Reallusion's iClone4 Pro: Building on Quality

Ricky Grove [gToon] - Staff Columnist

iClone4 Pro
3D Animation Toolset
Created by Reallusion
Released on October 15, 2009

“iClone4 is a real platform for (animated) filmmaking. You can bring your project very solidly into iClone4 and understanding the kind of stylistic look and feel that you want to bring to it, I think now the program is really capable of letting you hone that for yourself.”
-John Martin, Reallusion

It was just over 10 years ago when the first machinima filmmakers were hacking games like Quake to control a camera and record PvP matches. In those heady early days of machinima, filmmaking was a lot like playing the game. You'd get some friends to join you on a server, one person would be the camera and the “director” would move players around much like in a live-action film. Various takes would be recorded via the demo recording function of the game and with the addition of some basic editing, voice recordings and titles in a video editor, you'd have a machinima film. Primitive looking, but it was fun and it was done real-time with no rendering.

As game companies realized that modding and machinima extended the life of their game (and earned them more profit), they began releasing SDKs (software development kits) which gave the early machinima filmmaker more tools to create more well crafted and polished 3D animated films. Still, even with the best SDKs there were limitations: difficult to use custom content, lack of documentation and a steep learning curve, plus no guarantee that you'd even own the film you created.

Despite these obstacles, machinima filmmakers managed to create some remarkable films, and machinima became very popular. This led companies like Reallusion to fill that gap that existed between pure game-based machinima and high-end animation with expensive programs like Maya and 3ds Max. When Reallusion released version 1.0 of iClone in 2003, they provided a relatively cheap way to create 3D animated films that was easy to learn and had no rights issues (you owned what you created). Granted, the program was very simple and often the results didn't look as good as what you could cook up in Unreal or Half Life.

That was 7 years ago, and with release of iClone3 last year, Reallusion stepped up as a serious alternative to game-based machinima along with developing an enthusiastic user base, many of whom were first time machinima filmmakers. Our review praised iClone3 as “the new standard for machinima.” Essentially, iC3 was the first complete non-game machinima tool to include the major tools you need to create professional looking 3D animated films in real time.

So, with the recent release of iClone4 Pro, has Reallusion managed to improve on what was a milestone in the development of their excellent animation toolset?

Absolutely.

While iC4 doesn't have the same impact as it's amazing predecessor, there are updates and new additions to the program that truly make iClone4 Pro a must have upgrade. Let's take a look at some of the new features that were added.

Opening screen of iclone4
Opening screen of iclone4

New Features

New Facial Animation mode - Basically, Reallusion added their hit facial animation program Crazy Talk to the iClone toolset. This was a no-brainer for them as this addition was almost overdue. CT enables you to keyframe facial animation for your characters, or “puppeteer” your chosen facial features in real-time. Before, you could import Crazy Talk animations into iClone, but by integrating it inside of iClone it's much, much easier to animation your characters now. This new feature alone is worth the price of the upgrade.

new facial animation features in iClone4
Close-up of new facial animation features

PopVideo & 3D Video FX - Reallusion expanded their user base with iClone4 Pro by extending it's functionality to include motion graphics. You can now place video on any surface of 3D objects and create layers of video for foreground, background, titling and SFX. All major video file formats are supported (avi, wmv, mov, flv, etc). Compositing video effects from right within iClone4 Pro is very easy now using Reallusion's PopVideo, which is video with an alpha channel.

Drag & Drop Editing - With iClone4 Pro you can drag & drop files directly from your computer or external hard drive. You can also turn any video or image file into a 3D object when you drop it into an iClone4 Pro scene.

Texture Sharing and Blending - A very welcome addition to iClone is the ability to share textures on multiple objects. You can also blend your chosen textures with multiply, addition and overlay. UV manipulation now includes rotation, mirror and inversion. Poser and Second Life facial textures are now supported and can be imported for use in iClone4 Pro.

New Characters and Content - Two new G3 characters have been added, G4 heads (with optimization for advanced facial animation/textures) with eyelashes, a new G3 cartoon character and non-human characters are included with iClone4 Pro. It's now much easier to edit and animate non-human characters, too.

Motion Paths & Transition Curves - In iClone4 you can place motion paths for your characters or objects and adjust them on the fly. Camera moves and character animation now has several new transition curves (linear, ease in, ease out, etc.) for smoother animation and movement.

New motion path function in iClone4
New motion path function in iClone4

There are many more additions to iClone4, too many to list here. You can find a complete breakdown of what's new at the Reallusion iClone4 page.

“..and the fact that we can have the characters who aren't speaking be animation goes along way towards character-oriented scripts. I'm not a big action-oriented writer...I use this (facial animation) in just about every scene. So easy to use”
-Dulci, iClone4 Power User

Comments

iClone4 is an excellent step up from the previous version of iClone. I found that working with this new version is much easier. The program is more responsive and I did not experience a single crash in several weeks of using the program. Perhaps it was just that I was more familiar with the program, but I found I could achieve better results with iClone4; importing Google Sketchup content via Reallusion's 3DXchange program was a snap. I had a scene up and running in minutes.

