Sir Billi

Hot on the heels of Ireland’s The Secret of Kells, Scotland is set to release its very first animated feature-film (unless The Illusionist pips it to the post). Sir Billi has been financed by one of Scotland’s leading industrialists, John Fortune-Fraser. The film is based on Sir Billi the Vet (2006), which was a well-reviewed $5-million 36-minute short… “about an eccentric veterinarian working in a remote Scottish village”. No trailers yet, but it sounds like an interesting slice of British quirkiness. Interestingly, the husband and wife makers are talking up the speed with which it was made…

“the creation of a full-length animated feature … in less time and with a fraction of the people [ used by ] a full Hollywood studio”.

It’ll be interesting to get a “making of…” and find out which software gave them their speed-boost, and if some of it was animating in real-time. Sir Sean Connery (the best James Bond) voices the lead character…

Spore to iClone with 3D Studio Max 9

How to convert Spore models for iClone, with 3D Studio Max 9:

(I have no idea if this will work with Max 2010. See the comments on this post, for a suggestion on how to cure the texture problems caused when using 3DS Max 2010 with Spore creatures.)

1. Export your Spore creature from the Creature Creator module in the same manner as shown in my Maya 2010 tutorial.

2. Load up Max. Then File | Import, and navigate to My Documents / My Spore Creations / Creatures to find your Spore-exported .dae. Make sure you have Collada selected in the file-types box…

If you get errors in the mesh, you could try the alternative OpenCollada Max plugin as an import option.

3. After a while the Spore creature will appear in the Max viewport. If you know how to use 3DS Max to add useful animations to a model (i.e.: walk, turn head, etc), you can add them now — and the new 3DXchange should carry them over to the final iClone avatar. I’d welcome confirmation on this last point.

4. Edit | Select All. Then File | Export. Choose “Autodesk (.FBX)” and type in an .fbx extension after you type out the export filename. Save the .fbx into My Spore Creations/Creatures, so you know where to find it. Below are the FBX export settings I used. Note especially the need to scale up in size…

Along with the .fbx file, 3DS Max export will only give you the diffuse texture map. A Maya 2010 conversion will give you texture maps for diffuse, and specular and normal.

5. Now load up your creature in 3DXchange 4 Pro. It will probably appear at an odd angle, despite having set a Z-axis in the .fbx export (both Spore and iClone use Z). So you may have to rotate it until it stands normally. You may also need to “Align to Ground” and “Alight to Center”.

6. Now turn on the 3DXchange 4 Pro dummy. You’ll probably see that the model is still too small, even after the size boost you gave it when exporting from Max. Here the model is scaled up again (by 250) in 3DXchange, and is finally starting to look like the right size….

7. Turn off the 3DXchange dummy, and click “Convert to Character”. There may be some warnings about pivot points and an options box allowing you to adjust joint sizes. Just click past these, if you don’t know what they are. Then you can click on File | Export to send the creature to your iClone folders.

8. Load up iClone, and you should find the creature in Actor | Custom. Drag and drop the creature onto the stage, and then you can use Motion Edit to add / save some basic animations…

Don’t forget that you will need to include a standard legal disclaimer, as required by Spore’s publisher EA:—

This original Spore model, constructed by me, is being offered for use as part of a personal noncommercial free project, for the noncommercial benefit of the fan community for EA’s products. “This site is not endorsed by or affiliated with Electronic Arts, or its licensors. Trademarks are the property of their respective owners. Game content and materials copyright Electronic Arts Inc. and its licensors. All Rights Reserved.”

It is possible that the free Blender will do all the above, but only once the new version 2.5 comes out in the summer. Blender 2.5 (possibly as early as the first beta?) will support OpenCollada import for .dae files, and will hopefully export 3DXchange-friendly .fbx files. Blender version 2.49 doesn’t work properly with Spore models.

Celtx 2.7

I’ve been looking seriously for over eight weeks now, and I’m amazed I’m still turning up useful movie-making software. Yesterday I found there’s a $60 utility called Ultimate Unwrap that (hiding behind its ability to unwrap meshes/textures) will convert a vast range of 3D model types to and from each other. It can even do .dae to .fbx, but it doesn’t convert Spore models properly — they still have the same gross opacity-layer problems they acquire by using more roundabout pipeline routes. So far, only Maya 2010 + OpenCollada import OR 3DS Max 9 + normal Collada import are known to consistently and easily convey Spore textures while refraining from distorting the model too much.

And today I found Celtx 2.7 which is a free open-source pre-production suite. It’s a plotting and script-writing tool, a story-board, a production schedule, a props and asset-management tool, and even a basic set-layout tool, all rolled into one. It’s available for Windows and Mac, and you can even get it for the Linux version of the Asus Eee netbook.

