Issue: Volume 34 Issue 4: (April 2011)

Ice-Capade

By: Karen Moltenbrey
Superheroes are cool. But now they are cooler than ever.
 
That’s because comic-book marvel Stan Lee—creator of such legendary heroes as Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, The Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Thor, and more—is introducing brand-new characters belonging to the league (and to the National Hockey League). But instead of acquiring their superhuman characteristics from spiders, DNA experiments, cosmic rays, technological innovation, or a Norse god, these new legends derive their powers from the NHL franchise each was conceived to represent. Their mission: to watch over their respective teams, fans, and stadiums. In other words, to be guardians of the ice.

The concept was the brainchild of Guardian Media Entertainment (GME). A joint venture between the NHL and Stan Lee’s SLG Entertainment, GME launched this unique NHL-themed superhero franchise, known as The Guardian Project.

So, what exactly is The Guardian Project? It may be easier to explain what it isn’t. It’s not a game. Nor is it a comic-book series. And, it’s not a movie. At least, not at this moment. And it definitely is not a replacement for the team mascots. Rather, it’s more of an idea. At least that’s what it was until the crew at motion-capture facility Vicon House of Moves (HOM) got involved. Working with GME, they helped bring the concept to computer-generated life.



Legends of the Ice

The Guardians comprise a collection of 30 superheroes. The backstory centers on Mike Mason, a boy who has the ability to transform his imaginary friends into 30 superheroes, organically themed after each NHL team. With Mason at the helm, the Guardians fight dark forces to keep their respective cities and arenas safe.

The other goal of these superheroes is to excite the current base of NHL fans and to attract a new generation of youngsters and tweens to the world of hockey by rolling out subsequent stories involving the Guardian characters. To this end, GME’s hope was that the characters become familiar faces in the world of professional hockey by appearing in broadcasts and animated sequences at home arenas throughout the season. In addition to having the heroes appear on JumboTrons at home games, GME is eyeing other outlets for the characters, including movies, comic books, television, and Web-based games. Global media domination, in other words.

The characters assume the elements and traits of their respective hockey franchise (for instance, the Calgary Flames’ Guardian has the power to control fire; the Boston Bruins’ Guardian fights evil with his sonic roar). However, the story lines in “The Guardian Project”—whatever the medium—are not about hockey. They’re all about superhero action.

It was up to HOM—a motion-capture and animation studio with extensive experience in the film, games, and television markets—to make that action happen. “We got involved early on, when Guardian Media Entertainment had this property and branding idea, but it was only an idea at the time,” says Brian Rausch, vice president of production at HOM.

As Rausch explains, most of the time HOM’s clients are very specific about what they want from the facility—25 minutes of cinematic animation for a game or 35 minutes of mocap for a film, for instance. “Usually they say, ‘Here’s the script, the storyboards, let’s run off and shoot it, and you do the animation,’” he notes. For this project, though, GME provided character comic-book-style sketches and loose direction: They had a concept for a brand and wanted to extend it, and the possibilities were wide open.  

“Vicon House of Moves was a true partner from the get-go, working with us on the 3D build-out of the characters, designing the characters’ signature moves, developing story concepts, creating storyboards, doing the live-action shoot, completing motion capture along with managing all the animation, voice-overs, and final edit and delivery,” says Adam Baratta, chief creative officer of GME. “Bringing 30 different characters to life—each of which is tied to a highly revered NHL team—is no small task.”

Open Ice

The initial game plan was for HOM to flesh out the character sketches and turn them into animated CG models. “They said, ‘We want shorts. We want Web games. We want films. We want all this stuff,’ ” says Rausch of GME’s initial direction. “They had a concept that needed to be branded. We were to give it an identity.”

The first implementation would be for interstitials that played at the NHL arenas; where they would be shown (JumboTrons, along the walls surrounding the ice, and so forth) would be controlled by the local arena operators. “Basically, they had screens to fill with content,” Rausch says. “So that set us down a path that led to doing [the content] in a building-block style, which would enable us to be agile.”

As Rausch explains, the group would create short animations—walk cycles, idle motions, punch animations, flight animations. So, for example, if an operator wants to show the team’s Guardian protecting the goal after a save, he or she can show a short animation of the character slapping the puck away. Those animations then can be looped and strung together easily by the operator to generate longer sequences as needed.

