• Price When Reviewed: 1725 . 2155 . 2700

  • Pros: Faster performance; improved interface, ICE system and interoperability; Face Robot toolkit; new mental ray.

  • Cons: Face Robot restricted to suitable head models and requires careful setup; relatively expensive; Multi-core system required; limited upgrades.

  • Expert Rating: We rate this 8 out of 10We rate this 8 out of 10We rate this 8 out of 10We rate this 8 out of 10We rate this 8 out of 10 We rate this 8 out of 10

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After choosing the model you can import it and start picking ‘landmarks’ on the head and neck (below), which Face Robot will use to guide its analysis of the facial geometry. This creates a set of controls for the various parts of the face, which you can adjust to fit. You also need to specify which type of animation (keyframe or mo-cap) as this will affect the movements of the head and neck.

A solver then computes the shape of the human face model based on the position of the controls and a set of soft tissue parameters. This algorithm processes the skull geometry and the soft tissue model to generate an animation control setup for the head. You are then able to work in the Act panel and manipulate these controls to create keyframes of their movements, which you then bake (plot) into Fcurves for facial animation. Face Robot also lets you apply specialised animation, such as several types of realistic blinking (fast, slow, tired, and nervous) with a wide range of parameters.

You can also bring in performance capture data, after carefully placing the 32 markers on the actor’s face to correspond to the positions of the Face Robot markers in the Animation Control Set. This isn’t many markers compared to normal facial capture, but you also need to capture a range of poses.

These include a base pose, some key poses and a range of motion that depicts the widest possible range of facial deformations, from smiles to screams to frowns and sneers.

The Embassy's VFXfor these shots in District 9 were created in Softimage.

You can also import mo-cap data and apply it to the controls on the model, retargeting it for Face Robot. Following each import process you plot the data to commit it to Fcurves as before.

You then work in the Tune Panel to apply weight maps and sculpt deformers to adjust how the underlying soft tissue model will deform the face when it’s animated. The deformers roughly correspond to the different muscle groups of the face, interacting with weight-painted wrinkles and folds on the mesh.

It’s a measure of just how clever this software is that you can go back and forth between Tuning and the Act panel to adjust the controls and deformers so that they work better together. However, if your landmark picking or fitting was off-target, you’ll find you need to solve the head again before you do any tuning work.

You can also sculpt the face, using another abstracted mesh, and apply special attention to tendons, tongue, lip and eye movements – and even separate eyelash meshes. Once animation set-up is complete, you have several options available to import the head into the main Softimage interface, Maya or other 3D software, or a games engine – with realtime shader support.

Softimage 2010 offers closer ties with the Autodesk family, including the ability to export ICE effects and Face Robot meshes to Maya. Crosswalk is now supplemented with FBX in version 2010, meaning you can further exchange 3D data between Softimage with Maya, Mudbox or 3ds Max. There’s also a MotionBuilder template rig that can be called from within Softimage and can be seamlessly driven by any biped animation you import from MotionBuilder.

Aided by the Gigacore III engine and the interface improvements, Softimage 2010 is now a really fast performer and, with a new set of learning videos on startup it’s more accessible too. The core reason to upgrade, though, is Face Robot, which really is hot stuff. Relatively straightforward to set up – experienced animators will fly with it – it will probably justify the upgrade on its own if you’re doing this sort of animation.