Blender’s compositing and sculpting tools

Two things you probably didn’t know that the free Blender could do. I know I didn’t, until recently…

Video compositing/overlay of 3D models on video

Z-Brush -like “3D clay” modelling

Now at the moment Blender is, of course, not as user-friendly as it might be. In terms of usability, it’s currently a bit of a 3D bear-pit. Which is why the interface is getting a major overhaul in version 2.5 beta (in alpha now, and by Summer 2010 it should be in usable form). So when we get 2.5 along with new features such as the ragdoll / collision motion-recording, and new free companion software such as MakeHuman, I’m certainly going to start trying to use it as my default major 3D application alongside iClone.

And I’m thinking that iClone 5 could add many powerful new features, simply by having buttons that launch Blender — seamlessly looping the iClone content out into Blender, and then bringing it back again.

“Breast Size Tool – 100% done”

MakeHuman is a new free open-source tool for making bone-rigged 3D characters. The paint is still wet, and it’s only a version 1.0 alpha4 with basic functionality…

“This is not a full-function release and, most notably, does not provide functionality to allow the figure to be posed. It does include examples of all of the different tools and techniques that this software will provide to enable you to easily model the anatomy of a human figure, although some of these functions are not yet complete and are not necessarily in their final form. This release also provides the 3D graphics community and the developer community with a preview of the functions that this human modelling application will provide.”

Still, they have a large team assembled, and a steadily-progressing roadmap, and it looks like they can pull it off. The goal is that…

“Using MakeHuman, a photo-realistic character can be modelled in less than 2 minutes”

The exported MakeHuman character seems to have a fairly open usage agreement. As far as I can make out, you can sell characters you make with this. But you’d have to include the source files along with the pack. You would own copyright on your character (if distinctive enough), but someone could use your character’s source-file as the starting point to develop a new character. Presumably your buyers couldn’t use your textures, hair, morphs, distinctive look etc.

You’re also free to use the character models in commercial movies, online worlds, or games. Online worlds or games would presumably need to have a Sporepedia-like function enabling download of any other player’s character. Assuming MakeHuman remains relatively dummies-friendly, or someone can fork it be so, then MakeHuman is going to remove a lot of the pro-am users from the Evolver / DigiMe user base.

It certainly seems easy enough to use. The only bugbear appears to be the export options. Or should I say, the single and only export-for-masochists option…

“exports a [ Lightwave .obj ] also exports a .bvh file … that can be imported on Blender to build a skeleton.”

So I’d question the point of making it so easy-to-use and newbie friendly, if they’re going to then throw the poor newbies out into the bear-pit of Blender armed only with a .obj and .bvh file? Why? Still, I guess someone will write a converter to help get a character into the OpenCollada .dae format.

MakeHuman looks like it’s really intended to be an independent standalone module of Blender. And it seems as though the developers could have a really-functioning beta as early as the mid/late summer, which would sit nicely alongside the probable release date of Blender 2.5. One to watch.

The next version of Blender is apparently also set to add rag-doll physics.

Cartoon Brew festival

The heavyweight Cartoon Brew blog has announced an inaugural student animation festival. If you’re chosen it seems they actually give you money (hurrah!) — so make sure your movie is wholly built with royalty-free content…

“We want to give the spotlight to student shorts of the highest caliber — the most original, the most thought-provoking, the ones that make us laugh out loud, the most emotionally engaging. Screenings will begin on Brew TV in May, one new film a week for up to eight weeks, depending on the number of submissions that are accepted. Here are the rules: Obviously, it must be a student film. Films cannot be posted online anywhere before their premiere on Cartoon Brew TV. Only works completed after 1st March 2009 will be considered. Submission deadline is 30th April 2010. To submit, please email a private link of your film to studentfest (at) cartoonbrew (dot) com (for example, a password-protected Vimeo page or on personal web-space). This is NOT a contest; every film that we choose to present will be compensated with the same fee that we pay all filmmakers who participate in Brew TV.”

Talking of royalty-free, with the advent of popVideo 2 I guess that film-makers should have actors sign a standard model-release form. Especially if they’re intending to enter competitions and cash-prize festivals.

Jimmy Toon does Lowbrow

Jason Brown in the official iClone forum has showcased a radical new re-textured look for the Jimmy Toon character…

Note that the eyes blink, so the face can presumably still be animated. Press Esc on your keyboard, to stop the animation.

Auto alpha-channel billboards tutorial

I actually started reading the iClone manual. And I immediately found a fab shortcut for automatically making 2D cut-out billboards. Press Crtl on your keyboard, as you drag a PNG image to the stage from Windows Explorer, and iClone automatically makes it into a cut-out billboard prop. You just have to have the right sort of PNG image.

Here’s how to do it…

1. Open up Photoshop — I’m using Photoshop CS3. Open File | New. Make sure the setting for the new file says “Transparent” like this…

You should have a chequerboard on your new image — that means your background layer is set to transparent…

2. Now open a second file — this is the file that contains the object you want to lay over the top of your transparent background.

