Most of us have seen videos that people make inside of games (also known as “machinima”), maybe laughed at their humor and probably appreciated them when they’ve told a compelling story despite the limitations of the medium. Unfortunately, there’s a huge gap between the stories machinima filmmakers can make and the latest Pixar or James Cameron masterpiece; this is the gap that Reallusion iClone intends to fill. By combining a game-like engine, a few gaming conventions and a lot of powerful 3D animation tools, they have attempted to bring it down to a level that makes it accessible to anyone interested in trying their hand at machinma—and without requiring a massive learning curve, huge studio, or a render farm.
At first glance, iClone may look similar to other applications in the 3D content creation market—but we all know that first glances can be deceiving. Digging in to it reveals that iClone is a unique and powerful product. The fundamental difference between iClone and other 3D applications is that it has been built to run like a modern game engine—with all the quality, flexibility and raw speed that a real-time game engine provides. In iClone, your workspace is also your final output; you won’t be working on your scenes in one view and then hitting ‘render’ to see your finished product—it’s all right in front of you in real-time.
To accomplish this kind of performance and working environment, Reallusion is a proud part of the Intel Partner Program and has worked closely with Intel to make sure their engine is fine-tuned to take full advantage of your processor. Reallusion has also worked with NVIDIA to leverage their GPUs as much as possible. While I was able to test on an Intel/NVIDIA system, my other test system used an AMD CPU and GPU, and the application performed perfectly well.
Working in the application feels great; navigating around most scenes feels snappy even with advanced assets such as images with transparency, reflections, high dynamic range (HDR) images and image-based lighting. Because of the hardware optimization, iClone will also scale well with whatever hardware you have available and I saw impressive frame rates on both the very high-end 3D production workstation and the modest gaming PC I tested it with.
The difference in performance when compared with most other consumer and professional 3D applications is dramatic. The tradeoff is that you won’t be getting the polished Hollywood film level photorealism renderings for most scenes, but iClone will give you impressive results instantly without needing a 1000+ CPU render farm.
iClone was also fairly stable—I only experienced one crash and a few buggy display issues in my tests and I was pleased with the overall stability. I do wonder why iClone needs to be running with administrator privileges though.
Interface and controls
The first thing you’ll notice when you fire up iClone is how shiny the interface is. There are plenty of gradients throughout the application and few of them are particularly subtle. Aesthetically, it’s a striking look that you’ll probably love or hate, and there isn’t much configurability if you belong to the latter. I feel that creative software shouldn’t be competing with the art for your visual attention and iClone constantly draws my eyes away from the workspace and toward the GUI. It’s a nitpick, but it would have been nice to have a few more “subtlety” options.
Beyond aesthetic choices the interface is great; it’s well organized and it’s generally easy to find exactly what you’re looking for. Each of the major areas of the workflow is broken down to different tabs and the interface changes appropriately as you progress from project to export. Each major section is then broken down into subsections for whatever type of element you want to work with. It’s a well-designed setup and it eases the learning curve as well as creating an efficient workflow for experienced users.
There are two sidebars on either side of the working center; on the left you have the content manager for organizing assets and presets. The content manager only shows you the relevant content to the specific task you are doing based on what section and subsection you’re in. Below the content manager is the scene manager that shows you what’s in the scene, broken down hierarchically for different types of assets. Clicking on an asset will also jump you to the correct section of the interface—a nice touch. On the right hand sidebar is the Modify panel that lists the specific properties of whatever you have selected. One little nitpick that drives me nuts about the Modify panel is that it doesn’t respect your mouse scroll wheel and the scroll bar is thin and nearly invisible up against the application border if you’re running Windows with Aero turned on.
Stage and Set
After Project (where you load and save files,) the first two sections of iClone you’ll be working with are Stage and Set. This is where you’ll be designing the environment in which you’ll be telling your story. The first thing you need to know is that iClone takes a very preset-driven approach to almost everything in the application. While there is a good selection of primitive shapes like boxes, balls, tori, etc., you won’t be modifying any actual geometry—so modeling in iClone is limited to overlapping primitives into simple shapes. We’re glad they took this approach; it makes sense to leave modeling to a separate dedicated application like the free Wings 3d, Google SketchUp or a commercial application like Nevercenter Silo. This keeps your workflow clean and lets you focus on object placement and composition, atmosphere, fog, and lighting.
You can bring in 2D background images, image layers, and 3D scenes or terrains. iClone has superb high dynamic range support throughout the application and it does image-based lighting very well. Real time reflections are also supported including nice blurry reflections and decent looking water. Fog is easy to adjust but is uniform beyond distance and elevation so you won’t be creating swirling or rolling fog here.
Lighting is quite good; you can add spot lights, directional lights, point lights and ambient light which covers just about everything you would want to do without a full render engine. Placing directional lights (think the sun, moon and/or diffused atmospheric light) is a huge pain using rotate X, Y, and Z fields alone—while the effect of the changes happen instantly, it’s still hard to tell exactly what direction the directional light is pointing. Being able to look through spot & directional lights like cameras would do wonders for the usability and is a common convention in other 3D applications. Shadow options are adequate for the platform but don’t have as many options as I would have liked.
Cameras in iClone are simple to use and quite powerful as well. One of the things I really like is having the zoom set up similarly to real-world lenses—with presets between 20mm and 200mm—while also having the option of setting it to any number in between. This is a great feature for anyone matching iClone scenes to background images or movies and vice-versa. Real time depth of field is impressive—setup consists of picking a point on your target to be in focus and then dialing in the range or intensity of the DOF. You can also set up target and parent constraints on a camera as well as attaching a camera motion to a path. iClone also makes it simple to switch between cameras on your timeline so there’s no need to do any editing outside of iClone or manually switch cameras part of the way through an animation.