Review: Autodesk MotionBuilder 2012
MotionBuilder has long been the go-to software for real-time and post-processing motion capture animation. Can the 2012 release dazzle in a way the last few versions haven’t?
Price: £3,700 / $3,995 / €4,400 | Developer: Autodesk | Platform: Windows
The new stereocam is a cool feature, but won’t be a selling point for everyone
- Enhanced HumanIK
- Performance boosts
- Single-step interoperability between 2012 apps
- Updated UI and improved F-Curve editor
- Stereoscopic camera support
MotionBuilder has always been something of a double-edged sword.
It provides a rich set of tools for character animation and editing motion-capture and it enables you to do all your work in real time.
On the other hand, the program is notoriously quirky and frequently unstable.
MotionBuilder 2011 wasn’t particularly groundbreaking: if anything, it felt more like a step backwards.
Small changes to areas such as materials and animation layers didn’t make up for the fact it had a number of frustrating bugs and seemed particularly prone to crashes.
Indeed, there hasn’t been much that has distinguished any of the past few MotionBuilder releases from one another.
Some have been more stable than others, but for the most part, you could get by on MotionBuilder 2008 and not feel like you were missing out on much.
With MotionBuilder 2012, there’s no doubt you’re in for something new from the moment you fire it up.
The first difference you’re likely to notice is the performance boost.
The 2012 version launches much quicker, and it seems to be about twice as fast across the board.
Plotting, saving, and opening files are all noticeably quicker.
In addition to the increased horsepower, this is the most stable release of the software I’ve used, though it may still have a few crashes in store for you.
The new layout and look of MotionBuilder 2012, with all the windows docked to the main viewer
The most obvious change to even the casual user will be the whole look of the program.
The user interface has been overhauled with a new colour scheme, new icons and new layout options.
The old surfer dude from the Kaydara FiLMBOX days is long gone and has been replaced with a sleek Tron-like fellow in the Character Control window.
Layouts are now fully integrated with the Qt UI framework, so panels can be re-sized, torn away, docked and dynamically scaled within a single window.
It’s a nice addition if you’re using a single monitor. If, though, you operate in a dual-monitor environment, you won’t really be able to take advantage of this feature, given that the only window you can dock to is the main viewer, which you’ll likely want to place by itself on a single screen.
There are a couple of minor downsides to the updated UI.
The first is that long-time users will initially find it tricky to navigate, so there will naturally be a small ramping-up period as you get used to different icons and new layouts.
Second, the new colour scheme lacks contrast in places, and it can sometimes be difficult to know what you have selected.
One of the biggest changes to the UI is the new Characterization tool.
The old way to go about characterising in MotionBuilder is still there, but the new tool is more visual, more intuitive and a bit more efficient as well.
One handy new trick is it can now mirror selections so when, for example, you add the right arm to a character, the left arm will automatically be added in the appropriate slot.
The same scene built in MotionBuilder 2012 and sent to Maya 2012. Note the green connection status in each program
Autodesk has a large family of creative tools, and the visual updates to MotionBuilder are part of an effort to unify the user’s experience across its multiple offerings.
In support of this effort, the 2012 release has another new feature called single-step interoperability.
This purports to allow users to send files back and forth between different software with the click of a button.
I tested it out with Maya 2012. (It’s important to note that to take advantage of single-step interoperability, you need the 2012 versions of both pieces of software – in this case, Maya and MotionBuilder).
If you’ve got the proper versions, this new feature works pretty well.
Selecting the Send To Maya option from the File menu will open up Maya and load your FBX scene into it (including your fully functional control rig).
Any items that are affected by a constraint that Maya doesn’t recognise are simply plotted down.
Single-step interoperability is good, but not perfect.
To export a modest scene (say, one character and a small set), it still takes time for MotionBuilder to package it all up.
Then it takes Maya a while to bring it all in. (Both programs still perform import and export operations in the background.)
The feature also isn’t a cure-all for some of the problems that can arise from trying to get MotionBuilder scenes perfectly into Maya.
You’ll still need to be smart about how you set things up on either side to get them to play nicely.
Once your scene has gone across successfully and the two pieces of software are ‘connected’, it works well.
You can make changes on one side and push the changes across to the other.
If you’re careful with your selections, these changes will shift easily and quickly from MotionBuilder to Maya and back again.
Overall, single-step interoperability eases the communication between different Autodesk packages without complicated FBX import/export options.
All it needs now is to be able to work between two separate workstations on a network.
MotionBuilder’s new Characterization tool is more intuitive
Another positive addition to the 2012 MotionBuilder toolset is the new Profiling Center.
With this, you can change the way the program handles and evaluates such things as constraints, animations and deformations.
The profiler gives you options to help you boost performance on the fly, enabling you to make small trade- offs in order to keep larger, more complex scenes running smoothly.
Advanced users can access the corresponding Python scripts and SDK classes so that they can set up scene-specific profiles and monitor where performance bottlenecks occur.
The Profiling Center is especially useful in virtual productions, where smooth performance during real-time capture sessions is critically important.
In summary, the 2012 version of MotionBuilder is a welcome release after a run of indifferent updates.
Whether or not it’s a must-have will naturally depend on the specifics of your production.
Most of the new features speed up or simplify tasks that MotionBuilder already does.
Other new features (such as the new stereo cameras) will only be useful for certain projects.
Ultimately, it’s the performance upgrades and increased stability that make this version worth considering for any motion-capture or character animation pipeline.
• Fastest and most stable release yet, with more performance-boosting options
• Better characterisation workflow
• Improved Autodesk integration
• Some ramping-up time for long-time users who are used to the old look and layout
• Aspects of the UI are difficult to read
• Single-step interoperability doesn’t quite feel finished
This is one of the strongest releases of MotionBuilder yet. If you’ve been waiting to upgrade or buy the software, now is the time to take the plunge
on Monday, September 5th, 2011 at 11:27 am under Applications, Reviews.
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Tags: 2012, Autodesk, autodesk 2012, MotionBuilder