Product Review: Motionbuilder 5.5
Motionbuilder is getting closer to being the tool every animator should have. If you've ever dealt with having to get mocap onto your character just right and you work in the reality of tight schedules, then Motionbuilder is most likely not new to you. Known as Filmbox previously, Motionbuilder is steadily gaining more useful and functional features with each upgrade. Motionbuilder comes in two versions--Standard and Professional. You can find the comparison of features on Kaydara's web site, but if you're getting down and dirty with raw mocap data, then you really have no choice but to go with the Pro version. Many of the changes are simple enhancements or added functionalities, but a few new gems have also emerged.
Improved Work flow. Scripting is now available in the Pro version, though it only supports the Python language. It's not a wonder button, as you can't record your movements and auto-generate scripts as you would in Maya; nonetheless, it's there and offers solid functionality, even though there is no IDE and you are left to create scripts with your favorite text or code editor. I approached this with an open mind, and with a little reading on the language basics, I was up and running in no time. This gives animators the ability to customize their workflow, to take time-consuming, menial tasks and automate them with one simple command. I'm not sure if Python was the absolute best choice of languages, but I'm sure Kaydara chose it for a reason.
The custom properties window is very straightforward and easily adjustable, dramatically enhancing workflow.
Asset management has stepped up a notch in this version, with Kaydara's .FBX interchange format now being supported by NXN Alienbrain. They actually integrated it to the point that anyone can view an .FBX file through the Alienbrain preview window, rotate the scene, view it through various cameras, and so on. This feature provides great bang-for-the-buck when it comes to organizing what's been done for the non-animator. Any member of the team can now go into Alienbrain, browse through the new files you've checked in, and examine them out from any perspective.
Animation Flourishes. With 5.5 you gain the ability to add your own properties to any object in your scene, then modify and animate those properties just as you would any other. In the object properties window, there's a custom properties button, giving you access to the different assignable properties, which include bool, color, integer, real, and vector. These property types give you the ability to add check boxes, value fields and sliders, through which you can trigger events, and customize the interface, for example. This is a big step--by streamlining and customizing your own personal workflow in Motionbuilder, you can bring the properties you'll constantly be playing with to the front--something that ultimately saves you valuable time.
Smoothing filters can sometimes, depending on how you use them, soften your curves to the point that most of the subtleties inherent in the original mocap data are lost. The new Butterworth filter smoothes your curves with a more intelligent approach, leaving the curve's minimum and maximum values alone and lightly smoothing out everything in between. I pushed it through some tests using mocap data that had various degrees of noise, and found it provided descent results in every scenario. This is definitely a low-pass filter, as Kaydara calls it, taking out only the small noise and leaving any big jumps alone, as these should be left to other means of cleaning.
Additional features in 5.5 include glove-axis rotation for fingers, which allows you to bend each finger along a single axis when captured with a mocap glove; facial shape animation, through triggers, for creating expressions; and the ability to translate an actor's pivot points in the advanced properties window.
Rendering enhancements. Kaydara's given us some new things with regard to rendering this time around. First off, you can now choose "off-screen rendering," and continue to work while a render completes and not worry about affecting the image. I have jacked up more than my share of renders due to leaving the mouse on-screen, pop-up windows, and other silly things--not anymore with this feature. They've also implemented audio into their rendering with .AVI and .MOV files. Now, when you're building cutscenes, for example, you can import multiple shots with the audio and render them out as one piece for approval. Gone are the days of bringing everything into an second package and re-rendering. The audio also has adjustable properties such as sample rate, stereo or mono, and bit-size. Kaydara's rendering has always been pretty nice, and these new features step it up a notch.
One other new feature that significantly improves the real-time rendering quality is the .FX-shader support. This requires a Nvidia GeForce 3 or better graphics card. With a .FX-shader loaded, you can control the shaders parameters in the shader settings window (color, specularity, and so on), without having to import the model into Max or Maya to see the effects. Two minor features I like are the configurable grid and a camera turntable icon. The latter feature appears in the camera view that you're manipulating, and gives a circular view of the camera's rotations.
Other Stuff. You can now cut, copy, and paste individual relations constraints, or entire constraint groups, in the relations pane. This is a very basic feature to add, but a welcome one. The relations pane in Motionbuilder can get very large and complex depending on what you are doing. The ability to quickly duplicate large constraint groups will save time. The addition of import and export filters for .DXF, .OBJ, and .3DS model formats is overdue, but obviously helpful.
Bottom Line. Kaydara has gone from focusing on making mocap data as clean as possible to making the animator as comfortable as possible. Is Motionbuilder flawless? Not at all (and I can't think of any software that is), but Kaydara was steadily making progress towards a tool that animators can comfortably work within. I've been using Motionbuilder (and its predecessor, Filmbox) almost everyday since 1998, so it's valid to think that I may be biased. However, I've personally seen the software come a long way and can honestly say 5.5 is a definite improvement over previous versions. I'm not suggesting that you set Max or Maya aside, but if Kaydara continues on this path, you may find that Motionbuilder eventually suits your needs better.
If you're familiar with any major 3D package currently on the market, you can master Motionbuilder with only a slight learning curve. If your project needs a large amount of animation, has a very tight schedule, and will use mocap, then Motionbuilder is an absolute must.