August 27, 2018

Stunning student film short showcases the creative power of Unreal Engine

By Ken Pimentel

Many AAA game developers and large-scale creative studios are using Unreal Engine to power the next generation of interactive, immersive experiences. What’s particularly exciting, however, is seeing the vast possibilities that unfold when talented young individuals roll up their sleeves and set out to create something uniquely their own in Unreal.

Eric Liu has been crafting 3D content and digital illustrations since he was 13, and his passion for visual design early-on led him to pursue studying character design, motion graphics, 3D modeling and 3D animation. Now a recent graduate of the Department of Design at the National Taiwan University of Science and Technology, Eric used Unreal Engine to create the charming and visually stunning animated short, Robots’ Design Academy -- amply showing that it doesn’t always take a large team to craft amazing work.
Creating an endearing robotic tale

Clocking in at about 12 minutes, Robots’ Design Academy is a brief tale about creativity and daring to be different. It follows a robot student learning to design after most of humanity has become extinct from some unknown apocalypse. Dismayed by the institution’s insistence on strictly copying human creations perfectly, the droid protagonist sets out to design something bold and unique with the help of a newfound human pal.

It’s a theme that references aspects of Eric’s own experiences in school.
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“The topic I wanted to discuss is the “standard answer” in Taiwan’s education system. This topic may seem quite cliche, but with a futuristic setting and the plot where robots symbolize rules and restriction while human symbolizes freedom and creativity, a cliche topic still can be interpreted in a novel and interesting way.”

To make the tale more universally understandable, he chose to use facial expressions, body language, and graphics to drive the main character interactions instead of actual dialogue. As an avid fan of visual storytelling, Eric gravitated towards animation as his preferred approach to weaving the story together in Robots’ Design Academy.

Preparing for this project required a lot of studying to gain a better understanding of mechanical structure. This helped Eric develop methods for quickly and effectively designing tons of mechanical objects to populate his striking fictional world while maintaining sharp visual fidelity. The result of his efforts clearly shine through in the finished product.
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Robot’s Design Academy has also received several awards, including the Special Recognition Award in the 2018 Taiwan Unreal Engine 4 Game Design Competition and the Quality Award in the National Animation Contest for Vocational Education.

Going above and beyond with Unreal Engine

The high visual quality in Robots’ Design Academy largely hinges on the power of Unreal Engine, says Eric, though he also used Substance Painter to create bitmaps for the project. “I started to learn Unreal Engine 4 during my first animation project, and was surprised by its efficiency and visual quality,” says Eric. “Since then I’ve made most of my animation projects with UE4.”

Beyond learning modeling and texture production, Eric says he found many of Unreal Engine’s functions helped him weave more detail into the picture. This made for a more convincing picture while also boosting his workflow efficiency. He crafted a material that could be applied to many types of objects in the scene, and it included emissive on/off toggle and flickering function, mask-based permutation of base color, metallic and roughness channel and detail mapping. Additionally, he used a Blueprint actor to control object behavior including the blinking lights on crashed helicopter in sandstorm scene and a god rays mesh actor that follows rotation of the directional light actor automatically.

The result is a compelling story told through the lens of Unreal Engine and guided by the deft hands of Eric. Using real-time engines for storytelling is not only a more iterative and creative process, but it is realistically one of the few options for those without big budgets for offline rendering. We look forward to more from Eric in the future.

If you haven’t yet, don’t forget to watch the full film above! Then why not grab a free download of Unreal Studio, which includes Unreal Engine, and get started on building your own stunning creations today!