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Review: Autodesk Entertainment Creation Suite Ultimate 2015

Brad Clark puts Autodesk’s latest flagship suite release through its paces.

 

Rest in peace Softimage

Technically there is a 2015 version with updates, but this will be the last version of Softimage. As were many of you, I was shocked and saddened by the announcement that Softimage had reached end-of-life and was being discontinued. Looking to the bright side, I felt that maybe it was going to be a good thing and the fresh eyes looking over Maya and 3dsMax would bring some innovation to these somewhat old cranky workhorses. Time will tell, and until then we should focus on the 2015 release of the suite and welcome our Softimage users to the mix.

Last year during my review I mentioned that I was feeling studios might not be getting maximum benefit from the suite and missing out on tools that were better in one package than another. The old thinking that you’d Model in Max, Rig and Animate in Maya (the Softimage guys just laughed and went back to doing it all in one software) is now ready to be flipped around. With Maya 2015 once again getting a big modeling and simulation upgrade and with Max’s much improved UI love for big scene management and even faster viewport speed, in addition to adding python support, things are looking up for both camps.

After getting the suite installed, there were already a few service patches available and thankfully they installed right over the existing software...no need to waste time uninstalling the freshly installed software first.

Since Softimage is done, I didn’t install it. Sad yes, but in the past 10 years as much as I wanted to invest deeper time in it, no client ever asked and my time goes where the work is. So this will not include a review of Softimage. It is time to move forward. R.I.P Softimage.

I did install 3dsMax, Maya and MotionBuilder and will review the improvements and failings of this release. For those new to my reviews, I feel most of you can read the “what's new” documents yourself and watch the nice updated movies but you come here to learn something that wasn’t included in the press release and that is what I aim for. I focus on my areas of interest and experience - character rigging, motion capture and overall workflow efficiency.

Suite Animation and Performance for Max and Maya

Finally and for the first time that I can remember, last year 3dsMax caught back up with faster animation playback and happily with 2015 we get even more viewport speed. Even large polycount dense scenes are feeling snappy and responsive.

Maya this year is feeling sluggish though with slow animation playback for heavy rigs and lots of nodes. This release focused more on big integrations with simulation systems like Bullet and Xgen and Bifrost and getting viewport 2.0 up and running enough to become the default view. Great for FX work, bad for animation.

To be fair Maya did get some noticeable boosts for its smooth subdivision surfaces preview with the new support for Pixar's OpenSubdiv surfaces. OpenSubdiv has been a buzz since Pixar and Autodesk first demoed it and you can watch more about its integration in to Maya and the speed improvements here.

This is a big benefit for modeling and rigging since it helps improve the viewport performance for meshes with high subdivision levels and takes advantage of parallel GPU and CPU systems. But this isn’t enough to fix the slowdown on heavy rigs with lots of nodes. Remember every animation curve is an added node to the file so performance can degrade quickly with lots of animated attributes. Great for modeling and character finaling though. Depending on how highend your hardware, you might be able to utilize more of the Caching and GPU processing. But I wasn’t able to using a laptop Nivida Quadro card.

For a good quick overview of the new features you can check out this video demo from Autodesk: What's New in Autodesk® Maya® 2015 Entertainment Creation Suite.

Cyclical Constraints in HumanIK in Maya

HumanIK has had a rough history and start in Maya but with lots of fixes this small but important update for HumanIK users is the ability to work with constraints and the rig. For example, if your prop is constrained to the left hand, and you want the right hand to follow the prop you can now set this up much like you can using the double solver in MotionBuilder. This has a big impact on improving the usefulness of HumanIK in Maya for animators trying to quickly get work done.

Maya Deformers

We finally get some upgrades to the deformation system in Maya with a few nodes like better skinning assignment with the Voxel Bind and two new deformer nodes, Shrink Wrap and Texture Deformer.

The new Texture Deformer is great for creating animated scales, muscles and even just quickly displacing meshes for environments (you can create some nice character and environment interactions with animated maps). There are lots of options on how to apply this deformer so read over the help files to see all the cool things you can do with it.

Shrinkwrap has been a missing and much needed tool in Maya since version 1, and finally we have a powerful tool, not just a deformer.  Everything from modeling to creating fake muscle sliding or clothing interactions to sticking tires to the ground in a car rig or creating a foot rig that orients to the ground and can’t pull below it are all now possible with the addition of this one tool.

Other suggested uses are attaching accessories to a character mesh, projecting clean geometry on to dense sculpt data for fast retopology and more.

I am very happy to finally have this tool in my character toolbox for creating better rigs. This has been something I always miss from XSI and 3dsMax and it is a reason enough to upgrade to 2015.

