Reallusion's iClone5 Pro: A Breakthrough Upgrade

Product Review: iClone 5

"Once I discovered iClone - I went off and made a movie, uploaded to youtube within 3 hours of buying it. I find it very very flexible in addressing many different genres - I've done samurai movies, 18th century British India, Steampunk theme, Star Wars, and of course Middle Earth with it. I even made a movie about God and the afterlife with it. Really with this tool your imagination is the limit."
-Anima Technica, iClone Power User


Machinima film "The Egg" by Anima Technica. Shot in iClone

Have you ever wanted to make your own 3D animated movie? Perhaps you were inspired by a cool 3D film, you've come up with a story and now you are trying to find the right program that will help you animate it. And, if you are like me, the program can't be expensive, can't be too complex and you don't want to spend a year working on the movie. You also want to be able to find assets for your film without having to build them all yourself.

I have the perfect program for you: Reallusion's iClone5 Pro.

Seriously, iClone5 Pro opens up the process of creating a 3D animated film so that it doesn't take a degree in computer science or years of work to make a good film. It also does this without dumbing down the program and without losing any of the tools that a good 3D application requires. In fact, as you create a film in iClone5 Pro, the work-flow is almost identical to the professional 3D applications, like 3ds Max or Maya. The main difference is that you are able to see what you are doing in real-time. Like in a video game, the workspace in iClone5 Pro is WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get). No long render times, no endless waiting; you move a light and see its effect immediately.

Essentially, you are creating machinima (creating 3D films inside of video games) in iClone. Reallusion's founder, Charles Chen, saw the rise of video-game filmmaking back in early 2000 and understood the need for a program that would have all of the benefits of a video game (beautiful graphics, environments, free roving camera, etc.). He also saw that if he could create an application that was much easier to work with than the majority of game-based machinima tools, it would be much easier for you to customize the content and tell your own stories outside of a specific game environment.

Starting in 2005, iClone became one of the very first machinima applications that was affordable and easy to use. The program immediately created a devoted following. Reallusion listened to their users and began to upgrade the program on a regular basis around certain themes. As my friend and fellow filmmaker, Anima Technica, puts it: "IClone through its evolution has focused its version upgrades around a certain theme - iclone 2 brought with it character costume creation with clone cloth, iClone 3 improved its prop creation and if I recall correctly, was also the same time 3D exchange came about so it helped improved the development of movie sets and props for iClone users. with iClone 4 they introduced more lighting options as well as atmospheric option to help enhance the visual impact."

With version 5 of iClone, Reallusion has achieved a milestone in their development of this already excellent program. By adding major improvements in animation, along with almost 100 other tweaks and updates, iClone has become a fully mature 3D application for not only the hobbyist, but the serious 3D filmmaker as well.


Main interface of iClone5 Pro

What's New in iClone5 Pro

Of course, the big news is the addition of serious animation tools, but there are also many other excellent additions to iClone, like ambient occlusion, new G5 characters, mo-cap, instancing and rigid/soft body dynamics and more. For a fuller list, you can visit the excellent page Reallusion created for iClone5 Pro, which compares the new features with the previous version of iClone. Here are some of the most important additions:

  • Visual Enhancements: ambient occlusion, toon shaders and a lighting multiplier.
  • Physics: soft and hard body dynamics
  • Performance: enhanced scene manager, instancing, model snap and many more
  • Content: 2 new G5 characters (plus 1 cartoon character), physics template, smart props with LUA scripting.


New G5 characters have a higher polygon count and greater flexibility

Major Animation Improvements

While the entire application has been upgraded, it's in the area of animation that iClone5 Pro really shines. John Martin, from Reallusion, told me that "iClone5 Pro's focus was to bring better motion creation and editing to users" and that "iClone5 Pro has had a focused roadmap on motion and physics with much consideration from our user community."

  • Human IK – licensed from Autodesk, this technology allows you to move major parts of your model in real-time while the rest of the body responds in a correct physiological manner. Have your character reach for something and the rest of the boy follows along naturally.
  • MixMoves System – hundreds of general motions and the ability to smoothly blend multiple moves together so that they look natural and believeable.
  • Body Motion Puppeteering and Direct Puppet – manual control of your characters animation using a mouse of other motion device. You can select specific body parts or isolate them and record your actions in real-time.
  • Prop Puppeteering – this new system allows you to animated the movement, rotation and scale of your prop in real-time with recorded playback.
  • Timeline Enhancements – iClone 5 now provides a graph to adjust ease-in, ease-out for much better animation timing. Also, you can manage your motion clips better using merged motion tracks.
  • Device Mocap – iClone 5 Pro now allows you (with a $99 plug-in purchased separately) to record your movements in real-time using the new Kinect motion sensor. It's the first commercial application to support Kinect technology.

