The DIY filmmaker has a lot to be happy for these days. Not only are major game companies like Blizzard, EA and Valve supporting machinima films made from their games with contests and increasingly impressive tool-sets, but non-game programs like iClone, Moviestorm, Antics3d and ZenCub3d are competing with each other for a steadily growing market that includes not only machinima, but casual animation filmmakers as well. And because of the cost benefits and low overhead these programs provide, areas like accident re-creation, crime scene reproduction and educational fields like science and cinema studies are all considering these programs for professional use.
The competition between these companies has led them to refine and upgrade their programs and promote what each one does best. And I'm pleased to say that at present all of the programs are free. Let me repeat: these programs are free. They all have excellent support, good tutorials and a growing user base. But the program I come back to most often and the one I find myself staying up late making movies with is Reallusion's iClone. And I'm happy to report that they've just released a major upgrade this last August in the form of iClone 3 and it is a knock out. I've been playing with iClone since version 1.5 and without reservation iClone 3 sets a new standard for machinima and the casual animator.
What's New in iClone 3
Reallusion has completely re-conceived iClone in their upgrade to version 3.0. In addition to redesigning the GUI to make it cleaner and more intuitive, they've re-imagined the program as a nexus of game machinima and traditional 3d animation. Essentially, there are two 3d engines now, one is the “Editors Mode” where you create your sets and lights, place your actors and cameras, and the other is the “Director's Mode” where you animate and record your actors just like in a videogame using the WASD keys to move around.
The motion-layer animation system is now inside of the scene itself whereas before you had to open an external key-framed animation sub-program and import it into the scene, a tedious and frustrating set up that led me to spend hours trying to get hands, feet and bodies placed correctly on chairs and sofas. Now, it's a snap. This single improvement alone is worth the entire upgrade to me as I enjoy custom animation. However, you don't have to use custom animation at all because iClone 3 has dozens of animation pre-sets along with a BVH importer so you can grab free animations an use them in your scene. It's one click and done. Nice.
Other major improvements include a full right-click menu system that allows you to affect your actor or prop right in the scene. The rendering quality of the program has improved noticeably and the new G3 avatar allows for more detailed faces and body types. Morphing of bodies and faces is much better in version 3. Now you can basically manipulate your character with almost as much freedom as you'd have inside of a major 3d modeling program like Maya or Cinema 4D.
There is a new multiple camera system that is very easy to use. Motion blending of camera tracks allow for very smooth camera movement in practically any focal length you want. A very, very cool depth of field effect can be key-framed easily. Cameras can now be linked to any actor in a “follow mode”. Camera look-at and a Face look-at are excellent additions to the new system. Move around your actor with the fly camera while recording and the actor will follow the camera. And a very practical addition to the camera system is the Preview Camera which you can use to easily move around your set without having to change any of your camera pre-sets.
The addition of high quality a high-quality water, grass and editors for them makes creating outdoor scenes very easy. The ability to adjust atmosphere (fog, rain, et al.) and the fact that you can add collision to any terrain so that your character can drive or walk on uneven surfaces is a remarkable addition that you only find in game-based mod tools.
I could go on and on with how much this program has improved, but this article would be much too long. I will say that the most important upgrade is in character interaction and animation. Reallusion has provided not only an intuitive animation system with inverse and forward kinematics, multiple time-lines for each actor (or object), decent facial animation, prop-interaction, in-scene vehicle animation, but they've also added an XML “Dramascript” language for actors and objects AND set up an excellent wiki for learning how to program the language. You can actually collect animations and combine them in the form of “personas” which can then be applied to specific characters to individuate them and contrast their motion with other characters.
I've hardly scratched the surface of what Reallusion has done with iClone 3. And, you know, the promotion they sent out for iClone 3 was not hype. They've listened to their users, and then some.
How it works
Quick overview: you set your stage by choosing a variety of sets and simply drag n' dropping in into the central stage viewer. You then choose your actors and props by placing them in the scene. Now, the fun begins.
While in the “Editor” mode you decide how your scene will play out; say you have two actors talking in a diner over lunch. You can grab a sky and place it in the scene so that it represents late afternoon, position the lights and add some color to set the time and perhaps highlight the actors faces a bit. Then place three camera (using drag 'n drop again); one in a medium shot with the two of them, and the other two are over-the-shoulder shots. Each of the cameras are numbered (or you can rename them anything you like).
You then switch to the “Director's” mode and using the mic on your headset, record lines for your first character. iClone automatically lip-syncs the voice and places the recording on the timeline. Do this for the other guy (be sure to change your voice a bit, or use the text-to-speech function built in).
Once you've gotten all of the dialog down, switch back to the Editor mode and grab some animations on the left side of the screen in the content area. Idle talk, pointing, shaking your head, etc., you can easily adjust the timing of the animations on the time-line by sliding them back and forth. Or you can combine animations and create new combinations (be sure to save them for another scene). If you are ambitious, open up the motion editor and try creating some custom animations. It's a snap to keyframe and adjust. Perhaps you want one of your guys to drink some coffee? iClone 3 has a super link-to feature that allows you to key-frame links with actors and props.
Now that you've gotten your animations down and have cleaned up your cuts from one camera to the next (easily done on time-line), play the whole thing back and tweak it a bit so that everything looks good. You are ready to export. Since all of the main functions of the program are reached easily at the top of the main screen, just click “Export” and figure out what form you want your movie to take.
