Courtesy of Adam Valdez

From The Lion King to fairyland: inside the beautiful world of Brave Creatures

March 15, 2023
What do you see when you go for a walk? Is it a movie idea?

After years spearheading VFX for The Lion King and Maleficent, Adam Valdez is no stranger to magical realms. But when it came time to set off on his own, he began to see a story in the English woods, and the things that may or may not be living there.
Courtesy of Adam Valdez

“The British landscape is an inspiring place, you can just imagine little creatures living everywhere inside of it,” says Adam Valdez, Creator and Director. “I had this idea for a long time to do something in the fairy world, because I just love the miniature aspect. It makes you ask yourself, what would it be like to be that small and experience the world from that point of view? It’s a great device for storytelling.”

The result is Brave Creatures, a new short that already feels like the precursor to something bigger. In the short, we follow a young fairy trying to prevent a looming war. With birds circling overhead and a magic stone beckoning her on, every moment feels like a push-and-pull between possibility and danger—and that’s just the first couple of minutes.
 

At Epic, we’re building out a connected, open ecosystem of tools, services, and marketplaces that provides creators like Adam with even more creative options. Crafting the feeling of tension in Brave Creatures took Adam deep into that ecosystem, tying Megascans, custom MetaHumans, and UE5 into a powerful unit that helped the team quickly draw people into the hero’s journey. So much so that by the time you hit the cliffhanger, you can't help but wonder what happens next.
 

An explorer at heart

Tapping into Unreal Engine also gave Adam a chance to expand on a virtual production workflow he’d been using at MPC as a Visual Effects Supervisor. Years on-set had developed an explorer’s mindset in him. It wasn’t uncommon to find him auditioning angles with a lens or viewfinder until shots started to solidify in his brain. But he also knew that when the animation process hit, that feedback loop would change. It wouldn’t be immediate anymore; it would be slow. But with Unreal Engine and MetaHumans, Adam found a way to get that same instant feedback you find on-set during more stages of production.
 

“When you’re working, you just want to let your instincts kick in and try stuff; and it’s really hard to do that if you don’t have instant feedback,” says Adam. “This engine is amazing because what you are looking at really feels like a shot. It has lighting, depth of field, atmospherics, and you’re learning a little more every time you look. And the more you see, from a director's point of view, from an editor’s point of view, from a camera point of view, the more you start to feel pretty good about what you're doing.”
Courtesy of Adam Valdez
But before Adam could go exploring, his team would have to build up the world, preferably in a way that incorporated the essential elements of the British countryside that he kept seeing in his head. They found them in Megascans, an ever-evolving library of 3D scanned assets that Adam had already become well acquainted with during production of The Jungle Book.

With Megascans, MPC—the studio behind the animation/VFX—had a way to quickly spin up realistic 3D environments using robust combo packs that only needed a few shader tweaks to blend with what they had already designed. Suddenly in a few clicks, Adam was staring at a landscape ready for VR shot scouting—a step that has become essential to his method.

“I'm not a storyboarding guy; I want to jump in and start finding where the action should take place and where the camera angles are cool,” says Adam. “So I scout in VR a lot first. That's how I decide where we're going to shoot from and where I can tell the animators to start blocking the action. Once I've got that and I start shooting coverage, I treat it very much like a live-action shoot.”
 
Courtesy of Adam Valdez

Adam prefers to shoot long, full takes from all of his chosen angles. Those shots tend to get filtered into a traditional offline editor, which he uses to do a first-pass assembly. If he notices something is missing, it’s back into the engine for more coverage. This way cuts can keep evolving, helping Adam visually reason through his ideas, while also providing concrete sequences for animators to iterate on.

Adam maintains a timeline in Sequencer, as well, giving him a way to continuously assess how new 3D work feels in an editorial context. Like many filmmakers, Adam does a lot of nuance shifts once things start to come together, using a mix of whatever tools feel right in the moment.

“UE5 makes it really easy to re-track the depth of field or focal plane based on a new performance. It also helps when I just want to tweak a light. All these little things come out in the dailies. Then I go back to my traditional editing software and really just focus on the sound and final color.”
 

That extra 10 percent

When the project was nearing its end, Adam started getting an idea. So far, this had been a real-time endeavor, with most pieces being designed in and around the engine. However, Adam was curious if UE5’s onboard Path Tracer was ready for production, as he wanted to hit some of the same heights he had grown used to in his VFX career, especially when it came to his characters’ skin, hair, and translucent wings.
 
Courtesy of Adam Valdez

A note to Epic Games opened up a fruitful conversation that got Adam fast-tracked for some pre-Beta features (all of which are now in UE 5.1) and a MegaGrant. But still, would it be easy?

To some, the idea of swapping renderers is a recipe for disaster. But for Adam, the process was totally worth it, especially when he began finalizing high-fidelity sequences with the help of Movie Render Queue.

“Our project really depended on extremely shallow depth of field due to the scale of the story,” says Adam. “We could have gotten something great anyway, but path tracing pushed us over a quality threshold for some of the subtleties. I think the results are beautiful and bring together in-camera atmospherics, the depth of field, the motion blur—all those things that the Path Tracer gave us were really cool.”
 
Courtesy of Adam Valdez

The Path Tracer also opened up more realistic looks and expressions in the characters, which not only brought more power to the performances, but also removed a classic sticking point for digital humans. 

“How a character looks and the emotions you're getting across from the face has everything to do with how you light it,” notes Adam. “Sometimes we would do all of this work and realize we had to go back and change something after seeing the path-traced render. It really refined what we were doing and gave us just a little bit more.”

To create those characters, Adam and his team decided to accelerate the process by adopting the MetaHuman standards for facial rigs, an idea they had seen online. Since their character designs were already locked, they began by porting the fairy-like facial topologies over to Epic. Epic then sent back the calibrated MetaHuman rigs that incorporated the designs, giving the short all the emotions it needed.

“As an animation person, you learn the language of faces and emotions. The accuracy is not just about how the skin moves, but whether you can achieve emotional clarity,” says Adam. “Those rigs are very good at that. So you’re not just getting some small details, you’re getting a relatable, expressive face, which is kind of everything for your main characters.”
 
Courtesy of Adam Valdez

From small to big

With today’s release of Brave Creatures, it already looks like the winds are blowing in Adam’s favor. A side project made with friends at MPC has become an intriguing bit of bait for any studio that knows there’s something here.

But no matter what happens, Adam knows what the future holds for 3D filmmakers—big and small.
Courtesy of Adam Valdez
“A lot of things are coming together around Unreal Engine right now. Virtual production, asset libraries, character rigging, that’s a bunch of things you need in one place, with really impressive engineering behind it,” says Adam. “You have all the pieces you need to make narratives on your first weekend. You just have to download the thing and you can start. It's like a movie studio on your computer—it’s pretty awesome.”

    Try Unreal Engine 5.1 today

    Want to use some of the same tools Adam and company used on Brave Creatures? Then download Unreal Engine 5.1 today. It’s free and ready for production.
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