Working with MotionBuilder in 3ds Max - Part 1 - Introduction

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  • 2011
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9 min

Working with MotionBuilder in 3ds Max - Part 1 - Introduction

Autodesk MotionBuilder is a powerful real-time 3d character animation program where you can quickly rig and animate characters into full-body FK/IK manipulations. In this 5-part series, you learn about the interoperability of MotionBuilder with 3ds Max, and what you need to know and do to ensure a seamless operation between the two programs. In this introductory tutorial, learn the basic concepts and workflow for MotionBuilder.


  • Recorded in: Motionbuilder 2011, 3ds Max 2011
  • This tutorial is intended for use with 3ds Max version 2011 or higher.


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Autodesk Motionbuilder is a powerful, specialized Character Animation tool.

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Motionbuilder is all about Character Animation, nothing more. There is no
modeling, photo-realistic rendering or any advanced texturing tools.

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Because it is so specialized, it is meant to be used as a central hub for
animating models created in other 3d applications, such as 3ds Max or Maya.

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The idea is to import a character from these applications, rig it and
animate it in Motionbuilder, then export it back out for final render.

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Motionbuilder has many areas of strength, in particular the way
it handles Motion Capture.

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Even if you are new to the application itself, you have already seen
its capabilities on the big screen.

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Every time you've gone to see a movie that relies heavily on digitally
animated 3D characters, chances are Motionbuilder was a part of the process.

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Many blockbusters like the Matrix and Lord of the Rings trilogies,
King Kong and Avatar among many others, made extensive use of Motionbuilder.

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In this movie, you explore some of the basic concepts and areas
of the interface so you know your way around.

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Remember that this movie series is not an extensive tutorial
on how to use Motionbuilder.

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It is to understand the workflow between 3ds Max and Motionbuilder,
and what you need to know to seamlessly operate the two together.

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When you install and launch Motionbuilder the first time,
you immediately notice the screen requirements.

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Motionbuilder has a lot of windows, and therefore needs a lot
of screen real estate.

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The default layout for the various windows is called the Editing layout.

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Fortunately, you can re-arrange your windows and save them into a layout
that works best for your screen resolution.

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In this case, two layouts have been created to accommodate
the 1600x900 resolution used to capture this movie.

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One layout emulates the default Editing layout in a smaller scale,
the other has been rearranged to favor a larger Viewer window.

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To open or merge a file in Motionbuilder, you can use the File menu
or the Asset Browser.

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There are many samples in the Tutorials folder that you can experiment with.

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Drag the mia_blue character to the viewer. Choose the FBX Open option.

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This character is not animated yet, so you can choose
the No Animation option to open the file.

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Mia appears in the viewer in a T-Stance pose.

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A few words about screen navigation: you can use Ctrl+Shift+LMB
to orbit around,

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Shift+LMB to Pan,

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and Ctrl+LMB to dolly in and out.

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Furthermore, you can press A to frame all objects in the scene,
or F to frame selected objects.

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The windows are contextual in Motionbuilder. In order for these hotkeys
to work, your cursor needs to be hovering over the viewer.

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A double-click in an empty area deselects all objects.

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Ctrl+W switches you to a Schematic View where the navigation hotkeys
mentioned a moment ago work the same way.

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Ctrl+E takes you back to the Perspective View.

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There is one last hotkey to mention that you will find useful.

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Ctrl+A is a toggle to switch between Normal viewing mode,
Models Only mode where the skeleton and other helpers are hidden,

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and X-Ray mode where you see the skeleton bones overlaid on top
of the body for easier selection.

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Remember that the cursor must be hovering inside the Viewer window
for these hotkeys to work.

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At this time you are looking at a female model that was skinned
against a bone skeleton.

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As it stands, this scene could have been imported from any 3D application
capable of producing a mesh and a bone structure, such as 3ds Max.

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However, Motionbuilder needs to take that combo package of mesh and bones
and turn it into something it can understand.

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This process is called "Characterizing" in Motionbuilder.
It is essentially a fancy word for Rigging.

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Make sure the Viewer is in XRay mode and go to Templates > Characters.

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Drag the Character icon to any of Mia's bones in the viewer
and choose the Characterize option.

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Choose the Biped option from the dialog that appears,
Mia being a 2-legged human.

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That's it! That's all it takes to rig a character in Motionbuilder. No need
for any fancy constraints, additional helpers or mathematical formulas.

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It almost sounds too good to be true, and it is; even if there are some
rules to follow, which you will discover as you view this movie series.

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At this point, you still need to tell Motionbuilder how you want
to animate this character.

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Options include simple keyframing or retargeting to a Motion Capture file.

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For simple keyframing of the limbs, you need a Control Rig.

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This can be selected from Character Controls > Edit > Control Rig.

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You are then prompted for the type, choose FK/IK. This option gives you
the most flexibility.

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Activate the Control Rig to get access to the character selection tool.

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There, you can easily select any animatable limb, even if you set
your viewer to Model Only.

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To make it easier to see which limb is selected, use the Translate tool.
This is essentially the Move tool in Motionbuilder terminology.

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You can also access Transform tools by pressing T for Translate,
R for Rotate, and S for Scale.

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Remember to keep your cursor over the Viewer when you use these hotkeys.

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In Translate mode, move Mia's left hand slightly in X & Y.

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Notice that when you go beyond an arm's length, how the full body reacts
to the motion.

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This makes it easy to place your character in any pose you want.

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If you want, you can even Pin limbs so that they remain static
when the rest of the body is in motion.

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To select multiple limbs, use the Ctrl key.

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You can then choose to pin them in Translation,

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or/and in rotation.

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The Reference node enables you to move the character
to a different location.

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This is a brief introduction on how to use the Control Rig.

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Another way of animating a character is by using Motion Retargeting.

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Set the Viewer to XRay mode.

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From the Tutorials folder, drag the IceSlip file into the Viewer.

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Choose FBX Merge > IceSlip.

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A yellow skeleton appears. It is animated to take a few steps,
then to slip and fall.

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You can use this animation to drive another character.

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Merge the Gremlin character in with No Animation.

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Unlike the Mia model, this gremlin has already been characterized
and is ready for animation.

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However, you will not use a Control Rig here.

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To make the Gremlin follow the skeleton, choose the Gremlin character
in the Character Controls window.

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Choose Edit > Input > Skeleton 2.

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The Gremlin now moves like the yellow skeleton.

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Because of its size, the gremlin takes smaller steps to accommodate
the motion.

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This is another area of strength that you have in Motionbuilder.

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You can even scale your character up & down in real-time
and see how the animation adjusts to that change.

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In the next movie, you'll learn a few rules of thumb pertaining
to character setups using bone skeletons in 3ds Max,
prior to export to Motionbuilder.
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  • 3ds Max
  • Character
  • 2011
  • Character Animation
  • Character Effects
  • Workflow
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