First Looks and Impressions
I feel like Autodesk has redeemed themselves a bit with the Autodesk 2014 Entertainment Creation Suite Ultimate release, since last year in my review I couldn't give it the “best and most stable” award. This year the software came out of beta strong and the gold versions I have been testing and running for a few months now have been very solid. Sure there are bugs and some things I am sure I missed but compared to last year (I felt like I was submitting bugs everyday) this year I have only had to use the feature a handful of times. This 2014 release has more good and great things talk about and to look forward to upgrading. I actually have been having fun exploring it all. (Service packs have been released now, get them).
Speaking of unification of tools for a second, I am still seeing some studios aren't yet comfortable with using the full suite and are missing out on the advantages that each software brings. Some of it is lack of training or maybe game engine requirements but often time it is fear of a split pipeline and so studios seem to still stick hard to one main software. Modeling though is the one area that has done the best at leveraging mixed software first, at a studio that is slow to embrace a mixed software environment.
There are some general improvements that I really like; the simple but most visible one is that new features in the software are highlighted green. This might seem strange to start with but when artists are in production, many times new features or improvements are simply missed because of existing work habits or use of certain tools and this gives everyone a chance to quickly notice and find new tools to try out.
Let’s start the review with Softimage, then Mudbox, then Maya, then MotionBuilder and finally Max.
Softimage continues to be a powerful choice in software but I personally haven't had a demand or need for it with my clients or students. ICE pushed some new improvements and the teams that invested the time and talent to use it produce great work with it. I wish there was more reason for me to use it at the moment because I was a Softimage user way, way back before Maya existed.
I did want to address one area where I think Autodesk missed an opportunity in this release and could stand to improve in a large way for the next release - to make all the software work better together. Our example will be the “Camera Sequence Editor” tool that is new for Softimage.
This is a great tool, a great idea in all the software but here is the problem - no cross application compatibility.
XSI now has the camera sequence tool bringing it level with Maya that got it from MotionBuilder's story shots tool. The lack of cross app support I found very surprising, since I would expect with the suites and using the Send to-feature that I could setup shots in one software and send it to one of the other “camera sequence/shot” tools in Maya or MotionBuilder. Currently it doesn't look possible without a bit of heavy scripting in each software. MotionBuilder supports the shots directly in FBX but Maya and XSI and Max can't read those camera shot clips in FBX. So Maya created a XML format to save the shot clips out and in XSI it doesn't even have the option that I could find during this review so it would have to be scripted from scratch. They have created a set of very nice tools that are hamstrung by the lack of support for their own standard file formats.
Here is hoping that this is improved and fixed in the next suite release so that more complex camera shots can be setup and shared between the software.
For Maya users, they already know how easy it is to navigate and use Mudbox and with the one click send to feature from Maya it is even more seamless. Mudbox got some large improvements this year in the mesh retopology tools for quickly cleaning up scans or more roughly sculpted models, this was a feature that was sorely missing in the past and now allows Mudbox to become a finishing tool and not just an intermediate step.
View a video of the Mudbox 2014 New Features: Advanced Retopology  tools in action.
The more modeling operations that Mudbox can do now will save several trips to other software to fix simple issues and that is a big win for the software. I was amazed at how fast the curve tools and guided retopology worked even on really rough/crude models I tested.
TIP: Using Mudbox for blendshape creation.
One of the areas that is difficult out of the box with Maya is managing large character blendshape trees and mirroring. Without custom scripts and a larger pipeline it can frustrating to try and get good shapes for a face rig done in Maya. With Mudbox using sculpt layers you can create a series of new “blendshape targets” as new layers. This gives you the advantages of being nondestructive and you can use the built in features to duplicate and “flip layer” to create left and right separated shapes for rigging.
To get this to work well you need to enable the Mudbox preferences for FBX -export layers as blendshapes. Here is a video covering this workflow  from Autodesk.
As usual I am not going to cover every aspect of the update. That is what the release notes are for. Instead I want to call out a few features that are obvious and several little things that are a bigger deal than they get credit for.
The main big features this year are the Scene Assembly Tools for managing huge files with lots of assets. While this is less important for character artists for anyone dealing with final assembly, large environments it is a nice improvement over having to manage large layered references by hand. This is a large update and feature set so make sure you check out the videos and documentation on how to best use it for your workflow.
Animators get one of the most fun and functional updates with the new Grease Pencil tool. Having used several other scripts to hack this feature, I am very happy to have a frame by frame sketch tool built in for both animation planning, creating notes and giving feedback as well as a quick sketch area to work on rigging problems.
A quick side for a Must have plugin -
ngSkinTools http://www.ngskintools.com/ 
For every TD or animator or modeler that has to do skinning, this plug in takes the idea of image editor layers and mixes it with really great skin editing algorithms and sticks it in Maya but the best part is you can at any time, bake down all the skinning layers to a regular skincluster and it doesn't leave any extra nodes. Must have for Maya 2014 or any other past version.
News flash! Maya skinning updated to actually work as expected
While we are on skinning, there was a small almost hidden update to the skin cluster and skinning tools that is making a huge difference for me in painting skinweights. Weight Distribution. We will switch it to Neighbors as our default.
This update works much like the weight hammer tool, allowing for skinning to be much more predictable and stable when using the smooth brush and scale
Note this also works for the weights when you edit them with the component editor also. It only works on polygon meshes but that is a small price to pay for this fix as most people are working with polys for the majority of character work.
