Dinosaurs battle robots in real-time rendered Armored Saurus

Founded in 2013, Studio EON combines innovative filmmaking methods with the production experience of some of the top video professionals in Korea. The studio has built out its real-time pipeline capabilities and now employs over 50 Unreal Engine artists.
Giant dinosaurs fighting extraterrestrial robots is the stuff of children’s dreams. Give those dinosaurs state-of-the-art mecha suits, and you’ve got a hit TV show on your hands. Created by Studio EON and Daewon Media, Korean animated series Armored Saurus has been capturing the imagination of kids and adults alike since the trailer was released last year.

One of the new wave of studios turning to real-time technology to produce animation, Studio EON leveraged Unreal Engine to combine high-fidelity CG with live-action footage of actors, building out a number of innovative new pipeline tools in the process. We caught up with Dae-Sik Jung, Director of Planning and Production of Studio EON, to find out more.

Armored Saurus has become increasingly popular since it was first aired on TV last November. For those who are not familiar with the series, could you briefly tell us what it’s about?

Studio EON is a virtual production studio founded by artists who planned, directed, and produced the popular YouTube animation series Kongsuni and Friends and Eon Kid, which once recorded the highest viewer ratings on US television. We planned Armored Saurus for three years and started pre-production in 2017. Armored Saurus currently has its own YouTube channel Armored Saurus TV, but we first showcased the trailer and making of the series through Daewon Media's YouTube channel. It hit over one million views in three weeks, garnering enthusiastic responses from audiences and was covered by the media multiple times.

The fact that the series has not been shot on a real-world set or location but instead used real-time compositing methods to place actors in a CG background using virtual production workflows in Unreal Engine caught much attention. Using this approach, our team learned that Unreal Engine could improve the quality and efficiency of the production process, as well as business objectives such as managing budget and developing a target audience.
What made your team choose Unreal Engine for the overall production pipeline and final rendering for the children's TV show?

We first came across Unreal Engine in 2014. We tested it in various ways and began to implement the engine in video production in 2016. Although we considered other real-time rendering engines, Unreal Engine was ultimately chosen because we believed it would be far more beneficial to our work. Looking back at the enthusiastic reaction the first trailer received, we must have made the right decision. We also believe our adoption of the engine is on trend, since Unreal Engine is now being used on projects such as movies and animations on many platforms including OTT and TV channels.

Your forward-thinking decision led to many innovations (more of that later)—but did you face any challenges during the innovation process?

In the early stage of testing Unreal Engine, we tried to create films by forming a team mainly consisting of people from the video game industry who were familiar with Unreal Engine—but the results were not as good as expected. After a few trials, we were finally able to figure out why. In general, games are rendered in real time on TV or monitor-sized screens, which means issues with visuals can often be adequately addressed simply by modifying the normal vectors of the relatively low-polygon surfaces or by making the rendering colors smoother. However, there was a clear difference in the production method for films, which require assets to be rendered in high quality to be displayed on bigger screens. Therefore, we decided it would be much more efficient to train Unreal Engine artists with a background in video production who are familiar with traditional production methods, and over the past few years we have acquired more than 50 talented Unreal Engine artists.

You have adopted Unreal Engine throughout your team and pipeline. What have you gained by choosing the engine? 

First, the fact that we built a robust pipeline with Unreal Engine is a huge asset to the company. Armored Saurus was a project that required a very large number of full-CG scenes, as it was designed as content for children, but with a small budget. By training up Unreal Engine artists and allocating them appropriately for each pipeline stage, we were able to build efficient pipelines with which we were able to successfully complete the project.

Another advantage is the physically based real-time rendering technology. Unreal Engine's physically based rendering can show an image which closely resembles that of the real world in any lighting environment, so it was a suitable tool for virtual production where virtual backgrounds and real characters need to be displayed seamlessly on the same screen.

The engine's real-time rendering capability proved to be effective when creating full-CG animated scenes, where we only added key animations to the layout and used that layout as the final video. Moreover, when appropriate, we could use animation cycles or the layout reused from existing key animations as a final video. Being able to work with the layout at the same quality as the final video has dramatically streamlined the full-CG animation production pipeline.
Besides this, Unreal Engine made it easy to improve the production pipeline, as there were additional features that users wanted every time a new version was released. Even when new functions were added in the middle, we could fully utilize them since Unreal Engine provides the full source code for free. The flexibility to develop the features or plugins was also of great help in constructing our pipeline.

