Tutorial: Reallusion's iClone animation pipeline
M.D. McCallum
Issue: July 1, 2012

Tutorial: Reallusion's iClone animation pipeline

PRODUCT: Reallusion's iClone Animation Pipeline: A trio of character creation, facial and body-motion animation production and motion capture with exportable results for use with game engines like Unity3D orUDK. Elements easily open in Autodesk 3DS Max or Maya, Maxon Cinema4D or other 3D production environments that supports FBX. 

PRICING: Reallusion offers a 30-day trial version, and paid versions with motions, characters and props starting at $699.

WEBSITE: www.reallusion.com

The deadline is looming and the team is already overloaded. Long hours and late nights with frayed nerves are the norm and as production manager you’ve just been given additional scenes to complete. And, by the way, the deadline is the same or maybe you could bump it up a day or two? 

This is just another day at the office for most of us. It's times like this we prioritize our production pipeline by adding tools that allow any animator on the team to complete some scenes, saving the more experienced animators to concentrate on visually difficult parts of the project. This gets the work competed while maintaining quality of production, and more importantly, the project moves forward.

iClone is one of those tools that makes some animation tasks so simple that almost any animator can pick up the program and start producing with it in short order. The task at hand is complete: a cityscape shot with aircraft traffic. The cityscape was created in 3DS Max then a high resolution image of the city was rendered for the traffic animation. This is where iClone fits in.

We are not only going to take a look at what iClone can do but also how it’s done in this case. Refer to the more detailed video tutorial for in-depth explanation on how to complete these tasks. Let’s get started.

We start by dragging and dropping the city render from 3DS Max into the background of the iClone workspace. To enhance the render, go into the Atmosphere controls (Stage->Atmosphere->Right Side Menu) and check the HDR and Tone Map checkboxes. There should be an immediate change in the looks of the scene after checking the Tone Map box.

We must make sure that we are always at the proper place on the timeline before we import or move anything in the workspace. In this case we will always work from frame 1, so be sure you move the timeline scrubber back to frame 1 before making any changes or additions. Unlike 3DS Max, the iClone timeline is always actively recording any movement of scene assets.

Next, select the Animation tab then click the Path button. On the right menu click the Create Path button and draw a path that comes from off screen then turns towards and disappears behind one of the larger buildings in the background image. We will use masking in After Effects to push the craft behind the base of the larger building at the end of the path.

Import or drag and drop our first spacecraft into the workspace. Scale it appropriately for the scene and with the craft still selected, choose the Pick Path button in the right menu and select the first waypoint on the path.  The craft will jump to that waypoint. Check the Follow Path box and choose the –Y axis. Move down the timeline at least 1,000 frames and click on the Pick Path button again, then choose the last waypoint on the path. Scale the craft down to zero.

With the time scrubber at frame 1 and the spacecraft selected hold down the Control key and move the craft to the left or right of the original.  Create another clone of either craft and position them in a formation of your choosing. Select each of the clones and use the Attach button on the right menu to attach them individually to the original spacecraft.

Select the Path and move it to a point where the spacecraft are just off camera at the first frame. The craft will enter the shot at the first frame and fly along the path. 
Next up is importing a string of low poly ships to simulate aerial traffic lanes to add motion and filler to the scene. These craft need only be the simplest of shapes as they will be used at a very small scale and at a great distance. Several low poly craft can be merged into lines of traffic with Multi-Duplicate, Attach and Merged, then saved for later use. 

In this case I’m using a string of low poly craft that will simulate the traffic. Next we clone the traffic with the Control key and rotate it 90 degrees, then move it down the Z axis from the original traffic. Set the starting point on frame 1 and the ending position on the last frame for each line of traffic. Attach individual ships to a single prop for ease in moving the entire group. Duplicate the traffic props, rotate them 180 degrees to have traffic in the opposite direction of each lane if desired.

Our next task involves bringing in a large cargo ship to clone into a small fleet of ships passing behind the larger buildings in the background. After importing the cargo ship I use Control to clone the ship into a small fleet all attached to the first ship imported. With the time scrubber at the first frame the fleet is moved into its initial position. The time scrubber is then moved down to the last frame and the cargo fleet is moved across the screen enough to look as though it passes behind the another group of buildings. 

Finally we will add another large ship to the scene. Drag and drop the ship into the viewport, go to the last frame and place the ship in the desired location. Move the time scrubber back to frame 1 and position the ship just off camera. If we want the ship to move slowly, then we increase the distance the ship travels between the first and last frames.

To finish this, go to the Stage tab, Effect button and add Post Effects, in this order, Color filter (8.15.20), Blur 15, Color Adjust 10, 13, 10 to help blend the different aspects of the scene together. The blur softens the lines of the 3D models against the 2D background.

Next, we render out the footage using HD standards with my preference being uncompressed AVI for use in After Effects. In addition to the footage, we will need a single image render to use with our masking in the next step.

Load the footage into After Effects along with the still image render. Create a new composition at HD standards, in this case 720p, and drop the footage into the composition. With the pen tool draw a simple mask around the buildings the various crafts will pass behind. After masking the necessary buildings we add the still image render to the composition and place it BELOW the footage on the timeline so the image will show through the masked area replacing what was masked out.
From this point it’s a matter of preference, as you may want to color match, add lighting, particle and other effects to the comp. Again… we won’t go into the After Effects work in detail, as this is very basic usage with simple masking and layer order. 

As you can see, we have accomplished quite a bit in a short time while maintaining visual quality using iClone in our pipeline. This little tool has matured to a point that it deserves a place in the animator’s toolbox and with a history of huge, feature packed upgrades, Reallusion has proven over and over that it in touch with and listens to its user base.

M.D. McCallum, is an award-winning commercial graphics artist, 3D animator, project director and Webmaster with a freelance career that spans 20 years and includes over 100 individual and team-based awards. His “iClone Beginners Guide,” published in October of 2011 through Packt Publishing, has been translated into several languages.