Monday, January 18, 2010

What the hobbyist animation community needs

I recently received email from somebody in the animation software industry who wondered if I had any comments about the capabilities that hobbyist animators needs. Below is an edited version of my response.

1. Animation software

Hobbyists need an animation application with the capabilities of 3dsMax at a pricepoint of $500/year or less, not the current $4000 startup + $500/year maintenance approach, with workstation lockdown via licensing keys, that Autodesk presently charges. Fundamentally Autodesk is a problem for hobbyists because Autodesk has zero interest in the hobbyist market.

The three lead candidates for an animation app that might meet people's needs sooner rather than later are Daz Studio, which seems to be adding some rudimentary animation tools, but has a long way to go; iclone 4; and Blender 2.5. However iClone's business model is focused on selling their own proprietary content packs, not on importing Daz or other characters or clothes. Blender has not been a solution to date for a variety of reasons, including a user-hostile interface that doesn't match anything else in the industry; lack of a full scripting API which makes it impossible to write simplification tools; and a lack of usable .fbx import. Blender 2.5 claims to fix some of the UI problems, however version 2.5 is only in alpha and won't be in a less-buggy release for another 6 or 9 months or whenever they feel like getting around to it.

2. Motion capture

Hobbyists need a prosumer motion capture system that produces clean, professionally-usable capture data, can be built using high-end consumer-grade webcams, run at home on a laptop, for a total system cost of under $2000. A good NaturalPoint system presently goes for $10K, the cameras are proprietary, and they have a lifespan of perhaps 2-3 years until the next generation of cameras comes out. NaturalPoint is obviously much better than Vicon, which is completely out of hobbyist range, but fundamentally you're not going to see hobbyists doing home mocap-for-animation until the price point drops by another factor of 5 to 10, down to under $2000 including the cameras. There's a chicken-egg problem here: NaturalPoint has to charge $10K for their software + cameras because the market is small. If the market were 10x larger because it expands to include hobbyists, they, or somebody with a similar system, could drop the costs.

I don't presently have a lot of faith that low-end markerless systems such as IPI's Desktop Motion Capture, which maxes out at 4 cameras, will produce capture datasets that are realistically usable without huge amounts of cleanup.

3. Very easy content portability

Hobbyists need very easy, 100% reliable content migration and import from content sold for hobbyist applications like Poser and Daz3D into animation engines. All of the Daz characters should be trivially importable into Blender and all Autodesk applications (and C4D and LightWave), with rigging, skinning, and morphs intact. I'm not interested in static .obj file export/imports where I'm told "now just go skin it and rig the mesh yourself in your animation software" -- I've spent hours trying to skin Daz characters within 3dsMax and the results are still unusable, because skinning is a specialty skill. I don't want to have to build up my skinning skills to the level of expertise required to skin a 120,000-vertex character for semi-professional use -- I've already purchased the Daz content which is skinned within Daz3D, it should work in my other 3D applications as well. Nor I should I need to spend 10 hours reverse-engineering what's going on with the textures to make the eyeballs look right, which is what you have to do with Maya or Max today when converting a Daz figure.

I should then be able to purchase content at Renderosity or Daz -- at their consumer-level prices of roughly $5-$30 for some clothing items, a vehicle, or a set -- and trivially load it into my commercial 3D application, again with morphs and textures intact. I should be able to buy clothing sets for the Daz or Poser characters and easily pull them in to the animation software to use on the figures. This process works in Poser just fine, but Poser isn't an animation tool, it's a still-figure posing tool that isn't usable for serious animation work.

In my experience, none of the tools or formats that claim to support 3D asset migration work properly or cleanly. Not once have I seen a Collada export-then-import process successfully maintain skinning, rigging, textures, and morphs. FBX import/export tools don't work either -- even Autodesk can't get this right within their own product lineup; they release a new flavor of FBX exporter/importer every 12-18 months and you have to synchronize your FBX tool flavors to have a chance of even making a Maya-to-Max or Max-to-Maya conversion work. Pcharacter2FBX, brokered through Daz, comes close to performing as advertised, however even it does things like mess with the underlying bone structure of Aiko3, and it doesn't work on the 4th-generation Daz characters since it hasn't been updated in years.

Max also is severely limited because it only supports 100 morphs per mesh geometry. Even Aiko3's full morph set is around 200 morphs, and Daz V4 is probably many more than 200. So right now it's not even possible to pull the Daz 3rd-generation characters into 3dsmax and preserve all their morphs without an expensive 3rd-party morph-extender plugin.

I've also found that when you import .obj files into Maya, none of the file-based textures come in, so you have to replace them by hand. That's another example of the import-hostility of current software. In the Autodesk world if you're not using 100% Autodesk and .fbx, you're expected to have an on-staff Python/PERL/MEL programmer who can write fixup scripts and design your data-migration pipeline for you. No hobbyist animator has the time to do that, nor should they have to learn Python.