Evolving Characters
By Kathleen Maher
May 21, 2014

Evolving Characters

The art of creating characters is getting to be less of an art and more a matter of levers – at least when it comes to getting to a stock character you can work with.

There are several options for creation characters, including Mixamo’s Fuse, Autodesk’s Character Generator, and the open-source Make Human. All have some kind of free option, and all make it easy to create fully rigged characters that can be imported into 3D modeling and animation products for further editing. 

Autodesk has been working on its technology, which was acquired with Evolver in 2011. It’s been living in the labs as Project Pinocchio in a long beta state, but now it has graduated and is available as a cloud-based product called Character Generator. The tool has undergone a significant user interface change during its time under Autodesk. While the content does not look much different than it had in its Evolver days, it has a more robust and efficient backend that can deliver the final character in just a few minutes.

Creating a character is a simple matter in Character Generator, and although those playing with the free version cannot download characters created with the “artistic” options as used above, they can play around quite a bit. (Source: JPR)

Character Generator

Autodesk is making Character Generator available to subscribers of all versions of the Entertainment Creation Suite, as well as Maya, 3ds Max, Softimage, MotionBuilder, Mudbox, and Maya LT. It's also available with some rental packages including Max, Maya, and Maya LT. For those who want to try it out, Autodesk also has a free, limited version available. It requires registration for a free Autodesk account. 

The software lets you combine characteristics from basic character types to create a new character. It's fun, if not completely gratifying. This is done through an online site, so there is a certain amount of lag; not every action results in a predictable reaction, meaning there's not a lot of fine control. Still, it's a simple matter to get a character created in a few minutes. Character Generator also lets you download the rigged character as an FBX file, which can be used in other programs, or a Maya binary .mb file, along with a texture map. 

If you're a full subscriber, you can choose a resolution from crowd, low, medium, and high. You can add a facial rig. And, depending on the options chosen, you'll be charged the appropriate number of cloud credits. A high-resolution character is five cloud credits for subscribers and free for students and educators. In the US, credits cost a dollar and are sold in packs of $100. Subscribers get 100 credits free. 

The free option limits resolution, doesn't allow facial rigs, and limits downloadable body types to human, although you can play with the Gorn or Bulk styles to create more cartoonish characters using the Artistic option.

The characters can be used with Autodesk's products, of course, and there’s direct support for Maya and MotionBuilder. But as you might expect, a certain amount of hoop jumping is required to take them somewhere else to play. The Blender community reports that if characters can be exported to Collada, then they can be imported in Blender, including the rig. Models can be downloaded as an FBX file, which is widely supported throughout the content-creation industry.

Mixamo builds out products and services

Mixamo was originally founded as an online tool provider offering an automatic rigging service and animations, and that is the company’s primary business: serving the game development community. The company is also looking at possibly larger markets of people who are experimenting with 3D content creation and the creation of characters to use in games. Mixamo started out in 2008 as a cloud-based service offering a broad range of animations, from simple inexpensive moves to complex animations. The company also has a service division that creates custom animations for customers whose work went into titles such as Jurassic Park

Along the way, they found their customers asking for tools for facial animation and for character creation, so the company has added on new capabilities, including the Fuse character-creation tool and Face Plus. In fact, the company’s tools now combine online and offline features that work together pretty seamlessly in our experiments. 

Mixamo has a range of pricing options for customers. The all-access plan is the most popular with the company’s user base of game developers, but customers can also pay as they go with credits that start at about $1 and come down in price with volume. (Source: Mixamo)

Mixamo has been able to build through partnerships. In 2010, early in the company’s history, it had teamed with Evolver to provide characters if customers wanted them. When Autodesk bought Evolver and brought the technology into the Autodesk Labs, Mixamo was already working on new paradigms in the character-creation space. They had teamed with Stanford University in the development of a character generator. In this, they were going back to the well, since Mixamo got its start as a project at Stanford, where Corazza worked at the Biomotion Lab and developed markerless capture systems. 

Unlike other Mixamo services, Fuse is a client-based product, and unlike the Evolver technology, it doesn’t use the genetic metaphor. It’s more of a straight-ahead approach, and because it works on the desktop, it’s responsive. In fact, it’s downright snappy. The free version of Fuse offers the basics as far as characters go: male, female, arms, legs, hair, eyes, and so forth. You can also scale the body, add clothing, and more, but this is likely to be a situation where the users trying the product out for free are likely to realize they really need to pay to get something unique. 

Still, it’s fun, and Fuse is well integrated with Mixamo. When you’re ready to animate, you hit the Animate button, and your character is automatically uploaded. You are then given basic control points to assign to your model: chin, wrists, elbows, knees, everything Mixamo needs to add motion to your character. Rigging takes a bit of time, a couple of minutes, but then you’re presented with a character that’s literally ready to go. 

