Tuesday, December 18

The Next-Generation of Animation

This isn't technically about video games, nor game design. But it seems relevant enough for posting. Endorphin is being used in video games, after all. I will also be writing a follow up article about Euphoria. So expect that soon as well.

The 21st century is upon us, and with it an era of technology. 3D graphics, animation, and artificial intelligence are becoming more and more prominent in our society. Computerized animation has all but replaced pencil and paper; and the modern, Pixar-pioneered, Disney is a far cry from the founder's original flip-books. What's more, our culture is constantly expecting grander sights and sounds from film and video game media. However, the industry is having a tough time keeping up. The creation of satisfying 3D graphics is swiftly becoming a time consuming and expensive endeavor, sometimes requiring hundreds of programmers, modelers, and animators to complete a project.Thankfully, innovation is at hand. A company called NaturalMotion is working to alleviate these issues of graphical animation. In an interview with NewsFactor.com, NaturalMotion CEO Torsten Reil describes the essence of their work:

"Unlike other animation techniques, the characters have a simulated body, simulated muscles and a simulated brain to control the muscles. What you see on the screen is not a computer graphic of the character--it is the character."

Reil is describing NaturalMotion's premier product, Endorphin. Endorphin is an animation tool for 3D characters that functions, arguably, via a revolutionary method. Endorphin is different from traditional animation tools, much different. Whereas systems like Maya or 3DsMax construct and animate lifeless moldings of polygons, Endorphin is populated by intelligent, seemingly living, three-dimensional characters.

Endorphin's impetus, the steam beneath its engine, is a system NaturalMotion calls "Dynamic Motion Synthesis," or DMS. The characters in Endorphin possess highly advanced artificial intelligence; they've been designed to function as human. They are formed of muscular systems, neural systems, even a cerebral cortex. These characters have a sense of well-being.
Towards the turn of the century, the zoology department at Oxford University conducted extensive research on the control of human and animal body movement. NaturalMotion is the progeny of this research. Initially, Oxford sought to develop an intelligent robot, one that could learn through experience, teach itself. They began with a computer model, a simple biped whose sole purpose was to walk. NaturalMotion's website explains:

"The process starts with random walkers, none of which can walk properly. The best ones (those that make at least one step without falling over) are allowed to produce offspring, which are again selected according to how far they walk. This selection is repeated over a number of generations. At the end of [the] process the biped can walk without falling over."

Humble roots lead to revolutionary systems. NaturalMotion was founded in 2001 as a "spin-out operation," Oxford's attempt to commercialize their research. They were successful, needless to say. NaturalMotion is now a full-fledged business, producing multiple software products for commercial sale to animation studios worldwide.

One of NaturalMotion's customers is The Mill, a visual-effects company that, primarily, creates high-profile television commercials for high-paying customers, including Honda, Pepsi, and Inspiron. One of their more recent commercials was "Music Machine" for Guinness.

The advertisement takes place inside a glass of Guinness beer, the tag line being "its alive inside." The spectacle of the commercial is hundreds of CG acrobatic stun-men launching and bouncing off gigantic Japanese drums, sliding down harp chords, and twanging guitar strings. Though all of the stunt-men look perfectly realistic,every one was animated with Endorphin as derivatives of the original motion-capture generated actors. The Mill used Endorphin to create variations of the mo-cap data, characters that moved, acted, and reacted naturally, as humans would. The characters exist and function according to both bodily limitations and physical forces like gravity.

Juan Brockhaus, senior 3D artist at The Mill and visual effects supervisor of the Guinness Music Machine commercial said:

“Endorphin has created a new way of using animation, without it, we would not have been able to create the naturalistic movements of the CG stuntmen in the time we had to produce the commercial.”

And it's all possible because of Dynamic Motion Synthesis. Traditional animation relies on the animators themselves to create believable actions and poses via meticulous keyframe character positioning. Endorphin takes a completely different approach. Powered by DMS, these characters are virtual actors; tell them what to do and they animate themselves. Animators are now directors.

"You know," says Joe Butler of the Motion Picture Company, "you just direct the guy and give him a kick in the back and push him off a building and make him wave his arms. Set the behavior to, you know, writhe and die as he hits the floor, and you get the result that you're looking for."

NaturalMotion's official user-guide for Endorphin states that "At the heart of Endorphin are its adaptive behaviors." This statement couldn't be more true. Animating in Endorphin is like directing a stage performance. Behaviors are all the various actions that can be requested of Endorphin's characters. The broad range of behaviors allow for near infinite animation possibilities.An example is "Arms Zombie," which tells the actor to stretch its arms out straight. Or there are conditional behaviors, like "Stagger," which directs the character to swing its arms and take preventative backwards steps to balance if it loses footing. And yes, you can actually direct the characters to "Writhe." Each behavior itself is fully adjustable as well, containing a large set of parameters. With "Stagger," for example, animators can set the speed of arm swinging or the minimum number of steps they want the character to take. Animators can also create their own behaviors. "Active poses" are completely defined by animators and instruct characters to attempt to achieve any given pose at any point in its animation run.

Even given this customization, the behaviors remain dynamic. Not even the animator knows what exactly a character will do when first simulated. Animators achieve their desired run through trial and error alone, constant tweaking, and repeating simulations.

I say "simulate" for a reason. Because that's exactly what Endorphin is doing. The virtual actors that reside within Endorphin are far from the standard conglomeration of nurbs and vertices--they are artificially intelligent bodies. Their torso region alone is constructed of eight collision objects. The characters' arms contain ten different joints, including clavicle and forearm twisting. And they have a brain. The characters understand the meaning of each behavior and how to perform them. But just like real life, the characters are bound by gravity, physical limitations, and obstructions. Endorphin characters are physically reactive to collision, and will fall, for example, from the pressure of impact. What this all boils down to is the emulation of reality. NaturalMotion is doing its best to reconstruct the human form within a virtual world.

For animators this couldn't be better. Instead of slowly keyframe positioning characters with other animation tools, they can build their own in Endorphin and give it life within this virtual reality. Time and expense are steadily ramping up as 3D animation becomes more prominent as an art medium. Endorphin is the evolution of animation, a response to the steep production costs of animating computer characters.

Not only does Endorphin create more realistic animation than traditional systems, but it is both cheaper and faster to work with. Endorphin has already taken command of the commercial world of animation; where else for the product to go but the education system. Don't worry, they're catching on quick. Late last year NaturalMotion founded an Academic Partner Program which is rapidly gaining popularity amongst universities. Media institute Full Sail signed onto NaturalMotion's program this past June and the Games Academy of Germany licensed Endorphin for academic use this November.

Dynamic Motion Synthesis
The Mill

Further Research
NaturalMotion's download page has lots of awesome tutorials. Seriously, watch the tutorials. I highly recommend numbers 2, 10, and 13. The PDF userguides and tutorials are also veyr informative and interesting.

P.S. If you enjoyed this article then please DevBump It. Much appreciated.


  1. OK Finn, this is a beautiful article. i don't know how long it took you to churn this out, but if yo can do this, then you certainly can do the writings and papers for school that you have to do. Very interesting and informative.

  2. Great article man.i was just seeking info on Endorphin and here, i got the best info.great job.i am just waiting for ur article on Euphoria.