Members of the Engine House animation studio Natasha Price, Mike Richter, and Jason Robbins talked about the production process behind Wylder, a short animated movie made in 3ds Max, Mudbox, ZBrush, and Unreal Engine.
80.lv: Please introduce yourself. Where did you study? What companies have you worked for? What projects have you contributed to?
Natasha Price a.k.a. Tash, Producer: We are Engine House – made up of Mike, Jason, and me. EH was formed many years ago when Mike’s new puppy needed someone to be home all day. He studied Music Tech at university, before turning to 3D and worked in a few studios and then turning freelance under the EH name. Having built up a roster of clients, Mike was on the lookout for a partner to grow Engine House into a company.
Enter Jason, who was heading back to Cornwall from Chicago, having set up a US office for a UK animation studio. Looking for like-minded people in the industry, Jason got in touch with Mike, and the pair realized they shared the same desire to do good work while maintaining a strong work-life balance by striving for efficiency over logging late nights. Jason threw in his lot with Mike and became co-owner of Engine House in 2013.
A year later, they were looking for a Biz Dev Manager to help grow the studio further, right about the time I was graduating from my Film Production course, back in July 2014. Since then, my job has expanded into more of a producer role, with the three of us making up a trio of content creators and storytellers.
The Wylder Project
80.lv: How did you get started with Wylder? What’s the story behind the project? What inspired you? What goals did you have?
Mike Richter, Studio Director: We had just finished up a teaser promoting our own IP, and while shopping that around, it became apparent that we couldn’t really show our most recent work, especially using Unreal’s new groom system. This seemed like a shame as we love to share things, so we decided to create a short film entirely for the purpose of simply putting it online for people to watch.
We chose a book that some friends had given to my kids. The illustrations are beautiful and different and we liked the challenge of trying to create the same feel in Unreal within a 3-month timeframe among our service work. We reached out to the author and she was really supportive of the idea of turning it into a short.
80.lv: How did you work on characters? How did you model them and create hair? What tools did you use?
Mike Richter: We blocked out the characters in 3ds Max and ZBrush, textured in Mudbox, and for the hair, we started with hair cards in order to block out the volume of the hair and general direction. The grooming work was then done using Ornatrix using the hair cards as a guide.
Working on Animation
80.lv: Could you also discuss the animation process? What tool did you use for this part? How did you use weight and poses as additions to the story?
Jason Robbins, Studio Director: We use Maya for animation and then export that to use as clips in Unreal. Usually, once you’ve got your base animation in there the Unreal animation toolset is strong enough that you can push, pull, chop things about and add custom elements like layers to get you to the final result you’re after.
A lot of the character in Wylder comes from the posing in the source material, there’s a poise to these characters that’s a key part of the narrative. The book has no words and when you’re reading you can sit with each scene and just be with the stillness of it, so the Richard Williams school of animation wouldn’t be the right fit here. There’s no anticipation, just smooth movements, and stillness where possible.
Environments and Shaders
80.lv: Please tell us about the environments here. How did you set up the house and the forest?
Mike Richter: For the house, there was an illustration in the book that was orthographic looking at the front. We could use this as a blueprint for the model, and also simply project the texture back onto the front, there’s a little breakdown on our production diary here.
For the forest, we created textures from the book of the bark and then modeled the branches in TiltBrush in VR to give them a hand-painted and fluid feel.
80.lv: How did you create different stylized shaders for the project and achieve the painterly look?
Mike Richter: The shaders are quite simple really, mostly just vanilla materials, but some of the organic surfaces such as skin and foliage used sub-surface profiles. The rest of the effects was achieved through lighting and a hatching post-process effect to tie it all together.
80.lv: How did you utilize Unreal during production? What features helped you achieve the desired look? How did you work on lighting?
Jason Robbins: Unreal is the central hub of the project, we pushed to keep the whole piece in one timeline so you always could see what needed to be done and not get drawn into too much focus on one specific area, it also allowed the story to grow and evolve alongside the visual development.
Mike Richter: For the lighting, it was always important to refer to the illustrations from the book to get the mood and shadow directions, an idea of light sources, etc. And then adding additional lights for highlighting features or to pick up some Volumetric Fog.
80.lv: Could you discuss the amazing skybox you set up for the project in detail? How did you set up different versions?
Jason Robbins: We are working as a remote team so we are using source control and a collaborative workflow. This also lends itself well to keeping scenes adaptable and separated into their component parts. So a Master sequence for each shot has a sub-scene for lighting, one for environment assets, and then specific animated elements in the shot sit in the master. This meant that for the Cabin exterior shots we can reuse the environment geometry(the stage if you want to call it that) and then you’re free to do whatever you want with the lighting, so turning night to day is keyframing light source locations and colors. Seasonal changes require more work but again we are using the existing base.
An example of the flexibility of this system is that we realized once they create the vegetable patch it then needed to be added to the wide shots that appear afterward, you open the shot with the veg patch, select the required geometry, and then literally just copy and paste it into the wider shot and it’s done. From ‘We need to modify that shot to add a veg patch’ to having it done in 5 minutes. All scenes are accessible, all assets are available at once.
Thoughts on Unreal Engine 5
80.lv: Have your team already tried using UE5? What are your thoughts on the next iteration of the engine? What are this engine’s strengths when working on animation projects in general?
Jason Robbins: We haven’t used UE5 yet but the lighting and whilst asset detail in the demo video was mind-blowing, it’s more the mindset that it represents, the people working on UE can see where the industry needs to be and they’re firing on all cylinders to get us there like no other, by the time everyone is working in UE5 there will be a host of extra features we haven’t seen yet that will be a real strength for working on animation projects.
80.lv: How much time did it take to finish the project? What were the main challenges? Did something make you try again and again?
Tash: The whole project was turned around in under three months, working entirely remotely. We’ve been thrown some challenging turnarounds on client projects in the past and one of our USPs is to be able to work flexibly and efficiently to be able to take on these kinds of challenges.
Mike Richter: The trees were definitely a challenge, they were very early on in the process so a lot of decisions were still being made which affected how they should be made. I must have modeled those leaves a dozen times with different approaches in mind. We also started off trying to use our hair cards for the final images, but having just finished another project using the Groom system and realizing the power of it, we thought we’d go the extra mile and set that up. I’m glad we did because everyone seems to be commenting on how much they love the hair!
Tash: There's so much more we want to do across Film and TV. With a slate of development projects at various stages, we want to challenge children and young adults with more thought-provoking narratives, reaching them via new and exciting platforms.