Image courtesy of DNEG Animation and Howdybot Productions

DNEG Animation explores a real-time pipeline with Mr. Spam Gets a New Hat

William Joyce is a prolific and creative artist, with more than 50 children’s books to his credit as both writer and illustrator. His illustrations carry a whimsical style that is both vintage and futuristic at the same time.

Fans of CGI will recall Joyce’s children’s TV show Rolie Polie Olie from 1998 to 2004—one of the first to utilize fully CG animation, and for which Joyce won an Emmy Award for Production Design—and the 2005 animated feature film Robots. Then there was The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, which won an Academy Award for Best Short Animated Film in 2012. The piece combined the use of 3D models, 2D paintings, and hand-crafted miniatures to achieve an airy, ethereal look while paying homage to The Wizard of Oz and the films of Buster Keaton.

Joyce's latest work is the charming Mr. Spam Gets a New Hat, a short film created as a collaboration with DNEG Animation. The film is a retro tale of a disenchanted factory worker who has lost his imagination, and how he reclaims it with the help of a loving friend.

The visual style in Mr. Spam’s world resembles that of Morris Lessmore’s. But under the hood, there’s a notable difference between the two: while Lessmore’s world was created with a traditional animation pipeline, Mr. Spam Gets a New Hat was produced in Unreal Engine as a real-time project.

Mr. Spam is born

Mr. Spam Gets a New Hat is, at its core, a story about love and support—Mr. Spam’s neighbor Dot, an artist, is the one who ultimately helps him regain his lost imagination.
Image courtesy of DNEG Animation and Howdybot Productions
DNEG Animation is very selective about the projects it takes on, but this one was an easy pick. “This story resonated with all of us,” says Shelley Smith, Producer at DNEG. “It’s not easy to ask for help, but having someone who can identify that need, someone who supports you, is very inspiring. Dot is the real heroine of the story—she props up Mr. Spam through love and art.”

The project is the first at DNEG to use a real-time animation pipeline. While there were challenges, the team felt they were ready for it. “I knew the potential of using a real-time tool for storytelling was such a game changer for animated stories,” says Shelley.

Gabriele Pellegrini, CG Supervisor at DNEG, agrees. “I always asked to be able to work on a real-time project at DNEG,” he says. “This was our first great chance, and it was beautiful.”
Image courtesy of DNEG Animation and Howdybot Productions

Building Mr. Spam

With the story in place, the team was ready to start building the world of Mr. Spam. In addition to the retro factory and Mr. Spam’s neighborhood, there were the leading characters themselves, Mr. Spam and Dot.
Image courtesy of DNEG Animation and Howdybot Productions
DNEG used Maya for modeling, rigging, and animation, and a combination of Mari and Substance Painter for texturing. Additional sculpt work for characters was done in ZBrush, after which the models were imported into Maya to validate the topology.

Then the models needed to be brought into Unreal Engine. “From the very beginning, we wanted to automate certain I/O tasks,” says Gabriele. “Once that was done in the pipeline, the process was fairly quick.”

Then there was the hair. Animation teams often find that getting their characters’ hair right requires a bit of work, and Mr. Spam was no exception. After grooming the hair with XGen in Maya, the DNEG team imported the grooms to Unreal Engine. 
Image courtesy of DNEG Animation and Howdybot Productions
“Bringing the grooms into Unreal was initially a challenge,” says Taylor Moll, VFX Supervisor at DNEG. “There was a lot of trial and error before we found the right settings.” But eventually it all fell into place, and Mr. Spam went on to get the right hair for his new hat.

Working with a real-time pipeline

Switching from a traditional to a real-time pipeline requires a shift in thinking. In a real-time pipeline, tasks that are traditionally performed in sequential order can be done in parallel, and many members of a team might be working on a sequence at any given time.
Image courtesy of DNEG Animation and Howdybot Productions
“Using Unreal Engine changed the traditional pipeline completely,” says Shelley. “No longer is every department purely linear in the pipeline.”

This new way of working affects every aspect of production, including project management. “In a traditional production, you maybe had three departments working on a sequence at the same time,” Taylor says, “but here, I had upwards of eight.”

The need for a new way of approaching production also trickled down to the department heads themselves. “There was a lot more onus on the department heads to understand what was happening in other departments, something that on previous shows, they didn’t have to concern themselves with,” says Taylor.

The new pipeline also affected scheduling. For example, DNEG was able to shift the lighting schedule to start as early as layout. At the same time, these departments could work with the animation team to render out test shots, giving all three departments a way to identify any issues or concerns a lot earlier.

Although the shift was jarring for some, ultimately it paid off in dividends of creativity and efficiency. “Multiple artists were able to work contextually with each other,” says Taylor. “We were able to put together layout, lighting, and surfacing in the same level, and have them adjust shots simultaneously. We also had various TDs working alongside artists inside an Unreal session.”
Image courtesy of DNEG Animation and Howdybot Productions
In a traditional pipeline, the director is accustomed to making hard decisions about sequences—whether to send a shot back for more work and bear the delay, or live with the sequence as is. But with multiple departments involved in every sequence in real time, the team could make such decisions quickly, and request and receive changes in a much shorter time. 

“For me, the biggest difference from a traditional pipeline was the time it took for decisions to be made,” says Gabriele. “Much, much faster, and more inspiring, than a usual production.”

Embracing a new way of thinking about production

From the experience of producing Mr. Spam Gets a New Hat, DNEG sees the advantages of a real-time pipeline. “The benefit of working in Unreal Engine is the ability to continue to experiment along with multiple users,” Shelley says. “Unlike a traditional pipeline, you don’t need to hand off to the next department with hard deadlines.”

While decision-making can be quicker, Shelley says, the real advantage of real-time technology lies in the way information is shared. “We now have the advantage of departments working together in a scene, and being able to inform each other much earlier than a traditional production,” she says.

Shelley also cites the benefit of being at the forefront of a new way of working, one that is poised to change the way animation is created well into the future.

“Working on a project that’s at the cutting edge of technology, and being able to push boundaries but also work more collaboratively—that was very exciting,” she concludes.
Image courtesy of DNEG Animation and Howdybot Productions

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