The Pixel Farm's PFhoe Pro 2.2:
Simple, but Powerful Match-Moving Software

Product Review: The Pixel Farm's PFhoe Pro 2.2

"PFhoe automatically tracks video sequences , allowing computer generated elements to be exactly matched with these video sequences at SD and HD resolutions. This means you can take moving images and composite in other 3D animation or computer graphics programs and they will look like they were always there"
-PFhoe manual

Match-moving is no longer confined to Hollywood studios, it can be done at your own workstation at home. A solo filmmaker or small indie crew can add monsters, crashing cars, graphics and many other special effects to a live-action film using low-cost software specifically designed to add special effects to live-action footage. What this software does is "track" the original camera in the live-action scene and then create a 2D or 3D version of it for export to a computer graphics software, like After Effects or Maya, where the effect is then composited into the original live footage.

The Pixel Farm, a smart and energetic UK company focused on "VFX, DI and restoration" since 2003, released PFMatchit last year at SIGGRAPH to widespread acclaim. Price point, quality, support; all were exactly what was needed for match-moving software at the time. I reviewed the program here at Renderosity.com last year and found that "individual filmmakers wanting to use CG in their live-action films could do no better than PFMatchit."

While The Pixel Farm's PFTrack 2011 is the industry standard for match-moving, and PFMatchit is designed for the small VFX company, their little brother, PFhoe, is specifically targeted to the entry-level consumer/prosumer filmmaker or VFX artist. After having used PFMatchit, I was curious if there would be a let down in using a simpler version of the program. My question was: would I be able to create quality tracking shots using PFhoe Pro even though it doesn't have quite the bells and whistles of PFMatchit?


Tracking a Scene in PFhoe Pro 2.2

PFhoe and PFhoe Pro

The Pixel Farm makes two flavors of PFhoe available for consumers (both programs are currently in version 2.2). PFhoe is the essential program, minus extra features that allow the more experienced user to create more refined tracks and export them in a larger variety of formats to more operating systems.

Essentially, PFhoe (currently in version 2.2) contains:

  • HD support
  • Very simple editing tools to modify tracking data
  • Unique Focal length estimation system
  • Unique automatic lens distortion correction tool
  • Support for importing mattes from third party applications
  • Distortion corrected DV resolution footage can be exported as a QT or Avi for proper matching of 3D objects into a scene in 3rd party compositing apps.

PFhoe Pro (also in version 2.2) has all of the features listed above, plus:

  • A deeper toolset which allows you to refine and tune tracked shots
  • Support for image sequences
  • Greater 3D format support (including Autodesk FBX and more)
  • Available on the Linux platform (as well as OSX and Windows)

I'll be reviewing the PFhoe Pro 2.2 version here, which I think has the most satisfying feature-set for aspiring filmmakers and those interested in learning special effects.


PFhoe Pro 2.2 User Interface

How does PFhoe Pro work?

"PFhoe works by recreating a three dimensional world using the movement of the camera, and then allows you to export this 3D camera to animation and effects packages"
-PFhoe manual

Match-moving with PFhoe Pro is a very simple process. Well, what I mean is that the workflow is simple with PFhoe Pro. You really have to plan match-moving, starting with how you set up your shot. If you have a shot that doesn't take into account the kinds of visual information PFhoe Pro needs, you'll be stuck with a very difficult matching process. If you shoot a scene with "well defined elements within the shot and distinct movements between the background and the foreground," the video will provide good tracking information and will work well with PFhoe Pro.

PFhoe Pro's graphic interface is simple and uncluttered. Four work areas, including a large screen at the top (viewing area where you'll work with tracked footage), and a row of 10 toolbar buttons which work left-to-right and take you through the entire match-moving process. Under this, there is a timeline, and at the bottom of the screen are the playback and footage controls.

After loading in the video you want to track, you can choose to use the wizard which will quickly get you set up to track, or work manually where you set the type of shot (free cam or pan), focal length (variable or constant), and aspect ratio (4:3 or 16:9). From there, PFhoe Pro helps you calculate the lens distortion in the shot by automatically making straight lines in the shot really straight. At this point, you can import a matte to cover something in the shot that might confuse the tracking software (wind blowing the trees, for example).

Now you are ready to fully track the scene by clicking the "Track" button. This may take some time, depending upon the length of your scene. You can switch over to the graph view and watch the quality of the track in real-time: green means a good track and red means a bad one. PFhoe Pro also allows you to choose only a segment of the video to track if you are simply running tests. The tracking shows up as X's on objects in the scene with trailing tails that follow the camera movement. Again, good tracks are green and bad tracks are red. Removing bad tracking data is a simple matter of removing individual tracks or lassoing a large amount and clicking delete.


Adjusting the Track points

Once you have tracked a scene, PFhoe Pro will now determine the focal length of the camera. Or, you can do some of this manually by aligning the provided box to a building or a rectangular feature in the scene. This enables you to create a vanishing point using the box and a ground plane. From here, you move into solving the camera motion for the scene, which basically means you are taking the tracking points PFhoe Pro has created in the scene and turning them into points in a 3D space. You can check this "point cloud" by clicking on the "3D" button at the bottom of the screen. Further clean up can take place here by selecting red points in the cloud and deleting them, then running the solve function again. Finally, you need to orient the scene before you export the tracking/camera information. This is done by setting the ground plane and the x/y/z orientation within the scene.