UI improvements in Max and Maya, something for everyone

Max gets docked scene browser and big speed boost, becoming more like the Maya Outliner, while getting some powerful workflow enhancements for adding to new layers and managing not just hierarchy but the layers and more through the new tools. This is something that has been missing for a long time and it gets a big fix for 2015.

Maya UI has not changed much since they switched the color to dark grey but in Maya 2015 there was an effort to take the overcrowded tool menus and make them more approachable. They have added some visual separators by operation type and done some reorganization. Modeling and Skinning are the most noticeable and this is a good effort I hope continues for the rest of the UI. It makes Maya feel much more approachable for new users and I find it helped me zero in on a menu item faster once I got adjusted to them 

Also of note, the Node editor now lets users customize what attributes are displayed on each node. This should let character TDs clean up more complex graphs if needed.

And a nice update from the docs on keeping the annoying toggle menus open!

Ctrl + click to keep menus visible: There are several menus that list multiple items that you can enable and disable, for example the Show menu in each panel. You can now  + click (Windows and Linux) or  + click (Mac OS X) to keep the menu open as you toggle multiple items in the list. To close the menu, click outside the menu.

Outliner gets a Navigation boost  with middle mouse navigation

New hotkeys give you an alternative to scrollbar navigation in the Outliner. Quickly pan through long lists of objects at a normal speed (Alt +  ) or an accelerated speed (Ctrl + Alt +  ) .

Maya Rotate tool improvement - I nearly overlooked this but the Rotate tools get a boost with the ability now to set the angle of the manipulator to other objects and angles besides the objects’ local axis or world. The Move and Scale tool have improved with similar options in past releases and it is nice to see more control over how you rotate an object. This is a vast improvement for both modeling and animation especially if you need to rotate one object relative to another. Think rotating a wrist control at the same angle as a ledge or prop that might not be at the same angle as the rig.

MotionBuilder

After waiting an entire release cycle hoping for a service pack, while Maya and 3dsMax got several, MotionBuilder got none. So if you want things like paste a pose and have autokey work and other basic fixes, you have to get Motionbuilder 2015 - a service pack masquerading as a new version.

Last year we got the “Ruler tool” and this year we get some bug fixes I am happy to have but unfortunately there are still some painful legacy bugs on top of almost no new features.

They are trying to call 100 free motion capture moves a “feature.” They are not bad motions and could be useful in some fast blocking or for reference or previs but most likely you have a library already that you could use.  As nice as “free moves” are, this shouldn’t be confused as being an actual software feature. They did add a new Shelf plugin (previously in free labs release) that is now part of the software but it isn’t artist friendly like Maya shelfs but you could customize it if you dig in to the code.

While HumanIK standalone solver has been upgraded for creatures, I have seen no move to continue opening up the MotionBuilder solver and rig for creatures or improvements to the flexibility to the character picker UI. Other more flexible solutions like CAT in Max is the other option if you need to work with creature rigs that don’t fit a standard biped.

The introduction of the “Flexible Mocap Solver” last year was a good first step and while it did get a slight update, it still isn’t as fast to set up as the old Actor and the lack of deeper documentation and production examples has left it another little used part of the software.

Flexible mocap got some small improvement for working with offsets. This makes it easier to adjust the fit of the markers on the skeleton and is now similar to how the actor works for creating a better fit for the solver. This process is far from artist friendly but is necessary for detailed solving and a better final retarget from a source capture to a final character.

For those wanting to try it out, there is a sample python script that will convert the actor and its marker set over to the Flexible mocap solver so you can explore the differences for yourself. Many were unaware this script existed.

You can download it here or find it in your sample scripts directory in the Asset browser.

CharacterMarkerSetFromActor.py

You will need an actor mapped with optical data to run the script.

There is great potential in this system for the few people working with optical data but for the animator and editor getting only skeleton data or needing to work with custom rigs there isn’t anything new or worth mentioning.

While MotionBuilder remains the fastest animation system and software from Autodesk the viewport realtime quality has fallen behind 3dsMax and Maya and I found it not directly compatible with ShaderFX even though it can create CgFX shaders, It is not yet directly exportable via FBX to MotionBuilder cgfx Shader and has to be rebuilt and reloaded as far as I can tell.

If you are on 2014 and have support to upgrade, you should do it just for some of the fixes needed to make it production useable again but be aware you are mostly paying for a patch.

3dsMax Gets a Big Boost for Pipeline and Organization.

Python support is finally here. For you python people here there is Qt version 4.8.5. It also ships with PySide and a pre-built version of PySide 2.1. This brings Max in parity with Maya and MotionBuilder, allowing for a better code reuse at least in some amount for shared UI and improved pipeline integration.

