Spotlight - User Focus
Issue: Volume: 30 Issue: 1 (Jan 2007)

Spotlight - User Focus

Dance Lessons
Computer gaming is no longer limited to shooters, puzzles, and sports themes. Recently, a handful of game developers, such as FreeStyleGames, an independent studio in the UK, have sidestepped these tried-and-true genres, moving instead to a different beat by offering dance-style titles, which are becoming increasingly popular, especially among the teenage crowd.

FreeStyleGames recently rolled out its first title, B-Boy, a unique competitive break-dancing game that allows the player to move (and groove) through authentic hip-hop dance culture using a controller instead of performing on a dance mat. Partnering with Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, FreeStyleGames tapped real-world break-dancing champions from Europe, Asia, and North America, and used a tool set comprising Autodesk’s 3ds Max and MotionBuilder, to put the player in the shoes of the world’s best B-Boys performing in real-world dance battles.

In the game, the player falls into the role of a B-Boy, or break-dance artist and hip-hop music enthusiast. Initially, the B-Boy starts out with a few dance moves and, as the game progresses, gains additional moves to ultimately battle it out for a coveted Adidas sponsorship. The title also includes an arcade, or jam, mode that allows multiple players to compete against one another via WiFi.

Dance Team

Even though this title was FreeStyleGames’ first step into the market, the group was able to complete the game in just over two years. With a relatively tight team of 35 people, and more than 5500 individual animation assets, completing this project was no small feat.

The developer motion-captured performers using a Vicon MX40 setup at Audiomotion. Later, the artists used a combination pipelineintegrating 3ds Max (left) and MotionBuilder (right) to achieve believable, fl uid movements that they applied to the characters.

"The great thing about a 3ds Max and MotionBuilder pipeline is that in addition to being so easy to use, the workflow capabilities between the two made creating the game even easier," says director Jamie Jackson. "We were able to work efficiently and keep the size of our production teams to a minimum while delivering a quality title."

The team used custom scripts in 3ds Max (MAXscripting) to help export the huge number of character assets. With multiple levels of detail including hands, body, head, clothing, shoes, eyeballs, hats and hair, the export process would have been nearly impossible if it hadn’t been automated. With a custom MAXscript, however, the assets were automatically exported in sequence to specific directories, further simplifying the workflow.

Building custom tools in 3ds Max also allowed FreeStyleGames to apply skeletal, skin, and texture data to several characters, and then tweak them as needed to simplify the creation of multiple characters and crowds. The team also employed 3ds Max character-building tools such as Skinwrap to transfer weights, and Morpher to simplify the application of facial animation.

The artists at FreeStyleGames built all of the game models, from the characters to the game-level environments, using 3ds Max. All the in-game and cinematic animation was created using MotionBuilder. In order to retain authenticity, the characters were created to emulate real-world B-Boys, such as the championship’s host, DJ Hooch, and break-dancing icon Crazy Legs.

The game employs an artful, stylistic look with highly accurate character animation, thanks in part to a combination of Vicon motion-capture and MotionBuilder tool sets. FreeStyleGames employed the services of Oxfordshire, UK-based Audiomotion for capturing and processing the motion-capture data of break dancers that was later applied to the game’s digital characters.

With anti-roll bones (red), the upper arm bone follows the x-axisrotation of the clavicle, so the geometry doesn’t collapse.

FreeStyleGames’ lead designer, Gareth Glover, directed the motion-capture shoot and identified a list of movements that would be captured, along with in-between motions to link those movements together. The Audiomotion crew, meanwhile, acquired the mocap data using a Vicon MX40 system at its facility.

Various B-Boy performers were captured; the data was cleaned up, reconstructed, and processed, and then brought into MotionBuilder as optical data. Once in MotionBuilder, the FreeStyleGames team was able to plot that data onto an actor via optical nodes, which were then used to drive the CG character. The motion-capture data was further refined in MotionBuilder so that all loops and transitions occur seamlessly. All of the final animations were exported for game use via 3ds Max.

In the game, players practice and perfect their dance skills using movementsacquired from real-life B-Boy performers.

The FreeStyleGames animation team also came up with a unique solution to creating characters: roll bones on the upper arm and forearm that enabled the mesh to deform in a way that would eliminate shoulder/arm collapse. This method involved using an import skeleton, export skeleton, and subset of bones.

A big challenge for the team was breaking down the animation to make each individual dance move. "We started by building each move and then the transitions to and from each one of them. The Motion Blend feature in MotionBuilder helped us create a smooth, fluid transition between each movement," says lead animator Simon Papp.

B-Boy, which has already been hailed "The Coolest Game of the Year" by Official Playstation Magazine, has also garnered awards at the 2006 E3 show for Best Music Game and Most Innovative Game. Released this past October, the game is available on the PlayStation 2 and PlayStation Portable. Meanwhile, FreeStyleGames is also releasing an audio CD titled Music from B-Boy, featuring licensed funk and hip-hop classics from the game.

Millennial Effects

Warner Bros.’ live-action/science-fiction film The Fountain, directed by Darren Aronofsky, explores the themes of life, love, death, and rebirth during a 1000-year time frame, as one man struggles to save the woman he loves.

The movie stretches across three time periods during the span of a millennium, beginning in 16th-century Spain, where conquistador Tomas (Hugh Jackman) commences his search for the legendary Fountain of Youth. As modern-day scientist Tommy Creo, he struggles to find a cure for the cancer that is killing his wife. Traveling through deep space as a 26th-century astronaut, Tom begins to grasp the mysteries that have consumed him in his epic journey through time.

To help re-create these diverse settings, Aronofsky called upon Look Effects, which was brought aboard the project while it was still in the early stages of development. The studio’s mission was to help the director define parameters for achieving his artistic vision without the overuse of computer graphics—technology that the director is not particularly fond of. As part of the initial design team, Look Effects conducted extensive research and development into the most effective means for toning down the use of CG through the creation of practical yet stunning visual effects.

"Aronosfsky was clear on what he wanted and his intent to greatly minimize the use of computer graphics," says Henrik Fett, visual effects supervisor on The Fountain.

To this end, the studio completed nearly 90 shots on the film, including major set extensions with huge vista shots of Mayan countries, digital matte paintings, image enhancements, face replacements and blemish removals, and animated reveals of certain key elements in the film, such as bringing an inanimate tree to life as a central character in the film. This was done using a combination of tools, including Autodesk’s Flame, Apple’s Shake, and Adobe’s Photoshop.

VFX facility Look Effects created a range of effects for the film The Fountain.Most of the work was subtle and included face replacement/blemish work,set extensions, and more, while other shots were more obvious.

To create the high plateau of the Mayan landscape, for instance, the artists at Look Effects used high-resolution imagery provided by the production group, as well as some stock images, to craft a digital landscape. They also pulled mattes and rotoscoped the foreground elements as needed, and composited the matte painting into the background.

All of the work, notes Fett, required seamless integration of the digital imagery into the physical production footage. "This allowed the director to push the scope of the landscape and vista shots, and move beyond the physical limitations of the set," he says. As a result, the director was able to unfold his story across three diverse periods.