Craft Animations Product manager Patrik Martin tells Develop about how the tool helped shape the latest Splinter Cell
For readers not familiar with Craft Animations, where has the company come from? What’s your past experience?
Craft Animations started out from a research project that one of our founders Luigi Tramontana began at university.The idea he had was that animation was quite cumbersome, and took a lot of time.
So he made tools to help himself do better animations. He then realised that maybe somebody else would want the same tools, so in 2005, with the other founders Michael Belin and Debbie Lygonis, they formed the company Craft Animations.
Slightly later in 2006, the first version of Craft Director Studio was released. It wasn’t called Craft Director Studio at that time, but later changed to that name. By 2010, we had bundled our tools up with 3ds Max, Maya and Softimage for the 2011 and later 2012 versions.
The main appeal of Craft Director Studio was the ability to create high quality animations in quite considerably less time than ordinary keyframing would take, but still have high quality.
Now in 2014, we’re introducing the Craft CameraFX tool for Autodesk MotionBuilder.
So what does Craft CameraFX offer games developers?
Craft CameraFX is, as the name suggests, a camera animation tool, aimed to make it much more easy to animate cameras, and like our previous products, offers real-time animation. Craft CameraFX is for MotionBuilder, and has an even better system than we’ve had before. That’s because you are controlling the timeline with, as an example, a gamepad or other input, and all the things you do are actually recorded inside the system right away.
It also offers a layering system, to allow users to add and remove or switch off layers, which will be familiar to people that have used Photoshop or MotionBuilder. In those layers you can create various effects that are applied to a camera, such as noise to shake a camera. Of course, you can do noise inside other systems but this makes it easy to do. And you can tweak, change, and see the results right away.
We really believe, also, that the layout of the software is much better and easier to understand than what we offered with Craft Director Studio. The workflow is very easy and it gives animators the results they want to create.
And you let the developer use a traditional game controller, such as an Xbox 360 controller – as well as other input devices – to assume direct control over a camera they are animating. What’s the advantage to that method?
Really, it makes it easier. When a user picks up the gamepad, they can do their animations without needing to go in and click record or freeflight. You can control all of that from the gamepad. It gives a familiar way to control the animation all of the time.
So what inspired you to build Craft CameraFX as a standalone tool, when the previous approach with Craft Director Studio saw you provide a suite of compatible tools and extensions?
One of the reasons we moved over to doing Craft CameraFX this way was the feedback from users of our other tools, and some of the ideas we had floating around. Ubisoft contacted us and said they wanted us to create a special version of our product just
for them. But we saw the potential in their thinking and how it matched our thinking at the time, and realised we were looking at the same thing, and that we could create a product out of it.
We were developing Craft CameraFX at the time they were starting development on Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist. That meant they were giving Craft CameraFX a trial by fire, testing on the product as they went.
That gave us feedback and we could tweak and change the product, which was great. All the in-game camera animations in that game were created with Craft CameraFX, which is quite cool. And now they are working on the next game, but we can’t say anything around that yet.
And the way we want to drive this project is doing a lot on what our customers think, and the feedback they give us.
But many established tools also handle camera animation among the many other functions they offer. Why is there a need for a dedicated camera animation tool?
I think in terms of how a user animates, what our system allows is the human side of animation. With input control, it brings a far more human feel to the animation. And using a system like ours offers a huge cost saving compared to, for example, working with a camera rig inside a motion capture setup.
By human touch, you mean input control can give the camera animations the feel of being operated by a real cameraperson?
Absolutely. Obviously using a gamepad won’t be the same exactly as a real person using a real camera, but even in terms of those small, what you could call ‘errors’, input control can give that. Imagine you were targeting a certain object with the camera and that object moves, the human-operated camera will not move exactly at the same time and speed. There would be a small delay in following those movements.
Previously your clients have included EA, Ubisoft and – outside of games – General Motors, the US Air Force and Pixar.
Does that mean you’re aiming these tools only at triple-A games devs, or is Craft CameraFX suitable for all kinds of studios?
I would say it is suitable for smaller companies with smaller budgets. The tool itself is not that expensive in that sense. We also see that, as well as it being beneficial to games companies, it will have a role in the VFX area, and maybe at production companies. So it is very flexible.
For now Craft CameraFX supports MotionBuilder, but looking forward we are moving sometime over to support other 3D programs, and that will widen the possibility of other types of customers and studios taking up the tool. MotionBuilder is used by particular parts of the animation industry, but other tools are more suited elsewhere.
Your tools have also been used in many ways outside traditional use cases, even for forensic reconstruction or car design prototyping. What other uses for Craft CameraFX might there be, aside from direct control of cameras for the likes of cutscenes?
I think for pre-vis Craft CameraFX can be quite useful, just because of the simplicity and speed at which it lets you do simple camera animation.
So for any studios still unsure if Craft CameraFX is for them, what do you think would the most significant impact on their work be if they did embrace the tool?
It is that human touch part. It’s a big one for Craft CameraFX. It can give the feeling that somebody is at the camera and filming. It depends, of course, how you use it. If you use the offsets and intend to make the animation stiff, you can get that stiffness. You can add onto the layers, the noise and movement and so on, to get what you want.
Also, of course, Craft CameraFX being quite simple and fast, and still creating high quality animations, is a big one for the tool.
Craft CameraFX is priced at $1,995, and is available for users of MotionBuilder 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015. Purchasing the middleware includes a perpetual licence for the specific platform and host version of Craft CameraFX, as well as support. Users can access a trial of Craft CameraFX at: www.craftanimations.com/products/craft-camerafx