Friday, June 20, 2008

SPORE Creature Creator: The Future of Digital Puppet-Building?

Will Wright is the mastermind behind Sim City and The Sims series (the best-selling PC game of all time). His upcoming SPORE game takes the player through stages of living things, starting with the microbial, then land-based fauna, then into social groups (tribal), then into civilization mode, then finally into space mode! But what's really exciting to me is the Creature Creator mode and the technology behind it.

Most modeling and animation package interfaces start with an interface left over from Computer Aided Design (CAD). That is, you model geometry first. When it's how you like it, you add skeletal rigging (bones) and mesh the two. Then you build in all sorts of constraints so that when you move parts of the puppet, it behaves realistically. Finally, after the digital puppet is ready, you can animate it or apply clip-art animation to it. Life takes a while to emerge.

SPORE's interface starts with the premise that you are tweaking a living being. You, the designer*, get to add in functioning hands, legs, and eyes (not just shapes of them) and this being will react to them, try them out, shake them around, and perhaps disapprove of your modifications. It's very much like the classic Chuck Jones Daffy Duck cartoon Duck Amuck where the unseen artist keeps redrawing Daffy's background and his body.

I do hope Autodesk and Softimage are watching. Wouldn't it be great to be able to construct creatures in this organic way? Wouldn't it be lovely to not have to worry about building IK handles and binding deformers and just start building an instantly animatable character? Granted, there are only 250 shapes available and with all this built-in procedural structure, there are limits to what you can build. But sometimes limitation is exactly what you want. (Who needs the thousands of combination that DON'T work as an animated being?)

* It's perhaps unfortunate that SPORE creatures don't seem to "evolve" when they mate, emphasizing the unnecessary (but fun) step of design.

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posted by Brian at 7:58 AM 0 comments links to this post

Friday, May 04, 2007

Communicating Emotion in 3-D graphics & Machinima

CartoonBrew posted the original Tootsie Roll Pop commercial from the early 70s (animated by the great Fred Crippen, who did many fine Sesame Street animated shorts over the years) alongside the newly updated CGI version. Check them out here.

I think it would be difficult to argue the new version is better. But why, precisely? What is the visually fancier version lacking that the first has? The answer is found in a blog entry from the Free-Pixel blog: Emotion.

The blogger fiezi attended a presentation by Gilles Monteil, an animation researcher at Ubisoft, called "We All Want Emotions in Games!" He describes how three audience members were given laser pointers to aim at the screen, and to do whatever they wanted. (I've seen this happen spontaneously while waiting for Dailies to start at Sony) The audience reacted to what they perceived as a chase going on, but in reality, there were only moving dots. No textures, no geometry, no perceivable characters in the traditional sense. All that was there was rhythm, a sense of space, and a sense of interaction between entities.

This is basically the core of all visual design, and of performing arts like mime and dance, and it turns out, in computer games as well. The extras, like how characters are dressed, how spectacular the sets look, are secondary to the audiences emotional involvement. Yet, in game engine design (used by Machinima), the focus is on texture, lighting, and making things look spectacular.

That's great, but make certain you can invoke an emotional response, with your character design, posing, and motion first, then your textures and lighting.

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posted by Brian at 5:20 PM 0 comments links to this post

Friday, March 02, 2007

CG Animated Short: Burning Safari

Brother Henry wrote in to let me know about this very cool CG Short, Burning Safari.

Now try doing that with Machinima, eh? Though you could do the Rough and Final Layouts with Machinima techniques, in a fashion similar to how Phil Tippett used Star Wars action figures and fake trees to film a rough version of the Speeder Bike sequence in Return of the Jedi.

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posted by Brian at 10:00 AM 2 comments links to this post

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Machinima Application Design Requirements, Take One

Examples of Machinima have finally gone viral, such as Overman's Male Restroom Etiquette, which got over a million downloads from YouTube the other day. It was created mostly using the engine and assets of Will Wright's The Sims 2.

There has been much talk of "Hey, this will forever change how we make film!" but before we get carried away, let's think about some of the challenges and requirements of an ideal platform for making movies inexpensively.

* Assets

A primary problem of Machinima is the limited number of existing rigged characters (actors), props, costumes, and environments available in any given engine. The easiest are Sims 2, Second Life, and a few others with communities making things in their spare time. The most flexible are engines where one can model using any available tools, such as Unreal, Panda3D, Blender), but require a lot of skill, time and large teams to produce decent work.

A problem with prefabricated assets is that they follow a particular aesthetic. Sure, you've got a lot of objects to play with in The Sims, but they all look Sims-y. What if you want a dark, noir look? What if you want black & white? Or you want it to look and feel like a movie or video, with gorgeous lighting? You'll end up needing to fix things in post, which can be done, but that adds a lot to the cost. A director has limited choices in any pre-existing game engine.

Currently, low-cost modeling software programs are too primitive. They do not help a 3-D artist (much less a Machinima director) be an artist at a high, conceptual level. Photographers now have means (to some extent) to alter their works far above the level of pixels of color -- they can use adverbs and similes via Photoshop filters. High end (expensive) software is beginning to use genetic algorithms, advanced auto-rigging, computational geometry techniques, and novel painting techniques (like Zbrush) but it will be a few years before these are available in low-end or free software. (Though from what I've seen, many of the techniques being incorporated into Will Wright's next game, Spore could be adopted into inexpensive content creation tools even sooner. Something along the lines of this.)

* Control

As a puppeteer, my biggest gripe with typical game engines is the lack of decent control. Even Susanne Vega commented (via her Avatar) in Second Life, that the experience of performing in SL was like playing with puppets at home with her kids, only that she couldn't move hers how she wanted. Traditional gamepads and joysticks are good for position and for triggering canned poses, but software has not been made that lets them become a means of performance beyond simple humorous videogame-y moves.

Sims offers a large number of "canned" behaviors, which I believe is one reason why Male Restroom Ettiquette did so well. Sure, it could have been done in Halo with expressionless soldiers. But how much funnier to see characters holding themselves in agony as they wait for a toilet, a behavior all-too-familiar in the Sims?

* Puppeteering / Live Action, vs. Animation and Layered Editing

In music, there are sequencer software programs meant for explicitly laying down tracks, and editing them. This is akin to the Beatles doing take after take per song on Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club band, then painstakingly crafting it with effects, filters, sound effects, overdubs, and other production techniques until it worked.

Then there are programs like Ableton Live, meant for triggering musical events or playing in real-time. This can be a lot more spontaneous, like improvisational jazz or improvisational theatre.

Right now, with most game engines, the tools are more akin to puppeteering / live Action then they are full fledged animation and video editing platforms. Most machinima is edited after the fact, the end result being a video. (Would it be possible to do a LIVE Machinima piece? I think so.)

* Content / Storytelling

So what kinds of stories and content can be made with machinima? Over the last hundred years, film has evolved to cover the gamut of topics - romance, horror, drama, comedy, history, sex, religion, documentary, science, you name it. Videogames, so far at least, are largely limited to people, monsters and robots running around with guns, battle-axes or cars.

For machinima to really be significant, we're going to need more assets, and far better control over the characters if they are to be compelling. The democratization of tools for editing video and sound have already made filmmaking easier. The same for tools that make assets will help tremendously.

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posted by Brian at 12:56 PM 3 comments links to this post