3. Use Photoshop’s Magic Wand tool to select the object. Assuming you have a plain or fairly neutral background, you can probably use a Magic Wand Tolerance setting of about “30” and it should give you a good fit. Now look to see if there are any areas that the Magic Wand tool didn’t reach into. Such as these…

If there are such areas, put the cursor in them and then right-click and “Add” them to the selection.

4. When you’re happy you’ve got a complete selection, right-click on the middle of the object and choose “Select Inverse”. Now Crtl + C will copy it to the Clipboard.

5. Now switch back to your first transparent-background image, and Ctrl + V to paste the object in from the Clipboard. If the cut-out is too big, either enlarge the canvas (Image | Canvas Size) or scale the object (Edit | Transform | Scale). It should now look like this…

Do NOT flatten layers before saving.

6. Now go to File | Save for Web… Ensure you save the image as a PNG-24 with Transparency ticked…

Only PNG will work with iClone for this trick.

7. Now load up iClone and then open Windows Explorer to find your saved picture. Hold down Crtl while dragging the picture in from Windows Explorer…

8. iClone will work for a moment (you may see a progress bar), then will automatically turn the picture into a properly cut-out prop on the stage…

And you never once saw, or even had to think about, Photoshop alpha-channels or the opacity materials box in iClone!

Once you have such a cut-out 2D prop, iClone can set it to always face the camera.

Depending on the quality of your cut-out, it might have some unwanted fringing on the edges. This can be a particular problem on images that start off in low-grade form, such as the silhouette below which was a horrible sub-greyscale bitmap .tif file. In some situations the fringing can be disguised somewhat by using camera depth-of-field…

… but you may need to go back to Photoshop and start again by making a cleaner cut-out. Consider using the Extract filter tool or the Refine Edges selection options.

Infernal iClone

Just released — Canto III of Dante’s Inferno (1472), done in iClone…

A few too many camera fly-bys and some hair-problems — but otherwise this is very impressive and with a strongly immersive sense-of-place. The consistent colouring of the impressively-dynamic lighting helps to establish the sense of landscape, I think.

Chromatose Anymation Festival

The Chromatose Anymation Festival is happening in Canada, 30th April to 2nd May 2010. Deadline is 15th April, no fees. The festival will be…

“a fusion of new animation, performance art and live music events. We are still accepting submissions and are looking for handmade, DIY, cross platform and/or experimental machinima and animation from independent artists. We are also interested in seeing how independent musicians are working in animation, incorporating new media and technologies into their art form.”

“Send a web link to your animation in an email to:  with the heading CHROMATOSE ANYMATION FESTIVAL. Please include any biographical and press information you think relevant. If we programme your animation we will contact you for a high-resolution DVD copy. If your work is not online and you need to send us a hard copy please email us for mailing details. There are no fees to enter your work. Multiple entries are welcomed.”

I don’t think they’re looking to get 4,525 “OMG, I made a dancing babe” or “Halo dances!” clips. They’re inspired by, among others, Tom Jantol’s “Fish Incident”…

Click to play.

3D in a browser – and it’s not your Grandpa’s VRML.

Three Google developers have got Quake 2 running in a web browser. No plugins needed. Just a browser than supports WebGL and HTML5…

“For years, people have assumed the browser was a poor platform for this kind of thing, and that you’d need something like Flash, Silverlight, JavaFX, or native code. [ now ] all you need to do to invite someone to your game, to share it, is to send a link. […] No installs necessary.”

Source code is available for free. Factor in the ways that new procedural animation techniques can pack a Quake-style game level into just 100kb, and the future of browser-based gaming on the PC/Mac desktop looks very bright and open. Doubtless we’ll also see pre-rendered streaming services developed for mobiles and netbooks, although such services seems likely to be non-starters due to the crippling bandwidth restrictions that mobile broadband users are subject to.

I’d love to see a raw iClone project file running an iClone movie in a browser, in the same way.

Meet Meline

New Miyazaki-inspired animated 3D short from Sebastien Laban and Virginie Goyons of Lyon, France — with sound by Rousell and Denooz of Paris…

There’s also a superb “Making of” documentary in English. It seems they used Maya, and then a lot of layering and compositing in Combustion…


I was looking at Vue’s ability to make planets, and then I vaguely remembered some old 2D planet generator software I used years ago. I just found it again — Flaming Pear’s $59 LunarCell (planet generator) + Glitterado (star-field generator) plugin combo for Photoshop. If none of the thousands of free NASA and Space Observatory photos are suitable for your iClone sci-fi competition backdrops, this could be what you want to generate the perfect planet or starfield…

I’m guessing, but you could presumably do something like stick a really big detailed planet image on an iClone 2D plane in the background of the scene, then slowly draw it towards a spaceship as the spaceship remains static — thus giving the feel of a following camera during planetfall, but without actually having to set up any model animation or camera paths?

