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Product Review: Discreet's Character Studio 4

March 15, 2003

Character Studio 4 is the latest release of Discreet's popular character animation package for 3DS Max. CS4 finally brings nonlinear animation (NLA) to 3DS Max. The interface to the NLA system is through the new Mixer; the Mixer panel contains a track-editing system similar to that found in the standard trackview, but the difference is that animators can control the motion of character bones (either all of them or a subset), through clips, layers, transitions, and weighting curves. While the interface is a bit unfriendly and not intuitive at first, it's very powerful, and can be creatively used to spawn a huge number of animations out of just a handful.

The Motion Mixer is the heart of the NLA system. The red curve indicates the influence of one clip over another in a given track.

Another new feature is the integration of Biped data into the trackview. Movement, rotation, scaling, and controllers can all be applied to Biped objects and modified using their new standard curves in the trackview. Additionally, Discreet has added an animation Workbench to the interface. The Workbench is a version of the trackview, enhanced to provide features only available in Biped. These unique features include the new motion analysis tools, which can be used to scan over animations and check for potential problems such as motion spiking; fixes to found problems can be applied automatically, by hand, or completely ignored. As with the Mixer interface, all editing can be done while animation is being played, for immediate feedback.

The crowd system is another major new feature in CS4. Creating a crowd is a lot like creating particle systems, complete with influences, behaviors, and physics. The "particles," called Delegates, control the characters of your choice. The characters can be given a set of standard behaviors, and can also be given individuality and complex reactions to their environment via the Motion Flow network. Setting up this network is a lot like scripting: you give your characters several choices of which animation to play when dropped into an action/reaction environment.

A simple but welcome addition is a more contoured and less intrusive Biped skeleton. Animating while referencing the improved skeleton is much easier than with the old skeleton, as now you can tell at a glance in which direction everything is pointed. (The classic skeleton is still available to those who want it.)

The copy/paste functionality has been very much improved. Copying a pose or a posture now results in a clip being brought into a large clipboard (which can be saved to be used on any character), and displays each pose with a visual thumbnail. Copying a pose no longer overwrites the previously copied pose; now you can choose poses to paste from a simple list.

The Physique modifier has remained largely unchanged. Whether that is a good thing or not depends upon personal preference.

CS4 still is best in its class in terms of functionality, stability, and user-friendliness. The addition of NLA alone is well worth the price of admission ($995 plus a seat of 3DS Max 5.1 for Windows 2000/XP), and gives animators a lot more freedom and ability to create unique motion sets with a minimum of tedium and frustration.

Character Studio 4





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