Cyclone Graphics turns comics into animation with real-time rendering
Juzo teams up with Mary, a sympathetic teenager, and takes on the role of both detective and vigilante. Together they fight against various enemies including the evil megacorporation behind his forced transformation.
No Guns Life is full of rich visuals, social commentary, and plenty of dry humor. Recently, Tokyo-based Cyclone Graphics was asked to turn the manga into an animated series, which is currently showing on broadcast networks in both Japan and the USA.
With just a few months to produce the series, the team decided to create the backgrounds with Unreal Engine. This enabled them to stay true to the detailed cyberpunk world of the comic while saving time in production.
We caught up with Michiya Kato, Visual Effects Supervisor at Cyclone Graphics, to ask about this intriguing use of UE4.
Tell us about turning “No Guns Life” into an anime.We were given this project by Madhouse, Inc. They’ve been around for nearly 50 years, and science fiction and hard-boiled detective stories are what they do best. No Guns Life has such a cool design and is so interesting that we thought it would make a great animated series.
Madhouse asked me how I would make this anime. I noticed that the comics’ cyberpunk world view makes these comics really game-like, and I also saw that there were only a few kinds of objects in scenes throughout the story. Since we had very little time for pre-production and production, I considered that it would take detailed backgrounds to make it work.
For this anime, we fused hand-drawn anime characters with CG backgrounds rendered out of Unreal Engine. Of course, we could have created everything in CG if we wanted to, but we aimed to keep the hand-drawn anime style unique to Japan.
Why did you choose Unreal Engine for the backgrounds?For backgrounds made with precise modeling, rendering time was going to be the bottleneck. So we decided to use Unreal Engine for its high-quality rendering and quick turnaround.
Unreal Engine has a useful collection of functionalities. It’s easy to use, and it’s easy to set up CG elements. UE4 gave us flexibility in the production process.
Our purpose was to express the sophisticated world view of the original comics in a short period of time. So Unreal Engine, which allowed for flexible customization and a high quality of expression, was the ideal tool. We also love that it’s so intuitive, we could all learn it quickly.
Tell us about the process of producing anime backgrounds with Unreal Engine.In the comics, the world view had already been expressed in great detail, so we used the comics themselves as storyboards to save time. This also meant we could immediately list the objects that we needed to model while still at the script stage.
As there was limited time for production, we started on the modeling tasks and scene setups with Unreal Engine right away, while our storyboarding staff worked out the production plan according to the modeling specifications.
During the first stage of all our projects, we render original materials and do the color grading on composite software as image boards to show to the production staff. We had already finished the design of buildings and props based on the original comics before the image board stage, so all that was needed was to tweak the lighting and grading.
Once we had scenes finalized and fixed, we set up dummy characters and a camera in Unreal Engine, and made cuts according to the storyboards. The production staff and the CG designers worked out the layouts and camera angles together. We found that with Unreal Engine, a single CG designer can set up the layouts and backgrounds for 300 cuts in a day.
With all the camera angles set, we were ready for the animators to start drawing. In our pipeline, the animators draw on celluloid sheets laid over background images. The full intricacy of the No Guns Life backgrounds would have been too much for the animators to draw over, so instead we used shaders in Blueprints to output the backgrounds as line drawings just for them. To render the cuts, we developed an Excel-based batch rendering program.
Once the hand drawings were done, we needed to composite the celluloid sheets over the CG backgrounds, which we did using compositing software. To adjust the feel and appearance of the CG backgrounds, we could output fog, occlusion, and color masks all at once from Unreal Engine, and adjust each of these elements in real time.
Just as with the traditional animation workflow with 2D backgrounds, animators can start to draw right after the layouts are determined. So this new workflow has made it possible for us to maintain the same quality level, where details are fully expressed, while saving an astonishing amount of time during production.
For us, the main advantages of the Unreal Engine pipeline are streamlined organization and extremely high-quality graphics. Our CG designers created fully detailed backgrounds for 4,000 finished cuts in less than six months, which is really amazing.
How do you see Unreal Engine affecting future projects?We feel like we haven’t yet learned all the ways we can use Unreal Engine. For future projects, we challenge ourselves to use even more real-time techniques.
Years ago, animes had impacts on games. Now, technologies that sprung from game development, such as Unreal Engine, are influencing animes. As we watch the unique Japanese anime/game culture mature, it'll be exciting to witness the new fusions of expression that come from combining the best of both worlds.
Want to speed up your production process with innovative real-time techniques? Download Unreal Engine and start exploring the possibilities.