The Pixel Farm's PFMatchit: Camera Tracking for the Masses

Product Review: PFMatchit

"Match moving is primarily used to track the movement of a camera through a shot so that an identical virtual camera move can be reproduced in a 3D animation program. When new animated elements are composited back into the original live-action shot, they will appear in perfectly-matched perspective and therefore appear seamless."
-Wikipedia entry on "Match Moving"

A Very Brief History of Camera Tracking/Matchmoving

The history of 2D and 3D tracking in visual effects actually starts with the US Defense Department who created the concept in an attempt to improve missile guidance systems back in the mid-eighties. The earliest use of tracking in VFX was at the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT) Graphics Lab for use in television commercials. Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) picked up on the idea and developed 2D and 3D tracking systems in the late eighties. The 3D ILM system was used for the film Jurassic Park to spectacular effect.

The rise of computers and increasing use of CG in television and film in the nineties helped push the development of camera tracking/match moving into increasingly powerful and sophisticated areas of this fast growing technology. 1992 became a watershed year with the release of Discreet's (now Autodesk) Flame, the first professional-level tracking software. Subsequent releases of Flame (especially version 4) and Apple's release of Shake in 1996 brought camera tracking to unprecedented heights. 1998 brought an Oscar for the development of Flame. And since 2003 many new programs have appeared and prices have dropped significantly.


Sergio and Michael Lancaster at The Pixel Farm booth at SIGGRAPH 2010

Which brings me to The Pixel Farm's PFMatchit, a matchmoving/camera tracking program announced and demoed to a very excited public at SIGGRAPH 2010 this last August. The buzz I heard about the program was that it was a high-end match moving program that was affordable and relatively easy to use. So, both Sergio and I spent a good hour at the cool The Pixel Farm booth in the LA Convention Center getting an excellent demo by hung-over booth troopers. They were kind enough to send me a copy of their new program and I've been working with it for the last few weeks. And, man, it's great: simple to use and very well-designed.

PFTrack was the first major match moving software released by The Pixel Farm in 2003 and quickly became the "Matchmover of choice for high-end visual effects productions." PFTrack is used by major effects houses like the Mill, Sony Imageworks, Digital Domain and the Orphanage. Over the years, however, customers increasingly asked for a "lower entry point to The Pixel Farm's technology." The Pixel Farm listened to its users and created PFTrack's younger brother, PFMatchit: a 64-bit, node-based matchmoving program for Linux, Windows and OSX, and priced much less than it's older brother at $700 (PFTrack has been re-priced downward as well).

"We've been re-addressing matchmoving for quite some time. The price point for matchmoving is coming down considerably. We knew we had to respond to the market. We wanted to be there at the beginning of the change in that market....We felt we had to produce a technically adept product, rather than just a low-cost product."
-Michael Lancaster on fxguidetv

Highlights of PFMatchit

In an interview with fxguidetv, Michael Lancaster (the managing director of The Pixel Farm) said that "we hit a natural ceiling on PFTrack...so we went back to the drawing board and developed a core architecture that we can now apply right the way across a range of products." PFMatchit is the first release of this new core architecture. And while the primary changes are focused on a new, 64-bit, node-based, non-linear workflow, there are many other highlights as well. Here are the main ones:

  • 64-bit application runs natively on OS X, Linux and Windows
  • Procedural, non-linear work environment
  • Node-based flowgraph architecture
  • Non-destructive editing and experimentation
  • Flexible camera solver
  • New edit camera node
  • New 2D tracker
  • Support for Red Raw without conversion
  • Built in Matte and Roto tools
  • In-built rolling shutter correction
  • Stereo review tools
  • New lens distortion tools
  • Metadata management core
  • Python scripting and workflow customization

Of course, the great advantage of a node-based system is that you have a visual overview of your workflow. At a glance, you can see how your film clip is being modified and adjusted anywhere in the chain. Since matchmoving requires a certain amount of manual tweaking in order to get the right tracking, the new edit camera node allows you to adjust the camera yourself and therefore save a lot of time. And the advantage of a non-destructive environment is that you can experiment with different approaches to a tracking problem without losing any of your data.

Overall, the flexibility and variety of tools that PFMatchit provides you with are excellent. Any number of projects from very small to high-end can be handled with this well-designed and power-packed application.


Autotrack node attached to video clip

PFMatchit Workflow

There are several different ways to solve a matchmoving problem in PFMatchit. While the gui of PFMatchit is not arranged in a typical windows fashion, it's attractive (dark gray/green color scheme default) and easy to use, with all of the main work-areas of the application clearly defined. I was working without the manual within 20 minutes of opening the program.

