Mythology Becomes Reality With Unreal Engine 4

By Brian Rowe

Unreal Engine may have built its reputation in video game development, but it has proven itself to be a powerful ally in a wide spectrum of digital endeavors, as demonstrated by Zoic Studios' melding of live performance and VFX at the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity.

The work of Zoic Studios, a visual effects company with offices in Culver City and Vancouver, can be seen in a multitude of media, including film (Limitless, The Grey, Premium Rush), music videos (Imagine Dragons "It's Time"), and television (Arrow, Falling Skies), but the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity offered the team the opportunity to work on an entirely different style of project using Unreal Engine 4.

Based on Creative Director Juan Woodbury's concept, Zoic Studios' goal was to bring a chimera to life on a two-story screen, bathed in brilliant flames and shimmering ice, and controlled live purely through human movement.

Although the project presented some unique hurdles, Paulus Bannink, Creative Technical Director, said, "The speed of iteration in Unreal Engine 4 allowed us to complete this project in very little time. By using the Blueprint system we were able prototype many different approaches to the various challenges we faced while building the character."

Unreal Engine 4's flexibility for customization was one of the key features that made the project possible. Zoic Studios needed a means of translating wireless motion-capture data from a dancer wearing an XSens MVN suit to animate the chimera and unleash awe-inspiring particle FX with specific gestures, all in real-time.

Zoic Fire

Fortunately, the team saw a possible solution in software they had developed as a prototype for another project. From this, they easily created a plugin to provide a custom animation graph node, and the versatility of Unreal Engine 4's plugin system even allowed them to revise code and Blueprints immediately before the show.   

"The reactions from the festival attendees were amazing," said Bannink. "For every night we did three, 20-minute sessions, and when the dancer went out for the first time and the character started following her moves everyone turned to the screen. Most of the people were puzzled about how this was done and it was clear that they had never seen anything like this before."

Bannink highlighted rendering quality as a defining feature of Unreal Engine 4, saying, "We were dealing with representing concepts like ice and fire which, each in their own way, require a lot of processing to work in a real-time environment. Unreal Engine 4’s render quality and speed was instrumental in allowing us to create the required FX while maintaining a frame-rate of well over 30 frames per second."

The look and the smoothness of the FX-laden performance were due in large part to Cascade; Unreal Engine 4's VFX editor. Cascade not only provides a low-cost, GPU-based system for simulating millions of particles, Cascade is an all-in-one solution for stylizing FX with features such as vector fields, light emission, and physics.

Zoic ice

"Cascade played a major role in the visuals for this project," said Bannink. "We relied heavily on particle effects for everything from flames to frozen smoke to ice crystals. Cascade’s vector field feature proved invaluable for achieving the right look, especially for the fire chimera character. Since the character was constantly on the screen we relied on the vector fields to keep the frame alive even when the dancer was performing more subtle movements."

Of course, every performance has its share of hiccups. Unreal Engine 4's visual scripting tool, Blueprint, was created to allow designers to quickly and easily build fully functional content without coding, and Zoic Studios truly put that claim to the test when a problem arose with the live camera controls.

"After the first session I realized that there was one level of control missing from the setup. Since we had an hour before our next session I decided to open up the editor, and was able to add the extra control to Blueprint, test the setup, and package a new version of the game all before the dancer went back on stage. All of this with the noise, lights, and party chaos happening around me. To me, this was the ultimate proof of Unreal Engine 4s strengths as a development platform."

When asked to reflect upon his experience with Unreal Engine 4, Bannink said, "We are definitely planning to use Unreal Engine 4 for future projects and feel that we have only scratched the surface of its use so far."

For more information on Zoic Studios, you can follow them at http://www.zoicstudios.com/ and on Twitter at @ZoicStudios.

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