Image Metricsâ?? facial animation now comes in four tiers, Jon Jordan discoversâ?¦

BUILD: Facial animation

Product: Facial animation services
Company: Image Metrics
Price: Various, available on request
Contact: +44 161 242 1800

Categorising Image Metrics’ facial animation technology into a traditional game tools and middleware slot has always been something of a semantic task. Officially it’s a service, akin to motion capture but for faces. The truth is a bit more complex, however. While developers can buy and run their own in-house mocap studios, Image Metrics’ smarts are a black box process that the company controls.

This shouldn’t be an issue in terms of production though, as all a customer needs to do is provide access to their video footage of the facial performance they want to use in-game – no markers required. Image Metrics’ client-server system analyses the frames and sends the required deltas to the server, which spits back rig-ready animation curves in Maya, 3ds max or whatever other software package you’re using.

“It’s a good model because it means we can roll out any technical changes immediately on the server and give the clients the option of using it,” explains Kevin Walker, Image Metrics’ CTO and co-founder. It was partly on the basis of his work into computer vision that Image Metrics spun out of research being carried out by a number of academics from Manchester University.

Another important aspect of this online approach is that the company can process a lot of footage at the same time with few bottlenecks in terms of bandwidth or manpower.

“Scalability really isn’t a problem for us,” says Michael Starkenburg, who recently became CEO following a stint as COO. He was also instrumental in the company raising $6.5 million in second round funding during December 2008 to bankroll its current sales and marketing push.

“We did 400 minutes of cut scenes for GTA IV at the same time as 55 minutes for another huge game that we can’t take about yet,” Starkenburg explains. “Our biggest problem is people’s perception of what we do. We have to get into a game’s production at the right moment, either right at the start or late enough that everyone’s freaking out about how much work they have to do and have started worrying about which characters they are going to have to put masks on.”

It’s these circumstantial limitations that the company is looking to overcome thanks to an infusion of new staff with experience previously gained with game middleware companies such as Emergent, Havok and NXN.

“The games business is a very structured sales process. You have to pound the pavement, know the status of every game in development and talk to every producer,” says Starkenburg.

The option for studios to get test footage processed for free is one of the ways he hopes to get Image Metrics further accepted within the industry. It’s already been used in some high profile games including The Getaway, most of Rockstar’s recent releases, and the Killzone series. Breaking into more common-or-garden titles is a new goal for 2009, however.

Helping in that regard is the announcement of four tiers of service. The cheapest option is Value, which the company describes as costing around half that of standard facial animation; useful for generating large volumes of facial animation for secondary in-game characters or for pre-visualisation purposes. The next level is Pro, which is for in-game cut scenes and provides for the capture of subtle facial movements. Premium provides for the ‘pore-level analysis of facial movement,’ while the final option, designed for triple-A movies, is Elite.

“The reason we’re not in with more of the small guys is because we have to go out and sell to the small guys,” Starkenburg says. “Our biggest impediment has been getting people knowing about what we do, but
now we have a sales force who are able to that.”

How to get a great facial

Image Metrics’ technology works by analysing video footage of a facial performance on a per-pixel basis to generate animation curves. These are matched to your production facial rigs and so can then be used to drive in-game cutscenes. And because the animation is matched to your rig and created in whatever art tool you’re using, it can be seamlessly integrated back into the production pipeline.

Clearly the most important element to ensure the highest quality of the output is the quality of the original facial performance. Image Metrics says the quality of the video capture, whether the camera resolution or lighting conditions, usually aren’t a major factor. Indeed, it’s working on the possibilities of using webcam footage.

The other important element, however, is the quality of the facial rig the animation is applied to. “We’ve had to become experts at creating rigs in order to be in control of our own destiny,” says CTO Kevin Walker.

“Even though it’s not a good way to make money, we joke that we should do more of it because, at the end of the day, it provides a better product.”

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