What is Muvizu?
Muvizu is a real-time 3D digital animation app built on the Unreal engine. It lets people tell stories with animation.
With Muvizu users can create and customise 3D characters, build 3D sets, place virtual lights and cameras and animate it all with a patented, super-simple animation system.
I devised Muvizu then led the art and design teams. As Muvizu's stand-in Managing Director I commercialised the software and relaunched it as Muvizu:Play.
The making of Muvizu
Digital Animations Group (DA Group) was a 3D software company of some note. With "Ananova" they'd created the world's first virtual newsreader, and when I joined (2008), they had just secured VC funding to produce a highly ambitious project that was a animation studio, cinema, virtual world, social media engine and everything else all rolled into one. So, job #1 was to drastically de-scope this ambition - it was just too big to make. Our MD (hello Vince) cut away the fat and left us with a much leaner brief: An easy-to-use animation studio. How, he asked, could it be done?
It seemed obvious to me that a "next gen" game engine held the answer. If you could use a controller to make Lara Croft run and jump, then why not talk and act? We investigated CryEngine and Unreal and settled on the latter.
Our plan was to build a 3D puppetry app inside the game engine. So, we got the Unreal source code, did the tutorials, built a 3D pipeline and set to work designing a real-time puppetry app.
Animating in passes
How do you distil the complicated animation process into a set of controls that anyone could use? We spent a long time on this. In the end we settled on a pass-based approach. In simple terms we split the character animation activity into a series of passes. A user would hit a record button and animate, say, the character's locomotion. Then, they'd rewind, hit record and animate the lip-synch, and so on. Each time the user rewound and re-animated, the character's performance became increasingly more rich. And, bit by bit, a compelling animation performance was built up. We designed the entire app around this principle.
Content and development
Our art team spent many months making characters and the attachments required for customisation. We only had a small 3D team so we avoided aspiring to realism. We chose a cartoon style and made 15 initial characters and hundreds of 3D set objects. Our animators made hundreds of tiny animation clips that were to be joined together by the user at runtime. Meanwhile the developers were building the app. Our small coding team (mostly ex-games programmers) were bolting together a native Unreal app and a Morpheme system for animation blending.
How we worked
We tried "Agile" development with a capital "A". That didn't work so well. Our team was too specialised and our codebase too massive to even consider agile releases. In the end we settled on an approximate 8-week release cycle. In those weeks we could implement new features, build new characters, bug-test and release to the public. We launched the alpha and beta versions of Muvizu with a concurrent user forum and a programme of travelling workshops so each release provided a tonne of user feedback and a lot of useful third party test data.
For a few years we improved the software and iterated on new features. Muvizu had been released as free software. We'd hoped that some kid, in their bedroom, would be able to make the next "South Park" and we'd all get famous and rich.
That didn't happen, so we needed a rethink. We re-launched as Muvizu:Play.
Muvizu:Play was the premium version of the original Muvizu. The Play version had more characters and features. It also has a price tag. I'm very proud of Muvizu. YouTube is full of its clips and - in a small way - we changed the way people make animations.
Fastest animation pipeline in the world
Around the same time as Muvizu was relaunched as Muvizu:Play, our sister company "Zubox" developed the world's fastest animation studio. Zubox used Muvizu to make and publish topical and satirical animated clips online.
The Zubox team were able to read the morning's headlines and have an animated send-up broadcast by lunchtime on the same day. Their content's been picked up and syndicated by Videojug.