Saturday, February 6th, 2010
For someone new to the world of animation, especially real-time animation, the industry and what’s available can appear downright bewildering. There are a great many solutions it seems, starting with Autodesk’s wonderful, but pricey solutions, to free and shareware solutions. There are of course the most well-known and perhaps also the most popular solutions such as Autodesk’s solutions, Kinemac for the Mac and Reallusion’s iClone4. But there are plenty of other options as well.
A lot depends on what the application is. The applications for real-time animation can range from such a thing as creating 3D-characters that can be manipulated in some way at real-time, either for animated film or gaming purposes, to something as simple as setting up a nice animation that you want to send as a greeting. These days the subject of producing real-time animations in teleconferencing or video-conferencing scenarios is also becoming gradually more common. These can be thought of as a virtual puppet, with one person controlling the movements of the puppet, which is an animated object on a computer screen. Some people also refer to this as performance animation, since it implicitly involves someone directing the animated object or character’s movements, in that sense this person is the “performer” for the animation. No matter what you call it, and what the exact application, one thing is clear that it requires some kind of real-time capability, either through manipulation on an interface, or better still through motion capture. The second thing that it also requires is a real-time rendering engine that can render the animation being created quickly and efficiently, and display almost at the same time as it is being created.
In the degenerate sense many gaming platforms are actually doing a little bit of real-time animation, and something like the Wii platform in particular is doing something like that. There is motion capture (or you interact through an interface composed of input devices: keyboard, mouse, joystick, etc.) and then there is rendering to show that motion on screen. However, the big distinction being that nothing creative is being achieved in this case.
Before moving on we should also mention that there are scientific and legal applications as well, where the animation can be used to simulate (or emulate) certain scenarios to glean more information or better understanding. Thus, the applications are plentiful, and so are the solutions. Another note of caution that is required is that sometimes real-time animation can mean real-time rendering, in that a given animation is not a recorded animation but rather that each frame is rendered at real-time as you watch it (however the animation itself may be predefined and there need not be a direct interaction producing it while you watch it).
We decided to take a look at a few so that a resource of a range of solutions would be available at one place. And then depending on what you need you can select whichever you prefer. The list is not comprehensive, but we hope that it will serve as a guide.
Undoubtedly the industry leader. Some of Autodesk’s solutions have been around for years, especially 3ds Max (which was previously called 3D Studio Max). The Autodesk Suites come in two flavors: the Maya real-time animation suite and the 3ds Max real-time animation suite. Both suites include MotionBuilder. Here is a look at each software individually with pricing (free trials are available):
3ds Max: 3ds Max includes 3D modeling and rendering software. The 2010 version has a number of features including: a new Graphite modeling and texturing system; integrates the Mental Mill technology; extensive polygon modeling capabilities; efficient character animation software with an integrated Biped toolset; Spline and 2D modeling tools; character animation through skeletons and inverse kinematics; an integrated Mental Ray renderer; advanced motion capture capabilities; and much much more. Priced at $3495. 1GB RAM required, with 2GB Hard Disk space and Direct3D 9/10 or OpenGL graphics (128 MB). Windows XP Professional or better.
Maya: Maya is a 3D modeling, animation, rendering and visual effects software. It has a host of features including: professional camera tracking; polygon texture assignment and editing; NURBS modeling; Trax nonlinear animation system; Motion Capture with Dense Data Editing and Resampling; Rigid and Soft Body Dynamics; a number of rendering controls and effects; integrated scripting; and more. Also priced at $3495. 2GB RAM required, with 2GB Hard Disk space and OpenGL graphics (128 MB). Windows, Mac or Linux.
MotionBuilder: MotionBuilder is a character animation tool, that allows you to create real-time animation fluidly and quickly. Characters can be built using intelligent skeletons and kinematics. Then bringing them to life is through keyframe or effection motion capturing tools or both. There are a host of animation tools and motion editors, to get exactly the motion effect that you want. Its feature set includes: multi-threading and optimization; real-time simulations of characters; real-time support for deformation of highly-detailed, fully-textured characters; and support for multiple characters through a large animation data set. Sells for $3995. Requires Windows XP SP2 or higher with 2GB RAM, 1GB Hard Disk space, and OpenGL 1.5 Graphics.
According to its publisher’s Mach Studio Pro really gives you the capability to “Work at the Speed of Thought!” Whether this is accomplished or not is for you to find out, but it does have an attractive set of features that seem to promise much. To begin with there is the real-time rendering engine that will easily render the animation on your desktop without requiring a separate rendering utility. It provides a great deal of interactivity with the 3D graphic workspace and that is one of its strongest features. There are fully animatable properties for all objects, lights, materials and cameras, including an auto-keying feature. You can also change the lighting rigs at any point in the production process, giving you a great deal of artistic flexibility. It is resolution independent and thus allows rendering at any resolution and format. Best of all, it supports interoperability with industry standard tools such as Autodesk’s Maya and 3ds Max. Runs on Windows XP Professional, Vista Business and Windows 7 (32bit or 64bit) and requires ATI or NVIDIA DirectX9 graphics card with at least 1GB of RAM. Publisher’s insist on ATI FirePro Graphics capabilities as well. Student version is available for $999, full version is $3,999 (if you already have an ATI FirePro or compatible high end Graphics card), else the price with an ATI FirePro card is $4,999.
