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April 2014
Issue: March 1, 2007

ANIMATION: FACE TO FACE ROBOT

By: Ken McGorry

VENICE, CA — If you didn't believe you could visualize virtually anything in computers, it's time to rethink your position. Again. Not only do the big budget producers continually find ways to emulate natural reality in the theoretically cheaper world of CG, but industrious smaller shops do as well.

Blur Studio, here, specializes in producing (on the side) outrageously inventive, rich-looking animated shorts. Gopher Broke is one recent short, about a hilariously determined gopher, that can now be downloaded from iTunes. Rockfish is an inventive sci-fi short that we may soon be hearing more about in a long-form incarnation.

The latest, Gentlemen's Duel, has all the ingredients: human actors, a feisty poodle, fantastical Victorian-era machinery and gorgeous architecture — as well as the gorgeous object of affection of two rivals. Does Duel look photoreal? No, it wasn't meant to. But the cumulative effect of it all, the characterizations, the contestants' weighty rivalry, and the lighting and naturalistic touches like dramatic clouds, gentle breezes, smoke and airborne fluff gives the whole eight-minute production an air of hyper-reality.

Duel is the first Blur short featuring dialogue. And the dialogue offers a steady stream of no-holds-barred taunts and verbal clichés befitting our Anglophobic and Francophobic heroes.

A big part of the characters' emotiveness comes thanks to an alliance forged nearly two years ago between technicians from Blur and Softimage. The result was Softimage's Face Robot program on XSI, introduced to the animating public last year.

Blur (www.blur.com) had always been a 3D Studio Max house, working on lush cinematics for games (Spider-man 2, Warhammer Fantasy, Halo Wars) as well as their steady stream of wacky, self-produced shorts. "We still use Max for the majority

of our pipeline," says Blur founder Tim Miller. "Gentlemen's Duel was [our] first project that used XSI heavily for facial animation. The whole Softimage connection happened because of our need for better facial animation."

XSI, MEET 3DS MAX

Miller and his Blur staff had grown frustrated with the difficulty of creating convincing facial animation, particularly for dialogue.  "You have this big chunk of gray matter whose sole purpose is to decode the content to the human face," he says. "It's really hard to fool people and everybody knows when it's not right even though they couldn't tell you why."

Miller put Jeff Wilson in charge of rethinking Blur's facial animation pipeline. "We happened to know the guys at [Softimage] XSI special projects; they're right up the street," Miller says. Blur and the XSI team set to work on Face Robot, a new facial animation pipeline. It took about 18 months but the results can be seen and felt in Duel.

"We now use XSI for our regular [facial] animation pipeline and that's kind of a big shift," says Blur's pipeline guru, Remi McGill. As it is, Face Robot|XSI plugs into third-party pipelines such as Autodesk's Maya or Max or NewTek LightWave. "That's what we've been doing for two years now," McGill says. "We export the head from Max and set it up and animate it in Face Robot, just for the facial. Then we export it through [Max's] PointCache 2 and load it up onto the rig in Max." Softimage, recognizing today's "mixed-tool pipelines," integrated Point Oven into XSI to ease the transfer of models from one third-party program to another and back.

Blur and the local Softimage special projects team, including Michael Isner and Thomas Kang, did the primary development work. Later development on the version of Face Robot now available was done at Softimage headquarters in Montreal. "They were really responsive working with us addressing short-term issues in production," says McGill, "rather than the normal thing you'll get which is, 'Wait till the next release.' The XSI architecture is really great; it's a really good package."

"Blur needed a solution to reduce the resource/time cost of doing the facial animation work in their projects," says Isner. "The quality and volume demands were outstripping the capabilities of their existing software. To address the quality issue, we did extensive anatomical research to develop a novel soft tissue solver, which is an intricate mathematical model that closely mimics facial tissue deformations. To handle the volume problem, we implemented a facial analysis engine that performs a detailed topological analysis of any face mesh and figures out how to map the solver onto the mesh for a perfect custom fit."

This formed the core technology of Face Robot, which can take a wide variety of face meshes and make them fleshy and animatable in "just minutes" rather than weeks.

Given Blur's work in game cinematics, which would include the use of performance capture data, Softimage also built into Face Robot the ability to retarget facial data, thus making it possible to transfer a given facial animation to multiple face meshes more quickly and easily.

"We needed Face Robot to integrate into their existing pipeline, which was built around 3D Studio Max," Isner adds. "So we implemented multiple import and export options to give Face Robot the flexibility to integrate into many different pipelines with minimal impact."

THE BLUR PIPELINE

"In the past our pipeline was completely Max," says McGill. As at many animation studios, Blur's character animation and scene assembly work are cached separately, thereby disconnecting the two departments so animators can work independently of scene assembly. "The animators can make updates very quickly and easily and they can be updated automatically in scene assembly."

The way McGill's pipeline currently works is, modeling and texturing is done in Max, then those models go both to scene assembly and into XSI. "But the models don't come out of XSI," McGill says, "only the caches [points] are exported. As long as your points match, everything works." Animators rig the character in XSI and that rig is saved as an XSI model. This allows for automatically updating files with the latest work. When animators open a file, it already has the most up-to-date rig, "which saves us a lot of time."

FACE OFF

Duel's English and French rivals (Weatherby and Dubious, respectively) have the dialogue and they got the formal facial treatment in the short. Face Robot was typically employed when they had speaking lines and, when not, the characters got the traditional Blur facial treatment. "Their faces are very expressive and stylized," McGill says, contrasting the duelists to Blur's more naturalistic mocap characters created for cinematics like the recent X-Men Legends, which also used Face Robot.

Diego Garcia created a "cache preview" program that allowed Blur staff to QC the lead characters before going to a final render. Another innovation McGill appreciates is the automated rig builder he worked on with programmer Eric Hulser. "The nice thing about our process is we already have things locked off and QC'd before it gets to rendering."

McGill appreciates the way Softimage has been developing XSI as a core product, rather than building around the edges. "XSI can control the amount of complexity by off-loading models," he says. "As they've added features, everything fits together properly as well. Things follow a consistent methodology." 

FINISHING SHOTS

Blur uses Eyeon Fusion for compositing and finishing its shots and Gentlemen's Duel consisted of 135, employing various different looks and times of day. Shots were separated into different passes — lights, layers, effects and so on. Some shots would have 12 different passes and some Duel shots wound up with over 50 passes in Fusion. To facilitate this, Blur programmers wrote a "Shot Change" tool for Fusion. (For an in-depth discussion with Sebastien Chort on Blur's use of Eyeon Fusion on Gentlemen's Duel, visit www.eyeonline.com and choose "community"; then click on "interviews.")

"Our thing was always that it had to work in our pipeline, which was a Max pipeline primarily," says Miller of the effort to have Gentlemen's Duel render a new world of interoperability among CG systems. "I'd like to see all software migrate to some sort of usage fee system," he opines, "where people could afford to use it. But it's nice to know at least there's a solution."