I guess a lot of people would like to make their own movies. By that I mean to go beyond editing together movie clips taken while on holiday, to making movies which tell a story. In most cases professional players are expensive and most friends do not make good actors. This is why making a 3D animation movie is a satisfying low cost alternative.
I remember a holiday movie my father made in the 1950s. It had an animated title filmed, like the rest of the movie on 8mm celluloid film. When I asked him about it, he told me he had put his camera in a clamp pointing at the floor. He then created the first letter of the title using a piece of string and filmed it for a couple of seconds, then he created the second letter and so on. It was several days later, when the film came back from the developing laboratory that he discovered that his desk lamp had not really been adequate to illuminate his work properly.
Then along came computers. It took a while before computers got good at graphics, even stationary ones. But of course they did ever get good, not only at rendering still scenes, but also animations. Unfortunately Hollywood studios being able to afford high powered hardware and software did not make it accessible to the amateur movie maker.
The high price of professional 3D animation software led to the concept of Machinima. In Machinima inexpensive computer games are used to record 3D animated movie clips. Some computer games have a camera or record function built into them, and for others which do not, there are additional utilities such as Fraps, which can be used for recording the game action.
Popular Machinima games include Quake, Unreal Tournament and SIMS 2. These games come with the ability to design your own sets and characters, either as part of the main game itself or using utilities, which are provided with the game. Admittedly getting exactly the movie clips you want from these games can be challenging. I never did find out how to part characters in Unreal Tournament or Quake from their guns, which meant unless you wanted to make a shoot 'em up movie, they were not ideal. No doubt obstacles like this could have been overcome, but it seemed you could not get very far unless you were prepared to get immersed in scripting language.
Of the three games I have mentioned, SIMS 2, is probably the easiest to use for making Machinima, except that the characters, or in our case actors, tend to have minds of their own. So your movie star may wander off part way through filming, or someone else you do not recognize, may suddenly turn up and disrupt the scene you are shooting. With SIMS 2 you might even find your movie set spontaneously combusting during filming if you forgot to buy fire insurance. Sometimes this is like movie making in real life, but I would prefer not to have to put up with all of these uncertainties.
So you may wonder why no one has produced a budget software product, specifically for the purpose of making 3D animations at home. In fact Microsoft did exactly that in the mid 1990s with a product called 3D Movie Maker, which they targeted at the kids market. However the product was designed for early PCs, so it was pretty basic, on most home PCs it was slow, and it was soon discontinued.
Recently there has been recognition of this unfulfilled need. Reallusion in particular, has developed a 3D animation movie maker called iClone . This software is pretty much a dream come true for anyone who wants to tell a story using 3D animation. In its basic form it costs about the same as a new top end computer game, while the more advanced and more useful Pro version is still very reasonable.
Although you could make a whole movie in iClone, I find it is best to use it to create a series of 3D animation clips and to then edit them together using Microsoft Movie Maker, which comes as part of Windows, or using a more advanced home movie editing suite such as Pinnacle Studio.
Other key points to note about iClone are that if you want to get up and running very quickly, there is a good library of actors, scenes and props, which you can purchase to add to the collection, which comes with the program itself. On the other hand if you are short of cash and prefer to build everything yourself and have plenty of time to spare, you can do that too using the tools included in the software.
One optional utility, which I recommend purchasing bundled with the iClone, is Reallusion's 3DXchange. This allows you to import content from other sources, including Google 3D Warehouse, which is a fantastic resource full of free models of buildings and other props, to enhance your 3D animations.
I find it amazing to think that with a budget of less than $ 1,000 I can now purchase a PC and the software required to make 3D animation movies, when twenty years ago I would have needed $ millions for less capacity facilities.