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FrameForge 3D Review: A Storyboarding Breakthrough

Fred Patten interviews Cliff Galbraith, Fluorescent Hill, MK12, Moneyshots, Girdwood Partners and Zoic Studios to find out more about the role of animation in music videos.

All images © Innoventive Software LLC.

All images © Innoventive Software LLC.

With VFX getting more complex as well as independent budgets getting tighter, previsualization is becoming more and more widely used in the film and television industry. Storyboard drawings have been a tool to devise shots since the beginning days of the art form. However, filmmakers are expanding on just sketching down a few still shots to creating animated renditions of the camera moves, including 3D characters and sets, produced in leading industry software like Maya and LightWave. Responding to this need, Innoventive Software LLC has recently released FrameForge 3D Studio, a storyboard software that allows users to create extensive 3D storyboards from stock 3D models. Previs experts at VFX houses shouldn't worry yet about being put out of business. However, independent artists or students have reason to rejoice.

Loads of Features

Giving the users a wide array of objects to construct locations both indoors and outdoors, the program has easy-to-use drag-and-drop control, along with move, elevate, spin, tilt and scaling controls to help manipulate objects and characters. Walls can be snapped together easily with adjustable heights and lengths. In addition, door and window sizes can be changed simply. Characters-to-characters and characters-to-objects have preset relationships to ease in constructing the scene. For instance, dragging a character closer to a chair will make him sit down automatically. An actors hairstyle, skin color, eye color, shirt color, etc. can be changed, and modified characters can be saved and used over and over. Each character can be posed precisely on-set or in the Green Room function, down to moving each joint in the characters fingers. The library of objects allows the user to create sets with little or great detail. All it takes is time (and after awhile, memory space).

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The control room set-up (left) helps users look at the scene from various angles. In the Green Room (right), characters can be posed and manipulated in multiple ways.

Multiple cameras can be added to the set. Cameras can be zoomed, craned, panned and tilted to specific focal lengths and distances, respectively. The screen is set up to represent a television studio control room. In Blueprint mode, users get a birds eye view of the set, allowing artists to generate a floor plan. One can move from the Blueprint view to the view of each camera on the set with a click of the mouse. Once the set and shot are final, stills can be recorded and saved. For even more detail, saved stills can be imported into a paint program and extra details can be added. Shots can be compiled into a slideshow with adjustable shot lengths.

There are multiple ways to present the storyboards once they are created. Scripts can be imported into the program and aligned with the corresponding shots. Finished boards can also be printed in grayscale or full color. In addition, the storyboards can be exported to Flash for posting on the Internet or to Powerpoint and/or Final Cut to be compiled into presentations.

Community Outreach

Another one of the advantages of the software is the helpful and dedicated community site, www.frameforge3d.com/community. The Website is a place for users to download free updates, add suggestions, ask questions and get their questions answered. In addition, improved objects or objects created through the building blocks in the program can be shared with other users. For instance, I posted that there wasnt a brush in the library of objects. Within a few days, another forum member had constructed one and posted it for me to download. Innoventive Software moderators often help users with their needs. One user asked for a subway scene and soon one was ready to download.

Is It All Worth It?

So you may ask how easy is the software to use? Any moderately computer-literate person will probably not even have to crack the manual to get started. However, the text provided with the software is very easy to follow, and explains the extent of what can be done quickly and efficiently. At first, it takes time to construct a set, especially if the set is very detailed. However, once your unique characters and sets are finished, the process moves much quicker and scenes can be pounded out in no time. Plus, any problem you may be having is usually answered in a timely fashion on the community site.

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Imported scripts (left) can be aligned with finalized storyboards. Sets are easily constructed with drag-and-drop controls (right).

If you cant draw, this program will give you the ability to create far better storyboards than youd have using stick figures. For a smaller production, FrameForge 3D could be an essential tool for communicating between the director and other artists like the cinematographer and the art department. For students, I think the program can be an amazing teaching tool. It is an easy, cheap, hands-on way for students to learn the basics of filmmaking from lens to blocking out scenes. In turn, both independent filmmakers and students will save time and, ultimately, money by having shots and camera set-ups mapped out completely from camera height to lens choice before they even get to the location.

An impressive thing is that its all available for a responsible price. The software sells for $349, and $249 for educational proposes. For a low-budget project, $349 is far cheaper than hiring a professional storyboard artist, and you also get a more detailed rendition of your scenes. For now, the software is only available for PC. The requirements are Windows 95 or better and at least Pentium III 350MHz, 128MB RAM (256MB recommended) and 65MB hard disk space. FrameForge3D will be released for Mac OS 9.1 (or better) some time in the fourth quarter of 2003.

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Blueprint mode (left) allows a birds eye view of the set. This shot shows only a hint of the current detail that can be achieved (right).

Room to Improve

As can be expected with this kind of software, depending on the project, not everyone will get everything they need. The first version of the program only had the actors in one outfit. So if youre doing a period piece and a certain outfit plays a role in the story, youll have to suspend your disbelief. Some things can be mocked up, but more detail means a lot more time and memory. However, users can now download a man wearing a tie as well as textures and pictures can be added to clothing plus facial hair can be added to both men and women characters. Innoventive Software seems very willing to make improvements and give them to users for free.

On their boards it has also been suggested that changes for the 2.0 version of the software will possibly include actors with varying body sizes and the ability to manipulate facial expressions, and that, more common objects would also be added. However, the community site is already helpful in meeting user needs, as I mentioned earlier. Only, time will tell if this kind of superior user support can be kept going once more people are using the software and more requests flood into the forums.

All in all, I think Innoventive Software has something of great value and they seem dedicated to make it even better. If youre doing a detail-oriented period piece or a Lord of the Rings or Star Wars-type extravaganza, this software may be too lightweight. But for indie creators and students, I cannot recommend this software more highly. I think it has the potential to become standard software in the film industry. If you dont believe me, check out the free demo online at www.frameforge3d.com.

Rick DeMott is managing editor of Animation World Network. Previously, he served as the production coordinator for sound production house BadaBing BadaBoom Prods. and animation firm Perky Pickle Studios. Prior to that, he served as associate editor of AWN.

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