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
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."
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
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."
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
"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."