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December 2014
Issue: April 1, 2006

SPECIAL REPORT: LIFE-LIKE FACIAL ANIMATION WITH SOFTIMAGE|FACE ROBOT

By: Randi Altman

HOLLYWOOD - Creating believable facial animation has always been a holy grail for animators working on high-end apps. In fact, when Softimage approached 3DS Max-based Blur in Venice, CA, and asked if there’s anything they could help with, their answer was “facial animation.” After about a year, and quite a bit of input from Blur, Softimage is now shipping its standalone Face Robot software.

During a day-long event held here in Hollywood, Softimage launched this new software product, which is designed to save valuable man-hours by automating what is typically a time-consuming and labor-intensive process. It supports both keyframe and mo-cap animation.
With Face Robot, animators achieve a high level of control by manipulating different points on the face, such as the mouth, eyebrows and jaw. Softimage points to the product’s soft-tissue “solver” as a key part in the process. They say it simulates how facial tissue slides and deforms during the formation of expressions and includes a corrective sculpting system for detailed art direction. And they’ve made the process easy, breaking it down into six stages: Assembly, Pick Objects, Pick Landmarks, Fit, Act and Tune.

There are two flavors to the product: Softimage|Face Robot Designer costs $94,995 and is described as a complete environment to prepare, solve and animate faces. It includes the tools to define wrinkles and puffing, place tendons and fine-tune the mouth. Designer can be used with many seats of Softimage|Face Robot Animator, which costs $14,995, and is dedicated to animating faces prepared by Designer.

“We are really trying to focus on quality,” says VP of Softimage, Marc Stevens. “It’s more like an industrial tool. If you have very high requirements in terms of the quality of the face you want to do or the volume of work you want to do, then this is the tool for you. It’s not going to be the right one for everyone right away, but that technology will filter down. There aren’t that many people that have the budget and the projects to fund this, but the ones that are out there are very interested and those are the people we will be focused on in the beginning.”

FACE ROBOT IS AGNOSTIC

Face Robot may be a Softimage product, but users aren’t tied to XSI. After creating your face in Face Robot, you can bring it into Autodesk’s 3DS Max and Maya. So why offer it on other 3D apps when you are trying to sell your own?

“There is a psychological thing about changing your pipeline,” says Avid president/CEO David Krall, adding that it usually takes two or three years for this change to happen because of the investment in infrastructure.

So instead of holding people hostage and making them use XSI, they made it open and they made it seamless for animators.

Will there be any difference running Face Robot with Maya or Max? “No,” says Stevens. “There is nothing that ties this to XSI. It’s built on XSI technology, but it’s like a dedicated seat where you just focus on this stage in the pipeline. There is nothing that says, ‘Well, if you use XSI it will be easier or better.’”

To further this point, Krall points out that over the last 10 years, the 3D industry has changed in size in terms of dollars spent on 3D tools, “so it’s really finding different applications for the technology outside of the traditional seats. So if our only goal was to replace every Max and Maya seat with XSI that would be interesting but fundamentally limiting as well.”

What he sees happening with this technology is that animators are going to find different uses for it. In talking to people, Krall has heard that some want to use it for previs. “As one animator put it, ‘Rather than burdening actors with makeup, we can do these things quickly or not even burden the actors with this at all and just do it afterwards using this technology.’ It’s going to open up new opportunities for applications that are not happening today.”

HELLO KITTY

Softimage topped off its event with an outdoor presentation at Sony Studios in Culver City. They introduced their newest character, Kitty Hunting, a female who joins the existing Rock Falcon. Tim Miller, creative director/founder of Blur, was also there and spoke about working with Face Robot and how it’s changed their workflow in terms of facial animation. Half expecting to be dragged off the stage at any moment due to his “very casual” presentation, Miller kept the crowd laughing, joking that every time he used the F-word, Softimage would give him a free seat of XSI. On my count, he has about 15 or 20 licenses coming his way.