iClone Animation Pipeline review

iClone 5.5 is well-known in the industry for its great storyboarding, previsualization, character creation and short film making capabilities. Jahirul Amin puts it to the test!

iClone 5.5 is well-known in the industry for its great storyboarding, previsualization, character creation and short film making capabilities. Jahirul Amin puts it to the test!

Product: iClone Animation Pipeline

Company: Reallusion


Key features:

* Real-time animation
* Drag-and-drop creation
* Character templates
* Kinect Mo-cap Plug-in compatibility
* Easily transfer assets with FBX
* Motion Puppeteering Body and Face
* Motion Editing
* Audio Lip-sync

Star Rating: 4.5 / 5

In this review, I will be taking a closer look at the latest release of iClone from the Reallusion gang, plus 3DXchange, which makes up the iClone Animation Pipeline. I had heard many good things about this package, such as its ability to allow for great storyboarding, previsualization, character creation and short film making in the form of Machinima (making films using game engines) to name a few. So what did I think of it? Read on to find out

"Think of it as creating an animation in a game-engine, a very fancy game-engine with bells and whistles abundant"

So, iClone. What is it and how does it compare to other 3D packages, such as Maya, 3ds Max, Softimage and MODO? Well, like the aforementioned packages and others like it, iClone is an animation package. What makes it different is that everything is created in real-time and what you see on the screen is the final result. Think of it as creating an animation in a game engine a very fancy game-engine with bells and whistles abundant.

When you first open iClone 5.5, you will be presented with a very cleverly thought-out piece of kit. On the left-hand side, you have the Content Manager and the Scene Manager. The main bulk of the screen will be filled with the 3D viewport and on the right-hand side, you have the Modify panel. At the top of the screen you have a tidy set of tabs that are ordered in such a manner that you can create a project by running through them in sequence although you will undoubtedly go back-and-forth between the tabs. Each tab has a sub-set of menus to help in the asset creation/customization process and at the bottom of the interface you have the playback tools.

All in all, if you are familiar with other 3D packages, there is no doubt that you will be able to jump straight in and create. For those with minimal or little experience, there is a slight learning curve, but one that does not leave the soul destroyed far from it!

Once youve made yourself comfortable with the interface, you can pop over to the Actor tab and start to bring assets in from the Content Manager. From the G5 Character set, you have the lovely Gywnn and the handsome Chuck, and accompanying them you have a good set of human and non-human characters, all ready to be directed by you. This is where the fun really does kick in, and the speed at which you can get things moving is astonishing!

Some of the gang available from the Content Manager

Once you have your asset or Avatar loaded into the 3D workspace, you will have plenty of customization tools at your disposal, allowing you to modify the broadest of changes or the finest of details. Just click the Avatar Proportion button and off you go. Here you can use a set of presets to edit the body type of your character or go in manually to push and pull its form using the sliders.

Want to give Gwynn a bad hair day or give Chuck extra beefy butch arms? Go ahead. This is the place to make those initial changes to your characters. You can also change the clothes, add gloves, shoes and handbags; its all in there. One slight snag is that depending on which generation of character you are using (G4, G5, etc), some content is not usable on some avatars. For example, I could not give Gwynn a Robot arm from the Gloves tab. Shame, I could really see her as having a slight Terminator feel to her...

On a plus note though, you can easily update the texture files, allowing you to take Gwynn and zombie her up a little. By hitting the Launch button in the Texture Settings, iClone 5.5 will automatically send the texture maps to your 2D painting package of choice. Therefore, there is no need to go digging for images, and once you have made the changes and saved the file, iClone will automatically update the model. Sweet!

If you pop over to the Face tab, you can also hit the Texture sub-set button to bring up an Adjust the facial texture window. This allows you to make tweaks to the texture maps and view the results on a 3D Preview of the head. Double sweet!

The Face tab also allows you to make adjustments to the facial features of your avatar through a wide range of sliders, controlling everything from the style of the nose to the size of the ears. Push the sliders too far and you may end up having a character looking like he came straight out of a Spitting Image episode, which isn't a bad thing if that is what you are actually going for; being able to push the avatars this far is most welcome.

Customizing the facial features and editing the texture maps zombie style!

With the avatar ready to go, it was time to get animating. Pop along to the Animation tab and here you can start to drag and drop motion clips from the Content Manager directly onto the avatar. Walks, runs, dances, boxing clips are all available from the offset. Drop motion clip after motion clip onto the character and you will get a sequence of clips animating seamlessly one after the other.

Now, I must admit, at first this did feel slightly alien to me. Im more of a key-frame person and I like to see my key-frame ticks on the timeline and my animation curves in a Graph Editor. Not having this did throw me slightly, but once you open the Timeline and spend a few minutes pushing and pulling the animation clips, you should be able to pick up the workflow pretty quickly.

If you have a background in editing motion capture clips, youll be totally at home here. The transition from clip to clip is fantastic. Every now and then you may get a blip but for the most part, the results are smooth as silk.

