Communicating with Character

November 12, 2007 1:11 am

Summary: Andy Bueker and Greg Maguire, the character creation experts behind Zoogloo, help studios design character pipelines for films, games and television productions.

Great characters tell great stories. We relate to their doubts, their fears, their words and their actions. Whether they speak to us from the pages of an ancient novel or from the silver screen, great characters capture our sympathies, and in so doing, lure us into their emotional and physical worlds.

Modern animation is carrying on that tradition. While the audience understands at a deeper level that animated ogres and lions, beauties and beasts are merely the digital embodiment of an artist’s vision; those characters, when faced with the right challenges, are still capable of moving our emotions and communicating with us at a deeper level.

Ironically, it is that same principle of communication that works behind the scenes. Just as communication is the hallmark of great characters, so too is it the linchpin for great character development. Without an open dialogue between artists, and without technologies capable of sharing information and files, great animated characters might never see the light of the silver screen.

Zoogloo, a San Francisco-based visual effects company specializing in character creation for films, games and television, understands that principle all too well and puts it to work every day.

The Tower of Babel

Founded by industry veterans Greg Maguire and Andy Buecker in August of 2006, Zoogloo has offered their character creation expertise to small and large production houses such as Warner Bros., Digital Domain, Tweak Films and 1080 Inc. A Zoogloo specialty is creating character rigs—the “virtual skeletons” that enable Zoogloo’s clients to select and move whole parts of a 3D model (such as an entire arm or leg) without having to painstakingly select detailed sections of 3D geometry.

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Working offsite from their studio, Maguire and Buecker build squash and stretch rigs for character animated features and hyper-realistic movie creatures, as well as rigs that meet the challenging restrictions of today’s game engines.

Zoogloo has also helped studios design character pipelines complete with naming conventions, directory structures and rigging standards that improve the consistency of workflow. In short, there are few aspects of character creation that Zoogloo hasn’t seen.

Yet, despite the highly technical nature of what they do, Maguire and Buecker contend that technical issues are the least of their challenges. “Working remotely as we do, we can take nothing for granted,” says Maguire. “For example, if we fail to use the same naming conventions, it could have disastrous effects. Files won’t match those in our client’s pipeline and will get lost. Or, the wrong files will be used in animations and renders. Losing that kind of time can really hurt studios, so we need to understand everything in detail before we get started on a project.”

The Tools that Bind

Fortunately, both Maguire and Buecker are highly experienced industry veterans who possess a baseline understanding of the vernacular that exists at a number of studios. But understanding the vocabulary of a studio is only half the battle. Maguire and Buecker must also understand the processes used by their clients in order to deliver their creations.

When Zoogloo first started their business, their goal was to produce characters for all sorts of customers. Yet, they understood early on that to do so would require a high degree of flexibility on their part.

To handle the needs of multiple customers, Zoogloo built an abstract framework, one that does not lock them into specific file formats or rig types. As a result, they can now provide files for most 3D packages, switch naming conventions to meet the customer’s requirements, or produce rigs as the customer wants them.

That flexibility resulted, in part, from the technologies they used to create the framework. For their 3D application, they turned to Softimage.

“SOFTIMAGE®|XSI® software is the ideal front end,” said Buecker. “Since it was originally developed as a character production application, it has a lot of tools already built into it, like a 3D Math Library, a corrective Shape Manager, and an intuitive 3D Object Model.”

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In addition, the XSI Software Developer’s Kit (SDK) allows Zoogloo to integrate into most established pipelines by importing and exporting files from-and-to other 3D applications. Most recently, Softimage developed Crosswalk, a bi-directional transfer technology, that helps companies like Zoogloo transfer XSI content in and out of 3ds Max® and Maya® pipelines using the latest versions of 3D data transfer standards, such as dotXSI, COLLADA and FBX.

"We understand that many studios have established character pipelines and set methods for accomplishing their animation goals,” explains Jason Brynford-Jones, Senior Product Designer at Softimage. “For that reason, we built XSI to be as open as possible. With our SDK and CrossWalk technology, studios such as Zoogloo can enjoy reliable interoperability with any mixed-tool pipeline.”

Speed and Emotion

Speed also plays a large part in Zoogloo’s success. With shrinking production times and rising costs, studios have been forced to find faster ways to deliver better quality. Previsualization, more powerful hardware and better software have all helped firms speed up their processes. So, too, has outsourcing. By utilizing experienced firms such as Zoogloo, film studios can create much more for less.

Zoogloo is often called on to help production houses develop complex characters quickly. Systems powered by multi-core AMD Opteron™ processors as well as multi-threaded software such as SOFTIMAGE|XSI, help Zoogloo meet aggressive deadlines. Together, XSI software running on the AMD Opteron system eliminates typical bottlenecks, such as time-consuming renders, and enables Zoogloo to run several computation-intensive processes simultaneously without hindering the performance of the machine.

According to Zoogloo, this speed only improves the quality and the creativity of the characters they produce for their clients. “AMD-powered machines and XSI 3D animation software allow us to create more complex rigs and to experiment with our characters,” says Maguire. “As a result, we can infuse greater levels of realism and develop characters who speak volumes to the audience.”

A perfect example of this detail can be found in hair rendering and simulation. Explains Buecker: “With XSI software and machines powered by multi-core AMD processors, we are able to generate a fur or hair pass much more efficiently. Visualizing at this level of detail, and deciding whether to make changes based on that detail, used to take a lot longer. Now we can do it in a matter of minutes. We went from half an hour a frame to two minutes a frame on our AMD box.”

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Adds Corinne DeBra, a senior strategic alliance manager at AMD: “We are proud to work with Softimage to offer a compelling solution that Zoogloo can use to deliver great characters, in an industry that values performance, efficiency and innovation. It’s truly satisfying to know that our technologies are not just a means to an end, but an integral part of the storytelling process.”


Great animated characters talk to us at multiple levels. Their complexity and their depth are what connect them to us and make them memorable.

In many ways, the creation of those characters mirrors their performance. Like their performance, it happens on multiple, interconnected levels. And like their performance, their creation requires specific abilities and tools to overcome the challenges.

Zoogloo understands that. Their experience, their process and their tools enable them to master the “social” and collaborative challenges that play such a large part in today’s character creation. For only in that mastery can their characters truly connect with us from the silver screen.

All content and images within this article are copyright ©2007 Avid Technology, Inc. All Rights Reserved.,
and used with special permisson. Use of this content without written permission is prohibited.

About Softimage Co.
Softimage Co., a subsidiary of Avid Technology, Inc., delivers innovative 3D animation tools to digital artists in the games, film, and television industries. Its product line includes SOFTIMAGE|XSI, the most advanced 3D software for modeling, animating and rendering; SOFTIMAGE|FACE ROBOT®, the first product for lifelike facial animation; SOFTIMAGE|CAT™, a complete character animation system plug-in; and ALIENBRAIN®, the leading asset management solution for artists.
  • For more news from Softimage, visit their website.

November 12, 2007

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Article Comments

genefleeman ( posted at 12:00AM Thu, 15 November 2007

As one that likes to incorporate story into my art I totally agree with the opinions expressed in this article... a good character is enhanced by having something to communicate and good communications, likewise, is enhanced by the use of a character to express information or feelings.. An excellent article all in all...

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