Real-time tools accelerate workflows on Honda’s anime-inspired ads

July 20, 2020
When car giant Honda wanted to promote its new Civic hatchback, it partnered with the creators of the iconic anime series Evangelion©︎ Studio khara to develop a string of distinctive commercials.

Graphinica was the perfect choice of partner to incorporate a mix of photorealistic CG and anime elements for these ads. The Japanese animation studio is an expert in creating hybrid animations that make use of digital technology, mixing CG animation, compositing, and hand drawing.

The team created these commercials using Unreal Engine and a pipeline of other software packages, rendering directly out of the engine in 4K resolution without the need for any compositing. “From the very beginning, we were trying to find out if we could do movie production in a different way to what we had done before,” says Takashi Horiuchi, Director at Graphinica. “We could have pre-rendered using DCC tools, but we decided to try a full-fledged movie production process harnessing a game engine instead.”

Graphinica started full-scale production with almost no experience of Unreal Engine and delivered the project in less than three months.
 
Image courtesy of khara


Synthesizing anime artwork and photorealistic CG

Evangelion is a world-famous animated series that began as a television anime in 1995. Set after an unprecedented worldwide cataclysm known as the “Second Impact,” the story depicts the battle between the 14-year-olds who pilot the "Evangelion"—a Multi-Purpose Humanoid Decisive Weapon—and their mysterious enemies called "Angels". The series’ stylish visuals and mysterious storyline made it a cultural phenomenon.

The commercials Graphinica worked on center around iconic characters including Shinji Ikari, Rei Ayanami, and Asuka Shikinami Langley. 
Image courtesy of khara
The anime elements incorporated into the ads are pre-rendered image sequences taken from the story footage of the new animated film series Evangelion. The background in the commercials is a CG billboard projected with decals. “We created this to include a function that can perform color grading for each target material,” explains Horiuchi. “In Unreal Engine, these sequential images are texture-mapped to a 3D vehicle model and rendered.”

The team used a software pipeline that included Adobe After Effects for animatics; Blender for adjusting model data, rigging, and animation; Unreal Engine for building a master sequence, look dev, effects, laying out background images, and adjusting decal mapping; and Adobe Premiere for fine-tuning and integration with audio data. 

In the early stage of production, the team went through a process of creating animation and camera work for each shot using a temporary model in Adobe After Effects, and then editing the overall flow in Adobe Premiere to work out where to add the anime elements. Later, the edited work in Premiere was imported into Unreal Engine to build a master sequence.
Image courtesy of khara
For the car model, the team used Autodesk Maya to create the vehicle body based on a brochure Honda provided, and prepared a lightweight model for animation in Blender. “We imported data which included a little less than 10 million polygons for the final output in Unreal Engine,” says Horiuchi.

Unreal Engine’s ability to render meshes of this size has a significant impact on the cost of handling large data sets. “Because Unreal Engine can render a mesh of even 10 million polygons, there are many parts that can be used as-is,” says Horiuchi. “There are significant time-savings on data preparation.”
Image courtesy of khara
The car motion and camera work were done in Blender. FBX was used to import the vehicle motion and camera data into Unreal Engine. Once in the engine, the team created the material files it needed. The video footage of Evangelion was set up as a movie file, played on the media track in Sequencer, and projected onto the car or background. 

The projection used material-based projection mapping and the team also made some modifications to the decal shader to achieve the desired look. “Effects, post-processing, and look-dev related work such as lighting and grading were done almost solely in Unreal Engine,” says Horiuchi. “This is what allowed us to omit the compositing process.”
 


Leveraging fast real-time workflows to hit deadlines

With most of the artists and engineers new to Unreal Engine, the project was something of a learning curve. However, once the team had got to grips with some of the technical aspects of the engine, it started to reap the benefits real-time workflows afford. 

Visualizing a photorealistic vehicle and having the ability to make tweaks on the fly without long render times was a revelation. “I think one of the greatest advantages was that we were able to fine-tune the parameters of the material and the lights in real time,” says Horiuchi.

What’s more, the team was able to start to explore what is possible in a real-time environment, achieving photorealistic results by leveraging the Automotive Materials Pack, planar reflections, screen-space reflections, and rectangular lights—all without coding. 
 
Image courtesy of khara
Horiuchi notes that having full access to the engine’s C++ source code opened up creative possibilities. “Although the decal representation is built in as a standard, it was great that we could change the shaders and source code to provide the functionality our team needed to make the required modifications,” he says.

From a business perspective, adopting a real-time approach to the production process saved the team valuable time. This was particularly the case when it came to reviewing and adjusting the look of the footage. “You can work in parallel with the textures or lighting, so you can spend more time working on the animation at the last minute,” explains Horiuchi.
Image courtesy of khara
On a project that required a swift turnaround of three months, time savings were critical. “We were able to modify the work a few hours before delivery to accommodate the client's requests right up until the last minute. We couldn’t have fulfilled their request using the usual pre-rendering and compositing methods,” says Horiuchi. 
 


The interactive future of television commercials

Real-time technology heralds an exciting new era in the production of television commercials. Horiuchi points to a future in which interactive adverts can dynamically change depending on the viewer, time, or place. “If we could show the animation interactively according to the situation in which it is being broadcast, in real time, it could be sensational,” he says.
With the photorealism real-time tools can achieve set to surpass anything we’ve seen before, production companies and VFX studios alike are increasingly turning to the fast, interactive workflows game engines provide.

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