Creating an animated short film in less than three months with a very small team while under enforced work-from-home rules is no mean feat. But that’s exactly what one Cornish studio has achieved. Adapted from a wordless children’s book, Wylder by Maia Walczak, the film is rendered entirely as final pixels in Unreal Engine.
Engine House’s story
It’s all the dog’s fault. If Mike Richter hadn’t needed to look after his new Hungarian Vizsla puppy Hendrix, aka Smoo, he might still be doing architectural visualization for someone else. As it was, back in 2008 when Zoom was something you did with your camera lens, working from home meant starting his own business.
It also meant taking on whatever work came his way, turning Mike into what he calls an “über-generalist” and his fledgling company, which he called Engine House, into a full-service studio offering 2D and 3D animation, VFX, immersive experiences, and marketing content.
Mike had just moved to the beautiful coastal county of Cornwall in the far southwest of England, a place that was also tugging on the heartstrings of his future cohort Jason Robbins. Back then, Jason was heading up a satellite studio in Chicago for a London-based advertising agency. After two years, he returned to the UK and worked in London as a freelancer on various animated children’s series, but Cornwall, where he grew up, was calling.
Looking for like-minded people in the industry, Jason got in touch with Mike, and the pair realized they shared the same desire to do good work while maintaining a strong work-life balance by striving for efficiency over logging late nights. Jason threw in his lot with Mike and became co-owner of Engine House in 2013.
Not long afterwards, they were joined by Natasha (Tash) Price. Also someone with a Cornish background―she moved there when she was 12―Tash was just finishing her degree in Film Production in London when she heard that Engine House was looking for someone to help grow the studio. She jumped at the chance to start a relevant career in the county she called home, and quickly became the third full-time member of the team.
Over the next five years, the threesome—with the assistance of a talented pool of freelancers—worked on a diverse range of projects that, along with a wide variety of advertising, included animated cutscenes for Assassin's Creed Chronicles China and India, an immersive 360° video created with the help of astrophysicists from Exeter University, and their own short animated film, The Ship, directed by Tash as part of the Channel 4 Random Acts Project.
Enter Unreal Engine
The team had been keeping an eye on Unreal Engine for a while, having been impressed with the quality of the real-time rendering in Rebirth, the short film showcasing the Quixel Megascans library that is now included with the engine. The team immediately watched a tutorial series that broke down how the shots were achieved, and decided that the future lay in this technology.
Then came the pandemic. In the quiet months of the first lockdown after they returned from furlough, the Engine House team decided to invest their spare time in learning Unreal Engine by creating a trailer for an internal project.
“There was a lot of confusion early on, and our brains often cried out for the comfort of more familiar 3D software, but we persevered and it just became really fun to use,” says Jason.
Having spent some time getting familiar with the software, the team was ready to create a short film, their first since The Ship five years earlier. But this time, they’d be doing it in Unreal Engine. Mike had been “reading” Wylder with his children, and was drawn to the beautiful illustrative style and interesting concept. It’s a simple, yet incredibly powerful tale of a boy and his dad discovering the great outdoors. The rest of the team agreed that it was a great story that they’d love to tell.
After getting permission from the author to transform the book into a short film, the team gave themselves an ambitious three months to complete the project, which was self-financed. To document the experience, Tash, who often acts as production coordinator / producer in addition to contributing to the story, kept a public production diary.
Bringing Wylder to life
The team was fortunate enough to be able to get their hands on the original illustrations, which they scanned and made into an animatic in Premiere to get an idea of how the story would play out, how the transitions between scenes would work, and how the pacing felt.
Next came some look-dev tests in Unreal Engine. Mike modeled some of the key elements in 3ds Max, Mudbox, and ZBrush, and also experimented with using VR paint tool Tilt Brush to give a more illustrative feel to organic elements like trees and grass.
The team textured these key assets in the engine, using the actual illustrations from the book for the textures, before lighting the scene. “Each light adds a new sense of depth and texture and brings out elements from the fore and background,” says Mike. “In this way, we are able to add gradients, variation, areas of brighter volumetric light and color, which is more like painting a picture with lights, in order to get a storybook feel.”
Then came the 3D blockout. Jason began by exporting the initial Premiere animatic to Unreal Engine to create the sequence structure. He was able to keep a semi-live connection between Premiere and Unreal Engine, so that if a shot was cut out in Premiere, it would automatically update in Unreal Engine. If edits were made in Unreal Engine, the EDL could be exported back to Premiere to update the edit there.
Next, he blocked out the main action against the animatic using 3D primitives to represent the characters, props, and environments. This enabled him to set up the camera angles, which would go through to the final action, and to figure out the scale for the world.
As the actual assets were completed, mainly by Mike, they replaced the previs elements piece by piece. For the environments, he created a main 3D scene, along with flat background elements to provide the illusion of depth.
Meanwhile, the team continued working on look development, experimenting with a free post-process material that simulates pencil-hatching. One challenge they encountered with this 2D effect was that on moving characters, the surfaces appeared to slide beneath the hatching, which was distracting. Randomizing the position of the hatching on every frame to counter this was also distracting, so in the end they went with moving the hatching position on the characters on every second frame.
“This is all part of the continuing look development process, which we find Unreal really excels at,” says Tash. “Creating in real time not only allows us to be more efficient, but that in itself makes for more hands-on creativity.”
