VANCOUVER - At SIGGRAPH this week, DreamWorks Animation unveiled a huge leap forward in character animation technology with their new animation program Premo. And five years of planning, designing, building and testing yielded impressive results.
From the beginning, the lead engineers worked closely with the animators at the studio, asking them to come up with a list of whatever they've always wished for in an animation tool. With no preconceived notions of what the tool "should" do or how it "should" be written, the engineers and artists worked collaboratively to design what it could be.
The big leap forward here is reconceptualizing the user interaction into a subscription service model. What this means broadly is that the section of the program that handles user interaction - editing motion curves, setting poses, changing parameters, etc, is no longer tightly coupled to the character deformation calculations. This decoupling enables the user experience to drive the show and animators no longer have to wait for the pose to update in the display before having direct control over the posing tools. In this sense the GUI that the animator manipulates is the client that subscribes to the deformation calculations as a service. And the client is free to change its requests to which the service must respond.
And while this might sound easy to achieve in say, retail sales transactions, the work behind the scenes of driving the complex, interdependent computations of sophisticated character rigs and deformations is quite daunting. Working with Intel's engineers, DWA was able to come up with techniques and methods for spreading the calculations across all the cores of the machine in an architecture that can scale to as many cores as the machine has, as many more as the next generation of machines will have, or even to cores on the cloud.
The program uses the extra cores to compute not just the deformations of the current frame, but to precompute the surrounding frames changed by the latest edit so they will be ready for scrubbing and playback. So the animator gets realtime results on the fully-deformed hero rig.
In order to fully exploit this sophistication and return an analog feel of control to the artists, the engineers at DreamWorks needed to work hand-in-hand with the Character TDs (DWA's rigging department) to actually redesign the rigging workflow, tools, and design paradigms to fully engage with this degree of computational parallelism.
Senior animator, Ludovic Bouancheau, gave a great live demonstration of the program showing this new re-imagining of artist workflow. Animators no longer have to select joints and edit curves or manipulators - as the mouse cursors moves across the character, different sections highlight. Clicking and dragging in these regions lifts a smile, raises an eyebrow or pivots at the waist.
Premo is definitely a prime example of how DWA is breaking new ground in both user tool development as well as core animation technology. Will this technology ever be available to those of us outside of Dreamworks? Well all they'll say they're not saying it won't be - sort of. Could be interesting.
Scott Singer is a Digital Effects Supervisor at Tippett Studio. He can be reached by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.