Ultimate Suites or Team of Superheroes?
Last year Autodesk launched the Premium suite that was built around either a Maya or a 3ds Max pipeline and now with the updated Ultimate suite we get both at the same time. I had a large project recently that required using all 3 (MotionBuilder, Maya and 3ds Max) software and having one suite would have been ideal.
Looking at the new Ultimate Suite, since I do use most of the software, I’m almost overwhelmed by the amount of choices on how to get a project done, though it is a nice problem to have. I do want to provide a word of caution. As much as I wish this release was the “best and most stable” ever there are some bugs and problems in the initial release and even with service packs. Some might potentially be show-stopping issues. I will temper this by saying that depending on the software or what type of pipeline you rely on, things could be just fine for you so as always test out your entire pipeline with the latest versions before diving in. Autodesk has become much more responsive about releasing fixes so even if there is a problem now it likely will be remedied soon. Software this large isn't easy to manage and users will always want one more thing or some new feature. For the most part this review will try to stay positive though I can't say I will the entire time.
The Suite does offer smarter hotykeys and a wider range of “send to” functions along with the really cool live linking of Maya and MotionBuilder for streaming animation. This can have big speed benefits for large projects or just a team that wants to leverage the best artist for the job regardless of software or project requirements. You could even send the MotionBuilder output across the network to Maya artist that can do reviews and not even be at the shoot.
Unification of tools like HIK and curve editors that started in the previous versions has been more fully realized in 2013. The HIK and characterization UI have had some large refinements done and interaction between MotionBuilder and Maya really shines and even interaction between 3ds Max, Maya and MotionBuilder has seen a large improvement. Now with the ability to export CAT rigs and have HIK rigs auto created in the other software, for my work that is a huge improvement.
We see once more another open source project and yet another Dynamics solution with the Bullet Physics engine being added to Maya and Softimage, but missing from 3ds Max oddly enough.
Softimage has added some nice looking crowd software called CrowdFX using ICE, allowing for some great control over lots of characters and a fast 1-click send to Maya. Crowd tools like this typically are never as integrated or fast as one would like but I think this changes with CrowdFX. Being created with ICE hopefully means this tool will be able to be easily expanded beyond the defaults. I am not going to cover much more of Softimage but much like the rest of the Autodesk software, it includes faster, more advanced viewports, streamlined and shared fcurve regimenting tools and even some menu name changes to continue the tool unification for animator’s. If you are an Animator, these updates combined with really nice Maya and now 3ds Max interaction and hotkey preferences make it extremely easy to get up to speed and happily animating in hours, not days. My last note on Softimage and a thought after looking over the suite, of the three main software packages Softimage has the most polished feel. With more and more new tools being built or integrated into the ICE system, it seems like it is getting faster and faster with each release and offers a more powerful base to expand upon than its more popular cousins Maya and 3ds Max but that is just a gut feeling.
Artists can now create sophisticated crowd simulations in a dedicated environment within Softimage. Using the power of the ICE (Interactive Creative Environment) multi-threaded particle system, artists can create massively complex effects with huge numbers of characters that react intelligently to their environment and each other. CrowdFX simulations can be easily exported to Maya 2013 for integration into existing Maya scenes
Maya continues to have a rocky mix of large features with lots of potential but many times they feel left unfinished. This isn't true for the care and work put in to the file referencing update. Maya for years has had a referencing system that is really powerful once a TD wrote tools for it but in this release it got much needed attention and now is working extremely well and integrated with right-click menus in the scene to manage references and should become a much more artist useable tool and not just a platform for TDs to manage.
File Referencing Workflow Enhancements
Artists can now more easily segment their scenes to work in parallel and better manage complexity, thanks to targeted improvements to both the user interface and the underlying architecture for file referencing that contribute to the new Open Data initiative. As a result, file referencing is now a more natural and intuitive part of the Maya workflow
Here is my short rundown of other new features or fixes that stood out for me
TIP: Use the Maya Fcheck view to quickly write out pixel locations for where you want the new picker buttons to be located. Open the picker character image and then use the middle mouse button to click where you want to place the picker button like the head or hands. Fcheck will write out the pixel location to the command prompt and you can copy it into the XML character layout.
