Image courtesy of Cory Strassburger

YouTube show Xanadu carves out a corner of the Metaverse with performance-driven CG

Having an alter ego is super cool—especially if their personality is the polar opposite of yours! Just ask Cory Strassburger, visual effects artist and one-man-band creator of YouTube show Xanadu. Cory’s alter ego is Blu, an alien who lives on his spaceship Xanadu, building his empire in a corner of the Metaverse.

“I feel like in real life, there are some people who are just naturally cool, right? That's not me,” says Cory. “I'm very sort of dorky, geeky, and so Blu is like an extension of me that allows me to to express myself in a way that I would never do in physical reality. Being him in his world, I can live out all my dreams.”

Cory may describe himself as dorky and geeky, but others would be kinder. The comments on his YouTube videos are littered with descriptors like ‘game changer,’ ‘superman,’ and ‘astonishing.’
Image courtesy of Cory Strassburger
Not only is the quality of the work easily worthy of all this praise, but equally remarkable is the fact that Cory—working on his own—creates each episode of Blu’s adventures in an average of roughly three weeks.

The road to Xanadu

Cory’s previous career has prepared him well for the one-man-band role. His goal when growing up was to move to California and work for one of the big effects houses like ILM or Digital Domain. The reality was that he ended up working for what he calls “a really cool sort of mom-and-pop VFX house.” It was there that he learned the whole gamut of VFX, from all aspects of 3D (pre-Maya, he reminisces, when the software cost over $30,000 and required expensive Silicon Graphics workstations to run) to compositing and post-production on Flame and Inferno systems.

In around 2011, the mainstream arrival of augmented reality brought Cory to the world of real-time rendering. His friend Ikrima Elhassan showed up with an iPad and demonstrated how you could use it to create AR experiences. “He built this little dancing bear,” says Cory. “From that point on, I was hooked.” The pair joined forces to start creating cinematic AR experiences, with Ikrima handling the programming and Cory the art. 

But then Ikrima showed up with a new toy: the DK1 Oculus Rift prototype VR headset. Cory was floored. “I thought it was the best thing in the world,” he says. “I thought I’d never do anything other than VR after experiencing that. I could build my own universe in there.”

The move to VR also saw the pair switch to Unreal Engine, a decision based initially on Epic’s offering free access to source code. “That was a monumental thing to do as a company,” he says. “For us, it just gave us a ton of power: if we had roadblocks, Ikrima could get us around them; if we needed new features, he could write them.”

Working in Unreal Engine, the team started to create VR projects for large companies. Then came the idea of building a VR game, and Bebylon was born. Cinematic character animation for the battling babies was a distant dream under the team’s time and budget constraints; until, that is, the iPhone 10 with its depth sensor came out. The then-new phone could do facial capture using ARKit, and Cory, grabbing the first unit he could get his hands on, created a homegrown facial capture system by attaching the phone to a paintball helmet with a GoPro arm. He combined this setup with an Xsens suit to create a full performance capture system that he could use in his own home.
Image courtesy of Kite & Lightning
This setup, running live in Unreal Engine, led to Cory and Ikrima’s fledging company, Kite & Lightning, winning the top award at SIGGRAPH’s Real-Time Live! in 2018.

“From there, I just started honing in,” says Cory. “What can I do? How can I get the most out of this? At that point, I was like, OK, now I'm starting to think about content. How can I bring these character stories to life.”

Bringing Blu to life

Enter Blu and Xanadu. “It's an outlet for my creativity and my self expression,” he explains. “And it's also a combination of all the things that I love to do. I love telling stories and building characters. I love sci fi and the real-time world, and combining all of this stuff into one project allows me to do all the things I love to do at once.”

Cory describes how the process of making an episode is very similar to what you’d do for an animated short film, starting with a rough script, which he blocks out using a voiceover in Unreal Engine, figuring out a rough edit as he goes.

He then tweaks the script before heading into his home garage performance capture studio, which now incorporates Manus gloves for finger capture alongside the iPhone and Xsens suit. The combined data is streamed back into Unreal Engine via Live Link—Cory uses Epic Games’ free Live Link Face app to stream the facial data from the iPhone, while Xsens and Manus are among the many systems with support for the protocol—where the blocked-out sequences are updated with the motion.
From there, Cory refines the cameras and editing, and then finalizes the lighting before rendering out the sequences. The final editing and sound design is done in Adobe Premiere. 

Creativity at the speed of thought

Working in Unreal Engine enables Cory to make changes right up to the last minute. “A lot of times, those last-minute changes are the best part of the episode,” he says. “And so I started to kind of rely on this part of the process. And if I hit a roadblock now and I don't have an immediate answer for it, I just go, okay, an idea will come in this process, and then I'll just be able to execute on it at the last second. And that's definitely something that I would never be able to do if I wasn’t working in something as fast as Unreal Engine.

“Because it works at the speed of thought, I can take any half-baked idea and say, okay, why don't we fuse this and this together and see if we can make something fun out of that? And over the course of the weekend, you might end up with something that's either a cool finished piece or a great proof of concept of something that you know will evolve later.”
Image courtesy of Cory Strassburger
With Cory working completely on his own, the entire process of making an episode takes about three and half weeks, but he wants to get it down to a week by bringing in more artists. However, he recognizes that there are pros as well as cons to being a lone operator, especially when working in Unreal Engine.

“As I'm editing or setting up cameras, I can go in and tweak the lighting, or I can shift animation around, or I can restage a whole section of stuff from a cinematographer standpoint,” he says “I feel like this is a huge accelerant. There's also something very personal about being a one-man band creatively, because I can go wherever the wind takes me. I can make whatever I want however I want, and that's really liberating and really kind of fun.”
Image courtesy of Cory Strassburger

Adding the MetaHuman magic sauce

The second episode of Xanadu reveals that Blu owes a lot of his believability to MetaHuman Creator. Initially, Cory had been worried that because Blu was a humanoid, he might end up giving audiences the adverse ‘Uncanny Valley’ reaction.
Image courtesy of Cory Strassburger
“And then when the MetaHumans dropped, I was like, Oh my God, these things are amazing,” he says. “I realized I could actually siphon some of this magic sauce, put it into Blu and get him elevated.”

Because Blu is an alien, Cory couldn’t actually create him in MetaHuman Creator, which works by blending features from a library of scanned data derived from actual humans. Instead, he created a MetaHuman as close as possible to Blu, and then extracted a lot of the data—including the skin textures, the skeleton, and the blend shapes—and infused them into the character.
Image courtesy of Cory Strassburger
“It helped Blu become much more articulated and realistic looking,” says Cory. “I think the real magic of what Epic has done with handing over the MetaHumans for someone like me is it's really like an army of the highest level artists creating your character, and then your being able to have access to that. It's not just some cool thing that you can sort of do. It's literally decades’ worth of experience that’s gone into creating these assets.”

A new genre of entertainment

Xanadu is a unique fusion of virtual character, vlog, and comedy skit, with some Unreal Engine tips and tricks thrown in for good measure. It’s also becoming a community for the creators of other digital personas, who get invited to join Blu in his corner of the Metaverse.

For Cory, it’s a mighty fine corner. “I have never had as much fun or freedom in any other project that I've done than I have right now,” he says. “In a way, it's a culmination of all the stuff I love wrapped into one package that continually is going to evolve as the technology evolves, and as Xanadu and Blu evolve.”

It’s an evolution we can’t wait to see.
Image courtesy of Cory Strassburger

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