There are additional tweaks you can make to the tracking data by selecting the "add new feature" from the menu created when you press and hold the space-bar. These features can be elements that were not tracked originally, or specific items in a scene that you know you will be working with during compositing. This is a fairly advanced part of the match-moving process and the complexity will vary depending upon the nature of the shot you are tracking.


3D point cloud generated by PFhoe Pro

Exporting PFhoe Pro Tracking Data

Both PFhoe and PFhoe Pro 2.2 make it easy to export the tracking data from your scene to the application of your choice. Keep in mind that the PFhoe data is a combination of a 3D point cloud and camera which your compositing application uses to re-create your film scene in 3D so you can insert special effects, like 3D graphics, characters, effects and more.

Tracking data is imported to programs like Maya and 3ds Max as nulls and appear in the x/y/z orientation created during the PFhoe tracking process. The camera movement will show up as a custom camera. Be sure you use this camera to render your effects.

PFhoe allows for a wide variety of export formats for your tracking data. Applications such as Maya, Blender, CINEMA 4D, After Effects and more are included. PFhoe Pro includes more export formats like Autodesk FBX, Shake, Houdini and several more. You can also export PFhoe data to the PLE versions of Maya, XSI and 3ds Max, so you can learn match-moving inside of established and pro-level applications.


Export formats for PFhoe and PFhoe Pro 2.2

Final Thoughts

The PFhoe Pro tracking process I've covered here is a much shortened version of the actual workflow. In practice, you'll be moving back and forth between tracking and selecting/deleting data in order to fine tune your tracking data. This is where the art of match-moving comes in and it simply takes experience and practice to develop your skills.

My experience with PFhoe Pro was very good. I was able to track shots using some of my own video and video provided at the PFhoe.com website with accuracy. I think the quality of the tracking doesn't quite match that of PFMatchit, but it's still very good, and with more practice on my part, I could probably achieve a better quality track. So, the question I asked earlier in this review is answered: you CAN create quality tracking data with PFhoe and PFhoe Pro.

The software itself is easy to use and well laid out. The tracking process in PFhoe Pro (and PFhoe) is intuitive, and the automatic "Tracking" and "Solving" process does take some time, but with a mid-level, Windows 7 computer, I didn't have to wait too long. Exporting data into 3ds Max 2011 was a snap. I wish I had more time to work on this review as I became excited about the match-moving process and wanted to put one of the head-crabs from Half Life 2 on my dining room table. Ah, well, next time.


Special Effects shot by electrocinema. Part of PFhoe's show reel.

The documentation and tutorials at the PFhoe.com web-site are very well done. The forums are active and friendly. I found solutions to some problems I was having by searching the forums. The Pixel Farm is serious about customer service (I could tell that after meeting several of the staff at SIGGRAPH last year) and they want their users not only to use their applications effectively, but to have fun doing it, too. That being said, there is no direct support for PFhoe/PFhoe Pro at the website, it's all set up to be run through their support forums and FAQs, which is still pretty effective. You can also see other users' match-moving projects profiled at the PFhoe.com website, something I found especially useful. PFhoe's twitter and YouTube channel have excellent tutorials and match-moving examples.

I really can't think of a better program to introduce filmmakers and special effects geeks to matchmoving than PFhoe and PFhoe Pro. If I were to criticize anything, it would be that if you need to matte something in your scene to keep it from being tracked, you have to create the matte in another application and import it into PFhoe Pro. I think it would be much easier for the users to create a matte inside of the application, rather than having to resort to a 3rd party. Perhaps this is already a part of The Pixel Farms future plans for PFhoe and PFhoe Pro. It would certainly make an already excellent program even better.

Moreover, I'd love to see the basic PFhoe program become a PLE (personal learning edition) and made available for free at some point. It makes sense that you could provide a very basic match-moving program for free and then invite users to upgrade to the Pro version at a reasonable fee ($199 is a good price). Of course, you'd have to create a larger difference between the two programs, but I think this could be done. Whether this is economically feasible for The Pixel Farm is another matter. I hope they give it some thought though, because PFhoe is a swell program and deserves a broad user base.

Thanks to The Pixel Farm for making PFhoe Pro 2.2 available for review. Special thanks to Paula Coombes for her patience.

Details

PFhoe 2.2 is priced at $99 and is available for the Windows and Mac OS X platforms. Upgrades from PFhoe 1.0 are $39. PFhoe Pro 2.2 costs $199 and is available on the Windows, Mac and Linux platforms

The upgrade is priced at $139. Both programs can be downloaded from the PFhoe.com website. 3D World magazine is currently offering a free copy of PFhoe with a subscription to their magazine.

There is also a free demo of PFhoe and PFhoe Pro at the PFhoe.com website. You can try them out and decide which one is right for you.

There are no hardware requirements listed in the manual, or at the PFhoe.com website, but my mid-level system smoked through the program. My sense is it was probably designed for a low to mid-level system and would work well with high-level laptops. Most general users should have no problem running PFhoe or PFhoe Pro 2.2.

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Ricky Grove [gToon], Staff Columnist with the Renderosity Front Page News. Ricky Grove is a bookstore clerk at the best bookstore in Los Angeles, the Iliad Bookshop. He's also an actor and machinima filmmaker. He lives with author, Lisa Morton, and three very individual cats. Ricky is into Hong Kong films, FPS shooters, experimental anything and reading, reading, reading. You can catch his blog here.
July 5, 2011

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