New official Vue 8 – 3DXchange tutorial

There’s a new official tutorial showing the “Vue to iClone” 3dXchange 4 pipeline. It’d be interesting to see what the very low-poly versions of Vue landscapes look like when they’re inside iClone — anyone have experience with this?

I’ve worked with Bryce in the distant past and Vue 8 seems a similar but much more powerful 3D natural landscape generator which can produce photo-real renders. It’s $400 (in the version which seems to have the best balance between affordability/functionality). Vue’s sales website proclaims an “Easy learning curve!” and Warlord certainly found it fairly easy to use

“Vue has the most intuitive 3D interface I’ve ever used, and that includes some expensive software like 3D Studio Max and Maya”

Just keep in mind that Vue is still a major quad-view 3D application, one which is used on many Hollywood films, and in its useful versions it’s going to take a while to learn it fully. It seems there’s good documentation and a large user community. But learning Vue may be overkill if one just wanted to make static screenshots of woodland scenes to use as high-quality iClone backgrounds. It’s true that Vue’s output can certainly look very pretty with the help of a few tutorials, or if you have the cash for pre-built scene packs. It also seems useful if everything in the movie needs to be royalty-free, or for portraying extreme environments (snow, extreme weather effects, alien planet-scapes) in movie backdrops. The $600 version can have wind blow the trees and grass about in animations. Animations that take, er… one hour per frame to render(!). So after a week of rendering, I’d have seven seconds and my CPU would probably have melted through my motherboard. No thanks.

For those who can’t afford $400, I’d suggest that building up a good set of FRAPS screenshots from a copy of the “open world” games Far Cry 2 (use the excellent Map Editor for HUD-free tropical woodland and forest) or the free TheHunter (in-game HUD-free deciduous woodland and forest) might be far simpler (and arguably much more enjoyable) — just as long as you don’t mind using non royalty-free game backdrops in your iClone movies. Both games, from the same machinima-friendly studio, have realistic weather-cycles and night-day cycles. In TheHunter, by equipping yourself with the camera you can get virtually all the interface elements off the screen…

My in-play screenshot from TheHunter.

Lake Sunset by Kenwas, on the official Vue website gallery.

I know which of these I’d choose as an iClone backdrop. And TheHunter one can be animated, by grabbing screen video from the game via FRAPS. Because it runs at 40 frames per second, not one frame per hour. If only Avalanche realised it, they own not only a hunting game but a fledgling real-time Vue-killer.

Of course Vue can also render luscious photo-real architectural backdrops from pre-built sets. It can even import rigged characters. But then so can the free DAZ Studio or Poser — and either of these seems arguably a more useful application to learn, in terms of having the ability to green-screen animated characters for use in iClone via popVideo Converter 2. And don’t forget there are plenty of free photos of real places which have Creative Commons licences.

However, there is one final point in Vue’s favour. Judging by the Reallusion tutorial, it has an interesting plant-model generator module as part of it, which can export models to standard formats. If it’s better that the well-respected $20 Plant Life or not, I can’t say.

The Wolf & Dulci Hour celebratory turtle

Yes, tomorrow marks one whole year of the Wolf & Dulci Hour weekly podcast radio shows! So, to celebrate, here’s a free Wolf & Dulci Hour One Year Anniversary Turtle (12Mb .zip file). Yes, a turtle. Because I seem to remember Wolf saying he wanted a low-poly turtle like the big sea-turtles in Finding Nemo.

Is it Disney, or is it iClone? It’s iClone, with a little help from Spore.

This is packed in a lit iClone project, and is from a fan-made Spore model via 3DXchange 4 Pro — so it’s rigged and can be animated! No complex legs, so just use iClone’s motion editor to flap those articulated flippers. The shell isn’t perfect, but you could probably fit another one over the top of it or retexture it. The pack includes textures and the original .fbx file. It weighs in at just 15,000 polys, so you can have a crowd of them in the scene. Thanks to Vegeta, whose Spore turtle I heavily modified and retextured in Creature Creator. Thanks to Felipe Skroski for a Creative Commons photo that formed part of the background and foreground layer. Please credit Spore if you use it in an iClone movie, and give Wolf & Dulcie a mention too.

Standard legal disclaimer, as required by Spore‘s publisher EA:—

This original Spore model, partly constructed by myself, is being offered for use as part of a personal noncommercial free project, for the noncommercial benefit of the fan community for EA’s products. “This site is not endorsed by or affiliated with Electronic Arts, or its licensors. Trademarks are the property of their respective owners. Game content and materials copyright Electronic Arts Inc. and its licensors. All Rights Reserved.”