The Animation Learning Challenge 2021: Meet the winner

One MetaHuman character rig. Eleven seconds of audio. Hundreds of creative possibilities.

That’s what 220 talented animators had to work with to enter The Animation Learning Challenge 2021: the first-ever 11 Second Club contest built entirely around Unreal Engine.

The competition

For a chance to win the grand prize, contestants had to create a fully-fledged animated scene using the character rig and audio clip provided.

To help, we created a special collection of free online courses designed to teach anyone to animate in Unreal Engine in a matter of hours. While 220 animators entered into the challenge, thousands took up the chance to simply take the courses and learn more.

The prizes

  • Grand Prize: Dell Precision Mobile Workstation + Unreal Engine swag pack + a personal critique
  • Runner-up Prizes: Unreal Engine swag packs

The winner

Tobias Noller took first place in the competition for his entry You Took Me for a Fool, which was completely rendered and post-produced in Unreal Engine 5 Early Access. We loved the cinematic feel of the film and were impressed with facial animation. So much so that we wanted to sit down with Tobias and hear a bit more about him and how it all came together.

Can you tell us a bit about your background? How long have you been animating?

Tobias Noller: I've been in the games industry for about eight years now and work as a Senior Visual Effects Artist for Ninja Theory. I sporadically came in contact with animation, due to the nature of my job, but I haven't really animated human characters ever since I left university.

What are you currently working on?

Noller: I'm currently working on Hellblade 2, but I wanted to explore other disciplines like animation and character art too. The MetaHuman Challenge was a perfect opportunity for that!

Was this your first time using Unreal Engine for animation? If so, how did you find the real-time workflow?

Noller: I have worked with Sequencer before, but never animated within the engine.

The workflow was surprisingly good; I didn't expect that, to be honest. The Control Rig was super easy to use and even the Curve Editor worked well. It's really cool that you can tweak animation, cameras, and lighting at the same time, directly in the engine, and then render the whole shot in a few seconds.

What inspired the direction of your short?

Noller: The 11-second voice line reminded me of The Wild West somehow. Initially, I wanted to have some kind of funny reveal at the end, but time worked against me. I started recording myself on the phone with a friend, to act it all out, but then I just had to go for it, as time was running short.

Can you walk us through your animation process?

Noller: As I hadn't animated for a long time, it took me some time to get into. What really helped was creating some nice reference footage with the phone. I also recorded my face with the IPhone and Live Link, just to have a base for the timings.

A good friend of mine, Rik Joanmiquel, who is a Principal Animator at Ninja, gave me some super valuable advice when I started, which I also want to share here:
  • Body: Focus on big movements first, get the hips down.
  • Face: Be subtle, even minimal changes can have a massive impact on how you perceive an emotion.
  • Order: First jaw, then lips, then cheeks, then nose. First brows, then eyelids, then eye squints—use all that in combination with blinks.

I basically tried following these principles throughout, which worked well for me. Thanks to the Control Selection widget for the body, it was relatively straightforward and very similar to tools like Maya, which I've used in the past.
The face was a lot more work and more tricky, as there was no easy way of selecting the controls via a widget. It just took a lot more time because of that, but the process was pretty much the same.

Another thing that I found useful was getting the basic camera movements first. Then, I would animate each shot accordingly.

How was working with the MetaHumans?

Noller: Creating the MetaHuman online was amazingly fast and it took only about an hour to get the animation-ready final character into the engine. Once I figured out that there is an Editor Widget to select different controls of the body, animating the body was straightforward and quite fun.

As I ported the entire project over from UE4 to UE5 midway, I had some minor issues and bugs, which made it slightly more difficult.* For example, scrubbing the timeline and listening to the audio was not possible in UE5, which made final face animation tweaks difficult. Besides that, for the face, as there was no Control Selection widget, I used the Graph Editor to select the controls instead of doing it in the viewport.

*Editor’s Note: UE5 is currently in Early Access and some bugs and stability issues are to be expected. The full release is anticipated for early 2022.

All in all, I was very surprised how well it all went and how powerful the combination of MetaHumans and Control Rig were! I'm sure there will be lots of improvements to the overall workflow, but it's definitely something I'll be working with in the future. Maybe even in combination with mocap animations.

Anything you'd like to add?

Noller: I just wanted to say thank you to Epic for giving the community these awesome tools and opportunities! I think a lot of people take it for granted that the engine gets updates and new features over time, so I just want to say how absolutely amazing the work you are doing is for all of us!

Alongside the winning entry, there were also winners for places 2-10 and one honorable mention. See the full list and watch every film on 11 Second Club’s website, or find out more about the competition on our announcement blog here.

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