REVIEW January 16, 2001
Character Animation Made Easy: Poser 4
by Doug Sahlin
In December of 1999, MetaCreations sent a minor shockwave through the 3D community when they announced they would be concentrating their efforts on e-commerce and would divest all of their graphics software. Digital artists could only sit back and wait and wonder if their favorite applications would find a new home. Poser, a 3D character posing and animation program, was one of the programs blanketed under the cloud of uncertainty.
Fortunately, the majority of MetaCreation's software found a new home. Poser ended up in the capable hands of Curious Labs, a subsidiary of egi.sys.AG, with many of the programmers and managers who were part of the Poser team at MetaCreations.
After Curious Labs acquired Poser, they immediately created free, downloadable patches for previous versions of Poser. At the same time, they made subtle enhancements to the software. Then it was time for the big release, Poser 4.03.
Assume the position
Prior to Poser's release, 3D artists needing realistic characters were faced with the daunting task of learning how to create and pose figures in a full-blown 3D program. A more costly alternative involved purchasing a detailed 3D model to include in a scene.
This all changed when Poser was first released. With the twist of a few dials and a bit of mouse clicking and dragging, 3D artists could take a preset Poser figure and export if for inclusion in their 3D scenes. As the program evolved, the characters became more realistic and the program gave 3D artists the capability of creating full-fledged 3D scenes within Poser by adding a background image and 3D props.
Poser characters can be animated quickly by adding keyframes along the timeline and then changing the figure's pose in each keyframe. The program ships with a large library of preset animations that can be modified as needed. Figures can also be animated by importing BVH motion capture files into the program. BVH Motion files are created by attaching sensors to places on people in motion (dancers for example) that conform to known 3D character hierarchies. Software captures the output of each sensor and compiles it into a BVH file. When the resulting file is applied to a 3D character, it duplicates the moves created by the person the sensors were attached to.
What's new in Poser?
The interface architecture and rendering engine may be similar to MetaCreations' version of Poser, but there's more horsepower lurking under the hood. The new features give the 3D artist the capability of transforming a Poser preset into a unique character. As an added bonus, everything works as advertised. The programmers at Curious Labs made sure that any bugs lurking in the previous version of Poser were exterminated before the program shipped.
Poser also features Sketch Designer, an option that gives the 3D artist the ability to create a unique render of a character pose that resembles traditional colored pencil, charcoal, pen and ink, or pastel sketches. The 3D artist can customize the sketch presets within the Sketch Designer to create original artwork. Figure 1 shows a posed figure rendered with a sketch style.
Striking a pose
To design and arrange a character in Poser, the 3D artist begins by selecting a figure from the Poser character library. Once the figure is within the workspace, it is posed in the standard arms down, legs slightly spread apart set up (see Figure 2). The 3D artist then poses the figure by selecting one of the tools (Rotate, Twist, Translate/Pull, Translate In\Out, Scale, and Taper), latching onto a body part, and dragging. The hierarchy and Inverse Kinematics (IK) then come into play, and the attached body parts follow the movement of the selected part. For example, drag a character's abdomen in a down and back motion with the Translate tool, and the legs and knees follow the cursor's moves until the character is posed in a seated position.
The 3D artist can modify the figure even further by using the Magnet Deformer to morph a body part. Using the Wave Deformer, the 3D artist can customize a character's clothing by rippling it. With the Turbulence Deformer, the 3D artist can simulate effects like splashes. The settings and position of all deformers can then be animated.
Advanced 3D modelers can use Poser to animate models created in other 3D programs and then saved in the .obj format. The 3D artist then uses the Hierarchy editor to set up the object's IK chain and hierarchy structure.
The standard Poser figures are fully clothed. To design a unique character, the 3D artist selects one of the unclothed characters, poses the character, and then selects a wardrobe for the character from the proper gender's clothing library to conform to the figure's anatomy. The conformed clothing moves with the figure when the model is animated. There is also a library with different hairpieces for Poser characters.
Poser comes with a series of parameter dials that can be used to pose body parts. The dials enable the 3D artist to have pinpoint control over the posing of intricate body parts, such as fingers and toes. When the 3D artist selects a body part, a dial becomes available for each parameter of the selected body part that can be posed.
The default camera position and lighting can also be modified to suit the 3D artist's vision. Lights can be added to the scene and precisely aimed at individual body parts, or they can light a scene with a combination of Infinite lights (the default light), Spot lights, or a combination thereof. A light's color and intensity can be modified to suit the scene.
Rendered poses can be saved in the BMP, FPX, JPEG, PICT, PSD, and TIFF formats. Rendered animations can be saved as AVI, MOV, or as image sequences in either the PICT, BMP, or TIFF formats. Posed characters can be exported in the 3DMF, DXF, 3DS, MetaStream, OBJ, and VRML formats.
How well does it work?
I tested Poser on a PC with an 800MHz Athlon processor with 256MB RAM using the Windows Millennium OS. Selected figures loaded quickly and were relatively easy to pose. When it came to posing intricate body parts, I opted to use the parameter dials. Posing intricate body parts by dragging them with either the Rotate, Twist, Translate/Pull, or Translate In\Out tools instead of using the parameter dials often distorted the model's geometry, which resulted in an unnatural, contorted finished product.
Scenes rendered quickly and accurately, even with multiple figures in a scene. Animation was a breeze thanks to the intuitive Timeline Editor (see Figure 3), which made it easy to create action sequences for individual body parts.
I exported posed models in both the OBJ and 3DS formats. Then I was able to successfully import these models into Corel Bryce v4.1, Maxon Cinema 4D XL v6.1 and Evoia Carrara v1.01. When imported into the host programs, the models exhibited a high level of detail with an accurate polygonal structure.
Overall, I give Poser 4.03 high marks. The program was easy to use and I was able to quickly create intricate poses that would be difficult, if not impossible to do in other 3D programs. The characters are easy to pose and easily customized to suit the artist's needs by morphing the polygonal structure of the character with the deformers. And the quality of a rendered Poser scene is excellent.
However, the default lighting setups are rather flat. Adding a spotlight or two goes a long way towards adding additional detail to the features of a posed character. The program would also benefit from a multi-window view, which would give the 3D artist the ability to view a scene, pose a character, and adjust lighting from different camera angles. The only other fault I can find with Poser is that sometimes conformed clothing exhibits a bit of underlying flesh, which almost looks like a tear in the clothing. This minor problem is easily remedied with post render editing in a photo-paint program.
For a 3D artist needing a program capable of quickly creating posed 3D characters, creating 3D character models for export into 3D programs, or creating 3D character animations, Poser is definitely the way to go. Poser comes with a bonus Content CD-ROM that's filled with sample files, sound files, motion capture files, as well as additional 3D content.
Doug Sahlin is a digital artist, Web site designer, and writer living in Central Florida. He is the author of Carrara 1 Bible (Hungry Minds Inc.), Carrara 1 for Dummies (Hungry Minds Inc.), and Flash 5 Virtual Classroom (Osborne/McGraw-Hill).