iClone, You Clone: iClone Reborn

Review by Sergio Rosa - Staff Columnist

Last month Reallusion released iClone 2.0, the latest version of their acclaimed real-time animation software. If you've been following the program, you surely have realized how much it has grown since it was released a year ago (this is the third version in the one-year timeframe). For those that don't know it yet, iClone is a real-time 3D animation tool that lets you quickly make your own short movies, music videos, and even teaching videos. It includes a library of characters, scenes, props, and pretty much everything else you may need, letting you focus on the creative part rather than the technical part (rigging characters, scripting, setting up renders, etc). Just like Poser, iClone runs a marketplace where you can buy animation cycles, characters, scenes, and props that will fit all your needs.

The program interface is exactly the same as it was in the previous version. You have your viewport on the left, the library on the right, and the module buttons on the top of the window. However, when you open it you will notice the first update, which is a new look for the figure. iClone 2.0 introduces the "generation 2" figures, offering a higher level of realism thanks to the reworked mesh, higher resolution textures, and better joint setup. The picture below shows the new  female character, Jane, as well as the library of G2 figures. These new figures are compatible with CrazyTalk scripts, so if you have CrazyTalk you can easily make your facial animation there and then load it inside iClone.

There are also "clothed figures," that are figures with a base mesh around them that you can texture to create a variety of effects. Unlike Poser, these are not "conforming figures," so from the start you are limited to what the base meshes let you do. The way they work is very simple: they are clothing templates that you can texture as you like, as well as "trim" (using transparency maps). Since the cloth template is actually on top of the character, those "trims" will actully let you see the skin underneath (for example, if you trimmed a hole on Jane's bodysuit's abdomen, you will actually see her belly), and also a "cloth layer" on top of the body, meaning that these cloths are actual models, not "second skins."

Another significant addition is the LivePlants module. Now iClone supports vegetation, trees, plants, and flowers to be loaded directly inside the scene. The vegetation is animated procedurally using a special engine that allows multiple plants to be animated simultaneously. These plants are not 2D sprites, so you can zoom in-out and take your camera freely around them to see them from any direction. Unfortunately, you cannot change the animation by tweaking wind or weather in general, so you have to stick with the default procedural animation.

iClone also adds the ability to create particle effects. You can add fire, smoke, fog, text effects, sparks, and weather effects that can help you add different looks to your scene, be it a magic/medieval quest, or simply a gentle rain. The particles can be tweaked to get the look you want by changing color, size, and emit rate, as well as applying forces (such as wind and gravity). You can have many particle effects in your scene and each of them has its own attributes, so you can tweak them in an independent manner. You can combine your Live Plants scene with the particle effects. Add fog, rain, and some ambient sound and you have your first step for a nice "Fatal Frame" or "Resident Evil" horror short film. The image below shows a "matrix falling-characters effect" combined with a custom iClone cloth that I created just to illustrate the new iClone cloth.

There are already some iClone 2.0 exclusive add-ons available to you. The first one is the "Working People" set: a pack that includes 6 different characters dressed up in office outfits. The figures are based on the G2 figures and they look amazing. If the textures don't suit you, you can always change them or create new textures in the image editor of your choice, just like any other figure. There's also a LivePlants expansion pack that includes 10 new scenes. These should be on your "to-buy" list, especially if you want to take advantage of the new LivePlants technology.

Just like in previous versions, you still have the Motion Editor where you can edit your character's movement, as well as the Motion Converter to import BVH files. The Motion Editor remains virtually unchanged, so if you are familiar with the older versions, you will know what to expect from this one. As I stated when I first reviewed iClone, the Motion Editor still feels somewhat limited when compared to other tools. However, if you have a BVH library, or can create your own (using Poser or any other tool), you can use that to bring your iClone characters to life.

iClone has evolved very quickly, adding new features and functionality, and it seems this trend will continue.  One of the things that I would like to see in a future release, is the ability to natively import models in a format other than VNS. There's actually a program (currently in Beta) that will let you do that, but I had not tested it by the time I wrote this article, so I will share my experience with it in the future. Another thing is the fact that you still have to use keyboard shortcuts to access some of the commands (such as "add new character"), so having buttons for these kind of commands would be very useful.

Whether you plan to use it as a production tool for your films, interactive media, websites, or previsualization, iClone will surely make your life easy in a lot of ways. Thanks to the new features, it can even be used as a start-to-finish production tool. The G2 figures are already a  big step forward, so you can have a higher level of realism for your commercial projects, and the new particles and LivePlants will also add special value to your animations. You can always download the demo so you can experience iClone for yourself and see if it fits your needs.


For more information on iClone and other products from Reallusion, visit their website.

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Animation Alley is a regular featured column with Renderosity Staff Columnist Sergio Rosa [nemirc]. Sergio discusses on computer graphics software, animation techniques, and technology. He also hosts interviews with professionals in the animation and cinematography fields.  
April 23, 2007

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