Review: 'Autodesk Entertainment Creation Suite Ultimate 2014'

Brad Clark likes what he sees as he puts the latest Autodesk creative suite release to the test.

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.

New Feature Highlighting.

Let’s start the review with Softimage, then Mudbox, then Maya, then MotionBuilder and finally Max.

Softimage 2014

Softimage XSI Camera Sequencer.

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.

Mudbox 2014

Mudbox Retopology tools.

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.

Maya 2014

Maya 2014 Scene Assembly Tools.

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.

Maya 2014 Grease Pencil Tool.

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.

  • NEX modeling tools integrated in to Maya. I am putting this as just a note since many people had the plugin before and there has been lots of coverage. I find that there are still some quirks on integration with the rest of Maya. If you aren't modeling they don't work as smoothly with existing tools and workflows for selection when doing things like skinning and other work.  They are a much needed improvement to the Maya modeling system and I look forward to seeing if Autodesk makes improvements or lets it go stale.
  • Improved selection. The actions that are performed over and over again matter most to me and it is one area that was a surprise fix. Features like “select all” now are context sensitive. If you have a vertex selected and do select all, all the vertices will select instead of all the objects in the scene like years past.

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.

  • Larger files. Maya is no longer limited by 2gig file size! Scenes haven't gotten smaller and it is nice to see the Maya team addressing this in a simple way. They let you save them bigger now.
  • Speeding up the Node Editor with lots of improvements and enhancements was a great area to focus on. I had a hard time finding a reason to stay in the new node editor last year, opting for the hypershade or hypergraph but with all the care taken to improve the clunky feel of the editor it is now my default editor for working on rigs. 
  • Still not a great spread sheet tool, the new Attribute Filter field lets you quickly filter attributes and is a very welcome improvement that will help for now.
  • TRAX- they are still trying to keep this editor alive by actually improving it with more and more features borrowed from MotionBuilder including better support for clip manipulation. There are more improvements for using HIK with it but until they remove the character set requirements, Trax is not a tool I will use often, sticking with Animation Layers instated.

Frustrations:

  • ATOM – While I was initially excited about the ATOM format after testing and trying to use it over the last year, I have to put it on the do not use list for working with heavy scenes. For working with Mocap data, FBX is still the way to go. ATOM creates files that are too large and still don't support HIK to load animation correctly. With shorter keyframe work it might do just fine for you.
  • Heat Map skinning is great when it works but it still fails on most meshes and even after trying several times to clean up the mesh and remove errors, it still errors out. There is also a bug that if the model has been scaled and not had its transforms frozen it will also error falsely saying there is a geometry issue. Autodesk needs to address the detail of the errors and also add in an option to run the cleanup mesh select code to find the areas that are giving it trouble.
  • Node editor still doesn't support assets/containers making me feel like they have forgotten about assets already as they move on to scene assembly tools.
  • Joint orient tools are still a broken mess. Harsh I know but Autodesk has once more spent time and effort on improvement and features to the skeleton drawing system and editing of joints without fixing a core feature that makes any of the other updates useable - Joint orients!  The short version of why this is a problem is that their built in orient code only works correctly when a skeleton is aligned to an existing plane, side view, top view etc.. but no one models or rigs in an exact flat plane, characters are built in A poses or adjusted T poses and so until that is fixed I am can't even bother talking about the new joint tools. 
    • Tip: don't use the new auto snap to project center tool with joints as shown in demos unless you want to have skeletons that can't have IK applied without jumping among other issues related to bad joint orients.

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

Perforce module

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.

Jason

MotionBuilder 2014

MotionBuilder 2014 Advanced Mocap Solver Tools.

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

Tags 
randomness