Product Review: MotionBuilder 2011
Part of Autodesk's Entertainment Creation Suite 2011
The "Autodesk Entertainment Creation Suite," is a collection of 3D software which includes MotionBuilder and Mudbox, coupled with either 3ds Max or Maya. For this review, I received the Maya variant. For those new to these programs, here is a brief synopsis of what each of the components is targetted toward:
Mudbox® is a high resolution polygonal sculpting software. It is a brush-based software designed to efficiently sculpt on multi-million polygon meshes as if they were digital clay.
MotionBuilder®, the focus of our review, is a keyframe and motion-capture animation software targetted at the professional animator. It focuses on character animation and features a robust, full body IK solver and rapid character setup. It also has a very fast physics toolset for rigid body simulations. The viewport is realtime, with the 2011 version featuring GPU accelerated skin deformations and the ability to connect the physics solver to the NVIDIA® PhysX® software.
Maya® is a production hub, with the ability to do everything from model to animation of any variety, to physics-based simulations of everything from cloth to fluids, to complex effects work and even production-quality rendering through the integrated mental ray rendering software. When using MotionBuilder, you'll be moving files back and forth between it and Maya, or any other FBX capable exporter.
Best of all, is that these programs are all offered in 32-bit and 64-bit versions, the latter of which operates on the now ubiquitous 64-bit hardware, capable of addressing copious amounts of memory. With so many cool programs in the same suite, this raised an interesting question: Could I run Maya on Linux, and Mudbox and MotionBuilder on Windows, all under the same license? After some correspondence with Autodesk, apparently not:
"The DVDs of the software come with all versions (Mac, Windows, Linux 64, and 32 bit); however the suites are licensed as a collective, so all 3 applications in the suite will need to be loaded on the same machine."
While one could get around this limitation by using the network licensed variant, there exists a single network license for all three programs, i.e. when one checks out a license to an individual program, all three programs in the suite are listed as checked out. The programs cannot be run concurrently on different workstations. However, the real advantage to the suite is that you'll save almost 40% over purchasing each program individually. Given the price tag on some of these titles, that's a huge savings!
Review Copy Arrives
Installation of the suite was easy. There was a single installer provided which installed all of the software. For this review, I installed the 64-bit software on a newly assembled AMD Phenom II quad core system, with a modest 4GB of RAM, running Windows 7 Professional x64. While MotionBuilder 64-bit recommends 8GB of ram, I had no trouble running any of the example scenes I tried with half that much. This, while running Maya and numerous other programs as well.
Each program in the suite received several updates and new features, but the bulk of those upgrades are claimed by Maya. See Renderosity Maya review. However, in this review we'll be taking a look at the small set of new features found in MotionBuilder 2011.
GPU-Calculated Skin and Blendshape Deformers
This helps offload some of the most computationally intensive work of any animation package: vertex deformations. These include things such as skinning deformations caused by the bending of elbows and knees, to blend-shape deformations for facial animation and so forth. The ability to offload much of the work onto the GPU means faster interaction and faster playback. This, in turn, makes animating faster; you can see the results in real-time. Even with dense meshes, such as this specially re-worked Edward sample model, things remained highly interactive:
Animation Layers Updates
The animation layers has matured a bit. You can now rename layers, mute them, put them in solo mode (where you only see that layer's effect) and merge them. Another cool feature I found, was the ability to weight a layer's effect. One could think of this like adjusting the layer's transparency, as if it were Photoshop. The lower the weight, the less the selected layer affects the overall animation. Animation layers in MotionBuilder2011 are now a lot more similiar to, though still not as mature as, Maya's animation layers.
But, here's the great part: You can animate in Maya using animation layers, export your scene to FBX, and all of the animation and the layers, including names and so forth, will all be preserved. In this respect, MotionBuilder, and animation tools in general, have come a long way from those dark days before the dawn of animation layers and before any real interoperability. They were not the 'good old days.' MotionBuilder's added support for the layer features that we often take for granted in the 2D editing world, will benefit everyone, but, most especially, those interacting back and forth with Maya.
New Material Handling Method
Materials in MotionBuilder will now be more consistent from program to program. MotionBulder now more closely uses the FBX material model, thus providing beter interoperability. Hence, our scenes in Maya will look a lot closer to our scenes in MotionBuilder, and vice versa. The same applies for exports to game engines which utilize FBX as well.
