Ziva Dynamics 1.6 Interview: James Jacobs, Co-CEO of Ziva Dynamics
Ziva Dynamics is the world’s leading virtual character software company. Ziva’s physics computation and simulation platform, coupled with standardized character assets, offer groundbreaking solutions for creating high-quality virtual humans and creatures, and designing lifelike digital experiences. Founded in 2015, Ziva’s technology is used by leading film, entertainment, retail and consumer brand companies around the world.
// From James Jacobs, Co-CEO of Ziva Dynamics
How did the idea for Ziva VFX come about?
Ziva VFX was born from the ever-increasing demand for more CG character content, coupled with the audience’s demand for greater realism. Being both a character artist and a developer myself, it was obvious to me that there was a need in this area that was not being commercially met.
What challenges did you face when creating Ziva VFX? Can you share any fun stories from that time?
We are very proud of our software’s current capabilities, but we are just getting started. We release new software updates every few months and our long term vision is so much bigger than just our current toolset. And that is a challenge in and of itself – to just continually improve and grow everything we do.
That said, there are quite a few fun stories from the early days. One that always jumps to mind is when we chose to cast a real life individual to act as a test subject, to prove out the capabilities of the software, and to exist as Ziva’s ground truth. She courageously signed up to be motion captured and full-body MRI scanned. All of the collected data was then used to stress-test our software, and inform our feature development.
This was one of the most fun and novel experiences for everyone involved. The team, which was relatively small at the time, got to travel to a handful of unusual places, learn entirely new concepts together, and meet industry experts who would remain close friends with the company. Also, I’m pleased to admit that it ended up being extremely useful to have such detailed humans specs to work with and compare against. She helped add much needed context to what would otherwise be quite an abstract development process.
What are the basic requirements for Ziva VFX? Which software applications will it work with?
Ziva VFX is a plugin for Autodesk’s Maya and is currently built against Maya 2016-2018 for both Windows or Linux. (We currently don’t support Mac, though that could change if we determine that there is a real market demand)
What are the current features available in Ziva VFX?
Ziva VFX is an elastic solid simulation tool, so you can use it to simulate all sorts of soft or hard deformable things, like cushions, wooden beams, animals or people. We have created a significant number of specialized features (too many to list here) that target the specific challenges surrounding character creation and the skill sets of those involved in that process.
One of Ziva VFX’s defining features is its use of an embedded Finite Element Method (FEM) solver. Simply put, FEM is one of the leading mathematical models for calculating the effects of physics and its predominantly used in the realm of science and research. We chose to bridge the gap between art and science, and build FEM into Ziva VFX. This makes it easy for our customers to replicate the effects of complex physics, including intricate secondary dynamics like skin wrinkling and fat jiggle, all at the same level of accuracy and quality found in real-world engineering.
Ziva VFX is a physics-based solution for creating muscles and soft tissue – can you share some details about that?
In the visual effects and animation industries, there has been significant innovation in the areas of rendering, cloth, fluid simulation, polygonal modelling and texturing, but the domain of character creation has remained largely unchanged for the past 30 years. We chose to innovate in the space of character creation by leveraging similar techniques that have had great success in those other areas, and to leverage the power of physics and today’s modern computers to amplify the abilities of the individual artist. By approaching the problem of believability through accurate representation of dynamic physical properties (rather than tricks and shot sculpting), our tool allows users to create a scalable, believable characters and creatures.
Ziva VFX 1.6 introduces the new Anatomy Transfer feature. How does this help VFX professionals?
All creators want to make believable results. Whether it’s a cartoon character or a human digi-double, you want it to be plausible and appear natural to audiences. That said, achieving such accurate results takes time – more specifically, the upfront time cost is high since modelling the necessary high-quality anatomy can be difficult. With the anatomy transfer tools released in Ziva VFX 1.6, this up-front development time is significantly reduced by allowing artists to leverage their past work or the character templates available on our Ziva Store to accelerate their character development efforts. Essentially, users can take the elements of their previous characters, like their bones, muscles, fat, and skin, and then apply it to a secondary character instantly. The software will reshape/warp the elements as needed to fit the external mesh of the second character.
Tell us a bit more about the bone-warp and spatial-warp features.
The bone warp and spatial-warp features have been specifically designed to make it easy for a user to transfer the work done on one character to others. The bone warper makes it easy to transfer skeletal geometry from one character to another, while respecting the important characteristics of the bones (it won’t introduce unnecessary deformations for example). The spatial warper was designed to transfer the soft tissue anatomy as smoothly as possible while still respecting a given set of constraints (the shape of the skin and bones for example).
How can Ziva VFX help production studios? Is it also useful for game designers?
Ziva VFX makes it much easier for studios to create more believable characters and creatures, while also making it easier to support demanding timelines without having to sacrifice quality.
For game designers who have a pre-existing approach to encode character deformations to be used in engine, for those who use Alembic caches in their games or for those using offline filmmaking tools to create cinematics, Ziva VFX should plug directly into their current pipelines.
For those that rely on skeletal animation in engine, a minimal amount of effort would be required to encode the results of offline simulation into animation on helper joints.
What are VFX studios using Ziva VFX for?
Ziva VFX has predominantly been used to create realistic creatures and characters, though it has also been used to simulate cartoon characters, and in-animate, soft, squishy objects like a couch and dough. More recently, we’ve discovered that studios are using Ziva VFX to make entire populations of high-quality characters as well, with the Anatomy Transfer workflow. We’re pleased to know that our users are successfully achieving both quality and scalability with our technology.
What projects (films/TV) has Ziva VFX been used on?
Most motion picture projects are kept confidential until they’re publicly released, so there’s no way for us to know exactly how many in-progress films are using our tech, but here are some of the more recent films it has been used on: Captain Marvel, Ant Man and the Wasp, Hellboy, Aquaman, A Dog’s Way Home, Pacific Rim 2, The Meg, Game of Thrones, A Series of Unfortunate Events, and Crazy Alien.
What free assets does Ziva provide for creators? Can you tell us more about why you created Max & Ada, Zeke the Lion, and Pete the Horse?
We’ve seeded our store with some free assets to help our customers get up to speed quickly and easily. We want our users to achieve strong results as soon as possible, and we’ve found that these free assets let them follow along with our tutorials and practice simulating with much less friction. These assets include Mr. Ink (A simple bipedal character – ideal for learning the software with), Jellyphant – a fun cartoony character that illustrates how the software can be used for stylized results, and for subscription customers Zeke the Lion and Lila the Cheetah, which are good examples of feature film quality characters for our customers to directly leverage or learn from. Pete the Horse and Max and Ada remain paid offerings. Max and Ada have been created to push the limits of our solver with an emphasis on accuracy over raw performance. Pete the Horse has been created in order to address a market need that had been brought to our attention.
What’s in store for the future?
At Ziva, we are keenly interested in solving all of the challenges around authoring, presenting and interacting with characters in all forms of media. Expect to see some announcements from us in the near future regarding some new products that will aim to fill the remaining holes and continue to simplify and add efficiencies to the character creation process.
We would like to thank James Jacobs for the great interview, and if you like to know more about Ziva Dynamics, please visit: www.zivadynamics.com.