By Doug King
Programs such as Maya and 3D Studio Max offer so many features and functions that their character-animation tools can be limited in certain areas. At least this appears to be the logic Credo Interactive used when it developed Life Forms, now in Version 3.5.
Life Forms is a character-animation tool that enhances and integrates with today's most popular 3D animation packages, including Maya, Max, LightWave, TrueSpace, Poser, ElectricImage, Studio Pro, and Cinema 4D. In addition, it supports the BioVision and Acclaim motion-capture formats.
|Life Forms uses a pose-based system for keyframing animation. You create a pose in the Figure Editor window. The new pose updates the stage window and is graphically represented in the time line.|
This was my first time using Life Forms, and I found the interface a bit frustrating. For instance, I had to constantly resize the numerous windows so that I could see my work. Even after resizing, the icons in some of the windows were so small that even on a 21-inch monitor, I could barely make out what I was looking at.
On the bright side, animating a character in Life Forms is easy, especially when you use the rotation dials in the software's Figure Editor. For instance, to keyframe an animation, you simply set the insertion point on the desired frame and select the joint you want to animate. Each joint has an X, Y, and Z rotation dial represented by a colored line and an arc. Click the colored line and drag it, and watch as the joint you selected moves in real time.
You can animate a joint in three other ways, as well-with the Near Far hemispheres, which work in much the same way as the rotation dials, or by clicking a joint in the main screen and manipulating it with the mouse. And you can type numeric inputs into the "spinner" boxes.
Each joint is color-coded, so it's easy to pick the one you want, but here again I found the interface lacking because the cursor never visibly changes to let you know you are over a selectable area. Furthermore, after you select a joint, its outline changes only slightly, from a regular to a bold line weight of the same color. I found it difficult to determine not just when I selected something, but also what I had selected. Making selected joints change color rather than line weight would eliminate this problem.
A new feature that works with the Figure Editor is the Joint Map Editor, which enables you to apply motion from one model to another by creating a correspondence between the joints of the source and destination models. The motion translates smoothly between the two models, even if they vary in terms of shape and size. With this feature, you can apply the motion from a motion-capture library or another model to your character.
The Joint Map Editor is easy to use and works well. You do need to mouse-click a lot to map the motion completely, but the end results are good. This feature is useful because it enables motion data to be re-targeted to bone hierarchies and models from such packages as LightWave, Studio Pro, Poser 3, Bones Pro 2, Physique, and the PuppetMaster plug-in for LightWave.
A new feature in version 3.5 is Snap, which is designed to automatically align the position of a keyframe or range of frames to an adjacent keyframe. Snap is great for aligning a character's feet or body to objects in a 3D scene (for instance, aligning feet to a model of stairs so that they do not sink into the stairs). This feature alone will save animators hours of time usually spent keyframing the position of feet on stairs or similar objects.
All told, Life Forms 3.5 is a great tool that could use some improvements to its interface. I did wonder whether I would need it if I already owned Character Studio, Maya, or LightWave, which directly import BVH files as well as other motion-capture formats. I asked Credo to provide some insight, and the truth is, if you have Character Studio for Max you more than likely do not need this product.
But if you have just Max and don't want to spend the $1200 or so for Character Studio, Life Forms is an inexpensive alternative that enables you to map motion-captured and keyframe animation to your characters. For those who already own Maya or LightWave, Credo claims that Life Forms re-maps motion more quickly. In addition, tools similar to Life Forms' Snap tool are not available in LightWave, Maya, or Max.
CGW contributing editor Douglas King is currently working on a how-to book of 3D computer-animated special effects.
System Requirements: Mac: 180MHz PowerPC; OS 8.0 or higher; QuickTime 3.0; 32MB of RAM; 15MB hard drive.
Windows: 90MHz Pentium; Windows 95/98/NT; 16MB of RAM (Win 95); 32MB of RAM (NT); 10MB hard drive.
Life Forms 3.5