Issue: Volume: 24 Issue: 3 (March 2001)

Character Studio 3

By George Maestri

Character Studio, Discreet's character animation plug-in for its animation and modeling tool, 3D Studio Max, has been available since Max was first released almost five years ago. Even then, Character Studio was ahead of its time, and for years it was the only viable character animation tool for Max users.

In the last few years, however, Discreet has added to Max a skeletal deformation feature called Skin, as well as exciting new inverse kinematics (IK) features, making the base version of Max a capable character animation tool all by itself.

Where does that leave Character Studio? Well, it's still a great tool. The plug-in has a ton of cool features not found in Max or in other character animation packages. It also supports motion-capture files and enables users to apply motions between different-size characters with ease. And in its latest release, Version 3, Discreet improved the software's IK system as well as added new features, including animatable behaviors and a nice crowd animation system.
Character Studio 3 can animate crowds of just about anything, including these birds.

Character Studio comes as two modules: Biped and Physique. Biped enables users to create skeletons, and offers a wealth of tools for animating them. Physique provides skeletal deformation capability, including muscle bulging, animated tendons, and weighted blending between joints for Biped skeletons as well as other types of skeletons.

For Character Studio 3, Discreet increased the performance of both modules. For instance, those who prefer footstep-driven animation now can place Biped footsteps on an arbitrary terrain by turning on a feature called AutoGrid, which automatically snaps the footsteps to the center of each face of the terrain.

Some animators have avoided Character Studio in the past because of IK limitations in Biped. In Character Studio 3, Biped's IK system has been improved. As before, the software supports forward and inverse kinematics simultaneously. New capabilities allow you to animate between user-defined pivot points on a character's hands and feet, enabling you to quickly set up complex interactions between feet, hands, and surfaces.

Because the hands and feet offer similar IK controls, quadruped animation using Biped is much easier than before. It should be noted that Character Studio does not create the footsteps for quadrupeds as it does for bipeds; you must keyframe these motions yourself.

Nonlinear animation has been part of Character Studio since its last release. Unlike the timeline-based nonlinear editors in packages such as Softimage|XSI and Maya, however, nonlinear animation in Biped is script-based and is determined by a motion flow graph, which resembles a flowchart.

Although this approach isn't as intuitive as that used in other packages, it does offer advantages. One is for game applications, where numerous motions must be integrated in many different combinations; Character Studio can generate scripts to perform this arduous task automatically. The software's scripting capability also offers a new randomizing feature, which allows a character's animation to cycle independently, without repeating. However, I'd still like to see a more interactive timeline-based implementation as well.

The most interesting outgrowth of motion scripting is Character Studio's ability to animate crowds. Although this is still new territory for any package, I found Character Studio's crowd feature both complete and flexible. You can design crowd animation based on behaviors such as seek, repel, avoid wall, wander, follow a path, and others.

Each individual in a crowd is called a delegate; delegates are organized into teams, and teams into crowds. Each level can have its own behaviors so that you can layer crowd motion.

Like Biped, Physique also has been improved with the release of Character Studio 3. For instance, according to Discreet, Physique performance overall is three times faster than before, and the code is now multithreaded, so it performs much faster on dual-processor machines.

One of my pet peeves in previous versions of Physique was that all bones had to exist within the same hierarchy. This made some popular skeletal setups using broken hierarchies impossible to deform. Thank fully, this has been fixed, and Physique now can use any collection of bones for deformation, linked or not.

Overall, Character Studio 3 is an excellent update. At $1495, it might be beyond the range of casual character animators, but for those who use motion capture, animate for games, or need crowds, the software is worth the price. In fact, the crowd software alone is worth the cost.

George Maestri is a writer and animator living in Los Angeles.

Price: $1495
Minimum System Requirements: 200MHz Intel-compatible processor; Windows 98/NT; 128MB of RAM; 250MB of hard disk space