Finishing the sequence

Thanks to UNREAL’S Metahuman system we have been able to lean on their excellent facial animation systems (That work well with FACEGOOD) as well as their texturing and shading solutions which look great far away and in super close up. The only big problem we had with Metahuman (please fix this EPIC!) is that it only comes in 3 proportion sizes – small/medium/large. In our Softimage pipeline we had a rigging solution which allowed us to translate the exact proportions of all of our actors onto our rigs. this doesn’t work in UNREAL, and you have to compromise, but hopefully this will get fixed in future versions of the software. We are currently animating the tricky finger interactions in our scene in Maya (lots of eating!) that we then transfer onto our Metahuman rigs in UNREAL.

We also tried to get our Stina actress: Becky’s face directly into  Metahuman  as a possible option to replace our Stina face sculpt. This would have a lot of advantages; the biggest being a one-to-one equivalence between the performance and the CGI. We had a made a face cast of her back in the day plus a good amount of reference footage, and we got a good likeness:

It looks great! Very close to Becky. But it’s not really doing much movement in the above clip. Unfortunately, once the face started moving to capture Becky’s performance it was not so good. The extremes of the Metahumans calculated expressions did not match Becky’s at all, and in fact looked rather strange (Nothing like Becky!)  So we went back to our original solution, which weirdly has translated Becky’s expressions much more accurately. The fact we now have an accurate sculpt of her face may be useful in future though.
We went through a lot of iterations of Stina’s hair trying to get the look we were after. The hair was made in XGEN in Maya then imported to UNREAL as an alembic, where it was made into an UNREAL groom with dynamic properties. Mahdid’s hair was off-the-shelf Metahuman hair and her face sculpt was designed completely within the Metahuman system. Griot’s hair was developed from the original Softimage spline groom, then itteratted on in XGEN and exported to UNREAL. Again this was a real test of the UNREAL pipeline; he has a lot of hair! But it handled these huge caches well and did a great good job in rendering. (After a few weeks searching through Reddit threads for tips!)
We had 2 basic rendering solutions to choose from in UNREAL: Lumen and Path Tracing. Path tracing was theoretically more accurate and closer to our old renderer: “Arnold”, but it proved very, very slow and prone to crashes. It also seemed to lack functionality with a lot of the inbuilt-systems (smoke/hair/flares etc.) And we just couldn’t get it to work well with our scene. Lumen looks slightly more stylised, but has lovely light bounces and gave our world a nice hyper-real look that suits our production well. It’s really fast and allows a lot of 2d effects we would have previously done in compositing using Nuke (like depth of field/bokeh/lens flare/glow/vignetting/chromatic aberration.)
The main issue we found was fighting its game-ready optimization systems. In Arnold it’s simply a matter of turning up the samples to get a better look. In Lumen there are many completely separate systems at work optimizing everything from shadows to hair volumes to light bounces leaking into other frames. And on a few occasions these systems were really noticeable in-camera. This is a very different way of working for us, and has required a lot of diving into reddit forums and general confusion as we try and work out what is a bug and what is a feature! (The software is still technically in Beta so is constantly evolving.) Most issues we’ve found have been fixed now, and any remaining will have a Nuke fix or two.  But overall we’ve managed to use UNREAL pretty much the same as our traditional CGI film pipeline, and it’s worked surprisingly well.
Our team has grown over the last month and we now have a good variety of skills at play from a mixture of 2nd and 3rd year students providing full keyframe body animation/cloth/texturing and facial animation.   Here we are some of us taking a well earned break at a fine Vietnamese restaurant:
Left-to right:  Fiona(animation), Sonya(animation), Paul(director), James(production), Willow(animation), Issac(cloth/texures)
As we have accrued assorted university grants for the project, we’ve also committed to a number of deadlines. (Always good to focus the mind.) This means we are currently aiming at September to wrap on our 8 minute scene. At that stage we will be writing our formal bid for an UNREAL Mega Grant, which was one of the primary drivers behind this proof-of-concept piece. With a Mega Grant we could actually finish the whole film. Wouldn’t that be something!
It’s been quite a ride getting to this point, and it’s been a great learning experience and shown us that UNREAL really can deliver as a CGI film production tool. (A lot of which has fed back straight into my day-to-today teaching and proven an invaluable aid for our course curriculum.)
Once our sequence is finished and has been submitted with our grant bid, we plan to enter it into some short film festivals and then release it online.
Thanks for all your support over the years and you’ll be the first to know it when it’s finally released!
Signing out, Paul
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