State Plus - The Interim Legacy of Xtranormal

Remember Xtranormal? The site that said "If you can type, you can make movies." Although its online studio was very limited it was still pretty good for making short, dialogue driven videos with visually interesting 3D characters and backgrounds.

Here's a reminder with one of my best Xtranormal videos using some of their Star Trek based characters.



I enjoyed Xtranormal quite a bit but its pay as you publish business model and the need to purchase themes made it expensive. Particularly if you graduated to the downloadable desktop version, State, which gave you more functionality, increased possibilities and an even lighter bank account.

Last year, around mid 2013, Xtranormal closed down its website with a promise to rethink its business model and maybe make a come back. As it turns out Xtranormal is no more. Its intellectual properties were liquidated and, early this year, sold to a new company called Nawmal. Presently Nawmal is still in the process of assessing how best to move forward with their purchase.

Somewhere in the interim of Xtranormal's demise State Plus was born. An application that turns Xtranormal's State into an independent piece of software and includes the majority of Xtranormal's themes and other content entirely for free. It even allows you to mix themes and has features added or unlocked that weren't part of the original application. You can see many example videos of what State Plus can do on the Emergent Animation YouTube Channel.

The State Plus promotional video below shows a selection of characters from different themes all in the one scene.



State Plus allows you to run the Xtranomal desktop application, State, with no need for a user account or even an internet connection. It is the result of much hardwork by dedicated Xtranormal user, Glenn Saunders, who has been closely involved with the liquidation and sale of the software.

State Plus.

Glenn's motivation is the hope that State Plus would one day be released in an official capacity as a serious animation tool that is relatively easy to learn. It has the potential to create dialogue driven movies of all types and, in my opinion, the animation of Xtranormal's characters was the most natural and second to none with the site's peers.

Presently, with the sale of Xtranormal's Intellectual Property, how long State Plus can be distributed for free is uncertain.

If you're prepared to weather an extremely large download (anywhere between 9-16 Gigabytes depending on how you download it) and possibly struggle with getting the software running correctly it's probably worth pushing through to experience everything and more that Xtranormal's software was capable of.

If you do run into trouble installing State Plus then the support forum is active and you should be able to find help.




Update: 12 May 2014

Since posting this article the State Plus Forum website is no longer accepting any new sign ups therefore making State Plus no longer available. Here's an update in the form of a few extracts, from the State Plus forum, posted by Glenn, explaining this new development:

"Hello everyone. Some of you recall that early in the year I began working with Xtranormal's liquidator. This amounted to a temporary amnesty for State Plus, and in exchange, I restored, reorganized, and assessed their file archives. This greatly helped facilitate the sale." 
"I always felt that if Xtranormal were to be sold, that the best home for it would be back with one of the founders. I'm therefore happy to announce that Paul Nightingale, Xtranormal's original Vice President, is the new owner of Xtranormal's intellectual property." 
"When Xtranormal shut down, State Plus held the proverbial torch. Up until now, if anyone wanted to find out what happened to Xtranormal, they'd eventually wind up here, where they could get back up and running again. But I knew if it were sold that the torch would need to be passed back to the new owner, and that time is now." 
"I began my journey of State Plus because I had a vision for where this kind of animation software should go. And I took it as far towards that ideal as was possible, considering that I was limited to manipulating it only from the outside. In talking with Paul it is clear that our vision of the ideal tool is the same. And just as Xtranormal's IP has gone back to where it started, it's now necessary for State Plus to join it. I am transferring ownership of State Plus itself to Paul. By doing this, State Plus should now be classified as an extension of Xtranormal's IP [Intellectual Property]."

"State Plus is now collaborating with Nawmal, the new owner of xtranormal's technology. For information and to be kept informed of any upcoming releases sign up to the newsletter at www.nawmal.com"

Plotagon - Story Telling for Everyone... not really.

Plotagon's Jane
Character.
I've briefly reviewed Plotagon's Animation Tool before as part of my Six DIY Animation tools post and wasn't very impressed. At the time I hadn't really looked very deep into what Plotagon could do. Now that I have had further chance to really explore the software I can safely say that Plotagon will likely be frustrating for anyone with any film training at all.

I say that because, even if you'd had the most basic training in the art of film making, Plotagon is going to frustrate you with it's rigid placement of actors locked camera choices and step by step interpretation of your script.

But let's back up a bit and look at what Plotagon is attempting to do. Plotagon simplifies the film making process by linking what happens in your movie directly to the act of writing your script.

Fig 1. Plotagon Script Interface.
Scripts are set out pretty much in the standard screen writing format. Choose a scene, place up to two characters at any of the predefined locations within the scene and start writing your dialogue. Add character movements, actions and expressions, as well as sound effects and music simply by inserting typical stage directions within your script (see image, Fig 1).