Like Maya, Max also has been given boost for shader creators with the visual shader authoring system, ShaderFX. Any tools that brings game artists that much closer to final artwork that will be seen in the game is a benefit. I had hoped it that passing objects with ShaderFX shaders on them between Max and Maya would be seamless but I had trouble getting them to come across.

The things I personally have missed in Max have been both the speed and ease of quickly finding, selecting and organizing heavy scenes. But 2015 makes it easy to doc extra scene explorer windows and set to layer mode, allowing for quick quad menu management of objects and their layers.

Must Have Extras

Even when the software gets big improvements there are still tools that come from the community that are a must have.

The big new Voxel Bind method is way better than the past Maya Heat Map implementation but nothing comes close to how much time you can save using the ngSkinTools. I can’t emphasize this enough, use the voxel bind for a first pass and then clean up the weights with this plugin. New for game developers is an option to work with Max influences making it a near perfect tool. Mac support is limited unfortunately.  http://www.ngskintools.com/

Mudbox. You might wonder why I put Mudbox in the extras area. Most artists I know are using other software for doing character sculpting and design from scratch and while Mudbox is intuitive and fast, it still proves disadvantageous in the concepting and prototyping stage. For me I think many artists are missing out and overlooking what Mudbox shines at and for character TDs working with heavy meshes it is worth looking at for creating Normal maps, custom textures for the new Maya Texture deformer tool and of course for blendshape work.

For 2015 this process is much improved with the ability to group the layers into an organized system for a more complex face rig for example.

The SendTo function allows for a very nice bidirectional workflow between Maya and Mudbox for blendshapes is a great addition to fast shape editing and creation. Mudbox has a big advantage in the speed and the sculpt layers for tweaking, adjusting and mirroring layers as blendshapes, keeping a live connection between the two.

Also great for the texture work in Mudbox, where painting is very strong, you can now setup custom texture paths in the send to Maya tools. I have been wanting more control and options in the SendTo functions for a long while now and this is a good start in a tool that is a stopping point in the pipeline.  I wish that MotionBuilder and the rest of the suite would follow Mudbox’s lead here.

Final Thoughts

For 3dsMax suite users, this is worth upgrading as the team seems to be fully engaged once again at improving and making the software a powerful while still artist friendly software. The speed issues of the past are gone, the improved shader editor and even the simple but very nice improvements to the scene explorer might make it the best release yet.

For XSI users looking to find a similar working software, I have always felt 3dsMax is a better fit compared to Maya especially if you are a smaller shop with generalists looking to switch out software. Give 2015 a try.

Maya, having made big jumps in 2014 to improve modeling and simulation, has once again improved in several big ways but is still lagging further behind in animation speed as they push on the visual quality of the viewport 2.0. Default skinning using their new Voxel-based skinning system works great compared with the heat map method and should make dealing with overlapping and problematic meshes easier. Resolution of the voxels and speed are still problems with this method and it is often faster and produces better weighting to use the ngSkinTools plugin.

Maya 2015 made some very big improvements to the UV workflow and improved the interop with Mudbox for keeping more data for blendshapes and big jumps in simulation and FX work starting with XGen and Bifrost.

Still the backbone of many large production houses, Maya takes a bit more work upfront to get results when there aren’t large teams involved. While the LT version has made big strides to simplify game development tools, sadly these features don’t seem to make it directly over to the full Maya version. But we can hope they will bring those tools over in the future as we have seen with ShaderFX and the improvements to viewport 2.0.

MotionBuilder, while frustratingly sparse in updates, still doesn’t have an equal or alternative for being able to animate in realtime large numbers of moves and for working speed at resculpting motion capture data. I sincerely hope that Autodesk is taking time to build a solid team that can address the future of performance and motion capture as it becomes more and more accessible. With the loss of XSI and the face robot and the improvements to Human IK solver standalone not making it to MotionBuilder, I hope that we see a big push to create a fully integrated flexible editing rig for creatures and film level FACS-based face capture editing tools.

For the simple bug fix for the autokey when pasting poses, 2015 is worth the upgrade but I have a hard time using this as a justification for a standalone purchase.

Details:

Ultimate Suite

Includes:

Autodesk® Maya® and Autodesk® 3ds Max®
Autodesk® Softimage®
Autodesk® MotionBuilder®
Autodesk® Mudbox®
Autodesk® Sketchbook® Designer

You can get the trial versions for all the software here:

http://www.autodesk.com/suites/entertainment-creation-suite/free-trial

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Brad Clark is a Mentor and co-founder at RiggingDojo.com -Teaching the art and science of character rigging.

He can be found sharing tips and causing chaos on Twitter @bclark_cgchar with his other co-founders Chad Moore @smapdi and Josh Carey @vfxcreator

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