Motion Builder 2013 - A Maya Panel (pretty much)

Product Review: MotionBuilder 2013
Part of Autodesk's Entertainment Creation Suite 2013

I received MotionBuilder 2013 as part of the Autodesk Entertainment Creation Suite 2013 - Ultimate Edition. This bundle includes Maya, 3ds Max, MotionBuilder, Softimage, Mudbox, and now Sketchbook Designer, as well as the usual MatchMover and Composite (formerly Toxik). It's pretty much everything you would ever need to run your own visual effects boutique. That is - if you had time to master it all. There is a lot of cool software in this bundle and learning it all should keep a person busy for the better part of a decade. This review can barely touch a fragment of it all.

This review focuses on MotionBuilder 2013, some of its new features and its integration with the previously mentioned software. My personal pipeline revolves around Maya 2013, so MotionBuilder software's now even tighter integration with Maya is a huge help, but more on that in just a moment.

For those new to MotionBuilder, it's an industry leading animation tool. Keyframe animation, non-linear animation, dense motion capture editing, etc. MotionBuilder excels at motion editing. You can cut, copy, paste and blend animation data from various mocap clips and other animation sources to produce a seamless performance. This can easily be done even when the source of the animation, and the character it is driving, differ dramatically in size and proportions. It's primarily a clip based editor, but supports traditional keyframe animation as well.

That said, MotionBuilder 2013 is not, by itself, motion capture software. However, with some third party plugins and hardware, you can drive live performances of characters in MotionBuilder 2013 from optical motion capture performances. MotionBuilder was most famous for popularizing the HumanIK solver now available in many Autodesk products. Most of the updates available in MotionBuilder 2013 were useful, but not as cool as one very awesome new feature...

Live Data Recording to Disk - not the aforementioned awesome

In the olden days (last year) live motion capture performances were recorded to main memory (i.e. RAM). The problem was that there was only so much memory to go around; the length of a given recorded clip was limited by the amount of physical memory in the machine. For example, if you had a live capture via a plugin, such as optiTrack's Arena or whatever, you could run out of memory during an extended clip recording.

You basically had to start recording, shout at the actor in the spandex suit, "Action! ... Cut!" then stop recording. Start recording, shout "Action!... Cut!" - you can see where this is going...

All the shouting made you feel like a real director, but it got irritating when you forgot to do the stop, save, start cycle, and instead just ran of memory because you were distracted by a kung-fu kick to the face.

"Johnny, that was absolutely perfect, but you need to do it again!"

"What? Why? This is like the 37th take and I finally nailed it."

"Yeah, there was a... ehm... a technical difficulty - It's complicated."

Fortunately, you can now record directly to an on-disk file. The length of a recorded performance is only limited by the capacity of your hard disk. There's a little toggle button in the Story view that determines whether clips are recorded to ram or to disk. If recorded to disk, to work with a clip just right click it in Story -> Load/Unload -> Load Clips. It then loads into memory and behaves like any other clip. Cake.

Story Clip Grouping - layer groups, but for clips

Anyone here use Photoshop? (It was a rhetorical question, really) Remember the layer groups (that little folder you put layers in)? MotionBuilder 2013 has pretty much the same thing, but for tracks in the Story view. You can move, resize, razor and re-time a whole set of tracks all at once as if they lived inside one master track to rule them all. This makes re-timing a sequence which consists of multiple tracks, each possibly containing multiple clips, much easier. And yes, you can have nested folders!

The only thing I found that I couldn't do with folders containing clips, was 'razor' the folder's summary clip. In the image above where it says 'Folder 1', you can't razor that because it's not technically a clip. It would be nice if you could, because it would result in two folders that reside next to one another in time. The benefit would be permitting me to easily shift all of the contained clips. This isn't a major gripe, however, and I can see where implementing it as well as understanding what happens when you razor a summary clip, could get complicated. Still, I'm glad to say that you can razor all contained clips within a folder and sub-folder.

While this is a cool and certainly useful feature, there are far cooler things to talk about... (Up next is the aforementioned awesomeness. I'm banking the entire review on this next feature. Ready?)

Live Streaming Connection - Oh... my... God

Coolest feature ever. MotionBuilder 2013 has just become a Maya Panel, or at least that's what it feels like when you activate the Live Connection feature now available in Maya 2013. The 'send to Maya' and respective 'Send to MotionBuilder' buttons in the two programs were invaluable for quickly tossing data back and forth. However, this year things got better; someone got the bright idea, "why not just make it a real time connection?" - That's pretty much what happened.

