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When it comes to character animation, there are a number of choices in the current software market, some standalone, some as plug-ins, none entirely perfect for all uses. Something worth considering before choosing a character animation package is usage. The good news is whether animators are creating game content or visual effects there is a definite feeling of convergence in the air. More and more the software used primarily in one field will gain acceptance in another related field. 3D modeling apps are quickly standardizing no matter the specialty of the application. With the pending boost in graphics processing power offered by the next generation gaming consoles, both game developers and visual effects artists are feeling this convergence, in a big way.
This is great news for game studios, many of which will be relieved at the larger visual effects talent pool they can draw from. One of the tools that best exemplifies this shift is CAT2 from Character Animation Technologies. This 3ds Max plug-in is the first all-in-one rigging and animation system that may meet the goals of a variety of animation intensive industries. One of the best things about CAT2 is the fact that it integrates so smoothly with 3ds Max. A great example is the full access animators have to animation controllers, a long-standing issue for Character Studio users. Another outstanding feature of CAT2 is how steadily it handles unique rigs. CAT2 works well with bipedal characters, but it performs just as well with multi-limbed characters, something our creative, fantastic imaginations require more and more of these days.
A beta version of CAT2 was used for this review (version 1.79, to be exact). This version is quite close to what Character Animation Technologies expects to ship CAT2 later this month.
CAT is accessed via a helper object in 3ds Max. Once selected, users place the Cat Parent object and then may choose from a variety of preset rigs or load a previously saved custom rig of their own creation. Creating a custom rig from scratch also begins with the Cat Parent helper object. Once this object is placed, users can begin creating the rig piece-by-piece, beginning with a pelvis and interactively adding, scaling and rotating legs, arms and additional bones. The controls for scale and rotation are intuitive, but users may also use the standard 3ds Max controls. The user interface for CAT is split between the Modify and Motion tabs, with individual controls placed logically on either tab. 3ds Max isnt particularly strong when it comes to look and feel, and, as a result of fitting in with the 3ds Max interface, neither is CAT. This isnt a big problem, especially for users already accustomed to 3ds Maxs UI. In fact, CAT excels within the 3ds Max environment by using large icons with bright colors.
Once users have a base rig that suits their character they can begin tweaking. This is where CAT really begins to shine. Limbs, and spines, can be segmented and the segments then freely rotated and animated. This allows animators to correct those offensive arm and leg rotations, quite easily. This functionality is just not readily available within competing software. The thing that strikes me most about building rigs with CAT is how fast I can create a rig. Its so quick and intuitive at the same time that it almost feels like sketching. For folks interested in creating characters that not only look unique but also move in a unique manner, CAT would be a great prototyping tool. The good news is that realistic rigs can also be created, and just as easily. CAT comes with a decent selection of rigs that can be used directly or repurposed, so novice animators need not delve into the particulars of rigging. Rigs are also easily resized or scaled, at any time in production. Rigs can also use limb symmetry, making the normally repetitive task of setting up like arms and legs go much faster.
Once youve got your character successfully rigged its time to animate. In game development, where I spend my days (and too many nights), we spend a significant amount of our time perfecting the animation cycles that will be used most often in the game. Almost without exception, locomotion cycles are the top priority. CAT makes locomotion cycle creation much easier through its procedural system. Animators create their cycle first and then drive their character along a path, following a designated node. CAT figures out the timing and placement of footsteps relative to the path and the walk cycle. Footsteps can even be animated to allow characters to slide, but dont worry; no magic sliding occurs unless you explicitly command it. This procedural functionality isnt applicable to all games, but at the very least its an easy way to check work in progress without going through the sometimes painful export process common to most game pipelines. For visual effects animators, this procedural capability will be a welcome tool as they can quickly preview a sequence without comping into the final scene. Another related function is the excellent collision detection CAT offers. Using the collision detection along with the procedural animation, sequences can be easily tweaked to satisfy even the most discriminating project leads, without running over budget or schedule.
CAT does a great job of blending between IK and FK solvers. This means animators dont need to spend endless hours cleaning up the nasty pops that occur when switching between IK and FK in other systems. The blend is handled elegantly, through curves as well as a slider located on the modifier tab.
Non-linear animation is another strong feature of CAT2. Animators can easily divide long sequences into smaller chunks and then stitch them back together, or mix them later on for a final, polished long animation sequence. The non-linear animation system in CAT uses layers, which can be time stretched or squashed as well as repositioned in 3D space. Even more, different portions of a rig can be linked to different layers, allowing animators truly powerful flexibility.
CAT also imports standard MoCap data very well. It supports BVH, FBX, HTR and even BIP motion files, making conversion or just standard MoCap use a breeze. Once the data is imported the full functionality of CAT, including access to 3ds Max animation controllers and curves, is at the animators disposal.
There are many other small details that make CAT impressive. For example, animators can lock portions of a rig to allow isolated movement that isnt ordinarily possible. Imagine locking the head of a character for a few frames while twisting the shoulders and youve got the idea. Another of these detail features is the way fingers are controlled. Each finger may be directly manipulated but for quick results CAT has a digit management system.
System requirements are surprisingly low. The software only requires a 300Mhz PIII processor, 512MB RAM and an OpenGL graphics card. Animation teams could save significant amounts of cash by building animation only boxes.
Overall, CAT2 is an impressive piece of software, one that Ill seriously be considering for future game development projects. With all of the functionality users might expect a bit of pain with their pleasure. Happily, there isnt much pain. In fact, most everything CAT does happens in realtime within standard 3ds Max viewports. The only real problem I came across was an undo issue. Undo performance is problematic, with many undos having no effect, or worse, returning my work to a different state than expected. This seems like a pre-release bug, one that will most likely be resolved when CAT2 is final and ready to ship. Interested animators should visit the CAT website and also read through the forums. The site hosts demo versions of CAT, tutorials and training videos. There is also a popular forum on the site. This kind of extra info can make all the difference when comparing software. The best companies flesh out the experience for their users by providing quality online content, something Character Animation Technologies does very well.
CAT2 will be available in mid-August directly from Character Animation Technologies website, www.catoolkit.com. Commercial users may purchase the currently available version, CAT1.4, and receive a free upgrade to version 2 when it is released. Educational copies of the software cost $195. CAT also offers educational lab packs.
Fred Galpern is currently the art manager for Blue Fang Games located in Waltham, MA. Since entering the video & PC game field more than six years ago, Galpern has held management positions in several game and entertainment companies, including Hasbro and Looking Glass Studios. He began his art career as a comic book creator and also has professional graphic design experience. He has created characters and developed stories for numerous childrens television series. Galpern has satisfied his long-standing interest in education by teaching at several New England colleges. He is also an adjunct instructor at Bristol Community College, where he co-created the associates degree gaming curriculum.