It's a great idea but for an application that runs locally on my computer it's very slow. I'm not the fastest at touch typing but even I can out type the screen cursor by several words. Combine that with having to use the mouse or track pad to select which character is talking and their mood, script writing becomes a slow affair.

Writing could be sped up dramatically, with the flow of ideas left unbroken,` if predictive text was built in to select characters, actions, emotions etc. Pretty much the way dedicated script writing software does. If just this aspect of the software was improved Plotagon would be a really fun tool for story tellers.

On the film making side of things, below is a single scene comedy sketch I wrote, brought to life by Plotagon's 3D actors. Monty Python fans may spot my inspiration as being The Cheese Shop sketch. Unfortunately I don't know as much about coffee as they did about cheese.



As you can see from the video it's not going to win any acting or film making awards but the results are okay given the limitations.

I tried to give the characters appropriate emotions and actions to suit the dialogue. It's not perfect but it kind of works.

What's frustrating though is that for each scene, there are only a handful of locations characters can be placed. If more than one character is in a scene (with a max of two characters per scene) the characters always face each other, even if they're not in the same location.

There is no option to choose camera angles. You're stuck with the supposedly 'professional' film making shots selected by the software based on the action and dialogue. Some of these camera angles are questionable whilst others become repetitive (the over the shoulder shot is definitely over used).

Whilst there are sound effects for actions like opening and closing of doors there are no actual character actions for this. In fact none of the scenes I tried allowed you to have a character exit or enter a scene. It's also very hard to suggest it  'off camera' with a door sound effect because as soon as a character is placed into a scene the camera includes them in most shots.

Videos could easily be improved by giving people more choice on which camera shot they want to use. For example, if I want the camera to frame the non speaking character in a scene to show their reaction to what is being said, then that should be an option.

The limitation of only two characters per scene is also an issue because it makes scenes, such as my coffee shop, appear to be something of a ghost town. In the opening wide shot you'll notice the shop is completely devoid of any other customers.

Plotagon's studio comes with one City theme that includes 5 characters and 6 scenes. You can also purchase additional themes (of which there are presently only four) including Stan Lee's Superheroes, Pride and Prejudice, Alice in Wonderland and a Christmas theme.  Once you've purchased a theme you can mix characters with any themes you already own. There is no ability to import your own scenes, props or characters. You can't customize existing characters either.

The software, at 950MB to download, is far too big for what it does. At that kind of size it should be exceptional but it feels clunky, slow and very much like bloatware. However if it were to be improved so that it performed quicker and in a more streamlined capacity that better suits writers I wouldn't give the download size a second thought.

Once you've finished your movie you can share it on Plotagon's site or export it to YouTube. I couldn't get exporting to YouTube to work even though I successfully connected my YouTube account. In the end I used the RealPlayer Downloader to download my video as an MP4 file so I could upload it to YouTube.

If you have no interest in learning animation software but like to see your scripts bought to life then this may be the tool for you. If you have any pride in your own ability to make a professional looking film then Plotagon will likely disappoint as the compromises will be frustrating to say the least.

It's Story Telling Software but it's definitely not for everyone.


New from Animation 4 Business: Premium Explainer Videos

Animation 4 Business Premium is a new service I'm offering as part of my Business Explainer Video Service, Animation 4 Business. To launch the service I've created the short video below that explains why you might use my Premium service over solutions like GoAnimate and Powtoon. The video is also entered into Reallusion's Animation@Work contest too.

Essentially it's for those situations where you need characters to perform specific tasks unique to your business but you don't want to go to the full expense of creating a custom character from scratch. Visit my site or email me if  you'd like more information.



This blog however is more concerned with the behind the scenes stuff of how the above animation was created. So lets get into that.

From start to finish this animation took three days including writing the script, designing my new Animation 4 Business logo, animating the characters and scenes and adding sound effects and music. Note that I didn't storyboard this animation as it really was simple enough to skip that step.

All of the characters are either customized G2 Power Tools Pack characters or ones that came with CrazyTalk Animator 2.

The Goodies
"We do anything anytime."
Interestingly it was the ideas for this video ('any action any time') that prompted me to make three customized G2 characters based on U.K. Comedy trio, The Goodies that were popular in the nineteen seventies and eighties in England and Australia.

You'll notice from the image that the 'Graeme' character appears in the video.

By far, the most time consuming part of creating this video was the opening scene with Graeme performing all the different tasks. The entire scene had to be key framed from scratch. I spent a full day on that scene.

In particular you'll notice Graeme's right hand is fully animated and appears to type... well sort of. I realize his hand isn't really connecting with the keys. This is due to the desk and computer being layered in front of the character. With a bit of thought I could probably have made his hand connect but I felt it was animated enough to demonstrate the point.

