Entertainment legend Stan Lee and Vicon House of Moves (HOM) recently enlisted Unreal Engine 3 to create Lee’s new franchise The Guardian Project.
In collaboration with the National Hockey League, the major professional ice hockey league in Canada and the US, Lee and HOM crafted the world of the Guardians.
This world comprises 30 hockey-based superheroes that made their debut at the 58th Annual NHL All-Star Game, an annual exhibition of the league’s star players.
The Guardians’ first appearance came in the form of a short film that kicked off a media blitz that is slated to include an online video game, a computer-animated TV show and a slew of merchandising.
House of Moves headed up development of The Guardians, relying heavily on performance-capture technology to create realistic characters that would work across a range of media for television and online broadcast, stadium displays and virtual reality experiences.
EASY DOES IT
“We chose Unreal for its ease of use,” explains Peter Krygowski, director at HOM.
“The learning curve to ramp up production and fit it into our pipeline was minimal.”
Ease of use was particularly important to HOM since it’s primarily a motion capture and animation shop, without a huge infrastructure for handling the rendering requirements for traditional high-end output.
Fortunately, Krygowski has been close to the video game world for more than a decade, has plenty of experience with a number of proprietary engines and knew exactly what his team needed to successfully pull off The Guardian Project.
In short UE3 delivered the flexibility the team was looking for.
“We wrote several pieces of code to help generate custom shaders and to be able to bring virtual cameras into and out of the Unreal Engine for the purposes of this project,” reveals Alberto Menache, HOM’s visual effects supervisor and pipeline developer. “As a result, we had incredible creative flexibility, and could render out 8,000 frames in a matter of seconds – not to mention the savings in gear costs without the need for a multi-CPU render farm.”
CG assets for the short film were built using Autodesk Maya and Pixologic ZBrush, with Autodesk’s MotionBuilder brought in to retarget animation and navigate environments during all the motion
HOM captured stunts and poses for each of the 30 Guardian superheroes at their 26,000 square feet of motion-capture stages, outfitted with more than 200 Vicon T160 cameras over nine days of mo-cap shooting. The project was completed over six months with a creative team that started at 10 and grew to 200 at the project’s peak.
“I can’t emphasise enough what an impact Unreal had on this project,” says Krygowski.
“The real-time lighting, ease of use, ability to iterate quickly, and near-time rendering of final assets allowed us to accelerate an already compressed delivery schedule. For the short film, we needed to deliver a three-and-a-half minute animation short in two and a half months, from start to finish. It’s a project that would normally have taken six months.”
The Guardian Project brought some unexpected drama, in addition to the punishing timeline.
Just 48 hours before the film was set to premiere at the NHL All-Star Game, an outside vendor delivered six shots that didn’t fit with the video. But using Unreal, HOM was able to revise, reanimate, and re-render the shots. The team made the changes, passed them through Unreal, and composited the final animation in time for the final piece.
According to Krygowski, without Unreal this wouldn’t have been an option.
Krygowski says he expects more Hollywood productions to build Unreal into their pipelines, since it allows for collapsed production time when necessary, while still allowing for robust iteration. Plus, with Unreal the assets are more easily shared between different mediums, from games to broadcast.
According to Brian Rausch, HOM’s vice president of production, “you have to think down the road of the possibility of extrapolating characters and environments into game assets, or a television series, making sure you can easily flow the CG creative elements between mediums. By building scenes in a game engine from the start, our options are just much broader.”