Monster on the move: how ASC pushed UE5 Early Access animation tools to the limit

Last month, we were excited to get Unreal Engine 5 Early Access into the hands of developers so they could start exploring and testing the features and prototyping their next games. Prior to letting these first features out the door, the Unreal Engine team wanted to test them out on a very high-quality sample project. 

To help us achieve that, we brought in renowned VFX studio Aaron Sims Creative. The company focuses on concept design for film, television, and games, and has a reputation for creating incredible creatures. That’s just what we were looking for in our project.

“We knew they would take it to the next level,” says Jeremiah Grant, Technical Product Manager at Epic Games. “We weren't going to get characters that are just kind of run-of-the-mill. We’re going to get something that is going to push the system and going to push the tools.”
Aaron Sims Creative came up with a character they called ‘The Ancient One’, giving rise to the eventual title of the sample project, Valley of the Ancient. Generally, the team will start in 2D, and then sculpt the model in a program like ZBrush or similar. To have any chance of running in game—or even of being animatable—the resulting extremely high-polygon assets would usually have to be radically simplified and would need to rely on normal or displacement maps to convey detail. 
2D concept art, image courtesy of Aaron Sims Creative
However, with Nanite—Unreal Engine 5’s virtualized micropolygon geometry system—the team was able to bring the original asset right into the engine, at over 50 million triangles. “In the end, we found that there was almost no limit to what we could actually create,” says Aaron Sims, the company’s eponymous president.
Another of the new feature sets that is now available for testing in Early Access is the ability to animate in the engine, using familiar tools like pose libraries, selection sets, and a curve editor. Also available is Unreal Engine’s Control Rig, the underlying rigging system for Epic’s MetaHumans
Using this built-in animation feature set, the team was able to animate The Ancient One, with many layers of rigging, at full real time without ever leaving the engine. This meant that the animators could work in concert with the riggers, asset team, and look dev artists all in the same place, as Steffen Reichstadt, Creative Director at Aaron Sims Creative, explains.

“When one person changes something, it updates for the rest of them; that collaborative workflow completely changed the entire project,” he says. “We were still updating models and design stuff a week before final. And we could!”

This also meant the team could work on effects before the modeling and animation were complete. “We could art-direct the hand laser beam and make that as cool as we wanted it to be, and work on the animation at the same time,” says Reichstadt. “And then you can just see them together—magically.”
The effects included the use of Unreal Engine’s Chaos Physics system, which enables the simulation of rigid-body dynamics, cloth, ragdolls, vehicles, fluids, hair, and destruction. The latter played a key role in the project.

“When it came down to interacting with the Chaos destruction team, we were able to tweak the animation for The Ancient One so it would really show off the Chaos destruction in the best light possible,” says Francois Antoine, Director of Advanced Projects at Epic Games. “And that was an iteration speed we couldn't achieve round-tripping to an external tool.”

Collaborating on the project has had positive outcomes for both the Unreal Engine and Aaron Sims Creative teams.

“Working with ASC was a fantastic experience,” says Grant. “They were fully integrated into our team, so we had their rigger, their animator, the developers, all working at the same time together, improving both the tools and the project.”
As an artist that's been in the industry for so many years, I really have never found a tool that's excited me this much. 
- Aaron Sims, President, Aaron Sims Creative
While Unreal Engine 5 is not yet production-ready, and the toolsets available in Early Access have only been tested on game development workflows so far, both Reichstadt and Sims see the potential for it to also change the way that visual effects houses work down the line. 

Reichstadt calls out Nanite and Control Rig in particular. “They really disrupt the entire pipeline,” he says. “It's allowing us to be way more flexible.”

“I think a lot of studios are going to feel the same way,” says Sims. “With Unreal Engine 5, the tools are just getting that much easier for a visual effects house to use. As an artist that's been in the industry for so many years, I really have never found a tool that's excited me this much. And what's powerful about it is one person can create characters, worlds, light them, animate them, bring them to life, all in real time. And that's a game changer for us.”
If you’re a game developer who likes to live on the bleeding edge, you can start testing Unreal Engine 5 Early Access today. You can download it from the UE5 tab of the Epic Games launcher, where you can also get the complete Valley of the Ancient project, including The Ancient One. The full Unreal Engine 5 release, with features and workflows that will benefit creators across all industries, is expected to ship in early 2022.

    Get Unreal Engine 5 Early Access

    If you’re an existing Unreal Engine user, you can get UE5 Early Access and the Valley of the Ancient sample project from the Epic Games Launcher. If you’re new to Unreal Engine, we suggest getting to know UE 4.26 as a first step.