FilmBox 3.0 OS X

Creating 3D animation is complex enough, but 3D characters require a special attention to detail and a specialized tool kit. FilmBox 3.0, available on Windows and Irix systems for some time, is now available on OS X. It’s a dedicated 3D-character animation system aimed at the high-end user. There are many different approaches to designing and bringing to life a digital actor. However, there are two broad categorizations that can be made depending on the look of the end result, and the intended purpose of the character. Cartoon animation
First is hand animation, a slow but ultimately rewarding process, usually used to create exaggerated or cartoon-like movements. The second is motion capture, which produces lifelike, natural animation, because it’s recorded from the motion of a real human actor. These two approaches are not mutually exclusive, and can be used together as long as you have a system that can properly handle the demands of both approaches. This is where FilmBox comes in, because it’s a specialized 3D-animation system that’s designed for this very purpose. The program has a wide range of features geared towards acquiring and managing motion-capture animation data. For those unfamiliar with this sort of 3D animation, it involves a human being’s motion being saved and converted into keyframe data so it can be applied to a digital character. This can take the form of a full body performance, where the actor wears a special suit containing sensors or reflective markers (depending on the type of system used) at certain positions on their body. It could also be a single glove to capture hand gestures. Even the computer mouse and keyboard can be used for very simple live-data recording. FilmBox can interface with most of the motion-capture devices currently available, so getting the data into the computer is more or less sorted. The next step is to organize that raw data. FilmBox can map the output of each sensor to markers on a skeleton using a special template, which lets FilmBox know which sensor should control which part of the skeleton. The skeleton can then be used to control an imported 3D-character mesh, since FilmBox is purely an animation and interactive rendering system, and is not intended for modelling. Skin mode allows you to attach a mesh to a skeleton so it will smoothly deform, and it has vertex weighting tools for precisely controlling the effect of each joint on the mesh. Once the technical aspects of setting up or rigging the character to be controlled is completed, you can begin the process of actually recording animation. Real-time control
FilmBox uses the concept of takes to describe each recording of an actor’s movements. The beauty of the system is that data can be captured in real time – as an actor performs he or she will directly control a character within FilmBox. This makes it easy for directors to see if a performance looked good when translated to the character, and it also means that the actor can get instant feedback on how their movements look on the character. Simply recording motion capture is only half the story, you need tools to be able to work with it, and FilmBox has these in abundance. First, motion capture data is dense – its function curves consist of keyframes at every frame – so editing them is difficult. However, FilmBox allows you to filter the function curve in order to reduce the number of keys and clean the data. This allows you to work with the animation as if it was hand-keyed. FilmBox also lets you cut and blend between different takes using its non-linear editor (NLE). This works like the NLEs in other 3D systems such as Maya’s Trax, and allows you to take multiple sequences and overlay then to create a composite. The beauty of the system is that it lets you blend hand-keyframed animation with the motion-capture data, giving you the best of both worlds. For example, you like the performance in take 10 and want to use it, but you want to exaggerate a particular gesture by increasing the rotation values of an arm joint. You can hand-key a few poses for this joint in a separate take, then blend it in the NLE with take 10. Rendering is via a very fast OpenGL display, and the performance was excellent on a stock G4 machine. You can apply different materials and textures to objects, and there are several basic real-time shaders – very useful for broadcasting real-time 3D characters. Point Spot and Distant lights can be added, and Spotlights can display pseudo-volumetric cones in real time. You can render using antialiased OpenGL to a file, though you can also output the finished animation as a Lightwave scene file for better rendering.

OUR VERDICT

FilmBox is an excellent system, though it can seem very complicated at times. Like Maya, it’s contributing to the new chapter in 3D graphics on the Mac, and for motion capture and real-time 3D-animation, it’s the only high-end solution. This review appeared in the Expo 2001 issue

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