An Indie Stu­dio and Game En­gines: Ex­plor­ing an Open Re­la­tion­ship

Animation Magazine - - Vfx - By Ar­chita Ghosh

The gam­ing and an­i­ma­tion in­dus­tries have been flirt­ing with each other for a while now. When the two big game plat­form com­pa­nies Unity and Un­real opened up their en­gines in 2015, the re­la­tion­ship po­ten­tial felt ex­cit­ing and filled with pos­si­bil­ity. What did it all mean for an indie an­i­ma­tion stu­dio try­ing to get in on some open ac­tion?

For us at e-d films, it was a big op­por­tu­nity. Hav­ing spent years in our base­ment-dun­geon stu­dio, ser­vic­ing oth­ers while play­ing with our own body of in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty as well as mak­ing sin­cere but small on­line over­tures on Youtube with process tu­to­ri­als, tak­ing a romp in a game plat­form was ex­actly the ad­ven­ture we were seek­ing. And it did not hurt that the fi­nanc­ing around bring­ing to­gether th­ese two the­o­ret­i­cally well-matched but his­tor­i­cally siloed play­ers was en­cour­ag­ing.

Plus, we were in Mon­treal, Canada, which has been a cre­ative hot­bed for gam­ing, an­i­ma­tion, vfx, film and dig­i­tal in­dus­tries for decades. With its his­tory in an­i­ma­tion well-es­tab­lished from hous­ing the Na­tional Film Board’s head­quar­ters in 1939, to the gen­e­sis of Sof­tim­age in the late ‘80s, to Ubisoft set­ting up a thriv­ing sub­sidiary here in 1997, the de­sire for cre­ation is part of our cul­ture.

A Re­ward­ing Re­la­tion­ship

Since 2015, with some sound fund­ing and sup­port from the Canada Me­dia Fund, the Na­tional Re­search Coun­cil of Canada, Que­bec R&D cen­ter CDRIN and pri­vate in­vestors, we started our re­la­tion­ship with game en­gines (and other in­dus­try-stan­dard soft­ware) with the goal to build artist-driven an­i­ma­tion while mak­ing our tech­niques at­trac­tive to stu­dents, other indie stu­dios, larger an­i­ma­tion houses, vfx artists, game de­vel­op­ers and dig­i­tal mak­ers.

We knew it was risky be­hav­ior that could swing ei­ther way. We care­fully weighed the perks we could iden­tify, such as prac­ti­cal com­pat­i­bil­ity and com­mer­cial po­ten­tial, and chose to take a gam­ble on the per­ils we could not fore­see.

What were our re­la­tion­ship goals? Cost sav­ings and ef­fi­ciency, of course, but also di­rec­to­rial con­trol, more char­ac­ter per­for­mance, ease of it­er­a­tion, hap­tic con­trol in­puts, po­ten­tial for multi-plat­form­ing … and fun! Ide­ally, we wanted to play a game and end up with a film.

One of the plug-ins we built — “Scene Track: Game Me­dia Ex­porter” — takes data col­lected from a played scene in a game en­gine and brings it in and back out of an an­i­ma­tion soft­ware, thus en­abling the it­er­a­tive fi­nesse we wanted to see in our cin­e­matic fi­nal aes­thetic. In the process, we dove deep into game en­gines, ex­per­i­mented ex­ten­sively in our own pipe­lines, and built a num­ber of as­so­ci­ated as­sets.

As much as th­ese plug-ins them­selves were valu­able to us as an­i­ma­tors, we also came to re­al­ize that we were de­sign­ing and build­ing tools by artists for artists and liv­ing projects, which meant that the work­flow we de­vel­oped around them was also in­ter­est­ing to our po­ten­tial mar­ket of dig­i­tal cre­ators.

We de­cided to make “Scene Track” open source ear­lier this year to see if and how it res­onated with our peers; we con­tinue to be ex­hil­a­rated by see­ing its ex­pected and un­ex­pected (vir­tual re­al­ity, live per­for­mance, video map­ping, pro­duc­tion plan­ning, sound de­sign) uses around the globe.

We have tri­aled the use of a game en­gine in our pipe­line for one com­pleted short (a co-pro­duc­tion with Taqqut Pro­duc­tions, Gi­ant Bear) and are cur­rently more stren­u­ously in­cor­po­rat­ing it into our first own short Hairy Hill, which we hope will set the tech­ni­cal di­rec­tion for more am­bi­tious large-scale projects, such as an ad­ven­ture se­ries we are de­vel­op­ing ( Ele­mented) with the sup­port of Corus En­ter­tain­ment and the Canada Me­dia Fund.

Like every re­la­tion­ship that func­tions, it has taken (and con­tin­ues to take) blood, sweat and tears at every stage. There are heady days filled with progress, com­pat­i­bil­ity and pos­si­bil­ity, and oth­ers where we won­der what we were think­ing.

This is where the over­whelm­ing, multi-faceted sup­port of our lo­cal, na­tional and in­ter­na­tional ecosys­tems give us the stamina to con- tinue, to re­mind us that the fu­ture pos­si­bil­ity of less la­bo­ri­ously pro­duced an­i­ma­tion with greater cre­ative con­trol is too invit­ing for us to aban­don. We have al­ready come this far, we are in­vested, we see the big play­ers mak­ing moves much big­ger than we can fathom, and we feel we are part of an ex­cit­ing shift away from tra­di­tional prac­tices to­wards in­trigu­ing new fron­tiers. As an indie an­i­ma­tion stu­dio that thrives on tit­il­lat­ing ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, we are open, will­ing and ready for our next ex­pe­ri­ence. ◆

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