Toon Boom’s Animate Pro combines vector technology, real-time animation tools and nodal compositing to provide a comprehensive animation toolkit. The beauty of the suite begins with the interface that can be user adapted and customized as needed. Working comfort is further enhanced by a smooth integration of the pipeline and workflow. Artistic freedom is supported by the fact that Animate Pro allows a number of multiple brush tools, textures, and gradients, along with an advanced clean, ink and paint toolkit – the combination of which will let you keep your paper artistic style alive on the computer screen, with the benefit of nuance and intricacy. Symbols and pegs work in unison with key framing is possible in cut-out to speed-up the animation process. In terms of camera control, Animate Pro allows you complete control along all three axes, including moving, scaling and rotation. Other features include: advanced lip-syncing and cell-swapping tools; frame tweening is possible using the timeline; drawings can be exposed according to your requirements using Xsheet; inverse kinematics; a vast range of over 50 special effects that can be applied in real-time, while an animation is in progress; and a nifty morphing tool. Windows XP or higher OR Mac OS X 10.5 or higher. At least 1GB of RAM and 300MB Hard Disk space. NVIDIA or ATI video card. Priced at $1999.99, but there is a trial version available.
Craft Director Studio is a set of tools that extends the capabilities of existing software such as Maxon Cinema 4D and SoftImage, and enables real-time functionality on them. (It also works with Maya and 3ds Max, although in their case the real-time enhancement point is a bit moot. There are of course other enhancements that can be added to extend their functionality.) Based on Artificial Intelligence and autonomous control systems research, the main objective and achievement of the Craft Director Studio set of tools is to radically transform the workflow to make them real-time or near real-time. Automatic keyframing is used for time savings and the quality of animations is improved through the use of a real-time physics engine. Pricing is in terms of bundles such as a Camera Tools Bundle, an Architecture Bundle, a Forensic Bundle, and so on. Individual features can also be bought as modules, such as Craft HumanizerCam (part of Camera Tools Bundle), Craft Airplane Extended (part of Vehicle Tools Bundle) and so on. Prices range from $129 to $1199 for individual modules. Bundles vary from $986 to $5099. Note that depending on how much you buy, this can easily go into the “pricey” bracket, and that there is the price of the core software to be considered as well.
Messiah Studio is an award winning 3D animation and rendering application. The professional edition costs $599 and is worth it when you consider that such films as Ghost Rider, Hell Boy, and the Harry Potter movies have used Messiah Studio. If that is still too high a price tag, there is also the basic edition that is more affordable at $399. Messiah Studio has excellent motion capture capabilities and the renderer is a hybrid of scanline and raytracing technology. The Messiah renderer has a number of attractive features such as: a flexible node based shader editor; multithreaded rendering; global illumination; high dynamic range imaging (HDRI) lighting; subsurface scattering and more. Its other features include: an Armature system that provides a direct visual method for creating character and program control; easy-to-use skeleton and deformation features; modular interoperability with a number of major suites; a great many plug-ins for enhanced functionality; hair effects including clumping, guide hairs, dynamics and collision (click on image to see an excellent demo/tutorial); and much more.
At $199.95 iClone 4 is certainly an affordable real-time 3D animation solution. It allows for drag-and-drop based fast editing, and object’s can be individually edited In-Screen. It is very easy to bring live actors into iClone and then proceeding from there to creating animation using this as a basis is quite simple. This is simplified by a number of features such as: customizable actors and styles; body transformation and facial deformation capabilities; CloneCloth costume design for the actors; 3D facial puppeteering; interactivity between actors and In-Screen objects; In-Screen motion editing and more. Other features include: HDR video effects; set designing with 3D blocks and material balls, as well as the ability to build a stage with terrain, sky and live plants (see figure); advanced camera and lighting options, with lens effects, directional and point lights, HDR and IBL lighting effects, etc.; and a whole lot more.
Kinemac is a solution for Mac OS X which, coming in at $299 is a great deal. It allows you to drag images, text, movies and songs onto the Kinemac stage and you can easily integrate them into your animation. Movies and text can be applied to ready-to-use objects such as cubes, cylinders, spheres, tubes, pipes, etc. and these can easily be animated using key frames. The animation control system is based on Brezier curves and it allows you to control individual aspects of movement including translations, rotations, resizing, fading, speed, acceleration and deceleration. This can be done for any object that is on the Kinemac stage, and the animation can be played in real-time. A number of helpful tutorials explain how to get things done in Kinemac.
Blender is an Open Source solution available for Windows 98 or higher, Mac OS X, Linux, FreeBSD, SGI Irix 6.5 and Sun Solaris 2.8 or higher. It is mainly a modeling and rendering tool which can be used to create things such as 3D avatars, architecture models, and animations from photos. The 3D object modeling progresses through a traditional polygon mesh, NURBS surfaces, Bezier and B-spline curves. Mesh modeling is possible based on vertex, edge and/or face selection. Rigging features include a fast skeleton creation mode and automatic skinning. The rendering engine is tightly integrated with the node compositor and the render engine supports layers and passes. Real-time 3D functions include: a graphical logic editor for defining interactive behavior without the need of programming; collision detection and dynamics simulation with Bullets Physics Library support; full support for vehicle dynamics, multi-materials, multi-texture and texture blending modes, per-pixel lighting, dynamic lighting, Normal and Parallax Mapping; and more. Requires at least 128MB of RAM with 20MB free hard disk space and an OpenGL graphics card with 16MB RAM; but 2GB of RAM recommended with OpenGL Graphics card that has 128MB RAM.
Animata is another Open Source tool that is ideally suited to such tasks as real-time animation and interactive background projections for shows. The movement of puppets as well as the changes in the background are generated at real-time allowing for continuous interaction between you (or the performer) and the end-result animation. It is possible to create an animated character that reacts to its environment through the integration of such things as physical sensors, cameras or other environmental variables. Jazz Pub is an amazing example of an animation reacting to an audio input stimulus created using Animata.