Image courtesy of KéexFrame

Real-time hits the FIFA World Cup: exploring one of broadcast's best-kept secrets

Image courtesy of KéexFrame
April 13, 2023
Featuring the best of the best from 32 countries, the 2022 FIFA World Cup is “the beautiful game” at its peak. Besides the 3.4 million spectators who attended matches in Qatar, FIFA estimates 1.5 billion people watched the final match between Argentina and France, and almost six billion people engaged with the tournament on social media.

Among the audience watching was the team at KéexFrame, a creative studio based in New York. The World Cup has been a special part of their lives, so they couldn’t pass up the opportunity to create a broadcast cinematic that incorporated the spirit of such a prestigious event.

Since the project wasn’t initially commissioned by a TV network, the team took the opportunity to use some new tools and concepts not commonly used in live broadcasts, such as animated characters and cinematic storytelling. And it paid off, as NBCUniversal Telemundo ended up using their broadcast cinematic for its FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 coverage.

Let’s take a closer look at how the team went from concept to finished product.

Concepting a broadcast cinematic

Capturing the excitement of the World Cup and creating characters that could represent any nationality were equally important to KéexFrame. The team was inspired by Greek warriors entering the arena of a massive colosseum, presenting the players as modern-day gladiators confronting each other in a battle for the ages.
 
Image courtesy of KéexFrame

Mood boards and style framing

With a defined concept in hand, KéexFrame moved onto its mood board and style-framing stage. They researched and compiled numerous references from other animations they admired, then sketched several iterations until they had enough rough frames to reflect the targeted mood of the piece.
Image courtesy of KéexFrame
Due to the typically short production time in live broadcast, the team did their style framing directly in Unreal Engine so they could simultaneously define lighting and atmospherics. Then all they needed to do outside of the engine was create some frames with the final look.

KéexFrame worked on the trophy model first, since they knew it would be a critical piece of the opener. They started by retopologizing a model they purchased from a library, then created PBR texturing of it from scratch using Substance Painter. A shader was crafted using fresnel nodes connected to the emissive attributes of the material, which added a glow to the corners and features of the trophy.
Image courtesy of KéexFrame
The team made real-time adjustments to the lighting and environment in Unreal Engine while simultaneously working on the trophy model. Because the blocking stage was happening in unison, KéexFrame could define style frames that would become the proof of concept they were aiming to achieve. Once these style frames were created—with a little color correction in Photoshop—the team knew they could achieve their desired look in Unreal Engine.
Image courtesy of KéexFrame

Blocking and animation

To impart the feeling of an immense stadium filled with fans and the excitement the players must feel on a worldwide stage, KéexFrame started with an establishing shot of the unique architecture of Al Janoub Stadium with the players approaching the pitch and a cheering crowd.

Sequencer enabled the team to quickly iterate on several versions and create additional camera shots to tell a story at a pace that felt right. “We learned a lot from our Unreal Fellowship: Storytelling class, so we ended up using a lot of that knowledge for this part of the process,” says KéexFrame CEO, Arturo Brena.
 
Image courtesy of KéexFrame

With that level of flexibility during the blocking phase, they could begin adding animations to the players earlier using Unreal Engine mannequins that would later be replaced with custom MetaHumans. This was especially useful, as it helped them more accurately block cameras while they were integrating the animation.
 
Image courtesy of KéexFrame

Creating the players

When it came to the characters, KéexFrame drew inspiration from the imperfect and tactile appearance of the tournament’s golden trophy.

“We started by creating a model of the head, which resembled the features of a Greek sculpture, but would feel more human,” says Arturo. “Then we combined it with another base model and mixed the features of both to create the final version.”

Once they were happy with the shape of the head, they used the Mesh to MetaHuman tool to create a MetaHuman out of the model.
 
Image courtesy of KéexFrame

To give the gold a hand-sculpted feeling, the team used Adobe Substance 3D to add detailed shading to the body and clothing. A single master material was used for all of the gold elements, adding enough functionality for the art to be fully directable, enabling them to make specific refinements to a shot depending on the emphasis they wanted to place on the gold.
Image courtesy of KéexFrame

Animation retargeting

Once the animatic was approved, the team began the process of creating animation that could be applied to their custom MetaHumans. The MetaHuman Control Rig enabled KéexFrame to tweak their animation easily after retargeting, helping them generate multiple iterations of motion with different levels of strength, intention, and timing.
 
