Further Ephemeral Experiments

I’m using the ephemeral rig system in production right now! Unfortunately, I can’t tell you anything about it! They’re watching my house.

So far the first real production has gone smoothly, though there’s certainly room for improvement! I’ve also made a variety of updates.

One of the things I always wanted to do with the ephemeral system was to manipulate long chains like tails with a “magnet” tool, like you’d use to move vertices around. I now have this working.

The magnet I have now works as the ephemeral graph evaluation walks the chain, applying a delta based on how far the driving node has moved that cycle. Each node down the line gets 65% (a totally arbitrary number that happened to look good) of the movement of the node driving it. You could also set this up with a radius and falloff, though it would require organizing the graph a bit differently, but this was the simplest way to do it.


The magnet constraint required making some slight changes to how the graph builds. Most of the driver-drive relationships between ephemeral nodes can only go in one direction for a given mode--a node will have one possible driver in forward mode, and a different one in backward mode, but usually doesn’t have both drivers available at any one time. Magnet drivers, however, have to point in both directions (since any given node might be upstream or downstream of the node the user is controlling), which requires the graph to recognize what connections have already been established so that it doesn’t double back on itself.

Luckily, the ephemeral graph already has code to deal with a very similar situation: paired nodes also point at each other in the same mode, and also must avoid establishing circular connections when the graph is built. I was able to use the same system for magnets, though I had to tweak it slightly.


The two relevant parts here are isNotDrivenByNode and chooseDriver. The first prevents circularities by rejecting as a potential driver any node that already drives this one, and the second filters a list of multiple possible pair or magnet drivers by favoring ones that are already constrained--otherwise, the node might choose to attach itself to a node further down the tail instead, and break the chain of magnet propagation. This is less of a problem for paired nodes, which all just move as a unit and don’t really care what order they’re hooked up in. (I should really stop using the term “pair,” since you can in fact hook any number of nodes up together, but it’s all over my code and I don’t really want to change it now).

Here’s another cool thing I discovered quite by accident--scaling eph nodes is actually a really useful way to effect your entire pose!

This is because of how I’m calculating the matrices of each node. Many of the interaction modes require a relationship between nodes that’s basically a parent relationship (albeit a temporary one). This would normally be achieved by simply multiplying the matrices of each node together. And that’s pretty close to what my ephemeral parent constraint class does:


The constraint class calls a tiny library I wrote to wrap the Open Maya 2 classes I wanted to use in a way that would be more friendly to the rest of my code. Here’s the relevant functions from my library:


The parent constraint class uses transformMatrixIntoSpace to find out what the difference is between the driving and driven nodes matrices, ie. it’s putting the driven node into the driver’s space. The function does this by just multiplying it by the inverse of the driver’s matrix using om2’s existing math methods. No surprise there.

But when the constraint uses this “parentRelativeMatrix” to calculate a new matrix for the driven node, it’s not just calling multiplyMatrices--it’s calling concatMatrices, which does multiply the matrices, but then removes shear values and resets scale to whatever it was before the matrix multiplication. I did this because, unlike conventional hierarchies, any ephemeral relationship between nodes is expected to be thrown away and recreated all the time. If any of the nodes were scaled, errant scale and shear values might creep into the transforms behind my back. So I simply generate a new matrix each time with scale and shear values removed.

In practice, this creates a nice effect where scaling a given node repositions it;s children, rather then scaling them. This is particularly effective when using bidirectional/full character mode with a dummy pivot, which can be both repositioned and reoriented to create a useful axis and pivot for scaling a pose.

Finally, I've also implemented a way to merge and unmerge characters with the ephemeral system. You may recall that everything about the system assumes that every control in a character has a keyframe on the same pose--effectively, a big stack of keyframes are masquerading as a pose. Having two nodes interact ephemerally requires that they must share poses.