The updates to iClone's animation system completely change the way animation is created in iClone. The range and depth of your choices to animate characters and props are so great now that this improvement on its own is worth the price of iClone5 Pro. And although I wish Reallusion would have included the Mocap plug-in with iClone5 Pro, it still is the cheapest commercial mocap application out there.


Human IK is one of the outstanding new features of iClone5 Pro

Using iClone5 Pro

iClone5 Pro is designed with simplicity in mind. The interface is clean and laid out so that it's very easy to get around. The line of tabs at the top of the viewport are arranged progressively by the basic workflow in iClone: set up your project, create your stage/set, import your actors, modify and animate them, add post production and then export your movie in a variety of formats (even 3D).

The 4 main work areas in iClone are also laid out clearly: the Content Manager and Scene Manager are on the left side of the screen, and your main 3D workspace is in the center, the largest workspace. On the right, you'll find the Modify panel, which changes depending upon what mode you are working in. The panel allows you to adjust the details of your scene and helps you control textures and connections between scene elements.

You create movies in iClone by using content that comes with the program, by building your own using generic 3D props and texturing them, or by importing your own content from places like the Google Warehouse. It's drag-n-drop simple. You can quickly grab a set, add the sky, throw in a character, record your dialog either in iClone5 Pro itself, or using your own recording device and importing the sound (there's also a text-to-speech function in the application).

Once you've set up your scene, you can now start animating by working in two main iClone5 Pro modes: The Director Mode and the Editor Mode. The Director Mode allows you to move your actors and props like in a video game using the WASD keys in real-time. iClone 5 Pro automatically records your actions as animation blocks on the Timeline. You then use the Editor Mode to fine-tune your animations. Moving between the two modes is as simple as clicking a button or a hotkey.


The workspace tabs reflect iClone5's work-flow

Each actor or prop has a right click menu that gives you more choices on how to interact with the object or change it's properties. Modifying actors, including body size and facial features, is extremely easy, as is adjusting and joining animations you have created. The timeline expands and can be placed anywhere on the screen for easy access. Basically, iClone 5 allows you to work quickly and simply to create your 3D animated film. And it's all happening live, in real-time as you work. This is the big advantage machinima-type filmmaking has over the traditional 3D work-flow.

Working with iClone 5 is enjoyable and fun. Knowing the program as well as I do, I found iClone5 Pro to be a joy to work with. It's exciting to create scenes and animate characters according to whatever I imagine. At one point, I completely forgot I was researching for a review and created an entire scene simply by loading in an interesting abandoned building I picked up at the iClone content marketplace. One thing led to another and I had the image you see below: Early Morning Drug Bust.


My quick 3-hour image made in iClone5 Pro

After careful work with the lighting in the scene, using the new Shadow and Self-Cast Shadows (all new in iClone5 Pro), I exported the image in iClone5 Pro's "export" workspace as a .png file. I was then able to import the image into Adobe Photoshop CS5.5 and tweak to my heart's content. The Export workspace in iClone 5 allows you to export images, video and image sequences. The choices are wide-ranging and you can even export in 3D Stereo.

Documentation and Content

Reallusion has always done a good job of documenting and providing training for iClone. Certainly the growing user base (including many power users) have helped Reallusion shape their help systems. iClone 5 Pro is the best documented of any release to date. The help system starts in the application where you can press F1 to access an up-to-date manual of over 300 pages. A pdf of the manual is in the works and should be out very soon. I simply copied the help folder in the iClone5 Pro installation and moved it to my laptop where I use it next to my main computer as I work in iClone5 Pro and questions come up that I need help with.

When you first open iClone5 Pro, you are presented with a small screen that allows you to register, look for more content or access the Training Resources at Reallusion.com. You can also check for updates (there's been a recent update for bug fixes to 5.1). The training you get includes excellent video tutorials on every aspect of iClone5 Pro, from production to animation, to render/output. The forums at Reallusion are the most active I've ever seen, with many highly qualified users providing tips and tutorials on their own that are of very high quality.

Reallusion provides a nice collection of start up content with iClone5 Pro. There's a bonus pack for Pro members that includes materials, animations and more. One thing I've been very impressed with is Reallusion's commitment to encouraging content developers for iClone. They provide additional content at the Reallusion Marketplace, and it's usually very well priced, often free.

I do urge you to purchase Reallusion's 3DXchange 4 Pro, which allows you to import from places like the Google Warehouse and from other major 3D packages. You can also export iClone5 Pro content to external applications, like ZBrush, modify them with more detail, and then re-import them back into iClone5 Pro. This program is essential for the the iClone filmmaker, as it gives you access to a huge amount of free content that you can use in your iClone productions.