From Maya 2013, you can establish a live connection to a character in MotionBuilder 2013. You then animate that character, or manipulate any of its character controls in MotionBuilder, and the character in Maya updates in real time. This is cool for a number of reasons.

First, virtual sets and lighting are generally done in Maya, while animation is done in MotionBuilder - often driven by real-time sources via additional third party plugins. Put 2 and 2 together and you get a character in Maya walking around the virtual set with all the pretty real-time lighting, ambient occlusion, anti-aliasing and motion blur, as rendered by Maya software's viewport 2.0 (with applicable workstation video cards, e.g: NVIDIA Quadro).

The character's animation is all driven by a character in MotionBuilder which, in-turn, can be driven by a motion capture device, i.e. a real-world actor - in real time. It's all pretty sick, but that's not the really cool part. You ready?

The really cool part of all this black magic is that it's established over an IP network socket. This means you could have an animator running MotionBuilder 2013 across the street over a low latency, high speed vlan and a technical director running Maya 2013 - in another building. The TD can connect to the animator's copy of of MotionBuilder (you'll have to work out the IP addresses and NAT issues with the IT Department, but it's totally do-able). You get to see the MotionBuilder animation driving a character in your Maya viewport 2.0 - in real time. This pretty much blew me away, but it also brings up a related topic (See: Maya's viewport 2.0).

I must admit, I was a little nervous about this feature, because normally when an application is in the background the openGL window doesn't get re-drawn. (I was running both MotionBuilder and Maya on the same machine, each on its own monitor. Thus, one application would be inactive, i.e. in the 'background.') I thought I would have to click back and forth between Maya and MotionBuilder, or stick with one in order to see the updates. Wrong.

Fortunately, this is not the case. The live connection feature implements the openGL re-draws correctly, so that if both application are run on the same machine, both applications get updated. In short, it all works just like you think it should. Did I mention it was cool?

Maya's viewport 2.0 - a side tangent

Bear with me. I'm about to get a little preachy. This isn't a Maya review. However, MotionBuilder and Maya work so closely together it's hard to mention one without the other.

Maya viewport 2.0. It's that high performance awesome sauce that produces high quality hardware renders. Want to model with ambient occlusion turned on? Go for it. Need to render some TV spot by tomorrow morning? Cake. It works in the viewport as well as for offline rendering of frames to later be composited. It's wonderful, it's great, we love, etc, but your mileage may vary. Why? It's a hardware render.

The performance, stability, and often the ability to use Maya viewport 2.0 at all, greatly depends on your graphics hardware. Maya is officially supported only by professional workstation hardware. This means cards like the NVIDIA Quadro line and so on. While consumer cards such as the GeForce line might work with some features - they also might not.

If professional graphics are your business and your livelihood, you really should be using a professional graphics card, e.g: NVIDIA Quadro whatever. I'm not saying this just to push NVIDIA either. If AMD/ATI is your game, go with their qualified workstation lineup. I can only vouch for NVIDIA because that's what I personally use. Why the push toward a $2,000-$3,000+ graphics card? (Don't spill your coffee.) Here goes...

As a graphics professional, a computer isn't just for checking email and playing games - it's a high performance tool. If your income depends on that tool, it must perform reliably with the software it was built to run. Certified drivers for applications such as Maya and MotionBuilder go a long way toward stability. When crunch time hits, the last thing you need is:

"What the hell is that black spot in my hardware render?"

"Why is this particle flickering? Is it trying to communicate with me?"

"The texture has become - mud."

"The PaintFX brush has gone completely and totally berzerk."

With the increased dependence on production quality hardware renders, this becomes more critical. Yes, NVIDIA Quadro cards are expensive. Yes, they're like 10 times the price of a GeForce card. Yes, it's tempting to use a consumer card instead, but: losing money because you missed a deadline trying to debug an issue on unsupported hardware is *very* expensive. The software itself costs more than the card. There - I said it. I'm done preaching. Don't say I didn't warn you.

HUD

The new Heads Up Display is pretty slick. Given that HUD's aren't normally much to brag about, MotionBuilder software's is cool enough to mention. You get the usual frame rate, memory usage, scene name, etc., but you also can have any property from any object be rendered in the HUD and update as the property updates. This could be anything from the translate Y of a cube, to the rotation of a character's jaw.

