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Hi Elliott, This is a great breakdown and very generous in sharing your process and insights, you came a long way from the vending machine days!
Are you planning on releasing the UE4 project to the public? Or only builds? I'd love to play around with it in the editor if possible!
Duane Rutkowski had a chance to check out Akeytsu and shared some of his thoughts on this software.
3D packages have come such a long way in that you can usually find any specialized tool for any aspect for your pipeline. Before the artist was constrained to a bundled bit of software, but now everything from digital sculpting, particles and dynamics, texturing and even rigging have specific software catering to that trade alone.
Installation is really straightforward with a small install of around 20 mb and authentication license method with an emailed key.
Upon launching the superlight software, you are treated to a very sleek and clean interface. Barebone and specific to what Akeytsu needs, which is a treat compared to recent software. What you are presented with are the basics, but literally all you need to get a professional rig and skin ready and animate within the software.
There are two main modules in the software, one to setup and the other to animate. A simple UI choice and a great one is the ability to move any of the component windows you need as well as having them self dock.
Navigation is simple, for the majority of the time, you will use the 3 mouse buttons and V instead of the usual alt.
When getting started on a file, imports come in through .fbx. There are no modeling tools within the package, so make sure the model is in the desired pose ready to be rigged and animated. The emphasis on Akeytsu is on rigging and animating for games, so upon import you have an option to immediately have a half rig (biped character) for Unity and for Unreal.
The joint setup is actually really nice and intuitive. There is an option called ‘pivot edition mode’ which moves joints individually, as opposed to moving a whole chain and different shading options so you can the joints are easily visible to manipulate. Adding joints, splitting joints and parenting are easily done and when the landmarks are set, there is an option to orient based on user settings. These commands are standard in most all rigging software and bundles, but the fact they are laid out so easily and where you need to click next really ease the workflow. Creating an FK setup is a breeze and if you need to implement any type of IK as well, those options are readily available.
When setting up an Reverse Foot (RF or IK), there is an intuitive visual aid or controller that encompasses the geo. The handles are good at finding a good size that will influence the pivoting of the planted geo as well as having a twist and rotation with the pole vector. So bank, roll and twist are all accessible with predictable results. FK and RF toggle is available too, so you aren’t locked into either which is a great benefit.
Where Akeytsu shines and sets itself apart is with its Skin Atelier system. It is a 3 step process (rigid bind, smooth bind, modify) that really speeds up a somewhat tedious task of painting weights. The task hasn’t disappeared, but is surprisingly quicker, even with a dense film-ready mesh. Vertex selection would be nice if there was a brush selection, but the grow and shrink are adequate. The workflow seems strange at first bouncing between rigid mode to add then back to smooth to tweak. I do enjoy the intuitive process of manually modifying the weights and seeing visual results with the weights spinner. Other packages have you paint 0 to 1 with constantly changing the values on the brush. In Akeytsu if you have those vertices selected, you will have no problem getting the correct weight from the beginning, so that is a huge time saver right there. Of course locking (or holding) the weights are good at centralizing where you need to keep the values, a prune function to cleanup weights too close too 0 and an influence to help with transitional values.
When getting in and refining weights, initially it feels clumsy since you are having to go back and forth between a rigid and smooth bind. I made the mistake a few times of having a good bend, then went back to the same area in rigid, changed values and then smooth and lost my results. Definitely user error, but a bit of a different mindset to get into coming from Maya, Max or Houdini. The picker window is especially helpful as you can quickly get what joint or mesh you need as opposed to digging through many nested levels in a traditional hierarchy.
When mirroring over, you can mirror joints, weights, or both. I had the same predictable results using all three options separately and had expected results. Even when closing the software and trying to get peculiar or unexpected results, everything still worked perfectly which doesn’t always happen with other software packages.
After your character is easily rigged and skinned, the next function of Akeytsu and probably of the most intuitive is the animation process. Clicking in the lower right will toggle between the two modes, and you will see a few new windows pop up. Your tree and property windows will still be there but you will notice the AnimBank, which is the animation equivalent of the CharBank. I do like how there is this consistency happening to have a relationship to both different functions. There will be your timeline, which is clean and easily visible to put your keys down. There is also your familiar picker, which helps specifically pick your skinned joint to animate.
Plotting keys are very easy. A matter of picking and setting a key. What is amazing and a really unique feature is the stacker. In traditional animation a very handy way to work out timing is with an exposure sheet. The stacker is just that, which is great for timing and has a ghost functionality to really help you get the moment you need. You can also mark keys and in-betweens to help the process when animating from paper to 3d or just really being organized with within your moveset.
A unique visual is the curveboard, which shows the animation curves of the current selected joint within the picker. You can get a great view of the channels selected and also isolate them to really see what happens when you tweak your keys.
Other options are a cyclemaker to help with any walk or run cycle and of course a mixer, to help blend and modify specific moves in the Anim Bank. The ability to animate and parent props are a great bonus as well, so Akeytsu is flexible in animating whatever you throw at it.
Different moves can easily be keyed and saved and exported out. More specifically a whole scene can be exported or just selections or selected animations. Options to export are .fbx and also sketchfab.
Overall I am extremely happy at how refined Akeytsu is. The simplicity of both the layout and workflow are a breath of fresh air in what seems to now be a myriad of software for animation these days. Granted when I had jumped in, I knew what I wanted to accomplish so it was just adjusting to the tools and workflows. This in no way should deter anyone new or a veteran of a rigging or animation pipeline. Though aimed at more indie scenarios, there are more than adequate tools to get your assets up and running and working with minimal time. I recommend Akeytsu for any artist looking to animate their assets and feel this would be great in a high production environment. I also look forward to seeing what else Nukegara can evolve this into!