MotionBuilder 2012 - Things Just Got Awesome

Product Review: MotionBuilder 2012
Part of Autodesk's Entertainment Creation Suite 2012

I received MotionBuilder as part of the Autodesk Entertainment Creation Suite 2012, Premium Edition. This bundle includes Maya, MotionBuilder, Softimage, Mudbox, MatchMover and Composite. This review covers just some of the changes that have occurred in the new Autodesk MotionBuilder 2012 as well as how they relate to some of the changes in Maya 2012. That said, this is primarily a MotionBuilder review, but does mention some Maya 2012 features. Once you scroll past the EULA that's longer than this review, (No joke, it's like 13,000+ words.) installation was easy.

For those unfamiliar with the product, MotionBuilder is a tool centered around character animation. It boasts a real time environment to work in, where performances playback at full speed. It also features the HumanIK solver, which is what made MotionBuilder so famous. With this rig, you can over-extend the translation on a character's IK handle, and the rest of the body will follow-through in a natural way. Character controls can also be "pinned" in translation or rotation to not move, when the rest of the character does. There are numerous tools for dealing with dense motion capture data, as well as tools for managing assets from other packages. The work flow is essentially this:

  1. Import a skinned character from Maya or 3ds max.
  2. Setup a control rig in MotionBuilder.
  3. Start animating.
  4. Send data back to Maya/Max for production rendering.

That said, MotionBuilder takes care of almost the entire rigging process (though not skinning) for you. Setting up a control rig on a skinned character usually takes less than 5 minutes of work. Sometimes, just a few seconds. After that, you'll have access to all of MotionBuilder's dedicated animation tools on a production quality rig.

Warning

Before we get into any of the specific new features, let me just say this: Upgrade. There have been more features and fixes in this year's release of MotionBuilder than in the past 2 releases combined. As long-winded as this review is, it still doesn't cover every new feature! Such a feat would constitute a book of a few dozen pages. Instead, I have selected a few things to cover in the hope that I can illustrate the direction in which MotionBuilder is moving.

Online Docs

Help files aren't exciting news, but they did change! They're now online, web-based documentation hosted on Autodesk's servers. This is a Good Thing™, as the docs will always be up-to-date. However, offline docs can still be downloaded if you're on a slow or unreliable connection. In itself, this is hardly a feature but still a nice change. This also means that Autodesk moved away from Windows style help files and instead rely on a help layout inspired by Maya. This also means the help files now get displayed in an ordinary web browser:

Alright, enough help files. It's time for something exciting...

UI Goes Qt

The UI changed! It now uses the same widget toolkit (and color scheme) as Maya. (The Qt toolkit for any programmers out there. And yes, your custom python UI's can doc with the interface!) This means both Maya and MotionBuilder have the same visual look-and-feel. It also means that MotionBuilder's previous floating palette UI scheme is finally dead! (However, panels can still be 'torn-off' as desired.) By default, it's a panel based UI, à la Maya. Unfortunately, this year we say goodbye to an old friend. The surfer dude in the character controls window, surfed his lasft wave. He's been replaced by Facing Ratio Fred. (And he's huge!) Still, it all looks pretty slick!

Unfortunately, all is not peaches and cream. On the minor end of things, is the character controls window, i.e. Fred. He cannot be resized and he's huge! A far more serious complaint, however, is the Navigator panel. If resized, you can effectively obscure parts of the UI with no way of knowing they're hidden. For example, most UI's will display a scroll bar when the contents of a panel doesn't fit on screen. The Navigator in MotionBuilder doesn't do this; The extra controls are simply missing, silently obscured below the bottom of you screen. For new users this can be discouraging as they may not be aware of this behavior. This is inherited from previous versions of MotionBuilder which had the same affect, but in floating palette form. Fortunately, there is an alternative: Use the properties window instead. It does have a scroll bar that pops up when there's too much content. Still, let us bear witness to the Navigator window's failure:

Now scale the panel down a touch and we get this:

Character Setup

Rigging, even basic rigging, used to be a black art filled with strange magic and even stranger tools. I can remember spending countless hours writing code to try and speed up the process. Push button rigs were like the treasure at the end of the rainbow. A romantic thought, but hardly relaity. The characterization tool is that pot of gold! It makes rigging easy, even for a novice.

Using the characterization tool, in combination with the Human IK solver, you get a great rig for almost no effort. Sure, you have to setup all the right bones and skin them in Maya or Max. Sure, it's not going to work for extremely bizarre hierarchies needing special attention. Sure, it doesn't solve world hunger or cure cancer. But - it makes 90% of rigging a trivial matter. For that alone, it's worth having.

Using it is easy. You simply need to teach the characterization tool how your skeleton is organized; You double click a bone in the Figure window, then selecting the corresponding bone in the viewport. If your bones are named using a naming convention, you can even automate the process. Once done, you simply click 'create control rig' select whether it's an FK, IK, or both and DING... production quality rig hot out of the oven. The best part, however, is that MotionBuilder's characterization tool, is the exact same tool as found in Maya 2012:

One Click Interoperability

There's been a lot of consistency integration happening with Maya and other Autodesk products, even beyond character setup. The HumanIK solver is now at version 4.5, the same version used by Maya. The Character controls panes are the same too. That, and there's a new unified F-curve editor (aka graph editor). This means whether you tweak F-curves in Maya or MotionBuilder you'll have access to pretty much the same tool. (It's not perfect. More on this later.) Better still, is the ability to 'Send To MotionBuilder', assets from Maya in a single click. Here's another rainbow pot of gold:

  1. I have MotionBuilder and Maya both open.
  2. I'm working in Maya on some cool asset and I want it in MotionBuilder.
  3. I select it, then File -> Send To MotionBuilder -> Add to Current Scene

BAM! The MotionBuilder window automatically takes focus and my asset is in MotionBuilder, centered in the viewport. No more exporting to FBX from Maya and importing from the asset browser in MotionBuilder. It's now a one-click operation. In fact, in Maya you can add this to your shelf by clicking the menu item with 'Ctrl+Shift+LMB'. Want to go from MotionBuilder to Maya? It's the exact same thing in MotionBuilder: 'File -> Send To Maya -> Add to Current Scene.

