Event at Sony’s Culver City lot attracts crowd of high-end animators

Blur Studio created Kitty Hunting character to demo Face Robot capabilities

Face Robot, the first new product introduced by Softimage in six years, was officially unveiled Thursday in Los Angeles. A crowd of several hundred professional animators and visual effects artists attended an evening event hosted by Softimage at the Sony Pictures lot in Culver City to hear details and see a Face Robot demo by Blur Studio Animation Director Jeff Wilson. Other speakers included AVID president and CEO David Krall, Softimage VP/General Manager Marc Stevens and Blur Studio founder Tim Miller.

Face Robot is a dedicated application for creating high-quality facial animation, with a built-in toolset for manipulating features such as the mouth, eyebrows and jaw. Previewed at SIGGRAPH last August, it has been considerably refined for the release. Among the additions which drew praise from attendees were animation workflow-friendly features such the ability to import and export 3ds Max and Maya file formats, in addition to Softimage XSI files. Facilities are also able to use hooks in the code to customize Face Robot for their pipelines.

A freestanding Windows XP application (a Linux version is planned), Face Robot introduces a radically new method of facial animation, with a fine degree of control over emotions and expressions. The built-in tools make the process of creating facial animation much faster as well.

�It�s exciting to launch a brand new product category,» Krall told Digital Media Net. «Usually, product introductions are incremental.� Designed for high-end customers, Face Robot would be especially useful to larger facilities or film and game projects. Facial animation is an extremely difficult challenge, Krall said in his address, because humans are hard-wired from birth to recognize the subtleties of faces and expressions, and we are expert at sensing when an animated face doesn�t seem right.

The program is available in two packages: Designer ($94,995 USMSRP) and Animator ($14,995 USMSRP). Face Robot Designer is intended as a master platform for technical directors and others who need extensive flexibility for defining facial behavior. The deep toolset allows users to prepare, solve and animate faces. There is a soft tissue solver for facial deformation, with a corrective sculpting system for controlling facial behavior. It also has tools for defining wrinkles and puffing, placing tendons, and tuning the mouth and eyes.

Face Robot Animator is designed as a platform for artists, with an uncluttered environment for keyframe animation and motion capture, and comes with a retargeting algorithm that transfers animation and motion capture across faces. A typical pipeline would include a single seat of Designer and several seats of Animator.

One of a variety of mo-capped expressions imported onto the model, with adjustment handles in yellow.
Sculpting the mouth

Blur Studio, based in Venice, CA, was involved in the development of Face Robot from the beginning. Blur’s Tim Miller recounted how Blur had undertaken its own effort to improve facial animation tools after an internal consensus that �our facial animation sucks.� The studio began researching way to produce better animated faces. After a while, the Softimage development team based down the street from Blur started helping because some of the Blur animators were friends with some of the Softimage developers. One thing led to another, and Blur�s role in the development of Face Robot continued through to the final product.

Actress Sara Rehnmark at motion capture session.

Blur�s Jeff Wilson showed the control Face Robot gives over facial expression and movements, adding wrinkles and crow�s feet to a model and adjusting elements such as puffing cheeks, mouth movements and eyelid angles. He said the tools in Face Robot could help reduce the time required to create a convincing facial animation from days to hours.

One of those present at the launch event was actress Sara Rehnmark, who served as the face model for a character created by Blur called Kitty Hunting. Her face was mo-capped in a range of expressions, and the data was imported onto a face model which was transformed into the Kitty Hunting character. Wilson used this model to demonstrate Face Robot�s ability to manipulate the animated parameters in a wide range of motions.

Earlier in the day, Softimage hosted a panel discussion moderated by Pixel Corps’ Alex Lindsay at the Roosevelt Hotel, with representatives from PSYOP, Electronic Arts and others discussing their animation pipelines and workflow. Bruce Lanoil of Perform FX also demonstrated his new OUTABODY glove that is designed for virtual puppeteering with onscreen animated characters.