Itâ??s time that game characters laid off the botox â?? and thereâ??s tools out there to helpâ?¦

Guide: Facial animation

With the huge advances in motion capture over the past few years, it’s fair to say that character animation in games is better than it’s ever been. Combined with technology designed to help developers string these animations together, such as NaturalMotion’s Morpheme and Havok’s Behaviour, game heroes like Nathan Drake are orders of magnitude more realistic in their movements than in the previous generation.

Facial animation is perhaps the next frontier. Although it’s already improving at a rapid pace, there’s still a large proportion of game players – particularly those casual gamers, to whom the usual anachronisms of real-time computer graphics aren’t quite so forgivable ­– who aren’t convinced by the current state of facial animation. Speaking about Uncharted 2, one Develop staffer remarked: “It’s beautiful, and the cutscene animation is amazing, but for the most part it really feels like their faces are frozen in place.”

Perhaps the real advances here, too, will come from the Venn diagram-like crossover between emerging motion capture technology and more impressive tools to help shape that raw data.

Here we profile four popular solutions to see exactly what it is that makes them useful.

Autodesk Softimage

Developer: Autodesk
Clients: Capcom, Konami
Platforms: PC, Linux
Price: From $2,995
Contact: Via website

The reason Autodesk Softimage is featured here is that, since acquiring XSI, Autodesk has integrated the previously-separate Face Robot toolset into the standard Softimage package. Using Face Robot, artists paint weight maps, wrinkle maps and skin weights to determine the movements of muscles when motion data is then applied. Autodesk has also added a Maya exporter, which means you can quickly bring fully solved Face Robot heads into Maya for further work.


Developer: Di-O-Matic
Clients: Rockstar, Sega, THQ, Activision
Platforms: Plug-in for Max, Maya and Softimage
Price: $349
Contact: Via website

Voice-O-Matic is pretty simple: by following a four-step wizard, you can give the program your recorded voice files and it automatically generates mouth and face movements that can then be applied to your models, be they shape-based or rig-based. It supports most languages, and animators are free to adjust the results, which are stored as standard keys on Bezier controllers. It’s also available as part of Di-O-Matic’s Character Pack alongside other facial modelling and animation tools.

Image Metrics

Developer: Image Metrics
Clients: Konami, Rockstar North
Platforms: N/A
Price: Varies
Contact: Via website

Okay, so it’s not a tool per-se – for the most part, the magic is done by Image Metrics themselves and funnelled back to the developers – but there has been some mention of opening up parts of that pipeline for developers to do themselves. Also new is a tiered service system: the Value package is perfect for secondary characters, Pro is aimed at in-game cutscenes and Premium is super-powerful, offering ‘pore-level analysis of facial movement’ ideal for glitzy pre-rendered sequences.

Lifestudio:Head SDK

Developer: Lifemode Interactive
Clients: Ice-Pick, Firefly Studios
Platforms: Xbox, Xbox 360, PS2, PC
Price: On request
Contact: Via website

Specifically designed for facial animation in real-time, Lifestudio:Head’s real-time SDK features the ability for players to create their own heads in-game or via ‘the laws of genetics’, which sounds slightly ominous. It allows AI routines in the game to dynamically change the facial animation, and can even hook into text-to-speech systems to animate based on the generated phonemes. The LifeStudio Pro app also features all the automatic lip sync features you’d expect.

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