A number of enhancements to the HumanIK feature set help animators more easily take advantage of its powerful bipedal character rigging and animation tools: the ability to map and retarget HumanIK animation to and from a custom rigged character; a unified character context for increased usability; character views that can be customized to fit specific requirements; continuous rig alignment during manipulation and playback; and greater control over Roll Bone influences.
TIP: Setting the falloff of the heat map to something greater than 0.5 it should bind if you get an error in the first pass. A recommended value around 0.68 or so which gives better results to start with but your mileage may vary.
Problems and cruft are still in here with a few gotchas including:
MotionBuilder seems to have gotten extra love this year but a good deal of that comes from the shared tools that were improved across the suite. This isn't a bad thing but I am slightly disappointed that the actual motion capture side of the software like the Actor solver hasn't been touched when there are some much better ways to solve motion capture data these days. Anyone doing virtual production with it though will be very happy with the large number of improvements here. Let’s hope they spend the same amount of time improving the editing side of the software next time as they did for virtual cinema this year.
HUD elements can contain static or dynamic data: text fields, bitmaps, and aspect ratio masks are all supported. Artists can choose from a number of presets (among those offered are: scene name, take name, camera name, frame rate, and camera focal length), or add a property reference or relationship constraint from within the scene simply by dragging and dropping it; animated values will update as the scene plays back.
So here is what I like:
What I found to be a problem or lacking in the release:
Overall a great looking update but clearly the focus on actual motion capture editing has fallen to the side in favor of virtual cinema tools.
I am adding this because users should be aware of some improvements and problems with the current FBX release that I reported on my MotionBuilder blog  recently.
We did get some new bugs though like we can't rename shapes after creation.
3ds Max continues to have much more interactive and user friendly modeling, wide render choices and is just approachable until you have to Animate in it. Without a file referencing solution and slow rig interaction and playback, it is still lacking for animation.
Here are some other things worth noting in this release.
The Nitrous accelerated graphics core has received a number of enhancements. Artists will enjoy the increased drawing performance on large scenes, together with new support for image-based lighting, depth of field, accelerated particle flow display, and a new clay shader. In addition, the ability to change the bokeh shape via MAXScript, support for shadows in large scenes, and improved workflows for interior scenes extend the Nitrous functionality.
3ds Max Animation or what I didn't like
Each release for animation has gotten slower and comparing FPS with the same file, a simple rig in max 9 vs. 2013 we can see the animation playback difference.
3ds Max 9 = 67-72fps
vs. 3ds Max 2013- 42-27fps
This is a significant drop and during my tests with skinning and working with large models from Mudbox on my system I couldn't really check the final deformations and would have had to reduce the polygon count where Softimage and Maya were extremely interactive and responsive. The new Gpoly surface is supposed to address some speed issues of the edit poly object type but because it changes the vertex count direct upgrading of existing character rigs isn't an option.
New updates to CAT are great but if you can't work with a character at interactive speeds then it doesn't help and for now I will be sticking with other tools for Animation.
3ds Max gets many things right and makes a good modeling and rendering solution with animation feeling rough even with a large update to the CAT auto rig system and has slowed down to the point of painful when trying to animate in it.
Alone each software has and does offer some unique tools and nice updates for users but the true power of a team is how well they work together and in this regard Autodesk has done well for animators in giving them a shared edit interface. With the curve editors and hotkeys it should go a long way to help smooth over switching between software and getting up artists on a different production environment. If the team has a weakness it is the .FBX file exchange format since one bug can cause a problem with the entire Suite of tools and be difficult to track down and fix without it being a true open source file format.
By the time most teams upgrade most of the bugs I hit hopefully will have been patched in a service pack or two. Several have been released already just during the writing of this but for now I would say test out the software but hold off on rolling out full updates until more of the bugs are fixed and are able to fully move on to the new versions. For users that are working in only one package though, there will be much fewer issues to worry about and you can make the upgrade sooner.
Ultimate Suite 
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