Could you tell us a little about the plugins that your studio developed?

The first plugin I would like to introduce is the Layer Exporter. Unreal Engine normally uses the deferred rendering method, so many image buffers can be viewed and produced via Unreal Editor's Buffer Visualization menu. The Cryptomatte output function, introduced in Unreal Engine 4.26, was not supported at the time of production of Armored Saurus. So we developed a separate plugin using a custom stencil buffer or a stencil buffer as shown in the figure below, so that artists can easily obtain the image buffer needed. The Layer Exporter plugin enables anyone to generate the needed buffer, boosting the work efficiency significantly.
Examples of Layer Exporter plugin and output
Also, using Unreal Engine to render most of the footage for the project required creating and rendering a huge number of Sequencer files. So Studio EON developed a Batch Render Manager that can selectively generate only the desired render layers while rendering multiple Sequencer files in batches using Unreal Python and an external PyQt package. As rendering many sequences takes a lot of time just to open and render the files, the Batch Render Manager function—which shortens this process—was a great help in improving the efficiency of the artists.
Example of Batch Render Manager activation
Which Unreal Engine features were most useful on Armored Saurus?

There were many useful features but to name a few, Blueprint enabled artists to create and use necessary functions without any programming knowledge, and the cinematic camera tools such as Camera Actors and Camera Rig Rail made it possible to express scenes like a movie.

The most useful feature of them all was Sequencer. The specialized multi-track editor included in Sequencer enabled us to create in-game cinematics, which was a breakthrough in full-CG animation work. We could check the motion blur in real time and modify the camera movement right away, enabling dynamic production in the battle scenes of armored dinosaurs, which is the highlight of the Armored Saurus project. Being able to shift the focus in real time was also very helpful.

Also, real-time ray tracing brought the additional work to add finishing touches to the film that previously had to be done in Maya into Unreal Engine, which enabled batch work within the engine. Realistic depictions such as detailed shadows and reflections were essential, as this project required photorealistic images. Using ray tracing, we were able to enhance the overall quality.
Lastly, one of the reasons we were able to successfully complete the production of Armored Saurus was that we could utilize Live Link to apply the actual camera's position and rotation values to the VCam in real time and to shoot the background that is rendered in real time according to the actual camera movement. As a result, we minimized the post-production stage, and most of the shooting scenes were produced virtually, without having to build actual sets or visit locations. We're looking forward to building more innovative pipelines in the future by using additional LED walls.
We’re excited at the prospect of seeing a state-of-the-art production pipeline from Studio EON! Could you share the studio's future goal and vision for Unreal Engine?

Unreal Engine is continuously updated with various powerful features required for film production, which positions the engine as a core tool for virtual production using real-time rendering.

As mentioned earlier, Unreal Engine has truly transformed the traditional film production paradigm and created an efficient new production environment for cinematographers, directors, and actors. By linking Unreal Engine and camera tracking equipment, you can continue filming while directly viewing the CG background, and immediately apply the changes.

Unlike previous previs workflows, where you could just view a rough layout of the screen, Unreal Engine provides an innovative new way of working that enables you to view the final pixels in real time on the spot. Thanks to this technology, Studio EON was able to successfully complete a 52-episode project and gained Unreal Engine-based production experience after continued R&D efforts and numerous trials and errors. And ever since, our team has been working on various projects that utilize Unreal Engine based on that experience and expertise.
Meanwhile, we're preparing for the imminent metaverse era and the virtual concert V DIUM (a virtual stadium) project where we create an entire virtual performance stage and stadium with Unreal Engine in partnership with CJ ENM Convention Live Business Division.

In addition, we are planning a new hybrid IP that combines digital characters, live-action actors, digital sets, and real locations by developing interactive VR/XR content and virtual influencers. Unreal Engine is an essential tool for the film and television industry now and will continue to be in the future, and we're confident that Studio EON will also become an essential virtual studio through our Unreal Engine work experience and expertise.
Stage and Stadium of Virtual Concert V DIUM (Virtual Stadium)

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