Unreal Engine and real time, virtual production benefits

With Unreal Engine continuing to improve the technology and embrace and refine the processes, we will continue to see more utilization of real-time and virtual production of 3D animation, or the making of CG-supported films.

Efficiency and flexibility in production are the benefits of Unreal Engine. You are free to move the screens around, or track either the cameras or the focus of the camera… Yes! All of these are funneled into Unreal Engine.

You may be used to a static LED configuration. But, it makes more sense now to have everything flexible. New technology has changed the way we work. Physically fixed team shouldn’t be a requirement any longer. Virtual production is efficient. Real time production is efficient.

So everything in the process of CG production should be completely reconfigurable. It creates a dynamic spirit among the production team member. For example, now, the operator can control the whole scene in real time. Because it is all being rendered in real time. So if the director of production is like, “Oh, I need more light here, or let’s get the Sun coming in from a slightly different angle”, yeah, that can all happen in real time. With Unreal Engine and real time, virtual production, the director and the creatives have any sort of control over the flexible production setup, rather than a fixed setup.

WETA Digital’s project – Using Unreal Engine for strand-based Hair system – Fur and Feather

The project background and its goals

WETA Digital already got a pretty long history of working with filmmakers, and helping them to tell their stories through visual effects. And according to WETA Digital, one area the folks there were particularly excited to explore deeply was the strand-based hair system.

Always wanted to make sure that the systems were able to handle the complexity of a heavily furred feature-film VFX asset. So WETA Digital had two animal character – meerkat and eagle on its recent project.

The challenge for fur and feather rendering in real time

The feathers were the main challenge. Primarily due to the nature of the structure of individual feathers as well as the real-time rigging requirements.

It was definitely a great surprise to WETA Digital team at what the Unreal Engine was able to handle with the new strand system.

It was probably back in 2017 that Weta Digital first started exploring fur in game engines. Back then, there were not many options outside of labor intensive card setups. This is also true for some of the earlier systems out there. For example, NVIDIA had HairWorks of course, but development stopped. Thus, it was a difficult job to any studio to incorporate this tool into real time rendering process.

meekrak fur 2-unreal engine real time virtual animation - Unreal Engine - Vietnam Asian best 3D real time virtual production animation studio

This meerkat groom is somewhere around 400,000 strands. So the feathers were particularly challenging in real time. Primarily due to the anatomical structure of a feather and some of the rigging requirements. But also just due to the general density required.

meekrak fur 1-unreal engine real time virtual animation - Unreal Engine - Vietnam Asian best 3D real time virtual production animation studio

And just to confirm, these feathers are all constructed from strands. They are not using cards or anything like that. So the eagle groom that you can see here, is somewhere around 2.5 million strands.

eagle feather -unreal engine real time virtual animation - Unreal Engine - Vietnam Asian best 3D real time virtual production animation studio

Pushing Unreal Engine real time rendering capability to a higher level

Offline render still could be an option for rendering the 400k strand meerkat groom and 2.5M strand eagle groom. However, WETA Digital wanted to get solid interactive performance in the editor for most of the content. And what’s else? The shaft of each feather had to be geometry to allow for rigging. The barbs on each feather were then constructed from strands that were grown along the shaft or the rachis.

meekrak fur 3-unreal engine real time virtual animation - Unreal Engine - Vietnam Asian best 3D real time virtual production animation studio

Of course, WETA Digital had to make sure that the shaders were built to mimic the same biologic principles that govern real hair and feathers as much as possible. They also had to study the growth patterns as well as the proteins that were in charge of the pigmentation and the release-timing mechanisms. These things were all key to replicating the patterns that WETA Digital team had seen earlier in specimens of meerkat fur and the martial-eagle feathers.

Conclusion

The beauty of real-time workflows is the time available to refine things in motion. Whereas with traditional approach, it’s usually “pencils down” much earlier. When asked about Unreal Engine, WETA Digital shared its approach as a framework, not just a tool. Well, this mean Unreal Engine has become the way or the central model that everything has to change to adapt to new technical possibilities. Such as more flexible and efficient animation production. More capabilities to mimic real life as much as possible. Now you may ask yourself, Unreal Engine as a framework not just a tool? Yeah, why not?!!

Animost – Vietnam 3D Animation Studio

animost team - Unreal Engine - Vietnam Asian best 3D real time virtual production animation studio

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Reference Sources:

  1. Animation World Network: https://www.awn.com/
  2. Cartoon Brew – Technology: https://www.cartoonbrew.com/tech
  3. Befores & Afters – Visual effects and animation journalist: https://beforesandafters.com/