Every good film relies on well-written characters to convey the essence of the story. But in an animated feature, good writing doesn't guarantee success. Everything depends on character animation. And character animation used to cost a lot of money.
This was the problem I faced when planning animated film noir and video game The Chest with my production company Rendered Frames (watch the trailer below). 10 or 15 years ago, only the bigger studios could produce good-quality animation; it was a challenge for indie animators to find the budget and the staff they needed.
But this has changed in the past few years. More and more companies have realised the opportunities presented by solo artists and small studios, and the new generation of animation software they have created has opened up new horizons for ambitious freelance teams.
Created using Reallusion software
While working out how to create The Chest, I looked for tools that could form a rock-solid production pipeline, from character creation to the final render. After a bit of research, I found three pieces of software from Reallusion that became the main pillars of my workflow.
The first is Character Creator. I use this to create fully rigged 3D characters, complete with all of the morphs needed for facial animation. The second is 3DXchange, which imports assets and motion-capture data from external sources. And finally there's iClone, my main animation tool. I use this to put together all of my characters' movements and to lip-sync speech.
Rendered in Unreal Engine
To create and render the neon-lit retro-noir world of The Chest, I used Unreal Engine, Epic Games' powerful real-time graphics engine. This tool makes it possible to create very complex scenes, like Budapest in the 1960s, or the cellar of a medieval castle.
In a film noir lighting is critical, so the direct visual feedback that Unreal Engine provides is very important. But before I can see how my characters are being lit inside a scene, I have to export all of my iClone animations to Unreal.
Although iClone has included built-in presets, everything is exported as an FBX file, which must then be imported into Unreal Engine manually. This isn't the fastest way to work. Thankfully, the new iClone Unreal Live Link plugin sets me free from this annoying export/import process.
United by iClone Unreal Live Link
iClone Unreal Live creates a bridge between the two applications, making it possible to make changes to a character in iClone and see instant visual feedback in the Unreal Engine viewport. When using iClone Unreal Live Link, export becomes automatic, with the plugin even generating materials based on Epic's Digital Humans research.
This process takes only a few minutes, saving weeks of hard work. And you can still fine-tune the appearance of the character manually, thanks to the instanced materials generated by the plugin.
It is also possible to use a motion-capture suit to track character movements in real time, with the actions being saved to Unreal Engine's Sequence Recorder. You can even use Reallusion's Live Face app to record facial movements on an iPhone.
A powerful pipeline for indie animators
Thanks to Reallusion's software and the real-time rendering capabilities of Unreal Engine, character animation isn't a struggle for me any more. The tools help me to achieve my creative goals, with The Chest recently winning a prestigious Unreal Dev Grant.
Installing and setting up iClone Unreal Live Link takes only a few minutes. As a visual storyteller, I highly recommend that you try it. No matter whether you are an indie artist or an industry professional, the plugin makes your life easier, handling technical tasks automatically and leaving you free to focus on the narrative. From that point on, the only limit is your imagination.