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Software Review: evolver

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The Character Builder interface allows you to create characters by choosing their ancestors from a library and mixing together different features to create a new character. All images courtesy of George Maestri. 

Building a digital character is not an easy task. It requires the skills of a sculptor to create the model, the skills of a painter to texture the skin and the skills of an technical director to build the skeleton and rig the character. Most production houses hire separate artists and technicians to complete each part of this pipeline. A typical character can take days or weeks to build. Darwin Dimensions evolver promises to streamline this process significantly, using an innovative interface to give almost anyone the ability to quickly create fully rigged, production quality, digital humanoid characters.

evolver is a Windows XP-based application and consists of two main modules, the evolver Character Builder module, where you build and author your digital characters, and evolver Character Generator, which actually creates the fully rigged characters. The software is sold in three levels. evolver Basic ($39) consists of just the Character Builder module. Artists who purchase this module must send their characters to Darwin Dimensions, where they will be rendered for a fee. This is great for students and small studios who only need a few characters. evolver Pro ($4,995) adds the Character Generator module, allowing you to create and generate as many characters as you want. This option is great for studios who create a lot of characters. evolver Complete, the final level, is a future release that allows you to build and add in your own libraries of custom characters.

The software is quite fun to use. The Character Builder user interface is very simple and intuitive. Along the top of the interface is a series of ancestors that are used to virtually breed a new character. These ancestors are characters that span the basic archetypes of humans such as male, female, heavy, thin, Asian, African, and Caucasian. Some of the characters are extreme, some beautiful, some ghoulish. The interface allows you to select up to four ancestors, whose features can be mixed to create a final character. The software is OpenGL compliant, so you can spin and zoom your characters to see exactly how they will look when finished.

The Character Builder interface has two panels the first panel is used to create heads, and the second is for bodies. When authoring heads, you have the ability to mix the four ancestors as well as individual body parts. If you want a different nose, for example, you can unlock the nose and select four more ancestors for just the nose. Eyes, lips, ears, and heads shape can also be adjusted separately. While this method works fairly well, it really only affects the overall shape of the features. Id like to see a few more tools to give artists more direct manipulation of the facial features such as scaling the lips to make them bigger or smaller, or moving the eyes together or further apart.

Once the basic shape of the head is determined, you can apply a texture to the character. The software has about a dozen different skin types, which are selected from a floating menu. The software does not allow you to mix skin textures, this could be a nice upgrade in a future version. The textures created by evolver are 4K in size, so they should work fine for anything, including features.

Character bodies can also be mixed together from the library. 

The next step in the process is building the body. Again, you can select and mix up to four ancestors to create the final character. In addition to the basic mixing controls, you can adjust such parameters as the height of the character, neck length, and the ratio of the head to body. I found this module could use a little more work, it would have been nice to see separate controls for arm and leg length as well.

Once the characters are finished, you can save them as a proprietary .dde format that Darwins Character Generator uses to finalize the model. For those with evolver Basic, this .dde file can be emailed directly to the people at Darwin Dimensions where the character will be generated and sent back. Those who have the Pro version can generate the character themselves. I sent off for my characters, so Im not sure of the generation times, but Im told the process is fairly quick, something on the order of 15-20 minutes per character. The software can create either Maya ASCII or Motionbuilder FBX files.

The final characters are incredibly well built and rigged, particularly for those using Maya. The characters come in four resolutions, from game all the way up to feature film. All resolutions are fully skinned to a very nicely built skeleton. Skinning characters can be such a nightmare, but I found that these characters had a very wide range of motion without the skin breaking up. The skeleton is provided raw, with no IK or any sort of expressions or handles, so the animator or TD will have to add these manually.

The facial targets for the characters are excellent. Each character has 66 different facial morph targets, and these provide a very wide degree of control. The targets include the usual suspects, such as eye blinks and the basic mouth shapes. They also include some esoteric shapes, such as neck bulges, which can add a lot to the realism of a shot. One thing I noticed with the mouth shapes is that they actually consist of two separate sets of targets, one for the skin of the face, and a second set for the teeth and tongue. In the Maya version of the character, these are tied together using set driven keys, so manipulating the face targets affects the teeth.

In the FBX version, these are not connected, so youll have to animate the teeth separately or tie them to the face targets using your own expressions. The FBX version can be more versatile, however, because FBX is a format that can be read by a variety of packages. I imported an FBX character successfully into both 3ds Max 8 and Motionbuilder. The skinning, morph targets, and skeletons came across fine.

Once created, the characters arrive completely rigged and ready to go in Maya. FBX versions of the character can be used in other packages, such as 3ds Max, Softimage and Motionbuilder.

This is a version 1.0, so there is plenty of room for improvement. First off, Id love to see more ancestor types. The ones Darwin Dimensions provide are all very realistic. It would be nice to have the ability to create more stylized and cartoony characters. This is certainly possible with the release of evolver Complete, because you can add your own sets of models. I can certainly see additional libraries of ancestors being sold as add-ons to the product. I can also see this technology extended to other types of characters, such as animals and creatures.

One other issue is that all of the characters arrive naked and bald, so youll most likely have to spend time creating clothing and hair. Cloth and hair software are never easy, so this can add a lot of technical work to a productions pipeline. It would be nice if evolver had some way to create simple clothing and hair out of geometry. This would save a lot of time and effort for those projects that dont need completely realistic characters.

Overall, Im very excited about evolver. While it still needs some improvement, Darwin Dimensions is on to something really good here. The software can certainly streamline the production process for studios large and small. It also will help animation students, who are always struggling to model, skin, and rig their own characters before they can even learn animation. evolver is already one of the best character generators Ive seen, and I think it has a very bright future because it fills a lot of needs.

George Maestri is the owner of Rubber Bug, a Los Angeles-based animation studio and the author of many books on animation.

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