Backdrops were a boon to early theatre starting with static painted backdrops and then moving onto the rolling backdrops for early movies that simulated movement, generally while driving, that allowed the automobile or plane cockpit and actors to remain stationary while performing or filming.
Backdrops are certainly nothing new, having been used in film and television since its early years. The usage was very prevalent in the United States black and white TV era with police serials and early superhero TV shows. It’s been a running gag since its inception with outtakes of actors exiting “moving cars” on a soundstage setup.
This technique, though ancient in terms of visual effects, is still used in modern production. The old-school backdrops are giving way to digital work environments that can project any world, stationery or animated into the background of a production. The Mandalorian is a prime example of using digital background screens on stage as the modern equivalent of the painted theatrical backdrop or green screening (chroma keying).
BACKDROPS IN iCLONE
Backdrops are also possible in iClone. We just don’t use that terminology. With proper camera positioning and lighting, we can use a video backdrop in iClone either as the workspace background or on a plane (a genuine backdrop in this case) for more control over the look of the video. These shots are generally limited in time, usually one minute to as short as fifteen seconds. Generally used as filler or transitional shots.
The main point of using this type of backdrop in a digital workspace like iClone is to convey a more complex scene than is actually being animated. This saves on computing resources while combining to make the scene much more cinematic. Video games have long used static backgrounds to push the scene past the 3D assets used in the foreground.
We can create a landscape, city, or other scene in iClone just for the background. Video and images rendered from that scene can be used as the backdrop for a master scene with props up close to the camera. Adding in the element of a moving, animated background can make a scene seem much more in-depth and alive.
In this first instance, the rolling backdrop was made in Unreal Engine, but you can make them iClone too, it just depends on what fits your needs or your tools.
A large-scale landscape was set up in Unreal Engine. I then used a cinematic camera running parallel to the hills and mesa in the background. Scene lighting was also done in Unreal as well as atmospheric composition (fog, clouds, etc.). This was rendered as a video and then used as the background in the iClone project.
This iClone project itself couldn’t be any simpler. This is beginner-level animation. The only thing moving will be the steering wheel and the actor. The steering wheel will drive the arms via Reach Target dummies.
CREATING THE SCENE
In this case, we can set up the scene in iClone and then drag and drop the video onto the background, particularly if the video slows your computer down during playback. If your computer can handle the video then drag and drop it onto the workspace background at any time.
From here we will need at least one character for the driver and some type of automobile. Preferably with moving wheels that can be animated if you want to show them in the camera shot. This shot is a great example of how simple or how complicated you want iClone to be. A closeup camera angle will eliminate the need for animating the wheels or you can pull the camera back to show more of the vehicle.
STEP 1: Link the driver to the vehicle in a sitting position with legs extending out but not through the vehicle body in case you want to do a wider shot.
STEP 2: Use Reach Target Dummies to position the hands on the steering wheel.
STEP 3: Animate the steering wheel by moving down the timeline and stopping at different intervals while slightly rotating the steering wheel back and forth to simulate driving. This creates keyframes in the timeline. After you do a few of these keyframes you can then copy those frames and paste them repeated down the timeline at varying intervals.
Just as we did with the steering wheel, with the vehicle selected you can move up and down the timeline at varying intervals moving the vehicle up and down to simulate a rough ride. I have exaggerated the movement somewhat so you might want to be more subtle with your movements. We want a rough ride, not a rollercoaster.
It helps to blend the sharpness of iClone with the different look from the background video. The simplest way is as old school as it gets and still works… a colored image overlay like brown, blue or whatever matches the scene, setting the image to low opacity.
This is the epitome of quick and dirty, but it used to be a major method of toning down contrasts between assets, like a dull background and a bright foreground before digital color matching became a thing. If you don’t happen to have color-matching software or something like After Effects or Hitfilm you can use this method. It helps to knock down the contrast between differing elements such as the video backdrop and the foreground objects since an image layer is first in the composition.
A short, animated GIF demonstration of the final output using this simple backdrop method:
CREATING BACKDROP IN iCLONE
As I mentioned earlier you can also create rolling backgrounds in iClone to be used in the same backdrop method as above. Layout a landscape scene and use a dummy and camera combo or just a camera to roll along the landscape from left to right or right to left. In the early days of iClone 7, I created a tutorial that showed just how to create such a rolling background with a dummy and a camera. It still works in iClone 8 and provides a more thorough step-by-step guide.
Why use the dummy when I could just animate a camera? For me it’s habit and it gives me a much larger visual reference for the camera movement when I am looking at the scene from a long distance during set up.
I also mentioned another method, using a plane instead of the workspace background. This achieves the same result but gives a little more control over placement of the backdrop in relation to foreground props.
Right Click, note that is RIGHT-CLICK not left-click the video when dragging and dropping to get this menu:
This right click method can also be used for images as well as videos. After this just resize and position the plane to your needs.
This gives us control over opacity, self-illumination and diffuse color that otherwise would not be available if we used it as the workspace background.
While these are all beginner-level techniques, they still go a long way to getting the job done in the right circumstances. Using backdrops adds more eye candy without bringing your computer to a standstill or slugging along making edits difficult. It makes the scene more complex and interesting to the viewer when used properly. Lighting and blending go a long ways toward making various 3D elements blend together in a more seamless manner.
I hope this helps!
USING IMAGES TUTORIAL
There is another iClone 7 tutorial that still holds true today about using images, image layers, and image planes in general with iClone to produce a more robust filler scene with little overhead. It’s worth a look if you aren’t familiar with the technique and the video also has other helpful tips that you can use on other projects. I will be adding more up-to-date tutorials for future articles but for now, this will explain the concept of images in a more detailed manner.