3D Animation Set Design
Updated: Mar 12, 2021
I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the process of set design. Coming off a fairly tedious and contentious relationship with clothing design in Character Creator, I was half expecting to have a similar reaction to working with other materials (i.e. rugs, couches) and building elements from scratch. But in reality, it was the complete opposite. I found myself working on the set design for hours every day, toiling away at small details, and really delving into the process. I even made a playlist to listen to while I chipped away at the set, which really helped the time fly by. You can listen to the playlist here: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/1xzld8JQfoYzjLXIwu8zXC?si=OYFdkhugQNO7Fgvi3f0HRw
So, looking back at my reference footage once again, I needed to create the photorealistic background of my video in 3D animation. I filmed the footage in my living room. In the frame, you can see my record console, speakers, and a **dying** plant that sit on a credenza, a teak DVD cabinet with some of my favorite box sets resting on top, my vinyl record storage unit, some framed records hung on the wall, part of my TV/TV stand, a little bit of my couch and the yellow chair that I am sitting on. And let me tell you, I had so much fun creating this frame of my footage that I went a little wild and decided to recreate my entire living room in iClone (but more on that later).
Expectation: Recreate this living room video frame. Reality: had so much fun I went overboard and creating the whole living room instead.
The process of set design in the iClone pipeline is done through iClone 7 proper (i.e. not Character Creator, 3DXchange, etc.) Before I began my venture into set animation, I watched a couple of really helpful tutorials.
I would recommend starting with this one from Real Illusion's official YouTube Channel "iClone 7 Basics Tutorial - Getting Started with Scene Creation" (00:19:33). This tutorial, though not focused on elements like furniture or material manipulation, is just a really basic to start to scene creation (i.e. how to move and scale elements, how to place elements on the axis) as well as some beginner tips on animation and atmosphere.
Another really helpful tutorial from Real Illusion is "From A to Z: Creating an iClone Scene" which demonstrates how to create new objects, how to manipulate pre-existing objects (i.e. assigning & customizing substance materials), and more on scaling, transforming, and placing objects in a space. Although I learned a lot from this tutorial, I have to admit I did not watch the entire video (01:18:48). I do consider myself a quick learner, so I think I was 20 minutes into this tutorial when I said "Ok, I've got the gist. Let's give it a go". Still, 10/10 would recommend for any beginner.
"From A to Z: Creating an iClone Scene"
Because this tutorial outlines how to save objects from a pre-existing set, I decided to first and foremost open up iClone's only living room scene and pick out some items to save as single objects. This included a couch, a rug, some kitchen chairs, a coffee table, a throw blanket, and a credenza-like cabinet. These were the first objects I brought into my iClone scene (a bare room with 4 walls). To be honest, I didn't know how this process would turn out. I was half dreading the moment I would realize I had to go buy more furniture/objects from the iClone marketplace to complete my vision. As per the tutorials, I started moving, scaling and rotating these objects around on my plane to try and emulate my living room setup. I would then adjust the colors as needed so they matched the color of my furniture.
Adjusting the color is really helpful, but in my opinion, the real game-changer is the substance material painter (outlined in the A-Z tutorial). Any object you choose (i.e. a couch, rug, table) can have its material layer manipulated with any pattern material image you upload from the web. For instance, if you save an image of a wooden floor, you can upload that "material" directly onto the object and it becomes wooden! The same thing goes for rug patterns, couch patterns etc. iClone also boasts its own library of substance materials like glass, window, metal, wood, or plastic that you can drag and drop right onto an object so it takes on that material appearance. It's an amazing tool that adds a realistic depth and texture to your scene and objects.
A few examples from the material library. You simply drag and drop onto your objects or furniture to give them whatever texture you wish.
So I was off to a good start, but I was still missing a lot of furniture. How the hell am I going to recreate a record console and my parents' old speakers from the 1970s?! iClone 7 doesn't have anything that even closely resembles those assets, nor can I find anything similar on the marketplace. I was too wrapped up in what I was doing to look at another tutorial (classic Jamie) but whilst wildly hunting through the interface, I found a folder simply titled "props". The "props" were basic 3D shapes - spheres, cubes, cones and capsules. On a whim, I decided to drag one into my scene and started to play around with scaling, rotating these basic shapes. That's when I figured out.... I can MAKE my own furniture using a combination of different shapes. This was an absolute game-changer. You can manipulate the height, width and depth of these basic shapes in order to mold your own pieces. And of course, the same material substance editor applies to these props - you can give them any texture, colour and sheen.
I started by making the record player speakers using a simple "cube" prop that I stretched out height-wise and shortened depth-wise. I then added a "teak" texture to them, lightened the colour slightly. In the "props" folder, there are also "planes" which are basically thin squares you can scale and layer ontop of an object (i.e. if you're making a picture frame and don't want the image to jut out like a cube). So, in this case, I added a semi-opaque plane on top of the speaker to make the "grill". And is it perfect? Absolutely not. But did I build it from scratch? Yes, and it was a great first step to what would entail hours more of custom building living room elements - from a TV stand to multiple cabinets, to a Nintendo Switch. I won't go through the process of explaining every single prop I built from scratch, however, the above basically explains the main ways in which you can build pretty much any piece of furniture you'd like.
When I figured out I could build a record player from scratch, things really took off
Here is what building a set piece in real-time looks like, including building, scaling, moving and texture/material editing:
One really fun aspect of using "planes" along with your 3D props is that you can upload custom images onto them to create the illusion of objects. I did this for my vinyl cabinet that houses about 100 records. Obviously, I didn't want to create every single record to then be placed in the cabinet so after I built a replica of my IKEA shelving unit using cubes, I uploaded an image of stacked records onto a "plane" and placed that into the containers to give the illusion of having records stacked. And it turned out pretty well.
Images ripped from web
Record cabinet in iClone vs. my actual record cabinet
Planes were also super helpful when building wall art (which I have a good amount of in my living room). I would build the frame out of a prop (i.e. a capsule cube) and then upload the image onto a plane.
One of the records you can see in the background of the reference footage.
All in all, I would say it took around 9-10 hours to build my living room in iClone. Again, this was going beyond my initial expectation of solely building the frame of my photorealistic reference footage, but I was on a roll. Here are some of the results:
Slide arrow to see comparisons
My perfectionism hates uploading these photos - but I can't be too hard on myself for a first attempt
I imported my character into this iClone set and tried to place her in the scene correctly. It took more than a few attempts, and the angle is still not EXACTLY right, but I can only do so much. With lighting and camera being tinkered with in Assignment 3, there will be more room to play around with this. I can't get too ahead of myself.
Comparison for now... there is still time to make tweaks and adjustments. Camera and lighting will be Assignment 3.
Next up is lipsync and gesture animation, arguably the most difficult aspect of this process. It's incredibly intimidating and I do not look forward to it, but it must be done. This venture into 3D animation and iClone has so far been very strange and it's only bound to get stranger.