As the name implies, Autodesk MotionBuilder is all about animation. Character animation. MotionBuilder provides animatiors with sophistocated animation tools in an attempt to dramatically decrease the time it takes to animate a performance, whether it be a traditional keyframe animation or to modify motion capture data. MotionBuilder integrates with Maya and 3DS Max by means of importing and exporting through the FBX file format, which is now ubiquitous among Autodesk products.
Modulok, Meets MotionBuilder...
My journey with MotionBuilder began when the review copy arrived at my doorstep. The installation of the 32 bit version on Windows XP went fairly smoothly, but there were a few hair-pulling moments which required the acquisition of some missing components: The latest version of Microsoft's Net framework, as well as an Autodesk website membership. In hind-sight, nothing too upsetting but at the time it was mildly frustrating.
MotionBuilder initially displays the usual spash screen, followed a set of quick-start links to various bits of documentation and training videos. The initial 'Getting Started' guide is a PDF file presented like a step-by step comic strip. The artistic minded will like the reprieve from traditional wordy technical tutorials, while the technical minded may raise an eyebrow. Regardless, it got me quickly acquainted with the basic workflow and where MotionBuilder fits into the production pipeline, as illustrated above.
As the screenshot depicts, MotionBuilder's interface is comprised of floating palettes arranged in convenient layouts. Layouts can be re-arranged and their new arrangements can be saved, providing quick customization. There are also several factory pre-sets available via the 'Layout' drop-down menu, along with their respective hotkeys. The factory presets are arranged to assume a 4:3 screen resolution (i.e. 1024x768, 1280x960, ...), but palettes may be freely moved to arbitrary positions and those positions saved for later referral. This I found to be quite useful with my widescreen layout.
Traditional keyframe animation tools in MotionBuilder are pretty standard. Set keys, edit f-curve tangents, rejoice. However, there were a few extras: The ability to create layers of animation and stack them on top of one another, non-destructivity is a big plus, especially when editing dense motion-capture data. Also the ability to move between inverse kinematics (IK) to forward kinematics (FK) effortlessly, was a nice reprieve from the usual IK/FK blending routine. Rig pinning is also indispensable: One can lock IK effectors to arbitrary points in space and have the full-body IK solver maintain their position, while solving for the other effectors. With all of this, posing a character is actually quite pleasant but more importantly quite fast. By the end of the day this dramatically speeds up the time it takes to animate a performance.
Rigid body dynamics are cool, especially when they solve in real-time. MotionBuilder 2009 now features rigid-body dynamics, which can interact with characters, influencing their animation. Throw a rag doll against ammo crates or have a character punch through a brick wall. While rigid bodies have been long available in other animation programs, MotionBuilder's rigid bodies are, like the rest of MotionBuilder, real-time. (i.e. really fast.) There is no more waiting for rigid body simulations to cache, one simply clicks play.
This release also includes enhancements to the viewport rendering, which I found to be quite nice. While I won't be using MotionBuilder as my rendering software anytime soon, it certainly adds to the experience for animators who have traditionally be stuck in a dull gray world. It's also nice to use to see an approximation of how the final shot will look, which goes a long way in convincing a client that their money is well spent.
Fancy features aside though, it's the little features that I liked. Such as character controls lighting up if they are keyed on the current frame. With rigs which contain many controlers, this lets the animator quickly know what has been keyed and and what has not. That, and the interactive playback performance was quite nice in comparison to other programs. No more playblasting or low resolution proxies to get a feel for the timing in full motion; simply click play and it's there in the viewport, in real-time.
While MotionBuilder is initially impressive, it's not without its minor qualms. I found some tools to be downright useless and others only mildly irritating. The steering wheel (see screenshot) comes to mind. While turned off by default, it was a minor feature of this release, so I had to check it out. It's a small, circular heads-up-display element that follows the mouse cursor. It is divided into several pie wedges, each labeled with a navigational action. The user can click within a named wedge and drag the mouse around to perform the respective action. After much messing around with it, it has got to be the least efficient method of getting around the 3D viewport ever conceived. To its credit though, it may yet find some use for giving someone who isn't familiar with traditional hotkey combinations a way to navigate...such as a production supervisor or shot director. Fortunately it can be, and is by default, dissabled.
Additional irritations were sparked from tinkering with the configuration settings. MotionBuilder requires the user to restart the program after making most configuration changes. The only other complaint I have with my brief experience, were those floating palettes. Admittedly only a personal preference, if not a pet peeve, I hate floating palettes. They are, by definition, in the way. While the saved layouts make it feel more like a panel based interface, eventually a floating palette will find a way to occluding something important.
Despite my minor gripes, I can say with full confidence that MotionBuilder will definitely increase the productivity of a great many animators out there. The brief time I spent with MotionBuilder can obviously only scratch the surface, but I quickly got the feeling the program was solid. With the addition of rigid-body dynamics among other nice ammenities added in this release, it is a solid program and a solid performer. I would go so far as to dub it the animator's Photoshop. With a suggested retail price of $3,995(USD) per node-locked seat, MotionBuilder is targetted at the professional animator and from my brief experiences with it, it packs the tools to get the job done.
MotionBuilder comes in two flavors, a 32-bit version and a 64-bit version, both available as node-locked or network licenses.
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Kurt Foster (Modulok) falls somewhere between programmer and visual effects artist. When not sifting through technical manuals, he takes on freelance roles in both programming and visual effects attempting to create a marriage of technical knowledge with artistic talent. He can be seen helping out on the Renderosity Maya forum, when time permits.
November 17, 2008
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