By George Maestri
It's been said that the best character animation happens when animators don't have to worry about the computer sitting in front of them and, instead, can focus on the character they are animating. To get to this level of interactivity, the character must behave naturally and predictably, and the animator must be able to massage and manipulate the character's motion easily. project:messiah 1.5 from project:messiah Group (pmG) takes a noble stab at this problem. Created by pmG's Dan Milling, Lyle Milton, and Fori Owurowa, the software provides some excellent character setup and animation tools that make it one of the better solutions on the market today.
project:messiah 1.5 is sold as a $695 plug-in to NewTek's LightWave 5.6 and 6.0. In future releases, the company plans to sell the software as a standalone application, to be called messiah:animate. The company says the new product will support and enhance LightWave as well as Alias| Wavefront's Maya, Discreet's 3D Studio Max, and Avid's Softimage|XSI. When messiah:animate is combined with pmG's soon-to-be-released global illumination renderer, messiah:render, the combined messiah:studio package might well become a powerful animation and rendering tool that competes with these more established packages.
|The interface for project:messiah looks a little like LightWave's but is geared toward character animation.|
The word "plug-in" fails to describe the completeness of project:messiah, which is a full-blown application that resides alongside LightWave. You create all your animation in messiah and save it out as a LightWave scene. You then can load that scene into LightWave Layout, do whatever lighting, texturing, and so on that you want, and then render it. The program uses its own file formats and can even load and save objects independently of LightWave.
The package is fast. I don't remember any time during the review process when I had to wait for the screen to refresh on my humble 550mhz machine. It should be noted that messiah is extremely OpenGL-intensive, meaning that a good graphics card with current drivers is important for performance. When I first loaded the software, I experienced a few incompatibilities, but I solved them by updating my copy of LightWave from version 6.0 to 6.0b.
I like the interface a lot, which vaguely resembles LightWave in that it uses tabbed panels, and the buttons look similar. One cool feature is a gizmo called the Edit Sphere, which enables you to move and rotate an object within one easy-to-use interface. If you grab the top of the sphere, you move the object along the Y axis; grab the bottom, and you rotate it.
I would, however, like to be able to see multiple views of a scene, as this would help when building skeletons. Another problem I encountered was that the time slider and the range markers are located along the same line and look alike. When I wanted to scrub the animation, I would inadvertently grab the markers instead.
Animation is fairly straightforward. Most object attributes can be animated, including position, rotation, and scale. One thing I've never seen in other packages is messiah's ability to animate an object's pivot point separate from the object itself.
The software supports skeletons and can import them from LightWave. One thing missing is support for LightWave 6.0's Skelegons. This, however, is not much of a problem because messiah's skeletons are powerful, and messiah's inverse kinematics solvers are fast.
Expressions in messiah are powerful and compare favorably to most other packages. One nice little feature is the inclusion of prewritten functions that cover most of the popular expression types and can be selected from a pull-down list. Animation editing is pretty sweet. Motion graphs show up along the bottom of the viewport and can be edited in real time, even while the animation is playing. Objects can be deformed in project:messiah. Most of this happens through the Effects panel, which enables you to add morphs, skeletal deformations, soft bodies, and the like in a nondestructive manner, much like in 3D Studio Max's stack.
Although project:messiah does not support LightWave 6.0's endomorphs, it does have its own morphing system that works by loading individual models, much like in previous versions of LightWave.
Overall, I like project:messiah. This is one of the better character animation tools I've seen. The application is still young, and I'm sure there will be more improvements. I look forward to seeing the standalone version when it is released.
George Maestri is a writer and animator living in Los Angeles.
Minimum system requirements: Intel (or compatible) or Alpha CPU running Windows 95/98/2000/ or NT; NewTek's LightWave 3D 5.5 or Inspire 3D; 64MB of RAM; OpenGL 1.2-compliant graphics card