A Greedy Makehuman

I’ve been needing a faster way to create realistic humans for my design projects, and I’ve been switching between Makehuman and MBLab a for some time. Unfortunately, neither of these has exactly what I was looking for, both of these incredible–and free–programs have their strengths and weaknesses. If you’ve never used them before, Makehuman and MBLab (formerly Manuel Bastioni Lab) are two different programs to design realistic humans. Both do fantastic job, but I needed to produce clones of real humans something that was very time consuming to do in these programs and still left me in the uncanny valley. I tried (and like) the fantastic Keen Tools Face Builder, but it also left me needing many steps which was just inefficient for my workflow.

So I took advantage of a Coronavirus deal and purchased the Digital Human Creation Bundle with Character Creator, the Headshot plugin and a 1000 Headshots morph included in the bundle. The Headshot feature really caught my attention, and was exactly what I needed for what I was working on, and as expensive as the software was, even on sale, I figured it would be worth it. I have very mixed feelings about that decision.

Before I get to my laundry list of complaints, let me first say that Character Creator is powerfully good. Headshot in particularly is exactly what I wanted, and in fact is far better than I expected. I now possess the ability to create incredibly high-quality clones of people from a single photograph, that are textured, include hair, and can be directly imported into Blender for special effects. This is perfectly amazing, and I am going to get a lot of use out of this both for special effects and for book cover design. Headshot is totally worth it, and so far I have absolutely nothing negative to say about it. My complaints lie within the rest of the Character Creator philosophy.

So, as I mentioned, even on sale I paid a lot of hard-earned money for this program to create realistic humans on the hope that it will return dividends through future sales of my own. I still think that is true, and I don’t regret the purchase, especially because Headshot is so wonderful. But I quickly noticed a problem: it only comes with a limited amount of options to morph your base characters, and you need to purchase an additional “essential morphs” content pack if you want full control. Damnit! Although in the last few years I’ve begun to purchase a good amount of software merely as time savers, the idea of downloadable content (DLC) is a strange and alien one to me. If it’s “essential” why the hell wasn’t it included with the already expensive program!? Swearing a little, I downloaded the pack.

So at this point I do feel like I have everything I need for my purposes, but as I played around with the program a logo came up and at that point I was no longer able to export my design. Oops, apparently free, purchased, and “trial” content are all mixed together, and if you accidentally use a trial product, you can’t actually use. What. the. hell? Looking through their website, all the sorts of things which the MakeHuman community creates and shares for free, are things that are for sale in Character Creator. I’m not against selling things, and perhaps some content such as hair which I find really frustrating to make, I might end up purchasing in the future as a time saver, but all this is very annoying to me since the more and more I use this, the more I wonder what it was that I already paid for if every bit of functionality costs something extra. I think it’s DAZ Poser which does similar things selling models but having a free base program that you use them in, that makes more sense to me and seems far less greedy.

Also, while Headshot seems to work great for people regardless of their background, there seems to me to be a definite Caucasian bias. As a traveler, I don’t default to White characters in my design, but so many of the built-in presets I’m finding are white. Off the bat I see an Asian female, and an extremely muscular black guy (yey, sterotypes!), but unless I’m seriously misunderstanding a step in the program, it seems to me like you need to put in some extra steps to get other ethnicities in your design, which is annoying. My impression is that you should be easily able to create anyone via the manual sliders or through Headshot, but it’s frustrating that it is really easy to create a White man or woman, but other people tend to take extra steps.

On the other hand, much of design is knowing when to create something yourself and when to purchase content someone else has made. That’s a delicate balance, and if you spend all your time making every aspect of a character from modeling to rigging, to hair, to animation, to lighting, etc, you can and should have enormous pride, but that’s a lot of work for a single person to do on their own. That’s why I’ve previously purchased Marvelous Designer (again, when it was on an incredible sale), AutoRig Pro, and several other workflow tools, all to speed up the things that I find difficult or don’t enjoy doing.

So do I regret my purchase? No. Once I get all the items it wants me to purchase out of the program so I don’t use them by mistake, it is a fantastically powerful program and I absolutely adore the fact that it is thoughtful enough to provide a direct export to Blender via FBX. Headshot is far better than I ever imagined, and is worth the purchase alone. The ability to create amazingly realistic skin…with microdetails such as pores that you can’t get in MBLab or Makehuman also make it worth the sale price. I feel this has really pushed my abilities into another category of opportunity and I’m going to take full advantage of it. But I don’t think it would have been worth it if it wasn’t on sale. Also, I think if I didn’t already have Marvelous Designer, it might not have been worth it, but the two of them together are going to really create a powerful character design workflow for me. (Yey, fallacy of investment!)

Some final thoughts: This experience has really made me appreciate Blender and the open source community even more. If everyone that was purchasing Character Creator was dropping money into the production of MakeHuman, imagine how powerful the free program would be and we would all have access to it!

There’s a lot of pros and cons about open source software. A significant con, is slow development. Manuel Bastioni infamously ceased development on his incredible software which I use as the basis for my Doubting Thomas graphic novel. Thankfully it’s been picked back up by a new team, but had it been freeware instead of open source, the program would be dead.

After seeing the paid competition, MakeHuman impresses me even more. You get a lot with it. While you need to spend a lot of extra time making custom skins if you want anything of film quality, that’s time you’re not spending sculpting and retopologizing. Plus, Makehuman gives you an incredible amount of control, particularly with user-contributed morph targets.

Additionally, Makehuman includes options for genitalia which, to the best of my knowledge, Character Creator does not. While I don’t do hentai or anything like that, I find it weird to be shy about the human body, and there is occasional nudity in my comic. I don’t do hentai or anything like that (but many people do, and their desires should be respected) but there are a lot of reasons why we should have a non-puritanical approach to art. I’m also hoping to branch out into more scientific, forensic, and medical designs, so not including the complete human body in a program I paid hundreds of dollars for is mystifying to me, but you can get it for free with MakeHuman. Then again, someone out there probably has a DLC pack you can purchase, which will look weird on my invoice… (UPDATE: Yep, here’s one for purchase, which gets some pretty horrible reviews, and I’m not sure if you’re stuck using only the base character it is on or can use it for other ethnicities. There’s a male version which has a warning that “This pack has been modified for compliancy with Reallusion restricted content guidelines”. So yeah, it looks like they’re taking a puritan approach. If you want junk, you’re best going with Daz or Makehuman. I’m lucky because that’s not really a focus of mine, but I just assume a program to design humans would include the parts of our bodies that we use to create other humans with!)

Above all, this is really making me appreciate Blender. In one rather tiny program, you are getting a full suite of tools for 3d modelling, sculpting, texturing, painting, physics simulations, fluid simulations, scripting, animation, 2d drawing, nonlinear video editing, compositing, rendering, and much more. All for free. Blender really is the best program ever! It might not be able to do everything, but seeing how great it is for free while other programs try to charge an arm and a leg for everything, just makes me want to invest in Free and Open Source software more!

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