Of course, this isn't to say that there aren't situations in which an FBX exported scene won't work. Some MentalRay shaders from Maya do not translate correctly, and instead are replaced by a default gray lambert. This is unfortunate, but quite understandable, given the extremely flexible and sometimes complex nature of Mental ray shaders and their networks, as the following screen capture from Maya illustrates:
Unfortunately, Maya doesn't tell you exactly which shader failed to export, and apparently neither does the log file, as this Maya Script editor screen capture of the log file illustrates:
Tracking down exactly which shader failed to export, in a complex scene, could be an interesting endeavor. I also ran into some other interesting quirks to the Maya 2011 FBX exporter. Namely, it reports a successful file write operation, even if you try to write to a read-only location. While this would usually just be a minor irritation, when working with a network server and jugling permission bits on a collaborative project, it would be nice to know whether the exported file now actually exists on disk. That said, I took the liberty of filing a bug report on this issue with Autodesk. We'll see if the next release fixes this. Speaking of which, last year we had the problem of the 'undo' operation and the 'set start state' dynamics solver not being on the best of terms. I'm pleased to report that this year... nothing has changed in that regard :(
There were also a few other goodies included in this release. Among them are the Batch Tool, which permitted users to use a scripting language to carry out repetitive tasks on a batch of files, has now been re-written in Python. This is a good move, as Python is becoming more ubuiquitous as an embeded scripting language. It can now be found in everything from Maya, to game engines, to Houdini, to web servers. It's also a good move because Python itself is a very well thought out, easy to use, full-featured programming language. There are many third party IDE's and other tools to aid in development, debugging, testing and deployment, as well as a large and supportive user community. To see high-end software employ as much Python as possible is a good sign.
MotionBuilder 2011 was also updated to FBX 2011, supporting the latest extensions to the FBX format. There's also been support added for NVIDIA's PhysX API to dramatically accelerate physics compuations via CUDA physics enabled chipsets, now found on many graphics cards.
Other, less visible changes are updates to the Software Development Kit, permitting developers to directly access data on character's bones, as well as numerous additional examples and updates to the SDK documentation. This will aid in getting developers new to MotionBuilder up to speed on talking to MotionBuilder at the code level.
This release was small in comparison to the last time I reviewed MotionBuilder. The updates feel more like incremental changes, rather than a rich set of major new features. That said, I think the udpates that users will enjoy the most are the introduction of more flexible animation layers and the overall peformance enhancements. Finally, here's a few other bonus screenshots, courtesy Autodesk:
Motion builder is available in two flavors, for 32-bit and 64-bit. The latter of which can address significantly more memory, but requires compatible 64-bit hardware running a 64-bit operating system.
The 32-bit flavor of MotionBuilder 2011 runs on the following operating systems:
- Microsoft® Windows® XP Professional operating system (SP2 or higher)
The 64-bit flavor of MotionBuilder 2011 runs on the following operating systems:
- Microsoft® Windows® XP Professional x64 Edition (SP2 or higher)
- Microsoft® Windows® Vista Business x64 Edition (SP1 or higher)
- Microsoft® Windows® 7 Professional x64 Edition
To view the supplied documentation, you'll also need to use one of the following two browsers. Unfortunately, this is actually a requirement, as after trying to view the docs with Google Chrome, I ran into problems. The documentation just said 'loading' forever and would never display anything. When I loaded it up with Microsoft Internet Explorer, everything went smoothly. I assume the same to be true for Mozilla Firefox.
- Microsoft® Internet Explorer® 7.0 or higher
- Mozilla® Firefox® 2.0 or higher
- Intel® Pentium® processor (minimal)
- Dual Core Processor Workstation or higher (Intel® or AMD® processors) (recommended)
- Qualified hardware-accelerated OpenGL® 2.1 (or higher recommended) professional graphics card.
Reviewer's Note: You can try your luck with consumer grade cards. Some work flawlessly, while others have display problems. Some minor, some major. Luck of the draw. The official qual charts are here: Autodesk Qual Charts
- 2GB hard drive space.
- 2GB RAM (minimum for 32-bit flavors)
- 4GB RAM (minimum for 64-bit flavors, 8GB recommended)
- Network card with Internet connection for licensing (offline license methods also supported)
- DVD drive for software installation
For more information on MotionBuilder 2011, see autodesk.com/motionbuilder.
All supporting images are copyright, and cannot be
copied, printed, or reproduced in any manner without written permission
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.