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endorphin 2.7 Review: Crafting Better Animated Humanoids

Ellen Wolff uncovers the beautiful yet chilling 3D effects created by Intelligent Creatures for The Number 23.

The ongoing debate of materials vs. animation is not likely to be settled any time soon but one piece of software that elegantly takes both sides of the debate into account is endorphin, recently updated to version 2.7. All images © NaturalMotio

The Procedural Age is upon us. CG artists have been debating the validity of this statement from some time now, covering it from a wide variety of viewpoints. At some point the debate will end with the story finally told by results. Opinions will dissolve into the vapor as a specific tool or a certain process becomes the accepted standard. For some artists, especially the more production-minded folks, procedural methods are simply one means to an end. Another camp in this debate is the more creative minded group, those who lean more to a purist view, putting artists and animators on a pedestal as the only way to create content that is worthwhile. Whether their focus is materials or animation, procedural methods are becoming more and more sophisticated with each new generation of software. This debate, like many of its kind, is not likely to be settled any time soon. Rather, there will be small compromises in the discussion that move the two opinions closer to agreement. One piece of software that elegantly takes both sides of the debate into account is endorphin, recently updated to version 2.7.

endorphin is developed by NaturalMotion, a U.K.-based company. At first glance it may seem endorphin is "animator replacement" software. Assuming you can get good results from endorphin without experienced animators at the helm would really be missing the point. Effective character performances require the critical trained eyes of an animator, as well as their hands. endorphin is meant to assist animators in creating simulated behaviors for humanoid characters without the time intensive overhead of learning and utilizing traditional 3D animation software. The application lets animators tweak performances rather than spend the bulk of their time in creating the performance itself. Motion capture is usually the first thing offered as a solution for studios that need to generate large amounts of animation data, but the results are often less than stellar, as well as requiring the involvement of experienced animators. MoCap data can have a variety of problems, the end result being animators spend nearly as much time cleaning up the data as they would spend creating it from scratch. Another side effect of using MoCap worth considering is the burden it puts on animators. Animators are masters at creating performance; cleaning up MoCap is usually more tedious than creative. On the other hand, full animation is also time consuming and a specialized skill. Finding top-notch animators is a challenge for all but the most well known studios and once they are found they need to be kept invested in the work at hand. What endorphin does is allow animators to craft a performance by combining common behaviors and interactions between characters and the world. This frees up time, no keyframing or MoCap is necessary, and lets the animators focus on the most important part of any animation -- the character's performance. While it may not appeal to every animators desire to noodle the fine details of a performance, endorphin does offer a reasonable compromise for productions that are heavily dependent upon large amounts of animation data.

The software itself follows familiar 3D standards; a multiple use viewport that enables the user to view the elements within a scene, a timeline to view that scene at specific slices of time and a tool panel that accesses most of the various tools the software has to offer. The new version of the software appears unchanged from previous versions in this general sense.

An addition for this version of endorphin includes the new physical effects, which are useful in situations where more complex situations need to be accounted for, such as the presence of fluids.

However, something that is new is the Maya Control Panel. This is offered via a Maya plug-in that lets users move animation information between complex Maya rigs and endorphin generated data within the Maya environment. The plug-in installs easily and works without a hitch in Maya 8. One down side to the plug-in is that it only works with Maya 7 and 8 at the moment. It is very likely that NaturalMotion will update the plug-in to work with the latest version Maya 8.5, although nothing has been announced as yet. Using the plug-in is straightforward; in Maya, simply click on the endorphin tab, which is automatically added to the shelf after installing the plug-in, then click the endorphin control panel button and the endorphin panel is displayed. From within this panel users can create a new character or open an existing character, as well as save and reshape character rig attributes to suit the particulars of any humanoid character. One obvious missing element is non-humanoid characters. NaturalMotion will hopefully find a way to deal with quadruped and other characters as elegantly as they have humanoid characters. The Maya plug-in offers the most in depth interaction for transferring data to and from endorphin; however, the endorphin manual also contains lessons for achieving similar results with 3ds Max and LightWave. Maya is still the most widely used animation application in vfx and game creation, so it is no surprise NaturalMotion focused their efforts on this plug-in. The good news is moving the data between endorphin and other apps is possible, it just takes a bit more effort than with Maya.

Some other new additions for this version of endorphin are the new physical effects. These are useful in situations where more complex situations need to be accounted for, such as the presence of fluids. Using these is as simple as choosing a new behavior to the timeline and expanding, compressing it or combining it with other behaviors until the finished animation displays the desired performance.

endorphin can help a studio save time and money while also boosting the believability of characters' performances, especially if the projects rely on humanoid characters interacting with their environment and/or other humanoids.

Another new feature is the Hold behavior. This behavior lets users control constraints so that their character can interact with an environment with less setup time for the user. In addition when new mass objects are created they automatically generate a child collision object, which saves the user even more time. A similar automatic connection is made when creating connections between mass objects and rig nodes. Previously, these connections were made by using the Character Rig Setup panel within endorphin. In fact, the Character Rig Setup panel has been renamed to Motion Transfer Editor, a more fitting title, and can be accessed no matter the mode you are in within endorphin. In previous versions of endorphin, users could not access any other endorphin functions while in the Character Setup Rig panel. Other improvements to this part of the app include the ability to edit multiple rigs and create new rigs by copying previously created ones, functions that were not present in earlier versions of the software.

The tool windows in endorphin now have titles, even when they are docked. This makes it easier to see what tools you are working with at any time and also helps in organizing the GUI to suit your needs and preferences. A similar improvement is found in the Property Editor, which now displays properties for multiple selected objects in an intelligent manner by showing the properties that are alike among the multiple objects.

Other time savers in this update include: snapping joints of simulation character to joints of reference character, including the root joints (previously not possible), scaling both whole characters and their joints and shortcut key toggling between simulation and reference characters. IT folks will benefit from the network licensing, which allows users to run multiple instances of endorphin from one hardware dongle.

Again, if your projects rely on humanoid characters interacting with their environment and/or other humanoid characters, whether your studio specializes in effects or game creation, you should have a look at endorphin. It can help your studio save time and money while also boosting the believability of your characters' performances. The software takes some getting used to, but the learning curve is small enough that it can likely be integrated into most pipelines in a matter of days.

Full commercial licenses for endorphin sell for $9,495, plus an additional Maintenance cost of $2,395 for a full year. Monthly rentals of the software are available for $1,195 and student licenses sell for $995. While these prices are high one must take into account the savings as compared with MoCap or hiring animators. In the end, endorphin is likely to be competitive if not much less expensive.

Fred Galpern is currently the art manager for Blue Fang Games, located just outside Boston. He is also a Maya instructor at Northeastern University and a co-creator of the game development program at Bristol Community College. Since entering the digital art field more than 10 years ago, Galpern has held management positions in several game and entertainment companies, including Hasbro and Looking Glass Studios. He began his art career in comic books and also has interactive, print and web design experience.