricing for the Total Solution, including Movimento software and a four-camera capture system, starts at $45,000.
 
Products
PLUG-INS
3D Animation is a Craft
Craft Animations, which offers various plug-ins for Autodesk’s 3ds Max and Viz for fast, realistic 3D animations in real time, recently announced versions of these Craft Director Tools for use with Maya.
 


With the plug-ins, users can create motions related to specific objects; for example, Craft Airplane, priced at $496, lets modelers control and then record movements of a plane model. Similar software is available to control various types of camera motion. To select the animation path, users actively control a keyboard, joystick, 3D mouse (beta), or DirectX game controller. The motions are controlled and recorded with the company’s Hyper Physics Engine and Razorback MoCap system, which enable real-time-based control and view-port motion capture of the models.

The plug-ins then apply realistic movements along the selected animation path. These Craft Director Tools are based on technology created following several years of research into advanced neural networking, artificial intelligence, and autonomous control techniques.
Craft Adaptors is the first level of cooperation between Craft Director Tools and the DCC application being used. They enable the use of any Craft Director Tool—including those that give realistic movements to airplanes, helicopters, motorcycles, and more—within the modeling package.

The list of available tools for specific object models, along with pricing, are available on the company’s Web site (www.craftanimations.com).
 
Products
MODELING
Darwin Evolves 3D Characters
Darwin Dimensions rolled out its Evolver family of software products that enable users to quickly and automatically create unique 3D character models for use in games, film, television, multimedia, education, manufacturing, and corporate markets. With Evolver, artists of every level can create a wide variety of realistic, production-ready humanoid characters complete with textures, skeletons, and skinning in a fraction of the time it would take to generate the models from scratch.
 


Within minutes, users can create an assortment of characters by combining and mixing physical attributes derived from a so-called virtual gene pool of pre-built characters from the software’s ancestor library. The modeler can then tweak, morph, and customize facial features and body types from an intuitive desktop interface.  Resulting models can be made in multiple resolutions, are rigged for animation, and are ready for pipeline integration into Autodesk FBX-compatible 3D animation workflows.

The models ship with 66 facial expressions, including 12 phonemes, as well as color bump and specular map textures with a UV unfold, and balanced geometry for movement that is anatomically and kinetically accurate. The Evolver models come unclothed and hairless, ready for customization by a 3D artist.

The Evolver software consists of Evolver Basic, which includes Evolver Character Builder, a stand-alone tool that lets users create proxy models on their PCs; Evolver Pro, which includes the Character Builder Output Generator for creating proxy characters and generating humanoid models rigged for animation with blendshapes, expressions, and textures; and Evolver Complete, which enables users to integrate proprietary, Maya-built character models into the Character Builder ancestor library.

A free downloadable trial version of Evolver Basic is available through Darwin’s Web site (www.darwindimen­sions.com), while the full Basic version costs $39, with final models available for purchase separately. Pricing for the extensive Evolver Pro begins at $4995. Evolver Complete is not yet available.
 
Products
ANIMATION ENGINE
NaturalMotion Gives the Industry a Shot of Morpheme
NaturalMotion, developers of the Euphoria and Endorphin Dynamic Motion Synthesis (DMS) technologies, rolled out Morpheme, a new animation engine for next-generation game development.
 


Featuring a flexible and unique 3D authoring tool chain, Morpheme is designed to give animators unprecedented creative control over the look of their final in-game animation by allowing them to author and preview blends, transitions, and logic in real time. 

Morpheme comprises two components. Morpheme:Runtime is a lightweight run-time engine optimized for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC that ships with full source code. Morpheme:Connect is a 3D authoring application that allows animators to graphically author blend trees and transition logic (based on Hierarchical Finite State Machines), modify and edit parameters through sliders, and view the results in real time.

Morpheme is a flexible and open system and does not require the licensing of any other product. It also seamlessly integrates with other leading 3D animation software and middleware technologies, such as physics engines.

Morpheme is available this month for the PS3, Xbox 360, and PC. Due to the customizable nature of Morpheme, pricing is dependent on the project and unique needs of the developer.  
 
Products
MODELING - ANIMATION
NewTek recently announced the availability of LightWave 3D Version 9, with improved core strengths in its overall power and speed.
 


The release represents the first in a series of major rewrites and restructuring of LightWave 3D’s core with the addition of many new features, such as a node-based materials editor that adds new shading models. Its adaptive pixel subdivision support offers film-quality displacement mapping, normal mapping (including Zbrush support), and LOD control at render time. Version 9 also sports Catmull-Clark subdivision surfaces and sub-surface scattering, as well as increased render speeds due to the implementation of BSP/KD Tree Algorithm and a complete replacement of the original raytracing core for 2.5X speed improvements over Version 8.5.