Another highlight is the items balancing on Graeme's feet. A nice short cut with CTA2 is that you can link a prop to any body part of a character and then, when you move the body part around, the prop automatically follows. Thus these items look a little more precarious just by moving Graeme's feet side to side slightly.

Graeme's face is animated almost exactly like a puppet. All I did was click the record button then move the mouse around to make him look side to side and click the mouse to make him blink.

Unlike GoAnimate and Powtoon's studios, CTA2's camera works exactly like a real camera. When you see the scene transitions, where the camera pans right to the next scene, that is the camera moving and not the props being slid off to the left and new ones being slid on to the right. Makes changing scenes so much simpler.

My new Animation 4 Business logo was designed using DrawPlus X6. I pretty much had an idea for what I wanted, it was just a case of finding just the right fonts. I then saved the logo out as a flash object and imported it into CTA2 as a prop.

The next scene with the three characters performing actions was very simple to create. I just placed the characters and applied motion files that came with CTA2. Same with the logo scene with Graeme walking behind the logo. It's just a motion file called 'walk happy' applied to the character.

All the sound effects were sourced from freesound.org and the music came from freepd.com.

Overall I think I'm really starting to get to grips with CrazyTalk Animator 2. I had no major issues creating this animation. Everything worked pretty much as expected.

My next step will be to get back to my G2 Skate Monkey Custom character that stalled. Partly due to some issues that required me to contact Reallusion's tech support, and partly because these other animation projects came up. However I'm really looking forward to finishing the monkey off and creating another animation series that will feature my own character.

Life's Tough, Wear a Helmet

My latest CrazyTalk Animator 2 short is a variation on a video I created several years back called Where's Your Helmet? That video was inspired by the quote Life's Tough, Get a Helmet that I wrote an article about in my main blog.

This time instead of stick figures on a white background, my new animation is set in an office and uses Reallusion's G2 Power Tools characters and props. Watch the animation below and then read about the behind the scenes stuff afterward.



This animation was made over five days from writing the script to uploading it to YouTube. With it only being one scene I was able to make the entire thing inside CrazyTalk Animator's studio.

As with my previous CrazyTalk Animator productions the actual animation is still very unnatural in places. The result of trying to mash predefined character motions with my own adjustments to get something closer to the movement I actually want. I could probably create much better character animation if I created the movement from scratch but some of my goal is to get good at making animations quickly using the predefined motions.

That said, I still paid attention to details like blinking eyes and moving pupils around so the characters look at each other and appear more life like.

I will say that some of the pre-defined motions are a little too exaggerated. For example the final scene where the characters are talking face to face uses the same predefined talk motions with no changes on both characters. You'll notice their hands seem to move rather more than necessary as they speak.

Character Comparison.
Something else to note is that the characters in this animation are not standard G2 Power Tool characters. I took some time to modify them so that their heads, forearms and lower legs are all oversize. I was hoping the larger heads would make them easier to see when the characters are shown with no black outline.

An unexpected side effect of the bigger head and longer limbs is that the characters movement feels a lot more like that of marionettes. I'm not overly sure I like it but it was worth trying something different.

Aside from the script, I did all the voice work and I created the yellow helmet and wastepaper basket props (using DrawPlus X6).

All sounds came from freesound.org and the music came from freepd.com

I'm definitely getting more confident using CrazyTalk Animator. I still find I'm looking around for things every now and then but for the most part I'm getting to the point where I can really start trying to produce better quality work.




Reallusion Animation @ Work Crazy Talk Competition


Reallusion, the creators of Crazy Talk Animator, are holding a competition titled Animation @ Work with cash prizes of up to US$1000.00 for the top three best videos as chosen by the judges. Other prizes include software, gift cards and magazine subscriptions. There are four main categories; Business & Training, Infographics, Comedy/Parody, Animated Comic. Entries must be submitted via the competition website before May 5th 2014.

The competition had five early bird prizes for entries submitted before March 31st which I attempted to try and score with my entry to the Business & Training category below.



Unfortunately it was not to be and I missed out on a free copy of Reallusion's soon to be released content pack, G2 Power Tools, Volume 2.

Although I really did want to win the content pack this particular entry was more an exercise in seeing if I could create a business explainer video within my usual 14 day turnaround time for an explainer video created with GoAnimate.

For the most part I achieved that goal however you may have notice the animation on the Arnold Schwarzenegger character is particularly awkward (and my Scientist guy makes a really odd hand movement in his second appearance that I'm sure I didn't key frame.

As far as Arnold goes I had a few issues where I would animate him later in the video and the key frames would mess up key frames from earlier scenes. I'm not sure why but I didn't have the time to resolve the issue.

With a month to go on the competition I'm considering making a second entry for one of the other categories. We'll see how things go and, of course I'll write about it here if I do.


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