The Future of Animation in Real Time
PJ Richardson, Laundry
January 21, 2020

The Future of Animation in Real Time

As creatives, we’re constantly exploring new technologies and techniques to enhance our craft. Of course, this outlook is heavily rooted in the values and standards we set for ourselves as creative people; but it’s equally in the service of our brand and agency clients, as each brief comes with its own unique set of challenges and needs. Our biggest challenge is making sense of that change — the only constant in today’s media and technology landscape — while embracing the opportunities that come with it.

(Image above: Google Morphing Clay by FutureDeluxe)

Real-time rendering represents one of the most significant breakthroughs I’ve seen in 2019, especially with respect to how studios like ours are leveraging it to create animated content for brands. 

Real-time rendering is here to stay

Whether you’re looking for ways to improve the aesthetics of your next project, or empower your creative team with a more flexible and efficient workflow, there’s a lot to like about real-time rendering. Originally conceived as a tool for video game developers, game engines have become relatively commonplace these days for creators of AR and VR experiences. It’s only logical that content creators specializing in motion design, VFX and animation have caught on to the upside of real-time rendering for everything from traditional TV spots to title sequences to product launches and demos. 

One great example of this is koooolalala’s recent storm test using Unreal Engine (

It’s an exquisite example of photorealistic rendering; but it’s also a testament to how far particle engines have come for real-time renders of things like rain and smoke, which can be difficult and time-consuming with traditional rendering tools.  

UK-based Future Deluxe, my absolute favorite studio, is using game engines to break ground in the interactive space. One such example is a real-time interactive experience that they created for Google, Morphing Clay, which allows viewers and users to sculpt ceramics with hand gestures. It’s incredibly photorealistic and responsive, adding a unique amount of play from the viewer — much more than a traditional render would ever allow — with the right amount of fidelity to not be cornered into being a novelty no one plays with. 

Scaling animation work exponentially

Another thing I love about real-time rendering is how edit-friendly it is. You can change camera angles, update text or change languages without having to re-render everything because it exists in real-time. Real-time rendering also offers some powerful intangibles when it comes to scaling work. Let’s say you’ve built a 3D city environment and your concept is seasonal, or time-of-day-based. With real-time rendering, you can augment your environment without redoing what you’ve already started. To take it a step further, this kind of flexibility offers a huge advantage for brands looking to maximize their reach by creating content in a highly-strategic manner, tailoring these worlds by location, culture, demographic and so on.  

The bonus is, all of this added flexibility comes without a significant uptick in cost. That’s another layer of value we can extend to our clients, and a huge value proposition in courting new business opportunities. Let’s say a brand is considering commissioning a 4K-10K photoshoot for a print ad. You might already have stunning product photography built into a realtime deliverable. 

A balancing act

Having said all of this, many companies in our field are still rooted in more traditional platforms like C4D, Maya and 3ds Max. Then, of course, every new technology presents a shift in the job market. The apparent threat is that real-time rendering solutions could put a lot of artists operating in the traditional animation model out of work — and the learning curve is pretty steep taking animation into a game engine. It requires a considerable amount of coding, programming, overseeing and optimizing renders. Put simply, it is not as easy as After Effects. Still, I think there will always be a need for cel and character animation talent who can create within the more traditional 3D platforms, and then import those assets into a game engine. 

Real-time technology is insanely good, but it’s not quite at the level as the industry-standard photoreal image-making tools that traditional VFX/animation studios use — but pretty darn close. Playback compatibility with digital platforms like YouTube and Vimeo is also a potential set-back. However, you can screen capture from Unreal Engine or Unity to broadcast traditionally on YouTube — but for a much more unique real-time experience, it is limiting. 

PJ Richardson is partner/executive creative director at Laundry (