LightWave 9 also contains optically corrected cameras for matching real camera lenses, which will greatly enhance the ability of visual effects artists to match 3D elements to live footage.
Among the changes that contribute to the enhanced workflow in Layout are faster OpenGL performance and additional OpenGL hardware shader support, resulting in an accurate preview of the final image or animation in real time, without the need to create test renders.

LightWave 9 is available now for $795, or $395 for upgrades from previous software versions.
 
Products
MODELING-ANIMATION
Autodesk Hits a Double with
New Versions of Maya, Max
Autodesk has unveiled new versions of its modeling, animation, and rendering software—Maya 8 and 3ds Max 9—both designed to help digital content creators in the games, film and television, and design visualization industries achieve their creative goals.
 


The releases offer big improvements in core performance, productivity, and pipeline efficiency. Moreover, the upgrades mark the first major releases of the products since Autodesk’s acquisition of Alias early this year, and represent the first steps in the company’s three-year roadmap to more tightly integrate the applications while maintaining the separate product lines.

Autodesk’s Maya 8 for the Mac OS X, Windows, and Linux platforms features improvements that enable the software to handle larger datasets, in addition to myriad performance and productivity enhancements. The product offers a combination of 64-bit support and multi-threading and algorithmic optimizations to let artists load massive datasets and interact with them more efficiently. Key areas of the software, including skinning, draw tessellation, and subdivided polygon proxy meshes, have been multi-threaded to scale with the number of processors or cores available, thereby accelerating formerly time-consuming tasks on today’s workstations.

Other key features include: the ability to override viewports with a user-defined renderer, an optimized Mental Ray 3.5 core, support for HDR and floating-point images, support for interactive viewing of native and custom Mental Ray shaders, an improved MotionBuilder FBX plug-in for tighter integration between Maya and other applications such as 3ds Max and MotionBuilder, an interchangeable geometry cache between Max and Maya for the exchange of complex data, and the ability to export render layers to Autodesk Toxik’s database.

Maya is available now in Complete and Unlimited versions for $1999 and $6999, respectively; upgrades start at $899.

Meanwhile, Autodesk’s 3ds Max 9 supports 64-bit technologies for next-gen games, design visualizations, and film and TV visual effects production. Like Maya 8, Max 9 features improvements in core performance and productivity, enabling artists to manage complex 3D datasets. The release also sports improved rendering with the Mental Ray 3.5 core.

Key features include a layered blending system that can be added to custom rigs and controllers, optimizations in wireframe and edge display for faster feedback within the viewport, enhanced hair and cloth tools, improved file referencing and tracking capability of work-in-progress assets, the ability to bake mesh deformations into a file for faster rendering, and improved compatibility with Maya via the FBX file format. 3ds Max 9 is available this month for $3495, or $795 for an upgrade.
 

User Focus
2D ANIMATION
The look of the Microsoft “Realizing Potential” commercial campaign may be simplistic—bold white-line animated drawings augmenting a live-action scene. But, the execution of the most recent series was rather complex, requiring a collaborative effort among five companies: Z Animation (animation production), Anonymous Content (live action), A52 (final compositing), Mad River Post (editing), and Elias Arts (music).

The global TV, print, and Internet campaign, first introduced by McCann-Erickson/San Francisco in 2002, highlights the software giant’s education and economic development projects in 32 countries throughout Europe, Asia, and America. Recently, a new set of six commercials—“Ripple,” “Security,” “Startup,” “Imagine Cup,” “Parents,” and “Mr. Kato”—were crafted with the familiar animated white lines used as transitional devices, metaphorically turning dreams into reality. This time, however, the commercials were done entirely in high definition, and they are the first to use 2D computer animation instead of hand drawings.
 

Microsoft resurrected a previous campaign that uses soft-pencil white-line
drawings to metaphorically turn dreams into reality.


“In early versions of the campaign, we were speaking more broadly about how Microsoft software helped people realize their potential,” explains Matthew Winks, executive producer at McCann-Erickson. “This time, we were even more specific about the initiatives and the efforts Microsoft is taking in countries around the globe and the local impact the company is having on areas such as economic development in various countries through computers in classrooms and small business initiatives. Production-wise, we were looking for an animation studio that would take the campaign into the CG world but still maintain the hand-drawn animation look of past campaigns.”