You may recall that I used to force every node in a character to share poses using character sets. Character sets are a feature of, of all things, the Trax Editor, and using them to enforce keyframe alignment is a bit like killing a mosquito with a bazooka, only instead of a bazooka it’s actually an ancient trebuchet and you need a couple of burly Byzantines to follow you around everywhere so they can help pull it back in case a mosquito shows up. Thankfully, It turns out that character sets aren't the only way to sync keys between nodes in Maya--Brad Clark of Rigging Dojo turned me on to Keying Groups, which serve the same function without introducing additional nodes between keyframes and their attributes, or historical siege technology.

Wait, I hear the experienced animators among you saying, that can't be right. Surely if Autodesk introduced a feature to sync keyframes between nodes but didn't use character sets I would have heard of it! Well, my friend, I'm sorry to say you have put rather too much faith in Autodesk's ability to communicate with its users, because they introduced this feature quite some time ago and then neglected to tell anyone that it existed. It's not even accessible through the GUI unless you're using FBIK, and the documentation for it is so sparse you aren't likely to encounter any mention of it unless you specifically go looking. It does, however, work very well and has put me off character sets for good.

When the ephemeral system inits, it scans the scene for everything that's tagged as belonging to an ephemeral character, and sets up keying groups for any characters it finds.


Here again I find the "destroy it and rebuild it from scratch" principle simplifies things greatly--characters and keying groups should always be congruent in the ephemeral system, and the easiest way to ensure that is to destroy and regenerate the latter from the former any time something could have changed. That includes referencing in anything (it could be a new character!), initing the system (who knows what this file was previously doing?), or loading a file (dito).

Accordingly, merging characters is just a matter of adding a message connection between the character ident nodes that tells the system that these two characters should be treated as one when grouping up the controls into characters, and then telling the system to regenerate keying groups. Unmerging works exactly the same way. Being able to merge and unmerge characters is an important aspect of the workflow, as you might want a prop (for the purposes of this system, every ephemeral rig is a "character," including props) to share poses with one character while you work on one section of a shot, and another in some other section--for instance, if an object is being passed back and forth between characters.

Finally, I have some bad news to report--there are a couple frustrating limitations to this implementation of an ephemeral rig system I've discovered. The primary and most troublesome one is that, as it currently stand, the ephemeral callbacks and parallel eval can't be used at the same time, on pain of intermittent--but unavoidable—crashing.

While only Autodesk could answer the question definitively, my best guess at what's happening is that Maya is attempting to fire one of the ephemeral callbacks while the parallel graph is in the process of being rebuilt, causing a race condition or some other horribleness that brings Maya to it's knees. It's difficult to test, though, since the fact that this implementation of ephemeral rigging relies so completely on callbacks means that it's not really possible to test it meaningfully without them.

Luckily the rigs I'm using in current projects are fast enough that they're reasonable to use in DG mode, but this obviously isn't a long-term solution. Charles Wardlaw suggested to me that the issue might actually be that I'm using Python to create the callbacks through om2, and that I might get a different result if using the C++ API. It's going to be necessary to eventually port the system to C++ in any case for performance reasons, but I was hoping to avoid that any time soon. We'll see how things develop on that front.

The other issue has to do with manipulating multiple controls at once. So far, I've only had the ephemeral graph build when one control was selected. This doesn't stem from a limitation in the ephemeral graph itself--it can take multiple inputs with no problem, and does when building a breakdown graph--but with the need to figure out how to trigger graph evaluation from multiple callbacks. I'd planned to implement it first with one callback, and then expand that, maybe implementing a system that tracked the number of active callbacks and only evaluated the graph after the last one had fired. Once I looked more closely, though, I realized that the problem was more serious then I'd thought.

Consider a simple FK chain, like a tail. One of the most natural things to do with it is select all the controls and bend them at once to bend the tail. In an ephemeral context, however, this means that all the tail controls--which are currently being manipulated by the user--must effect each other. I'd previously been able to assume that there was a clear division between a node being manipulated by the user (from which the ephemeral system pulls) and nodes that are not (to which the ephemeral system pushes).

So while I'm sure this problem can be surmounted, it does complicate things quite a bit, and it will take some additional research to figure out the best way to approach it.