Completing the characters
With the main character modeling completed—the boy and his dad, a deer, and a family of boars—it was time to put the finishing touches to hair, fur, and clothing. Grooms were created in the Ornatrix plugin for Maya by freelancer Andrew Krivulya, author of a large number of tutorials, including many on creating hair for Unreal Engine, and then fed into Unreal Engine’s strand-based hair and fur system. The team then performed some tests, including an amusing one inspired by Wayne’s World. To keep the illustrative quality for the deer, the strands were made unusually thick to look like pencil strokes.
“The hair is key for these characters—their actual features are so small that much of their performance will come from the way the eyebrows and the dad’s beard move,” says Tash. “Both the main characters need to be extremely sympathetic, warm, and emotive. We are including subtle details—the texture on their jumper, the handful of silver hairs in Dad’s beard to really bring them to life. How do we know how nice the Dad is if we don’t see him in a fluffy jumper?”
Next, Jason rigged and animated the characters in Maya. For the tiny eyes on the dad and his son, he modeled 3D versions of the 2D shapes found in the book to use as blend shapes. The mouths were rigged with bones.
Final pixels from Unreal Engine
It was finally time to put the whole thing together, bringing animation into the environments, adding final cameras, color grading, and post effects—all in Unreal Engine. “This is the fine-tuning stage, the last chance to polish it and add the last 10% of quality,” says Tash.
After some deliberation, the team chose to render at 12 fps rather than 24 fps to give the piece the feel of a more traditional animation, and then it was time to output the final pixels, with no other software required, other than for credits and fades. “The image sequence was rendered out of UE4 and was simply turned straight into an mp4 from there,” Mike confirms.
Collaborative real-time environment fosters creativity, flexibility, and efficiency
To enable multiple people to work on projects simultaneously, wherever they are, the team have set up their own cloud server via Amazon’s EC2 service, and use that together with Perforce’s Helix Core version control system. Jason explains how that works alongside Unreal Engine’s Level Sequences and Subscenes system.
“One person can edit the lighting sequence in a shot and another person is editing the animation or cameras; when you both check in your updated file, everyone then has the latest complete version with all changes in place,” he says. “I can be working on a shot and spot an issue, I Skype Mike about it, he jumps in on his end and makes a change, I carry on working and when he’s done, he Skypes me back to get the latest files and the fix happens in my project without ever leaving Unreal.”
It’s efficiencies like these that enabled Engine House to finish the project a week ahead of their already tight schedule. “As a studio, we’ve had lots of experience working to challenging deadlines, and have created a workflow that allows for maximum efficiency,” says Tash. “The move to Unreal was in large parts due to the way we can still be incredibly creative whilst also maintaining this level of performance.”
The ability to see near final-quality images very early on was something the team already knew would have huge benefits. “We were early adopters of GPU rendering with Octane back when it was a Beta release, and part of our pipeline has always been to aim to get a render that looks polished very early in a project,” says Mike. “This is almost like a proof of concept, but it will force us to ask questions early on about modeling style, materials, lighting, and so on, way before we have all of the assets created.
“It really helps us to iterate quickly, and this has a huge impact on the creative result and allows for more fluidity and even happy accidents while turning the dials,” he continues. “Unreal Engine takes this to a whole new level for us by letting us see everything at once in Sequencer, when usually this would be a separate process—by which point it’s often too late to change anything.”
Jason points to other benefits. “It offers so much all in one package,” he says “Once you have your shots set up, you have a lot of flexibility to realize your creative vision, without having to keep opening up other programs and rendering or importing external assets.”
He also appreciates that you can keep all of your shots in one place, without having to open up a separate scene file for each. “It has the dynamism of a nonlinear editing package but with the power to actually manipulate the scenes in the timeline,” he says.
When it comes to the types of looks that are possible for creating nonlinear content, the team has found Unreal Engine to be extremely flexible. “The cinematography toolset is clearly made with real-world filming in mind,” says Jason. “The motion blur, grain, grading, and exposure controls are really powerful. What’s more, It’s adaptable to any visual style.”
Earlier this year, Engine House was awarded an Epic MegaGrant. We’d noticed the exciting work the studio was doing in the realm of animation using real-time rendering, and wanted to give the team some help to work on their own IP, something they want to do more of in the future.
“There's so much more we want to do across Film and TV,” says Mike. “With a slate of development projects at various stages, we want to challenge children and young adults with more thought-provoking narratives, reaching them via new and exciting platforms.”
“It goes without saying, financial investment is hugely valuable, especially in animation where there is a heavy spend during early development to create assets and lock down a style,” says Tash. “However, we have found our relationship with the team at Epic goes way beyond the grant. We have been supported in many different ways through helpful conversations, advice and introductions.”
As for Unreal Engine’s role in the studio’s future, Jason is unequivocal. “We are committing to using it as our default for all work unless otherwise directed,” he says. “We regularly find ourselves saying ‘imagine if we’d made this the traditional way, how much more back and forth there would be.’ Especially when you get into feedback and client changes, to be able to just sweep through a list of comments and do it all in one piece of software really speeds things up.”
For a studio that likes to push media boundaries, there’s another exciting prospect to anticipate.
“In the future, we’d love to be able to showcase the real-time aspect of it more,” says Jason. “We end up rendering out an image sequence to create a video file, when you could just as easily put a VR headset on and be inside the footage we’re making and experience it in real time. You can get so much more out of the assets and work you’re creating in Unreal.”