Animation Technology of the Future- Unreal Engine

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Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic

Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke’s famous quote often rings in my ears as our team at Studio Giggle continuously integrate the most advanced technology to create wonderful works of narrative film and animation. On a daily basis, I’m amazed by what creative people around the world produce using technology. However, last week I saw something that took my breath away which I’d like to share with you.

On first look, it was just another release of some software that we use. But as I watched it confirmed and solidified my belief that we should continue to change our entire workflow. More of that later…

For years we have been working on applications like Maya, After Effects, Cinema 4D, Studio 3D Max etc. These applications have been designed and built with the making of 3D content in mind: Linear pieces of work that we make day-in-day-out at Studio Giggle. They are still extremely powerful and relevant but we are often frustrated by the render times. The process of designing something, creating the characters and environments, storyboarding, animating, rendering and then checking, reanimating and re-rendering is very time-consuming. That said, these softwares are used to create everything from 2D explainer videos to multi-million dollar Hollywood movies. We’ve even used for projection mapping onto buildings and designing sets for world tours. The main thing with all of them is that you set up the scene, mix it all together and render it out.

But games have always been done it differently. The world of games is driven on being ‘in the moment’: As the user touches the controls of their console the character reacts in real-time. The environments build and build around them constantly and smoothly. The quality of graphics has always been behind the rendered environment of the film world. One example of this is the characters in Grand Theft Auto: they have been animated to do a basic walk cycle, instead of anything advanced. That said, in the last 10 years or so, things have developed and developed so that characters and their environments become more and more lifelike. In 2017 Epic Games, released the extraordinary Fortnite. The quality of animation was significantly more impressive than anything that had been seen before, so much so that kids were doing dances inspired and based on the much more advanced character animation.

How was this new rich world made with these amazing characters? Epic Games had developed this game on their own software, Unreal Engine, which they have been quietly developing since its release in 1998. Unreal has been used in hundreds and hundreds of games since they developed it. But 5 years ago one thing changed which put this powerful software into the hands of the many: they decided to release the software for free in return for a 5% royalty on all the games that were made on it. This exploded the developer market, suddenly smaller developers could have access to one of the leading game engines for free.

 

It’s not just games that have been using the software. Unreal Engine has been in development for 20 and in that time computers and graphic cards have got much faster. As a result, the gap between real-time rendered game animation, pre-rendered Hollywood animation and CGI has been getting much smaller. One example of this is ‘The Mandalorian’ which is a complete mix of Unreal Engine real-time rendered environments. The Mandalorian was created using Unreal to animate in real-time and the background environments to mix live-action with game graphics. The actors are on set with the ‘game’ content on huge high resolution LED screens behind them. This enables the actors to react in real-time with their environment. When we saw this we immediately downloaded the software to try out alongside what we were doing with Notch, Touch Designer and Disguise. We’ve recently been exploring this software to use in our real-time XR studio that we have built to help our customers get their events off the ground in a ‘virtual’ way.

The LED set-up used to create The Mandalorian on Disney+. Image Courtesy of Slash Films

The pioneering director, Jon Favreau (The Lion King 2019 and Jungle Book 2017) started using a similar game engine: Unity. Unity has been used to power the Pokemon Go game and to create The Lion King (2019). Favreau was able to take the world of game cinematography and live real-time environments into Unity. This meant that Favreau could view everything in a virtual world. He was even able to use headsets to direct virtual cameras in a fully live generated 3D environment.

All of this is very interesting Jon, but what of this demo that you mentioned? Last week Unreal posted a sneak preview of what is coming in Unreal Engine 5. Well, it’s the sea change we have all been waiting for. The software that will potentially bring the imaginary worlds of Tron and Ready Player One to life. The power of the software and the latest gaming consoles will herald a new era for gaming and film production. 

I predict we will be creating all sorts of new hybrid genres. Real-life actors will be interacting with XR studio environments, moving freely around animated environments. The blurring between reality and CGI will be indistinguishable from magic.

If you would like to talk more about Unreal Engines, Notch, Touch Designer or any of the software mentioned above then please get in contact with Jon by calling 07711131116 or email Jon@studiogiggle.co.uk

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