The added ability to dock and collapse the timeline is most welcome. I had a devil of a time with the old timeline, as I ended up moving it all over the screen trying to keep it out of the way. Individual animation tracks for each character makes it easier to create animation for multiple character scenes. The transition blends for animation is helpful, but the focus on this version of iClone is on facial animation. iClone still needs a more robust body animation set to compete with Poser, for example. A blending graph where you can visually tweak the animation transitions would be ideal.

New HDR video effects like light bloom and changing exposure allow for a range of visual effects that are comparable to higher end programs that cost much more. I found these effects and many other visual effects simple to apply and easy to adjust.

The new motion paths were a bit harder to get right, but with some patience I was able to create and adjust paths for my characters that looked great. I suspect that as I become more familiar with the process, I'll be able to do it more quickly. Already, the time saved in just having motion paths is excellent. This addition was a little overdue, but I'm glad to see it implemented so well in iClone4.

The video compositing is slick and well done in iClone4, but I found myself staying with the basics of the program: creating scenes, adding actors, setting lights and detailing animation. Video layers has a nice wow factor, but it is of less importance to most machinima filmmakers. Still, I really like it's implementation and the creative possibilities are there for those who want to play with this new functionality.

Shot of the animation mode in iClone4
Shot of the animation mode in iClone4

The visual quality of iClone characters has always lagged behind slightly in comparison to Poser (and certainly to higher end 3D programs), so it was a pleasure to see the new G4 heads in action which look great. The additional facial features and ability to create complex facial animations on the new heads will push characterization in iClone4-based machinima to a much higher level.

Finally, with iClone4 Pro, Reallusion has proven that they are a company committed to releasing quality upgrades for its programs. Much of the improvements in iClone4 Pro were initiated from a growing user base. Since my last review of iClone, an entirely new generation of users have appeared and film production using the program has at least doubled. Some users have become producers of special content for the program and are even providing workarounds for individual problems. And Reallusion has responded with filmmaking contests and strong support for it's users.

I'd still like to see a bit better handling of documentation from Reallusion though. They have a nice set of iClone4 Pro video tutorials and the help system is good within the program itself, but there still isn't a downloadable manual for iClone4 Pro. I printed the manual for iC3 last year and had it cheaply bound by a local printer. It's disappointing not to be able to do this for iClone4 Pro.

I'm impressed with iClone4 Pro, maybe not as much as the previous version 3, but if you start adding up the improvements in workflow, facial animation, video layers, texture blending, new content and drop & drag images/video, you realize just what a great release iClone4 is. And at $99 for the upgrade ($199 for the full program), you can't beat the price. iClone4 Pro is fully compatible with Windows 7, XP SP2 and Vista. No Mac version yet (keep your fingers crossed).

I highly recommend iClone4 Pro for new machinima filmmakers, or for those who are considering upgrading from a previous version of iClone. You can also try iClone4 Standard edition which doesn't include some of the advanced facial animation or timeline features for $79. And there's a free iClone4 Ex version which has all of the Pro version features for 2 weeks and then reverts to a simpler version of the program. There's a good version matrix at the Reallusion site which lays all of the info out in easy to read columns.

Thanks

My sincere thanks to John Martin and Reallusion for providing a copy of iClone4 Pro to review. I was fortunate to be able to chat with John and iClone power user, Dulci, recently over Skype. Dulci is an avid iClone filmmaker and one-half of the “Wolf and Dulci Hour,” which focuses in on machinima creation especially with iClone. It's a great show and well worth your time.

You can listen to the 30 minute chat here.

There is also an excellent video recording of John Martin's demo of iClone4 at Siggraph in August, 2009, at Reallusion's blog (scroll down the page a bit). I've also uploaded an “iClone4 Quick Tour” video to Renderosity's Video Center:


iClone4 Quick Tour

A great user-created site for iClone custom content is Clones2go.com. And if you want to see a good example of what a talented filmmaker can do with iClone watch John Martin's Bluebird, an animated Charles Bukowski poem.

iClone4 Minimum System Requirements:

  • Pentium4 2GHz
  • 1GB RAM
  • 2GB free hard disk space
  • Display Resolution: 1024 x 768
  • Color Depth: True Color (32-bit)
  • Graphics Card*: Support for DirectX 9.0c and Shader Model 3.0
  • Video Memory: 256MB RAM

My System Set-Up for Review:

  • Quad Core Intel CPU 3.0 GHz
  • 2 GB Ram
  • 50GB disk space
  • Sound Blaster XFI Fatality 1
  • Display Resolution 1900x1200 on Dell 24” monitor
  • GPU nVidia GeForce 9800GTX+ 512MB Video RAM
  • Windows XP Service Pack 3
  • Firefox 3.01

Editor's Note: Be sure to check out all the valuable resources available right here on Renderosity, for all your artistic endeavors, starting with the following related links:


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.
November 9, 2009

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