"If you want to create 3D storyboards, do pre-viz or just tell a short tale with the default assets, you could do so with ease"

Here, you can also fix any issues you have from the motion by using the Edit Motion Layer tool. This allows you to work on top of the motion clip to make any necessary changes. The Human IK technology allows you to pull on a body part and the rest comes along with it, for the most part. It's nice to see this integrated and it allows for fixes to happen thick and fast.

At this stage, I was already seeing the awesomeness that was iClone, and the possibilities of what could be done in the package seemed fantastic. If you want to create 3D storyboards, do pre-viz or just tell a short tale with the default assets, you could do so with ease. But what if I want to bring my own character into iClone can that be done? And if so, is it a clean, simple process? Well, the answer to that question is an easy yes as long as you have iClone 3DXchange installed...

Taking a Maya asset into 3DXchange to sync up for iClone

The first thing you will need to do is pop over to your 3D package and create a character, give it a skeleton suitable for mo-cap data, envelope it and then export it out as an FBX file. Load it into iClone 3DXchange and you should be able to very easily sync up your character rig to the iClone Characterization Profile.

Once this is done, send the file to iClone and off you go. All the animation clips that you would apply to any default asset can be applied to your character. Within a matter of minutes, you can have your character walking, dancing or trying to punch someones lights out. The same motion editing tools will also work just fine on the asset that youve brought into iClone. As well as body motion, you can also apply facial motion or set the face up using morph/blend shapes. The amount of flexibility just shows how much effort and thought has gone into the package.

Adding a walk clip to our newly imported character

Using the Edit Motion Layer to fix any intersection issues

With the model moving to your every command and with a set in place, its a case of setting up the lighting and the cameras. Just a quick mention regarding the creation of sets and project environments: the manner in which you will create them is similar to creating the Actors. Start with a default environment from the Content Manager and then customize with assets from the Set tab.

Again, there is a huge variety of props to help fill a scene to meet your needs and more from the Reallusion Marketplace. With all in place, you may want to change the lighting in your animation. iClone has two tabs that help you control lighting conditions.

The first is Atmosphere and it is here that you can drop some Dynamic IBL lighting templates into the scene to add some believability, or play with the Toon Shader templates to create a more unique stylized look. You can play with Ambient Occlusion, Fog and also the Exposure of the HDR image to name a few of the settings available.

Over to the Light tab and you can add directional lights into your scene, again with a multitude of settings to create your perfect lighting scenario. Another useful tab is the Effect tab that allows you to make some global changes to the scene, such as adding Lens Blur or a Color Filter.

Its important to remember that we are looking at the final product in iClone, so having these settings available to make it look as good as can be is essential. Should you decide though that you would like to render the final images from another package such as mental ray or V-Ray, you can. Simply take the assets through iClone 3DXchange and import into Maya, 3ds Max, Unity or any other package as an FBX file. Its great to see that iClone is working alongside other packages and fitting in to other pipelines so effectively.

Creating a set and adding some water effects

So that brings us to setting up the cameras to create the final output, for video or a still image. iClone has a default set of camera lenses up for grabs, perfect for anyone doing previsualization work and needing to match the digital camera to a real-world camera. You can also play with Depth of Field, which is a nice touch. Being able to focus the camera on an object or an area allows the director to lead the eye of the audience to where he or she would like them to look. This is another nice touch here that budding storytellers will no doubt take full advantage of.

But iClone does not stop there. It does rigid and soft body dynamics, audio lip-sync, and you can even hook it up to a Kinect Motion Capture System, act out the movements and record them on to your avatar. Unfortunately, I did not get to try this out myself as I do not own a Kinect camera (this does give me reason to invest in one, though).

"All in all, I think iClone is a fantastic package"

For those wanting to get into iClone, Reallusion has released plenty of video tutorials on their site as well as on their YouTube page, so you should be up and running in no time.

Taking advantage of the rigid and soft body physics in iClone 5.5

System requirements

Minimum System Requirements:
* Pentium4 2GHz
* 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

Recommended System Requirements:
(iClone will have better performance in below recommended environment)
* Dual core CPU or higher
* 2GB RAM or higher recommended
* 2GB free hard disk space or higher recommended
* Display Resolution: 1024 x 768 or higher
* Graphics Card: Nvidia GeForce 8 Series or higher /ATI HD 3000 Series or higher
* Video Memory: 512MB RAM or higher recommended
* Video card compatible with Pixel Shader 3.0 recommended for optimized visual performance

Additional Requirements:
* 3-button mouse
* DirectX 9 and WMEncoder 9 are required for WMV exporting
* Internet connection required for online activation
* Stereo devices and player are required for viewing contents with stereo vision

Operating System:
* Windows 7 /Windows Vista /Windows XP (With Service Pack 2 or later)
* Support for 32-bit and 64-bit operating system.

Related links

iClone Animation Pipeline
Try iClone 4 for free
iClone 5.5 30-day free trial
Reallusion Content Store
Reallusion Marketplace
Free iClone tutorials
Reallusion on YouTube
The Egg (iClone Machinima)

To see more by Jahirul Amin, check out Beginner's Guide to Character Creation in Maya
and 3ds Max Projects

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