Image courtesy of Blue Zoo Animation Studio

Blue Zoo uses real-time technology to create distinctive animated short Ada

Ben Lumsden
With a cabinet full of BAFTAs and a client list that includes the likes of Nickelodeon and Disney, Blue Zoo is one of the UK’s leading animation studios. It’s an outfit renowned for its unique and playful CG characters, and has produced some of the best-loved kids shows on TV, including Miffy.

Artists at the studio are constantly encouraged to find innovative ways to develop their craft through initiatives such as the Blue Zoo shorts program. Aimed at pushing them outside their comfort zone, this scheme sees artists produce short films that explore new creative avenues and test out cutting-edge technology.
Image courtesy of Blue Zoo Animation Studio
For one of its recent projects, the studio decided to explore the possibilities afforded by real-time tools. “We were seeing all the amazing things game engines are doing, and we really wanted to see if we could use that in our studio,” says Dane Winn, Animation Director at Blue Zoo.

Accelerating animation workflows with real-time technology 

Blue Zoo’s in-house short films program is a core pillar of the studio’s drive to promote creative collaboration and experimentation across the business. Anyone in the studio can pitch an idea. Ideas are voted on by the whole team, with the most popular entries selected for production, backed by the studio’s full resources. As well as fostering a creative environment, these shorts have won the studio numerous industry awards

The summer brief for the program was to create a film based on a true story using Unreal Engine. The winning pitch eventually became the animated short Ada, inspired by the true story of Ada Blackjack, an Alaskan seamstress stranded on an Arctic island who had to learn how to survive in the wilderness.
Image courtesy of Blue Zoo Animation Studio
“The only creative limitation was that it can’t look like a computer game,” says Co-Founder Tom Box. “The style we finally went with was this lovely graphite painterly style, which really set the benchmark of what we wanted to achieve.”

The challenge the team had set itself was one that would push it to its limits. “We didn't even know how we’d do this in our normal rendering engine, let alone in Unreal,” says Lizzie Hicks, Creative Producer at the studio.
Image courtesy of Blue Zoo Animation Studio
Box points out that the real-time nature of the engine meant the learning process was significantly accelerated. “It was fascinating seeing our artists trying to achieve that, having never really used Unreal before, and because it’s real time, that meant learning was real time. They didn't have to spend ages twiddling a dial, then waiting a few minutes to see what that looked like, which meant it was exponentially faster than the traditional pipeline.”

The team also found that working with real-time workflows and leveraging functionality like the Blueprint visual scripting system removed friction from the creative process. “It was so much more approachable for our artists,” says Winn. “Trying out Unreal, I found how intuitive it was, particularly with the Blueprints and things like that.”

Animating in real time for greater creative freedom 

As they learned more about real-time workflows, the artists quickly realized they had the opportunity to make the creative process for this project far more collaborative than was possible with traditional tools. “We had to see it more like everyone sitting around a table with the project in the middle, and everyone could jump in and change things at the same time, without having to pass this file around teams,” says Box. “That made a game-changing new way of creating an animation studio from scratch in the 21st century.”
Image courtesy of Blue Zoo Animation Studio
The team decided everything would be done in camera, so team members would always be looking at the final picture. To achieve this, it developed innovative new ways of working, such as putting vignettes around the camera and doing masks in real time—things they would normally rely on a compositing tool to do. “To not have compositing, it's just fantastic,” says Hicks. “I love compositors—they're great, but to be able to do that at real time and to be able to see it, it just makes it a lot more fun, to be honest.” 

Blue Zoo was astounded when it realized it could change the texture on Ada 24 hours before they sent across the teaser—and have it back within an hour of making the change. “That would have been unthinkable in a traditional pipeline because you'd have no idea if it’d go through the render farm and comp in time,” says Box. “It's liberating—that freedom of being able to experiment with those last-minute changes.”
Image courtesy of Blue Zoo Animation Studio
Aside from creative freedom and enhanced collaboration, real-time workflows have brought back a satisfying immediacy that can sometimes be lost in the transition from traditional artistic materials to digital tools. “There's nothing more painful than having to wait for renders and look at hourglasses spinning,” says Box. “One of the really nice things about using Unreal Engine is the fact that it brings the fun back to animation.”

What started out as creative exploration has since opened up a world of real possibilities for the studio. “We're super-excited about the future, and I think real-time and Unreal will be at the core of that,” says Box.

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