Miguel Ortega and Tran Ma accomplished the unimaginable by creating an animated African horror fable that leverages the power of Epic Games’ Unreal Engine.
“The Voice in the Hollow” premiered in Hollywood on November 17, 2022, as a "masterpiece of real-time animation,” according to Brian Pohl, Technical Program Manager of Media & Entertainment and Academic Dean of the Unreal Fellowship at Epic Games. "Engaging, mesmerizing, and unquestionably indelible, [“The Voice in the Hollow” is] masterfully executed — and so impressively takes advantage of the rendering capabilities of Unreal Engine 5 — that one finds themselves in disbelief that this film was accomplished by such a small team using only a game engine,” Pohl commented.
The 10-minute short was created using a combination of hand-drawn and cutting-edge 3D animation techniques and led by a surprisingly small core team of two: Miguel Ortega and Tran Ma, otherwise known as Half M.T. Studios
. While Unreal Engine has long been helping studios forge new production paths by bringing real-time interactivity and collaboration to filmmaking and episodic TV, “The Voice in the Hollow” is perhaps the first short to brave the challenge of rendering a 3D-animated film exclusively with a game engine, with the quality you’d expect of a world-class studio. “Tran Ma's artistic prowess is fully on display by creating a robust and wonderfully unique non-CG appearance for her characters and the world that they inhabit that rivals, if not exceeds, the production design of animated films with far greater budgets and staff, while Miguel Ortega's attention to detail directing style and mastery of emotive subtlety so impressively brings everything to life,” Pohl explained.
Created on the heels of Half M.T. Film’s award-winning short, “The Ningyo,” which told the tale of a search for a mythical Japanese creature, “The Voice in the Hollow” presents another unexpected story like none we’ve ever seen. This is an African horror fable exploring sisterhood, envy, and ancient evil, and despite its vivid use of color and imagery, much like Netflix’s Love, Death + Robots animated anthology series, Ortega and Ma’s film is not safe for kids. With its intentional Spaghetti Western aesthetic and softened renders, Ortega and Ma “wanted to make a statement with this film,” Ortega noted. “The beautiful visuals and vibrant colors are simply a red herring for the dark tone the film ultimately delivers.”
Ortega, originally from Colombia, and Ma, originally from Vietnam, cast their film using native African actors in Kenya and Tanzania. The short film is produced entirely in Swahili with supporting English subtitles, with voice actors resourcefully discovered from audiobook translators in Africa and all recordings captured through Skype. Now rooted in Los Angeles as resident artists and instructors at Gnomon School in Hollywood, the filmmakers hired a local actor for the female mocap performances, while Ortega himself acted the movements required for male characters. This film was created using an impressively small team of artists and actors, with the results of a first-class studio.
Supporting Unreal Engine in the creation of their groundbreaking animation workflow, Ortega and Ma used industry-standard software ZBrush and Maya for the character design and creation, with character texturing handled using Adobe’s Substance Painter. Xsens’ Awinda suit and gloves helped provide the motion-capture performances while MocapX captured the facial expressions, which were all later improved upon by some of the film’s contributing animators using Maya. Environments were sculpted and textured in Gaea, the industry-popular terrain design tool for VFX, games, and virtual production, before being layered with Epic Games’ Megascans. For the most convincing fabrics and costumes, Marvelous Designer was used for the design and simulation before being exported as Alembic caches into Unreal Engine 5.
As instructors at Gnomon, the industry-focused school of visual effects, games, and animation in Hollywood, it was important for Ortega and Ma to document the entire process of the film’s production, from the casting and sound, through the editing and visual effects production — absolutely everything. Over 100 hours of making-of footage have been recorded and are all available for worldwide viewing to help other aspiring filmmakers learn from their thought processes and creative workflow. Their entire filmmaking journey can be viewed now on YouTube at https://youtu.be/j_9eSTUa_vI
"Miguel and Tran have created a beautiful film, and we're very proud of their accomplishment,” said Alex Alvarez, Founder & President at Gnomon School. “For ten months, they live-streamed their weekly progress, and it was a pleasure to watch the film come together. The end result is a testament to their passion and talent, while also an impressive case study on how Unreal Engine 5 empowers independent filmmakers."
Half M.T. Studios is the combined talent of Miguel Ortega and Tran Ma. Scott Beggs, Writer for Vanity Fair, described Ortega and Ma as “part of a movement that is changing the way we think of homemade CGI, expanding its boundaries and proving that it isn’t just the big boys who can drop jaws.” M.T. Studios is represented by the Creative Artists Agency and managed by Cavalry Media.
Miguel Ortega is a Colombian Film Director, creature designer, and cinematographer with over 15 years of experience working in some of the industry's most awarded VFX studios, including Digital Domain, Phil Tippett Studios, and Rhythm & Hues. Ortega has brought to life characters and creatures in many Hollywood blockbusters, including
A Night at the Museum,
Godzilla 2, and
Krampus. Working with his partner Tran Ma, he made his directorial debut with the short film “The Green Ruby Pumpkin.” His follow-up short, “The Ningyo,” has won over 35 international film festival awards.
Tran Ma has worked as a designer, character artist, and environment artist on various films such as
Transformers: Dark Moon,
Alice in Wonderland, and
Krampus. She has developed extensive skills in organic sculpting, hard-surface modeling, texturing, look development, matte painting, and lighting. In partnership with Ortega, Ma co-created “The Ningyo,” where she fulfilled the roles of VFX Supervisor, Writer, Producer, and Production Designer.