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Hidden Gems of Animation

Features that deserve more attention By Frank Moldstad

"Here's a feature I wish more people knew about ... " How many times have you heard that from the mouths of power users or demo artists?

The deep toolset of digital animation software means that strong features sometimes are just overlooked in the rush to start using the program. These features may be less glamorous than marquee functions that get most of the attention, or they may be alternate ways of doing things, but they deserve to be brought to the attention of users. Some can save an animator significant time, others give more control over standard procedures. Or they may simply be ?butt-savers, such as preventing data loss in a crash!
We asked representatives of leading animation software developers to describe such underrecognized features in their software packages, and to tell us how these features would be used and why they are important. The companies include Side Effects (Houdini), Softimage (SOFTIMAGE|XSI), Digital Video (Toonz), Discreet (3ds max), Hash (Animation:Master) and Toon Boom (Toon Boom Studio).

Heres what they said:


Side Effects Software

MPlay Blocking

When and how it is used
Animators use it to fine-tune the blocking of the character's motion.

Why it is important
It's important because it saves the animators the time and hassle of re-rendering an entire sequence of animation to verify the results of each tweak; instead, they render the sequence once into MPlay (Houdini's native flipbook), then change the timing of the rendered frames -- and implicitly the keyframe positions -- within the image viewer. The tool discerns between foreground and background characters, allowing animators to visualize both sequences simultaneously in the image viewer, yet modify the blocking of only one character.

UV Pelting

When and how it is used

Modelers use it to quickly unwrap geometry and generate texture coordinates for a 3D surface.

Why it is important 
UV Pelting is important because it significantly reduces the time needed to compute texture UV's; instead of having to project the geometry on a number of planes and then tediously stitch patches together in UV space to generate the map, modelers need only select the "pelting" edge-path and watch the software instantly produce a fully connected map in one operation. Intuitive tension and framing controls give modelers full control over the final result.


Above and below: Flying creature model, high res and low res (with normal map rendering) images. The white renderings show the wireframes for each, the shaded views show the rendering of both, with normal mapping being used make the low res object look more like the high res object.

Low res object: 2068 triangles
high res object: 384,074 triangles

Created by John Stetzer

Created by John Stetzer

3ds max 7
Contributed by Discreet's Dan Prochazka

Normal Mapping

A technique that I hope will be widely adopted by the effects community is a new feature in 3ds max 7 called ?normal mapping. This is a technique that has been employed and embraced by 3D artists in the gaming community, but also offers powerful time-saving rendering benefits to artists in feature film and television visual effects.

What it is
In order to use normal maps, an artist models two versions of an object. For example, if theyre creating a building they would model a high-resolution version with a great deal of detail (filigree, windows, awnings etc,) and they would also model a low-resolution version that has all of the basic exterior shapes without any of the fine details.  The normal map tool can then be used to extract detail from the high-resolution version and apply that detail to the low-resolution version so that both look identical?but the low-resolution version carries approximately 1/100th of the polygon count.  Normal maps are highly sophisticated image maps; however, when its time to render they tell the rendering engine exactly what the detail looks like, not by describing it in polygons, but in directional face normals.

This technique has been used for some time in games, but in a game the only time the normal-mapped objects are actually seen rendered is during game play. Now both the 3ds max scan line renderer and mental ray can use this normal map technique in the rendering pipeline to massively reduce file size and data sets for visual effects and animation projects at 1 /100th of the polygon count at actual render time. The primary benefits of normal maps are time-savings in rendering and the ability to fit more objects into a scene because everything can be at a much lower resolution. So, you dont have to worry if your pipeline cant deal with massive data sets ? with normal maps the eventual output is the same as it would be if everything in-scene was at an incredibly high resolution.

When and how it is used
A classic visual effects application could entail a scene such as the New York City skyline. Let's say youve shot it this year, and it needs to appear as if it was the 1970s. You have to add several old cars, and buildings need to be added and aged.  You can model both low-resolution and high-resolution versions of the buildings in the scene. Generate normal maps from the high-resolution versions and apply them to the low-resolution models, you then have additional polygons to budget for buildings and objects that appear in the foreground or as ?hero objects in a sequence. Normal maps offer a great alternative for maximizing object detail and reducing polygon counts in a scene.

 In gaming you dont have the option of compositing pre-rendered layers since all rendering is done in the game engine ?anything shown in-camera has to be there at whatever resolution is supported by the engine.  Because in games, rendering is done on the fly directly to your TV screen developers do not have the option of incorporating super high-resolution models in the viewport.  For example, nothing in a game engine can support a scene of 200 million polygons.  In the recent demonstrations of  "Unreal Tournament," super detailed 200-million plus polygon scenes were reduced to 1 million polygons using normal maps.  To do this, companies have had to build their own tools, as Epic did for the Unreal Engine demonstrations. With the release of 3ds max 7, now all of our customers will have access to this powerful technique. 

Why it is important
Some of the biggest challenges that 3D artists face involve long render times and budgeting polygon counts in highly detailed sequences. One of the best ways to lower render times is to have fewer polygons to render, so normal maps offer a great way of shrinking down files without having to compromise detail and image quality in your scene.

Often times, people will lower the resolution of objects in a scene to compensate for large file sizes. With normal maps, these artists can have their cake and eat it too ? with faster render times and very high quality results.


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Related Keywords:animation programs, animators, digital animation, software packages, Softimage, Maya, 3ds max, LightWave

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