Creating animations for a broad spectrum of uses was just one challenge for HOM. Another: developing interesting and equally compelling Guardians—30 in all—that would hold up on screen and have their own fiction, starting with the tech breakdowns and progressing through 3D design, modeling, and animation, to story. “They all have different styles that required different approaches [to the animation],” says Rausch. “There are some human characters that hold up well with straight mocap and a little tuning polish over top. For others with back-bending knees, though, we mocapped the upper half of their bodies and keyframed the lower part to get that [unique] movement.” Then there are others, like the Maple Leaf Guardian—which has these tree-trunk legs with roots that have to be pulled and lifted before he moves—that fall into a category all their own.

The third challenge that HOM faced dealt with the resolution, as each arena has a different resolution requirement, as do the various screens to which the operator would be porting the imagery. “So going down a regular render pipe was not an option for us,” says Rausch. “If we had to modify assets and re-render assets through a normal type of prerender pipeline, the required time and budget would have gone through the roof.” Alternatively, the group decided to use Epic Games’ Unreal game engine for rendering—a big step in a very unusual direction for HOM, Rausch admits.

Under typical circumstances and as they have done for years, the crew would have chosen a non-real-time renderer. And while the crew did not use the real-time capability of Unreal due to the heaviness of the scenes, the engine was able to handle the character passes very quickly. “We didn’t need it to handle 30 or 60 frames per second, like most people who use it do. We just needed it to be faster than other pre-render engines,” says Rausch. “Because it was so fast, we could render at whatever resolution we wanted, and then adjust our cameras and re-render the pass with a different size plate.”




Freezing the Puck

With this “agile” production pipeline in place, HOM began a breakaway, making speedy progress on the project. Then, the crew hit soft ice. “GME said, ‘Everything you’re working on, we need you to push off. We now need a two-minute piece for the All-Star Game in January,’” recalls Rausch.

That two-minute piece—a coming out of sorts for the Guardians—turned into 3.5 minutes of animation in a short that included all 30 characters as well as a villain. “We had to design it, comp it, animate it, light it, add effects, and so on,” says Rausch. “It was an aggressive production.”

Rausch credits the group’s earlier decision to incorporate the nonlinear building-block approach with HOM’s ability to change directions so quickly. “When the opportunity [for the All-Star Game] presented itself to the client, we were able to move forward quickly and aggressively,” he says. “[The All-Star Game project] was something the client didn’t want to pass up.”

During the NHL All-Star Game in Raleigh, North Carolina, the short played in the stadium, on both the Versus and CBC Networks, and online. The film introduced the new
superheroes as they joined forces to battle villain Deven Dark as he tried to take over the RBC Center—that is, until the Carolina Hurricane saves the day in an ultimate power play.

In order to ready the short, HOM had to temporarily stop the original work mid-ice. Assets for only two Guardians—the Philadelphia Flyer and the LA King—were in use at that point, so HOM drafted partners to help create the remaining assets that would be needed. Subsequently, most of the All-Star presentation used 3D character models crafted by Massive Black.

Men in Motion

The CG assets were built using Autodesk’s Maya and Pixologic’s ZBrush, while Auto­desk’s MotionBuilder was used to retarget the motion. The motion capture for the All-Star presentation was done over a nine-day period, achieved using 80 Vicon T160 cameras set up within a 70x40-foot capture volume. In all, it took the crew a little over two and a half months to complete the work for the short, while work on the initial rollout continued following the delay.

In all, HOM will have completed 250 different deliverables for The Guardian Project. The initial mocap sessions entailed capturing the characters’ power moves based on their particular strengths. The subsequent animations, which are more discreet moves, were for 30-second one-offs needed to introduce each character into its own city—for instance, the Philadelphia Flyer as he glides around City Hall and zooms off to the Wells Fargo Center. This work honed in on the individual characters, such as intricate wing movements, as these Guardians fight crime in their own city.

“Our work evolved from straight-forward, easy, one-off moves, to trying to tell a story with more complex combinations of moves in the longer, open piece,” says HOM’s Peter Krygowski, who directed the project.

According to Krygowski, when the All-Star work was requested, he began to build a story around the individual power moves he had already mocapped, “and that covered about 60 percent of what I needed,” he says. “The story line [of the heroes getting sucked into the building], though, demanded that we create some unique animations and blend stuff we had already shot. That’s not easy to do, because gravity works against you. So if we didn’t have the mocap data, we used the base of the data and converted it into hand-keyed movement.” In some instances, the animation was 100 percent hand-keyed in Maya and then fed into the Unreal Engine.

Some of the characters in the short even have facial animation, which was done using blendshapes. Work is still progressing on this front; the team is also refining all the character rigs to make them more robust and better tuned for the Unreal pipeline. As Krygowski points out, the characters initially were designed and rigged to exist by themselves in their own worlds. But when that changed for the short, the rigs had to be temporarily tweaked so the Guardians could co-exist in the same screen.