Importing obj files via 3DXchange 4 Pro is very easy

Room for Improvement

As good as iClone5 Pro is, Reallusion knows that there is still room for improvement and growth. There are problems with using older iClone content in this new version, including migration of older content. And although the Mocap plug-in isn't part of the iClone5 Pro release, many users will be buying it along with iClone5 Pro. Sad to say, it needs more work since the motion captures are not very good and need a lot of clean up. It also needs a timer so that every motion capture doesn't start with the user bending over to hit the record button. But, I suspect an update to the Mocap plug-in is at the top of Reallusion's agenda, since it's so innovative and could have tremendous potential for iClone users.

Since iClone5 Pro is built on a fairly recent code base and not on older legacy code from the 90's, Reallusion can implement build cycles fairly quickly. I'd like to see development with the GUI (graphic user interface), so that the user can customize sections to fit their work-flow. The timeline could also have it's own workspace fitted in with the other tabs at the top of the screen. A large amount of animations in a scene makes the timeline, in it's present form, unwieldy and hard to manage. Giving it its own workspace and perhaps removing some redundant motion categories would make using the new animation tools much easier.

And since there are so many compentent iClone members who are developers also, I think Reallusion should release an SDK (software development kit) so that these developers can create plug-ins for iClone. Plug-ins would have the benefit of improving iClone, without any development time taken away from Reallusion. Plus, since users are becoming so instrumental in iClone's development, why not let them build some of the program themselves?

I'd also like to point out that the new toon shader in iClone5 Pro is almost as important as the improvements in animation, as it helps filmmakers move away from the overly realistic style of some 3D animation. The toon style enables a filmmaker to stylize an animated films look, which makes a big difference since iClone5 Pro uses real-time rendering which really doesn't compare to the high-end rendering you can get with Renderman or Vray. I suggest that Reallusion include perhaps a light version of 3DXchange 4 for iClone, as it's an essential tool for 3D filmmakers looking for content for their films.


The "graphic novel" option in toon shader. Image by JasonJ1968

Conclusion

No question, iClone5 Pro is the best version of the program released to date. It's moved from a strictly hobbyist application to that "sweet spot" between high-end 3D applications and entry level. It's very well priced and gives 3D filmmakers the opportunity to spend time on making films, instead of learning the application for months and months. Once you understand the basic principles of the program, it's learn as you go. As Anima Technica, iClone 5 Pro power user, told me recently: "iClone5 Pro really expands what I can do as a low budget filmmaker – not only does it make me more efficient, it actually has improved the look of the renders as well. The physics alone shaved hours of time and, honestly, outside of making movies, I have a lot of fun playing with the physics."

Reallusion has managed the very difficult task of adding depth and complexity to iClone5 Pro, without making the program harder to use. Low-budget animated filmmakers will revel in iClone5 Pro's new features, but I suspect that more and more professionals will become interested in iClone as well. John Martin put it best in a recent interview: "While iClone has matured from version 1 to version 5 there has emerged a toolset that enables professionals too. The iClone user is not so easy to define in terms of what they do... some are certainly production, film and TV professionals, like Vic Fina at the The Daily Show with Jon Stewart or Jesse Griffith of Jimmy Kimmel Live, but some are also insurance salesmen, teachers, students and creative minds with all sorts of day jobs. iClone is still a tool with the threshold to welcome newcomers to animation; while offering a complete toolset for professional to get down to business."

I'm just thrilled with iClone5 Pro. It's the perfect 3D animation program for beginning filmmakers and will satisfy more skilled directors as well. iClone 5 Pro consistently provided inspiration as I was working with scenes and characters so that my imagination became completely involved in creating a scene. In other words, iClone5 Pro enabled me to create and never got in my way. Although there are other machinima applications out there, iClone 5 Pro is now in a class of its own.

Notes

Reallusion's iClone5 comes in two versions: Standard and Pro. The Standard versions lacks things like voice/lip tracks, and much of what you need to customize animation on the timeline. At $79 ($59 through the end of October), it's a pretty good buy. But, believe me, if you are making machinima you will want the Pro version, which costs $199 ($149.96 through October). You can see a version comparison here. Add 3DXchange 4 Pro for $149.95 and the whole bundle will cost you about $300, which is a good price considering you get an entire machinima production application where you own the rights to everything you create. Check Reallusion for upgrade prices and get out there before the end of the month to get the early bird deal. It's well worth it.

System requirements for iClone5 can be found here. I tested iClone5 Pro on an intel processor using Windows 7, 12 Gb of Ram and an Nvidia GPU. Aside from an occasional crash, the program ran smoothly. Reallusion has built the iClone5 series so that you don't have to have a high-end computer to use the program.

Download a 30-day demo of iClone5 and try out some of the new animation tools. You could probably make a nice little movie in a month.

My sincere thanks (once again) to John Martin and Charles Chen at Reallusion for providing a copy of iClone5 Pro and the Mocap plug-in. It's such a pleasure to work with both of you.


Editor's Note: Be sure to check out the Renderosity iClone Forum


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.


October 24, 2011

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Member Opinions:
By: TylerZambori on 10/24/11
Great review Rick, Thank You!


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