Mixamo partnered with Allegorithmic for textures, which gives customers endless opportunities for customization. And, two characters per month are free. 

Mixamo supports both Autodesk FBX format and Collada. 

Mixamo offers quite a few free motions so that users can create a free character with moves to get started. A personal favorite has to be Gangnam style, but in this case, the above character is doing a little Samba. (Source: JPR)

Mixamo went through several approaches to create a universal character-creation solution. Their work with Evolver is actually the second version, and Fuse is the third. According to Corazza, the company got valuable feedback from the community in the development of Fuse. He describes their primary business model as subscription-based, and says most customers prefer to pay the all-access subscription. It includes the full spectrum of Mixamo’s services. 

Primarily, Fuse is part of Mixamo’s strategy to grow into larger markets. Larger customers are much more likely to create their own models and upload them for rigging. However Carroza says  indie developers are the fastest adopters of this new technology.  Also, in the game world, there’s more and more interest in custom-created characters that players can upload and use to play in a game, and Mixamo sees opportunities for marketplaces where content can be exchanged. For instance, he cites Steam, where users are already creating content to sell to one another. With Fuse, they are increasing the value of those assets by integrating them into a complete character animation solution.

The company has also worked with Stanford, Unity, and AMD to create Face Plus, its facial animation product. The markerless system records data via the computer’s webcam and applies the animation to a character in the Unity 3D engine. AMD, an investor in the company, helped Mixamo leverage  OpenCL to bring hardware acceleration to Face Plus. The company has also received investment from Granite Ventures and Keynote Ventures. 

The company still works with Autodesk, as it built their Autodesk Animation Store within Autodesk 3ds Max. Mixamo is all about cooperation and collaboration because they’re essentially building a platform for community-developed content around Fuse. 

Make Human is an open-source character-creation tool designed for use with Blender. (Source: JPR)

Open-Source humans

Make Human is an open-source character generator created to complement Blender, the open-source modeler and animation tool. Like Fuse, it is a downloadable app, but it sits somewhere between Fuse, which lets you build up a character from parts, and Evolver, which lets you combine character traits to create a new character. Make Human lets you start with a model and then change it with controls and add different types of rigging, human IK, muscles, and so on. However, users may want to wait and take their character into Blender and do their rendering there, where they’ll be animating as well. 

Once you save your model, Make Human provides the dimensions of your model: height, chest size, waist, and even brassiere size. Once generated, characters can be edited via text files by changing the dimensions. As an aside, it just has to be mentioned that Make Human developers provide an amazing range of options for genitals. Breasts can be as perky or as not-so-perky as you like (there is a slider for that). And, there are just as many options for male characters. Obviously, these characters can be designed for a wide range of activities. The amount of clothes and accessories is quite limited compared to the other two solutions (15 total), but this is probably why the tool is still in alpha.

Again, for the most part, getting to a character was easy. Getting exactly the character you imagine is not so easy, and it seems all three of these products are designed primarily as a starting point.  

So what do we think? 

In a way, all three companies are taking a run at creating easier, more lightweight tools that can suit a range of people and needs. The availability of content that users can choose, customize, and put to work helps streamline production. All three approaches addressed here add to the pool of usable content, but they’ve taken different approaches to making it available to people. Make Human has gone the open-source route and has opened up its source code to the community. Autodesk has made its Character Generator proprietary. Mixamo’s Fuse sites are in the middle. The code is developed and maintained by Mixamo, but the community is invited to add content and, in the future, exchange or trade it. 

The fact that I could produce a model at all is evidence that the ease of use is there, and this technology is fun. Having played with earlier versions, tools for making characters in games or for 3D worlds, can be considerably less fun and more tedious. The technology has made huge advances. 

How democratic can it get?

Like video, 3D modeling is difficult. New products arriving on the market are making it much easier, but it’s still difficult to make magic, and it probably always will be. Companies like Autodesk, Mixamo, Daz3D, Poser, and others believe that eventually there can be a market for people to create their own characters that can be their avatars in games or 3D worlds, or on Facebook and elsewhere. 

Maybe. There are smart people who believe in the wider growth potential for this market. 

In the meantime, these tools are valuable learning tools for beginners and useful for professionals. Game development demands a huge amount of customer content, and that content goes stale fast. These tools help the beleaguered creative community quickly create content to feed the hungry maw. 

Kathleen Maher is a contributing editor to CGW, a senior analyst at Jon Peddie Research, a Tiburon, California-based consultancy specializing in graphics and multimedia, and editor in chief of JPR’s “TechWatch.” She can be reached at Kathleen@jonpeddie.com .