Assembling a complete virtual film-making suite

Update, 2012: this was written at the start of me getting into real-time animation, and I might write it differently now!

I‘ve been asked to research and recommend a complete balanced suite of “virtual movie-making” software, that a school might need to buy to serve all aspects of the film-making process from start to finish. This isn’t about cameras, lenses and costumes — these movies are entirely computer-generated using videogame-like tools. The suite needs some self-assembly, but should cost less than $2,000 in total. The purpose here is a semester-long imaginative storytelling project using camera-less digital animation (rather than a quick ‘all must have prizes’ half-day session turning out cheesy pop videos), supported by a knowledgeable teacher (or two). The suite would be best used with an organised workflow which can be explained ‘at a glance’ using a clear wall-chart.

I’m assuming use of pen-and-paper storyboarding and scripting, rather than using ToonBoom Storyboard with one of the script-editing applications such as Final Draft. Prices are in dollars, because some items are not available in the UK — your school may have to order several items from the internet and from Amazon U.S.

Here’s the shopping list. Total cost, including the suggested add-ons and with something added for postage, is around: $1,900 (£1,200) all in.


$250. Reallusion‘s iClone as the main core of the suite.

iClone content is all royalty-free and available for commercial use. The same is true of iClone content sold at the Reallusion Official and Marketplace stores.


There are a great many content packs available, and although these are not strictly needed, they are nice to have if your budget can stretch to it. I’m assuming the teacher wants to steer the pupils away from depressing/violent contemporary “urban” settings (e.g.: tediously generic “zombies”, “gangsters”, “car-chase” city settings, etc) which boys in particular may default to, and toward something more fantastic and imaginative. iClone can offer all sorts of content, with a great deal to offer in sci-fi and fantasy.


Free with iClone Pro. iClone 3DXchange (included with iClone Pro) which gives free access to the Google 3D Warehouse and the ability to convert anything it finds there. Not all 3D Warehouse models will be suitable for iClone — models need to have low levels of complexity (“low poly” or “low face” — you can use free applications such as MeshLab to make large models into low-poly versions).


$0. Adobe Photoshop Elements or similar, and a good digital camera. I assume the school will already have these items. Note that huge hi-res backgrounds will seriously slow down iClone, so the stage backdrops only need to be fairly small (i.e.: about 1024 pixels on the longest side is ideal) JPG images.

Background props don’t always need to be 3D. They can be 2D pictures with a transparency channel (aka an “alpha channel”) to indicate to iClone where the transparent parts of the picture should be. These can be pinned to a 2D “billboard” prop in iClone, and so to the eye they will appear to be 3D objects. High-quality commercial but royalty-free packages of pictures with pre-cut alpha channels are: Hemera PhotoObjects 50,000 and Marlin Studios’ Trees and Foliage.


$300. Drag-and-drop character animations. The MegaMotions BHV animation library + the BHV Motion Converter 4 (included in iClone Pro) to get the MegaMotions animation scripts into iClone’s library. However, there are also many free motion sets online — including the Carnegie-Mellon set converted for iClone — so you may not necessarily need the MegaMotions pack.


$200. The Morph Vox Pro voice-changing software and its free libraries + a Samson USB microphone (this is the only item of hardware needed, other than a good Windows 7 PC with a good NVIDIA gaming graphics-card). Morph Vox allows royalty-free use of its “changed voice” output in audio-visual projects. It takes a bit of mastering, but there are free preset packs available.

CrazyTalk is not strictly needed if you have iClone 4 Pro, unless you want to edit facial motion at a keyframe level, but it can make a useful addition to enable fun contributions by less able children.


$40. Atmosphere Deluxe 7.0. Allows use of its excellent authentic natural sound-mixes in audio-visual projects. It’s sold online rather as a ‘therapy aid’, but it quickly and easily generates a wide range of unique royalty-free environmental soundtracks. It exports to MP3 audio files.

Click on the picture for larger screenshot.


$0. See the Samson USB microphone above. You should be able to have great fun, either i) making inventive studio sounds, or ii) plugging it into a laptop and taking it out for field recordings. Don’t forget that before use, the microphone’s audio level will need to be boosted to 80% using Windows 7’s Control Panel: Hardware and Sound / Sound / Recording / Microphone / Properties / Volume / and boost to 80 percent.

You may want two Samson USB microphones, to keep one in reserve if the first is likely to be stolen or damaged mid-project — this is especially true if students will be using it with a laptop for field recordings.

Simple top and tailing of recorded audio can be done with the free open source Audacity audio editor.

If you’re in education in the UK, you might be able to get a free copy of the second edition of the BBC Sound Effects library. Worth asking them.


$200. Less complicated than some software the MIDI fiend in your Music Technology Dept. might suggest (e.g.: Band-in-a-Box Pro 2009), and arguably much more professional-sounding, is the SmartSound Film Score series by Richard Band (6 volumes). These are part of a royalty-free music library — the music is exactly adjustable to your scenes through being directly integrated into the Adobe Premiere Elements video-editing application via a free plugin (SmartSoundForPremiere.exe – which comes with ten free sample tracks). Very cleverly, the music can also be subtly adjusted for uniqueness, and to maintain the exact mood you want. It’s incredibly simple to use, once you find where it’s located in Premiere…

Where to find the SmartSound plugin in Premiere Elements 4.0 (Go: Media / Project / right-click on the starred page icon / and scroll down at the bottom-item in the menu). Click on the picture for a larger version.

There is also a big-brother standalone version of SmartSound called SonicFire Pro Scoring.

Or you could use your school’s orchestra or a reliable school rock band, if you have one. Or out-of-copyright music from before the 1950s could be used — old 78rpm’s, 1920s ‘tiddly-wink’ or 1930s ‘big band’ music might be considered as vocals-free soundtracks suited to a 20-minute humorous animation, for instance.


$70. Adobe Premiere Elements 7.0 (although any version from 4.0 onwards will be perfectly adequate and probably cheaper from eBay).

And don’t forget to set a talented student to be “the iClone lighting and titles artist” — getting consistent and imaginative lighting in iClone will hugely improve the final film. Never accept iClone’s default lighting of a scene, and make sure professional-looking fonts are chosen for titles and credits. See this YouTube gallery for eight examples of excellence in iClone lighting.

You will also need someone to be in charge of making regular daily backups of files, and general traffic-control and logging of content as it comes in. That role will probably go to the teacher.



2 comments on “Assembling a complete virtual film-making suite

  1. Thanks for this list. I’m thinking about making 3d animated films at home, and this looks like a good assortment of software to consider.

  2. If you’re looking for a more toony look, you might try Muvizu (free) or CrazyTalk Animator ($50).

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