From the help: Weight Distribution
“Calculates new weights based on the influences affecting the surrounding vertices. This prevents the vertex from getting weights to every joint in the skeleton, and gives it similar weights to the surrounding vertices.”
I could be done with reasons to upgrade to Maya 2014 right now. This is such a big improvement to an often painful process, but that wouldn't be a great review.
Here is my short list of other reasons to update that you can check out more in the docs.
Also an added right click menu item named “select similar” makes a huge improvement for quickly trying to say grab all the joints or all the constraints or simply find other like items in the scene. A small detail that makes big wins for speeding up my work.
Python- Tools upgrades and things to watch out for
Thanks to Jason Parks for letting me quote some of his findings in upgrading and issues he hit with the technical side of the pipeline. Read the entire post and find links to fixes and downloads to some of the problems and the post in its entirety on his blog http://www.jason-parks.com/artoftech/?p=579 .
Begin Jason- If you’re like me, you like to always be using the latest version of an Autodesk product. The 2014 series has just been released and it is always quite a bit of work to convert you’re existing toolset up to the latest build.
In the case of Maya 2014, there are more than just a few issues, such as:
Python 2.6.3 -> Python 2.7.3
PyQt to PySide
PyMel 1.0.4 -> PyMel 1.0.5
Then there are always third-party compiled plug-ins to worry about. Any smart team will try to keep these to a minimum.
So the first big issue is the Python version upgrade. This should not be too big and on the surface it makes some sense to move up to the latest (last!) and greatest of the Python 2.x series.
The first heavily used third-party python module that I needed to upgrade was Perforce, which happened to be one of the most problematic. Unfortunately, the build of P4Python from the Perforce website does not import into Maya’s 2.7.3 python
Autodesk now ships pre-compiled builds of PySide which is a replacement wrapper for the QT UI libraries that work so well and are so robust and beautiful in some of the latest Autodesk products. This is a huge relief as the licensing around the PyQt wrappers were tricky and some companies were reluctant to adopt and also you were supposed to build them yourself, though there was always a version floating around the interwebs you could find, if you looked hard enough. The coolest thing about PySide is that it is Open Source.
PyMel version has been iterated as well and with it comes some improvements, I’m sure. However, there are some minor issues introduced as well. The first couple I’ve found are related to the area of Virtual Class creation discussed here. It seems the factories.py module has a minor bug in it that you need to hack.
Those are the major hurdles I’ve had to overcome so far in upgrading. If you have any questions or find any other obvious areas that need attention when you upgrade your toolset to Autodesk 2014, let me know and I’ll try to keep a running list here. Good luck.
The big joke for this release of MotionBuilder is the Ruler tool, this goofy big “Feature” unfortunately stole the spotlight from a few big improvements and smaller fixes to make MotionBuilder shine this year. Let’s start the list.
New Advanced Mocap Solver tools
As I talked about last year the mocap solver and tools built around the Actor tool had been left for dead. But not this year. This year we now have a new solver system that is open to editing with constraints live during the solving. Artists now have control over how rotation and translation are mapped and extracted directly from the marker data onto a target skeleton. This removes the actor solver and opens up the system per node to let an editor fix, manipulate, offset and improve the mapping process with less loss of detail from the source capture.
Now it isn't perfect, it won't be faster than the actor in this version but it allows for much more customization and for working with more difficult captures where the actor would have lost something or otherwise changed the source data. I am very happy to see this feature and even more excited to see it improve and grow to deal with something like quadrupeds and other complex captures.
New for this version are 60 or so fixes and improvements to the MotionBuilder HIK solver including spine squash and stretch and improved shoulder rigging and the best part, useable double-solving. MotionBuilder has several different solver types for the character rig and in the past I had to stick with the base solver and avoid the HIK solver features until this year.
The MotionBuilder 2014 team did a great job in both fixing and improving on existing features for the HIK rig while squashing lots of bugs. This is the first version of the solver that is, I think, production useable and makes editing motion capture easier instead of harder.
Linux now supported
For big film studios running Linux, having to have dual boot or dual computers to run MotionBuilder was the norm until now. MotionBuilder 2014 now runs on Linux so having all your software under one environment should make IT and the artists happy.
Some other small improvements that I am very happy about
Lots of room still to improve the editing tools as I have mentioned before but there is a great foundation to grow MotionBuilder from this release and it is still one of the most underutilized tools for animators available. If you haven't used it or don't get how you can fit it in your pipeline, get some training on it and you might save days off of your animators’ schedule.
3ds Max: Big news - Animation FPS is back
3ds Max finally is useable for animation again with a giant performance update. My test file from last year is showing a jump from a low of 27fps or lower to now in 2014 – over 108fps!!! Even with some of the more filtered views like the realistic shading I get almost 98fps. While this is a great improvement, the overall UI still feels like it has gotten away from the clean, fast UI of past versions pre-ribbon additions. Lucky you can turn off most of the new UI until you get used to it but it is a bit of an adjustment if you are jumping in to it from the last version.
Here are some other things worth noting in this release.
Looking at Maya and its improved speed and stable skinning tools, Max for faster FPS and improved realtime rendering, Mudbox with expanded modeling tools and MotionBuilder finally improving its optical solver system and adding referencing, there is a lot to be happy with as a whole suite.
For the first time in a long time I am happy to recommend without reservation artists and teams upgrade and take advantages of the new features and speed improvements so you can spend more time creating art and less time on workarounds.
Autodesk® Maya® and Autodesk® 3ds Max®
Autodesk® Sketchbook® Designer
You can check out even more new features at the Autodesk Unfold event for 2014
and get the trail versions for all the software here