July 13, 2018

Unreal Engine drives monster puppet for The Mill and Monster.com

By Ken Pimentel

When employment website Monster.com needed a new commercial spot, they hired The Mill, an international VFX and creative house with countless commercials to their credit. The spot features a giant, purple, hairy monster who rescues an unhappy employee and carries her, King-Kong style, to a new employment situation. The 1:30 spot, called Opportunity Roars, garnered numerous accolades for The Mill including a Cannes Lion Award for Visual Effects.
Making an award-winning commercial for Monster.com, "Opportunity Roars"
But there was little time for The Mill to rest on their laurels. After the success of that spot, Monster.com came back to the production house with a request for more than two dozen 15-second animated spots featuring the purple monster. 

The only problem was the turnaround time—a mere three weeks.

While The Mill used traditional techniques to produce the original commercial, this workflow wasn’t an option for such a short time frame. “What do you do with that?” says Boo Wong, Group Director of Emerging Technology at The Mill. “We realized there was no way to go down the traditional route.”

A faster way to animate: real-time motion capture and rendering 

That’s when The Mill came up with a clever solution: they would use a Leap Motion system to control the monster with finger motions, a kind of virtual puppeteering. The motions would drive the rig and generate real-time finished output of the monster, purple fur and all, with Unreal Engine.

Using the Leap Motion system to drive the rig  
“We pitched it to Monster.com, and they were blown away by the capabilities,” says Jeffrey Dates, Creative Director at The Mill. 

The team quickly put together a system and brought in the agency and clients for a live puppeteering and recording session. “They would give us notes on animation in real time,” says Dates. “As fast as they could say it, we then would make these adjustments and re-perform the next take.”

Performing live takes with finger motions and Unreal Engine
For the output, The Mill set up real-time post effects in Unreal Engine that encompassed everything they would typically do to finish a shot. As a result, the animation recorded in real time was ready for use without further processing. “The entire animation pipeline was happening in that span of just a few minutes,” says Dates.

“The client walked away with hours of finished quality work, basically final pixels,” says Joji Tsuruga, Real-time Supervisor at The Mill. The monster animation was used in videos for social media such as Touchdown Dance and Meet Your Purple Fuzzy Career Coach on Monster.com’s Facebook page.

The process set a new bar for character animation output. “It's really unheard of in animation to get multiple takes of a performance,” says Wong. “For an editor to basically walk away with selects, was really groundbreaking.”

Exploring the future with real-time rendering

Inspired by the success of the Monster.com project, The Mill sees real-time animation as an important new paradigm. “Integrating game engines into your production workflow is critical,” says Wong. “It's essential in storytelling today.”

A few of the many monster motions generated in real time with Unreal Engine
They also recognize the practical aspect of real-time rendering with Unreal Engine for short turnaround times. “This project answers the question, how can we generate a lot of animation cost-effectively for social media?” says Dates. “I'm not rendering, I'm not watching it render.

“Now, it's more like experimenting. I want to do it and do it fast and have fun doing it.”

Making your own animation magic

Want to try out real-time rendering for your own projects? Download Unreal Engine for free today.