The environments for The Guardian Project, meanwhile, were all created in-house at HOM. For the All-Star Game, though, the crew decided to incorporate a live-action plate due to the time limitation. The group got an assist using Google Earth, which the artists used as reference for placing lights and so forth into their scene, giving them exact coordinates so they could match the real-world lighting exactly. “It was a synthesis of modern technology that made it very easy and helped the Unreal guys. So when we brought a character into [the Unreal environment], we had a nice lighting setup that mimicked the real world,” says Krygowski.

The live-action setting was augmented with CG depth passes, fog, and other atmospherics. In addition to the CG characters, the RBC Center was also created in 3D, as it opens up and transforms into a monster. In contrast, for the original project, the group is building all the environments in CG, making sure that each contains one iconic element from each locale, in addition to the respective arena.

Alas, just 48 hours before HOM shipped the All-Star project, the group had to add six shots, including a new ending to the film, when some of the external resources didn’t quite blend with the rest of the show. “We had to design [those shots], comp them, animate them, light them, and add effects really quickly,” says Rausch. And this is where the game engine earned MVP honors, enabling the crew to work at an unprecedented pace.




Just a Game

Faced with the daunting task of modeling and animating 30 main characters in a short period of time for the initial project, it was Krygowski who came up with the solution of using a game engine to render the assets. “We were in an office trying to figure out how to get all this done in a timely fashion, and having come from the game world, I blurted out, ‘I wish we could use a game engine,’ and that’s how the idea was born,” he recalls.

The HOM crew quickly settled on Unreal because the development kit was free, enabling the group to test it. Once they were convinced it would work, they contacted Epic, which agreed to work with HOM on licensing it for this nontraditional usage. “One of our tech gurus quickly picked it up, and his enthusiasm and ability to see down the road in terms of what we could do with it assured us that we were on the right track,” recalls Krygowski.

Krygowski believes that The Guardian Project short, which was done in about two and a half months, would have easily taken six months if HOM hadn’t made the choices it did, including using the game engine.

“Game engines give you the ability to light and render scenes interactively in real time, even when you’re dealing with multiple characters,” says Krygowski. “With the game engine, you reduce the time that it takes to make crucial creative decisions because you have the ability to previsualize fully rendered scenes.” As a result, the group chose to use Unreal not only for its reduced render times, but also for the dynamic options it offers for environmental controls and effects.

To accommodate this new approach, the team wrote several pieces of code to generate custom shaders and bring virtual cameras into and out of the Unreal Engine. This enabled the crew to render character passes in roughly 32 seconds per frame, including the motion blur pass, thus negating the need for a multi-CPU renderfarm. The entire project was rendered on two dual-processor, eight-core machines.

While the crew has used game engines before, those instances were to test animations in a client’s engine; this was the first time the group used one to render imagery for post-process output. While there were a few dis­advantages—for instance, advanced deformers cannot be used on the character rigs—it was a small price to pay considering the advantages gained.

And, according to Rausch, The Guardian Project will certainly not be the last project for which a real-time engine is used. “We have been talking to two other clients about using real time. It is a pipeline that has legs, for sure,” he says. In fact, HOM aims to tie the Unreal Engine to the Vicon motion-capture system so clients will be able to see their recorded mocap performances integrated into game levels rendered in the game engine in real time.

“On a project like this, you have to think down the road of potentially extrapolating characters and environments into game assets and a television series, and flowing the CG creative elements between mediums. By building scenes in a game engine out of the gate, our options are much broader—the need to down-res films from broadcast to game output, for example, will be mitigated, Rausch explains.

And while Krygowski remained confident in this new technique, he and the others were nonetheless impressed with the results. “I’ve worked in the game world for a long time and was impressed at our ability to ramp up and get the project to the screen in the time that we had,” he says. “Using a game engine purely for a broadcast application is a new ripple in what game engines are being used for across a wide breadth of media.”

The Guardian Project animated short kicked off one of hockey’s biggest events, making its debut at center ice. In addition to the film, HOM designed a virtual interactive experience for The Guardian Project booth at the NHL Fan Fair, held at the Raleigh convention center during the start of the all-star weekend. The experience allowed fans to don virtual-reality goggles and immerse themselves into a CG environment in which they get up close and personal with some of the newly introduced super­heroes as they perform their signature moves.

Thus, a legend is born….

Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor of Computer Graphics World.
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