Image courtesy of KéexFrame

Because the same skeleton drove all of the meshes, the team could rapidly modify the MetaHumans, adding different soccer cleats and socks for effect. Each variation proved a useful way to give characters their own personality. Once completed, they could also be assessed in real time with the correct lighting and shading, accelerating the approval process.

Cloth simulation

If you’ve ever waved a flag at a soccer match, you’ll know how invigorating the billowing of the cloth can feel while you’re supporting your team and/or nation. KéexFrame used Autodesk Maya and imported the result as an Alembic cache into Unreal Engine to simulate and accentuate the motion of their own flags. Sequencer enabled them to re-time the cache to achieve variable timing, which in turn added a lot of drama to the shots.
 
Image courtesy of KéexFrame

The players’ clothing was another chance to increase believability through cloth sims. The team began by putting a MetaHuman base character into Marvelous Designer to give each model a custom fit. Independent animation clips were then exported as an FBX model to prepare them for the cloth simulation process. Once completed, the models were exported as an Alembic cache that could be used in Unreal Engine. And while this Alembic method has been useful for the team, they’re currently in the process of migrating to native Unreal Engine clothing.
 
Image courtesy of KéexFrame

 
Image courtesy of KéexFrame

Lighting and rendering

Keeping with the gladiatorial concept, KéexFrame needed a lighting style and atmosphere that would evoke the feeling of being in an action-packed colosseum. “We strongly believe that lighting can make or break a scene, so we needed to be smart and creative with our composition,” says Arturo.

Lumen’s dynamic global illumination was the perfect base for the team to set a realistic mood and concentrate on the detailed directional, rectangular, and spotlight lighting. To get a foggy look, the team used Exponential Height Fog and Sky Atmosphere effects. Every light source had a specific volumetric influence value so the team could simulate the typical look of stadium lighting.
 
Image courtesy of KéexFrame

All of those beautiful, shiny golden tones were heavily influenced by Unreal Engine’s real-time hardware ray-traced reflections. “Even though it can be quite costly to performance, it’s one of our preferred solutions because of its precision,” says Arturo.
Image courtesy of KéexFrame
The team decided to balance performance and quality by using Console Variables for the final, high-quality render settings. They also employed the powerful Post Process Volume effect to enhance glows and lens flares in every light source.

Real-time production and interactivity

One of the main goals of this project was to create a broadcast animation that would have a cinematic look, but also maintain its editable capabilities for live production. This was important because it would enable the network graphic department to make last-minute adjustments to their data/informational elements, such as team names, and create multiple on-demand versions of the opener.

KéexFrame devised a system in which all the visual elements for each team could be modified from a dropdown menu, powered by a single-control Blueprint. “We wanted to make the operation as simple as choosing a team and sending them to render. Or even play live if necessary,” says Arturo. “So we created a Blueprint that could use a data table to reference all modifiable values, such as the textures and colors for each team.”
Image courtesy of KéexFrame
KéexFrame also wanted to give a producer the ability to modify the opener from anywhere inside the network, even if they didn’t have any knowledge of Unreal Engine or graphics operations in general. To do that, the team used the Remote Control plug-in for Unreal Engine, which helped them create a web-based way to modify the teams or start the rendering process.

“Remote Control is a must-have tool for live production environments like news and sports where editorial changes are unpredictable,” says Arturo. “It ensures that editorial control remains with the production crew and not on the graphics team, which vastly improves efficiency during a live broadcast,” he continues.
 
Image courtesy of KéexFrame

During NBCUniversal Telemundo’s coverage of FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022, this capability proved essential, as many teams had to be picked sometimes a few hours before a match’s live transmission.

What’s next for broadcast cinematics?

While KéexFrame’s work is successful on a storytelling level, it also suggests a new, open lane for broadcast productions. Audiences are used to sports graphics, but many teams have had to make visual compromises, without access to real-time rendering.

With tools like Unreal Engine, these same productions can finally start using quality boosts like ray tracing, motion blur, and global illumination more freely, giving more moments that cinematic look viewers enjoy. KéexFrame also sees an opportunity here, and a chance to be even more valuable to their clients.

Arturo notes, “High-end broadcast cinematics are becoming a key part of our future strategy, particularly due to its emphasis on storytelling. We’re truly excited for what’s to come!”

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