In particular, the agency was looking for more-sophisticated animations. “They wanted it to look as if we found a piece of DP Andrew Douglas’s film and drew our animation on it. They didn’t want Douglas to shoot the live action with an obvious space left for the animation,” explains Z Animation’s executive producer Peter Barg.

Indeed, Z Animation stepped outside the hand-drawn realm and created the white-line “pencil” effect using Bauhaus Software’s Mirage 2D animation program. “We went with Mirage because it could give us the soft-pencil hand-drawn look that agency wanted, and it could also handle the huge animation files required for HD,” says Z Animation’s Joel Parod, who co-directed the spots with Claire Armstrong-Parod. “We could directly import the live-action footage and animate directly on top, and see it played back instantly. Many of our animators actually preferred Mirage over traditional animation because it allowed us to import the live-action footage and draw the white line right over the screen, while also creating mattes and composites.”

Computer animation was a key factor in awarding the project to Z Animation, notes Winks, because the client wanted to produce more spots than before and at a faster pace—something traditional animation could not handle. Previously, the commercials had been animated using traditional methods, and then digitally scanned into the computer, where compositing was done. Working directly in the computer was faster and more efficient, says Parod, and provided the artists with more control over the imagery.

“Some of our animators had very little computer experience, but after a few weeks of training, they took to it very well,” says Barg. “In fact, many of our animators said they didn’t want to animate on paper ever again.”

Most of the spots, says Armstrong-Parod, contain more animation than the earlier ones. “Startup,” for example, began with nearly an empty warehouse as the backdrop. “We used the white-line animation to illustrate a small start-up company growing throughout the commercial,” she says. “Here, the white lines actually tell the story. The message is clear and has a fun ending.”
Despite the use of Mirage, the artists still had to hand-draw the animation on top of the imported live-action footage using Wacom Tablet PCs. But, Mirage eliminated a number of steps, resulting in tremendous timesavings. “With the traditional paper method, we would have to print out each frame of the live action and draw over it on a separate piece of paper,” explains Barg. “If we wanted to see how our animation was working, we would have to scan it into the computer as a pencil test. With Mirage, we could instantly play back our animation—an instant pencil test—and quickly make changes, as well.”
 

The new commercials were done entirely in high defi nition, and they use 2D computer animation
for the white lines, instead of hand drawings, like the previous spots did.


International Appeal
The campaign’s live action was directed by Andrew Douglas of Anonymous Content on location during a two-month period in Tokyo, with a Japanese cast. Because the series would be shown internationally, he then changed location and shot a Korean and Chinese version, as well. The group likewise used the same concept for the European audiences, in French, German, and English, thereby satisfying all the different markets with the same singular concept.

Accompanying the production to Europe was Armstrong-Parod, who worked closely with Douglas and the agency team so that it was easier to match footage later on during post. “They were able to grab stills right off the video tap and do rough sketches for us while we were shooting, which was extremely helpful,” says Winks.

In some instances, the international audience required a global approach to the animation. In “Parents,” for example, the first couple of scenes feature a white-line animated graduate engineer, but for the French version, the agency chose the career of a doctor instead, thus requiring two animated versions of the same scene.
 

Using Bauhaus’s Mirage, artists were able to animate directly atop the live action and
review the results immediately, allowing them to work quickly and efficiently.

While the live shoot was in production, Barg and his team set up a complete “animation studio in a box” at a Los Angeles location that was central to all the companies involved. “This was an exceptionally complex project,” Barg points out. “Success was entirely contingent on everyone working together, and [a central locale] was the best way to accommodate the almost daily, sometimes 24/7, back-and-forth workflow among Z Animation, Mad River Post, and A52.”
Although most of the spots contained live action and 2D animation, one, titled “Ripple,” has a 3D effect, created in Autodesk’s Maya, which flows throughout the commercial. For the most part, though, the group used Mirage as its main animation tool, along with Adobe’s Photoshop and After Effects, and Cambridge Animation Systems’ Animo, all running on high-end Dell workstations.

To accommodate the needs of international distribution, the groups decided that from start to finish, the campaign would be done entirely in HD, and North American NTSC versions were letterboxed to resemble HD’s 16:9 aspect ratio. “Not finishing it in HD would have made it expensive to go back and refinish it in HD later on,” adds Winks. “HD is more expensive and slightly more time-consuming, but we felt we’d see savings in the months to come as requests for foreign cinema versions came in.”     —Karen Moltenbrey
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