You can also update changes made in Maya, and send only those changes to MotionBuilder and vise versa. To make that process easier, both Maya and MotionBuilder now feature an 'update' button. You simply select an object and click 'update'. Any changes are sent to the other program. Select a character in Maya, scale him up, click 'update' and he's updated in MotionBuilder:

MotionBuilder has the same thing:

It's important to realize that the 'Update' button is a 'push' model. This means if you're in Maya, changes are sent, for the currently selected object, to MotionBuilder. This contradicts with what most people think of as 'update'. For example when you update your browser you're pulling changes from a web server. Perhaps the button would have been better labeled 'upload' or 'send' or even 'push'. Fortunately, this is minor and once familiar with the concept, it works pretty flawlessly... until you start using Undo.

The 'send-to' mechanism basically works by writing a temporary FBX file to disk. That file is then imported into the program that you sent the asset to. Maya has never been able to undo an import operation. As a result, the 'send' to's cannot be undone. The same holds true for MotionBuilder. Sending updates plays by the same rules, so these cannot be undone either. Arguably this isn't a problem, as an asset can always be deleted and re-imported, but sometimes undo would be nice. Nicer still, is that NURBS curves from Maya are finally supported in MotionBuilder. No longer will you export an iconic character control from Maya, only to end up with a Null in MotionBuilder.

I don't think interoperability gets much easier than one-click. MotionBuilder is almost starting to feel as if it was just another Maya Panel. Even so, be aware that this is just a fancy wrapper around an 'export/import' operation. Anything that would be lost in the translation before, will still be lost. It's still just FBX and as such, doesn't support everything Maya has to offer. Still, it feels very much like the 'easy-button' to get stuff into MotionBuilder. If nothing else, I think this and the move to Qt is worth the upgrade. But that's not all, what else will they receive, Bob?

Lights, Action...

They get a bran new 2012 stereo camera! MotionBuilder now has a stereo camera very similar to Maya's. In fact, it's almost exactly like Maya's. You can view through the stereo camera and see a red/blue anaglyphic view. Combine this with those 3D glasses you got in your breakfast cereal this morning, and the view is quite eye popping. For those with an appropriate monitor/graphics card combo, MotionBuilder even supports shutter glasses. I'm pleased to announce this works with just about everything I tried. Models, nulls, joints, effectors, and even effects shaders such as the sparks seen here. Even the construction grid is displayed correctly.

Much like your children, creating a stereo camera is easy, getting rid of it is far more difficult. If you delete a stereo camera in MotionBuilder, you're only deleting the center camera. You must delete the right and left cameras as a separate process. You must also delete the camera's aim point. This makes me grudge every time, but isn't an Earth-shattering problem. Having a stereo camera at all, is well worth any effort it takes to delete one.

Unified FCurve Editor

On the Maya side of things, Maya 2012 features a new item in the graph editor's View menu. You can turn off the 'classic toolbar'. The graph editor's toolbar is replaced by the new 'unified toolbar'. Why should MotionBuilder users care? Because the same holds true for MotionBuilder. The effect, is that you can now use a graph editor (aka FCurve editor) that is almost exactly the same between the two programs. I say 'almost', because Maya has a few more tools to pack into the menu. For example, Maya features the Add Keys and Insert Keys tool, whereas MotionBuilder does not. That said, while Autodesk is trying to provide more consistency between their product line, there's still some room for improvement. However, having a mostly consistent graph editor is a welcome change.

To access the new toolbar in Maya, simply turn off classic mode

A similar process is done for MotionBuilder, access the view menu by right clicking anywhere in the Fcurve window:

Final Thoughts

Last year's updated version was quite incremental. Sure, we got some python integration, some performance improvements, tweaks to the animation layers and so forth, but it was a conservative release. There were no radical new features that the majority of users would see big benefits from. Most of those went to Maya. This year, I'm pleased to announce that major changes have been made to MotionBuilder. If you've been sitting on the fence about upgrading, now is the time to upgrade! If you're anything like me, panel based interfaces provide sanity in an insane industry. That, and the one-click interoperability will save you tons of time. If nothing else, do it for your eyes!

System Requirements

Software

The 32-bit version of Autodesk MotionBuilder 2012 software is supported on the following operating system:

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

The 64-bit version of MotionBuilder 2012 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 2012:

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

Hardware

At a minimum, the 32-bit version of MotionBuilder 2012 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 adaptor with internet connection for licensing (non-internet connected licensing is also supported)
  • DVD-ROM drive

At a minimum, the 64-bit version of MotionBuilder 2012 software requires a system with the following hardware:

  • Windows: Intel® Pentium® 4 processer, 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 adaptor with internet connection for licensing (non-internet connected licensing is also supported)
  • DVD-ROM drive

For the latest list of qualified hardware, including graphics cards, to run MotionBuilder 2012, refer to the MotionBuilder 2012 certification chart located at http://www.autodesk.com/motionbuilder-hardware

Autodesk


Editor's Note: Be sure to check out the following related links:


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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.

May 30, 2011

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Member Opinions:
By: gToon on 5/30/11
Excellent review, Kurt. Not long-winded at all, but clear and informative. Thanks!


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