Creating HUDs was easy enough. You simply drag and drop a HUD object from the Asset Browser (Templates -> Elements -> HUD) onto a camera. You then create new HUD elements in the Navigator window. You can have what appears to be an unlimited number of elements in your HUD. Each element can be one of 14 different types, including, but not limited to:

You can position, scale and color any HUD element by adjusting its parameters in the Navigator. For text based elements you even get to choose your fonts from system fonts. DejaVu Sans Mono anyone?

Intelligent Transparency Sorting

Anyone who has ever had a virtual ship in a bottle, or similar situation, knows that selecting the ship inside a transparent bottle is almost impossible. You click to select the ship's sails and the transparent bottle gets selected instead. While this is technically correct from the perspective of polygonal Z-depth testing, it's not useful. MotionBuilder fixes this by ignoring transparent objects in depth sorting for selections. You can select the ship's sails and the transparent bottle doesn't get selected; it's transparent, so it gets ignored. Of course, you can turn this mode off if you need to. There's a toggle button on the right side of the viewport:

The really nice part however, was that when I tested this feature it also worked with texture-based transparencies :)

Broadcast Wave Format Support and Other Audio Goodies

Broadcast wave format is an audio file format based on the more widely known standard Wave format, but includes additional meta data for things like linking audio clips to one another and data for helping audio-visual sync, etc. MotionBuilder 2013 now supports this file format. You can drag and drop them into the Story view and treat them like an ordinary clip, e.g: you can razor them, fade in and out, re-time them, group them, etc. You can do the same thing with MP3s, as well as standard WAVs. The only thing I found that you couldn't do, was adjust the volume of an individual audio track. (Not a transition fade.) Granted, now we're starting to get into audio mixing, which really isn't MotionBuilder's intended purpose. We'll forgive that.

Final Thoughts

There's a lot of cool updates this year, including several that didn't fit into this review, but the live connection feature is the coolest of them all. Seriously, I must have played with it for two hours and still didn't get bored. It was like having Maya on auto-pilot. I turned on Maya's viewport 2.0 and cranked up the real-time ambient occlusion, anti-aliasing, motion blur and other quality settings, and it was like watching a fully rendered scene - as driven from MotionBuilder from the second monitor!

Take this setup into the mocap studio and get some motion actor driving a real-time character in MotionBuilder... it's real time virtual production. I haven't been this blown away since Maya first introduced real-time dynamics.

You can test drive MotionBuilder 2013, as well as a myriad of other Autodesk products, free at: http://www.autodesk.com/freetrials.

System Requirements

Software

The 32-bit version of Autodesk MotionBuilder 2013 software is supported on the following operating system:

  • Microsoft® Windows® XP Professional operating system (SP3)

The 64-bit version of MotionBuilder 2013 software is supported on any of the following operating systems:

  • Microsoft Windows® 7 Professional operating system
  • Microsoft® Windows Vista® Business x64 Edition operating system (SP2)
  • Microsoft Windows XP Professional x64 Edition (SP2)

The following web browsers are supported for MotionBuilder 2013:

  • Microsoft® Internet Explorer® 7.0 internet browser or higher
  • Mozilla® Firefox® web browser

Hardware

At a minimum, the 32-bit version of MotionBuilder 2013 software requires a system with the following hardware:

  • Intel® Pentium® 4, AMD Athlon™ processor with SSE3 instruction set support (or higher)
  • Qualified hardware-accelerated OpenGL® 2.1 (or higher) graphics card
  • 2 GB free hard drive space. Setup requires additional temporary disk space for your system’s temporary folder when decompressing files during installation.
  • 2 GB of RAM
  • USB Cam for Live Video Input.
  • Network adapter with internet connection for licensing (non-internet connected licensing is also supported)
  • DVD-ROM drive

At a minimum, the 64-bit version of MotionBuilder 2013 software requires a system with the following hardware:

  • Windows: Intel® Pentium® 4 processor, AMD Athlon™ processor with SSE3 instruction set support (or higher)
  • Qualified hardware-accelerated OpenGL® 2.1 (or higher) graphics card
  • 2 GB free hard drive space. Setup requires additional temporary disk space for your system’s temporary folder when decompressing files during installation.
  • 4 GB of RAM
  • USB Cam for Live Video Input.
  • Network adapter with internet connection for licensing (non-internet connected licensing is also supported)
  • DVD-ROM drive

For detailed system requirements see: http://www.autodesk.com/pdf/motionbuilder_2013_system_requirements_en.pdf

Autodesk


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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.

 

 

 


July 30, 2012

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