You can choose HD 1080P, Flash video, YouTube optimized, CD, NTSC, PAL and MPEG-4 for handheld devices. The render quality is very good to excellent. The speed of the render has improved over previous versions of iClone, although having a quad-core cpu like I do will make a big difference.
One surprising export type comes up when you choose Flash video is “HTML”. When I used this export type I found that iClone 3 created a full html for an embedded flash player with controls that plays your video in the size you choose. This is very sweet if you want to embed your video in your website or blog. Another nice touch.
I mentioned earlier that Reallusion chose to release a free version of their program. This version (called the “Ex” version) is very good. You get a large part of the functionality of the “Professional” version (which costs $299). The only limitations are in the export range (you are limited to 320x240), you are limited to 30 seconds of export, there is a small watermark. Reallusion has set it up so that you get the Pro functions for 30 days when you download the Ex version.
There's also a “Standard” version ($79) which removes the watermark, allows for up to HD export size . I've been using the Pro version and considering all of the extras you get, it's well worth the price. Still, if you just want to find out what the program is about the Ex version is perfect. You can easily make some short films by creating a new project for each shot, avoiding the 30 sec export limitation.
One thing that particularly impresses me with iClone 3 is the fact that you can go as deep as you like in the program. If you want to create a simple 3d animated movie it's easy, if you want to go deeper and create a hand-crafted film you can do that to. With the addition of scripting, the just released 3d Studio Max importer and Reallusion's 3DExchange program, iClone 3 is slowly moving towards a fully functional game engine in complexity. And perhaps that is their inevitable goal.
Still, as good as iClone 3 is there is still room for improvement. Despite quick patches (currently at 3.3) there are still problems importing content created in the 2.5 version. Because the engine has been completely re-designed there are significant programming differences between the new version and the old one. I've also had problems importing BVH motions into iClone 3 and I believe the importer needs to be upgraded.
The 3DExchange program from Reallusion allows you to import .obj, .skp and .3ds file types into iClone 3. This opens up the entire Google Warehouse with its thousands of props, along with the ability to create 3d objects in Google Sketchup. This program is excellent and should be included with all versions of iClone instead of just the boxed Pro (the boxed version ships in October, 2008).
I'd also like to see the sizes of all of the sliders and drop down arrows at the right side of the screen (adjusting the size of actors and props) increase in size. Right now they are very tiny and hard to manipulate. And making several of boxes around certain functions like the motion builder re-sizable would be very helpful.
The tutorials and help sections for iClone 3 are very good, as is the 200+ page manual, but there still needs to be some basic video tutorials on how to specifically accomplish tasks like blending animations and what how each of the time-line tabs work. I'd like to see on-line classes being offered for a small fee or perhaps free for Pro users. Reallusion tends to emphasize simple use of the program, but once you dig deeper there are not as many tutorials available. However, the forums are active and answers to questions come quickly.
Finally, Reallusion really should have released Clone Cloth for the new G3 characters at the same time they released iClone 3. It's frustrating not to be able to create new clothing for characters you've created. It's an essential part of making original characters and at this point you can only use Clone Cloth for the G2 characters. The upgrade is promised soon, but they could have avoided user frustration by getting it by the iClone 3 release in August.
iClone 3 is a revolution for Reallusion and for machinima filmmakers. The program is as simple or complex as you want it to be. It truly sets a new standard. I can't wait to stop writing this and get back to filmmaking in iClone 3.
My sincere thanks to Reallusion for providing iClone 3 Pro to review. It was a great pleasure to meet the Reallusion team at SIGGRAPH 2008 and have all of my questions answered. John and James Martin along with Charles Chen (the CEO of Reallusion) are classy and bright guys. No wonder the company is so good.
In meeting with John Martin at SIGGRAPH, I got the chance to interview him about iClone 3. You can listen to that interview here:
My thanks to Cricky who helps run coolclones.com, a superb source for info and user generated content, for his comments and thoughts on iClone 3. It was criky who suggested that Reallusion may be moving towards creating a full featured game engine. Coolclones.com is run by Rainman, longtime supporter and power user of iClone. He recommends that users also take a look at iclonerevolution.com, a collection of tutorials and information from the coolclones.com forums. Iclonerevolution.com is run by Warlord, a highly knowledgeable iClone user and all around great guy. Also, thanks go to shygirl, a power user of iClone for years, who shared her thoughts about iClone 3 with me privately.
More info on iClone 3 can be found at the main reallusion.com site. The forums are active, so I'd recommend dropping in and seeing what people are thinking.
I've recently taken over as Coordinator in the moribund iClone Forum here at renderosity.com and hope to provide a lot of content, commentary and tutorials.
In addition to the superb Coolclones.com, there is also the MyclonesforiClone.com blog, the Animizemedia.com wordpress blog and James Martin's superb tutorials at his Certified Training for iClone blog. Reallusion has a large collection of videos at their Youtube.com site, but their “Online Training Resources” section at the main Reallusion site has all kinds of excellent training info. If you are interested in developing content for iClone, there's a separate site for developers as well.
Ricky Grove [gToon], Staff Columnist with the Renderosity Front Page News. Ricky Grove is a bookstore clerk at the best bookstore in Los Angeles, the Iliad Bookshop. He's also an actor and machinima filmmaker. He lives with author, Lisa Morton, and three very individual cats. Ricky is into Hong Kong films, FPS shooters, experimental anything and reading, reading, reading. You can catch his blog here.
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