You start with setting up your project within PFMatchit by creating default project settings, like frame rates, camera presets (there are lots) and how to work with interlaced footage. Once the project has been created, PFMatchit loads three main windows: the tree view on the left, the bin system in the middle and the file-browser on the right. At the bottom of the main window, you'll find other buttons, nodes and controllers that change depending upon what tools/windows you are working in. As I said, it's all pretty intuitive once you've worked with the application for a while.

Importing clips via the file-browser is a snap. Just grab the file (or an entire folder) and drag/drop to the bin or the tree view. In the bin window, you can double-click it to review the clip, and if you want to get started matchmoving, just pop the clip into the tree view and you'll see a small thumbnail of the clip. Changing the properties of the clip can be done on import or using the media admin window (tabbed at the top of the main window) to access and change practically any aspect of the clip's properties.

Back in the tree view, you'll see a larger screen where you can play the footage using the motion controls at the bottom of the screen. PFMatchit is a resolution independent application, so even the highest size footage can be imported. It all depends on the quality and level of your computer system.

At this point, PFMatchit provides you with a variety of ways to tackle a matchmoving project. Using a wide variety of nodes, you can choose to auto track the clip and then refine the tracking quality of each point by examining a 3D perspective view of the point cloud. You can also check lens distortion and adjust the parameters of the clip based on the specific camera used in the scene. The new edit camera node gives you greater flexibility in adjusting 3D camera position within the track. User feature tracking is an option where you choose the feature in the scene you want PFMatchit to track, thus enhancing the quality of the track you are sending downstream in the workflow.

In addition to an amazing amount of tools to track a camera shot, PFMatchit also allows you to track objects as well. Even shots that have little or no data for tracking can be tracked. In the demo I saw at SIGGRAPH, the presenter showed how he could estimate a camera path and then use PFMatchit to refine it.

Once you have a track that you are satisfied with, exporting it is a matter of dragging over an export node and choosing which format you want to create. All of the major formats are supported, including After Effects, 3ds Max, Lightwave, Houdini, Shake, Maya and others. I was able to export camera data out of PFMatchit and into CINEMA 4D pretty easily. Suffice it to say, this program is built on a professional model and will fit well into just about any pipeline.


Tracking objects in PFMatchit

Conclusion

All of The Pixel Farm folks I have encountered, either face to face at SIGGRAPH, or virtually via email, are uniformly smart and helpful. This is reflected in the applications they have created. PFMatchit is a smart, well-designed program that fits a much needed niche in matchmoving software. It won't cost you an arm and a leg, but you get a solidly built program which does the job. The new node-based design is very intuitive and makes the workflow much easier. I was impressed with the program from the start, but after working with it for a few weeks, I'm able to see how well-designed the program is, too. The balance of automated tasks and manual control is perfect. PFMatchit is a program that does not have a steep learning curve and the more you learn, the deeper the program gets.

I had zero crashes while using PFMatchit on my Windows 7, 64-bit, Quad-core mid-level system. PFMatchit uses the GPU quite a bit for rendering, so you'll need a graphics card from ATI or Nvidia (the best you can afford). Your monitor also needs to work at 1,600 x 1,200 resolution to work effectively with PFMatchit.

The help system within PFMatchit is good, but I wished there would have been a more detailed manual. And the design of the help layout could be more interesting and appealing. Adobe does a great job on this kind of thing, with the ability to search keywords and concepts. Tutorials at the The Pixel Farm website are superb, with project files you can download to follow along. I wished there was a PDF of some of the tutorials where you could print them and then make your way through the tutorial. Although I didn't have direct contact with support, everyone I've worked with has been most helpful. I don't expect it to be any different on their website. A FAQ on the application with minimum hardware requirements would have been useful.

I think PFMatchit is going to be a big hit in the camera tracking field. Not only is it well priced for the small company, but it is very well designed, using a new architecture that really does the job. Individual filmmakers wanting to use CG in their live-action films could do no better than PFMatchit. Perhaps there is cheaper matchmoving applications out there, but there are no better for it's price point.

I highly recommend PFMatchit. Head over to their nifty website and try out a personal learning edition to see what makes this program so good.

Thanks

My thanks to The Pixel Farm for providing a review copy of this excellent software. And special thanks to Paula Coombs for answering questions and for her help in putting this review together.

Be sure to visit The Pixel Farm website


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.
November 8, 2010

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